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Mercedes Sprinter: Reader Comments
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....
Reader Jordan Y writes with questions all potential Sprinter owners might have:
Will the dealer negotiate, or do they get MSRP as listed on the sheets? May I ask where you had the most success with nationwide inventory for these Sprinters?
Also, can you purchase tax free from NV, or is the tax going to be due in any case?
Thank you for all of your detailed planning in this project. You can be sure others will benefit from this project. It translates into a just about any other activity (MTB, fishing, camping, traveling, whatever).
It is regrettable that that the price of entry is so high, but this Sprinter is in a class by itself. VW never came up with a van for the US market. And the domestics are slow to respond with a clean, new design. Maybe the cost isn’t so bad. All new vehicles are quite expensive. $40k is the new $30k, and so on. I am astounded that the additional 280 amp alternator costs what it does. $1600 wow. In any case this is great. Can’t wait to see it rolling along.
My Sprinter van saga will span at least 100 pages eventually, I’m sure, including all sorts of stuff once it is built up. I support my family via my work here, it’s getting very difficult, and I’m making the Sprinter info free, so anyone I’ve helped might consider subscribing to my photographer publications or buying stuff through my links.
There is no real competition; between 4x4 and flimsy roofs and the Mercedes turbo diesel combo, other vans cannot compete.
Realistically, a nice Sprinter build is $54K plus tax plus upfitting, which is why I have to sell my Cayenne and why I am staying lean and mean on the upfitting. As some perspective, I also considered the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro at $44K MSRP (and frequently sells above that price), so I see huge value in the Sprinter versus a well regarded offroad-capable SUV. The Sprinter is a 10 year investment (at least).
Colin H writes:
My first thought on reading about this was to be sure you were taking into account heat and environmental concerns when it comes to the storage batteries to power your computers. I’m sure you and the installers who work on projects like this know the specs and performance characteristics of the batteries but I would want to be confident that the batteries would be cool enough to sit next to when they are running at full capacity and also be sure that the batteries are not emitting compounds into the air that would be a breathing concern while working in a sealed space for several hours. The exposure over the course of several years could be harmful. EMF concerns with batteries of this capacity should also be checked.
Of lesser concern I would want to have some confidence that the monitor you want to mount in the van can withstand the road vibration over time.
Yeti coolers as a bed platform are intriguing. I might consider some kind of a hinged deck lid made from plywood that would open and could easily be held open so you could have access to the coolers while your bedding stays out of the way between the deck lid and the wall. Yeti coolers are big, if you really think you would use two of them then great. Otherwise I might consider a system that you would build that would hold one cooler near the door for ease of drainage and then have a box built that could fit in the space of the second cooler for gear. You will lose a great deal of space if using the second cooler just for gear because the walls are so thick. [WIND: Tundra 210 is cavernous, ample].
Can the third passenger of the van (if fully loaded) travel legally in your state while just in an office chair? If you were doing a photo tour you would want to be sure your clients were safely secured.
WIND: good questions/ideas! I’ve considered most of these already, but let me respond as they have merit as questions.
On the Yeti coolers: there is a huge volume of space there in a Yeti 2010. Cabinets need hinges and have thickness too, so space is also lost—the difference is modest. Yetis are pre-fab, I can search for a deep discount, they are insulated, lockable, air-tight (think silica gel for camera gear) and off-the-shelf in choice of two colors, rounded corners to not scuff or scratch a leg on. Sturdy enough to hit with a sledgehammer. Big enough to put a boned-out elk in.
Building a custom platform is a costly option; I am not a handyman and no fan of crude cheap work product or sharp edges or corners—the Yetis avoid both of those faults. Custom work costs big bucks, and are probably bolted on and non-removable without extra design work. And it takes time to get done. I can set up and use the Yeti system before the final upfit design, and nothing stops me from later building in a cabinet. Meanwhile I can put 2 or 3 block ice in there for a week of cooling for all my food.
The most costly thing of all is doing a cabinet or other fixed stuff, and then not liking it. And I don't like it already, because a fixed cabinet cannot be used for any other purpose and cannot be removed or rearranged. The Yetis... in the winter I can use at home as 2nd coolers if I’d like, or use them in the van the driveway—great for a case of drinks and such or keeping food cool when our power goes out (went out for almost two days a few years ago).
Battery heat and odor and safety: worth asking about but so far I've been told “no odor” with lithium. Lead acid emits hydrogen and I don't know about smell, again in favor of lithium. Most of the time the van would be well vented, and it's a large air space, so "sealed" is not really ever a possibility, even sleeping at night. Even on 15°F nights I'd have windows cracked slightly for cross draft. Plus a diesel heater makes short work of any heating job after throwing up the large sliding door for a venting moment.
