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Vanlife

Why I probably won’t own another Sprinter

This first option, naturally was to consider getting another Sprinter. Having built two of them, it was the obvious choice to get back on the rod quickly. But there were two mental serious blockers I came up against: First was price. Both of my Sprinters had been second hand, high mileage units. But even then, my 2015 was $35K CAD, the most I had spent on a vehicle, ever. Looking into new models (2020), a high-roof, 4×4 version was approaching 100K by the time it drives off the lost which is just an insane amount of money. Keep in mind, this is for the empty steel box, you still have to upfit it on top of that. It’s probably an realistic option for someone who sells their house to become a #vanlife nomad, but as a part-time adventure vehicle for me, spending that kind of money made no sense. I want to spend y time out enjoying it, not working more hours to pay off nearly 100k.

The other challenge for me was reliability. The diesel aspect of the MB Sprinter is both its best and worst quality. On the one hand, the 3.0L engine is quite powerful and efficient considering its pushing a huge cube down the road. But in order to meet North American standards, MB had to implement a complex emissions system that includes a DEF tank (that essentially squirts Urea into the exhaust), plus a complex assortment of sensors. On my 2013, I had the DEF heater fail in the middle of the winter and managed to limp it along until the spring when I could replace it. But the deal-breaker for me was right before I sold it, I got the infamous “10 starts remaining” message on the dash. You can look it up, but essentially the Mercedes engineers decided the best approach if a critical emissions component failed was to give you “X more starts” to get the vehicle to a dealership.

Hope you never have see this message as a Sprinter owner

This message reared its ugly head a friend and I were beginning a weekend camping trip. I had always dreaded this moment and here it was at one of the worst possible times. We took it in good stride and joked about it, but did have to plan our weekend as to “not use too many unnecessary starts.” We worked it out and figured out if we left the engine running for short stops, we could return home with one or two starts that I could use to get to the dealership. Parking at a trailhead for a few hours: Okay, that will expend a start. Stopping for gas? Leave it running. Going into a restaurant? Mmmmm, better leave it running. These were ironic decisions considering this system was trying to “prevent” unnecessary emissions.

Once I did get the vehicle to the dealership, I discovered this situation was even worse than I imagined. Both of my NOx sensors had failed, and to replace them it would cost $2500! But it get even worse! When I asked if I could just buy the sensors and have an independent shop change them, they told me that the new sensors had to be “programmed” into the emissions system and only dealers or authorized mechanics had the system to both do that, and reset my “starts warning.” I didn’t believe this at first, but did confirm it with other sources. So, basically if you re driving your diesel Sprinter anywhere further than “10 starts away” from a dealer, you might end up with a disabled vehicle.

Cleaning out the EGR valve, a twice yearly thing.

In the end, I paid the dealer, as it was really my only option. I did discover that these sensors had actually been replaced once on the vehicle previously, and pleaded with them to warranty them, but they declined, but did graciously offer me $300 off the bill.So if you decide to use a Sprinter as a overland vehicle, or leave the bounds of North America with it be warned that if this comes up your options for avoiding a disabled vehicle are:

  • Get to a dealership
  • Reset it yourself with an MB Star system (Ebay?)
  • Use a “modified” ECU with the emissions systems disabled (probably illegal)

travelling … to remote places in North America and beyond, would not be a good choice for me

In my mind, the Sprinter may be a good choice for delivery companies and van-lifers who stay close to major centres. But as an overland vehicle, travelling with it to remote places in North America and beyond would not be a good choice for me.

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Vanlife

BranVan interior V1

An update on what the van interior currently looks like. Cabinets were done by OverlandInteriors. More details to come..

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Vanlife

Solar Setup on BranVan

Branvan was designed to be a stealthy camper. And one of the main giveaways of a campervan conversion is a giant solar array up top. So, much like what I did for my Sprinter, I used Renogy 160W flexible panels attached directly to the roof. Flexible panels are much lighter than rigid ones, and only a few mm thick. This makes them perfect for stealthy setups. To attach them I used 3M VHB tape. This is a two-sided tape that’s used for industrial applaications sush as attaching windows and panels to the sides of skyscrapers. If it can hold heavy windows to the sides of buildings, it should be fine for attaching a 2kg panel to a van roof. (Update Oct 26, 2020, I’ve had these panels on for eight months and 8000km now, and they are still as attached as ever)

One panel attached with the tape in place for the second one.

A month after the install I decided that I wanted to run the wires through the back of the van instead of the front. So I peeled the panels off and flipped them the other way. I was pretty happy with how well they were attached and with some care, the removal went well. Note, VHB tape is kind of a pain to remove, you will need Goo-Gone or something like it to dissolve the adhesive. But its MUCH better than glue or screws.

The finished install.

