Insulation: The Next Step of #VanLife and Living in a Van

If you’re looking for a short, abridged, How-to version of insulating a van, you’re gonna have to wait a bit. This is in whimsical story fashion and overly detailed. Plus pictures and videos and stuff so make sure you make it to the end. Once I get done with all the posts of building my entire van, I’ll come back through and make succinct step-by-step instructions with less fun stuff.

And for those of you thinking, “Hey, where can I find more awesome and great How-To’s of this guy’s build?” the answer is right here: 2004 Ford E350 #VanLife build-out how-to’s.

Van Insulation Research

Like any good engineer, I spent no less than a month or 4 researching the topic. I needed to know the pros and cons of every method. I needed to analyze what worked well for that person, and sucked for those people. I researched every type of insulation on the market. I did the cost-benefit analysis to see what fit my budget. I agonized over the best stuff over the cheap stuff.

And in the end, after I did all of that, I found one link that explains it all and told me exactly what to do and what to buy.

Finished van InsulationYes, this is my life.

How to Insulate a Camper Van

Insulation Materials

Assuming you didn’t click that link, here’s what I used:

  • Reflectix
  • Standard formaldehyde-free, fiberglass housing insulation
  • Spray Foam
  • 1″ rigid, foil-backed insulation
  • Plastic vapor barrier (6 mil minimum thickness)
  • Tyvek tape
  • 3M spray adhesive

How I Insulated My Van

One thing I found during my 4 month research period is that it seems people want specific, individual instructions for their specific, individual van. Thing is, vans is vans and as long as you understand the principles, it don’t matter what van you have. But for those wondering, I have a Ford E350 extended body.

Meow…

Preparation and ‘Inner Walls’

When I bought my van, someone had sprayed the entire cargo area (except the ceiling) with Rhino-liner. Awesome. It provides a little structural support and little sound deadening so that it’s not just a giant tin box rattling and flapping in the wind as I drive down the road. However, the dealer that I bought it from also sprayed the entire cargo area with Armor All. Not awesome. Adhesive will stick to Rhino-liner, but it won’t stick to Armor All. I spent the entire first night of this project de-greasing and scrubbing the van walls.

Inner wallAnd then…

We got to work.

Contrary to popular belief, the van is not single-walled. As in, the sheet metal you see on the outside of the van is NOT the sheet metal that you see on the inside of the van. There are a ton of huge pockets and wasted, dead space. While I was rolling sound deadening material on the ceiling, my dad got to work stuffing fiberglass insulation between the walls.

There is so much space between them that it took nearly an entire roll of insulation INSIDE the walls. And there was still more to do.

Where there was empty space, but too small for fiberglass insulation, I used spray foam to fill the gaps. It took 6 cans:

– 2 cans of 12 oz.
– 2 cans of 16 oz.
– 2 cans of 20 oz.

There’s no science to knowing how much foam you need to spray in the walls. Mainly because you can’t see what you’re doing. You’re shootin’ blind!

Anyways, fill in obvious gaps in the walls, but don’t forget the ribs on the ceiling and the other struts along the top. When you get done, your van should look like a pubescent teenager with whiteheads popping out all over the place. (Too graphic?)

The rest of the day was spent installing furring strips on the walls and ceiling. (Furring strips are the pieces of wood that you attach the walls and furniture to. You don’t actually screw stuff directly to the van metal….except the furring strips.) This was no easy task either.

The walls are not flat, nor are the surfaces on a nice curving, flat plane. That means every furring strip had to be measured, shimmed, eyeballed, and custom installed to make sure that when the wall panels go up, they stay square and flat.

Van Wall Insulation

The next day we tackled the “real insulating.” The stuff that you can actually see — Reflectix, fiberglass, and vapor barrier.

Reflectix Insulation

As with anything, the first attempt was the worst. We didn’t think that the 3M adhesive would be strong enough to hold the Reflectix in place across multiple levels of metal. I painstakingly cut out one small square to fit on one small surface of the wall. Sprayed the wall, sprayed the Reflectix, and slapped it up there. It stuck. Hooray, Chemistry!

