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Chumley 01-06-2013 07:20 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

Being really busy and using the van can surely keep you from posting on this forum. I lurked a bit but just did not have the time to participate. I feel a bit guilty that I have not chimed in on the threads that so many of the great members have started but I hope to have more time soon. I still have a couple more posts I want to get done on this thread and just seem to be a bit too busy.

Our build is within a week of being complete, I hope. I go back in for 2 days of finishing/correction and repairs. I know that everyone must have some sort of little problem with their build, I was just blessed with a few more... :a1: All the better to get to know the SMB staff, all really good people.

We absolutely love Charlie and we will do what it takes to make sure he is all well and operating normally. I believe that SMB feels the same way and has never shied away from doing the right thing. I just wish they would do it from my driveway... I can dream can't I?

I agree that having someone routinely walking around and sending progress pictures would be huge for some of us. I was lucky and could go myself, not everyone can though. I have gotten to know most of the management at SMB West and know that each one is good at what they do. I believe my build was really an anamoly but it shows that any company can swing and miss once in a while. They just have to shake things up and get back to the plate and not let it happen again. I will share some more in another post.

It sounds like you are like most SMB owners and have had very few problems and would not trade them for a condo. Just being able to go somewhere and sit for a day and read or look around is great and that is just a basic use without getting anything dirty. When we use these things to their fullest they really can get you away, at least well away from those chores at home.

Thanks for the post.


Spenard 01-07-2013 08:26 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
:a3: Hi Chumley, I agree with your assessment of the Mercedes Sprinter. They handle really really well and it has a short turning radius. And cheers to SMB and MB-we do not have a single rattle when traveling on washboard roads except when the refer is empty.

I also agree with your description of the color of your van (we have the same color) but, I think its called "Stone Grey" @ MB, not Pebble Grey -either way it is definitely not grey but is very subtle and blends in nicely when camping regardless of weather or locale (ours has been from Yosemite to Homer, Ak so far) it even looks good coated with Denali Highway mud- LOL. We vanity plated our van Alces2 (latin for Moose) because of the color and the tall van profile.

We have 7K miles on our 2012 2500 PH and have not had any DET message. Our 2500 appears to have the DET tank inside the frame at the sliding door so maybe it has more capacity. The auto sensor on the windshield occasionally surprises us with a single swipe when we turn into the sun when the sun is down low.

Our only noticeable quality complaint about the MB design is the plastic shield on the parking brake lever. Bump it with your foot or grab it too low and it immediately comes apart and is fussy to put together again.

Hope you get everything fixed next week

Happy Trails for 2013 :u1:

Chumley 01-08-2013 02:06 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

The sprinter really is an impressive van. The only thing missing is the 4x4 option but then that could open up a debate about how practical it would be. I could see it in the low top with penthouse but the high top would be something else to see, and drive.

One of the things that I am having addressed is the rattles in the van. I don't think that the Mercedes is rattling, just some of my build. It is a complex build and am happy that rattles as little as it does on smooth roads but it can really start to act up on rough roads and being in back is not much fun. I envy the rattle free ride you have but then I might only be an appointment away from just that. This will be a big week.

The color is actually "pebble grey" and it is one of the basic colors offered (no additional charge) but for some reason it is in the "metallic" section of the paint listing (all other paints in that category are an upcharge?). I have looked very closely and can see no hint of metallic flakes but then it does seem to shift colors a bit so maybe there is some metallic finish to it but not at all apparent. It looks like cream in color really. The color in my photos are fairly true and it does look a little yellowish, no grey. Some backstory here: when my rig was in for the build some new customers saw it and liked the way it looked so ordered it. This was new to SMB West since it was never or rarely ordered before mine. SMB said that was likely because not many had seen the color and many people buy a color they have seen at their shop or somewhere else in person. SMB had a lot of stone grey and grey white vans waiting outside and on their floor and that is what I saw but went for the pebble grey after some research. Thoise two other greys were very nice and we very nearly ordered one of them since they were so nice but stopped to get another take on the available colors. I believe that this is where Mercedes does themselves a dis-service. The color (pebble grey or the differences between stone and white grey) is not well represented on the website and it is virtually impossible to get a printed brochure nowadays. I harassed Mercedes customer service enough that they sent me a 2 year old catalog so I could see the printed paint chips. I tried to explain to them that I had a calibrated color monitor and it looked different on that one compared to the wonderful Apple monitor, which was different from my iPad, so how could anyone expect to see the subtle difference between the colors they were selling unless they had a brochure or went to the dealer and saw one? It paid off for me and I am very happy with our color. I think that TonyVoudy and you might have the same color (he called it wet cement) which we came close to choosing but then I do like the subtle colors myself.

