I still remember backing out of my parent’s driveway (Austin) in my newly “finished” van, ready to start out on my adventure in February. Of course the van wasn’t actually finished, but I needed to hit the Colorado ski slopes before the season ended.
After driving all day, I stopped in a Wal-Mart parking lot, one of the few spots at the time I “knew” was safe to stay in (side note: many walmarts no longer offer overnight parking). It was convienent, because once I started out I realized there were a large number of things I was missing. The biggest thing was some kind of jar to pee in, and some kind of jar to use as a sink.
I remember going into the walmart bathroom with my overnight kit, and brushing my teeth using their sinks. It felt awkward and weird, and I realized I wanted to figure out a way to brush my teeth in my van, in privacy. At this point the reality of my new lifestyle started to set in. Is this really what I wanted to be doing? Living in my house had been so comfy and convenient, could I really set out into the unknown and find what I needed every single day? What if I couldn’t find a place to park? What if I REALLY needed to use the bathroom and couldn’t find one?
As I got more experienced in the lifestyle, these questions became less of a problem. The choices I made in my build proved that I did my research and was ready. I built a stealth van, I could always find somewhere to stash it for the night. If I had a problem or felt unsafe, I could simply move. Bathrooms are available everywhere there are people and gas stations are often open all night. Worst case, I had a shovel and the great outdoors.
During the drive to Colorado, things felt “normal”. It was just like I was on a road trip. Only after a few weeks of coping with the daily necessities of living in your van did my new lifestyle begin to sink in, and things began to go wrong.
I had been struggling with my starter battery ever since I bought the van. On cold nights, I would have a hard time starting the van, and sometimes it wouldn’t start at all (diesels need a LOT of power to start up). Right before I left, I bought a brand new starter battery, and things seemed ok while I was driving for so long each day. Then I hit Denver, things got colder, and I didn’t drive as much to charge it. I got stranded a lot, and remember doing the “jumper cable dance” outside the van banking on the kindness of strangers. The vast majority of people would see me, look away, and continue on with their busy lives.
I desperately tried to figure out the problem, but it was incredibly elusive. Only 2-3 days out of the week was my battery drained; the rest it seemed ok. I took my van to a specialized Sprinter van shop, and they assured me they found and fixed the “parasitic drain” problem (at a high cost). I left for the ski slopes feeling confident, until I got stranded the next morning with an engine that wouldn’t even try to turn over. It took 15 minutes being connected to a generous stranger’s running engine before it even attempted to crank, and 15 more before I could get it started.
I had tried to anticipate this problem by buying a battery isolator (the thing that charged my house battery), that let me connect my house battery to my starter battery for some extra juice. The cold sapped my house batteries effectiveness, and the starter battery was so drained it wasn’t nearly enough to get it started. I bought a portable battery starter as a stop gap, the most powerful I could find. It was not enough to start my engine with it’s poor flat-lined starter battery. On my next dead battery morning, I had to walk to the closest gas station, borrow their battery starter, and hook BOTH up to my engine before it started. Things were clearly bad.
Despite all of that, I was skiing almost every day. I was enjoying life. I tried not to worry about it, while I researched on forums, and tried to figure out what I could do. Most repair shops wouldn’t even LOOK at my awkward vehicle, and the expensive bill from the other with no results made me hesitant to keep trying.
It was a good growing experience, and highlights that even when things are going wrong, you still have to live life as best you can. For me, van life was all about personal growth anyway right? Dealing with the anxiety and fear every time I turned my key was a good thing in the long run. Now I feel like I have the capability to handle any problem, no matter how stressful (like the time my van got stuck in the mud/snow and every time I tried to get it out I slid closer to the cliff while my traveling companion at the time was having a panic attack).
If you’re curious how I eventually “fixed” it, this last paragraph is for you. I bought the right tool, a multimeter that can read current draw without having to disconnect the battery. It’s really useful for a lot of other things too. Now I could see what was draining the battery. I started pulling fuses, and found out an almost 2 Amp draw disappeared when I pulled the fused for my A/C control panel. I found out that when I disconnected my battery to put in the traditional “in-line” multimeter, it reset the system and the draw disappeared. That’s why I couldn’t find the problem earlier, every time I disconnected the battery to put my multimeter on it, the problem went away!
Right now I just have the A/C fuse out until I can repair or replace the expensive A/C control panel. If I need cool air, I put the fuse back in, and take it out. It’s a pain, but it’s better than being stranded. There will always be problems and inconveniences when you are living out of an older vehicle; the personal growth comes from coping and overcoming these struggles.