Batteries could get warm but 300 watts is about 25 amps and they are rated for 15 times that current, so this does not seem a realistic concern. A barrier could be used if they get warm. EMF: stepping out into the sun at 10,000' I get a massive EMF dose. Ditto for under power high voltage power lines or next to all my computer gear. Using my cell phone next to my ear is a massive dose. I'm open to evidence.
Vibration: this is a major concern for many things, but particularly the display (and computer). I plan on putting the display on its side in a padded case of some kind, at least for rough roads, and using some sorbothane under the base so as to not have to tear-down for short trips. It should not be standing while driving due to the risk of it flying forward in the event of a collision. I have discarded bolting it down as an option because of no ability to isolate it from road vibration.
Hinged deck lid: it's possible of course, but I do not think it will be needed, and it’s extra weight which might actually worsen the issue. The mattress is very light—a few pounds. A lid of wood would be 20 or 30 pounds.
Clients: I don’t drive my clients for liability reasons. Bolting down a chair with seatbelt not in the cards either; chair has to be ergonomic for computer use, and stowable. Family trips highly unlikely as kids all going to college and wife does not like camping.
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Jim B writes:
Thanks Lloyd, simply one of the most useful articles you have ever written. I’m in the same position worrying about my 10 year old Land Rover that has been a fantastic, reliable and very comfortable tool for exploring gnarly two tracks all over the Southwest. Can’t wait for your Sprinter ‘ride’ report.
PS: the OWC backup solution you helped me with two years ago is working perfectly - and easily.
WIND: I suppose that’s good and bad (“most useful”) since I’ve been writing on photography for nearly a decade now. But I applied my approach and methodology from photography to my research on the the Sprinter van. The articles as of July 10 2017 represent about two days of writing work, and a couple of weeks of making phone calls and gleaning stuff from the same mixed bag of marginal, incorrect and meandering info on the web that one finds with photography.
Michael E writes:
Thanks for the Sprinter articles. My wife is trying to find something like this, but most camper-cars are tacky inside, etc. I have one question. How did you rig something in your Cayenne so that you could sleep. I would like to know that, since I drive a hybrid SUV (Lexus RX400h), and might like to rig something there.
WIND: I have an upcoming trip in my Cayenne (Sprinter still a few weeks off). I’ll write something up describing it and show a few pix. Basically, I stuff two bikes on one side, then lay a mattress diagonally (I’m 5' 10", and just a little too tall to sleep lengthwise, ditto in a Toyota 4Runner). On top of that mattress go camera packs and one spare tire, placed so that a duffel bag of clothing can be stuff inside the “bowl”. A Yeti Tundra 50 goes next to the bikes and works great as a support and never moves around.
David G writes:
If you want to see the ultimate Mercedes van, check out Daniel Bergman’s in Iceland. Admittedly, its designed as a minibus for photo workshops but it is the ultimate uber Mercedes!
WIND: everyone has different ideas about what is "ultimate", useful or viable. That’s the beauty of the platform. Offhand, I didn’t find the Sprinter referred to.
William S writes:
That van looks like a winner for your field work. I agree that solar is not a solution for your main power but having a few 50W cells you can put on the roof while parked will help keep the batteries charged in the field. Solar cells are cheap these days, all you need is a charge controller for automatic charging. My other inexpensive hobby is ham radio. I have two 12V, 250AH AGM batteries to power my radio station with one 150W solar panel on the roof and I never run out of power. I use Renology solar cells and chargers available from Amazon.
WIND: See my solar page. Solar can actually degrade lead acid batteries by supplying too few amps when the batteries are below 50%. Not a big deal, but steady sulfation. See the note at the end of my solar page with a quote directly from the Lifeline/Concord technical manual. Speaking to Lifeline technical support, I’m told that the issue of less than 0.2C (20% of capacity amperage) is sulfation. But if the batteries are fully charged every day or two, it should not be a big deal. But if that is true, then I can’t see much point to solar. I generally drive every day, or at least every other day, thus 100+ amp charging via alternator—what value proposition does solar offer there... none that I can see except trickle charge for parking long periods. Better to put the money into a larger battery, and just let the alternator do its job.
For lead acid, at 0.2C (20% of nominal amperage capacity), lead acid would need 80 amps (960 watts) for a 400 amp battery; this is impossible even coating the entire roof of a Sprinter van with monocrystalline panels; it would take a 2+ kilowatt system as found on a home. Even 320 watts of solar would be lucky to get 200 watts (16 amps) under ideal conditions, and a tiny fraction of that in the shade and/or late in the season at non-peak hours. So solar is way below optimal for charging a depleted pack, not that solar offers a meaningful charge for such a pack in less than a week.
