At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
Last night I found myself outside in the cold, replacing both of Nacho’s axles and all four CV joints. While this an enormous pain in the neck, I was able to hobble indoors after the job was done, warm up, and take a shower. Our life on the road is going to involve a lot of jobs like this. The thing about living in a house is that I can stroll back inside and be welcomed by a hot shower, a soft bed, and clean clothes.
We had this in mind when designing our vehicle, and built in as many home comforts as possible. Chief among them were clean drinking water and hot showers. If we were traveling in an RV this would have an off-the shelf solution. However, given that we’re in a hippy bus with weight and space limitations, we had to get inventive, and as usual, we went overboard.
Brad’s Unrealistic Requirements for Nacho’s Water System
Any water we put in the tanks (within reason) should be safe to consume by the time it reaches the faucet.
Water flow must stop if sanitation equipment fails.
Must provide both hot and cold water.
Must have a permanent shower (i.e. no solar shower bags!)
If the onboard holding tanks are empty, it must create a hot shower from an outside source.
It would be easier to create a magical unicorn and fly over a rainbow, but the engineer in me saw this as a totally reasonable list of requirements. Fortunately I gave myself two years to complete the project, because it took every bit of two years to finish. Hardcore overlanders will call us soft, but frankly, I don’t give a rip. We wanted hot showers and clean water.
First things first: figure it out
Since the water system needed both hot and cold water, I needed two tanks. I settled on two tall skinny tanks that could go side-by-side where the factory water tank used to be.
During a camping trip in New Mexico we had tried out a solar shower, placing it on top of the open rear door. We attached a shower curtain around the hatch, creating a nice shower stall. This worked well, so we decided to plumb the shower into the rear door.
It quickly became evident that this was going to require a lot of equipment and even more tubing. But where to put it all without looking super ghetto? I decided to build a lowered subfloor for the equipment, and build a false floor under which much of the tubing could run.
Now that the vague details had been hammered out, I created a diagram of the system. Many an evening was spent tweaking it, until finally I had come up with something that would accomplish all of the goals of our water system plan.
Building the water system infrastructure
This project began while the van was gutted. The first step was to drop a tub in the floor to hold the equipment such as the pumps, filters, valves, etc. After taking measurements under the van I designed the tub in CAD and sent it to a sheet metal bender.
The next step was to cut a hole in the floor for the tub, and then rivet the tub in place.
Measured twice, cut once. Fits like a glove. There’s a drain in the tub, so if something bursts or leaks the van won’t be flooded or damaged.
I bought a 100 foot roll of tubing for this project from McMaster-Carr. When all was said and done, I ended up using closer to 150 feet (the image below doesn’t depict the complete plumbing job). The floor and rear wall are covered in tubing going to various places. If you tie together all of the wiring and tubing in the van, it will stretch to the galaxy Andromeda and back twelve times.
Designing the water system diagram was difficult, but hooking it up in real life was far tougher. It was a miracle that the whole system worked as planned when we finally tested it out many months after completing the plumbing and wiring. Good thing too, because I’d sooner drive Nacho off a cliff before re-plumbing this mess.
The next step was to build the false floor to cover up the tubing. I made the sub floor out of lightweight aluminum honeycomb panels, and then attached a maple hardwood floor to that. Several bolts through the subfloor act as the elevating legs. A large portion of the floor is hinged so that it can be opened to access the water system.
The false floor was then installed. The water tanks were plumbed through the false floor, so they had to be installed at the same time. The tank with the insulation is for hot water.
Alas! The backbone of the water system was complete.