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Living in a motor home, 4 years on: What worked and what didn’t!

Posted 5/3/2018

Since our last post I’ve been looking back in a kind of summary of what we managed to achieve with the re-fit and what we’ve learned in retrospect.


We’ve trialled a lot of what you could call experimental ‘technology’ in and around Waki over the last few years, sometimes through curiosity and sometimes due to budget constraints – some of it has worked brilliantly, and some not so much! It’s all too easy to look back on our re-build through the rose tinted specs, or to perhaps try and hide our failings, but as we’re about to begin another project I figured we needed to take a proper look and why not share the results? For those of you perhaps considering your own van/motorhome build, read on to find out which things worked for us ans most importantly what didn’t...

The recycled gas bottle wood burning stove = absolutely brilliant! It may be in need of some refining (the ash tray spills a fair bit from around the sides when you need to empty it) and the paint has worn out in some places but it's definitely a winner in keeping us toasty throughout the frigid depths of British winters.

The motorcycle gear lever makes a great door latch and handle, the upturned saucepan base made a great hotplate, and the tent peg is still working nicely to open/close the rear vent. The car exhaust flue needs sweeping quite regularly and can occasionally block so a wider pipe would likely be better, though it’s served its purpose well enough so I can’t really complain.


We encourage anyone living in colder climes to invest in/make a woodburner, as long as you fit it sensibly of course and always with a monoxide alarm! Benefits are; free fuel (technically carbon neutral if you only use wood), drier air so no condensation and mould on the windows or in the cupboards, somewhere to cook a stew all day (did I mention for FREE?!) or some jacket potatoes, and of course the pleasures of prodding at a comforting real fire.


Ex-military ammo-tins forstoring hot ash and coal for the stove = perfect solution! The ash is sealed away in an air tight (and heat happy) container so no risk of monoxide issues until we’re somewhere we can dispose of it properly. The coal tin gives us more than enough to use for a night without needing to open the door to get any more in or without having a manky old coal bag hanging around the living space.


Placed together the tins also made for a handy outside step for our shorter visitors (we forgot our actual step in a countryside car park and drove away, oops!).


Chimney top recycled gas bottle BBQ/Smoker = Ryan rather cleverly designed a smoker that sat over and used the heat from the woodburner chimney on the roof. It worked alright however the favour was REALLY terrible! We do use coal to keep the fire going at night so, whilst we only used wood for the cooking experiment, the coal had clearly already ‘flavoured’ the chimney and thereby our experimental brisket too! Yuckgh!

If we never burned coal I’m sure it would have been a winner, but since we do – no…! :/


Fibreglass shower tray repairs wouldn't hold...Fibreglass shower tray repairs wouldn't hold...DIY/repaired shower tray = No, this one failed from both angles… Waki’s original shower tray was cracked and since we were so poor we figured we’d at least attempt a repair before paying out for a new one. Ryan carefully covered the damage with a generous layer of the fibreglass filler we had spare from dealing with all the holes in the metal body, but the brittle plastic didn’t last long before cracking again.

Tiles didn't cut it either...Tiles didn't cut it either...Still poor and struggling to even find a shower tray that would fit in the tiny room we decided to make a fresh one ourselves using those little sheets of mosaic tiles we found in a DIY clearance bin. We used lots of marine/aircraft sealant along with sealing the grout with several layers of waterproofing spray designed for wet-rooms, but even so the movement of the van during driving created hairline cracks all over the place that leaked terribly so showers on board had to stop until we finally found ourselves a ready-made shower tray that fit the space.


Foil-blanket lining the walls for extra insulation = Yes! Emergency foil blankets open up into surprisingly big sheets, they’re cheap (we bought ours for only 50p each!), and are designed to reflect around 80% of heat. Whilst we had the ply off of the walls we covered the standard 25mm blue wall foam with a layer of foil, followed by some 4mm packaging foam on the roll sandwiched with a final layer of foil. Although it’s hard to tell what the thermal efficiency would have been had we left it out compared to what it is now, it went up nicely and seems to help keep the heat in, or out depending on the time of year.

We also make use of foil-covered bubble wrap sheets (Milenco blinds in the cab and cut up summer car windscreen reflectors everywhere else) to pop into our window spaces behind the blinds which helps to insulate the otherwise ‘unprotected’ areas. This is where you can really feel an immediate difference in both summer and winter. Compared to the experiences of some frankly miserable campers we’ve talked to, wintering in standard caravans and on nights we haven’t lit the fire, it seems to have been a wise move!


Aluminium sheeting stove-side insulation = Yes, it works well. I was a little nervous about having a woodburner on board since everything has to be that little bit closer than the usual safety recommendations. We decided to insulate the wood around and underneath it using some scrap sheets of aluminium with a 25mm air gap in between. Even when the fire is raging to the point of us opening all the windows and vents, the cupboard sides are still cool enough to hold a hand against (perhaps around body temperature warm) so no fire risk there.


Vegetable oil for fuel = for Waki’s old-school engine yes this worked amazingly well (though it’s not advised for newer injected engines)! Vegetable oil is thicker than diesel so needs a warm engine or should be ‘cut’ with regular diesel (mixed in the fuel tank). On long journeys we supplemented each tank of diesel with around half the amount of fresh unused vegetable oil, purchased at Costco at the time for around £16 for 20 litres which was a fraction of the cost of diesel.

We found ourselves craving way more fried foods than usual, and in all likelihood so did everyone else on the roads, though noticed no discernible difference in performance (mind you Waki was always slow and steady from the start).

