I love doing clever DIY RV upgrades around my camper to make it better, more comfortable or add some functionality that it never had before.
So if you are like me and can’t afford an RV with every little upgrade and improvement built in.
Or you are someone that has built your own VanLife Camper and want some inspiration on some little projects that you can do to make your van a bit comfortable and nicer to live in then I have some great suggestions for you.
These are all things that I have done to our camper, some are harder than others and I have tried to include some information about each one that can give you some more information about how long each one takes.
Camper Upgrade 1: Automatic Fridge Cooling Fans
Price: Less than $50 (can be less than $20)
Time to install: 2-3 hours
Benefits: Reduce the amount of LPG or power for running your fridge, maintain a constant temperature better, monitor the temperature of your fridge so you know it’s always perfect.
If you have an absorption fridge, you know the 3-way fridges that constantly change temperature unless you are checking it all the time, takes forever to get cold, have cold spots and warm spots inside, and the freezer never really works properly. Yea that one, I have found a way to mostly tame the beast and make it more efficient.
Well I do, and I will change it to a compressor fridge eventually but right now I have found a better option.
I have installed 3 computer fans that draw a maximum of only around 0.5A controlled by a thermostat that shows the temperature in the fridge. The thermostat and fans cost around $20 total, then it was just a little time and a few zip ties to install it.
The Frist, and probably most important fan is the one inside the fridge. You can see that one in the first image and it is a 80mm computer fan. This one circulates the air around the inside of the fridge making everything get colder faster and it also improves the efficiency of the fridge.
Note: One other thing I have done to improve the function of the fridge is to remove the freezer door as it’s very small and doesn’t really work very well as a freezer and use that to hold a couple of beers (icy cold in about 30 mins 😉 ). This is where the fan inside the fridge sits and this improves the cooling capacity of the fridge a lot. You just have to be ok with not having a freezer.
The second fan is on the exhaust vent for the back of the fridge to pull the hot air out. This fan draws the hot air from the back of the fridge out and pulls in cool air from the bottom vent helping to reduce the temperature.
Finally, the 3rd fan is attached to the radiator on the back of the fridge at the top. This helps to cool the refrigerant as much as possible before it goes back into the inside of the fridge itself. Again cooling the fridge even more.
To install both of these fans you simply need to run the cables from the controller to where the fan will be placed and use some zip ties to hold them in place.
All three of the fans are connected to the small thermostat that displays the temperature inside the fridge, this is set to 2.5°C so it turns the fans on at 4.5°C until the temp goes down to 2.5°C again then turns them off. It shows you the current temperature in the fridge so you always know that it’s a good safe temperature.
Parts and Materials
RV Upgrade 2: DY RV Vent Fan
Price: $30-50 Depending on materials choice and price.
Time to Install: 3-4 hours (depending on the van and how professional you want it to look)
Our little camper, Bill, is insulated quite well with 25mm or 1 inch of insulation in all walls, floor, and ceiling and this helps a lot for maintaining the temperature. Great in winter when you want to keep it warm inside. But in summer when you want to cool down in the night not so much.
Find the biggest fans you can fit in your roof vents, I got 200mm fans these are great as they are very quiet and move large volumes of air for very little power. They are simply computer fans and the good thing about computer fans is their lifetime. They are meant to run continuously for years and years and if you get some good quality ones you will probably never need to replace them.
When its warm we run these fans 24 hours a day for weeks at a time and its never a problem.
I simply took the molding that holds the mosquito net off the roof vents measured it and replaced the mosquito net with a piece of plexiglass with all the screw holes and the big hole for the fan. A metal cutting saw either manual or jigsaw is best for this and a normal drill for the smaller holes.
Cutting the holes was one of the most difficult parts and I would suggest you take your time as it’s very easy to damage or crack the plexiglass.
Then mount the fan and run your wires. I was able to use a drill bit to run the wires through the ceiling insulation into the nearby cupboard avoiding the need to attach them to the ceiling surface. But if you can’t do this or are worried about taking a drill to the ceiling you can easily just tape the cables to the ceiling.
