In this post we are sharing upgrades we made to our van conversion after 3+ years of van life.
After over 3 years of almost full time van life in our van Brisket, we’ve made some upgrades!
Back in 2019, we bought a 2019 170 WB Mercedes Sprinter van and spent 7 months converting it from an empty cargo van into our home on wheels. And since converting it, we have driven all around North America, visiting 46 states, including up to Alaska, plus a Canadian province and 2 Canadian territories, even making it all the way to the Arctic Ocean in Canada!
While we still absolutely love our van and it’s still 99% perfect for us, we have learned and experienced a lot about van life in the last few years. There have been days where we were so low on power we had to drive around aimlessly. Times when we couldn’t work due to lack of internet. And nights drenched in sweat as we slept in 90 degrees. It’s not all glamorous travel! In fact, 90% of the time it’s not.
Watch us make all of these van conversion upgrades and see them in action in this video!
So while in Texas at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023, we decided to tackle some large and small changes that we think will make our quality of life on the road more comfortable and less stressful.
In this blog post we’re giving a quick rundown of each upgrade, why we made it, and what products we used. If you’re in the process of building a van and are curious what we would’ve done differently or want to make changes to your already converted van, we hope this helps!
MORE VAN LIFE POSTS TO CHECK OUT:
- Our Van Conversion Cost, Tour, & Mistakes
- Van Life FAQs: Our van, logistics, daily routine, & more!
- How to find free camping in the USA
- Full time van life with a dog
- See our van tour
- Watch our van build series
Upgraded our house battery bank
When we built the van we had three 100 amp hour lithium ion batteries by Renogy. The batteries themselves worked great and had no issues, but we’ve learned that 300 amp hours isn’t enough for full time living and working on the road. At least for us!
If we wanted to stay in one place for several days and get a lot of work done, the batteries would often get super low. This caused us to either drive more to charge the batteries through our Renogy DC to DC charger from the alternator or pay for a campsite so we could plug in to shore power.
We decided to double our battery power from 300 amp hours to 600 amp hours. Originally we wanted to add three more Renogy batteries, but they don’t sell the exact model we had anymore and it is not recommended to mix them.
We ended up having to buy all new batteries. Buying 600 amp hours from Renogy was going to be pricey, so we checked other brands.
We decided to buy two 300 amp hour batteries from LiTime (since purchasing the batteries, Ampere Time has rebranded to LiTime, hence the name being different in the photo).
These batteries are more affordable than Renogy and we got them on a great Black Friday sale, which saved us even more. We were a bit leery of the price difference, but they had great reviews, so we gave them a shot.
And after a few months of using them, they have worked great! Doubling our battery power has been a game changer. While we have yet to sit still and work for many days without shore power, the batteries definitely last so much longer.
Added a 12V outlet
As we mentioned above, power has been a big struggle for us. So not only did we want to upgrade our batteries, but we also wanted to find a way to utilize our power without always having the inverter on.
Our inverter takes a lot of power while on, even if you’re not charging anything. So when we do charge something, it definitely drains the batteries at a faster rate. When talking about this issue with a full time traveling family in the Yukon last year, they suggested we add a 12 volt outlet.
This 12 volt outlet is wired directly to our batteries, allowing us to use the outlet without having the inverter on. The outlet has 2 USB ports and a cigarette lighter, which we can plug a small inverter into in order to charge laptops or other devices that require a three prong outlet.
So far we are loving this change! We can now charge our phones overnight if needed without having the inverter on all night, plus charge our laptops mid day without the inverter. It was an easy change that should make a big impact over time.
Installed Air Conditioning
Quite possibly the most exciting van conversion upgrade we made was adding air conditioning to the living space. When we tell people this, the most common response is, “you didn’t have air conditioning?!”
When we originally built the van, most van conversions didn’t have AC units. Everyone installed a MaxxAir fan and that was it. A big reason for this was that there weren’t many AC options that weren’t huge RV ACs that consumed tons of power.