But if we did that for every surface, for every level, the work would take so long and be so tedious, I would give up, sell the van, and start looking for an engineering job again. NO!

So we started experimenting with larger pieces of Reflectix going over larger areas of walls, over multiple planes. As it turns out, the 3M adhesive is strong enough and the roller is the key to making sure it all sticks to the multiple levels/planes. With some educated guessing on how big to make each piece and where to splice smaller ones, covering the entire surface of both walls only took 3 hours.

Reflectix van insulationReflectix van insulation

Fiberglass Wall Insulation

Van fiberglass installationI originally bought rolls without the paper backing because that’s what the people in the Instructables link used. But then my dad brought up a good point: How do you get it to stay in place and not fall down?

The instructable people just used tape, but I think that was a cost/benefit decision. As in, they made it seem like they got their Van insulation installationinsulation for free and were just working with what they had. Since I had to buy mine either way, I went with the insulation with the paper backing. This allowed us to staple it to the furring strips and keep everything in place. I didn’t buy enough so I ended up filling in the gaps with the non-paper stuff and using tape, but that was fine for the few places I needed it. Doing the whole vanVan Fiberglass with that stuff would have  been tedious and sucky….again. Hooray, Dad!

Pro tip: The insulation will be much thicker than you need since this isn’t standard residential construction. It’s better to thin out the insulation depth by peeling it apart than to compress and “stuff as much as possible” in the walls. Stuffing actually removes the insulation properties.

Insulating the Ceiling

Other than individual furring strips for each rib, because why on earth would they all be the same length, this was the easiest part. Measure the width of each section and cut a piece of 1″ rigid insulation. Unfortunately, the sheet of insulation wasn’t wide enough to span the entire ceiling so we had to custom cut a small piece to fit on the end and taped into place for each ceiling section. But again, this was pretty seemless, and we cut everything so tight that most of it held in place just by friction. We didn’t want to take any chances so we taped each joint and each piece anyways.

Vapor Barrier

Van insulation Vapor BarrierFinally, it was time for vapor barrier and the end of this nonsense. (Cuz the floor is similar but different and easier but more complex at the same time. That’s a different post.)

Vapor barrier comes in standard height for standard residential wall construction. We still used every  bit of it but to avoid waste, we started stapling at the bottom of the wall as opposed to the top, if this were a normal house. That way, whatever is excess, just
wrapped up to the ceiling and protect the rigid insulation as well.

Trim things, cut things, attach things, and BOOM! DONE!

If you include me washing the walls, it took 2 days and 1 evening to insulate 3 out of the 4 surfaces of the van.

It is now INCREDIBLY quiet, and I was originally skeptical that all this work and all this material would really do much thermal regulation. Now I feel incredibly confident that this thing is damn near insulated better than most houses — 6 cans of spray foam, 2 rolls of fiberglass insulation, 1.5 sheets of rigid insulation, and over 100′ of Reflectix.

** Don’t forget to check out the rest of my #VanLife How-To’s and #VanLife videos.

Now the whole thing in video form!





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14 responses to “Insulation: The Next Step of #VanLife and Living in a Van

  1. Hi!
    I noticed that you used furring strips first whereas the instructables people anchored everything after the vapor barrier was in place. Do you have any opinions about the difference? I’d like the better anchoring of using furring strips first, but I like the truly airtight aspect of the instructables insulation and I’m worried about moisture.

    1. I have no concrete evidence one is better than the other. I can just give you my opinion.

      We chose to do the furring strips first so that we’d know exactly how thick the walls would be once everything is installed. I have MUCH LESS space to give up in the E350 as opposed to their Sprinter. Also, they used spray adhesive and tape to stick their fiberglass insulation to the wall. I did not trust that method and thought the insulation could eventually fall and settle to the bottom. Furring strips allowed us to use the paper-backed insulation and staple them permanently in place.

