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Updating a 97-02 Wrangler’s center dash to the 03-06 style for an extra switch and 12v outlet (TJ).

97 TJ Wrangler with 03-06 Bezel and Switches
97-02 Metra Kit vs 03-06 Metra Kit

My 1997 Wrangler came with a useless missing ashtray space in the center dash. When upgrading my stereo, I knew I wanted another 12v outlet and somewhere good to mount the controller for my S-Pod knockoff. There are a couple of aftermarket options in the $200+ range that I’ve seen, but I really like the look of factory switches and outlets. My research showed that in 2003, Jeep switched to a lower middle dash panel that had an extra switch, extra 12v outlet, and a flat surface that would be perfect for my aftermarket switch panel. This is a very straightforward upgrade that I highly recommend, especially if you have upgraded or are planning to upgrade your stereo.

Parts You’ll Need

  • Metra Double-DIN stereo bezel kit
    • Order this kit if you have or are installing a double-DIN head unit.
  • With a factory head unit, you can find a used OEM center bezel from a 2003-2006 TJ on EBay. If you’re installing an aftermarket single-DIN head unit, you’ll need to find an original 03-06 bezel and this adapter.
  • OEM 2003-2006 Lower Dash Switch Panel (I found mine on EBay, look for part numbers 56047028AD / 56047028AC)
  • 4th Rocker Switch (I used https://amzn.to/367FaaZ which required no modifications). You could also modify a switch blank with a normal switch or do some dremel work for the classic aftermarket rockers.
  • Accessory for second 12v outlet. I put in a USB+Aux port for my head unit and replaced the factory cigarette lighter outlet with this one.

Complementary Modifications

The Work

I did this conversion after I’d upgraded my stereo. Crutchfield and various forums have great instructions on how to install the double-DIN, so I won’t be covering that in great detail here. I will, however, show you the process of fitting the new 03-06 switch panel in a TJ that previously had an ash tray and 3-switch panel.

  1. Typical dash disassembly: pry up and remove the trim nearest the windshield (with the defrost vent), remove the two Philips screws securing the center dash bezel to the dash, pry the dash bezel off.
  2. Remove the 4 screws securing the 97-02 switch panel and the ashtray, if applicable.
  3. Remove the rocker switches by prying the tabs top and bottom. They slide out to the back of the panel. I broke one of mine, DeadJeep has replacements for $10.
  4. Disconnect the original 12v cigarette lighter outlet. I was not able to remove it from the switch panel without destroying the outlet, so I installed a replacement outlet. You can simply cut the factory harness and solder/crimp to a new outlet.
  5. Modify the new 03-06 switch panel: you’ll need to slightly enlarge the 12v outlet holes to fit aftermarket accessories. I used a dremel on one and a utility knife on the other. My panel already had a hole in the flat space on the right, but you’ll need to cut out for whatever you’re mounting there (if anything).
    03-06 switch housing with holes enlarged
  6. Replace or upgrade the bulbs for the existing rockers and install your 4th rocker switch. Install the 12v outlet(s) as desired, note that the rear space is tight, I had to bend the power tabs on mine. I used a combo USB/Aux outlet and a 12v cigarette lighter outlet which I wired into the original cigarette lighter harness. Its worth noting that these outlets came *very* close to not fitting the space behind the panel, which is why you see my two red terminals bent outward.
    accessory outlets wired in
  7. Mock-up the new panel against your dash, the driver side screw holes and peg should fit in the original spots. I used a Sharpie to mark where new holes needed to be drilled in the right side of the plastic.
    drilling holes for the right side of the new dash panel
  8. Drill the two pilot holes for the screws and one larger hole for the center peg.
    holes required for conversion
  9. Install the new switch panel with the 4 original screws.
  10. Install the newer style Metra bezel, I found that there were two tabs that I had to trim down a bit before it would seat fully.
97 TJ Wrangler with 03-06 Bezel and Switches
The finished product — the 4th switch controls the accessory panel to the right. The USB and Aux inputs connect to the stereo, and the 12v outlet uses the original cigarette lighter wiring circuit.
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A simple water system for camper vans.

I always wanted a really basic sink and water system. No holes in the side of the van for a fill port, removable jugs for filling at filtered water stations, no tanks outside the van to freeze. I wanted an electric water pump. Combined with the fact that I decided I’d be OK boiling water rather than installing a complicated water heater system, I was able to put together a super cheap and functional setup for my van’s kitchen.

My van has come and gone, but I adventured for 50,000 miles over two years in it — which puts me in a great spot to reflect on what I wanted and what I changed over time.

This was the first “system” that I could call done in my build, despite the fact that I’d not even completed the cabinetry yet. My system used a single 6-gallon jug for freshwater and another for greywater. This is about as simple as you can get, if you can live with the limited capacity.

I made a hole in the jug’s cap and pushed vinyl tubing through it to the bottom. For the greywater, I made another hole for the trap hose and sealed around it on the inside with RTV to prevent odors. This wasn’t necessary for the freshwater hoses as they fit incredible tightly into the holes I made in the caps.

What I Ordered

Cold Water Faucet
Bar sink with cutting board insert, grid, and basket strainer
Camco Flexible RV Drain Trap
Seaflo 1.2GPM 12v Water Pump (I’d consider this one if I were building today as this Seaflo is quite noisy with no accumulator, though it works fine @ half the cost!)
2x 6 Gallon Water Containers (I used Ozark Trail jugs, which were fine, but these look sturdier and the price is similar)
3/8″ ID Flexible Vinyl Tubing
Stainless Steel Hose Clamps
PTFE Thread Tape (Remember, white is only for water – no gas pipes)
Fitting for hose to faucet connection: Take the faucet to a hardware store and find a fitting threaded for the faucet that converts it to a 3/8″ barb. I did not make note of this — and the reviews state 3/8″ female compression, but I recall having trouble when I ordered that size. Save the hassle and take it in with you. Let me know what you find out!

