How to insulate?
Controlling the environment in the van is a difficult thing. Insulation will help though. There are quite a few good resources about this online so I won't go into too much detail here, but basically most people use either some sort of combination between foamboard, wool/denim, reflectix, or spray foam insulation. My last van had a combination of reflectix, denim, and a vapor barrier as insulation. This method worked very well, but was a bit tedious and bulky. When choosing which insulation to go with this time around I was most concerned with the following:
- Highest R-Value per inch - the ceiling will only have an inch of insulation, it will be important to keep as much heat in & out of the van when desired
- Condensation - cooking and living in the van during the colder months creates a lot of moisture in the environment. The insulation needs to be able to handle this without deteriorating. Materials that absorb water should be avoided
- Noise - some insulating materials squeak, some dampen sound. Obviously I will be looking to create a quiet environment inside the van.
- Vapor Barrier - keeping moisture off the sheet metal of the van will greatly reduce the risk of rust further down the road.
Spray foam seemed to be the obvious choice. It has arguably the best R-Value at 6.5 per inch, creates a vapor barrier on anything it touches, is sound deadening, and if insulated well enough should help with condensation. There are also some drawbacks to this method. Spray foam is one of the more expensive options, the DIY kits I was seeing online were anywhere from $500-$1000 depending on how thick you wanted to apply the foam. It is also powerful stuff, and I had read a bunch of warnings about morphing the sheet metal on the large side panels of the van if not applied correctly. These two reasons were enough for me to decide to hire a professional to do the job. This is surprisingly difficult to do too. I first tried all of the local Boulder foam spray insulation companies, but none of them are willing to work on a van; the job was just too small for them to waste their time. A reputable company was able to refer me to a contractor who does this work all the time though, so I gave him a call a set up a time.
Long story short, the guy did a shitty job. Being a professional I put way too much trust into his service and did not go about asking the right questions, being direct, and checking his work. He did a poor job of applying an even coat of foam throughout the walls of the van, he was really messy (spraying the weather stripping and trim even though I had done a good job taping these), and worst of all he sprayed places I wouldn't expect any professional who knew what they were doing to spray. After letting the foam sit for a day, I went to go open the side door and realized it wouldn't open because the contractor had sprayed the mechanism shut! I freaked out, "Did that really just happen?!? I just paid to have my van door sealed shut!" Three hours later with now bloody knuckles, a friend had helped me get the door open by picking and chiseling the foam away that covered the three latches on the door. I tried calling the guy asking for a refund but this accomplished nothing, what was done was done.
Would I do It Again?
I learned the hard way, but if I had to do it again I would just try it myself. I know I could have done a better job and I would have been in control of the whole process. Or just ditch the spray foam method all together and use all wool, the stuff seems awesome and is easy to work with, unlike the foam that gets everywhere.
How to Fix It
I hated stepping into the van and seeing the spray foam mess that now covered the walls of the van, I could not wait to get the paneling up to cover it. But it wasn't a complete loss. The ceiling was well insulated, filling the entire space that will be under the paneling. The walls on the other hand needed more insulation so I ordered some wool from the wonderful folks at Oregon Shephard. I had originally planned on using this to fill any places that were impossible to spray anyways, so adding more to the walls seemed like the best idea. Wool is incredible, and all the properties that make it such a good material for clothing (Smartwool, Icebreaker, etc...) translate over to why it makes sense to use it as insulation in a house/van. Any voids will be filled with this stuff, it should make for an R-Value of 15-20 in the walls.
The floor obviously wasn't sprayed with insulation, even though I have heard of people spraying the bottom of their vans which seems brilliant if it works. At first I didn't even plan to insulate the floor at all, in fear of losing precious head room, but in the end realized it would be bad idea not too. To compromise I went with strips of Reflectix and 1/2" sheets of R-Max Polyiso glued in place to the metal floor. Subflooring and wood flooring will go over that and may add a little additional insulation giving me a R-Value of 5-6 on the floor. The ceiling was actually hit pretty well with the spray foam insulation, and I even had to skim the foam down in places so no extra wool insulation was required. The foam is a little over an inch thick on the ceiling giving it an R-Value of 6-7.