Getting Cool (cool food that is) Hack #4: Vanagon Refrigerator Upgrade

Love all the original bits of my Westy. She’s so pretty and so, so practical. But, I gotta gripe about the refrigerator. You can’t beat the practical nature of the original, vintage fridge. Off the grid on the propane that sucker will run for days, for weeks. But, here in Northern California (and much of North America) where temperatures in July and August are over 100-degrees, it just doesn’t do the trick. It will cool down about 40-degrees below the outside temps, but unless it’s 80-degrees or less, food isn’t kept cool enough to avoid spoiling. This means on most of our trips we use the fridge for storage and pack our cold-foods in an ice-chest, which then takes up space. And, space in the vanagon is a premium.

Since this is just how things are, a lot of people opt for the refrigerator elimination kit that you can buy at GoWesty. I mean it’s a cool alternative because it buys you some space in the cabinetry. But you still have a loss when it comes to packing around an ice chest. Some others opt for a portable refrigerator, which is basically like an ice-chest, so even if you gain space in the cabinets, you lose floor space. GoWesty makes some good arguments for why portable fridges are a good alternative to a horizontal replacement. But, Joe and I agreed we like that the vintage fridge is built-in and out-of-the way. And, we didn’t feel like we needed the extra cabinet space–after all–we’d rather go more minimal than have more space for crap we can live without.

So we opted for a modern replacement.

After some research into options, we found several people installing the T49 Truck Fridge. Van Cafe sells this refrigerator along with a trim kit. I found after taxes and shipping costs, it was most cost effective to buy it directly from the manufacturer. All told around $700. And, after watching a few install videos and reading other blogs we opted to make our own trim kit. I recently came upon this blog where the subject opted for a bigger version of the truck fridge, the T65. He does a good job in his three-part blog detailing the work he did to customize the cabinetry to work with the larger fridge. We didn’t feel confident ripping out big pieces of the cabinets and messing with the structure; plus projects like that seem to never get finished at my house, so we went with the T49 which just slips into the old refrigerator space with pretty minimal modification. I definitely surveyed the Samba Forum and any other blogs or videos I could find to get me started.

First step in this transition is removing the old refrigerator. Go Westy has a great video detailing how to remove the vintage fridge. And our fridge came out basically as easy as it the video explains. No surprises.

From here, we had to create a trim to go around the new T49. The old refrigerator was screwed into the cabinets on each side providing stability. The trim was built into the cabinet offering additional stability. Though bigger in cubic feet, the T49 is a bit narrower than the original it also has a front trim that must screw into a faceplate. Some of the blogs I came across suggested modifying the original trim for the new fridge. This makes it match and gives it a more built in feel. Since the original trim is part of the vintage fridge–which we hope someone will repurpose–we decided to make our own. We bought a 4 ft piece of plywood and used the original trim-piece to size the new faceplate. Then, we measured the opening (which are basically the dimensions of the back of the new fridge and cut an opening. There is a little cut out on the edge, which you could do easily with a router. Since we didn’t have one, Joe just used a chisel to notch it out.

We wanted the new plywood faceplate to match the original cabinetry even though very little of it will show because I am like that. One way to do this is to buy the laminate from GoWesty. Instead, I took the original fridge door to my local Sherwin Williams paint store and they matched paint to the laminate. It cost me about $6 for a tester quart of matching satin paint. After a couple of coats, I covered it with two coats of Deft clear-coat. Joe installed the frame with four L-brackets to keep it in place. As you can see the paint is a damn good match. The bottom of the refrigerator sits on top of four additional L-shaped brackets to keep it elevated off the ground. And, you’ll see that there is a space below the new fridge. Some people use this space to install a small propane heater. Some people leave as is for additional, quick storage. We plan to create a little hinged door for easy storage, but I am the type that like things to be behind closed doors and orderly, so that’s how it’s gonna be. I think it will make a great storage space for a griddle and a frying pan. Or we may store the inverter here. I saw one person make it into a cool wine cabinet. There are lots of options for how to finish this opening off in a quick Google Search.