What I changed after 2 years..

I gave into the temptation of having 12 gallons of freshwater once I started living in the van full-time. What I did was replace the greywater jug with another 6-gal for freshwater. I re-routed my drain hose through the wall, into a garden hose splitter, fittings, and finally to 3/8″ vinyl tubing that would either drain greywater through a hole in my van’s floor or divert it to a smaller 1.3-gallon holding tank.

I’m not the environmental police, but obviously I have to state that you should be very mindful of what, if any, soaps/detergents/toothpastes you’re using when greywater is dumping onto the ground. Just don’t be a dick, basically.

Here are a few photos — but, for the most part, my initial system remained in-tact. To this day, the only real thing I’d tell you to consider is a water pump with a built-in accumulator (or adding one separately). This setup — the pump will run anytime the faucet is opened, and it’s not quiet.

My water system after 2 years. Note the trap drain now runs into the next cabinet over. I simply switch the lids between jugs when I empty one.
Camco RV drain mounted on the wall, with spigots leading to a hole in the floor as well as a 1-gallon diversion tank for use when dumping was not appropriate.

Additional things I bought for this greywater diversion system

Hudson Exchange 5L (1.3 Gallon) Water Tank
Garden Hose Splitter
90ยบ Garden Hose Elbow (3/4″ Thread)
Garden Hose to 3/8″ Barb Fittings
(from here, you can use the clamps and tubing I linked for the original system)

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Victron? Save your money. Installing a $40 “AiLi” battery monitor that doesn’t suck.

How do you know how full your batteries are? With AGM or flooded batteries, you can get a rough idea using a “state of charge” graph and your system’s current voltage.. but, sometimes you want more details. What if you want an exact percentage, want to know exactly how much current is flowing in/out of your batteries at any given time, or have Lithium batteries that don’t have enough voltage drop to determine state of charge by voltage alone?

I recently upgraded my batteries and saw that Victron has a full-featured battery monitor in the $160 range. Having recently switched to lithium batteries, I needed a solution for monitoring their health, but my wallet was already hurting from the batteries themselves. Like so many other pieces of tech these days, if a company can build it, a Chinese manufacturer can clone it. The battery monitor is no exception. A little bit of research lead me to this, the AiLi Battery Monitor / Voltmeter / Ammeter, which at the time of this article, costs about 70% less than the Victron equivalent.

Functionally, these two are pretty close. There are a couple of things worth your consideration, however!

Victron BMV-702 Battery Monitor

Dimmable Backlight

Backlight turns off after 60 sec.

Available bluetooth module / app

Somewhat attractive design.

~$160

AiLi Battery Monitor

Full Brightness Only

Backlight active anytime power draw or charge is happening.

No connectivity options.

Plain, possibly even ugly.

~$40

Ultimately, the 75% savings of the clone was worth the slight annoyance of the backlight. My refrigerator, propane alarm, hotspot, and a few other items are always drawing power… which means that I rarely see my battery monitor screen off. A sticky-note or clever placement addresses this easily. Bluetooth connectivity? My van is 65 square feet. I can manage.

What to buy.

AiLi Battery Monitor with 100 Amp Shunt (There is a 350 Amp shunt model as well, but I can’t imagine what you’d be running to need it.)
54mm/2 1/8″ Hole Saw
12 ” 4AWG Cable w/ 5/16″ Lugs
16-Gauge Fuse Holder
16-Gauge Wire
Standard Blade Fuses (The fuse holders above include 3-amp fuses, but a 1-amp fuse is more appropriate)
You’ll likely want a soldering and/or crimping kit to attach the fuse holder wires to the battery and shunt, see my recommendations for that here.

Note on wire gauge: I have seen people recommend some insanely thick cables — this makes placement of the shunt very difficult as the thicker cable will not flex well. The maximum current for this setup is 100 amps, which at a distance of 1-foot, would be fine with as small as 12-gauge. Again, if your van’s setup has current draw over 100 amps, you’re probably not reading this article on how to setup a battery monitor.

How it works.

The main component of the battery monitor, aside from the display itself, is the shunt. The shunt is essentially a metal bar through which all of the current in/out of the batteries will flow. That metal bar’s resistance is a known value, so the monitor will measure voltage at each side, then use Ohm’s Law to determine the net amps flowing in/out of the battery.

It’s basically a multimeter and a semi-sophisticated calculator with a few buttons and a display. It will tell you the system voltage, total amperage in or out, remaining amp hours, and percentage of amp hours remaining (in relation to the total capacity).

Installing the display.

The display itself will require a 2 1/4″ hole in the wall, and you’ll need to be able to access the rear of the unit to tighten down a wingnut. See below if this isn’t feasible for your intended location! The bracket included is in a plain “C” shape, I added additional bends with pliers (as pictured) because the wall I installed it in was particularly deep and poorly situated.

Once you have made the hole, the battery monitor itself will seat into the hole. It has a small threaded stud that sticks out of the back. From the rear side of the wall, you’ll insert the stud into the metal mounting bracket, then tighten down a wingnut to secure it in place. From here, you’ll route the 4-pin display cable to the negative battery terminal, where it will connect to the shunt.

If you do not have access to the rear side of the wall, or would prefer a surface mounted solution: there is a model available on Thingiverse to 3d print which will allow you to mount the monitor to the surface. I can 3d print this for you for a reasonable price if needed, just reach out via Instagram.

Installing the shunt.

