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A topic of contention for many insulating your van can be a time-consuming ordeal yet it will allow you to survive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. If you intend to live anywhere that gets a snowy season or plan on being out in the hot California sun you’d better prepare to face the elements, the cold itself can be life-threatening if the temperature gets low enough.
You will want to take advantage of insulations thermal properties to control the temperature in your van, this is the reason why most people insulate as it needs to go into the interior side paneling of the vehicle we recommend tackling this first as it would be pretty well impossible to do efficiently with a whole wooden structure already built inside!
Doing this one task though will extend the range in which you are able to traverse the globe, you will be able to head into the blazing heat of the desert suns and stave off the bitter cold of the winter nights. Of course, the best part is being able to seal up your insulation having completed the job knowing that you’ll never have to do it ever again and can just forget about it.
There are three ways that heat can transfer you’ll need to become familiar with, the concept behind the exchange of energy from one source to another physically, transfer through radiation and of course convection.
Conduction is a physical transfer method for thermal energy, the easiest frame of reference would be when you put a plate of hot food on a table after you pick it up you can touch the table and feel the heat that transferred over. It’s quite the pain in a van however and is essentially how that exterior shell that’s blasted by the sun managed to transfer that heat into the van.
Convection is the movement of heat through the air, it’s most commonly thought of as a portable space heater in the winter, through the use of electricity a space heater heats metal then pushes air through the metal which then collects some of the deposited heat and dissipates it into the room as it escapes. The same goes for your cars built-in heaters, convection is one of the simplest ways to control temperature and you will likely stick with the built-in heater & cooler!
Radiation is the transfer of energy through electromagnetic, it’s most commonly felt anywhere outside on a bright day inside the rays of the sun's warmth. This radiant energy is a great source for power through the use of solar cells we can capture that radiant energy and store it within a battery allowing us to stay powered even when disconnected from civilization. While not the most efficient method of energy being completely crushed by oil, solar unlike oil is completely free the initial high investment cost of the panels is earned back in dividends plenty with energy generation that can reliably charge batteries allowing for full access to modern luxuries.
How Insulation works
Insulation takes advantage of several physics energy transfer properties, through the smart manipulation of hot air we can effectively funnel out the hot air and bring in the cool air in the middle of summers and when winter hits we simply take advantage of insulation and heating devices to create heat and filter out cold air.
Old as can be our ancestors would layer their homes with various materials to help them retain heat, being the modern age we have scientists working for companies to create the most effective combinations of materials to trap heat inside of. The result is we’ve amplified the effects of insulative properties and can get it done at relatively inexpensive costs.
In a van, we will want to be sure to cover the gaps between ridges and thoroughly fill any nooks and crannies inside of the vans interior shell. This will ensure that there is no accessible route for the cold to enter the van in winter and for heat to enter in the summer. With a van you’ll have to take into consideration the vehicle will be in movement and therefore depending on the type of insulation you opt for you might want to have it secured inside the wall to ensure it stays put.
Ultimately you will want to combine the usage of a few different types of insulations to keep your van warm in the winter. Some places are just not possible to insulate with panels and attempting to cut perfect shapes to stuff crevices is a waste of time it’s much more effective to combine a spray with some rock Rockwool to cover a broad selection of surfaces with ease.
A note on Warm Climates
Insulation is fantastic at trapping heat, but unless you plan on living in a sauna it’s absolutely not something you want to go overkill on in warm climates. For those that intend to travel both cold and warm consider where you will spend the most time and consider gearing more for that. However, I strongly recommend you avoid too much insulation in extremely hot climates you won’t need it, you’ll want to focus on keeping the floor cool not holding heat in the van!
Types of insulation
There are many different types of insulation, products range from polystyrene to a panel of reflectix and some go as far as using wool to insulate their vans. We’re going to cover the system of how insulation types are graded and compare some of the different types to give you a better understanding of their capabilities. Ultimately you’ll want to pick the type that suits your personal needs, some people don’t feel comfortable with having unnatural materials surround them whilst they sleep and others choose to spray foam everything because it’s kinda fun.
R-Value is what we attribute to a material's ability to resist heat flow, so the higher the better meaning you’ll want to avoid lower R-Value materials if you are in a cold climate. While we don’t need to tile up our roofs like that of the top of a house we can take from the lessons learned in housing to insulate our vans efficiently.
The folks over at Gnomad Home have created a fantastic spreadsheet on the various insulative properties available. The van community is very well-knit together as there are only so many of us crazy enough to attempt this great feat so be sure to check them out and support the community that promotes this lifestyle!
Fiberglass has been used traditionally to heat homes globally having the sheer cheapest cost to coverage ratio. The material, however, comes with some downfalls being not exactly the healthiest thing for you to be breathing through if you only plan on sleeping in the van and will be spending most of your time outdoors it can work and if you are really strapped for cash sometimes you gotta do what you’ve gotta do and that’s where fiberglass comes in as the hero.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Rockwool/ Mineral wool one of the most expensive methods of insulation however it comes with many benefits for that price. Being much more soundproof than other materials and fireproof alongside its strong R-Value per inch of 4.29 it makes an incredible material if you can afford it I highly recommend you choose it.
The middle child and the de facto fall back is the beautiful creation of Spray Foam, ultimately there are just some places you can’t figure out a way to get insulation into and a good ol’ coating of some sweet glorious spray foam will ensure that you don’t have to worry about heat & cold leaking through when you least expect.
Insulation related tools
Some of the basic tools for Insulation I’ve listed below, if you attempt to tackle an insulation project you’ll want to make sure you have a look at the materials you’ve chosen and selected the right tools for the job at hand. Different insulative materials have to be handled differently, you don’t want to be touching fiberglass with your bare hands for example thus it’s important to read about the material you are choosing to work with before you get to installing it in your van!
- Exacto Knife
- Staple Gun
- Dust Mask
- Measuring Tape
We hope you enjoyed our lesson on insulation, be sure to check back on this page as it will be updated in the future with more detailed information over time. (if it wasn't detailed enough!) We strongly believe insulation is a key component to your vanlife and hope you now understand why!