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Mercedes Sprinter: Goals
Photographer and cyclist and Mac expert and software engineer Lloyd Chambers is available for consulting on general Sprinter considerations at his usual consulting rates via phone, or in person in the Palo Alto, CA area. Save yourself hours and mistakes by discussing issues up-front. More about Lloyd....
My design goals for my Sprinter 2500 144 wheelbase HiTop 4x4 van are fairly simple, which is to say hard—how to make it elegant and simple and eminently functional with an open airy feel that will never feed crowded, will always offer flexibility and can be modified without undue trouble. Not so simple, necessarily.
I would rather err on the side of (a) too little rather than too much (“less is more”), (b) clear, decisive rational justification for everything that is added.
Its purpose stated simply is a mobile photography adventure van. It is not about all the comforts of home, it is about efficient photography work in the field inside the van on images shot while traveling, efficiency similar to what I can do at home.
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My initial conception captures some of these design goals, but misses on some (like the bed height blocking the rear window view).
- The key and most important goal is a workspace for mobile photography (simple table/desk). It should offer enough room for a 32" display (27" horizontally), along with a Mac Pro or MacBook Pro and a bit of space for keyboard and mouse and a few extras. This seems to imply a 44 X 26" desk surface, or thereabouts.
- Electric and battery system to have enough capacity for two days of mobile photography work.
- Good insulation for extreme temperatures of 0°F to 105°F.
- Rock-solid reliability.
- 4x4 with all-terrain tires for rough roads and skid plates for protection of vital underbody components.
- Fast charging via vehicle alternator or 2nd alternator. Solar very debatable has tradeoffs, supplementary only, no good as primary power supply.
- See out the rear windows while driving without blocked view; bed should ideally be stowable.
- Yeti coolers for refrigeration (skips expensive and power drain of built-in fridge), make great seats in or out of van, and for bed platform.
- My customary and comfortable Exped Megamat 10 LXW mattress (31 X 79 X 3.9") for a great night’s rest.
- Convenient and quick storage for mountain bike and road bike.
- Reasonable amount of overhead storage for food and various items.
- Plenty of free space for packs, storage boxes, etc.
- Heating for those well below freezing days when parked.
- Clear view and space out the back for shooting telephoto lens on windy days.
I have given considerable thought to every design aspect. Even so, I will be doing at least one extended trip with the bed platform as I’ve designed it and temporary table and battery/electrical setup before the upfitting with windows/insulation/built-in table/etc. The unwise course that many people follow is to buy a generic design with cookie-cutter modules—I’ve seen the poor usability that results.
Many suggestions have come in via email in response to my design choices. The sections that follow addresses my considerations using a set of quite skeptical comments from one reader as a Q & A.
Everyone has their own needs and desires, and those interact with actual intended usage as well as environmental factors—mountain use at 10,000' is very different from low-desert use, or use in humid southern climes. For example, the humid south or east, or southwestern desert or Las Vegas areas will see supplementary air conditioning (A/C) as a mandatory option—but I would hardly use it.
Accordingly I set out my premises on my own usage. My primary usage will be in California/Nevada:
- Coastal use in spring where temperatures are cool to cold.
- Mountain use at 7000 to 11600 feet in elevation from May through November where temperatures range from moderately warm to well below freezing.
- Death Valley, but generally the late November to early March time frame, temperatures moderate to quite cold.
- Possibly trips to Utah or Colorado or north to Washington/Oregon. There are things called "trees" that provide shade, and I don’t mind dry heat at all.
- Typically I would never intend to work even as low as 4000
- Humidity is never an issue.
Given these conditions, addition air conditioning is a tertiary non-need. The rare cases where it might be desirable I’ll park in the shade or go higher in elevation, or just use a good fan—I’m used to having to work at up to 90° at home with no A/C.