When Installing them I cleaned off the “ribs” really well with isopropyl alcohol and uses extra tape up front and on the sides. It also helps if you weight them down at the critical points overnight, so I just put some weights around the perimeter and up-front

The setup works well and I’ve seen up to 270W (of 320W theoretical max) being generated by the system. I doubt I’ll ever see full capacity for a few reasons. One is that being attached the roof, they run a bit hotter since there’s not much for airflow under them. Solar panels are less efficient in the heat so this was no surprise. Flexible panels also are slightly less efficient than rigid ones, partly due to they plastic flexible coating rather than glass on rigid panels which lets more light through.

I thought about doing some sort of tilting mechanism to maximize solar gain but instead decided to “oversize” my system. I needed about 200-250W for my single 100AH battery so I went with 320W of Solar. Note, Renogy now sells a 175W version of this panel in the same size, so this setup could be 350W now in the same footprint. The passive approach works great for me as it keeps things stealthy, minimalist and requires no action on my part. I wanted a system that would work well if I wasn’t around the van and this passive setup is “good enough” If I was spending more time in the van or living full-time I might want to maximize things a bit more. But for now this system tops up my battery from 40-50% in about 3 hours of sunlight.

Cables (and fan) painted white for extra stealthiness!

Pros:

  • Flexible panels are thin and can be attached in many ways such as to curves surfaces
  • They are light and thing
  • At 2mm thin they are super low-profile and much aerodynamic
  • Attachment/install is often much easier and can be done without drilling or mounts

Cons:

  • Flexible panels are more expensive than rigid
  • Flexible panels are less efficient than the equivalent rigid panel
  • They don’t typically last as long (I think the plastic fades or breaks down quicker than the aluminum/glass of a rigid setup)

Good luck and if you have any questions or comments, drop them below!

Categories
Vanlife

Introducing BranVan2020

What’s with the name?

The name was the brainchild of two others who know my fondness of good raisin bran muffin. They were discussing the new and yet-to-be-named van and said something along the lines of “does he just drive around in it eating bran muffins? Bran muffins in his van, the BranVan?” The van is a 2020 model-year, so it was then christened BranVan2020.

Why such a small van?

After the sudden demise of the Sprinter in January 2020, I started re-thinking what parts of #vanlife were important to me. After reflecting, I realized that size and extravagance isn’t as important to me as I thought. What is important is having a self-contained “basecamp” that serves as a mobile spot to conduct my may wilderness adventures. I don’t know when exactly I discovered the “microcampers” trend but it felt like the choice that aligned best with what I wanted.

The project is an experiment in campervan-minimalism, aka trying to distill all of the elements of a campervan into a tiny, fuel-efficient footprint. Will it work out? Follow along and see!

It doesn’t really look like a campervan

That’s because it isn’t. It’s totally just another cargo van, there’s definitely not a bed and a sink and a stove or someone sleeping in there. Nothing to see here, move along. 🙂

Email: info at branvan2020.ca

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Vanlife

Offroading in a Sprinter Van

Going offroad in a Sprinter van is possible, but is different than offroading in a truck or Jeep. Many of those vehicles are designed for offroading and the Sprinter is meant for.. well.. delivering things. However, the they are surprisingly capable for a giant, tall awkwardly-shaped delivery van! (The photo in the snow above is a 2WD van with chains on.)

A Caveat/disclaimer: Be sensible and safe. If you have little to no offroad experience, start slow, take a trails course, consult the experts. These tips below are just what has worked for me.

Avoid places where you will get stuck

  1. Obvious right? But the first rule is to avoid places where you will likely get (seriously) stuck. You can do this by pre-walking questionable trail sections.
  2. Be constantly considering a back up plan and where you can turn around or bail if things get worse than expected.
  3. Get comfortable with the capabilities/limits of your Sprinter before you get into trouble. I did this by heading out just outside of town with a friend in another 4×4 to try some different terrain. He stood by to pull me out (but didn’t need, as I was able to self-recover!)

How to prevent getting stuck:

  1. Lower your tire pressure. This is easy and cheap! Many Sprinters spec a tire pressure of 70+PSI. That’s great for handling highway corners at 100km/h but not so great off-road. Airing down the tires to 30PSI or even 25PSI can give you a extra traction for FREE! It lets the tires “wrap” around things like rocks and provides more flotation in mud and snow. With the stiffness of the Sprinter’s suspension, airing down the tires helps with the suspension flex problem too. Warning: going too low will increase the chances of your tire coming off the rims. (This is only likely if you go below 25PSI and push your tires up against rocks or stumps.)
  2. Turn off ASR (Anti-slip regulation). This is the button in the middle of the console near the emergency flashers (on a NCV3). ASR is great on the road, but when your tires start spinning, it kills the throttle (and your forward momentum). This usually happens at the exact wrong time, resulting in you slowing down right when you most need momentum, and becoming stuck.
  3. Put your tire chains on before you need them. Seriously, nothings sucks more than having to chain up on an icy hill with the van tilted precariously (speaking from experience here). If it feels like things are getting dodgy or if you have any doubt, chain up.

Things to help you get unstuck.