In all the blogs and videos I watched on this install, there wasn’t much in the way of suggestions for wiring. What most people seem to do is connect it to their aux battery. The T49 comes with both a 110v and a 12v hook-up. The 110v plugs into the wall of the cabinetry just like the vintage fridge. This allows it to be powered by the hook-up if you’re fortunate enough to have one. Like others, we also hooked ours up to the aux battery. Joe wired a breaker and an on/off switch into the space where our aux battery is kept. This means that if the vanagon is parked in our driveway at home, we can switch off the refrigerator. No need to keep it running unless it’s being used. When we head out on a trip, we switch it on. When the car is driving, the battery is charged and the fridge is running. When we are parked, we can set out our solar panel during the day to keep the aux battery charged and the fridge running day and night. If we park to hike or kayak, we can put our solar panel in the front window and charge it while we are hanging out and having fun.

Once installed and screwed into the face place, this baby is good to go. As a final step, I’d like to use the GoWesty laminate on the front of the T49 to make it look as built in as possible. So, pictures of the all-the-way finished product to come. As well as my reviews of the new fridge. I hae to admit I am super stoked about the freezer in the T-49. I am excited to take my Trader Joe’s Vegetable Gyozas in the freezer for one of my favorite quick lunches. More to come…

Bougie Hack #3: Truck Mirrors

I’m not gonna lie… this is by far the most bourgeois hack we’ve done. We got truck mirrors! So our side view mirrors have always had some issues. The driver’s side mirror had some dark spots showing through and the passenger’s side mirror always moved out of position. It was this always-moving-out-of-position that would drive Joe nuts. I mean just nuts. Lots of complaining every time we drove.

I think we could have probably fixed it with a rubber washer for like 30-cents or some other mickey-mouse approach. We might have even replaced the one mirror with the standard replacement. You can buy the regular mirror replacements at GoWesty for about $38 for the right and $38 for the left. But Joe’s been eyeing the truck mirrors because despite being bougie–and they are–they look really, really cool–and they do!

Why truck mirrors? Well, they are a bit beefier. They turn in for tight parking spots. They don’t flop around and have a lot more stability than the old mirrors. If you get lucky, you can buy them in a set from Van Cafe for $349. If you buy them from GoWesty, they will put you out $199 a mirror. They are ridiculous. And, they are also kinda great. By the way, if you’re about these mirrors like Joe is, you have to buy them when they are in stock. Like as soon as you see them because in a matter of a few days they will be sold out.

Joe is super pleased with his new truck mirrors.

Sug’s First Upgrade

1985 white vw vanagon

We bought our Sug in San Francisco. Her former owner was a chef who lived near the beach. Clearly a very successful chef! She came with good mo-jo; her former chef-owner was also a former Punk Rocker from Utah–you must be thinking what I’m thinking, right? SLC Punk. Yeah!

Anyways, Sug came with some cool features like an amp and subwoofer, all appliances in working condition, a cool little propane heater for cold nights, the canvas in great shape, a Van Cafe awning, and Go Westy rubber mats throughout. Those rubber mats are pricey–$120 or so just for the middle mat. The mats come with circular indents that make them slip-proof and most importantly they help keep the floor clean. But when you throw-up from the top bunk Crab that-you-fished-out-of-the-ocean-but-didn’t-quite-cook-well-enough you end up with little indented circles of of uncleanable, dried craby throw-up bits. Yup! Ewe… That happened. Needless to say, we’ve been looking for flooring alternatives ever since.

