Refurbishment of our Vehicle

First Impression

Have a look at this short video to get a first impression of the work and the result

Why a refurbishment?

When we purchased our car “Dappere Dodo” (Brave Dodo) it was twelve years old and completely equipped by the first owner. We did not make any major changes before we set off for the first large trip: we made some repairs, tried to understand the electronic circuitry and added some stuff for storage.

After driving from the Netherlands to South Africa we made our first major changes:

  • Replacement of the refrigerator, because the old one consumed too much power and couldn’t be controlled well;
  • Replacement of the diesel stove by gas, because it was too unreliable (see here);
  • Partial upgrade of the electrical circuitry, because it was unreliable and hard to maintain (see here).

In Patagonia and Bolivia we were confronted with a different climate: occasionally much wind and extreme cold at altitudes above 4000 m. Because of the cold we were forced to spend long evenings inside the car and then we discovered how uncomfortable it was: we were sitting against the side wall and always had to bend a little forward because the walls are not vertical; not a problem for an hour, but very much so for an entire evening. We also had a few situations that we wanted to sleep with a closed roof because of the wind, which wasn’t possible. Therefore we decided to a complete overhaul of the interior after we returned to the Netherlands. Once we came to to the conclusion that the required changes would result in stripping and rebuilding the interior completely we added other wishes to the requirements list. Initially we looked for a third party to do this, but eventually we found nobody willing and able to do it the way we wanted it to do. Most camper builders only build interiors for standard vans and the ones that seemed capable to carry out the entire project didn’t even bother so send us a quotation after we visited them and discussed our requirements. 

The main requirements for the interior were:

  • Two comfortable seats
  • Emergency bedding to sleep with a closed roof
  • More practical storage space: the original design got its strength from the panels, not  from the profiles linking them. By consequence cupboard doors always had to be significantly smaller than the cupboard to avoid losing structure. We looked for a better solution. Furthermore much space was lost because of a poorly thought through design and incremental modifications;
  • More practical kitchen environment: good working height  and sufficient work space;
  • Simplified, easily accessible and reliable electrical system;
  • Permanently closed windows that are less susceptible to burglary attempts and do not collect dust;
  • Lighter wall and ceiling covering material that is easy to clean;
  • Rugged floor material ;
  • Possibility to easily remove furniture parts by using little glue and more screw connections.  One reason for this was that it should be possible to prepare the parts in our heated home and install them afterwards.

Project Organization

For the design Microsoft OneNote was used to keep track of the entire project. All design drawings were made with the open source program FreeCad. FreeCad is free and extremely powerful, but sometimes a bit overwhelming as multiple design philosophies are combined in a single program. It has a steep learning curve, also because documentation is limited and sometimes outdated. For the electrical diagram LibreOffice was used.

The Design

The most important change in the layout was that we now have two seats facing to the back, both with comfortable backrests. The person in the middle can stretch legs in the aisle, the other on the bench. When we are eating we sit under a 90 degree angle. The kitchen moved to the rear of the car with a large area for preparing food next to the gas and water at a comfortable height (the same as at home). We put in six drawers in total. Gas and water equipment is below the sink/stove, the fridge is underneath the working area. The electronics are underneath the middle seat, the heater underneath the couch. The water tank is underneath the middle seat and left hand cupboard.

The furniture is built with 20 mm square anthracite aluminum profiles with flanges to hold panels. The panels are 4 mm aircraft plywood. The profiles are often used for bird cages, the plywood is used for gliders. Cupboard interiors and drawers are built with 3 mm “dibond” (aluminum composite), the kitchen work space is built with “trespa”. For walls and ceiling vinyl with a 4 mm foam layer on the back is used. The foam layer helps to hide wall irregularities. For the floor project vinyl us applied. This is the strongest vinyl available and is used in offices, labs, etc.

The old design had a small opening between the living part and the front cabin, We had it always closed in order to keep heat/cold at the place where we were and for privacy. We never have believed the story of racing away in emergencies. Furthermore we store our (flat) camping seats and table in the front in the night, so a quick behind the steering wheel wouldn’t be possible anyhow. Therefore we decided to make a fixed wall between the living part and the front cabin.

A big challenge was that a big part of the side walls bends 8 degrees inward to the top and that the front part of the side wall bends 15 degrees inside. This made correctly dimensioning the furniture a lot harder.

The Workshop

Much of the work was done in our garage and parts of the assembly work inside the home.

