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Old 01-29-2019, 04:16 PM   #1
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Black Betty E350 Beast Van!

I decided I should start a singular thread for our van, I use the forum a lot to ask questions and see what other work people have done but the info for our build is kind of all over the place!

About our family and our van:
  • We are a family of 4, and our kids are currently 18 months and almost 4 years, as of Jan 2019. As such, when we camp the little guy still sleeps in a pack n play in the back of the van but that's only going to last for probably 1 more year.
  • We live in Phoenix, AZ so obviously summertime temps are high, but we like to go camping where it's cool (go figure!). We have even done some very cold high altitude winter camping quite a bit pre-kids.
  • We like to cook outdoors, so I intentionally looked for a van that didn't have the full RB build-out. I wanted the Atlas 4x4 and suspension that SMB installs, but flexibility with how to use the inside.
  • Also wanted to be able to use the van as a "cargo van" when needed, since I don't have a pickup.
  • Originally we thought we would be towing a little Turtleback camper so we didn't want an EB for fear of bottoming out the trailer tongue, but found after a long road trip in August 2018 (link here) that towing wasn't our cup of tea - we like to stop in the little towns we pass through and it was too hard to park, not to mention stressful on long climbs / steep downhills.

So we purchased a 2006 E350 6.0 about 15 months ago now that was converted by SMB to 4x4 with the lift and all the Aluminess goodies just like I wanted. Van had about 190k on it, I bought it out of FL sight unseen and shipped it back to Phoenix. Price was great and I decided if I needed to go through the whole engine-out bulletproofing process it was still a good buy. I was really hoping not to spend that coin though

Got it home, man this thing was big! And we usually drive electric cars so the diesel was something we had to get used to, but aside from a little oil drip it seemed to be in decent shape. I took it into a reputable local diesel shop in Phoenix, Strictly Diesel (thread here) to have them go through it. In the process of doing so we found some really shoddy work (silicone used as a seal on places on the engine!) and I decided if I'm going to be taking the family on long trips into the boonies I better have confidence it's not going to break down on me.

So we went through the ~$12k process of bulletproofing the engine, that thread is detailed here. Head studs, all the BPD parts, and so on.

Took a few little trips and everything was good to go, so we took our first big trip August 2018. Phoenix all the way up to Jasper BC, over to Whistler, Whidbey Island, down the pacific coast, through Tahoe and back home. We did have a couple of random issues that held us up for a few days - wiring harness was replaced as well as the brake vacuum booster. That is all detailed here.

Learned a LOT on that trip about how we like to camp. As I mentioned we decided towing wasn't for us so when we got back I called up CCV and ordered a pop-top to be installed this spring. We want to be able to just push a button and be mostly ready to hit the hay. Pretty pumped about that, chose the high-top version as space is at a premium in the RB and excited to be able to stow luggage up there. I'll be detailing some of that here. I also like to still feel like I'm in a tent, and we have loved having roof top tents in the past but this seems like the best of both worlds. Tent-like, treehouse-like, but with immediate access to your interior.

We plan to tent camp a lot of times, but want to be able to camp in the van for nights where we are arriving late or getting up early, or where it's just too cold to camp outside. And as I mentioned want to be able to use the van as a cargo van at times as well, so I wanted to find a way that would make the interior modular. I saw some of the Sienna seat conversions people were doing and then ended up talking to MG Metalworks about their Sienna seat bases. That flowed into doing an airline-track (or L-track) setup with Unwin seat mounts on the bottom of the MG seat bases. I just got that install finally finished and I'm really happy with the results. I can quick-release all 4 of the rear sienna seats and move them around as I want. Additionally I have tie-downs now with the L-tracks so I can strap down our 12v Fridge and any cargo we want. Most of the time we will probably just take 3 of the rear seats with us, and the plan when we camp inside the van is for 2 to sleep up top and 2 to sleep on cots or camping pads down below.