Living in Alaska I bet it is sure nice to have that larger DEF tank. I think the small 3.2 gallon tank would have you carrying more Adblue around than you would want to.

At this point I would like to comment that the other thing I have noticed is that the van is really well put together. I have driven it on some dirt roads, not much admittedly but then it doesn't take much washboard to liberate fasteners. I live in an area where county roads predominate and they are not as well maintained as some other roads. You get used to it but these roads will eventually find a rattle or squeak not normally noticable in town. The Mercedes is well put together. The other thing is that as much as I am leering of the Mercedes quality the engine has been nothing but rock solid in the 7,000 miles we have put on it in the last 3 months. I would say about 2/3 of it was on long trips but even a lot of those miles included hard working mountain and urban miles. The rest of the miles have been regular around town driving. Stop and go traffic, surface streets, parking, etc... Nothing to mention about the engine and powertrain except that when it is cold I notice that I can't back up our hill very well. Dealer suspects that this might be related to a cold engine and the turbos not working until a little warmer so the normally aspirated engine doesn't want to back up the steep hill in front of my house.

I won’t say that the Sprinter is perfect. I have found some cosmetic issues and there is evidence that Mercedes and its practice of dis-assembling the van and re-assembling it when shipped to the US leaves it with some blemishes. But I think MB looks at this as a working man’s truck and forgets about us who turn these things into pretty luxurious homes away from home or luxury transport vehicles.

I will admit though, I have plans on getting a SMB Ford 4x4 some day. I guess it needs to be sooner than later since Ford is about to eliminate the vans as we know them from their lineup. Oh well.



Chumley 01-13-2013 08:09 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
This should be one of my last posts in this thread that deals with the actual build of my Sprinter based SMB. I hope we can keep this thread alive with the experiences of others - yours. Post on things that may not have gone as well as wanted or how things were done better than expected and why it went so well or not so well. How will others learn without doing it the hard way if we don’t share our experiences?

My build has surely been a roller coaster ride. This thread went from a predicted 10-12 posts to me reporting almost ten months later. With so many of us planning for years maybe it’s just tough to let go of the build process…

Our van has already been in for one long day of repairs a couple months back (check about 2/3 down on page 9 of this thread for a full report). My disposition is different this visit, you may notice some distinct "tone of disappointment" in my previous repairs visit post. Reason? First, we have had a lot of enjoyable times since then and have already built some great memories traveling and staying in Charlie. Second, my wife and the dogs have come to fully appreciate what Charlie delivers when we’re on the open road or even near home. Third, the repairs are for things that were never more than an inconvenience and I can live with that. I empty the van of all of that stuff we usually carry and get Charlie ready to visit some old friends.

This is (I hope) the last trip for completion of items or corrections from the original build. The issues were numerous enough that SMB requested that I leave the van overnight. SMB was very accommodating on this trip and I greatly appreciated it. The last visit for repairs I felt like I was being treated as I had by some of the car dealerships I had dealt with in the past. That feeling was like they were going to fix the problem, because they had to, but there was no concern for the extreme inconvenience it had caused. This time was different and it went well.

Let me back up and tell you a little bit about the normal repair routine at SMB West. You call in and report a problem, they route you to the “Customer Service Department” and you get a nice guy who knows these builds inside out. He goes over you concerns and you set up a mutually convenient date for an appointment and he tells you about what you can do while you wait (you rent a car and go for a drive or their driver will drop you off somewhere for the day). A few days later you will receive a “Work Order/Estimate” from one of the front office staff. Your work may be covered under warranty or you have an estimate for costs. You review the paperwork and you agree to that and you have a date. Simple. Of course I always seem to find something more and call or write in and add more stuff and get a revised work order.