  • Move everything that was connected to your battery’s negative post to the “p-” port of the shunt. Exception: if you have two batteries, the “jumper / interconnect” cable will stay on the battery negative post.
  • Connect an interconnect cable from the battery negative post to the “b-” post on the shunt. Note: in my photos, you’ll see that I had to use a stud to post adapter on the shunt — my original battery setup was posts and I couldn’t (at the time) cut and reterminate the post clamp with a ring terminal. I also used a flattened copper pipe in place of the interconnect cable.
  • Connect a wire from your positive terminal (preferably one with a 1-2 amp fuse) to the green connector nearest the “p-” post.
100 amp AiLi Battery Monitor Shunt Installed. Note: I had to use the stud to post adapter on “p-” due to existing wiring in my van, I’d just upgraded to Lithium batteries when I performed this installation.

Configuring the monitor.

This is probably the easiest part. You need to configure the amp hour capacity and tell the unit when your batteries are 100% charged. I created a short video demonstrating this:

My thoughts.

the installed AiLi battery monitor in my Ford Transit

I’ve been using this battery monitor for 3 months now and for the price, I can’t recommend it enough. The backlight is my biggest complaint, and a small piece of tape or a 3d-printed cover take care of that well. It will be solid when discharging, or pulsate when charging.

The only hiccup I’ve had was shortly after installation, my percentage screen reset to 0%. I believe what happened was that I set “100%” at a level significantly below 100%, so when the batteries actually charged to 100%, the monitor didn’t know how to react. I reset it by holding the % button, and haven’t had an issue since.

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Connecting two cameras to the reverse camera input of an aftermarket head unit.

The Ford Transit factory 4″ reverse camera in my otherwise-pointless rear view mirror leaves a lot to be desired for me. My Pioneer head unit, installation details here, has both front and rear camera inputs. The reverse camera has a trigger wire that automatically pulls it up on the screen when it is sent 12v power (the intention being that this is wired into a circuit powered up when the vehicle is in reverse). Unfortunately, accessing the forward camera input involves 3 or more button presses.

My solution was to install two aftermarket cameras, feed them both into the reverse camera RCA input, and power the reverse trigger wire and one of the two cameras at a time via a simple switch. This way, only one camera is powered on at a time and either switch position will activate the reverse camera feature of my Pioneer head unit.

Parts List

You’re going to need crimpers and crimp terminals, as well as solder gear. Everything I used is recommended in my article: “My Basic Automotive / Van Build electrical tool kit

I think the installation of reverse cameras has been covered over and over, so I’m just going to share a few photos from my van and the diagram you’ll want to follow for the switch wiring.

I spliced into the stereo’s accessory wire for the 12v inputs to the switch, and did the same for the reverse trigger wire. For the Transit, it’s much easier to route cables on the driver’s side since the exhaust runs the length of the passenger side.

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Changing Spark Plugs / Ignition Coils on BMW Z4 / X3 (w/ 3.0l I-6 N52 Engines)

n52 inline-six in a 2006 bmw z4

I had an ignition coil fail in rural Oregon and I was able to replace it with nothing more than a flathead screwdriver in the parking lot of an AutoZone. For as much as I’ve heard about BMWs being difficult to work on, the Z4’s engine bay was spacious, and once you master the electronic side of things (with the INPA software), BMW repairs are a breeze.

This is one of those things that’s really better explained in video, so I’ve uploaded one that I recorded a couple of years ago to YouTube showing how to access the spark plugs and ignition coils. This is a job that anyone can do themselves with a basic set of hand tools.

Parts List

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Installing a diesel heater in my gas-powered Transit.

Like everything else, I did a deep dive on heaters during my initial build. I ended up installing a Propex HS-2000 6500BTU furnace, but later switched to a generic diesel heater that I purchased on Amazon. I didn’t find that the Propex was sufficient in the lower 20’s or colder in my van. Additionally, the cost of diesel means that I’m getting three times the heat output for less than half of the cost of propane. I sold my Propane furnace to pay for my entire diesel heater installation.

Parts and Tools:

Note: You’ll see these marketed from 2kw to 8kw, there are only truly 2 models. 2kW and 5kW. The 2kW is harder to find and has less support, so I opted for the 5 and recommend it for all but the smallest rigs.

Transit install location

I chose to install the heater inside of the passenger seat pedestal. In Transits equipped with dual batteries, you may not have this option. My Transit had the bottle jack mounted here. The easiest option is to install the heater elsewhere in the van with a flat surface, but I appreciated the chance to utilize an otherwise useless area. You can utilize one of the bottle jack mount studs to orient yourself below the van before making your cuts, and the other can be repurposed as a ground for the heater.

There are two spots to install this under the passenger seat: either closer to the passenger door or closer to the driver’s. I have seen one person mount their heater on the driver’s side of the passenger seat platform, but a stock van is going to require removal of the exhaust heat shield– and in my van, my floor is already heated up from that and I wouldn’t trust anything to be near it unprotected. Their van is significantly modified and had the heat shield removed.

Cutting holes and modifying the pedestal

Installing on the passenger side leaves a small margin for error in a deep channel that is not easy to access. In some install photos, you’ll see a series of small, neat holes drilled for everything to pass through and bolt up from underneath. Not going to happen here, your most conservative option is two large holes as I’ve done below. Note: I had to make two new holes in the mounting plate because of where my holes are cut. I’d just cut out a square/rectangle rather than what I’ve done here. Alternatively, these holes should have been a little more toward the driver’s side (1/4-1/2″) to avoid having the lip of the mounting plate need to go underneath the pax side of the pedestal.

