10 Things Vanlifers Should Monitor When on the Road

By: Scott Adamson
/ July 11, 2022
It’s natural to become hyper-aware of all the systems you have on the go in your new home-on-wheels.

It is a genuine concern and one that can have consequences if you ignore a few key indicators. That’s why it’s a good idea to make a mental checklist of the important things to monitor when you’re on the road.

Here’s a gist of what this article covers:

  • General Maintenance 
  • Power Upkeep
  • Exterior/Interior Check

Let’s get right into it. 

1. General Vehicle Maintenance 

An overall health check of your vehicle can help you determine whether it is ready for a long journey. Once you’re on the road, you might find that you’re due for a service in an area that doesn’t have someone that can service your van, or has long wait times. 

You can keep an eye on the following to get a pulse on how well your van is faring. 

Oil Replacement
A good estimate is every 3,000 – 5,000 miles with conventional fuel. Check for signs of dark muddy oil or oil smell in the interior. 

Air Filter
Every 15,000 miles would do the trick on average. Look out for engine noises and poor performance. 

General Service
This can help you assess your van’s health with basic checks on fluids, brakes, and filters.

 

2. Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF)

Many people underestimate the value of your Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF). However, it turns out it is vital for a diesel sprinter van. 

Here’s what you need to know about it:

  • DEF helps break down toxic emissions in your diesel engine into harmless substances such as water.
  • You will need to top up your DEF every 5,000 – 10,000 miles, depending on your van use and mileage. 
  • Many van engines will automatically shut down if they run out of DEF, leaving you in a bit of a pickle.
  • If your Sprinter van has a DPF filter plugged in, you might enter what’s called the 10 start warning (which means you’ll only be able to start your van 10 more times). If that happens, try filling it with DPF fluid. If that doesn’t work, you might want to get in touch with your dealer or any reliable service provider.
  • You can NOT buy DEF at every mom-and-pop store as it is only available at big truck stores. I found that out the hard way when I was travelling across Alaska! Make sure you are stocked up, so you don’t get stranded in a remote area. 

3. Tire Rotations

Tire rotation is another factor that many van drivers often ignore. You should rotate your tires per your manufacturer’s manual.

Pro Tip: Some drivers upgrade their main tires to offroad tires without upgrading their spare tires. You can increase the life of your tires by upgrading the spare tire and using a five-tire rotation rather than a four.

As an example, I always upgrade my spare tire and include that in a five-tire rotation instead of a four. I ended up getting 100,000 kilometers out of a set of BFG K02 tires which is huge!

4. Battery Levels

Batteries are sacred for all van lifers, and you need to make sure yours are up to the mark to get the most out of them. Let’s talk about monitoring AGM vs Lithium batteries

AGM Batteries

  • AGM batteries are lead-acid batteries that can typically last you 3-5 years, given moderate usage. 
  • You shouldn’t regularly take AGM batteries below 50% as it becomes difficult for the battery to charge again. A general rule of thumb is the less you discharge an AGM battery, the more it will last. 
  • For ideal usage, ensure your AGM battery gets a full charge every couple of weeks to stay healthy. 

Lithium Batteries

On the other hand, Lithium batteries are my go-to option even though they cost more. Let’s see how they compare. 

  • Lithium Batteries use ion technology, which is superior to AGM and lasts 10-15 years on average. 
  • You can completely discharge a lithium battery and also have more charging cycles.
  • To keep the battery health above average, you should give a full charge in ideally 6 months. 

I prefer lithium batteries over AGM batteries as they last longer and provide a much higher value. 

When it comes to battery levels, a lot of vanlifers will start to panic when they start to get around the 50% mark. Keep in mind that if you have proper alternating charging set up, a good day’s drive will charge the battery back up.

5. Solar Power

 

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A post shared by Scott Adamson (@comeswithaview)

Much like batteries, after traveling in your van for a short while, you’re going to really understand how much energy you use in a day and what your average solar power consumption is. 

On my last van, I had 520W of solar. An amazing solar production day for me was something above 100 amp hours created off the solar. A bad day was in the 30-40Ah range. On days when I was parked away from the sun or my panels were covered in snow, I could expect to produce 0Ah. 

With my 520W of solar and my 330Ah of AGM lithium, which I could use 50% of, I rarely found myself needing to charge up. That being said, you do become hyper-aware of using power. 

General tips to conserve your energy:

  • Turn the lights off
  • Don’t leave things plugged in
  • Turn the inverter off (This one’s important to take care of because you can kill your battery in 4 days just by leaving the inverter on without doing anything else). 
  • Keep your solar panels clean

Cleaning Your Solar Panels

Here’s how you can clean solar panels in 2 easy steps:

  • Step 1: Use warm water and soap to rinse off your solar panels. You can use a small bucket or a low-pressure hose. 
  • Step 2: Use a sponge, scrubber, or squeegee to rub off the dirt and grime. Be sure to do so as gently as possible.