This work order had 14 line items. This sounds like a lot but it really isn’t, they break down each item into individual components so items like my question about the generator turned into three separate line items and even protecting the van’s interior has its own line item. By the time I got to the appointment (it took almost 1 1/2 months to finally get in, my fault) a few items had worked themselves out but then I added more too.

When I get to SMB West I am met by “Curt” who works in quality control. The normal Customer Service guy is sick and is self-quarantined, thanks. The customer service guys will be working on the repairs this visit. The last time I was in they had production guys working on the repairs as well as the customer service crew but there is no upholstery work this time and only one item might need their help. From what I gather the customer service guys are more renaissance men and not production types so have a variety of skills to get it done right. This makes sense since a correction is usually the second time something is being worked on and might as well get it done right and out of your hair.

So the first item is the one that had caused me the greatest concern. The shower stall had not been completely sealed during the original build. The area at the front of the stall, right where the improperly sloped filler panel sat, had not been sealed at all. Looking down on it you could see that the edge nearest the door had no caulking and then when I leaned down to take a closer look I saw that the entire front edge had also been missed.

The shower had been used maybe a dozen times and we had not noticed the water leak until the end of our long trip. We had typically had some towels on the floor since we worried that the dogs might get car sick (never happened) and they liked to dig and circle to make a bed (it’s a dog thing) so towels give them something that they can work with. These towels also hid the previous leaks would be my guess. So now we see water on the rug and a stain to go with it. The poor rug also got soaked during the water line leak in the same place. The agreement was that the area would be opened up and a fungicide would be sprayed in, if necessary, and it would be closed up and sealed properly. It was opened up and we found a piece of plywood nailed in place so we could not have seen what was under it without extensive removal and then repair work. I had started the day saying that the mantra of the day would be “to do no harm”. That meant that we would evaluate every repair and if the repair seemed likely that it would create additional damage we would possibly skip it. So we looked at the plywood and I said to leave it in place and we would hope that the area under there was clean enough that it would not support fungus and mold. My understanding is that mold would need something organic to live on and I am hoping that there is none, except some soap and skin flakes… so the first item will be repaired by installing a new filler panel up front and it will be properly sloped to drain.

This is actually two separate items being repaired at the same time. Placing a new filler piece in the front of the shower sloped so that water would not collect was left over from the last repair session. They also provided a new rug since the old one was stained. At the last moment I thought about trying to just clean the rug kit but it was too late and had already been made, oh well. First item(s) went well.

I had a problem that goes back to the last day of the van pickup and orientation. The blind that goes behind the shower stall and the little cabinet area below the microwave did not have a guide string, it broke or was removed. That guide string is there to keep the blind folding up properly and not springing out like it was.

There was some difficulty and “Curt” actually acted quite disappointed at one point thinking that the repair failed but they did get it fixed properly. They had a sting break but the hard working guys in customer service fixed it. It works better than before and slides up and down more easily. Second item is done.

They cut in a vent for the refrigerator. Someone missed the item in the instructions that stated that a low vent was necessary as well as a high vent for Isotemp refrigerators. They cut in a second vent and that was done. Also of note: Curt said that the Isotemp line is getting more attention which he said is good. Apparently they are quieter than the standard Norcold.

I had noticed that the diesel generator was running rough on one trip. It was between 20 to 30 degrees out for a couple days and when we put a load on the generator it ran very roughly. We have run it a couple times since and the problem seems to have gone away and it runs much more smoothly and the paint odor has gone away. I realized that SMB West turned the generator 90 degrees to the normal installation orientation. I believe they did this to fit it in the regular wheelbase model whereas you can see it is set running the width of the van in “llamadave’s” installation in his thread. Bottom line is they got it to fit but I have a little tougher time getting to the access panel for checking it and service items. No problems.

One of the problems I noticed when the Thetford Curve threw up on me in Silver City was that the shower did not drain properly.

