How-To: Insulating Your Van
Insulation in a van is a bit more complicated than insulation in a house. For one, a van moves, bounces and vibrates. A van is a metal box that does not breathe like a house does. A van is tiny and every inch makes a difference. For these reasons, choosing the right type of insulation is a lot harder than in a house. You want to choose something that does not move when installed, that has a natural resistant to mold and mildew and has a high R-value per inch. There are a lot of different opinions on what to use. We're not going to try to tell you which types of insulation to use, because there is no right answer, but we will tell you what we used and why.
For beneath our subfloor we used a combination the following:
We did not want to add much height to our floor, since the whole point of getting this new van was to be able to stand up straight! So we used the highest quality materials we could find that would have the highest R-value per inch (R-6 for RMax foam insulation). We were also using this as somewhat structural and the 20PSI compressive strength is enough to withstand the load on top of the floor. Our floor will be the least insulated portion of our van, with an R-value around 7 or 8, but this is a vast improvement over our old van.
For our walls we wanted to use something that did not require any vapor barrier and we did not want to worry about water ingress. We were again wanting to improve on our insulation from our last van (a combination of rigid foam and recycled denim).
Why we chose wool
Well, actually Roscoe clearly did the choosing for us! He loves this stuff. And so do we.
Initially we had decided on adding Thinsulate to our van and bought some to try out (as was recommended by the awesome folks over at FarOutRide). This insulation is very nice, super easy to install, but is very very expensive (~$4.50/sqft). It has a pretty good R-value at ~3/inch (R-5.9 for ~2" thick). It comes at ~2" thick, so the R-value of 5.9 leaves something to be desired. However, it is mold and mildew resistant and is supposedly great at sound dampening.
After not wanting to buy more Thinsulate and wanting a bit more R-value on our walls and ceilings, we happened upon Havelock Wool. This may be the holy grail of insulations for van dwelling folks! It has a ton of the qualities that make Thinsulate popular among van builders and exceeds in many respects. It's R-value is slightly better than Thinsulate at ~3.5/inch, but the material we bought comes a bit thicker at 3.5" for the standard batting, making the R-value more than double at R-13. It has natural mildew and mold resistance. It has great sound dampening properties, although these aren't quantified on their website (they don't have 3M's research budget to quantify this). It's 1/3 the price! The material we bought comes in at ~$1.33/sqft (~$120/90sqft)!
Another reason to use wool is because it's natural and sustainable. We try to make the sustainable choice when possible. This is a big one. Instead of foam or fiberglass or other not great choices, stumbling on wool and finding out how much cheaper it was than other options was a win-win!
Lastly, we used Low E EZ Cool on all exposed inner surfaces. These pieces are connected to the outside of your van by metal. Metal conducts heat very well, even when it's connected by thin pieces. To get that little extra bit of insulation, we applied this material, which is a bit better than Reflectix at insulating more than just radiative heat. We used it wherever we could!
We also bought some insulating window covering for the front, which has tons of windows and therefore terrible insulation.
Overall, we should have close to the following R-values for each part of the van:
Things we used
- RMax Rigid Foam Insulation (~90sqft)
- ESP Low-E® EZ-Cool Car Insulation Kit + Foil Tape (~200sqft)
- Thinsulate (75sqft)
- Havelock wool insulation 3.5" batting (270 sqft)
- 3M spray adhesive
This is an ongoing process, at least for us. We've been adding insulation as we put in the walls and stuffing it in every nook and cranny that is available.
So, before you begin anything, think about insulation first. Make sure you don't cover something up that you would like to insulate!
Please see our post on our subfloor installation to find out more details about what we did for the subfloor. The short story is that we used the following to do it:
Insulate the nooks
There are many areas that you can put insulation right away. There are numerous nooks and crannies in the walls that need to be filled. We used a mixture of Thinsulate and Havelock wool for these, but we would recommend skipping the Thinsulate to save some Hamiltons. It's also arguably easier to fill these with wool since you can just tear off a piece you need and stuff it in. Thinsulate requires scissors and measuring for this.
Insulate the wall panels
For the small wall panels, you can use some spray adhesive to hold the insulation in place. We recommend this for all places that you can put it and it will stay. It becomes easier once you've started installing your walls around the larger areas, so if it's very large, wait a bit.
Insulate behind walls and ceiling as you go
Again, there's not much to say here. Before you cover up part of your walls or ceilings with paneling or other coverings, insulate first! For large areas, use spray insulation to keep everything in place for years of driving!
Apply Low E EZ Cool
As stated above, we applied this to all bare metal inner surfaces before covering them with paneling or built in furniture. While it's not the best insulating material, it's better than Reflectix and very easy to install. Unlike Reflectix, there is about 1/4" of foam between the two aluminum layers. We're not saying it's great, just slightly better. Just cut to size and apply with a bit of spray adhesive.
Insulate everywhere you can! The more the better.
Just a reminder to throw insulation behind anything and everything. More insulation isn't a bad thing.
Put it behind your headliner. Put in in your doors. Put it behind your built in furniture. There isn't much of a science behind it, just make sure you put it everywhere. You'll be glad you did when you're traveling through those really intense conditions!