There is a recessed groove right down the middle of where I did the install. I built up the channel in the sheet metal with high-temp RTV and let it set. I then used a ton of it under the mounting plate to ensure an air-tight seal. This is pretty important to prevent fume intrusion. I attached the silicone gasket, mounting plate, fuel line, combustion hoses, etc. to the heater before lowering it into place for the final attachment with 4 self-tapping screws. Any service requiring the removal of the lines attached to the bottom of the heater will require breaking the seal and removing the full unit. I am not super concerned by this as it’s not likely I’ll need to do this.

For the cabin hot air ducting, I cut one side of the slotted metal areas, and then bent them back out of the way. Not pretty, but got the job done. This was definitely cutting corners as far as a doing a professional install, but I was laying on a street in the Los Angeles area and just wanted it to be done with. I broke 5 metal cutting jigsaw blades in the process. This one have been done more easily (and cleaner) with the pedestal removed from the van. Update: I removed my seat to install a swivel and acquired an angle grinder. Don’t even both with the jigsaw, angle grinder made quick work out of cleaning the pedestal metal up.

For my hot air duct, I had to cut a hole in my steel partition wall. If you have to make such a hole in a dividing wall, I’d recommend ordering an 80mm hole saw. I used a 3.25″ (as it was available off-the-shelf locally), but the hole is almost too big for screws to bite into the area around it.

Underneath the van

With the heater in place, I sealed around the edges of my cut-out with 3M smokeproof putty and high-temp RTV just as a failsafe for the RTV used above. I secured the intake hose and and the exhaust with included clips and self-tappers, then mounted the muffler. I put black or red RTV over each of the self-tappers to keep them from getting dirty/rusty. Worked great on removal of my old heater.

The fuel pump needs to be mounted at an angle of ~30-45 degrees. Your muffler should be as close to the perimeter of your van as possible and there should be no low points the line should never run “up” after its come down from the heater, to prevent water/condensation buildup. I considered adding another section of exhaust pipe as this exhausts directly under my sliding door, but the longer the exhaust — the more likely you’ll get carbon buildup in your heater.

Wiring

The wiring harness included was mostly sufficient for my purposes, but I did have to cut the connector off of the fuel pump section so that I could pass it through an existing hole in the Transit floor (circled in red in a photo above). This hole exits into a chassis member with an opening large enough to put your whole hand in.

This heater is typically going to be using between 2 and 3 amps, but during startup and shutdown, it will draw approximately 10 for 2-3 minutes! I’ve put the heater onto a 15-amp fuse, as I doubt the included wires could handle much more than that.

I cut and extended the thermostat wires, which were significantly shorter than you’d image. I had no issues adding another 3-5 feet to this section. The short ground coming from the unit, I crimped on a ring terminal and reused a nut from the bottle jack mount to attach it next to the heater, as pictured above.

Turret mount for other install locations

If you’re installing somewhere else in the van (like on top of a finished floor), you’re going to need to protect the surrounding combustibles from the extremely hot combustion exhaust. The only way to do this safely is with a turret. You can find these on EBay by searching for “diesel heater turret”, you’ll likely be ordering it from the UK.

Afterburner Thermostat Upgrade

You should totally budget $100 to purchase the Afterburner thermostat from Ray Jones. This unit adds WiFi control, Fahrenheit units, voltage cutoffs, fuel usage tracking, Android app, and so much more. I wouldn’t trust the heater half as much without it, though the factory thermostat did work fine.

Fuel Tank

I installed my fuel tank inside of my bench seat, as the dimensions just happened to work out perfectly. A note: it’s really easy to screw up the fitting on the bottom and wind up with a leak. I recommend tapping the *top* of your fuel tank and attaching your fuel line to a stand pipe.

I have never had any issue with the tank being inside and have never smelled diesel aside from opening the tank to fill it. Diesel is not wildly combustible in the way that gasoline is – you can literally hold a lit match to spilled diesel and it won’t ignite.

My initial plan was to run the fuel line to the rear of the van, but doing this proved very frustrating — and I gave up once I reached the rear axle. Avoiding the exhaust and suspension just seemed like more of a risk than having the tank at my slider. A bonus: all my fuel line and components are within arms reach for easy diagnosis and inspection now.

Resources

There is a gentleman on YouTube who does a 12-part series on everything you could want to know about these heaters, how they function, and how to maintain them. Understanding how they work will make the installation seem like less of a mystery. Link

The Chinese Diesel Heater Community on Facebook. Link

One of the most useful install videos that I found:

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The complete electrical system in my DIY Ford Transit camper van.

This article was updated on 9/20/20 to reflect my final electrical configuration. The upgrades I made were swapping a Tripplite UPS / Inverter for a Renogy 700w Pure Sine inverter, swapping my two golf cart batteries for BattleBorn lithium iron phosphate batteries, and adding an AiLi battery monitor.

Planning a conversion’s electrical system is rather intimidating, but I’ve found that putting it down on paper helps tremendously. The diagram below was made on diagrams.net, but your first step should be writing down a few lists: what needs power (i.e. lights & accessories)? What provides power (i.e. solar & alternator)? From there, you can research power requirements, determine the proper wire gauge, etc.

I used this system for two years and for 50,000 miles of adventuring, both on and off-road. I can say that, switching to LifePo4 batteries was an excellent move and I regret not doing that from the beginning.. but otherwise, my plan was executed and I was very happy with the system I ended up with.

I’m going to be listing all of the electrical products in my van that generate, consume, distribute, or store electrical energy. I’ll also provide some insight about each component, to hopefully guide you in your design and execution.

Updated-Electrical

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12v Battery Bank

I upgraded my van to Battleborn batteries when I got tired of watering the golf cart batteries I’d designed it with originally. I’ll expand on this in a later article, but if you can afford it — there’s no better choice. Only drawbacks: price, and charging in freezing temps is problematic. My heater takes care of that. A budget option would be VMax AGM GC2 Deep Cycle batteries (more expensive than flooded, but cheaper than LifePo4). With the VMAX batteries, I’d still get the benefits of golf cart batteries (designed for deep discharge, thicker plates, energy dense), with none of the downside of flooded lead acid (watering, offgassing, leaking acid).