Solar is not cheap or simple done right with regulator and wiring. It requires bolting on and holes in the roof and labor to do all that. Any sane person likes to park in the shade on a hot day. Solar panels on the roof also mean noise and wind drag with increased fuel consumption, day and night (and always) when driven. Quite possibly the increased fuel consumption costs could nuke the miserly win from solar, and if a rack is involved there is a lot more drag on a HighRoof. And if one is driving, solar has no value for bulk charging vs alternator. It makes a lot more sense to buy a larger battery and let the alternator do its job—much more elegant and reliable.
So solar is good for trickle charge, but only trickle charge. But it turns out that solar is good for topping-off lithium batteries: I’ve learned that alternator charging of lithium batteries can do bulk charging well, but that it might only reach 90% of the full charge, due to the voltage requirements. So lop off 10% of the nominal capacity rating of lithium. I’m going to try to confirm that with another source.
William S continues:
I get over 10 years battery life on my setup with 500AH and a 150W panel. Yes, you need a proper controller and it does need to be set up correctly. Mine is done to code and has worked fine for 25 years. I never looked at the cold weather issues living in So Cal. Maybe the solar cells could power a battery heater in winter :-) Lithium is pretty expensive right now and charging is more complex.
The depth of discharge (DOD), amps required for charging, regulator, real usage conditions (drain and input charging power), type of battery, etc all have a huge influence on what is right for the job. My target goal is 16 hours at a steady 300 watt draw. William’s stated 500 AH battery would nominally be 6000 or so watt hours, which would be a 250 pound or so battery—not sure he has stated it correctly since the Lifeline GPL-8DL weighs 156 pounds and is 255 amp hours—implying 312 pounds for 500 AH.
I had considered (and am still considering for the lower cost) dual 6V GPL-L16T Lifeline batteries wired in parallel for 12V; this the lightest highest power solution I could find in lead acid—and those weigh 119 pounds each at 12 X 7 X 15 inches dimensionally. At 400 amp hours (12V equivalent), that’s nominally 4800 watt hours X 2 = 9600 watt hours. I have not entirely ruled them out, but the problem is they are heavy enough that placing them side by side for wiring in series means too much weight on the drivers side under my desk; driver (me) is on that side at 180 pounds, the Yeti bed platform is towards that side, cabinets on driver side too—I do not want the van to list. So that means balancing them or putting both on the other side, which means longer wire runs.
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Richard J writes:
I have had this same idea for awhile, putting everything in a van and hitting the road, and never coming back, LOL. I have sat in this particular model as well and I think it will do a great job. My biggest concern with this van though is the criminal element.
These type of vans get targeted more then your Porsche not for the vehicle but for what is inside, usually tools that are easy to move. If all you ever do with it is drive out into the wilderness then maybe its not a big concern, but who doesn’t stop in towns to eat, maybe a stay in hotel on a long trip. Even if you are sleeping in it, then it can be a danger to you personally. Its a shame but I think its an important distinction between this type of “commercial” van to that of a “camper” van that doesn’t generate as much interest.
WIND: I’m sure that’s true, particularly with my writeup! And beyond theft issues, it’s a hassle to try to drive and park a big van in any city. It will be a real hassle for trips into Palo Alto. My usual parking will be in the mountains and canyons of the Eastern Sierra, White Mountains, Death Valley, etc, and I’ve felt very safe there for the most part. Dunno if Sprinter van changes that. Always a risk.
As for sleeping, I carry perfectly legal protection (wood saw and hatchet, no match for a gun of course). San Mateo County where I live issues about one concealed carry permit a year, the anti-gun sheriff doesn’t give a shit about personal safety for travelers like me, so it’s effectively impossible to legally own a gun in a useful way (concealed carry). I have run into one possible meth cooker (just like Breaking Bad) in Death Valley, the guy was screaming violently at me—and I wish I had had a long gun there—I drove away and was fine. But that was my Porsche and the guy was a nut, the vehicle not the issue.
Jim G writes:
Great series on the Sprinter. Consider a tiny security camera, front and rear mount, hi-def with IR illumination, with a wide angle camera inside the van. I haven’t researched, but I am sure something like this is available, small and affordable.
WIND: Good idea. The signals could route to the input on the main computer display, which has dual inputs, but it’s probably better to have a small dedicated screen and recording as well to catch any perp if I’m gone.