Day 1: Insulating a Van for Summer & Winter Living

The first thing I did to my new Ford Transit van was rip out all of the factory-installed cargo gear to make room for insulation.

This is part of a series of posts about building a tiny home inside a cargo van (#vanlife).
My friend Brandon kindly offered to help.

Insulation Needs

I wanted to be able to park my van to the base of a ski mountain, like Tahoe, so that I could get first runs in the morning. In order to not freeze my butt off, I knew I’d need some good insulation.

Heat retention in insulation is measured by its R-value; the higher the R-value, the more heat is retained.

The U.S. Department of Energy provides R-value recommendations for new and existing homes. The maximum recommended value (for walls) in my home state of California is 15. It’s not until you get into the depths of Alaska that up to 25 is recommended.

Of course, this is just a rough estimate, giving me something to shoot for.

Types of Insulation

While there are technically eight different kinds of insulation, only half of them are really relevant to a van. Here are the types of insulation I used:

Blanket (Batts and Rolls)

With the highest R-value (R-30), this can be put into the gaps between the two walls of a van. It’s a soft, tearable cloth that can be inserted just about anywhere. However, you need to be careful not to compress/stuff it, otherwise it is not effective. Like with a blanket or warm clothing, the heat is retained by the pockets of air within the cloth… not the cloth itself.

Foam Board + Reflective

We placed layer of this (with an R-value of 5) on all the walls. This created a smooth “shell” for the inside of the van, plastering over some of the bumps and curves. The foam board I purchased also included a reflective layer on one side. This is technically another category of insulation, best used for reflecting heat outward (keeping the space cool in the sun).

Many people make a critical mistake when installing reflective insulation in vans. The shiny surface needs to be pointed outward, and it needs to not touch other surfaces (like the wall of the van). The actual value of this kind of insulation is dubious, but it came as a part of the foam board so I was happy to include it.

Spray Foam

With the majority of the surface area covered, it’s important to seal up gaps and cracks. Spray foam insulation comes in an aerosol canister, and can be applied just about anywhere. The foam expands a lot more than you’d think, so it can handle any drafty spot with ease.

MATERIALS

Tools

  • Razor blade / box cutter.
  • Socket wrench set (to remove parts from van).

Installation

Time: ~8 hours for two people.

First, we had to strip out all of the unwanted accessories from the van. This included mounting hooks, plastic walls, and anything else attached to the metal frame inside.

After we removed the cheap plastic walls and various mounting points.

Next, we stuffed the blanket insulation anywhere there were gaps in the walls. In the above picture, you can see that where the side-windows would otherwise be located there is no blanked insulation yet. The walls were single-sheet at these locations, but double-sheet (with a gap in which to stuff insulation) above and below. We then glued even more blanket insulation onto the walls before cutting foam board insulation to size and gluing it on atop everything.

Foam board and spray foam

We also used spray adhesive to fill whatever gaps there were. Here you can see how we sprayed around where the channel for the wires used to be. This means that the van wires will be trapped inside the walls and therefore difficult to service. This is a risk, to be sure. In retrospect. I might have installed a channel into which I could feed other wires (for my secondary solar-power grid).

Testing

Since installing the rest of the ceiling/floor/walls, I’ve now slept in the van. I stopped in a national park in late December, with an outside temperature of 34 F. I ran the heater before turning off the van, leaving me with a starting internal temperature of about 68 F. With my standard light camping sleeping bag on a couch, I was comfortable enough to sleep relatively soundly the whole night. With the addition of furniture, blankets, and an electric heater I am hopeful that I will have no problem with winters at the base of a ski mountain.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the next post, I’ll cover the surprisingly tricky task of installing plywood walls.

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