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Dealing with Heat and Cold
The question I hear most often from people who are starting out in vandwelling is, how do you deal with extreme temperatures like heat in the summer and cold in the winter? While there are things you can do to make your life more comfortable, the bottom line is that if you live in a van, sometimes you are going to be too hot and sometimes you are going to be too cold, there just isn’t any way around it. Let’s take a look at some of the options that will help you to be as comfortable as possible.
Choose a Temperate Location:
If you have a choice of where you live, try to pick a place with a moderate year-round climate. The best one that I know of is in the rain shadow of Mt. Olympus around Port Angeles, Washington, which has great weather all year. Some places along the California coast are moderate year-round but can get severe storms in the winter. There are so few places with year-round moderate weather that a better choice is to be a snowbird. Snowbirds move south in the winter and then north in the summer to avoid temperature extremes. The problem with that is you may have to drive a long way to get to better weather. Much better for the environment and your checkbook is to go up in elevation in the summer, and down in elevation in the winter. For every 1,000 feet of elevation you go up, the temperature drops 3 degrees. So the temperature at Orlando, Florida may be 100 degrees, but if you drive 500 miles north to Boone, North Carolina, the temperature will be 80 degrees because it is at 6,000 feet. Or, if it is 100 degrees at Quartzsite, Arizona, if you drive 250 miles North to Flagstaff, Arizona, the temperature will be 75 degrees because it is at 7,000 feet. And, of course, in the winter it is just the opposite. When it is 30 degrees in Flagstaff, it will be 55 in Quartzsite. The West is a better choice because it has a gigantic amount of public land you can live on for free. The South West is mostly desert land owned by the BLM and is open to free dispersed camping in the winter. There is an equally large amount of National Forest land at high elevations where you can disperse camp for free in the summer.
Of course many, maybe most of us, can’t leave where we are. We have family, friends, or jobs that tie us down to one place. Unfortunately, most of those places have hot summers or cold winters, or maybe both. So let’s look at how to make our vans as comfortable as we can.
Our highest priority is to keep the heat outside in the summer and inside in the winter. To do that we are going to insulate and stop air gaps (the following suggestions are in order of priority):
- Reflectix: The most heat is gained and lost through the windows, so covering them is our first priority (which also meets our need for privacy in the van). First, within the legal requirements of your home state, tint all the windows as dark as you can. Next, cover the windows with Reflectix, which is two heavy sheets of aluminum foil sandwiched over bubble wrap. It doesn’t have a high R value, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the sun’s heat and cooling the van. You can buy it at hardware stores like Home Depot in the insulation area. There are several ways to mount it to your window. Sometimes you can just press it into the window, and the pressure will hold it in place. If pressure doesn’t work, you can try to use Velcro with 2-sided tape. You attach the tape to the perimeter of the window, peel of the cover, and press the Reflectix against it so it is taped to the Velcro. When you are parked you put the Reflectix up and when you drive you can take it down. Another way to attach it is to super glue a large washer to the corners of the window and tape a very strong rare-earth magnet to the Reflectix so that it lines up over the magnets.
- Curtain/Blanket between the back and driving area of the van: All the glass in the front windows will lose and gain a lot of heat, so both for insulation and privacy you want to hang a blanket between them. The heavier the curtain, the better the insulation. A very good choice is two layers, one a curtain for looks and the other either Reflectix or a Space Blanket to reflect heat back into the living area and act as a vapor barrier so the front windows don’t fog up. Use a rod across the van to hold the blankets, or if you are handy, build a wall with a door and insulate it. If possible, buy a cargo van with a built in wall which makes insulating easy.
- Stop Drafts: Moving air will make you feel much colder than the temperature would indicate, so you want to find and close all air gaps (especially around the doors) with weatherstripping and caulk. If you still get a draft, consider duct taping either a Space Blanket or Reflectix around the back door and Velcro it in around the side door. It also keeps the contents safe when you have to take it in for service.
- Styrofoam: In the three vehicles I have lived in, I have always used Styrofoam for insulation. It has so many advantages I consider it perfect for vandwellers. It is very light and has a high R value of about 5 per inch, so it doesn’t take up valuable space in the van. It is easy to work with (just cut it with a serrated knife) and cheap. I put an inch of Styrofoam on the walls of my camper and cargo trailer and it has worked very well. To install it, use sheet metal screws into the ribs of the van and run 1×3 pieces of lumber the length of the walls at the top, bottom, and in the middle. Then you screw the Styrofoam into the 1x3s with sheetrock screws with washers on them. You can use glue to attach the Styrofoam directly to the walls, but the 1x3s have the advantage that they let you easily screw other things onto the walls. You do the same to insulate the roof. The 3/4 inch thick sheets of Styrofoam are flexible enough to bend to the curve of the van’s walls and roof so they may be a better choice. If you want more insulation than 3/4 inch, use multiple sheets. The sheets I bought at Home Depot had aluminum foil on one side and I liked how it reflected light and kept more heat in, so I didn’t cover it. If you prefer a more finished look you can put paneling on the walls over the Styrofoam using screws and washers.
Find or Create Shade: Nothing will cool your van better than parking in the shade.
- Parks: When I lived in a city, it was very hard to find shade. I ended up searching all the city parks until I found some that let me park in the shade. Then I spent all my free time there and I loved it. I could go for walks and swimming. I would take my stove over to a picnic table and cook outside so the van wouldn’t get hot.
- Forests: If you aren’t tied down to living in a city, then the best thing you can do is spend your summers in local forests because they are drastically cooler than cities. There are two reasons for that: 1) The trees provide wonderful shade, 2) There isn’t all that concrete/asphalt absorbing and reflecting heat.