Finally, you just need to connect the fan or fans to a switch somewhere, thankfully I had a spare switch and just connected them to the last one on my board but if you don’t have a spare switch you will need to get one. Lastly add in a fuse, 2A or a 5A should work perfectly for this.
Parts and Materials
- 200mm or larger computer fans or the biggest size you can fit
- Plexiglass for mounting
- Cable for power
- Switch and fuse
RV Project 3: Chinese Diesel Heater
Price: $150 – $200
Time to install: 1 day
If you are going to be in colder climates and want to be comfortable in your van then installing a diesel heater really is the best way to go. They use very little fuel for a lot of heat and they just work so much better than any other alternative.
We had a gas heater in our van before I changed it over to a diesel heater. Now after making the change I would never go back. The gas heater would use huge amounts of gas, we would need new gas bottles every few days.
The normal way of installing the diesel heater is the install it on the floor of the van with the inlet and outlet running out of the bottom of the camper.
I have installed mine a bit differently as I wanted to have the benefit of running the exhaust of the heater through the water heater so that we could get hot water from the waste heat of the diesel heater. See the below diagram of how I installed my diesel heater with the water heater to get free hot water.
Mounting the Heater: I mounted my heater inside the van on a small shelf, this is very different from most installs and you will need to be careful of several things if you install it as I have.
The first is that the exhaust tube is protected from things touching it. The exhaust tube gets very hot and can cause things to catch on fire if they come in contact with it while it’s running.
The second is sealing the exhaust: As the pipe will be partly inside the van it’s very important that the connections are secure and sealed so you don’t get any exhaust gasses inside your camper.
The Heater should be mounted as close to the water heater as possible if you plan to install it like I did and take advantage of the waste heat in the exhaust.
Electrics: So you will need to connect the electrics to the heater and thankfully it comes with a fuse on the power cable so if you don’t have a fuse box or any space in yours, then you don’t need to use it. Run your cables to the heater.
Also, find a good position for your controller and mount it on the wall, make sure there is enough length in the cable to reach the main unit for connection. Also when you are installing it if you plan on using the temperature control mode you should mount it about waist height so that it doesn’t turn off too quickly when the warm air rises to the top of your van.
Mount the fuel tank and run the fuel line. I wanted to use the fuel tank that came with the heater rather than using the tank for the van. I found a place that made it convenient to install it where I can easily fill it while filling up the camper. Then I just ran the fuel line through the cupboard to the heater.
Next, mount the fuel pump. I didn’t use the pump mounting because even though it is rubber-mounted it transferred quite a lot of noise from its operation to the wall and into the van. Instead, I supported the hoses into and out of the pump and left the pump hanging in space. This should be fine if the pump is in a protected place where it is not going to get knocked or bumped.
One of the hardest parts of the build, because I needed to do some creative attachments and sealing was for the exhaust into the water heater. I needed to adapt the exhaust from the heater to go into the burn chamber of the water heater. I got a brass fitting that would allow me to fit the exhaust pipe tightly and securely into it and screw it into the side of the water heater.
Once I cut the correct size hole in the water heater and installed the fitting I then just connected the exhaust pipe from the diesel heater to the water heater and that’s it. The exhaust from the diesel heater goes into where the gas burner is in the water heater then out the normal exhaust for the water heater. You can see the install of the exhaust into the water heater in the two images here.
Then once these other parts are complete it’s time to test the heater. I did this just before going any further to make sure everything was working properly.
Finally, you need to run the heater output hose into the places in the camper where you want the heat to go. This varies depending on the camper and I had quite a difficult install as I had very little space for the hoses and any outlets as our camper is quite small.
Parts and Materials
- Diesel heater and install kit. (These vary so you will need to work out the one that best suits your van for install).
- Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Alarm
Camper Upgrade 4: Cigarette lighter plugs and USB Chargers
Price: $30 – $100
Time to install: 1-2 hours
This one really depends on your camper and its availability of power sockets. Also how many things you have to charge up or run from 12V. We have almost all our devices running from 12V, including our laptops that run from 12V power supplies. I got these as they are much more efficient than using the inverter and their normal wall chargers.