100w Solar Panels

The panels I chose are affordable and have worked out great. I have them wired in series, which the MPPT charge controller can handle just fine. If you want four panels with this controller, you have to do series parallel wiring OR choose the 30 (or 40) amp upgrade model. I found myself wanting to add additional panels, but once I moved to LifePO4 batteries, 200w does a great job keeping them charged, even in less than optimal sunlight.

Solar Charge Controller

I went with this basic controller with a remote display. It’s capable of accepting 20 amps, and the load terminals on it can support 20 amps. As you can see in my diagram, all of my van’s loads are connected to a fuse panel. That fuse panel is connected to this controller, not the battery directly. As a result, I can use the remote display of this controller to see my real-time power usage with no extra monitoring components required.

Battery Monitor

This battery monitor was cheap, but highly effective. My original build (with lead acid batteries), I was able to use voltage as a rough estimate of battery life. With lithium batteries, you need a monitor like this that keeps track of amps in and amps out to truly get an idea of your charge percentage. I wrote an article on this monitor and how to install it here.

Disconnect Switch

The + load terminal on my charge controller runs to this switch, and then continues onto my fuse panel, where all my DC loads get their power. By turning this switch, I disconnect power to all loads connected to the fuse panel. My charge controller, as it turns out, lets you do the same thing by pressing the “OK” button on the remote display. Still, I like the physical switch option.

Inverter

I switched from an older UPS to this pure sine wave inverter in 2020. 700w is plenty for my purposes — the only A/C things I run are my laptop charger, toothbrush charger, and an external hard drive. You should look for DC chargers for as many items as you can, the conversion process through an inverter is inherently inefficient in comparison to something that would plug into an accessory outlet.

Shore Power Connection

This is simply a passthrough for me, I can plug in an extension cable beneath the van, and then connect my power strip / power center (below) to it on the inside. Similar to just running the extension cable in through a door or window. In my original build, I had a shore power charger that utilized this, but I found it unnecessary.

120v AC Receptacle

The inverter / converter (UPS) has two household outlets on the body of the unit. One of those I’ve left open, the other I have this plugged into. This unit is installed next to my bed and provides 2 additional household 120v outlets, as well as two USB charging ports.

Battery to Battery Charger

My wording here is not 100% accurate. This Sterling DC-to-DC charger only allows for connection to the Customer Connection Point when the voltage feeding it goes over a certain threshold. Typically, that’s a level that is only reached when the alternator is producing power. A huge advantage of this unit over a standard battery isolator is that the Sterling delivers clean and proper 4-Stage charging to your house batteries, rather than just allowing your vehicle’s alternator to connect to your house batteries.

12v + Fuse Panel

This fuse panel is where all of the DC loads in my van terminate. Pro-Tip: buy a fuse panel with a few extra slots than you need for unforeseen future expansion! This panel connects to my LOAD terminal on my charge controller, but could also be connected to your battery’s positive terminal. Use the appropriate DC circuit breaker on the supply line, in either case. Also: be sure to select the proper amperage fuses. Never replace a fuse with a higher capacity fuse, the result can be melted wires or worse.

12v – Bus Bar

There’s nothing particularly sexy to say about this. The negative/ground wires from all of my DC loads terminate here, and it connects directly to the negative post of my battery bank.

USB LED Strip

I can’t say enough good things about this little LED light strip. It’s controlled via an app on my phone, includes a little remote control, power draw is minimal, and I can change colors and patterns to suit my mood. Bright white helps when I’m cooking, strobe patterns when I’m showing off my van or listening to some funky tunes (just kidding, it’s always bluegrass), and I often use it on the dimmest setting when I need some light but don’t want to run the overhead puck lights. Powered by USB. Plugs into the 5v USB Step-Down below.

USB Cellular Booster

My van has always-on wifi, which my thermostat, phone, laptop, tablet, Chromecast, and sometimes friends are connected to. I wrote a full article about my connectivity here, so I won’t elaborate too much on this electrical article.

5v USB Step-Down

This is actually a recent addition to my van. This device provides me with two standard USB outlets. Connected to this device is my Jetpack Verizon hotspot (I wrote an article about it here) and my LED accent light strip. My hotspot is always on (or unplugged), and my LED strip is controlled via an app or remote, so I don’t have a power switch on this circuit at all.

Television

I really wanted to have an actual television in the van, but I wasn’t sure what size would work. I had issues finding TVs that ran off of a 12v supply. This one didn’t come with a 12v adapter, I just cut off the AC adapter brick and wired the plug to my 12v system. Biggest complaint: the speakers suck. I’m using this with a Chromecast without issue. There are larger units on the market that I’ve seen since, but a larger screen generally means more power usage.

Propane Alarm

If your build includes a propane tank, even in a sealed propane locker, this is a non-negotiable item. There are not a lot of propane alarms on the market. These have a 5-year service life, and the electrical draw is around .1 amps. I have it hard wired, with no switches. This is one device you want on, no matter what. You want to mount this as low as you can, and as closely to your propane and/or propane appliances as possible.

Refrigerator

I ordered two of these via EBay and both arrived with damaged plastic housing. It’s been running non-stop for over a year without issue, so overall, in a very expensive category (12v fridges), I still recommend this unit. I have been okay without a freezer, but do put some thought into what you need. This unit has been surprisingly spacious and cycles relatively infrequently.