Reference note: my van sits almost level at rest. The original rake has disappeared and we have some sag and the leaf springs are completely flat now (I looked the rear springs are flat and the leafs are in full contact along their enitre length). When we poured water in the shower pan at the SMB shop it slowly drained with the ban sitting without being leveled. In my opinion the pan does not have enough slope, the van is still just slightly rear high (but the bubble was within the lines on the level) and likely helped. The shower pans are not adjustable and the only thing that might have been done would have been to shim it. This would mean inspecting the shower pan in a level location before installation. Something I would hope would happen in the future. Another item that might be contributing is the weight of the porta-potti and how it might have put some sag in the pan at the end furthest from the drain. So the shower pan is just too much to take out so I had agreed that we would leave it and that they would provide a squeegee for me to scrape the water out. Really not my preferred solution but under the circumstances I don’t know what else we could have done without extensive repair work. They gave me a little squeegee and this was done.

We went for a drive and Curt found several rattles. It is funny because over time you accumulate more rattles but get used to them. The build settles and things flex and next thing you know there is a lot of noise coming out of the back. Curt says that he has found a lot of them. I ask that anything that requires silicon spray to stop the rattle or squeak needs to be pointed out to me because it is only a temporary fix and then I have to spray the item myself. The drive home is the acid test and the van is much better than before. There are still a few minor rattles and squeaks but most of them require a decent bump to show up. The whole feel of quality of the van improves when the noise subsides.

The final issue was a minor leak in the coolant hose routing to the flat plate water heater. Tightening of a hose clamp fixed that. This is just a reminder to all owners since the rubber hoses have gone through some heat cycling and may need that tightening once in a while.

I left the next day at a little after 2:00 and the drive home was quite pleasurable. I feel that the van has finally been completed. I also feel that I have likely found most of the initial issues and the only thing left is to start wearing out the van – normally over the next 20 years.

Before the visit I felt that most of the upper management of SMB was tired of this build and just wanted it handled properly and fade away. I may have projected my feelings here since seeing the folks at SMB was nice and as much as they admit I am tough no one told me that I was being unreasonable and I was the first to ask them to consider not doing something under the “do no harm” philosophy. Alan Feld came out and we had a nice chat as I was leaving. We all have this sense of adventure and Alan has a big dose of it. Like so many on this board the Southwest holds a special allure for Alan, and me, and I hope to be able to pick his brain for some trip ideas in the future.

Charlie is in the driveway right now and we are thinking about our next trip, even if it is just 3 or 4 days. So where is a good place to go with good roads but remote and private site in the deserts of Southern California…?



ilovegt100 01-20-2013 07:59 AM

My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

I just 2000 miles on my break in drive and averaging 15.7 mpg at 80mph in my low top 3500. What are your average speeds like? I am just trying to gauge my economy.

Lastly, why did your curve throw up on you? I have one but only living in van for past week so no probs- u have a knack of identifying and fixing problems so the rest of us don't have to start from scratch.

From the endless road,


Chumley 01-26-2013 05:28 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

Sorry it has taken so long to respond. I got a cold or something, then got well enough to go to the Alabama Hills for 4 days (2 days travel time), then finished being sick while going to a bunch of meetings this week but it was worth it to get back out into the Eastern Sierras.

On the trip we averaged high 15 mpg on the way there (I live at 400 feet and we ended up at 4,000 feet so it was the uphill leg). We averaged low 17 mpg coming back (downhill...). On this trip we averaged as close to 70 mph as possible since most all of the hiways on the flatter stretches have 70 mph speed limits. Most of the rest of the hiways are 65 mph and include a lot of climbing and twists and turns. Note: I was trying to get good mileage so intentionally kept the speeds down. Keeping right at 70 is almost impossible on Interstate Hwy 5 since it is like a racetrack from LA to Portland and you have to frequently pass packs of cars like colsterol artery cloggers and keep ahead of the charging buffalos while passing.

For reference: I am running the tires at 65 psi right now. I have not weighed the rig but I read in the paperwork that it was about 8,400 pounds, I still need to take it to a scale somewhere to confirm. Fully loaded I might add another 500 pounds at most (includes my wife, dogs, supplies and water - let's make that 700 lbs with me included). We do travel fairly light, although I might not be. The 3500 has the lower gearing and the dual rear tires (which I believe you have too) which compounds the mileage challenge. Add in a high top and that weight and...

I have now resigned myself to the fuel mileage number around 16 mpg. Since I only get 18 mpg in my Toyota Tacoma 4wd it is close enough that I sometimes just jump in the van and drive it when I am driving to the next town. Overall it's okay with me but the cost of diesel is the real factor. Why is it so high now vs gasoline?

