insulation · The Build

Retrospective – Walls and Insulation

The Executive Summary

Having lived in Boyd in varying capacity for some months now, I’ve learned a little bit about how I might do things a little differently if I had to start over. I would use spray foam insulation instead of fiberglass. I would also consider using a cheaper type of wood to save money and perhaps even using plywood for the walls for ease of installation. I would also consider taking the time to wire in your electrical. I still think this isn’t required, but it does feel nicer when all is said and done.

The Details

I’m writing this almost exactly a year after purchasing Boyd. The interior of the van is still a work in progress and far from complete. I suppose, as with owning a house, it will never be fully complete. There are always adjustments you’d like to make or things you’d like to change or improve. The benefit of living in a van is the smaller space makes changes much more financially attainable as home renovations don’t come with the same price tag as that of a house. Just like anything, however, you can choose to make it as expensive or cheap as you choose to. There are always multiple solutions to any one problem and we all have to live within our budgets.

This blog has lagged behind my real life progress on Boyd (check out Instagram for present day updates). I lived full time in Boyd for a couple months last summer and now I’ve spent this past winter staying with family while using Boyd mainly only as a bedroom. I’ve learned a little more about my own wants and needs for a design layout, but this has also changed some of my thinking on some of the initial decisions I’d made when building Boyd. I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss some of these things in hopes that it might be useful for future would-be van dwellers.

Insulation

The insulation in Boyd consists of a few separate parts. First is the Reflictix that acts as a radiant barrier. I had found several home builders forums online filled with people arguing about how to properly install this stuff and whether or not it actually worked at all. Having spent part of the summer with this stuff stuck to only part of the roof, I can certainly attest that there was a noticeable difference in heat when standing under a section of the roof with Reflectix versus a bare metal section. When the sun was beating on the roof this stuff definitely helps! If you’re thinking about doing your own van build, use this stuff and stick it right to the exterior walls and ceiling.

On top of the Reflectix I used fiberglass insulation and then applied a vapor barrier over top the fiberglass. The vapor barrier not only served to hold the fiberglass in place until I could get the wood up, but it also protects the fiberglass from moisture which can cause mold over time. While this has certainly made Boyd nice and toasty during the colder months, I’m not convinced this is the best option. This is because there are too many small holes throughout the frame of the van that make it difficult to seal. You can never seal off your insulation entirely from the air and so I’m afraid I now run the risk of the insulation becoming most over time.  I used expanding foam to fill in smaller gaps and cracks that would be impossible to insulate traditionally. This stuff also helped to seal up some of the spaces that would have allowed air to get into the fiberglass, but it still did not cover all gaps.

If I had to repeat the process of insulating a van for this purpose, however, I would likely go with expanding spray foam for the entire shell. Not the canned foam that I used to fill in the small gaps, but the heavier duty spray foam you might use to insulate a home. This option is a tad more expensive, I think, but it provides a number of benefits. For one, it expands. So it fills in all the small cracks and crevices to provide a nice even insulation layer. Secondly, there is no need for a vapor barrier. The hardened foam is not susceptible to mold and will not deteriorate like fiberglass when wet. Once it has expanded and hardened, it’s easy to cut away the excess using a reciprocating saw or similar tool. You could also use closed cell insulation board and simply use the expanding foam around the edges of the board, as I’ve seen some do. I used this stuff on the ceiling (you’ll hear about that in a later post) and found it difficult to work with though so I’m not keen on using it for anything other than large flat surfaces.

Moisture is front of mind in all of this. Perhaps it’s because I spent the winter in the Pacific Northwest where it rains constantly, but the constant dampness really made me think. If you’re not opening your doors or windows regularly to air out the space, you’ll likely be dealing with dampness yourself. As we breathe and perspire we give off a good deal of moisture just from living. My heat source in Boyd is an unvented propane heater, common among other van-lifers. These unvented heaters give off a lot of moisture as well. The combination of these two things left everything feeling a little damp. Some van dwellers, usually bus conversions, install vented heating such as wood-burning stoves. These are probably a great source of dry heat. It wasn’t an option for me, however, in looking to build a stealth camper.

Walls

I used v-groove cedar for the walls and ceiling. This stuff smells great and looks amazing! We aligned the wall boards perpendicular to the floor to make the space feel taller. I don’t regret any of this, it turned out awesome and I love it! However, cedar is extremely expensive wood. If you’re looking to put together your own van, you may want to consider some of the other options out there. There are a lot of different wood options out there that hold up to moisture well enough to be used in a van and will save you plenty of money in the long run.

If you want to use tongue and groove boards as I did, you may want to save yourself some headache and time by running the boards lengthwise. This is a common design choice and is much easier to work with as the wood can handle the contours of the van much easier when oriented in this way.

If you’re looking for an even easier option, you may want to consider plywood. A thin plywood is very easy to bend around the walls of your van and can even be purchased in grooved boards to give the appearance of tongue and groove without having to go through all the hassle of installing it. Using a technique like this could be a big time and money saver.

Electrical

Lastly is electrical. While I haven’t written about my solar and electrical setup yet, I chose not to pre-wire anything in Boyd. My electrical is loosely wired around the walls and floor. While this is certainly the most simple solution, I think that taking the time to plan out your electrical is a nice touch that gives your van a nice feel when it’s all finished. I still feel like this is slightly superfluous and can be done without, if you take the time to do it, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

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