We also installed an espar diesel heater below the driver seat. I had a local van upfitter (Action van, no association with the OR guys) in Mesa do that install for us. Haven't gotten to really test it out yet but will do so when I drive the van back from CCV late-March. Put a FrontRunner Outfitters roof rack on the top with two 100W Renogy Solar panels, and then had Action Van also install a charger/inverter for the van so I could hook up to shore power when desired.

Alright that was incredibly long-winded but all caught up now. Forum record for words in a single post? Now I have a thread to add all of our adventures, photos and modifications to! I am sure over the years our needs will morph, especially at the early stage our children are in.

Thank you everyone on the forum who has been such an amazing help for us!
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Old 01-29-2019, 04:25 PM   #2
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Here are some photos from our August adventure
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Old 01-29-2019, 04:26 PM   #3
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And a couple more
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Old 01-29-2019, 04:33 PM   #4
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Here's the interior build-out currently with the L-Track and Siennas. Action Van did a great job making that Espar heater look built-in below the driver seat. The controls are on the rear passenger side, along with the solar controller and the display for the charger/inverter. The bump in the wall further back is where the actual charger/inverter is housed. The outlets down next to the 110 are a simple 12v as well as the ARB/Dometic threaded type 12v outlet.

Also had some interior shades installed that I'm extremely happy with, didn't want something that I had to store anywhere so these are semi-permanently mounted and just roll up, with closed cell foam inside. Thread about all that here.

Next step is the CCV high-top penthouse in late March!
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Old 01-29-2019, 05:14 PM   #5
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Nicely done - good read - like the Van! CCV Top will really make a difference for you. Interesting set-up with the Espar.
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Old 01-29-2019, 05:51 PM   #6
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It was hard to know where to hide the espar, but figured the driver seat is the one thing we will never have out of the van! I didn’t think it would fit down there but happy to be wrong on that one.
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Old 01-29-2019, 06:51 PM   #7
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Excellent thread. Thanks for sharing. Your process reminds me of us several years ago, even down to the CCV top we had on our first van. It's all documented here as well many, many threads ago.

Quick aside, there is nothing most of us here like more than great trip reports and shots of vans and families enjoying them in beautiful places. Keep em coming!

Unless you do a lot of backpack camping you may find yourself sleeping on the ground less and less, and then all of a sudden you'll be like "sleep on the ground? Why? NEVER again!!!" Just wait til you have that cavernous CCV top, you'll see what I mean.

I've found lots of good and quiet campgrounds and places to explore in about every direction from Pheonix. It must be heaven every other time but high summer (when I'm usually there).

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Old 01-29-2019, 08:32 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by 86Scotty View Post
Unless you do a lot of backpack camping you may find yourself sleeping on the ground less and less, and then all of a sudden you'll be like "sleep on the ground? Why? NEVER again!!!" Just wait til you have that cavernous CCV top, you'll see what I mean.

I've found lots of good and quiet campgrounds and places to explore in about every direction from Pheonix. It must be heaven every other time but high summer (when I'm usually there).

I'm really excited about the CCV top, for the storage as much as the sleeping! I would gladly forego tent camping if it ends up working out well enough for us, just wondering if it will feel too cramped in there still with the 4 of us and all of our "stuff" to do it for days on end. But it's all a process, we will slowly figure out what we need/like and what we don't.

Phoenix's proximity to mountains is definitely a plus, nice desert camping in the fall/winter/springtime, and a pretty easy drive to the mountains in the summer!

I'm using the CCV install as an excuse to get a little ski trip in with a buddy - will be flying out one way when it's finished and driving it back through Aspen/Snowmass, Telluride, then Flagstaff and home. I need to do some research though, not sure how difficult finding camping in the winter is going to be in CO.
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Old 01-30-2019, 04:48 AM   #9
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Well done, awesome thread.

Sounds like a great trip from CCV as well.
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Old 01-30-2019, 07:22 AM   #10
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SWEET! Most ski areas have sections of certain parking lots set aside for overnighters to use. You'll get a knock on the door in the middle of the night if they need to do any plowing. They just move you over to an area that they have already plowed then you go back to sleep. Have fun.
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