Summer to Sub-zero, Vanna’s Off-grid Adventure Vans Are Ready to Roam
On a gusty -20°F February afternoon, Ben Gleason was setting up for winter car camping at an outdoor kite skiing event on a frozen lake in Minnesota (as you do). Jason Gilbraith was there, too; his camper van parked out on the ice. After discovering their shared passion for photography, Jason offered Ben the use of his dual monitor work desk inside his van so that he could edit and return a batch of photos for a client.
"When Ben opened the door to my van, it was about 72°F inside. I was hanging out in my hoodie and slippers, making a pizza," says Jason. All Ben could say as he stepped in was, "oh my God, what is this!?" That was a typical first impression of Jason's vehicle. "People wanted to know what I had done to make my van both truly 4 season and completely off-grid."
Jason Gilbraith (left) Ben Gleason (right)
Three months later, the pair were driving Jason's van to Northern Minnesota for a rock-climbing trip with friends. It was on that drive that Ben and Jason began talking about starting a different kind of van-building business. One that would set a new bar for quality and customization with a power system to match, removing common stumbling blocks to all-season van living.
A camper van for ALL seasons
Most camper vans are considered 'three-season.' As the temperature drops, they must be properly winterized and stored away. "When most of us hear the term 'four-season van' we may think of a vehicle you could drive into the mountains in the snow on a 32°F day. But that just doesn't cut it here in a North Dakota or a North Midwest winter environment," says Jason. A true four-season van would need to remain comfortable when the temperature drops to -30 degrees °F.
In the years after college, Jason's natural curiosity and background in renewable energy had taken him down a winding research path into all-things solar power and finding efficient ways to retain heat in cold environments. A four-season rig would require more power, a larger battery bank, great insulation, an adapted water system, and a heater that will keep up with the cold but remain energy efficient.
Looking at the vans friends had bought pre-built from big names in the industry, Jason couldn't help but notice the quality of the components and materials used. "After what they'd spent on the vehicle, they weren't very happy with it; the materials and components used were cheap and little things were falling apart all the time. It didn't make any sense. Why would you sell something this expensive and not use the best components?"
Jason also observed that while many van builders use a 90 amp hour battery, they also require propane to run the van's heater, refrigerator, or stove. Most vans need an onboard generator or rely on being able to plug into a 50 or 30-amp receptacle to get power. "Generators vibrate the van; they're noisy. They're polluting. And it's another fuel source that you have to worry about. It's a nuisance," says Jason.
As Jason and Ben launched Vanna Adventure Vans, they knew they could offer a better solution by combining high-efficiency A/C and heating systems with a more robust power system designed to maximize available solar and alternator charging.
A power system to match
For Ben, 'high-quality' is not a tired marketing buzzword. It's a strategy for building a successful business and a respected brand. "A lot goes into any one custom van build. Whether we're talking about the heating system, cabinetry, insulating material, or even the wire we use, we don't make those decisions based on the product's price. We make product decisions based on the highest quality we get."
The same is true for each van's power system, which should be worry-free and built to last for a very long time. "Our clients want the best on the market, And that's what we can provide with Victron power systems," says Ben.
Vanna rents out several different tiers of vans depending on the client's needs. The most basic system includes 330 amp hours of lithium iron phosphate and a 2,400-watt inverter/charger that runs fans, 12-volt lights, and a refrigerator. These systems use the Orion Smart 30 amp DC-DC charger to charge the battery using the vehicle's alternator.
Vanna's 24-volt systems provide 400 amp hours at 24 Volts of lithium iron phosphate. These rental vans usually have an air conditioner, an induction cooktop, and many small built-in features that take a little more power.
More advanced 48-Volt systems provide more power, and more options for the use of 48V appliances. Those systems feature a 48-volt, 3,000-watt inverter charger and a highly efficient 48-volt Nomadic air conditioner. When paired with a 48-Volt system, the air conditioner runs entirely off the Victron Energy power system.
A typical 48-Volt Victron power system on a Vanna Van includes:
- Victron Multiplus II 48/3000/25-50 120V VE.Bus
- Victron Orion-Tr 48/12-30A (360W) Isolated DC-DC Converter (x2)
- Victron SmartSolar MPPT 150/35
- Victron Digital Multi Control 200/200A GX
- Victron Lynx Distributor (x2)
- 51V Lithionics 165Ah Battery with External BMS
- Victron Cerbo GX
- Victron GX Touch 50
- Victron Smart Battery Protect 65A (For Load Disconnect)
- 48V Balmar Alternator with Wakespeed WS500
- 48V Nomadic Cooling 2000
- Zamp Solar OBSIDIAN SERIES 100-Watt Solar Panel (x2)
Vanna Vans also implements a second alternator into their van builds. "If it's a Mercedes Sprinter, we install a second alternator. If a Ford Transit, we get it ordered with the second alternator. This provides a high amp alternator under the hood designated to recharge the Victron system, which easily runs the air conditioner and recharges the power system's battery without any external grid power, and again, without ever running a generator." Vanna's power systems also utilize WakeSpeed to communicate with the External BMS of the Lithionics battery so that clients can recharge their batteries faster. "We've had customers stay fully off the grid with their van running AC throughout the day and night for up to two days without having to plug in or even start their van," says Jason.