We did a bathroom remodel a few months ago, and had a box of Rugged Brown Armstrong Luxe Plank flooring left over. Luxe Plank flooring is also known as luxury vinyl flooring, and it basically looks like hardwood, but it’s waterproof and scratch resistant. You may have remembered similar promises from laminate flooring, but laminate flooring was never waterproof and it always pulled up at the seams–looking hella-cheap. Luxury vinyl is a way, way superior product.

box of Armstrong flooring
Armstrong Luxe Plank Flooring

We decided to use our left over luxe plank on the floor of the van. We were a couple of square feet short, so we stopped by Wood Brothers Carpet and Flooring, the local flooring store from which we originally purchased the luxe plank. Luckily the local store agreed to sell us just a couple of boards; the cost $10. The big box stores would have made us buy a whole $55 box. Local shopping benefit–big time! Wood Brothers also sold us an aluminum L-shaped trim piece for the door jam; $5. They actually sold these in 12-foot sections; we need only 48″. So, they cut it in half and sold it to us at half the price. Kinda rad!

Most people who add wood or laminate flooring to their Vanagon, pull up the original Vanagon carpet or vinyl flooring and metal trim pieces and start on bare floor. We decided that we wanted to maintain the original flooring and lay the luxe plank over the top. Who knows, maybe some day we will want to go super original again. But when we laid out a few starting pieces, we found that the rounded-heads of the flooring-bolts kept the new luxe plank from laying flat.

bolts with round heads
The original round flooring bolts

So we took a jaunt to another local shop, Valley-Wide Fasteners for metric size-8, 1.25, 3/4″ bolts with flat instead of rounded heads. We bought ten of them, $8. And we replaced all the floor bolts. From there it was pretty darn easy. The luxe plank floor snaps together; it doesn’t require any glue or nailing; it floats right over the top of the existing floor, which means the original floor is still there and intact.

flooring being installed in the van

We used a miter-saw which made for easy, straight cuts. While for the most part, cuts were straight, there were a couple of small, tricky notches we handled with a hand saw. We then lined up the aluminum, L-shaped trim piece along the doorway and secured it with 5 self-tapping screws; we already had those. Yay! And, to make things look pro, we added some small, oak, quarter-round trim to the interior edges. I tried to purchase this from our local Habitat for Humanity Restore, but I wasn’t able to find it. So, I purchased this from Lowes for $6. It finished the job nicely. And generally speaking, if you have a Habitat for Humanity Restore, it’s a great place to buy small quantities of flooring for projects like this. You might find 30 square-feet of hardwood for just a few bucks. If you have to go out and purchase flooring, try your Habitat store first! You save and your cash goes to a great cause!

installing metal trim

For $29 and a couple hours of labor, we got a stylish, easy to clean luxe plank floor in our vanagon. Here’s Joe looking proud of his finished product. And the color seemed to go perfectly and almost looked like it could have been the original floor.

finished van floor

Our next mod is the auxiliary battery. I’ve watched a couple of videos, and it looks pretty intimidating to me. Joe seems pretty confident (maybe overly confident). So, look for my next blog on battery power or battery blunder!

Sugar Magnolia

1985 white vanagon
Sugar Magnolia chillin in Southern Nevada’s Valley of Fire

We call our 85′ Westy-girl, Sug (pronounced “Shug”); short for Sugar Magnolia. Okay. Yes! This name is a Grateful Dead reference (my honey is a pretty serious Dead Head), but it’s actually more than that. An amalgamation of many references: the street on which we live, the sweetness that she’s brought into our life, and one of my all-time favorite literary characters (Shug Avery) from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (if you haven’t read it–do–like right now). It’s not a coincidence that like Ms. Avery, our Sug has played many roles in our lives: teacher, confidant, friend, companion. The experiences of Shug’s life define who she is, and our Sug plays a role in our experiences helping to define who we are. Sug is rough around the edges, but she’s warm and safe on the inside. And, yes. The Grateful Dead reference is also totally appropriate, “She can dance a Cajun rhythm/ Jump like a Willys in four wheel drive/ She’s a summer love in the spring, fall and winter/ She can make happy any man alive.” And, after 25 years of raising kiddos, we are excited for music, dancing, and adventure. She’s been part of our lives now for the last two years. And, we’ve managed lots of quick coastal weekends and one big Southwest, summer excursion. We’re gearing up for a long weekend at Patrick’s Point in just a few days. Our 2019 van life trips will be short this summer, but I’ll keep you up-to-date on these adventures and on our Vanagon hacks & mods.