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Electric Vanlife: The Weight Issue

Time to talk about the elephant in the room: we have a weight issue. Fully loaded, right now our DIY-converted Fiat E-Ducato is over its maximum allowed weight of 3500kg. We’re going to make some adjustments to get it down to where it needs to be, but because of the added weight of the batteries, this is a big issue for electric campervans. So let’s talk about it!
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Realising we’re too heavy

We’ve known from the get-go that our DIY van conversion of our Fiat E-Ducato needed to be as lightweight as possible. That’s why we chose to work with aluminium profiles instead of wood and plastic crates instead of drawers. Before departing on our 2022 summer road trip through Scandinavia, we decided to weigh the van fully loaded at a public weighing station to make sure we weren’t too heavy. And to our horror, we were about 120kg over the legal limit, without counting ourselves! It turns out, we’d been calculating with the empty weight of the vehicle without any of the extras that we’d added, like the ability to fast-charge the van. So we had some serious weight to lose.

Luckily, we’d packed the van to the brim before weighing, so we took everything out and packed again but this time very lightly. We also made some easy adjustments, like getting rid of our heavy bed plate and replacing it with a lighter one, so we’d feel confident departing on our trip through Scandinavia. We had an amazing time road tripping through Denmark, Sweden and Norway for seven weeks and the van did so well! But now we’re back in the Netherlands to finish the final bits of the van build, we need to take extra care to make sure we’re complying with European rules and regulations.

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Fiat E-Ducato specs

When we ordered our Fiat E-Ducato, we could choose between a model with a maximum allowed weight of 3500kg or one with a maximum of 4250kg. We could also choose between a small battery pack of 47kWh, with a range of up to 220 kilometres / 135 miles, or a larger battery pack of 79kWh, with a range of up to 360 kilometres / 225 miles — both ranges based on a smaller (L2H1) model. We went with the L3H2 model: our van is 6 meters (20 feet) long, just over 2 meters (about 7 feet) wide, and a bit more than 2.5 meters (8.5 feet) high. 

We also decided to go for the biggest battery pack because we wanted the longest range we could get. But this battery pack alone weighs around 650kg! So that takes a big chunk out of the maximum weight of the van. While we knew it would be a big challenge to keep the van under 3.5 tonnes, we decided to go with the 3500kg model instead of the 4250kg one.

Why we chose the 3500kg model

Looking back now, we’re not entirely sure we made the right decision. But back then, our reasoning was as follows. We felt that for a relatively ‘small’ campervan like ours, it just didn’t make sense to go for a 4250kg model. To us, that seemed like a weight limit belonging to huge RVs, not cargo vans. On top of that, the heavier model Fiat E-Ducato had some serious drawbacks.

If we’d gone for 4.25 tonnes, we’d not have been able to drive our van with our regular driving licenses, which allow for a maximum allowed mass of 3.5 tonnes. So we’d have to get an extended driver’s license just to drive our campervan. This would also mean we’d never be able to lend it to friends or family, or to potentially rent it out in the future. The 4250kg Fiat E-Ducato model also has a speed cap of 90 km/hour (56mi/hour), whereas with our 3500kg Fiat E-Ducato we can drive up to 100 km/hour (62mi/hour), and in ‘power mode’ it’s even possible to go up to 110 km/hour or 69mi/hour.

In Europe, you often have to pay more at ferries and on toll roads if your vehicle is over 3500kg. In France, it’s also mandatory to put blind-spot warning stickers on your van if it exceeds 3500kg. And finally, we knew that the added weight would also impact our range. All of these drawbacks led to us choosing the 3500kg model — and by doing so, we knew we’d be forced to go for a lightweight campervan conversion.

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Did we make the right choice

We still think we had some strong arguments to go for the 3500kg model, but we do doubt whether we made the right decision now looking back. Our model van (Fiat E-Ducato L3H2 with the big battery pack) weighs 2735kg empty, which would give us a user payload of 765kg. That’s already pretty tight, but before departing on our summer road trip we found out that the actual weight of the van empty was about 150kg more than stated by Fiat, most likely due to some extras we purchased with the van, like the ability to fast-charge. So that leaves just 615kg for the van conversion and the user payload. And remember: our own weight counts as well! Together, Jurrien and I (Sara) weight just under 145kg. So this makes it even harder to stay beneath the weight limit.

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We’re not alone: many campervans are overweight

Electric cars and vans have hefty battery packs which make them rather heavy, whether they’re loaded or not. But for years now, the trend with gas and diesel cars and (camper)vans has been that they’re getting heavier as well. Vehicles are becoming increasingly safer and more luxurious, and this means there’s added weight. As a result, many people who carry a heavy load in their car or van are often over the maximum allowed weight without knowing it.

With campervans, this problem is especially big. Many factory-built RVs are delivered with a weight very close to the limit already. When owners go on to add things like electric bikes, a big stock of groceries or their entire wardrobe, the maximum allowed weight is exceeded easily. Dutch campervan association NKC organises a yearly weighing of campervans for their members. Last year, one third of the campervans weighed was overweight. And according to some estimates in the UK, an even larger percentage of campervans on the road there is too heavy.

Why it’s illegal to be overweight

Now you might be wondering: what’s all the fuss about? Why is it bad that so many campervans are too heavy? It all has to do with safety. If a vehicle is too heavy, this can influence the driving stability and negatively impact the braking capabilities. Which is why many insurance companies (but not all) don’t pay out if an overweight campervan gets into an accident. It’s also illegal to drive an overweight campervan, with many countries giving out hefty fines if you’re caught. And if you’re really unlucky, you might have to unload the campervan until it reaches an acceptable weight before you’re even allowed to drive on, which happens most often in mountainous countries like Switzerland.

To be very honest, it’s mostly this last part that has us worried most. We know that our van is brand-new and that the chassis was built to withstand more weight than 3500kg (which we can see on our registration plate). We also know we have a very stable campervan because most of the weight is in the batteries which are situated underneath the floor. And as for our braking capabilities: because we have regenerative braking, we could argue our braking distance is already less compared to a diesel Fiat Ducato campervan. But obviously, we don’t want to break the law, so there’s nothing for it but to lose the weight we need to not exceed the maximum allowed mass.

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Where we go from here

Because all cars and vans are getting heavier, not just the electric ones, there’s talk of changing the rules and regulations in the European Union. They want to make it possible for people to drive a van weighing up to 4250kg with a regular driver’s license. It would be fantastic if this happens, but it won’t help us, because our campervan’s maximum allowed weight is 3500kg.

We could look into changing the vehicle registration via an inspection to see if we could expand the maximum allowed weight for our van (if this would be possible with our chassis). But then we’d still have the problem of the driver’s licenses now and all the other arguments why we don’t want to drive a van heavier than 3500kg still stand. So, we’ve chosen instead to take every effort we can to lose weight. This means that we’re taking our van apart almost entirely again, to see in which parts of the build we can lose some extra kilograms. One example of how we’re doing this, is getting rid of our heavy floorboard and only keeping the sections that we walk on.

It’s going to be hard, but we’re very motivated to show that it can be done. To have a big, electric campervan that weighs no more than 3500kg fully loaded and that can be driven with a regular driver’s license. Wish us luck!

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