The Thetford Curve threw up on me because it seals so well that when going to altitude it holds air pressure. As we climbed a couple thousand feet one trip it built up pressure and I didn't think about it (well, I didn't know about it yet) and opened the valve when I was leaned over it. When the air escaped it took some liquid waste fluids for a ride with it. Basically a pot of piss blew up in my face. I hope it will be the last time that ever happens but sometimes I forget. This last trip I sure didn't. Also, the porta-potti never smells - it might be a combination of the Curve itself or it plus the "blue stuff" but it works. That's what matters.

I had a great time this last trip but it also exposed another problem with my Sportsmobile build. We both took showers nice hot showers on two of the evenings. As previously mentoned we use a waterless bath soap and instead of just drying off with a towel we rinse off in the shower and it feels great and clean. This way we don't use much water. This was a real plus this last trip.

This trip I found a wet spot under the van right next to the grey water tank under the shower. The drain wasn't wet so I was baffled. I went home and ran a test in the shower and this is what I observed.

Here we go again. The guys at SMB are mortified and I am flummoxed. I hope that we get this fixed easily but my confidence in my build is about shot now. It's getting harder to recover the confidence each time this happens. When does it end?

Sometime back some members expressed their thoughts that I had been too emotive and too close to the process, both in delaying the story until things would play out and "sitting on" the project and not letting SMB work things out before I found them. I understand your comments and respect them but we are all different and approach things differently. I can also see where it may seem that I got a bit too nitpicky but there was a reason for that at the time - the relationship was new and red flags had been up for a while (please see the review of problems on page 11). The whole process happens in real time and my guess is that if there had been only a couple of issues it would not have been a big deal but with the sheer number of issues I guess there are a lot of opportunities to nitpick my approach. I tried to deliver the message as it took place because that is how we live our lives. As things happen to you, if they do, then you get to feel the same emotions rise and ebb. In the end it may have been my complete honesty and this thread that helped SMB see the need to fix some things the way they did - which I appreciate but then expected too. If you are being told that you cannot get out of a build once you lay down your 20% then it should be done right. Edit: I should have previously made it abundantly clear that an offer to return my 20% deposit was made towards the end of the build becasue they didn't want an unhappy customer. This was not originally offered when I asked about opting out but I believe that they did ultimately understand that I felt trapped and had been showing obvious indications of my displeasure with the numerous ongoing issues.

So I am back being just flat out bummed about the issue at hand. I paid a lot of money for something that is not performing as promised and expected. Don't get me wrong, we have adopted this van and it is a part of the family but right now we have to look at it a little sideways because we just don't know what will happen next, will it bite us?

As accomodating as SMB is about making these repairs I am on the losing end every time I go in for a repair. There is the possibility for more damage or something changing that I didn't expect during repairs. I lose at least a day of my life. It costs at least $70 in fuel that I don't get back. I deal with aggravation that I thought I paid good money to avoid. At best I come out the way I should have from the beginning (like the way most of you have experienced) but with those other lost aspects of my life never compensated for.

I will make another post with the whole story but the short version is that the shower leaks (a lot) onto the floor somehow and it runs to the back and down out of the body weep hole right in front of the rear tires. Along the way it passes by some of the electrical equipment in the adjacent ottoman and the automatic transfer switch got a little wet (I ran the generator for about an hour this trip!).

So I go back to SMB again for repairs. I already have another minor item to repair in addition to the leak for them to work on so here we go again. :t4: I know that the customer service guys are really keen to get a chance to prove that they can fix all of this but man this is tough on my confidence, what if the ATS got wet while running? If the customer service guys are involved then I will feel better. This build got away from someone and it wasn't even the complex aspects that were involved. It's not the generator or the small propane tank, it was the basic plumbing stuff and that's what worries me most. I know they have great guys to fix it but where were the heads of the guys at when they built it in the first place? I don't think that their heads were in this build.

Thanks, more is coming. It's not as bad as before but there could be long term ramifications if my worst concerns come true.


ilovegt100 01-28-2013 08:24 AM

My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

Thanks again for the update. Don't let the haters get you down. You have made my life and build easier. Wifey would flip if curve threw up on her when we go to Colorado next month. Now I will crack the seal a little before elevation.