So our plan was to chase good weather to keep the van comfortable any month out of the year. It was a great plan in theory, but every single year, despite our best efforts, we got stuck in a heat wave with 90 to 100 degree temperatures.
This forced us to either be very hot in the van (thankfully it is insulated and doesn’t get as hot as a car) or pay for a hotel. Both options weren’t ideal! This also was challenging because we have a dog and want to ensure she is always safe. We can’t leave her for any amount of time if it is too hot, which means we all just suffer in the heat together.
While we can open doors during the day for airflow, at night, we only had the MaxxAir fan and one t-vent window in the front. The back of our van doesn’t have much ventilation, which is a regret that we likely cannot fix. So we decided to look into the possibility of adding an AC!
Since our van is complete, adding an AC was a daunting task. We looked around at many options, including one that would go under the van, plus in our cabinet, but ultimately decided on a rooftop option.
There are a few good options out there, but we chose the Dometic RTX 2000, which is a 12V rooftop AC with 6,824 BTU. It isn’t the cheapest option or most powerful unit out there, but it was highly recommended by other van lifers, was sufficient for our tiny space, and was sleek and low profile.
Then came the scary part…cutting a hole into our finished van’s roof and ceiling. But before doing this, we had to determine where we should place the AC on the roof. This was made easy by using a template made by DIY Van. We used a template made to fit at the 57” mark which gave us a template for the hole we needed to cut and where to drill holes for the attachment screws.
Not only does the adapter help with where to cut the hole and how big, it also provides a flat surface for the AC to sit on. The adapter has notches for the ribbing on the roof, so it sits perfectly flush.
We also bought a 1” foam spacer from DIY Van to put between the adapter and AC to give it a little more height. Without it, the AC unit hung down too far inside the van, but with the adapter, it fits well against our existing ceiling.
Check out our van upgrade video (coming soon) so see more of how we installed the AC unit. There were many other things we had to consider, like how to get the wires through to the batteries, which we show more in the video.
So far, the AC has been a great investment. We haven’t had a super hot day yet, but even on the warmer days we’ll turn the AC on for a bit and it cools us down really quickly. We often get too cold! It also consumes very little power, which was a concern, but so far it seems that the new battery bank can handle it well.
Changed our solar panels
When we built our van, we had four 100 watt Renogy solar panels. And technically our solar panels weren’t a problem, until we installed the AC unit. Because of where the AC unit had to sit on the roof, our current solar panels wouldn’t fit. So we had to get new ones!
While it was a bummer to have to buy new solar panels, especially since ours worked fine, it ended up being a good thing. With adding the AC and having a bigger battery bank, increasing our solar wattage would only benefit us!
We unfortunately couldn’t make any of Renogy’s panels work for our new roof configuration. But after some research, we found these Kosta solar panels that are specifically designed to fit the width of Sprinter roof rails. And lucky for us, they fit perfectly with the AC unit!
To install them, we bought these Z brackets, which we painted black. We attached the panels to the roof rack with the washers we used for the old solar panels.
While we didn’t make this change for aesthetic reasons, the new panels look SO much better on the van! They fill out the roof better and they are all black, which looks much sleeker when looking at the side of the van.
Another exciting and important addition we made to the van was purchasing Starlink!
We have been using hotspots for internet for the last 3.5 years, including our Verizon phones, plus a hotspot device with both Verizon and AT&T. In total, we have around 115 GB of data. And it has worked well, as long as we had cell service.
But there have been many times that we have been in remote places without service and they don’t work. And since our business revolves around having the internet, that can make it hard or impossible to get work done.
We heard great things from all of our nomadic friends about Starlink and how it gives you internet in remote places, so we decided to give it a shot!
Starlink offers a few different options and we got Starlink Roam, which allows us to use it all over the world. This is a big reason why we made this switch!
Similar to last year, we are going to be spending a lot of time in Canada this year. And our current hotspot set up doesn’t really work or give us enough data in Canada. So we’re really hoping this will make our time in Canada a little less stressful this year!