Winches are highly over-rated. These two things below will cost you under $200 but will get you out of almost all questionable scenarios:

  1. Chains. Seriously. Chains will work everywhere unlike a winch which requires an anchor (tree, other vehicle, etc). I’ve kept up to 4WD trucks in the snow in my 2WD Sprinter with tire chains on. I use the Peerless AutoTrac which are great off road and ridiculously easy to put on and take off. These have saved my butt SO many times and are super easy to put on (which is the important part as I mentioned above). They are amazing for ice, but work great in mud/snow too. I also carry a set of V-bar chains for if things get really sketchy but have yet to use them.
  2. Traction blocks (I use the “truck version of the TracGrabber). Seriously. I thought these were an “as seen on TV” gimmick until I tried them. They have ALSO saved my butt many times and are super easy to put on. They act like “paddles” in deep snow/sand and give you a crazy amount of traction in those cases. They do not work on ice, but that’s where the chains excel.

How to stay unstuck once you’re free.

  • Don’t stop forward momentum if you can help it. Keep moving until you reach ground that is level and firm.
  • Sprinters typically benefit from a fairly amount of throttle when going through mud and snow. (Obviously be safe & sensible about this). They don’t “crawl” as well through obstacles due to the lack of suspension flex. I typically have to take a pretty good run at things and “drive it like I stole it”
  • If you feel yourself slowing down, but the RPM is staying the same, turn the steering wheel side to side to give the tires something to bite into
  • If you’re tires are just spinning forward, and backward and you are just “digging” downwards, STOP! Air down, put chains on, get out your shovel. The more your tires dig down, the bigger the hole they need to come out of
  • Make sure ASR is turned off. (it turns back on every time you turn the key off, and is easy to forget to check if you are getting in and out of your vehicle a lot)
  • Avoid putting branches, rocks, etc under the tires. This often doesn’t help and they just become hazards (Spinning tires will often just launch them out at high speed)

Other things to consider:

  • Winches are over-rated in my opinion. I used them extensively in my years of offroading in Land Cruisers, but they are expensive, often problematic and IMO not really needed for the types pf places Sprinters will go. But they are the cool bling that everyone puts on the front of their Jeeps ( and LED light bars, and $2000 bumpers, etc.) Maybe if you like spending money and go into really dodgy places by yourself, they are a good idea.
  • Sprinter’s do not have much suspension travel. Thankfully the traction control does make up for this ( somewhat ) by directing power to the other tires when one loses traction. It takes a while to get used to this behavior so practice ahead of time.
  • Not all 4×4 Sprinters have Low Range (Downhill assist). This is helpful when trying to navigate undulating terrain or maintaining slow control around obstacles
  • If you air down, don’t forget to air back up as soon as you can. I carry an portable Viair compressor for this task
Slow and steady down the hill.

Have fun and be safe out there! Have any other tips? Share them below!

Categories
Vanlife

A stealthy solar setup

For DoubleOhSevan, keeping things low-key is essential. I had originally considered mounting rigid panels on the roof rails, but decided that was still too conspicuous for my liking. A bit more research led to flexible Renogy panels that would fit between the roof rails. These would make efficient use of the roof space and take minimal vertical space. In fact, the roof ridges on either side are actually higher than the panels.

The tradeoff with flexible panels is efficiency (mounting to the roof decreases the circulation and increases the heat. Heat is the enemy of efficiency with Solar modules).

Flexible Panels mounted directly to the roof:

Advantages:

  • More aerodynamic
  • Less conspicuous

Disadvantages

  • More expensive (perhaps not if you include mounting hardware for rigid panels)
  • More permanent (glued to the roof)

The Renogy 100W flexible panels are 48″ wide, and the distance between the roof rails on a high-roof Sprinter is 52″

Flexible panels attached directly to the roof

The components

  • 4 x Renogy 100W Flexible Panels
  • 4 pairs MC4 connectors
  • 25ft of Red/Black 10AWG PV cable
  • 1 pair of MC 4 Y connectors
  • 1 waterproof cable entry
  • 1/2″ grommet to protect PV cable
  • Sixaflex construction adhesive
  • 1 40A MPPT Trace Charge controller with MT50 monitor

Total cost (CAD): $1000

Install

  1. Laid out panels on roof to check spacing (I edned up overlapping them by 1/2 to fit 4)
  2. Cleaned “ribs” on roof with rubbing alcohol
  3. Applied liberal Sikaflex to the the ribs and pressed the panels down onto it
  4. Used scrap lumber to hold the panels down agains the curve of the roof
  5. Wired in the panels as two parallel groups of two panels in series. Panels run at ~20V so that makes a 40V input the controller.
  6. Drilled a hole at the front above the drivers side and installed the grommet into it
  7. Ran the wire from the final Y connector into the cable entry and through the grommet in the roof
  8. Attached the cable entry to the roof with SIkaflex
  9. Connected the PV wire to the controller and then plugged in the Y connector on the roof to test.
  10. Secured the wires/Connectors to the rail using zip ties
2kWh consumed/generated in just a few days