We also rescued ourselves from running out of fuel completely on one extremely misjudged journey by using a bottle of sunflower oil from the kitchen cupboard! Since the engine had only just started to cut out she was still hot enough to get going on all oil and we made it to a fuel station without hiking! That’s definitely a win in my book!


We acquired some used vegetable oil from our work canteen with the intention of filtering it, instead of buying and burning brand new oil, though it was a little out of our reach of things we could really do whilst living on the road so none of it ever actually made it into the engine. The two main problems we came up against was the painfully slow filtering rate due to all those little crumbs of food immediately clogging up the filters, and the presence of water in the oil which is drawn out the food during cooking and which emulsifies into the oil itself, known as ‘soap’ in the fuel community.

We haven’t given up on the idea yet though; just need a better system of sieves/cloth before the fine filter, as well as to clean the formed ‘soap’ from the oil using something like muriatic acid which is what transforms it into proper biodiesel (the ‘soap’ is what happens when water binds to the fats, which is clearly a bad thing to have in an engine...). Once properly processed this biodiesel can then be used in even a lovely refined modern engine just as regular diesel – performing better even! Recycled oil is in our opinion the future of biodiesel rather than growing fields and fields worth of fresh rapeseed oil, so watch this space I guess… If wood is carbon neutral (releases only what carbon was collected during tree life) then biodiesel could claim the same status?


Kitchen garden planters = Possessing a set of naturally ‘green fingers’ I can generally grow anything anywhere, so moving into a motorhome wasn’t going to stop me having some plants around!

That being said the indoor mini planters worked great for sprouting young greens like cress, radish leaf and mustard but it’s just not bright enough inside for a decent (not leggy) crop of lettuce. I knew it was likely to be a tricky balance to achieve and figured that in summer I could just pop everything outside during the day to get enough light, in reality however by the time I get up to do that they’ve often missed out on a good few hours of daylight or we’d be parked somewhere that I couldn’t so simply ‘spread out’ like that. If they have to be kept indoors for too many days in a row you just end up with some very lopsided leggy sprouts leaning towards the nearest window!

I still won’t get rid of my planters though, in the future I’d like to get a couple of the full-spectrum grow lights to give them (and myself!) all the daylight a growing plant could want for.


Sofa Beds = Yes and no. We’ve somehow gone through a few sofas in as many years and are quite frankly fed up with building/adapting futons and camp-beds since they’re just not designed for constant use! The original sofa bed served it’s purpose to a point (in that we had somewhere padded to park our backsides) and for a weekend or so at a time would have been just fine, however when that thin cushion is sat on every day for a year it soon wears out so bear that in mind in your own designs. What’s underneath the cushion is important too, a solid bench of wood might be easy to build but will give you a numb bum even through thick cushions! ;)

We found a good click-clack sofa bed in good condition second hand from a recycling centre, which lasted another year before the springs snapped and the cushioned topper needed re-stuffing (that prolonged it’s life for a few more months at least).

We’re not sure what we’ll go for next time, considering we’re aiming for a smaller van we may forgo the sofa altogether and stick to lounging on the bed instead..?



Insulating the food cupboard (foil-foam ‘sandwich’ + plastic wipe clean lining) was a good move, it stays nice and cool which is best for storage life, though I think the cupboard itself is a bit too big! We simply adapted the old wardrobe so the size was already decided and it’s become something of a ‘hole’ for all of our non-refrigerated foodstuffs, quickly descending into a vortex of chaos as we move this and that to get at something underneath/at the back.


The same issue of accessing things also affects a lot of our other cupboards and having to unload a whole heap of things to get to something at the back soon gets old… In some cases it’s entirely necessary as it was our only way of getting a use out of the far corners but I’m daydreaming about having more drawers than cupboards next time around!


We certainly put far too many heavy items at the rear which didn’t do the suspension any favours so we’ll make sure to spread the load a lot better in the next vehicle...


Solar Panel for electricity:

Hardly experimental since the technology clearly works! We have a single 100W panel which keeps the leisure battery topped up enough to cover all of our lighting needs even on an overcast day in winter, of course we get generally get more energy to play with in summer but then in England actual sunshine can be unpredictable so we’re usually at an even trickle.

When out on the road we ran a petrol generator for a couple of hours per night to give us enough power for the TV and other gadgetry but that’s something we’d like to do away with in future for obvious reasons.


The angle of the panel plays a big part in how much energy you ‘harvest’ which isn’t always possible to get perfectly aligned, and a panel needs to be kept clean and clear (which since we’re somewhat lazy doesn’t happen as much as I’m sure it would like!) so we know we could get better results with it if we put a little more effort in. We figure to provide enough power to cover all of our needs we’ll need to add another solar panel and would like to have another back up power source, as yet undecided...



Other thoughts:

I love using the telescopic poles to keep our stuff held in place in the cupboards when we’re driving; they hold even heavy tins back perfectly and double up as a laundry drying rack in the bathroom ceiling space when we’re stationary.


On the topic of drying clothes we made sure to have a vent for the night heater in the bathroom so that we could divert the heat into just that room. It meant that we could seal everything in with the roof vent cracked open and turn it into an intensive ‘drying room’! It was very effective for those annoyingly in-between wet summer days; when you can’t hang it outside and certainly don’t want the heating on to dry it in the living space around you!


Shag-pile rugs, although mighty nice to sink your toes into in the morning, are collectors of debris which makes sweeping/vacuuming a much longer process than anyone should be happy with. Especially with all the grass clippings you get everywhere when staying at a campsite! I have better things to do than beat a rug outside over a fence or ‘rummage’ through the fibres with the vacuum nozzle to get at all the little bits of grass, gravel and fluff and now feel liberated by the shorter rug we now have…




Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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