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It seems you are getting quite a lot of interest in your Sprinter photo van project. When I first read of your plan I liked the concept but was not really enthused by proposed implementation. My perception of any Mercedes product runs to high maintenance costs and not the best in longevity or maintainability/reliability. This may also stem from I want to remember that the Sprinter is a product of the merger between Mercedes and Chrysler, which I also have a low opinion of.
Though I do have to admit that after a little research the Sprinter does have a few things going for it. Specifically it is one of the most popular commercial delivery vehicles out there, it does seem to be popular for an outdoor & off road toy hauler, and it is probably the only van that provides 4x4 as a factory installed option.
Perceptions is not the right term here—I prefer proven reality, which is why I have done a great deal of research. That said, it is always a risk to try a new vehicle. Obviously I could be disappointed over time—who can say?
A modern Mercedes or Porsche or similar is chock full of electronics, heck even my 2008 Porsche Cayenne was overdone (as per what I’d want, hence the frustrating failures in the security/ignition system) in this way. Ditto for a 2017 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro for that matter. It’s inescapable these days, what with emissions requirements and gadgets that car manufacturers insist upon since they think everyone wants that stuff (I don’t).
The Sprinter cargo van is a workhorse platform. As vehicles go, it has minimal electronic cruft to break down (compared to a luxury SUV or car or even a pickup truck these days)—I’m not getting all the extra sensor cruft (e.g. lane handling) and/or GPS and stuff most ikely to break—I’m buying a cargo van workhorse platform. The Sprinter is proven in many situations over the past decade (plumbing, electrical, ambulance, etc). Repairs will be far more reasonable than my Porsche. The Sprinter uses a time-proven 3.0L Mercedes turbo diesel with a 20,0000 mile service interval (I’ll service it more often) and an up to 7-year-175K-mile extended warranty is available at reasonable cost equivalent to about 1.5 signicant repairs—a good deal it seems to me. That option says a lot about the durability expectations for the vehicle.
I intend to avoid the 2nd alternator if at all possible—one more thing to go wrong.
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Concerning the things you have planned out, there are a few aspects that I don’t think you have addressed very well,
... such as secure storage for cameras and tripods. I used to know two photographers that had 4x4 vans and both wanted the bed frame built across the back in front of the rear doors. This was built to serve as a lockable box that would not attract attention when they were away from the van. Both of these photographers had concerns about leaving a van unattended and the attend it would get.
Other photographers concerns are theirs, not mine. Building a bed that interferes in multiple ways with my vision for my van would be a bad choice for me. I greatly dislike the van builds that I have seen firsthand with such beds—heavily impaired functionality and feel. Very recently I saw one such van (freshly delivered and on its maiden voyage), and the owners already disliked the bed, for its height, but I’m pretty sure they’ll find they dislike it for other reasons too. I do not intend to make such mistakes—I will be doing a trial runwith bed platform as Ive designed it and temporary table before the upfitting.
My Yeti bed platform affords secure storage via locking. They will be tied down, but can also be locked to floor D rings. These things weigh 62 pounds each when empty. While locks can be cut and those coolers or their contents removed, this is a risk I accept. I’ve seen the bulk awkward welded boxed and so on—that’s great if your stuff never changes and it all fits. But my load varies, won’t all fit, and such boxes impede day-to-day use. My Yeti plan in elegant far beyond any solution I’ve ever seen.
I carry a business insurance policy to cover not just my photo gear, but the entire van and my bicycles as well. Heck, the battery is also an expensive item, it could be stolen also. The policy covers my stuff at home or on the road.
I might install a security camera system that records inside and out, capable of infrared for night recording. Most of the time I sleep in my van (barring overnight backpacking). The risk is usually daylight parking, I intend very little city parking—the risk goes way up. Theft is a risk I accept as the price of how I intend to work. I’m not about to weld a heavy steel box into the van, whose lock could still be smashed or torched open. In 30 years, I have never had anything stolen in any of the areas I visit. There is always a first time—that’s a day I dread—but that’s why I carry insurance.