I figured out part of why my mileage was bad. I was not taking into account nightly camping with espar on. Also I let it run set to 60f all the time so I don't have to completely winterize it. Without heater, at least 18mpg and after reading about mileage and scangauge will home to eke out a few more by not lugging engine and keeping revs from 2-3k at all times. Ordered a renntech tune too with goal of 20mpg. I may have to slow down from 80mph though... Will keep y'all in the loop.

Thankfully, my build, knock on wood, has been problem free so far. No leaks or fires but sometimes the penthouse top gets caught out. By the way, my meter is showing about 24amps a day nominal consumption just sitting around with 5cf fridge. My solar should take in about 28amps day. How many amps do you use daily on average?


Chumley 01-28-2013 10:44 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

I can’t comment on the amps used since I only monitor my battery usage by voltage. Maybe there is a setting I can change to monitor how many amps are drawn at a given time. I only have the optional battery monitor. Are you checking amp hours? I have to admit this, I told the folks at SMB that I know a lot about construction but electrical systems are my weakness so they may never get a comment from me on that area. They didn’t. I do know that my salesperson/project manager guy told me that the Sprinter will likely not max out the charge of the batteries (top off I believe is what he said). So even if driven regularly and a max charge has been obtained through the alternator while driving there is not enough capacity to push the batteries to their full charge. It takes connection to shore power or the generator to do that. Maybe someone can comment on that.

We are pretty heavy power users when we are set up in camp. Knowing that we have the generator has made us lazy about being as careful as many here are which is probably a bad habit. Still, life is good in camp. During late season and winter camping the lights come on early and we stay warm and entertained well into the evening. Running the generator about an hour every 2-3 days is enough even during these more power intense conditions.

I appreciate what you are saying about “the haters” but I really think they are just the opposite. As humans we can become very loyal and territorial. We are all drawn here because at the top of this page it says “Sportsmobile” so sometimes a guy can be seen as a heretic even when just reporting the news (well, maybe with a commentary…). Many, including myself, become loyal to an identity that has provided so much joy and maybe even a defining aspect of their lives. I now feel that way myself. In this place I feel it is kind of like at home where you can argue with family but no one outside of the family (outside of this forum) can do what you just did. Outside of this place I am a strong proponent of Sportsmobile. I may say that I have had some issues (can you imagine trying to tell my whole story to some wide eyed couple who just wanted to ask how you like the rig?), and tell friends my story, but otherwise I extol the virtues of my Sportsmobile. I continue to believe that my story is not typical. Some aspects on a much reduced scale may happen to others but my build meltdown appears to be a rare occurrence, lucky me. Many build strong relationships with the SMB staff and think of them as friends, even I kind of do myself. Some feel that a bad comment towards SMB is a personal slam against them and their choices. Some feel that they have never had a problem and that I must be making all of this up because they can’t imagine it ever happening – I have seen a few convert from this attitude with an occurrence of an issue. Maybe I should have been more reserved and respectful. I get and understand all of the reasons so I don’t hold anything against anyone, I just hope that they can understand that this is really happening to someone who is very real and is being effected by all of this. That’s all. But thank you very much for the support.



JayBea 01-29-2013 08:22 AM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience

Your story needs to be told. Even if it's only the exception. Your loyalty in light of your experiance cannot be questioned. Hopefully your latest issue is just a simple mis-fit of the drain plumbing, yet I am also concerned about long term structural effects. Do your (usual) dilligance and insure that SMB meets your needs. As you said, you've paid alot to have the quality that they say they are providing.
Our experiance has been very close to perfect. There have been issues but I have addressed them myself. In our 5500+ miles we have averaged 19 mph over a variety of driving conditions. Your 16 mpg in light of what you have aint bad; many Class B drivers would love to get even close to that number. I do recommend that you get to a scale when you can; you may find a large difference between actual and estimated weight. Our 2500, tall, EB with a light build came in at 8100 lbs.

I have a LinkLite battery monitor. Our winter camping (2.7 cf refer and LP furnace) consumes about 25 to 30 A-hr per day. Our 180 watts of solar just recharges our batteries here in the SW in winter where we have few clouds. And Chum, you'r correct, the alternator only "bulk charges" the batteries, it takes solar or the inverter's higher voltages to "top off".