VRM: A game-charger in customer service
The ability to diagnose a power system error on a Vanna van using Victron's Remote Management portal (VRM)—from hundreds or even thousands of miles away—is no slight advantage for this fast-growing business. Every vehicle they set out on the road is set up to connect online with VRM.
"When clients buy or rent a rig from Vanna, they know that if anything goes wrong with any part of their power system, they can call us directly for a real-time perspective on what's going on," says Ben. Providing what is essentially a remote service call with more information on hand than a Vanna technician would have if visiting the vehicle on-site is much less stressful for both the client and the Vanna team. "We can see everything. They can see everything, too, but we keep it in layman's terms, asking the right questions to get to the root of the problem quickly."
VRM has become a valuable tool for helping Vanna van owners understand their biggest consumption areas and how to use their power efficiently while staying confident that their Victron power system is working properly. "A client had driven down to Texas and started to notice an issue. Their power was draining too quickly at the end of each day. Connecting their Cerbo GX device to a Wifi source, I could immediately see all the essential data points and trends over that week and month; their power draw, the times of day when consumption is high, and go from there to figure out what's going on. It turns out that running their induction cooktop for over an hour was eating up a lot of their stored power."
With VRM, it's obvious what the problem is when there is one, says Jason. "Again, we get to put our time and passion into designing and building great vans, not wasting time or pulling out hair to diagnose a problem."
The right partnerships save time, accelerate learning
Shortly after choosing Victron Energy for their design builds, Vanna Adventure Vans looked for a Victron Energy distributor that could help them deliver the best possible off-grid mobile power system for their vans. "It was clear that Intelligent Controls was not just a distributor sending us products. They have given us a lot of feedback on each system design. We would share schematics with them to review and discuss, asking, 'Will this work?' 'Is there anything we should add or take away to simplify the system?' Intelligent Controls was a huge help in training and getting us up to speed as we began installing and programming equipment, troubleshooting errors, and learning to use VRM."
Jason says there's no substitute for personal relationships and getting technical support from real people. "Having Jack visit our shop to see our builds and knowing how to contact him is super important to us. I can send him a quick text, 'Hey Jack, what do you think about this?' And he responds to me directly as soon as he can. With most companies, you're calling a company number, waiting on hold, and talking to four robots before you talk to a person. Then half the time, you don't get the answer you need anyway. So having that personal and business relationship is an immense value add for us as we learn, innovate, and continue to scale as a business."
As new products come to market or product updates come online, it creates new opportunities for advanced controls on Vanna's vans. "Intelligent Controls sent us a RuuviTag temperature sensor to try out since it can interact with a relay on the Cerbo GX and communicate with VRM. We tried it out on a van and saw how effective it could be for running fans to cool the power systems and the power boxes holding the batteries and other equipment." Vanna has since started including Ruuvi sensors in their new van builds. "We love how it all talks with VRM. If I want to know 'What's the temp in my van?' Should I go crack a window? 'What's the air pressure?' It's so convenient to have those data points on hand and in one easy-to-visualize display."
Vanna and Intelligent Controls are also collaborating to implement a new auto-start feature. "This will allow us to use a relay on the Cerbo GX such that when the batteries reach a certain state of charge percentage, the van will automatically start up to recharge those batteries. This means van owners don't necessarily have to watch their system during the day to ensure everything will stay charged. It would be able to more or less maintain itself. All you'd have to worry about is your fuel level which is pretty remarkable."
Four-season vans find a new market opportunity
The prototype of Vanna's next big undertaking is currently serving patients in northern Minnesota, says Ben. "Using big campers for mobile medical clinics presents a lot of challenges. Nursing staff often don't feel comfortable driving large vehicles or parking them in cities. You also can't use them in freezing temperatures. Meanwhile, anyone can drive a van. You don't need a full-time driver. They are compact, and you can use them all year, in any weather."
The first of their kind nationwide, Vanna's four-season off-grid doctor's office vehicles will enable in-person doctor visits to deliver essential services like routine physicals, blood draws, vaccinations, and behavioral health visits. "It has a modern medical interior finish with an exam bed, countertop, storage, and space to accommodate a wheelchair or a family of four, for example. We're meeting with many large medical providers, hospitals, and clinics, and in the new facility we're expanding operations into, we'll be able to build hundreds of these vehicles a year, which is very exciting."
Vanna is set to scale without many of the headaches plaguing competitors. "We get to focus on building great vans, not hiring a team of customer service reps to field complaints and process warranties. We like to tell our customers, 'We hope to hear from you… but we also hope to never hear from you," says Ben with a laugh. "Hopefully, they're too busy planning their next adventure."