      In terms of the water-tight vapor barrier, I’m not sure. If you look at traditional residential construction practice, the vapor barrier is always the last thing to go up before drywall. Granted, a van will likely be ‘wetter’ than a house, but once you staple the plastic in place and put more walls and objects between the water vapor and the actual insulation, it’s going to be very difficult to get a significant amount of moisture on the inside of your walls. It’s not like the vapor is going to be so heavy and stick around so long that it will be able to seek out any nook or crack and get stuck in there.

      1. This is great info, thanks.
        I’m trying to figure out how much to worry about condensation/moisture/mold/rust as compared to other factors (cost, anchoring, safety)– I’m going to have 2 people living in the van (one of them a congested mouth-breathing sleeper), and I’ll be in temperate, wet climates most of the time. Currently (without ventilation or insulation), the metal inside walls of the van are so wet every morning that they actually start to drip. When it’s just one person, the walls are damp to the touch but not nearly as bad.

        Have you started living in your van full time? Is it just you?

        Also:
        I don’t have any prior knowledge about construction or insulation, so forgive the ignorance–but do you know where I can learn about van applications of different types of insulation (denim insulation vs. cellulose vs. durofoam vs. fiberglass)? (For instance, is there a reason you wouldn’t want to use the firmer durofoam-like insulation on the walls as well as the ceiling, instead of dealing with the fiberglass? I’d still pack the holes with something, but it seems like the ceiling was so much easier/thinner than the walls).

        1. Not full-time yet, but close. Two major installs yet to go, and their in the works. And yes, it’s just me, but it was built for the potential of two people. :-p

          I learned most of what I did through Google, though I do have extensive housing construction experience. But in terms of researching and ultimately deciding what to go with, it was just all online. YouTube, Google, Blog Posts, Manufacturer websites, online forums……

          The reason I didn’t use the rigid insulation on the walls is that the walls are curved and rigid is straight. Also, the R-value of rigid is A LOT less than fiberglass. Closed-cell, polyurethane spray foam (the industrial sized version of what I used in the spray can) is a great alternative, but again, the R-value is much less than what I went with. I plan on living in this thing in the winter in the mountains so staying as warm as possible is very relevant to my interests.

          1. Les – time to review R-Values from a different source. Please have a look at insulation tests, and you’ll see that fiberglass batt has a lower R-Value per inch (note: PER INCH) thickness than spray foam. In residential construction, spray foam has several advantages over fiberglass batt, and it would be much more common if it didn’t initially cost more; payback for the more expensive spray foam varies depending on heating/cooling source and $/unit of the energy source. The higher the energy cost (electricity; natural gas; etc.) the less time it takes to pay for spray foam.

            Look down the page:
            http://www.coloradoenergy.org/procorner/stuff/r-values.htm

            R-Values (higher is better):
            Fiberglass Batts = 3.14-4.30 per inch
            Polyurethane (foamed-in-place) = 6.25 per inch

  2. Great post. I just got a van to use for my reptile rescue (ForgottenFriend.org). Ectothermic critters love to avoid extreme heat and cold. This will be super helpful as we reptilize our van! Many four-legged and no-legged animals owe you a debt of gratitude.

  3. how do you get around the fibreglass going under your skin and causing hours of torture, if not days, Brother Craig for Pastor

    1. My neighbor worked as a home insulator and he lightly brushed his skin with pantyhose to remove all the FG fibers.

  4. Can you give a cost estimate for how much it was to fully insulate your E350? I’m looking at an E350 and was wondering about how much to expect.

  5. Hey, I´m about to insulate a van as well and researched a lot about what the right insulation might be for warmer weather. I came across contrary opinions, so I thought you might be able to help with the answer. On the one hand, people put their reflectix right on the bare metal of the van, but on the other hand I found a post saying that you should never do this since the heat can pass right through it. Instead it was suggested that you first use foam boards, then reflectix and then cover it with ply wood. Your advise would be much appreciated.

    Greetings, Lin

    1. Yes, I believe the right answer is to use foam boards and then the reflectix. If I could do mine over, I might investigate that option, but then it also limits the ability to use fiberglass insulation (or another alternative), which I believe to be superior to the reflectix + air gap option. So in that regard, if I could do it over again, I might just skip the reflectix altogether.

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