- Use Ladder Racks and Plywood to Cover the Roof: Sometimes you just have to park in the sun, like while you are at work or when I am parked in the desert for the winter. I strongly suggest you buy ladder racks and cover them with plywood. Ladder racks are commonly available for vans; in fact you may be able to pick up a used pair off of craigslist.com. They install easily by clamping to the van’s rain gutters. On my 6 x10 cargo trailer, the company I bought it from, TrailersPlus, sold a set of aluminum ladder racks for it, so I bought mine from them. Any welder can make you a pair. I bolted four, ten foot 2 x 4’s to the ladder rack and screwed the plywood to them. The sun will quickly damage the plywood, so you will want to stain it (white is best because it reflects heat). My solar panels are bolted to the plywood, avoiding more holes in the roof of the trailer.
- Put Up an Awning: An awning will shade one of your walls and let you sit outside in the shade. You can buy commercial awnings, but they are expensive. I very good choice is an EZ Up type awning, but they are big, take up a lot of space and heavy. Those are bad things when you live in a van. Or, you can make a cheap, light awning out of a tarp and PVC tubes. I used 1 1/4 inch PVC tubes, a white tarp, and rope to stake it out. I put “Eye” screws into my plywood roof to attach the tarp to the roof.
Create Ventilation, Moving Air:
- Vents: Nearly all RVs come with roof vents for the simple reason that they are a very cheap way to cool your home. The standard size is 14 x 14 and they are inexpensive and simple to install. Cut the hole with a jigsaw, put mastic tape around the bottom of the vent, and screw it into the roof. Finally, put caulk around the perimeter of the vent and on all the screw holes. There are three problems with roof vents; 1)If you go away and leave it open, and it starts raining, the rain will get inside the van, 2)If you leave it open while you drive, eventually the wind will rip it off, 3)The sun will eventually crack the cover. The solution is a Vent Cover. I open my vents in the summer and never close them until fall. I don’t have to worry about rain, wind, driving, or sun damage. I bought the vents, cover, and mastic tape from Amazon.com.
- Fans: You can buy vents with a built-in, powered fan to blow air into or out of the van. The most famous and popular is made by Fantastic Fan which has a great reputation of reliability and customer service. I think a better idea is to buy a portable fan you use inside the van. I use a 12-volt fan called the Endless Breeze. It is made by Fantastic Fan, in fact it is the same fan put in a portable housing. It has the huge advantage that you can move it around so it is blowing directly on you, even when you are driving. It draws about 3 amps of power at 12 volts.
Buying a Heater or Air Conditioner:
One thing I am asked all the time is “Can I use an electric heater or an air conditioner off of solar panels?” I’m sorry to say the answer is no to both items. Theoretically it is possible, but it would require lots of solar panels and a huge battery bank so it just isn’t practical. Electric heaters and air conditioners require you to be either hooked up to shore power (like at an RV park or someone’s home) or a generator. Let’s look at our alternatives:
- Propane Heater: By far the most popular heater for vandwellers is the Mr. Buddy Portable Heater, made by Mr. Buddy. I own one and know lots of other vandwellers that do as well. They come in three sizes, small, medium and large. The medium size (4000-9000 Btu) is almost perfect for a van. My trailer is well insulated so after about 30 minutes I have to turn it off because it gets too hot. But for most non-insulated vans, it should be just about right. They are cheap, light and easy to start. They work off the little green propane bottles, but I bought an adapter hose and connected it to a 5-gallon propane bottle, which makes it tremendously cheaper to run. I personally don’t leave it on at night, but I know several people who do. One friend has a 24-foot Class C RV and he runs his 24 hours a day if it is cold enough. Another friend has a 35-foot 5th wheel and he heats the whole trailer with just the one large Mr. Buddy heater. He also leaves it on 24 hours a day if it needs it. Some people are concerned about safety with non-vented heaters, but if you follow the instructions in the owner’s manual you will be safe. It will tell you exactly how much ventilation you need and what to leave for clearances around the heater. If you follow the rules, you will be safe. If you don’t, you could die. I know that is a strong statement, but remember, it is true of all gas-burning devices. You might have a natural gas or propane furnace, hot water heater, dryer or stove in your home right now. If you follow the rules in the owner’s manual, you will be safe. If you don’t you could die. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska for 40 years, and virtually every winter there were deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning in homes because people did something stupid like block the vent from their gas dryer because it let too much cold air in, or insulated around the hot water heater and snuffed out the pilot light or restricted the air intake so it burned badly. In the Mr. Buddy manual are a couple of simple rules for how much space to leave around the heater and how many square inches of windows need to be left open for ventilation. Obey those rules, and you won’t have any problems. I strongly recommend a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector as a back-up and for peace of mind. But that is just as true if you live in a house. In fact the city of Anchorage made it part of the city code that every home had to have a carbon monoxide detector as well as a smoke detector. It’s just common sense.
- Swamp Coolers: Swamp coolers do work but they are expensive and only work in dry climates and not at all in humid climates. I doubt you could use one anywhere east of the Mississippi. I have no direct experience with them, so you are going to have to do your own research.
- Air Conditioning: The only good air conditioning option for vandwellers is to buy either a small portable or window air conditioner. I’m sorry, I’ve never seen either one up close, so this is just an overview to get you thinking. You will have to do your own research for more details. The portable ones are easier to install. You just have to rig up a vent to let air out and a hose to let water out. I’ve seen three different ways to use window air conditioners.
- The most common way to mount one is to remove one of the back windows of the van and cut a piece of plywood to cover the hole. Then you cut a hole in the plywood that the air conditioner mounts into.
- I once saw where a guy cut a hole in the side of the van and mounted the air conditioner inside the van with a vent cover to cover the hole.
- Another way is to cut a piece of plywood to fit inside the passenger window of the van and to mount the window air conditioner in it when you are parked, and take it out when you are ready to drive.