MaxxAir Fan

Oh, MaxxAir… how I loathe thy company and adore thy product. This fan is great, has “ceiling fan” mode, “auto” mode (78 degrees F), fully motorized, can be used in the rain… the downside? My remote died and the company literally replied 4 months later, telling me that if you have an iPhone, it blocks the infrared sensor of the remote. Despite the fact that my remote works just fine if I use it in my friends’ vans. The upside is that you really don’t need a remote in a van. Pro tip: You may think you want this right over your stove, but I think I’d personally install it over my bed next time.

USB / Accessory Outlets

This is installed next to my bed for device charging. The Accessory outlet lets me plug in standard 12v automotive devices, like my 12v DJI drone battery charger.

Diesel Heater

This heater has been incredible. I’ve done a full article about it here. On the electrical front, few things to know: the heater will always pull at least 1.4 amps when it is powered on (the fan will always be on low, it doesn’t cycle on/off with temperature). Being a diesel burning heater, it has a glow plug. This glow plug pulls ten amps for up to two minutes on startup AND on shut-down. You do not want to put a switch on this circuit, a sudden power loss without the cool-down cycle will result in a bricked heater, from all accounts I’ve read.

Dimmer Switch

Rather costly for what it is, unfortunately I wasn’t able to find many 12v dimmer switches on the market. What I can say is: it works great with the 6 LED lights in my ceiling. Speaking of the LED lights in my ceiling…

Ceiling Lights

I wasn’t too sure about these, but I’ve been really happy with them on the road. Warm white is the way to go. I wired these up in parallel as was recommended by the manufacturer. I’d highly suggest wiring multiple “zones” via several switches or dimmers for two reasons: sometimes you don’t want 5+ lights on and it’s a waste of power to run them all simultaneously.

Switch

I didn’t actually have a purpose for both of the switches when I bought this! For 7 months, one of the switches was a killswitch for my water pump and the other was unused. Now, my cell booster is wired to the second switch. Always build a little room into your system for expansion!

Water Pump

I have had no issues with this pump, other than it being incredibly loud. I’ve read that this is the case with most pumps. Insulating your water lines and suspending the pump from a mount (rather than mounting directly) are supposed to significantly decrease noise, but I’ve not done this myself yet. I installed this with a switch inline (see below), the last thing you want is a pump that runs automatically whenever there’s a pressure drop with no killswitch. I turn this off anytime I don’t need water. If there were a pipe or hose leak at some point, it would run indefinitely.

Cell Booster

Absolute necessity if you camp outside of cities. I wrote a full article about my van’s connectivity here. This unit comes with a standard 12v cigarette lighter style adapter (with an integral power switch). I cut off the cigarette-lighter plug and wired the remaining cable into my van through the two-switch panel above.

DC Circuit Breakers

The listing above has numerous choices from 20-60a. This is a fantastic way to provide protection to your circuits AND provide for an easy way to disconnect components. I have one of these (20 amp) on my panel input cable – so I can disconnect my panels before servicing the charge controller. I have another (40 amp) on the positive line from my Sterling Battery to Battery charger so I can easily disable charging from the Transit alternator. A 60 amp can disable my UPS from charging the batteries (and protect against catastrophic failure in the event the APS-750 fails, per the manual). Lastly, a 30 amp allows me to quickly disconnect the charge controller from my house batteries for service. These breakers protect the lines from overvoltage (while allowing for easy reset without any kind of fuse replacement) and allow you to isolate issues in your system by easily disconnecting entire systems. Highly recommended!

Closing Thoughts

There’s a ton of wiring to be done, and you must do some research on exactly what type of terminations you need– along with what gauge cables to run. It’s not one-size fits all for this system. I encourage you to utilize a cable gauge calculator like this one at WireBarn and always err on the side of caution. For gauges larger than 6, I opted to measure and then order pre-terminated cables from Amazon and EBay. Once the wires are too large, you’ll need special crimps to make the terminations. For a project this size, I didn’t want to invest the time and money into learning to do this and purchasing the tools.

I highly recommend ordering the tools and supplies I’ve laid out in my article titled “My Basic Automotive / Van Build Electrical Tool Kit“.

Crimp connections should be made with proper crimpers, all solder joints should be heat-shrunk. I only use heat shrinkable crimp-on terminals. The shrink adds another layer of security to your crimp, in addition to preventing potential shorts and water intrusion.

Consider whether or not you need to remove a device when choosing terminations. For a propane alarm, a permanent solder joint is appropriate. For something that may wear out or break, like my USB outlets, I chose to use m/f quick disconnect crimp terminals.

I could likely go on for days, but please feel free to reach out to me via Instagram if you have any questions about my setup (or your future one).

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My van’s network setup (Verizon hotspot and WeBoost cellular booster)

I want my van to feel like home, which means that I need reliable Internet. I want to keep up with YouTube, write blog posts, and not worry about data caps or finding public WiFi. I’d imagine if I were working remotely it’d be a top priority for me as well!

Core Components

I’m actually using the 7730L, but when it fails, this is what I’ll upgrade to. The 7730L is dated, but you can find them used on EBay for <$30.

This antenna is leaps and bounds ahead of the included mini magnet-mount antenna and even the larger 18″ Wilson magnetic antenna. See my post about mounting it here. Note: both of the booster links I have posted here actually include this antenna.

This is the newer version of my booster with the trucker antenna, but it’s virtually the same functionally. To save some cash, I also included a link to a refurbished 4G-M kit (what I use) below.

I used this adapter to hard-wire the hotspot into my van’s electrical.

The OTR antenna’s cable is 14 feet in length, which may not be sufficient in your van. This extension is inexpensive and I noticed no negative impact on the effectiveness of the booster after adding it.