If you do go with your battery plan, locating the batteries under the bed and behind the wheel wells, has them out of sight and will give better weight distribution and extra traction in the rear.
This idea seems plausible at first glance, but it is problematic for several reasons. I want my desk right next to the driver’s seat for a number of reasons.
- The battery is a single battery (not two batteries to balance). It weighs only 119 pounds, yet the empty Yeti coolers together weigh 124 pounds.
- The battery will be mostly out of sight under my table/desk, along with the power inverter.
- Rear placement means would mean extremely thick cabling from the alternator, with a much longer cable run. More electrical loss at 120 amp, and more risk of damage to those cables over time (since they have to run all the way to the rear).
- Inverter would need to be near batteries (again for electrical losses), which means longer cable runs from AC outlets to the desk. Total wiring to and fro would be crazy.
- More vibration and shock impact on very rough roads (right near wheel wells a bad idea).
- Loos of a key storage area in rear, displacing other important gear.
- Batteries forward (under desk) have zero impact on usable space.
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Light and heat (venting, air-conditioning)
Controlling light and heat buildup inside the van. You mentioned that you want to be able to work on photos using a large computer monitor during the times of day when it is not great for photography (i.e. mid-day). This means that you will need a way to control the amount of light entering the van and falling on the screen.
An awning will be a must so you can have the sliding door open for ventilation, plus you will need window coverings for all of the glass in order to make the interior darker. If you stay with the bed area on the side, consider moving it forward behind the driver seat and moving the work area to the very back of the van so the screen won’t face out the sliding side door.
Finally, if you are inside the van at mid-day working and the van is closed up to block light, it is going to get hot inside, particularly in the warm months, so supplemental air conditioning (A/C) may be necessary.
The van can and will get hot in the sun (front windows are the biggest issue), but there will be robust insulation for heat and cold throughout. I will park in the shade (tree, canyon, whatever) when possible. I dislike A/C and prefer to avoid it; there are also potential mold and bacteria risks in A/C vents.
My intent is to have window shades that can be dropped down about 2/3 of the way to block light, thus still allowing cross-venting airflow through the T-vent side windows. There will also be screened slider windows at the rear sides of the van. If there is no wind, that won’t help much, but usually there is a good wind in places I go.
The places I usually would work are either (a) cool in the spring or (b) at 7000 to 11600 feet in altitude or (c) quite cool to cold. On hot days, rear doors or front windows can be flung open against a shaded area in many places—plenty of ventilation without the ingress of bright light. The case of working in 90° to 100° heat in the broad sun at 4000 feet elevation is insanity—I’ll find a better spot, or park under a tree. I won’t be using A/C and annoying myself and others by idling the engine or running a generator, which is the only way to power A/C. Not to mention the large cost and hassle of a roof-mounted A/C unit and its wiring and controls.
One doesn’t need to plan for poor choices in parking or infrequent use cases by over-engineering. It is acceptable to me to have situations that might get hot and uncomfortable once in a while in a pinch.
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Not enough power. With the plan to use a desktop computer and a large monitor, I think you may be underestimating your power needs and over estimating the vehicles generation ability even with a second alternator. If you need to add a supplemental A/C later will it connect to the batteries and will they holdup?
Another question to ask is, if you need to let the engine idle to power the van’s A/C for a long period of time or charge batteries, will the engine overheat? I think a Honda generator is a better method of powering what you want to do. It will be a lot less complex, and you can put it anywhere when you are moving and chain it to the axle when you are using it.
It’s not the end of the world if I only get 12 hours instead of 16—I’ll go shooting some more, or catch a big fat trout. I drive at least an hour every day usually, if for no other reason to get to cell service for internet (for business matters). Driving one hour is good for at least 1200 watt hours, about 1/4 of battery capacity. Using 16 hours of computer without recharging at all might never happen and I can use my time some other way in any case.
