A Stealthy Onboard Air Conditioner

Sometimes a fan just doesn’t cut it…..

Summer will be here before we know it.  Where some of you live, it’s already hotter than heck.  Another month or so and it will be uncomfortably warm here, too.

I slept out most of last summer.  The van made me feel like Hansel and Gretel being stuffed in the old witch’s oven.  Inside it was often 90 degrees or more.  Add some humidity and it was all but impossible to sleep.  An air conditioner was needed for this year.

There are various ways to do it.  Many DIYs (do it yourselfers) opt to cut a hole in the side of the van, remove a back window, etc.  This detracts from the stealth somewhat.  I wanted a solution that did not dramatically change the outside stealthy appearance, did not detract from usable space, and would still cool the inside.  Cost was another consideration.  I had also made up my mind not to cut holes in the roof to add a roof mounted air conditioner.  Here is what seemed to fit all the requirements.

I purchased a 9000 BTU portable air conditioner (yes, it does use real freon!) from Amazon.  It is a Sunpentown and had mixed reviews.  One of the complaints was noise… Well, boo hoo… All air conditioners make noise!  Overall, this model was pretty well rated (after filtering out some bullsh** reviews)  so I decided to give it a try.  I was surprised by how quiet it is, especially on low.  It definitely gets cold.

The spot chosen to locate the portable air conditioner was from the bulkhead doorway to the area between the seats.  Since my van came without a bulkhead wall or door, I had made them last year using wood.  The modifications were easier when dealing with lumber.  I cut the door in half making both halves open and close independently.  The air conditioner was secured with boards, bungees, you name it.  I tested for movement in all three axis and it appears pretty secure…

You can see the top of the front panel in the “U” shaped cutout of the bottom half of the door.  I used a little heavier hinges on the bottom and will likely change out the upper ones.

The air outlet is the grill at the bottom.  Above it are the pushbuttons to control all the functions.  The unit also came with a remote control.

The best part is that as you can see the air conditioner (which also has a heat function) takes up zero room space.  It does block part of the bulkhead passage.  I’m too big to crawl through there anyway so it’s no big deal.  One advantage of locating the machine between the seats is that there are 2x4s under the a/c that also keep the AGM batteries separated.  They used to shift a little.  There is still storage space available between the driver’s and passenger’s seats.

Here is the view from the driver’s seat. There is an exhaust hose to attach to the hole that you see. I don’t like the hose that came with the air conditioner so I’ll probably get some plastic dryer duct and do something creative.  If you’re running just the fan function, you don’t need the hose anyway.

I only plan to use the Sunpentown A/C when in non-stealth situations such as boondocking by the river (using the generator) or camping at a campground or other place with shore power.  That being the case, I can just run the exhaust tube out a window and it doesn’t matter who sees it.

At the very bottom you can see a black dot.  That’s by where the drain is located.  Fortunately, there is a hole in the floor where I used to run a drain tube for an ice cooler.  It will be easy to route a hose and keep the machine emptied.  These models can get full of water under very humid conditions.  It won’t be a problem now.

The greyish blackout curtain covers the air conditioner leaving just a pregnant bulge.  I can put the Luggable Loo (camping toilet) in front of it and pile some more stuff up.  Nobody will notice the A/C even when looking in a window.

So far, the 9000 BTUs are plenty to cool the van in mere minutes.  Hopefully it works well this summer.  The only thing I did that might be a problem is to locate the air conditioner intake on the other side of the wall from the room it cools.  It’s going to be less efficient by not recirculating the room air to further cool it (like the Max A/C button on your car).  Still, I think with 9000 BTUs, I can still get adequately cold.

Have a good one!  Thanks for visiting. 

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About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"

9 Responses to A Stealthy Onboard Air Conditioner

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brad, we were thinking of getting a portable unit to help cool a room in our house that the central ac doesn’t cover well. Are you using the unit without the exhaust hose? We are having a problem trying to figure out where we’d vent a portable, and assumed doing so wasn’t optional.

    Thanks for another informative post…we’ve found so much helpful stuff here, despite the fact that we don’t have a van! 🙂

  2. Brad says:

    Hi! Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to know that this blog might be helping give others ideas.

    I have not yet hooked up the exhaust fan. Since the A/C will only be used when docked at Dad’s, a campground, or out in the wilderness, the idea is to use the unstealthy “hose out the window” trick or something similar. (The sleeping area is completely separated from the passenger area now)

    The exhaust really is a huge factor. These units generate a great deal of very hot air… I wouldn’t be surprised if they were built in Washington DC. 🙂

    Though it does need vented to the outdoors, it is possible to vent the A/C into another room. The only problem is that the temperature sensor is apparently in the rear of the unit. There’s an issue with sealing off a doorway like I did. As you cool the room, the temp sensor sees hotter and hotter air it so the A/C thinks it has to keep working hard. It might freeze you out and run up the electric bill.

    Keep working out… Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

  3. Stealth Fan says:

    Stealth Fan

    Very nice post. Information posted here is very helpful. I like the blog very much. Thanks to the admin of this blog.

  4. Kenny says:

    Nice Blog Brad, I have a similar setup in my rig. I think I own the 9000 supentown but now use antoher one.

    • Brad says:

      I like your blog as well and will put a link to it from my blog. You’ve got a cool machine! It would be nice to have that much space. It sounds like you also get decent gas mileage too.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why don’t you just cut a hole in the floor and vent it out that way? Is that possible? Don’t mind me – I know nothing about rigging things. However, I do want a portable for my van with a deep cycle battery for saving bucks on some business trips.

  6. Brad says:

    Wow! That’s a pretty cool suggestion. At first thought it seemed like the hot air would want to rise back up through the opening for the pipe, however….

    If I cut the whole in the floor, ran a pipe through it, and then ran it through an elbow to divert the air off to the side, it just might work! All it would do is warm the floorboard a little bit. It would be very stealthy that way, too!

    Another thought… If I wanted to use a piece of sewer pipe with a side opening, I could also use it to covertly drain some pee to the outside world without anyone knowing…

    If it does not work out for some reason, I guess I could always patch the floor back up, too. 🙂

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll look into doing that. It’s a pain having to wrestle that big air hose around…


  7. fred says:

    Does this set-up mean you cannot access the cab area from the cargo area? wouldn’t that be problem if you are parked in stealth mode and you would have to exit from the rear? And also an issue for an emergency quick “get-a-way”?

  8. Brad says:

    Hi Fred,

    Those are good points but not really an issue in the context of where I am camping these days. It would be a different matter if trying to hide along a street or behind a warehouse or maybe in a high crime area. In Iowa most people don’t look twice at a van with a bike on the back.

    You are correct though… With this setup there is now no easy way to get from the cargo area to the cab area… The rear doors are also partially blocked by the bed and headboard, but I could still exit to the rear in an emergency.

    I’m not too worried about having to drive away quickly. Iowa is very safe, in general. Where I camp for free (often at a Walmart or a state conservation area) is usually perfectly legal.

    Though I can carry the bike inside the van, it’s nice to have it on the back of the van, making it anything but stealthy… “I was tired from riding the bike” might sound better to a cop than “I didn’t want to spend $18 for a campground.”

    Each individual’s situation is different. The more a person camps in various places, the more he/she learns about what works, what is needed, and such. I sleep better not having to be incognito. It’s nice not having to think about getting away quickly.