By Dave Boyer

In case you are new to the special vehicle section, this article deals with a four wheel drive van I ordered in 2005 made by Sportsmobile. In the last post I went over a few interior items and will continue down the list of options provided to me in 2005. This post will discuss my choices concerning the water, refrigeration, heating and cooling systems. Again, these are my views only and other owners may disagree. Please see the previous posts.

The water tank.

Fresh water was a big concern for me when designing my van. Many people bring along bottled water for drinking and cooking. Maybe their water at home tastes bad, but my home town water is great so an onboard tank would suit my needs for potable water. I just have a problem with water that sits in a RV water tank for months at a time. In the 50 model, the standard location for the tank is under the sofa. The main problem is you can’t drain all the water out of the tank, much less wipe it down from time to time, so I use bottled water to drink as well, something I had planned to avoid.

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It would be nice to add this porthole to the tank but I would want to see whether it would fit, how easy it would be to use, and most important, verify it won’t leak. I’ve also heard of the water tank freezing, but this has yet to happen to me. There are tank heaters available to prevent this if you are exposed to such harsh weather. Of course I wanted all the water I could get, so I ordered the biggest tank. I paid extra for the largest tank that would fit which I’m told actually holds about 18 gallons. My main reason for the larger tank was due to the shower that I will discuss in detail later. Several owners had opinions on how they would clean out their tanks which can be found in the Sportsmobile owners group archives section and many claim that drinking from their tanks have produced no ill effects. I would like to install a small tank to hold drinking water that can be removed, inspected, and cleaned more easily, I just am hurting for space. For now 2 gallons of water will last me a week for use in cooking and drinking.

The refrigerator.

The refrigerator is an item that takes some consideration. At the time of my purchase there were few models and a couple of sizes to pick from. I ordered the larger size (4 cubic feet shown here) and it’s amazing how much you can pack in this unit.

 

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The larger (4CF) size will take up valuable cabinet space though, and there might be issues where it is installed. The smaller unit shown here might be enough for many.

 

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Check out the cabinet on top of the refrigerator. Notice how much extra storage there is. Although the size of the top cabinet can be designed to any size, this seems to be popular. I just didn’t like how the window is blocked making it difficult to raise and lower the window shade but the extra space is very nice to have. It might seem silly to have a window that is blocked, but air flow can help keep the refrigerator from cycling on too often during cooler weather.

With my layout, the large refrigerator is one way to step up to the penthouse bed, but using it as a step “up” depends on which direction you want to sleep on top. Personally my feet end up toward the front of the van and the bed is pushed all the way back towards the rear. So the refrigerator is the best way up. Depending on the size of the refrigerator and how the cabinets are arranged, placement can dictate on how you climb up to sleep. SMB will tell you the best route up to the PH bed (for instance it might be the bench seat), but it’s important to actually try this out before making the order especially if you make a change from a standard model. Here is another reason for a factory visit to Sportsmobile. The larger unit is a bit too tall so I carry a small folding step or an ice chest as the 1st step up. I didn’t intend on having to use a step.

The 4 cf unit has a reasonably sized freezer but I have found that if you turn up the thermostat high enough to truly freeze foods hard, the rest of the refrigerator gets a little too cold. It also cycles on more often which pulls down the house battery faster. At least that’s the way mine works, so no ice cream for Dave. With some basic improvements such as insulation who knows. The freezer does help keep things like meat and chicken semi frozen giving them extended time before going bad. I also use it to keep vegetables frozen in boil bags. In fact any previous cooked foods vacuumed in food saver bags works great.

 

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I wouldn’t be without the freezer even though ice cubes are usually out of the question. It keeps most foods cold enough to keep from spoiling, and heating by boiling in these bags qualifies as an easy clean up meal. Several other companies other than Norcold make units that might qualify as the perfect refrigerator. Here again is an item to research. Is a better unit worth the extra cost? Very possible. With the advent of the Sprinter Van, a larger refrigerator might be available. Some people have even had more than one unit installed and use the second unit to store items when not in use.

My (2-way) refrigerator runs on AC and DC only, but SMB did offer a unit that runs on propane and electricity called a 3-way. As far as a propane powered refrigerator is concerned, my past experiences dealing with gas operated units led me to stray away from them. Concerning propane, it was just one more thing I would have to run around and fill up. I also remember how there was some maintenance issues with my Dad’s gas refrigerator in his trailer. Maybe these problems are a thing of the past, but if I didn’t need it, why have it. Some states have laws about entering a tunnel while carrying propane. Don’t get me wrong, there are many folks out there that wouldn’t do without propane and will swear by it. I will discuss my views on propane in more detail later. My major goal was to keep the van fully stocked and ready to go with the least hassle, so electric seemed to be the logical choice. I didn’t need the extra annoyance of a multi powered unit. If you don’t have solar, a propane/electric unit might be of interest.

The biggest gripe from customers is the vibration noise from the refrigerator. This type of noise never bothers me but many folks say it keeps them from sleeping. This is a major issue that seems to come up continuously on the forums. It seems that some refrigerators are louder than others and I have noticed that how the vehicle is parked (such as off camber) can make a difference on the noise. There are ways to deal with this, insulation being one. Research it.

