Why has it taken me so long to sit down and do this? It has been almost two months since my first blog post, yet I was hoping at this point to have a higher quantity of uploaded posts. In the process of starting the van project, one of my initial goals was to share my experience with those close to me, but also to strangers over the inter-wide-web that are interested in van life, living off-grid, and/or how to convert a van. However, this has proven to be difficult to do. In some ways it is nerve wracking sharing intimate spaces of your life with others, but I also realize that it has been such a monumental goal in my mind, that initiating the process has proven to be more difficult that I had anticipated. Yet, starting is always the hardest part right? So here we go. I have set goals to write and publish a blog post at least one time per week, so keep a lookout for more material coming you way. I foresee the posts ranging from more casual conversations and anecdotes from my time living in Roxi, to other more analytical posts incorporating literature that I find interesting or pertains to my van life.
So… where do I begin? Whelp, I may as well start from the beginning of my time living in the van which has now been about 2 months. After driving back from Utah where I had spent the summer converting the van, I was faced with a couple large and daunting, but necessary tasks that I had to complete prior to leaving for school. The last two weeks of my summer I felt a bit like a mad woman. The three largest tasks that needed finishing were a) cutting and upholstering my seat cushions/ bed mattress, b) fixing the solar setup (which I later found out was malfunctioning due to problems both with the controller and mixed-up wires) and c) plumbing my sink to fresh and grey water tanks.
In order to stay in line with my initial goals of using non-toxic materials in the van, I purchased two 2-inch natural latex mattress pads. Then, using a serrated bread knife, I cut each mattress into the proper dimensions that would fit onto my two benches, with back rests the proper size to fill in the center leaf that would fold out to transform the seats into a bed. Additionally, I visited a massive fabric store where I was met with the ominous task of sorting through the thousands of fabric rolls to identify tags that indicated either hemp fabric, or natural linen fabric. After couple of hours raking through the monstrous piles, I ended up choosing a natural linen fabric that was not treated with dye. What I thought was going to be a relatively quickly errand, turned into a challenging task that required research and deciphering the complex supply chain. This experience echoed similar obstacles that I had been met with through the entirety of the project. Unknown and muddled supply chains coupled with difficult sourcing illuminated many of the pitfalls of pursuing environmentally-friendly products — accessibility.
There is a growing movement of ‘conscious consumers’ striving to become more aware of the products they use, where they come from, and their ecological and/or social impacts. Companies like Patagonia have made strives to support initiatives that either utilize organic cotton, or reduce microfiber plastic filaments released from clothing when washed. However, I argue that more needs to be done, especially pertaining to products such as building materials, furniture, and upholstery fabric. We have ample technology to be designing new innovative products that reduce the environmental impacts associated with product production and use. Additionally, there are many avenues that could use marketing as a powerful tool to disseminate information about product supply-chains. In the end, increasing transparency should be an overarching goal — consumers have the right to know how there products are being made, where they are coming from, and the overall impact on the environment.
After finishing cutting and upholstering the seat cushions/ bed mattress, I moved onto troubleshooting the solar system. It had been a couple of days since connecting all of the various components when suddenly the solar charger started beeping indicating inadequate voltage reaching the batteries. I first started to decipher the problem by going back through the steps to setup the charger. Following many phone calls with the manufacturing company, I realized that I had set the charger to the wrong voltage. The array is currently setup in series, with an overall voltage of 48. However, once reaching the charger, the voltage is stepped down to 12v. Once the charger was correctly programmed, there still seemed to be some aspect of the solar system malfunctioning. After many hours using a volt meter to test different points along the setup from panels to batteries, I was able to find that one of the positive wires had been attached to the grounding block, instead of to a fuse. Finally, there was no longer an alarming beep coming from the charger, and the sun was beating down on the arrays and charging my batteries.
Lastly, I had to design and build out the plumbing system. I had known early on in the design process that I wanted a very simple, functional plumbing setup, with two 5 gallon freshwater tanks fed with a foot pump, and two steel buckets for grey water. I decided to opt out of installing a electric pump and having an external fill and drain for water due to the types of climate I will be living in. From November through March, temperatures will constantly be below freezing. Therefore, I was drawn to the idea that if my water were to freeze, I could simply detach the jugs, bring them into a heated room (ie. of my friends’ house) and allow them to thaw. Additionally, having an internally controlled water system removes the need to drill additional holes into the van which would reduce the overall insulation value. I ran into a couple of problems when installing the sink and plumbing, mostly having to do with small leaks from inadequately closing the line for hot water (which I do not have). Additionally, after living in the van for a couple of weeks, I have been trying to trouble shoot and change the type of flex hose I had initially used as it taints my water and causes it to taste like plastic. I have now removed the flex hose fed into the water jug with a piece of 1/2 in PVC. One of the aspects that I have found fascinating is seeing how much water I use on a weekly basis. As of now, I go through approximately 5 gallons per week, mostly attributed to washing dishes. This value excluded the water I use to shower and do laundry. Being in charge of manually filling and emptying my water tanks has led me to use water more wisely and efficiently. Yay for environmental reasons, but also yay for reducing the amount of times I have to empty and fill.
These three components of the van build consumed the last days of my summer; however, life in the van would not be possible without them. The long days filled with frustration ended up being incredible learning opportunities. While in the moment it felt like wasted time, in the end I have learned the intricacies of solar and plumbing, far greater than I otherwise would have if the process had been easy. These feelings have been echoed a bit in my challenge of sitting down to writing about my experiences over the past two months in the van. Compiling a blog post about the steps taken to convert the vehicle and daily aspects of van life is a daunting, sometimes frustrating task. However, as I heard someone say last night, I need to “trust the process.” I have a feeling, no, I know, that months from now, even years, I will cherish looking back on these rambling thoughts and be transported back to the amazing moments of van life. Additionally, I hope that through my posts I can answer any questions that people might have regarding scaling down, living in a van, and/or reducing daily resource use. So there we go, another post is finally up. Keep an eye out for another post next week when I will begin to expose what daily life in Roxi is like, and the few obstacles I have faced thus far while living off-grid in college.