Chumley, keep us posted and "keep the faith".


Chumley 02-04-2013 09:17 PM

Re: My SMB Sprinter Van conversion building experience
The last (hopefully) repairs of Charlie.

I wrote about an issue with the shower stall a week or so back and wanted to follow up with a more detailed report on what is going on with Charlie.

We went to the Alabama Hills in the Californian Eastern Sierras again over what, for some of us, was the long weekend around Martin Luther King Day in January. We took off on Friday morning and arrived in Lone Pine, gateway to the Alabama Hills, almost exactly 8 hours and 402 miles later. The weekend promised beautiful weather (fulfilled) with warm daytime temps in the 60’s and lows possibly into the high 20’s.

We seem to go back to this area because it is easy for us to set up a camp and let the dogs run off leash without concern for a lot of people and with the sparse brush we can keep an eye on them. This will change in the late spring with the warmer weather and the need to worry about rattlesnakes but until then we’re good. It’s also nice because it is relatively easy to find a decent campsite where it is fairly level and still secluded (lots of big rocks). It also has nice hard packed decomposed granite for most of the open areas so it was easy to see the leak that showed up under the van… Oh, also this area is incredibly beautiful with lots of hiking opportunities. Looking at Mount Whitney outside the sliding door is something I just never tire of.

Can you find the Sprinter?

So we had a problem. We did not know what was going on until we were getting ready to leave. I was walking around the van double checking things and I noticed a spot right under the grey water tank drain that looked all smooth and washed away which was strange. I scraped some of the surface dirt away and it looked damp underneath but it wasn’t recently wet. The drain was dry as well as the tank itself. I made a mental note to check it later and went down to a location where I drained the grey water tanks. They drained nicely and quickly with no debris (we’re careful). I have 2 – 5 gallon tanks, one pretty much right across from the other.

As noted before we took a total of four showers over the weekend. They were brief and we took them about 6:00 P.M. before we settled in for the evening. The warm day and the hiking in the hills worked up some sweat we looked forward to being able to shower. We used hot water and they were wonderfully refreshing. We lather up using waterless body and hair wash and rinse it off (my wife actually really likes the way it leaves her hair). We run the water for maybe 30 seconds (gotta be a minute max) while one of us revs the engine for the flat plate water heater (we’ve learned to warm up the engine and then rev the engine for a bit before you start the shower). During the shower I noticed that the shower pan would always collect some water but it wasn’t much – the drain basket seems to reset in and block the drainage. If any of you have a shower then you know that they are the epitome of low flow but with the hand held shower head you can be very effective at rinsing off quickly. You also know that this is not the place you linger like at home in the shower. In and out quickly does it. It appeared that the previous repairs of the shower stall itself (sealing all panels well) held and no water was visible outside of the stall itself. Good!

Also, I want to mention that during the last night it got down into the high 20’s overnight, or so the weather station said when I checked (Wunderground). The temps got down to +/- 28 degrees for a brief time bouncing up and down for several hours the last night, nothing sustained for more than a couple hours and water in the ponds down in a gully had no ice. We were surrounded by the rocks that I think kept the area a little warmer with their thermal mass and heat collected from the daytime sun. We also had the van heated in the low 60s all night. So I don’t think anything froze but as I found out the problem was above the floor, not below anyway.

I finally get a chance to check the mysterious water leaks on the following Wednesday. I go back under the van and look for weep holes in the body. I found one right next to the drain on the shower side as well as one near the rear tires. Looking at them I noticed that they looked like water had come out of them or something had come out because of the different colored dust collected around the holes.

Maybe someone else can check and tell me if they all have this discoloration. No signs of water leaking and running across anything near the tank or the drain valve or outlet.

When I started the test I did not perfectly level the van at first since it is fairly close in the driveway to begin with. I ran the engine and tried to get warm water running before the test just in case. I ran the shower and directed the shower sprayed along the walls to best replicate the real deal. The pan flooded a bit as usual and I pulled the drain basket out and it drained immediately. I ran the water maybe 20 to 30 seconds.

I climb out and look around and am relieved to see no water coming out anywhere. Whew, it must have been a freak thing or an animal peed next to the van that night. A minute later here it comes… a stream of water out of the body weep hole by the rear tire. Crap!