This listing is for a factory-refurbished 4G-M plus the trucker antenna — may save some $$ over buying them separately/new.

As you can see, it’s actually pretty straightforward. I’m not doing anything groundbreaking here, and while there are certainly higher-end boosters and hotspots, I think this setup presents a really good value. If you’re really into network tech, you may find the lack of configuration options on the 7730L to be a turn-off.. but in practice, I don’t find myself longing for anything.

Mounting & Wiring

The hotspot is mounted to a wall using 3M VHB tape. The USB-C cable plugged into it goes to the 12v to USB adapter I’ve included links for above. The WeBoost internal antenna for the booster is mounted directly to the right of the hotspot, also with VHB. In my electrical cabinet, you’ll find the booster, which is wired to a switch. I cut off the cigarette-lighter 12v adapter and wired it directly into my electrical system. The 4G-M seems to pull about 1.1 amps when powered on.

The 12v to 5v converter is mounted on the backside of my electrical wall, I simply extended the red and black leads from it to my fuse panel and ground bus bar. It just needs to be close enough to the hotspot for the USB-C cable to reach it.

The OTR antenna is mounted via a custom mount on my Aluminess spare tire carrier. You can see how I built that here. That said, it includes a standard trucker-style mount that can be used on many roof racks, brush guards, bumpers, etc. If you don’t think the included mount will work for you, have a look at the variety of CB antenna mounts on the market. If you’re looking for a non-permanent install, check out this magnetic antenna mount.

Configuration and Service Options

My hotspot is configured to broadcast my main network (5GHz), as well as a guest network (2.4GHz) for friends who are hanging out, or parked very close to me. In the van, I have a Chromecast, a WiFi thermostat, a phone, a laptop, and a few other miscellaneous devices.

Cellular service is a topic that has been done to death, but I spend $100 a month to lease a grandfathered, truly unlimited Verizon 4G sim card from someone I originally found on EBay. “Vanlife Hotspot Service” type Google searches will get you more information than I have to offer.. but a word of warning: many of the EBay sellers are selling prepaid SIM cards or similar, be sure that you’re getting what you expect before you pull the trigger.

Realistic Results

You need to be realistic when you’re installing a cellular booster. If you’re standing outside with no service, you’ll probably get no service with the booster. If you’re losing service when you close your door, the booster will help. If you’re teetering on usable service, the booster will help. If you’re getting 30mbps speeds, the booster may help.

I only camp where I have Verizon or TMobile service, though I’ve recently switched to Google Voice and eliminated my TMobile bill. I routinely stay in areas where my cell service is borderline unusable, with the hotspot showing -105dbM or worse (one bar or less). With the factory antenna, this may have been improved to -90dbM. With the OTR antenna from this article, I’ll regularly see -105 turn into -68. This booster is the difference between intermittent internet and reliable internet. It’s not often the difference between no service and great service. That said, it’s a crucial component of my build, and as of now, I’m very content with this setup.

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Making a simple antenna mount for 2″ tube bumpers (or an Aluminess spare tire carrier)

I’ve been using this magnetic 4G antenna with my weBoost 4G-M cellular booster for about a year now. The performance was good, or so I thought. The magnetic bit was strong enough to hold on at interstate speeds without issue, but every single tree branch that I encountered would leave it dangling down, or stuck to my back door.

Upgrading to the Wilson OTR antenna has been on my agenda since I installed the Aluminess spare tire carrier on my back door, but I was never able to find a mounting solution that would accommodate the 2″ tube. I decided to make my own!

In my testing, I saw boosts from -103dbM to -87dbM with the magnetic antenna, and a huge increase to -67dbM with the new antenna! I wanted a permanent mount with the ability to flex out of the way when branches hit the antenna. The OTR includes a spring, but I wanted the actual mount to tilt backward. Here’s how I did it.

Parts and Tools Required

1/8″ thick, 1.5″ wide, aluminum flat bar (we’re only using 7″, I had to buy 36″)
5/16″ Stainless Steel U-bolt
2x 5/16″ fender washers
3x 5/16″ nylock nut
2x 5/16″ acorn nut
5/16″ rubber washer (optional)
90 degree Superstrut brace
Zip ties

Center Punch
Electrical tape
Drill
3/8″ drill bit, 1/8″ drill bit
Socket or wrench set (need 1/2″)
Crescent wrench
Circular Saw w/ carbide or better blade OR jigsaw with metal cutting blade OR hacksaw

  1. Cut two 3.5-4″ sections of aluminum. You can see here that my cuts are not square. I have since had better luck with a circular saw, though a proper miter or table saw would be even better.

  2. Using the U-Bolt as a guide, mark and then center punch hole locations. Drill with 1/8″ and then expand to 3/8″.

  3. One of the two aluminum brackets needs to have an additional hole drilled in the center for our angle bracket attachment.

  4. Gather your hardware from the antenna kit (all of this should be included in the Amazon package I linked above).

  5. Assemble as pictured below, using the provided blue loctite on all threads. Note: per Wilson, the spring should not be used if you will be utilizing all 3 of the fiberglass extension rods. The crescent wrench comes in handy here.

  6. Install the U-Bolt and first aluminum plate at your preferred height. I chose to have the top of the antenna just higher than my solar panels.

  7. Install the angle bracket and antenna mount onto the second piece of flat aluminum. The black rubber washer here was omitted before installation, but should you have issues with movement, it’d be better placed between the aluminum and the angle bracket. Hardware order is bolt, fender washer, aluminum bar, rubber washer (optional), angle bracket, fender washer, nylock nut. Tighten.

  8. Put antenna assembly onto the threads of the U-Bolt, secure with blue loctite and acorn nuts. Tighten.

  9. Verify satisfaction with articulation. The antenna, when pulled backward, should rotate until the angle bracket hits the acorn nut. Should be firm enough to remain in whatever position you choose.

