Our Low-VOC RAM ProMaster Family Van Conversion
When we bought our Dodge Ram ProMaster, we didn’t have a great template to follow for the conversion to accommodate our family of three. We had just sold our Four Wheel Pop Up Truck Camper. The camper was amazing, but it just wasn’t working for all our gear and for the stop-and-go style of traveling we were now doing with our then three-year-old in tow.
We started with a new 2019 Ram ProMaster 2500 cargo van with a high roof and 159-inch wheelbase. We opted for this van over the Mercedes Sprinter van mainly for the lesser price—also the nearest Mercedes dealership is in Portland versus the local Ram dealership here in Bend. The Ford Transit was tempting, but we wanted to sleep lengthwise in the van and the wider ProMaster made all the difference for my 6’2” tall husband. We also added the “RV Ready-Prep Package” which includes among other things, driver and passenger swivel seats, a hitch, as well a 220-amp alternator. The compromise was that the ProMaster is a front wheel drive vehicle. We planned to use our van to camp up at Mt. Bachelor a few weekends in the winter and we live on a steep hillside in Bend, so we were a little nervous about how the van would handle in the snow, but with a set of burly studded snow tires, we haven’t been let down yet.
There is of course a lot that goes on behind the scenes as far as insulation, electrical and battery operations, but really what I’m hoping to share in this post is how we made this work for our family and some of the ways we made this a minimal build out, along with an eco-friendlier build thanks to our builder’s use of low VOC (volatile organic compounds) materials.
While my husband initially considered taking on the van build out himself, we got lucky and were able to get in with Scott Smith at Smithmade Custom Creations out of Mammoth Lakes, California. It turns out that having a professional handle your conversion ensures more than just a professional build, many insurers require it to issue an insurance policy (our previous insurer wouldn’t even insure a van conversion, so there’s that to be aware of as well).
The Family Van Conversion Layout
We worked with Scott to create a minimal custom buildout. The interior was designed around the need for a safe, forward-facing bench seat that would accommodate a car seat. Scott sourced a sturdy bench seat from Freedman seating, which he positioned behind the driver’s side chair. The bench was mounted on an 1/8-inch steel mounting plate which was bolted through the bottom of the van’s structural components and then bolted to the base of the seat—solid! As a bonus, the two-person bench seat folds up when not in use. The rest of the forward build took shape around the bench seat, with custom storage cabinets and a table. In the rear, Scott welded a queen size steel bed frame. We left the “garage” under the bed wide open as opposed to building out specific storage because we use the van for so many different activities. We also anticipated one day using it as a second bed for the little guy. But it turns out that the Cabbunk bunk bed which fits over the front swivel seats are an even better option for kid’s beds, with both a single or bunk bed option available. We have one on order now.
A Low VOC Van Build
Scott brought our attention to the opportunity to build out our van interior with a focus on reducing toxins by using low VOC materials and incorporating a strategy of encapsulation to prevent off gassing. “What I try to focus on is adding as few nasty chemical components as possible,” says Scott. “It’s important to bear in mind that we’re building inside a vehicle that has been painted with automotive paints and includes plastic and leather — so it’s not a perfect world.”
Scott opts to insulate with rigid, closed-cell foam board insulation as opposed to spray foam. According to Scott, the benefit of opting for the rigid foam board is that it’s manufactured and cured in a controlled environment in the factory. Whereas spray foam runs the risk of not curing entirely if the foam is sprayed in an environment with too much moisture etc. The result can create what’s known as a “sick home,” where the foam will continue to off gas and never go inert (yikes!). Once installed, all the edges are taped and sealed with very minimal spray foam adhesive applied during the build. The wood cabinets and fronts are sealed with nontoxic OSMO wood wax finish to both protect the wood and encapsulate it to limit off gassing. Scott also sources a zero VOC marine grade adhesive to hold the vinyl flooring to the subfloor.
I admit that the opportunity to build out a low VOC van hadn’t occurred to me prior to Scott introducing the idea, but we’re so grateful that he brought it to our attention and incorporated non-toxic materials into our van buildout. Hopefully this gives you some ideas for conversion layouts for your family and ideas for incorporating non-toxic materials in your upcoming or ongoing conversion.
- Our kitchen motto was simple is better. Scott used a Seaflow on-demand water pump that utilizes a pair of removable 5-gallon water tanks for gray water and freshwater (on longer trips we bring a pair of extra tanks). These fit into the cabinet under our compact Dometic range/sink combination. The stove runs off individual 1lb. propane tanks anchored alongside the water tanks (find out how to responsibly recycle these tanks here). The Isotherm AC/DC fridge draws power from the battery system, which recharges off solar, the alternator, or from land power. The fridge has proven to be much more reliable than our previous propane fridge, which was finicky and damp.
- Scott installed a Webasto gas heater, which runs off the gas tank and, as a bonus, provides drier air versus the damp air from our previous propane heater. The heater fan also runs off the battery power. So far, the heater has managed to keep us warm and dry in the Mt. Bachelor parking lot during even the most robust winter storms.
Annie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at anniefast.com
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