Tooling

Because we decided to build ourselves we of course saved the money to be paid to a third party camper builder. Therefore we decided to invest in some good tooling (and we also grabbed some useful, less critical tools from LIDL. The main tools we bought are:

  • Miter saw;
  • Saw table;
  • Milling cutter;
  • Drilling stand;
  • Multitool;
  • Angle grinder;
  • Cordless drill/screw machine;
  • Blind rivet nut installation gun – this was one of the hardest parts to find. In the Netherlands you find either hand tools that are very unpractical for larger quantities or extremely expensive pneumatic or electric tools. Eventually we found in Taiwan a supplier that sells a guns set to be used with a drilling machine for blind rivet nuts as well as blind rivets.

In the old interior it was at some places very hard to remove rusted screws and bolts. Therefore stainless steel nuts and torq bolts were used whenever possible.

Removing the old interior

The New Roof Tent

The old roof tent had many fixed holes in it and the zippers didn’t work anymore. We had a new rooftent made with exactly the same dimensions as the old one. Installation we did ourselves.

Replacement of the Windows

In the old setup we had three windows, one at either side and one in the rear door. They were of the classic caravan type with mechanical rolls and a possibility to open them. We never opened the windows, the rolls mainly collected dust and sand and the material wasn’t very transparent anymore. Furthermore we felt they weren’t very burglary proof.

Therefore we had all existing windows removed and replaced by one fixed window on one side and one in the rear door. The opening to the front cabin we closed ourselves.

Building the New Interior

All furniture was built with 20 mm aluminum profiles with flanges. High quality plywood of 4 mm as used in hanggliders was used as panels. The connections were made with plastic corner pieces that come in many shapes. We like the anthracite color of the profiles although it is more vulnerable that anodized aluminum profile that is available as well. The corner pieces give strong connections. Taking them apart was mostly done with a hammer, but sometimes with a car jack.

All screw connections as well as later connection to the walls were done with blind river nuts. This worked well, but requires exercise:

  • The torque setting of the drill is very important: if it is too low the blind rivet nut isn’t squeezed enough in the material and therefore isn’t properly fixed, if it is too high the thread is damaged;
  • Alignment is very important as well: if there is a lateral power to the screw you try to insert because the blind rivet nut isn’t in the right position (for example the distance between the two holes of a hinge is incorrect) the thread of the blind rivet nut will be damaged making it impossible to remove the screw without drilling out the blind rivet nut. In critical situations it is best to use a hand screw driver and not an electric one, because you then better can feel what happens.

Drawers were made with the same method as the furniture, but anodized aluminum and dibond were used as materials. A plywood front panel will be glued on the drawer.

We decided to use the fridge that we already had. As it is opening at the top a drawer was made that is used to pull the fridge out.

The material of the drawers was deliberately overdimensioned to compensate for bumpy road conditions.

Electrical System

The electrical system was redesigned completely. Conditions were:

  • Easily accessible
  • Properly fused (close to the battery)
  • Correct wiring diameters
  • Properly labeled
  • Cables properly protected
  • Mains power from the same outlets irrespective of the source (outside or DC/AC)

During the design process we changed the watertank choice. The new watertank took about one third of the space foreseen for the electronics. This made the set of the electronics rather squeezed.

Mains power enters the car through a re-settable fuse with earth leak protection.

During the previous electronics upgrade we replace two 60 Ah AGM batteries with two 100 Ah units. Those batteries were kept.

The AC/DC convertor and battery/dynamo convertor were already available from the previous electronics upgrade. The dynamo convertor has a maximum charge current of 20 A. In practice that meant that we had to drive 300-400 km to fully charge batteries if they were 1/3 empty. To shorten this time we added a CTEK SmartPass. The SmartPass can charge 140 A. At present the dynamo capacity is 70 A, but 120 A units are available (we had it when we set off for our first big trip, but had to replace it as the original electronics couldn’t handle more than 70 A. The entire system including cabling now has been prepared for 140 A.

We replaced the original DC/AC convertor with one with 600 W capacity.