Make sure that you have fuses on all of the sockets, 15A per power socket and cable are good because most of these sockets are meant to work at up to 10A and this will give you a little headroom for that.
Other than 12V sockets the other thing that has been very helpful it’s inbuilt USB ports for charging especially high-power ones. Many devices come with high-power fast charging and some require it like tablets. This is where dedicated high-power sockets will really come in handy. especially if you have a USB-C fast charge device you will be able to get a good charge in rather quickly when you need it.
If you already have a fuse box with some extra space then this is really easy. You can also wire them to a switch but if you do this you may want to run them with a relay unless you can get a switch that will carry the 10A/20A or as many amps to support all your sockets. If you have say 4 sockets and only a small switch I would suggest grabbing 2x20A relays with two of the sockets connected to each one. Or just run them directly.
The last thing is the cable, you will want some decent thickness of the cable, firstly so that the devices that are connected to them can get enough power from the battery without the voltage dropping too much and also so that they don’t get too hot.
Parts and Materials
- 12V auto sockets
- USB sockets
- High Power inbuilt USB-C Charger
- 10A Cable
- Fuses / fuse box
- Relay (Optional 10A capacity for each one)
- Switch (Optional)
RV Mod 5: Temperature / Weather Station
Price: $20 (Just the price of your thermometer or weather station)
Time to install: Less than 1 hour
This one really is one of the most basic installs that you can do but it’s good to know the temperature in and outside your van. After you have one of these installed you will get to know the temperature better and will know better what the climate in an area is likely to be. You will also have a much better idea of what to wear day today so you don’t get too hot or too cold.
For this install simply find where you want to install your temperature sensor and find where you can run the cable to install the outside sensor. The best place for the sensor that will give you a very accurate reading is under your van, completely out of the sun. This will give you a very accurate reading of the air temperature without any influence from heating from the sun.
So just find a way to run it down inside the wall or cupboard, drill a little hole in the floor, only just big enough to fit the sensor. Then zip ties the sensor to a component under the van to keep it in place. Clean up your cable management with some zip ties and block up the hole with a little sealant and you are done.
Super easy and very useful.
Parts and Materials
Camper Mod 6: lighting upgrade
Price: Under $50 (depending on how much you need)
Time to install: ½ to 1 day (depending on the type of installation)
Lighting in a van can make a camper either feel like you are really camping with a headlamp or some terrible lighting around you, or it can feel like a comfortable space where you have enough light to read, cook, and even set the mood…
Here is what our lighting in the van looks like with just the original lights and with the new lights I installed.
The hardest part of the install is running the wires for it. To make it easier I just ran the wires from the existing lights that meant I needed to run the minimum amount through the camper.
After running the wires you will need to install the LED strips, this is very straight forward and shouldn’t be hard at all as they are adhesive backed and should just stick to the surface as long as its clean.
Once you have run the wires you will just need to connect them to the existing light connections, then connect it to the dimmer or switch you have, wherever you have installed them.
From there you will just need to connect it to the led stripe themselves. This can be done either with connectors if you LED strip came with them or your can solder them on dierectly if you know how to do this. It can be a bit tricky to be careful and take your time.
Note: I did not use switches for the lights as they all run of the lighting circuit that has a switch for all the lights in the van so if you want to turn all the lights off this is easy to do with that switch.
Parts and Materials
- LED light strip
- Switches/dimmers (better than the ones I have)
Killer RV Upgrade 7: LiFePo4 (lithium-ion phospahte battery)
Price: Over $500 (but its worth it, I promise)
Time to install: 1-2 hours
While this is one of the most expensive upgrades I have made it is definitely worth it and it means that everything else in the van works properly as they all have the power they need to operate all the time. Including having enough power for computers, phones, and everything else we need to work from the van full time.
If you plan on living in your van for any period of time, then I would suggest getting a LiFePo4 battery. Also if you see any other people living in their vans full time they will all say the same thing. These batteries are amazing and will last you for years and years of perfect use and performance. See some of the benefits of LifePo4 batteries here.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that they are 99% efficient rather than the 80% efficiency you get from a lead-acid battery. What this means is that you will be getting 20% more power from the same solar panels. So if you are thinking you don’t have enough solar power you might find that by simply upgrading your batteries you will have enough power.