  10. Route antenna cable, making sure to leave enough slack for the potential articulation of the antenna mount. I ran it down the Aluminess tube, made a service loop, then entered the van near the hinge, then underneath the tail light black plastic housing, and up through an existing hole. Verify door movement and zip tie placement to avoid any nasty surprises.

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The case for CB radio in a camper van (and how I installed one in my Ford Transit)

My friends and I are driving down a National Forest road with no cell service, being in a caravan makes it very tricky to explore any side roads together. I drive a mile up the road to scout it out and find a great spot at the end, and pass another car on the way back to my group. I tell the group about the spot, but by this point the car I’d passed had taken it. Alternate reality: I drove up the road, claimed the mountain-top spot with panoramic view of the Cascades, and radio’ed down to my buddies to come on up.

I advocate for radios to all of my van-dwelling friends these days. You don’t need to be a radio geek, and it doesn’t have to become a hobby. You don’t need to take any tests or obtain any licenses.

When traveling in groups, it provides an easy way to stay in touch without the distraction of using a phone (when that’s an option). My friend can alert me to road hazards, give me tips on lines to take up trails, coordinate recovery maneuvers, or point out that weird thing in the distance at a moment’s notice. In Enumclaw, WA, there is a coffee stand that takes orders on channel 11. I can get current weather reports outside of cell service, listen to trucker chatter, and the list goes on.

Please note: this is not a step-by-step tutorial, but I want to share the solution that I came up with to hopefully make it easier for the next person looking to enhance their van’s communication abilities!

Please don’t let any of the following information overwhelm you. In the end, other than a desire to communicate without requiring cell towers, expensive phones, monthly bills, or licenses, all you need to get started with CB is:

  • a CB radio
  • an antenna
  • an antenna mount
  • a coax cable

Here’s the equipment that I currently use and am very happy with. Cost is <$200.

This setup allows for use of sideband channels, which without getting too technical, allow you to transmit with 12 watts instead of 4 watts. My friend with the same radio, was able to pick me up in the Phoenix metro area 16 miles away. Of course, performance varies with terrain and elevation, but this setup has never let me down.

This is one of the most highly rated units I’ve found. Affordability, customizable colors, settings, sideband transmission, NOAA weather, and SWR meter make it my radio of choice.

This cable connects the radio to the antenna. When coiling excess, try not to make a loop, but rather zip the bundle tightly. Some of the alternative mounts I recommend below will include a cable.

I tried both the 5′ and 4′ FireStiks on mine and my buddy’s Transits, we got significantly better results with the 4′ I’ve listed above.

If you don’t have a brush guard or similar on your bumper and don’t want to drill, this hood lip-mount by Nagoya is probably your best bet.

This thing keeps the microphone suspended, out of the way, and the clip is just big enough to fit the passenger side visor bar.

Here are a few more photos of how it’s wired up. The radio itself only needs 12v, ground, and the antenna coax. It’s incredibly simple once you work out how you’re mounting everything. I wired it into one of my 12v accessory outlets, as it’s <3 amps. The Transits also leave these outlets active for 30 minutes once you lock the doors, so I don’t have to worry about running my battery down!

Other Antenna and Mount Options

My first CB setup had this 102″ whip antenna mounted on the passenger side brush guard, with zip ties to clip it back above the passenger door. This would regularly whack my van’s body. Moving it to the spot my Firestik is in now, I was picking up transmissions from Northern California! Beware: it’s huge and unwieldy, I wouldn’t recommend for permanent installation in this location.

I am lucky enough to have a steel tube brush guard to mount my antenna to. If I’m you, I don’t want to make new holes for my coax cable to pass into the cab and I’d prefer not to make any holes to mount the antenna. This brings me to my next suggestion…

The best choice I’ve come up with for this is the above Nagoya mount that attaches via set screws to the lip of your hood. This will give you flexibility to experiment with placement without making any permanent modifications to the van. Other options include..

VanCompass Hoodline Light Pod Mounts are $100 for a pair, require no drilling, and would be a feasible option for creating a clean antenna mount. I use these for LED pods, or I’d definitely have used them for a sweet dual-antenna setup.

Firestik SS174 Hood/Trunk Channel Mount is <$20 and requires some drilling into the fender, but would still allow you to make no new holes into the cab.

If you want something even simpler and more straightforward, perhaps just to experiment with, you may consider magnetic antennas like the one above. I have two things to warn you about with magnetic antennas. They’re a poor choice for range and they’re a poorer choice for any kind of forest roads and exploration. Magnetic antennas are going to get knocked over by every tree limb. However, if you are primarily interested in talking with friends and such on long trips, or just want to dip your toes in the water – this is a cheap and simple way to give it a try. Screw it into your radio and throw it on your roof.

My first CB radio was form over function.

My first experiment with CB in the Transit was with a handheld unit, the Uniden PRO401HH. The range on this unit was awful and I wouldn’t recommend it. I replaced it with the Uniden CMX760 Bearcat. The main appeal for me was that the unit was so small that I was able to install it underneath the center cupholders, so all that was visible was the handset (which housed the control buttons and a screen).

Unfortunately, as the reviews indicate is common, the unit would lock up and shut off at random. I had the same issue with a Uniden handheld, before I discovered that the general consensus is that handheld CBs are all trash in this budget range. I felt it important to mention these two units, as you’ll likely see them in your research. They’re simply not worth your time or money.

I hope there was some useful information here for you, diving into the technical side of CB (and radio in general) is beyond my experience. I’d like to thank Darin @darin.arrick and Tony @verdiethevan for their expert guidance in my understanding of radio hardware and theory.