Stoves, heaters, and propane.

What about a stove? Here is another item that requires some thought. All the trailers and campers in my past had propane stoves. As a kid I always thought it was really cool to cook inside. Of course I never cooked inside a tent because of the obvious reasons. I wasn’t too elated about cooking bacon or fish inside the van either. Hum….SMB vs. bear, not to mention the lingering smells.

So here are my views:

>I didn’t want to mess with filling a large propane tank in the van or looking for places to fill up. Also the tank would have taken up space that I needed for some other equipment so it got knocked off the list early on. I must confess that I do carry a couple of 1 pound bottles, one in my trailer and one in my rear storage box. Being portable they work well in the outdoor kitchen. I can take any vehicle down and fill the small tanks at any time. These one gallon tanks will last for well over a week powering Coleman stuff like lanterns, an outside stove and a barbeque.

>How often do I really cook inside? I use a barbeque most of the time and I can’t have that inside. I also cook on the fire a lot. Trying to cook a meal both outside and inside at the same time seems impractical. Hey what happened to my steak? Oh, a critter took it when I was in steaming vegetables in the van….nice. OK, there will be times when it will be necessary to cook inside. High winds, rain, snow, that kind of stuff. Now I must admit it is real nice to kick back inside a nice comfortable warm van with a hot cup of coffee or tea. There are a few ways around this. Some people don’t want a stove just because of the space it takes from the counter top, but if that doesn’t bother you, one idea did hit home with me. It’s possible to plum in a propane line to a cook top. Of course safety factors would have to be considered. You can have it set up to put a small bottle under the sink or have a spot outside the van to hook a larger external tank to a propane port. I might do this in the future, but for now I just bought the little butane stove that SMB sells.

 

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There are all kinds of stoves available from other sources. A few companies such as Iwatani and Wedgewood offer higher end products. Others like Stansport, Sterno and Wonderworld are more common plus you can’t leave out Coleman. Backpacking stoves such as Jet Boil, Pocket Rocket, and MSR styles can be used but stability while cooking with a large pot and the amount of heat put on the counter top must be taken into consideration. White gas stoves such as my old Svea 123 are the best stoves to operate in high altitude and sub-0 temps but I would never use a gasoline stove inside a vehicle.

I added Velcro to the case of my butane stove case to keep it in place on the counter top while on the road. It has never moved or fallen off the counter on any rough road or off road trail. If you do this make sure to add felt to the bottom of the case or it will scratch the counter top. Although I must carry butane fuel, this has worked well for me. It also is great to set up outside when my large Coleman stove is at home in my SMB trailer.

One thing to mention that was touched on in previous posts is your vehicle qualifying as a true RV (see the insurance portion.) If you don’t have a dedicated built in stove, your insurance company might have qualms about coverage if you’re in an auto accident. I was told an installed microwave counts as a stove but it must have the ability to run off an inverter, be built in, and not just sitting on a countertop. This is something to take up with your insurer. It’s been a very gray area for me. If SMB ever offers a diesel stove top, I’m there.

>Did I mention that there is a rebate to delete the propane system? I have no idea if SMB is still doing this, check with them. I saved close to 1000 dollars.

>The propane tank takes up space under the vehicle and depending how you set it up, you might have to go with a smaller tank or delete an item you want. This depends on several factors, just be aware of this.

Now to the main reason most people get the propane. The heaters. The furnace and hot water heaters are important to many folks. Being I wasn’t going to get talked into the propane world, I spent the extra few thousand bucks for the Espar Airtronic cab heater and Hydronic water heater. For people on a budget this is an expensive upgrade and just not worth it compared to the propane counterparts. But it was a high tech item I had to have. The only problem was I ended up as some sort of a beta tester. Unfortunately SMB had only installed a few units prior to my order. I had problems which I will get into later. My plan was an all electric, self sufficient diesel rig that wouldn’t require propane, so the diesel heating components were right up my alley. I also liked the idea of a block heater that pre-warms the engine.

 

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The timers have LCD screens that show information such as how much time is left during a run cycle.