We installed an “infopanel” that combines all needed control functions in one unit resulting in a clean design: we how only have the info panel and one switch to operate the heater. Functions of the info panel are:

  • Show voltage, current and remaining capacity of the board battery
  • Show voltage of the starter battery
  • Show time
  • Show inside and outside temperature
  • Show drinkwater tank level
  • Relais

Functions we do not use are:

  • Solar panel status (handled by the CTEK unit)
  • Waste water level
  • Power switch

The power switch can be used to operate a small relais that switches the electronics. It also enables some internal functions of the infopanel. Instead we use a mains switch on the electronics panel that can switch 275 A. We chose this one because it has a sufficiently low  internal resistance. We looked at some switches from Conrad that will act like a heater and not like a switch if the published specifications are correct.

The info panel has a switch to power a relais that can handle 15 A. We use it to power two relais needed to switch the 220 V outlets from outside mains power to mains power from the DC/AC convertor. One relais provides power to the DC/AC convertor (about 60 A max.), the other one switches the three mains outlets in the car from outside mains to mains from the DC/AC convertor.

We installed two 2 x 2.1 A USB outlets and replaced the three original lamps with 7 LED lights.

Wiring has been installed for two switches that are used to switch on a warning light if the roof is up or the rear door is open when the engine is started.

Furthermore we installed a WiFi antenna and router.

Originally we had two 75 Wp solar panels, but their yield was a lot less. Because we had more space on the roof than used by the original ones we now can install two 110 Wp panels.

The latest version of the wiring diagram is here.

Water

Water pump, expansion vessel, water filter
In the original design the water filter and accumulator were very hard to access. That was very inconvenient, because the water filter needs to be replaced about once per half year and the accumulator has to be drained every few weeks. Together with the pump the have been placed on the gas unit and are easily accessible.

We put in two new taps, one for normal water and one for filtered water. Both have switches that are used to switch the water pump on. In this way the pump only runs when a tap is open.

The waste water tank was left at its original place underneath the car rather to the front. This caused the hose between the sing and the tank to become rather long, resulting in a poor water flow. We need to experience if it is acceptable.

Gas

We installed an airtight box for our two 3 kg LPG tanks. It will get a hole through the bottom. Purpose is to ensure that no gas leaks into the car in case of a failure. In addition we installed a gas alarm on the side of the box.

Heating

We kept the Webasto diesel heater, but we replaced the 25 liter fuel tank that could be filled through an inlet at the outside of the car with a 10 liter removable tank, because it was much more space efficient.

Floor

We used the best quality vinyl as material for the floor. PVC is even stronger, but as it was impossible to make the floor absolutely flat that was not an option. Putting it in was done by the company that sold the material.

Seats

For the couch we use one part of the three mattress parts. The other pieces were made according to our specification.

Wall and Roof Coverage

For coverage of walls and roof we used foam vinyl. It is easy to clean, doesn’t collect dust, hides irregularities of the underground and offers a certain level of isolation.

The Bed

We replaced the two thin original mattress parts with three new tailor made thicker ones. As they don’t fit on top of the front cabin when the bed is not in use we use one of the parts for the couch. We kept the slats for the middle part of the bed.

Table

The table is made of 18 mm plywood and mounted on a swinging foot. Its width fits exactly in the aisle. Mounted in a position some 40 cm above the floor it serves to get into and out of the bed. When we are driving it stands upright in the aisle keeping the outside furniture in place.

Result

After having spent about 1,500 hours and an amount of money still to be calculated this is the result.

Front Cabin and Unwanted Gadgets Cleanup

When we bought the car it came with a number of gadgets most of which we didn’t use or which didn’t even work. Lots of additional cables made the electrical system less reliable while the additional parts under the hood made parts of the engine less accessible. Therefore we did the following:

  1. Removed non-functional cruise control
  2. Removed heater that produced lots of noise and smoke, but no heat
  3. Cleaned up wiring of central door locking
  4. Cleaned up mounting and wiring of tachometer
  5. Removed voltage meter for starter battery
  6. Removed voltage meter for service battery
  7. Removed oil pressure meter
  8. Removed non-functional oil temperature meter
  9. Removed poorly functioning rear view camera
  10. Removed remainders of rear distance alarm
  11. Cleaned up wiring of one of the spare fuel tank pumps
  12. Removed duplicate lights left on alarms
  13. Removed superfluous direction lights, head lights, and reverse light with cables

After this cleanup the vacuum outlet and light relay as well as water hoses and fuel hoses were brought back to their original state. We added a “roof up” and “rear door open”warning light.

Suppliers

Below is a list of the most important suppliers to the project. It will be especially of use to people living around Eindhoven, Netherlands.

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