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Staying Warm: which van, which heater, how to insulate

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I took this picture on May, 5 in the Sierra NF. Two days before I was in the Nevada desert where it was 97 degrees. Sometimes even snowbirds can’t void temperature extremes.

This is a question that was asked on my forum and my answer. Since it’s now September, and winter is getting closer, I thought I would post it here as well.
I lived in a box van for 6 years in Anchorage, AK. While Anchorage isn’t the coldest part of Alaska, it got down to -30 every winter at least once and below zero was routine. I am well aware there are many ways to do something, this is just what worked for me and I think will work for you. First let me give you my recommended shopping list for living in extreme cold:

  • A cargo van and (not a conversion van) with a divider wall between the front and the back, and the minimum number of windows. If at all possible you want a 1996 or newer with the fewest number of miles you can afford. I prefer the Dodge with a 318 V8.
  • An Olympian Wave 3 catalytic heater
  • Two 20 lb propane bottles, a regulator and 15 feet of hose.
  • Multiple layers of synthetic clothes. No cotton! Fleece is good a good choice for everything except the outer vest and coat which can be down. You want to start with a base layer of thin tight-fitting clothes for the legs and upper body. Then add a thicker looser fitting middle layer and finally a thicker, bulkier, looser fitting outer layer. Add layers as it cools down or shed layers as it warms up.
  • I’ll answer your questions in line and in RED:

Here’s the scariest part, and the reason for this post… I am moving into a van in December, and I will be living near Chicago. I have no experience setting up a winter-ready van and, if I don’t get it right, I will be in a homeless shelter or dead. Really, staying warm isn’t that hard. Here are the Key points: 1) creating warmth in the van 2) insulating so the warmth stays inside 3) weather-stripping to eliminate air infiltration, 4) adding more layers of clothes as it gets colder, shedding layers as it gets warmer.
How meticulous should my insulation job be? Should I buy great stuff and fill every space I can find, or could I get away with basic foam panels? Maybe I should even find a way to insulate the windows? You should do all three! Since you are buying a cargo van, squirt the Great Stuff spray foam into every nook and cranny you can reach. Then cover the roof, walls and windows with at least 2 inches of Styrofoam (details on the next question). Just as important is to use weather-stripping to prevent any air gaps around the doors, windows and walls. Moving air will make you feel much colder than the actual air temperature.
What kind of insulation is best? I like the pink, rigid panels. I have used it before, and find it easy to work with. Also, I believe it doesn’t let moisture through, which I read causes rust in a vehicular application like this. Money is not an object here… I would rather be without electricity than living in a freezer full-time. Any tips for a newbie on quality insulation? Yes, you want to use Styrofoam. because it is cheap, light, easy to work with and has a high R value. The pink or blue Styrofoam is much better than the white because it is much more durable, will last much longer and is very water resistant. You want to use 4×8 sheets because they will minimize cuts and joints. The thinner sheets like ½ and ¾ inch are very flexible and will bend with the curve of the walls and the roof. Just put in multiple layers
Which heater should I buy? Can I use it at night? When I lived in Alaska I always used Olympian catalytic heaters. A true catalytic heater uses a chemical reaction instead of a flame and they produce virtually no carbon monoxide. I turned mine on in October and it ran 24-7 until April. The only time I turned it off was to change propane bottles. The Mr. Buddy Portable Heaters are very good heaters but they are not true catalytic heaters. If you are going to run it 24-7, buy the Olympian Wave 3 heater instead. They make larger models, but they make too much heat for the small space of a van unless you are in the extreme cold of Alaska. The Wave 3 kept me warm until it was around zero degrees, then I turned it off and turned on my Wave 6 on high. At -10 degrees or colder I turned them both on. Nothing beats the Olympian Catalytic heaters!

 Should I buy a cargo van to create a better, more custom interior, or buy a conversion van to have a pre-made interior? I would imagine a cargo van allows me more creative choices in insulating and outfitting the van, but costs more to do so. The only reason to buy a conversion van is if you want a high-top, for your purpose of living in very cold weather, a cargo van is much better for several reasons: 1) Direct access to the walls allows you to fill them with Great Foam insulation 2) It’s much easier to attach Styrofoam and paneling to the walls if you can easily find the ribs 3) All the Styrofoam you are going to add is going to take up a lot of interior room. Cargo vans waste even more space with all their plastic and wood trim. That’s space you can’t afford to lose. 4) Buying a cargo van with a dividing wall between front driving area and back living area makes insulating the wall much easier. Because all the windows in the driving area will suck the heat out of the van and be impossible to insulate, you want to add at least 2 inches of Styrofoam to the wall between the front and back. Also, be sure you get a tight seal around the roof, walls, and floor.
 What kind of interior paneling is cost effective (for a cargo van)? Wood would probably work, but may encounter problems with mold, rot, etc. Plastic sounds expensive and might need to be custom fit. I can use something thinner and lighter, and add a structure behind it that allows me to attach things to my walls if needed. Any ideas on quality panels for the interior wall? Why add paneling at all, why not just leave it plain? If you need the nicer looks of paneling, just buy the cheapest stuff you can at Home Depot and slap it on. Another option is Luan (also called doorskin). You will need to stain it before installation.
Is using propane really dangerous? I understand the fearful reaction to having an explosively flammable gas compressed to an explosively high pressure in a hard metal container laying next to you at all times in a moving vehicle… but the actual risks of injury with propane tanks might not be so extreme. If I store the tank in a hard box, and secure it firmly so it cannot move, am I really in any danger for having it? I need to heat my van somehow… Yes, propane is extremely dangerous! However, life is extremely dangerous, I am amazed any of us live through the day. I agree with you that the actual risk of having propane inside is very small. In 10 years of vandwelling I have had a propane tank inside of my vehicle 100% of the time, and I think the risk is very small. You have a very good plan, just keep the tank in a secure box that can’t move in an accident and you will be fine. Buy two 20 lb bottles and when one runs empty, connect the other one. Then go fill the empty right away.