I have analyzed my power usage using a watt meter with the highest usage I contemplate along with inverter overhead and a fudge factor and making the calculation for depth of discharge (DOD) and realistic total charge based on talking directly to battery engineering staff. See Calculating Realistic Electric Load. I have allowed for up to 16 hours of usage, which would be highly unusual since most days even 6 hours would be longer than I’d work in the van, given hiking and shooting.
As discussed above, I have no need for A/C or the ponderous electric load it would require. The battery I have chosen can handle the drain (exceeds it more twice over), but it would not last very long. Battery powered A/C is unrealistic (cost is prohibitive figure $25K in batteries for 8 hours of runtime).
A Honda generator takes gasoline (the Sprinter is diesel) and requires at least a 2-gallon gas can to power it (about 0.8 gallones for 8 hours). To say this is “less complex” is ludicrouis: the bulk/weight/stink/maintanance/handling/hassle/cost all come to bear. But it remains an option, albeit one I’ll avoid unless really needed. I can also add another battery—there will be room.
If it were really important to have serious power, much more elegant (and expensive) is a 3 kilowatt under-body diesel generator—far more efficient and it can sip fuel from the gas tank.
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Underestimating your space needs. When you mentioned mounting your bike from the ceiling of the van, it does not seem that you recognize that you will also lose the space underneath it for almost anything else. A bike hanging down will be fine while you are traveling to and from home. But once you get somewhere you may need to take it out of the van or it will always be in the way to some degree. I would suggest using either a top mounted rack or a hitch-mounted rack for your bike at least until you have had a chance to use the van for the better part of the year.
I have measured my bikes. They will not hang up/down, but in normal position with the front wheel off and handlebars turned 90°. With seats on, the vertical span will be 38 inches for the tallest one from seat to lowest point of bike, add two inches for hanging = 40 inches. There is 68 inches of height, so 28 inches is enough for even quite tall boxes. Wheels can hang between bikes or alongside or rest on the floor. I get the same two bikes into my far smaller Porsche Cayenne with no problem at all for many years, in about 20 inches of width. The bonus is that I can choose to not hang the bikes—just roll into the aisle for quick in/out—very convenient. Or hang one and put one in the aisle.
I’ve traveled for a decade in my Porsche Cayenne, with two bikes, two wheel sets, interior sleeping, ice chest, several camera packs, etc. A Sprinter presents no challenges in storage.
A single Yeti Tundra 210 by itself offers a large amount of storage space. A duffle bag or two, space at the side of the bad platform, overhead cabinets, and just general free floor space offers way more space than it would be wise to fill.
Too much computer and monitor. Yes, it would be nice to be as capable for photo review and editing as back at home, but the van may not support it for many of the reason mentioned above.
You may be better served with a high end Mac Book Pro and a couple of Pro iPods as monitors. At least these will be more compatible with your battery power plans and they will be easier to store and secure in a pelican case or a locked drawer. Plus you could mount the iPods to the van wall using velcro (an old Navy Submarine trick for putting laptops where they are needed). Though you are not alone in your thinking. A year or two ago, Sunset magazine had an issue about trailering up & down the west coast. One of the articles was about a writer that was using a small vintage Airstream that just had a bed, a table, a clothes bar, and an iMac in it. The iMac was mounted to the wall of the Airstream.
This comment drops my #1 requirement: being able to work as efficiently as at home. It ignores my power calculations and makes assumptions based on false premises and false assumptions.
Context dropping like this has no place in a useful rational discussion, that is, equating the single most important factor in causing me to take this Sprinter van route to being “nice”. The suggestion for iPods (presumably iPads) is way out in left field; they are completely useless to me beimg too expensive and too small and with too-high pixel density, bad ergonomics. Tablets have no value in my workflow.
Bolting an iMac to a wall means massive vibration transmitted to it, and all but a guarantee of an early death on the rough roads I’ll traverse (let alone some California highways). I intend to cushion the display in a padded case when driving, on its back.