But the water ran out the rear hole and not near the drain? I leveled the van and did it again. Again it drained out the rear weep hole.

In camp the van was almost dead on level but it was a little off side to side with the shower side low. Maybe this was the difference. Maybe the first test created a wet path that the next test’s water just followed, I don’t know.

The next thing was to see if I could detect the water inside. I pulled the cover off of the ottoman next to the shower. The one with all of the electrical equipment except the inverter (it’s in back under the couch/bed with the water storage tank). Once inside I saw an area where it looked like water had pushed some sawdust out from under the outer wall but it was now dry. Strange. I follow the wall back and there is a wet spot right at the end of the automatic transfer switch (ATS).

The ATS automatically switches the electrical system from the coach batteries to the generator when it detects the generator creating power so it is a full 120 volt system.

So we have some basic information from observation. The water leaks out and across the floor to the rear (now) where it apparently runs down to the van body and out a weep hole. It passes line voltage electrical equipment along the way, at least in this test, and there are signs it may have in the past. There is no sign of water anywhere else inside the van at this time. There is no leakage from the tanks or the drains. The fresh water supply is not leaking that I can tell. It holds pressure and the pump never cycled even when left on all night.

From the above information I theorize the following. There is a leak above the floor within the van underneath the floor of the shower pan or at the drain assembly plumbing but above the floor. Depending on very subtle changes in the level of the van it could go right out the side weep hole or go back to the rear wheel. It has done this before, maybe. There may have been more to the first shower pan leaking repair than the lack of sealing along a couple of major seams. The drain assembly itself may not have been sealed to the shower pan properly. There are at least 2 occasions where water has gotten away from the drain system and my guess is that some of it has ventured under the plywood floor substrate, which is not a marine grade of plywood but may be an exterior grade.

So I go back for another water related repair visit, the third in the series. But I have decided to get a couple more things fixed while I am at it.

The blind that was replaced next to the shower and above the cabinet with the heater in it has a guide cord that was installed crooked.

My concern is that it might pull loose some day since it is pulled to the side every time I close the blinds all of the way. And there is the aesthetics of a cord leaned over in the small window.

The guys will also replace the grab handle that was chewed up. SMB says that all of the vans are like this so I assume that it might have been a result of the Mercedes policy of disassembling and reassembling the vans to get them into the country.

Finally, there is a hellatious squeak that comes out of the cabinet’s vinyl trim rubbing against the vinyl trim around the sliding door opening. It has been fixed twice now but the first “shim” fell out and the second one is coming out and unless I soak it in silicone every couple days it really squeaks. So hopefully there is a long term fix because it is really really loud and annoying. I can fix it with enough silicone spray but it would be nice to have a permanent fix.

We’re getting close to de-bugging this thing but it will take another visit. I am getting to know Fresno pretty well and at least this time of the year it isn’t roasting. Did you know that it really doesn’t cool down overnight at times? I was there once where it was still almost 90 degrees at 9:00 at night. I thought that only happened in Death valley.

I trust that the guys will fix it but I am really worn out and don’t know if this van can hold its liquids. I just don’t know if I got my money’s worth out of this deal. It makes us think. We really need assurances that this won’t all come back to haunt me as soon as the warranty ends. I have been in construction for a long time and I can tell you that some water damages I have seen took years to evolve and were only found out by chance. If I hear crackling plywood under foot after the warranty is over I just don’t know what I’ll do, except that I know it will be deliberate.

I am going to surprise some with this comment. One of the guys at SMB was saying that he wasn’t looking forward to doing another build as extensive as mine. Apparently they don’t do this kind of build on a short RB chassis that often. I think that they should do it more now. They have the experience and they know where the problems may lie. I really think that with just a little more attention by some key staff members they would do well with more work like this. In my business you are always trying to do the next bigger project incrementally as your skills and experience grows. I don’t know why SMB can’t do a good job on these builds. I have noticed that all SMB locations take liberties with their builds and change a dimension here of there and maybe mix up material colors but they fix them or the owner accepts it. These are all hand built custom builds so mistakes will happen. SMB just has to be able to correct their goofs is all.

I’ll let you all know how the repairs go.



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