Note: apparently Starlink only allows you to use its services outside of your home country for two months. After two months you’ll need to change your address to that country for it to work. We hear mixed things on if they enforce this or not. Fingers crossed we can use it all four months we plan to be in Canada!
Update over two months into our Canada trip: it hasn’t been shut off yet and we have had zero issues. It is a lifesaver!
One hang up we had with adding Starlink was how to actually install it. The dish, which goes outside, needs to be wired to the router, which is inside. We didn’t want to have a door or window cracked to use it, especially at night. So we found another solution!
We decided to install a bulkhead so that the cord from the router could connect to the dish outside. This meant we had to cut the Starlink cord and attach RJ 45 connectors. It was a slightly scary feeling cutting into the brand new cord!
It also meant we had to put another hole in the van! But in the end, it was a pretty simple set up.
Adam drilled a hole for the bulkhead next to the hole where the shore power connection is under the van. These two connections are hidden under the van, so you can’t see them.
We have the router velcroed next to the inverter inside the van. And the cord runs from the router to the interior side of the bulkhead. All we have to do when we want to use Starlink is plug the cord from the dish into the exterior side of the bulkhead.
Besides how to install Starlink, another issue we had to think about is power. We had read that the router takes a lot of power and since Starlink comes with a 110 volt 3 prong connection, it requires the inverter to be on.
So to avoid having to use the inverter, we bought a smaller 400 watt inverter. We wired it to the 12 volt circuit, similar to the 12 volt outlet we mentioned above. Now, when we want to use the Starlink we will turn on the smaller inverter, which will take much less power to operate.
Disclaimer: we haven’t actually used Starlink yet. We are in much more populated areas of the US right now and we don’t want to pay the monthly fee when our hotspots currently work fine. But we plan to use it most of the summer and fall and will update this post with our thoughts!
Added a MoonShade
When we envision van life, we think about camping in epic, remote places and sitting outside to enjoy the view. But we honestly rarely ever do this. And one big reason is because the sun can make it a bit tough to work outside (hello glare!) or be outside.
So we bought a MoonShade!
MoonShade is a portable awning system that can be set up in just a couple minutes. This will allow us to have some shade to sit under, making being outside much more enjoyable.
Not only did we buy a MoonShade, but we also bought a large MoonWall. This will help us wall off one side of the MoonShade for extra shade and privacy. Kona is the kind of dog that barks at anything that moves, so being able to have more privacy, while also getting even more shade, is a win win!
Total costs of our van upgrades
You may be wondering, “how much did this all cost?” All in, these van conversion upgrades cost us about $6,910.90. This is not a small amount and is much more than we hoped to spend. But we think the quality of life improvements will be worth the expense. We thankfully were able to sell the batteries and solar panels to make some of it back.
Prices may vary from when we did these van conversion upgrades, but here is a breakdown:
AC unit– $2,699.00
AC adapters– $366.14
Solar panels– $389.68
Solar panel brackets– $35.70
Starlink install items– $47
MoonShade + MoonWall– $519.60
Another thing to keep in mind is that since we had to replace existing items, if we had just made these upgrades from the beginning, the cost would’ve been closer to $3,600. So learn from our mistakes and make these upgrades from the get go!
Overall, we are super excited about these van conversion upgrades and look forward to having a much more comfortable and less stressful experience on the road! If you have any questions, please let us know, and to see more about these upgrades, check out our van upgrade video (coming soon), where we show the install a bit more.
Looking for resources to help you with your van build? Here are two guides we highly recommend!
Van Build Guide: We used Sara and Alex James’s guides and layout for our van. In their guide they list dimensions, products, and more to help you out!
Van Conversion Academy: This course from Two Wandering Soles is LOADED with helpful step-by-step instructions, such as how to install a fan, windows, water system, subfloor, and more! They’ve made it so you can spend more time building and less time searching the YouTube and internet black hole for information!