This makes a huge improvement to the amount of power you have available. Meaning that if you think you need more solar you could simply change your battery and you will be getting 20% more power from your solar panels but doing nothing else.
Installing a new LiFePo4 battery is rather simple, it’s almost a simple plug-and-play installation. Simply disconnect and remove the old battery, then install the new one where the old one came from. You may find that the new battery is smaller and will need some wood to pack into the retention clamps so to keep it securely in place.
Then you will just need to program your solar controller to tell it that you now have a LiFePo4 battery installed rather than a lead-acid as they charge profile is a bit different. Check your manual on how to do this. Most Solar controllers have a compatible setting but if yours doesn’t you may need a new solar controller.
IMPORTANT NOTE! If your batteries charge from the engine of your camper and you simply install a Lithium battery you run the risk of damaging your alternator. MAKE SURE YOU DISCONNECT YOUR ALTERNATOR FROM THE LITHIUM BATTERY!
Lithium batteries can accept huge charge currents and will readily cause an alternator to overheat and fail if you leave them connected without a current limiter. So if you have a charge connection from your engine then disconnect it or install a dc-dc charger that will limit the current that the battery can draw from the alternator.
Parts and Materials
RV DIY Project 8: Solar Panels
Price :$250 and up depending on how much you install.
Time to install: ½ to 1 day
If you don’t already have solar panels on your camper then I highly recommend you get some. For living in a camper long-term they are almost as essential as having a battery in the van at all. Being able to stay in a place for a few days or even a week without having to worry about plugin into power or running your engine to charge the batteries is a great thing.
Not to mention much better for the environment than needing to run a generator or the engine.
In our camper, we have 280 watts of solar installed on the roof and this is more than enough for what we need (depending on the sun that is). We run 2 laptops for working sometimes all day, we also have other devices to charge like cameras, phones, and things like this, also water pump, lights, radio, and other small accessories.
Note: we do have an inverter for the few things we can’t run from 12V but it is quite rare that we use it as all our devices including our laptops run directly from the 12V battery and solar as this is much more energy-efficient than using an inverter. I would estimate we would need to double our solar installation and battery size if we were to run everything from the inverter.
I will go into this more in a dedicated post but start by planning out your install. Ask yourself some questions like these.
- How much solar will you need?
- How many of what size of panels will you get to do this?
- Where are the panels going to go?
- How much and how big of cable do you need?
- Where will you run the cables?
- Where will you mount the solar controller?
Asking all these questions and finding out the answers for your specific situation will make your install much easier when it comes to installing them.
First what you will need to do is work out the location for your panels, work your way around other things on your roof.
Next, you will need to run the cables to where you will mount the solar controller. This is best to do before mounting the panels as you can make sure that everything will end up where you want it to. You will need to drill the holes for the cables to go through the roof and mount the cable box with the seals in the correct place also.
Once the cables are all in place and run correctly you can connect them to the solar panels and mount the panels with the glue. Make sure you use the right type of glue as I have used the incorrect glue before and the panels almost came flying off. Not all Sikaflex is the same.
Finally, you can mount the solar controller inside the van and connect it to the battery. Its also good practice to connect them with a fuse or at least a circuit breaker.
Parts and Materials
- Solar panels – Here is a 180W panel perfect for a camper
- Mounting Kit – Here is a kit that includes all the mounting hardware you need.
- Mounting glue – Make sure you use Sikaflex 221, Sikaflex 252, or Sikaflex 291 only.
- Cable – Here is some good quality solar cable with connectors.
- Solar controller – Here is an MPPT model or if you want something cheaper then this PWM model is good too.
Now it’s time to start your RV Upgrades…
I hope these RV DIY Project ideas have given you some inspiration, to make some improvements to your camper that will make it that much more enjoyable to travel in. I know these have made a huge improvement to our van.
They just make day-to-day life in the van that much nicer and more enjoyable get started with your own killer camper upgrades and please let us know what ones you do.
Great upgrades Jim. Very inspiring.