To charge a 12V system in the 5th worst place for solar power in the USA, I will depend on my alternator every now and then. Should I consider purchasing a high-output alternator to double the amperage gained per gallon of gas? No, don’t buy a high capacity alternator, it is just a waste of money for two reasons: 1) Deep cycle batteries should only be charged at 10% of their amp-hour capacity (for example, 20 amps maximum charge for a 200 ah battery). Any more will damage the battery. 2) The voltage regulator will stop charging as soon as the starting battery is full, if it doesn’t it will damage the starting battery. Buy this DC to DC charger and you can keep your house battery charged and healthy:
If the link doesn’t work do a Google search for a “ctek d250s battery charger”.
Finally, I will say that my plan in fact is to not spend any unnecessary winters in a van. I will likely be joining the Renaissance Faire circuit, or some other traveling job that follows the warm weather. Being a Snowbird is the best way to beat the cold and heat. But you will still run into extremes of temperature in the shoulder season (see photo above) so your plan to super-insulate will pay off in both the heat and the cold.


  1. John Lamb

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention Reflectix! I’m planning on putting it up in my Suburban over all 6 of the windows behind the front doors, and hoping it works as well as I have heard. But then, I have no plans to be in Chicago this winter either!

    • Bob

      Hi John, like you I love Reflectix and use it a lot. But it isn’t a good insulation. It’s R value is about 1, so given the choice to cover your windows with Reflectix or Styrofoam (R value around 6), choose styrofoam. BUT that is only if you live in a really cold place. When I am in the desert I cover mine with Reflectix so I can take it off easily during the day. I put it back up at night.
      Putting it on the windows of your Suburban should work really well, both winter and summer. But for extreme clods styrofoam is better. Bob

  2. rvrobbin

    need direction on how to winterize my minnie winnie
    heading to see the grandkid in November. Can you point me to the blog or where you explained it

    • Bob

      It’s getting to be times to think about Winter!! Today’s blog will be about coming home, then I will write a blog on winterizing, so maybe Thursday. Bob

  3. Bob W.

    Even in April I’m still pondering a suitable heating solution for my E350. Above you mentioned having used the Wave 3 & Wave 6 while you lived in Alaska. When I follow your link out to Amazon and read the comments from buyers/users there. While most are positive, one comments that the Wave 3 failed them after using it in the desert dry camping–they attributed the failure to dust clogging it up despite keeping it covered during non-use and attempting to minimize kicking up dust around it in their camper. Since you’ve been wintering in the desert, have you heard of the Olympians clogging with dust and failing? Thanks.

    • Bob

      Bob, that is a very good question. I know they are very susceptible to problems with dust. I never had a problem with that, but I only owned one in Alaska. Dust is a constant here in the desert! I know RVSue has an Olympian and has been living in her Cassita for over a year now and uses it all winter in the desert and so far she has not had a problem. I wish I had a better answer, but I just don’t know.

  4. Jeff

    I realize that this article is almost a year old, but I have to ask: how can you be in a van with a propane heater running 24/7 and you’re not dead? What am I not understanding here? I thought that all heaters that burn something consume oxygen. So how can a person run a propane heater in a van 24/7 and not suffocate themselves? Does the Olympian heater have some sort of external air-intake or something?
    Thanks for your help and this blog.
    Geoff in NYC

    • Bob

      Jeff, when you buy any appliance it comes with an instruction book full of warnings. Some of them are silly but a few are crucial. For example, if you have a gas dryer and fail to use a big enough hose to vent it, it will kill everybody in the house. But if you follow the instructions and properly vent the dryer, it is totally safe.
      Any heater will come with exact requirements for clearances around the heater and how much air has to be coming in for ventilation. So in Alaska I used an Olympian catalytic heater and if I remember right it needed 35 square inches of ventilation. I rolled each of the front windows down an inch and that gave me more than enough.
      I followed the rules, and I was perfectly safe.

      • Jeff

        Thanks Bob. I may get one of them. Hope you have a good winter. Glad you’re not dead. ;-D
        Thanks again!

        • Bob

          Jeff, I am pretty glad I am not dead also!
          All the heaters work and our safe as long as you read and follow the instructions to the exact letter of the law like your life depends on it. Because it does.

  5. RKC

    What about condensation? How much ice did you have on the windows/vents in the morning after running the heaters all night at -30? How did you deal with the moisture to keep the possibility of any mold at bay?

    • Bob

      RKC, condensation was a BIG problem for me. Remember, that van was VERY HEAVILY insulated! So at normal winter temperatures above ZERO, condensation was not a problem. But below zero with both heaters running all that moisture got through the insulation and frosted up on the metal roof. But it stayed frost until it warmed up above zero then it ALL melted at once. When that happened, it literally rained inside the box van! All the melted frost would run down and hit the styrofoam sheets and run down to the low spot and our out through it. I had to put buckets under those spots to keep it dry.
      Bu that only happened at extreme temperatures and no other times. I don’t know why.
      Because it was a box it was sealed tight from the cab. There was a pass-through, but it was sealed well enough that I didn’t get anything but normal frost on the windshield.
      For some reason I never had any mold in the 6 years I lived in the van, and again, I don’t know why–I should have.

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