Originally from Kansas, USA, Kyle Batson is a photographer and designer and will soon be living full-time in his converted camper van. You can see more of his photography at kylebatsonphoto.com.

Mechanical hiccups

I will soon add details about my new home itself and the process of converting it from a base cargo van into a livable space, but while I'm sitting at the mechanic's shop, I thought I would describe a few of the mechanical difficulties that crop up when dealing with a 13-year old van.

Engine Belt

The first mechanical failure I discovered was only a few hours after picking up the van from Arlington, Virginia to drive it back to Kansas. After slowly making my way out of D.C. traffic, I was cruising along happily down the highway, enjoying the scenery of the wooded eastern states when I noticed my check engine light was on and my engine temperature gauge was dangerously high. I pulled over and discovered that my main engine belt had shredded.

Luckily, I had decided to take a short detour to visit my cousin in North Carolina, and was only thirty minutes from their home when I had to pull over. Fortunately, my cousin's husband is a bit of a gear head. He was able to buy a new belt and some extra oil minutes before the local auto parts store closed. We did a belt change right there, and the next day, did an oil change and went over the rest of the fluids.

It was an unfortunate mechanical failure, but it also became a great opportunity for me to start understanding the mechanical side of my van.

Battery Wiring

The next issue I encountered was frequent issues with the battery. The battery seemed fine, but on occasion, it wouldn't start, and the dashboard lights would blink. The only way to get it to start again was to disconnect and reconnect the battery, which would reset the ECU. But beyond that, I couldn't figure out what the issue was.

I finally got fed up on a road trip in Portland. I figured since I was near the Sprinter Store, they would be the perfect people to diagnose the problem. They discovered some bad wiring coming from the negative terminal of the battery to the wiring harness and were able to fix it without much fuss. I haven't had an issue with it since.

Frozen Fuel

This is less of a mechanical issue, but this seems like a good place to describe it. In Kansas this winter we had some very cold days. Sometimes down to -12°F (-25°C). On these days I was unable to get the van to start. There was an odd clicking/buzzing sound coming from underneath the van which turned out to be the fuel pump. This was my first experience with diesel fuel. Apparently diesel can gelatinize in cold weather. Since I was still in my apartment at the time, I decided to just wait until the weather got nicer to start the van again.

While the Sprinter does have an auxiliary heater to assist warming the engine in cold weather, I do not believe it would be able to warm up the fuel tank itself. If anyone has any further information on this topic, please leave a comment below.

Door Latch

At one point, while I was inside the van, I went to open the sliding passenger door at the same time my brother attempted to open it from the outside. After that, the door handle never seemed to work right. In addition, the locking system starting acting up. When locking the van, the doors would lock, but then spontaneously unlock again. It eventually got bad enough that the outside handle didn't work to open the door at all.

I was able to pull off the plastic handle and discover the issue underneath. There is a metal tab that is the top of the lever to activate the opening/locking mechanism. I was able to bend that back into proper position which fixed the issue.

Intercooler Hose Leak

Just this past weekend, I was driving on the highway and pulled into a rest stop. When I was accelerating back up to speed, I noticed that I was extremely underpowered. A few minutes later I saw the engine light on the dash illuminate and was prepared for the worst. I have a Bosch Moible Scan Bluetooth OBD II reader with a companion mobile app. For those who don't know OBD II is the standard for on-board diagnostics used in automobiles. When a 'check engine' light activates, the engine's on-board computer produces a code that indicates what the problem is so that the issue can be diagnosed.

The Mobile Scan app is also able to pull service information from the web and provide possible diagnostics. In the screenshot below, you can see that the third option listed under 'Frequently Reported Fixes' is 'Replaced Intercooler Hose'. When checking under the hood, I found a crack in the intercooler hose (circled in yellow).

I still had a voyage of about 100 miles after diagnosing the problem, but fortunately the van was about to limp home (about 45mph uphill and 65mph downhill) a little slower than usual. Since I was able to make the diagnosis on my own, it wasn't any trouble to quickly get the right part and get it replaced.

Dead Alternator

And now for the latest issue which prompted me to compile this list. On my way out of town towards the Midwest Vanlife Meetup in Missouri, I noticed that my battery indicator warning light was on. So, I pulled straight into my favorite mechanic and had them diagnose the issue. It turns out my alternator had failed and my battery wasn't being charged.

I have a split charger installed which allows me to charge my house battery from my engine battery while the engine is running. I am hoping that having this device installed did not cause or exacerbate the issue. There is a new 150 Amp Bosch alternator on the way (to replace the stock 90 Amp alternator), and I hope that will solve this particular problem.


Thanks to Slimmer's Automotive in Lawrence, Kansas for being my go-to mechanics for 16 years!

Midwest Vanlife Gathering

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