Ideally, you should clean your solar panels every six months. 

6. Water Levels & Cleanliness

Monitoring the water level is important to make sure you have ample supply before your next opportunity to refill.

There are several ways to do that. 

Observing Visually
If you have an open water storage tank, you can simply observe the level of water by looking. This is a cheap and convenient way of having a rough idea of how long the water will last.

Using a level sensor and gauge
You can also choose this relatively simple option and install a level sensor in your water tank. This combination comes in a variety of different lengths and is easy to install and use. 

Utilizing a smart water tank monitoring system
If you are interested in a digital water monitoring system, you can install something like the RedArc Revision which is a Total Vehicle Management System. Among other monitoring solutions, this system includes an app through which you can observe your water level, get custom alerts, and pump control functionality. 

Pro-tip: I always advise people to be efficient with their water usage; for example, using a low-flow shower head can help you save a good amount of water.

Water Tank Maintenance

Another thing to monitor is your water tank cleanliness. It’s easy to forget about your water storage tank once you have filled it, but you need to be careful of bacteria and mold. I will advise you to at least clean out your water tanks once every 4-6 months.

Here’s how I clean my tank: 

  1. Drain the tank entirely through the faucets.
  2. Add water and a cleaning agent such as bleach.
  3. Scrub the surface with a scrubber or a sponge.
  4. Clean the water pipes by pumping the soapy water through hoses.
  5. Make sure you fill the tank several times and flush it out to get rid of all the bleach.
  6. Fill the tank with clean water and drain again. Voila! You are done.

7. Fasteners

As you drive your van through the country, many items that are held together with fasteners will start to loosen. You should check these items every few months to ensure that everything is fixed and there are no loose ends. 

Some items that tend to get loose pretty quickly are listed below. I always keep a sharp eye on these as they can quickly become a pain.

Cabinets and Doors
Cabinets and doors tend to loosen quickly, especially on rough terrains. 

Water Fittings
Water fittings can also start loosening and result in low pressure and drainage problems.

Tanks Straps
Tank straps hold the fuel tank under your van, and you must fasten it from time to time. 

Rack Mounts
Rack mounts can also loosen over time, leading to unsecured baggage on the roof. 

8. Coolant

A coolant (also known as antifreeze) helps regulate the temperature in the sprinter van. You should keep a pulse on your coolant and replenish it if it is lower than the recommended level. It’s suggested to replace it every 30,000 miles or two years, which keeps the coolant up to date, especially if you drive in extreme weather.

9. Lights and Windshield Wipers

Both your backlights and front lights should always work well. You should look for fused bulbs or shattered glass that may hurt your visibility at night or in bad weather. If you have installed an off-road light and are planning to go camping, you should double-check that light as well to avoid any last-minute surprises.

Similarly, if you are expecting rain on your way, you should check your front and back wipers. If the wipers make a lot of noise, lubricating them is a good option.

10. Tire Pressure

This may seem obvious, but keeping the tire pressure optimal is crucial. You don’t want to deal with tire punctures or bursts on the road. If you like to take off on rough terrains, you should keep the tire inflation at the recommended level. The optimal level is 50psi for the front tires and 80psi for the back ones, depending on the size and year of your van.

Pro tip: Most vans come with a sticker on the inside of the driver’s door. The sticker mentions the recommended tire pressure for your van.

Key Takeaways

Now that you have a decent idea about how to go about monitoring essential items in your van, I hope you’re van continues to be well-maintained and you’re able to enjoy a peaceful camping trip or cross-country journey. 

Here I have summarized the key takeaways that will help you keep your van in good shape. 

  • Always keep an eye on oil, coolant, brake fluid, and DEF to ensure they don’t run out and ruin your engine. 
  • Rotate your tires per your manufacturer’s manual and incorporate your spare tire into the rotation.
  • Keep your solar panels clean and your batteries charged to maximize your usage. 
  • Monitor your water usage and be sure to regularly clean your water tank, especially if you use it for drinking. 
  • Tighten your fasteners from time to time to make sure they are secured tightly in your van. 
  • Regularly check that all your exterior lights are working and windshield wipers are in good condition.
  • Keep your tire pressure at its optimum level.
  • Overall, be cautious in maintaining your van so that it doesn’t break down on the road and to keep it running efficiently. 

 

Scott Adamson
Wanderful Idea Guy
Coffee drinker, adventure seeker, below average photographer.
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