The Hydronic has a timer, so I can set it to come on prior to driving. This can really help with the longevity of a diesel engine, plus you can set it to cycle on during early hours when stuff freezes. As with all water systems, you need to be wary of extreme cold weather. If the van sits in storage or is unoccupied for any length of time, problems with the potable water system can occur in temperatures around or below 32 degrees. You are instructed to drain the water to keep from doing damage to water system. Even while driving, water lines can freeze, primarily because a large section of lines are routed outside the cab under the vehicle. The coldest I have been in is 8 degrees and no problems surfaced, but that was before they did the upgrade to the flat plate. I have yet to test it in harsh conditions. The flat plate is a device similar to a heater core that takes hot water from the motor to heat a separate line of fresh water. The Hydronic uses a small diesel heater to heat the engines anti-freeze in one side of the flat plate which in turn conducts heats to the opposite side of the plate where the fresh water flows past and becomes very hot. It also keeps warm water flowing around the vehicles engine block. That’s how it warms up a cold motor. If the engine is hot from the motor running, you do not need to fire up the Hydronic to get fresh hot water. Some people opt for the flat plate without the Hydronic and just run their motor to get hot water. It’s a much cheaper install. But diesels are cold blooded and this takes time if you want potable hot water in a hurry, especially after the rig has set all night in freezing temps. The Hydronic will supply hot water in a few minutes. The Espar Hydronic unit did give me some problems. The first thing I noticed was how loud it was. You could hear it along way from camp. If I were in a developed campground I never ran it. Then I had flame outs all the time. At first SMB thought I wasn’t using the altitude switch. The early units would flame out at high altitudes and SMB installed an altitude switch to adjust for thin air. But I was using it correctly and they were stumped. I started to think I had made a mistake buying this high dollar option. Practically all my excursions were to areas above 8000 feet. Finally they made a call to the manufacture and found they had installed the exhaust incorrectly. SMB said the Espar company failed to give them the correct instructions on how to install the unit. No problem, it got done but cost me a few days of my vacation and fuel. Like I said in my previous post, “it will get done, it’s just gonna take some time and fuel.”  While I was there another guy with a similar problem heard me complain about the noise. He said he went on line and noticed they made a muffler for the exhaust. Surprise! I told SMB I wanted that installed. What a difference and it took a customer to tell me about it. The next problem came through the SMB owners group. Someone got anti-freeze into the drinking water. This went round and round until finally SMB found that they had been shipped the wrong flat plates. It was kind of scary to think about. SMB was fast to jump on it, but it still required another trip to Fresno. This was another case were it was the fault of the manufacture as I noted in the previous posting. I don’t blame SMB for the most part although I would like to see a more proactive movement toward designing a van that can handle a cold environment. The next problem I encountered was a variety of code failures. The control panel will show codes that help diagnose the reason it shuts down. I got several new codes and was unable to run the unit more than 15 minutes. The word from Espar is it was plugged with dust. I’m not thrilled with this at all being it’s installed behind the front tire of a four wheel drive vehicle. I am going to come up with a solution on isolating from the dust or learn how to maintain this thing myself. New equipment has flaws and someone has to deal with it, and it’s usually the customer. Most everybody I know who owns an RV has problems with some part of their investment. This is why I deal locally when buying anything complex. Espar is well known to truck drivers and are used heavily in big rigs. I hope to find a dealer locally who can work on these things. I’m not sure if I would order the Hydronic again due to the problems I have had and only time will tell. Maybe it’s a fluke. According to SMB, my Hydronic seems to be a lemon. I will have to see what Espar charges for the repair and discuss moving the unit out of a line of dust with SMB. I live in an area that seldom gets colder than the upper 20’s so the cold is not an issue for the most part. If you live where the van sits in very cold weather for any length of time you might have problems if you don’t drain the system. This is where I would seek out owners who endure these kinds of conditions and ask their advice. One advantage to propane is the system is very reliable and has been around for a long time. I have no idea what cold temps do to propane. Ask.

OK now to the cab heater. The Espar Airtronic is a great unit. I really haven’t had any problems to date and it has been one of the best options I decided on. The unit itself sits toward the back under the closet on the driver side in my EB/50 which is an inside storage area. Care needs to taken to ensure that the air intake isn’t blocked. The heater’s exhaust port is just below the foot of the sofa/bed under the pantry. This varies from model to model and may be located in different areas. The Airtronic kicks out enough heat to keep me warm with the top up in 8 degree weather while sleeping in the penthouse. I usually sleep up top in a cheapo 40 degree sleeping bag and have never had the thermostat above three quarters. All the newer versions have digital readouts and timers similar to the Hydronic controller. This timer helps to keep things from freezing in cold climates if set to come on. As noted earlier, I have heard of the fresh water tank and water lines freezing inside the van. If you’re away from the van you can set the timer to keep the inside warm. I am not fond of the way it adjusts. Too bad it can’t be set to a specific degree. More than once I have had to get up in the middle of the night sweating when it’s 30 degrees outside, only to turn down the thermostat and awake somewhat cold later. I have learned to deal with it and I prefer it on the cooler side anyway. Having the heater run more often pulls down the house battery and causes the refrigerator to cycle on often which leads to more DC drain. Another problem that can occur is the heater shutting down because the vehicles fuel tank being low. Because both the Airtronic and Hydronic run directly off the vehicles diesel tank, a safety has been installed to shut them down before the fuel tank runs too low. It makes sense to have this for a couple of reasons, one being, who wants to be stranded in the back county out of fuel. The second reason is that running the motor out of fuel is not very therapeutic for a diesel engine. Although the 6.0 PSD has built in safety factors for this, it’s not advisable. It’s difficult to find this shutdown point partially because I actually don’t know when I have only a 1/4 tank left. This has to do with the aftermarket tank that I will discuss later. Safe to say, I keep my fuel gauge over one quarter and have not had to wake up frozen to my bed yet.

The next portion will start with the air conditioner. Thanks for following Autoramblings.com