Guide to conversion safety: Be aware of the risks

Over the many years we have been in business, the conversions market has massively grown. This means more choice for customers and I believe competition is a healthy and positive thing. However in order for customers to make good choices, it is essential to be armed with good information about the safety standards, working practices and quality of conversion work that should be expected.

Our philosophy at Vanscape is one of transparency. We are proud of the high standards we work to and the quality of materials and products we use in our conversions. Unfortunately this transparency is not something that every conversion company offers, and although there are regulations and standards governing this industry, they are not enforced – so many companies simply don’t bother to keep to them.

Read on to find out how safety is tested in the conversion industry, and how we at Vanscape ensure we produce our vans to the highest possible safety standards. My hope is that this guide will help people make more informed choices about what products and finish they want, as well as which company they wish to work with.

Approvals that certify a campervan’s build quality

Type Approval applies to vehicles which are registered as a motorhome on the V5C from new, which have been built according to a certified design and specification. It verifies that the vehicle has been built safely for living in, as well as for travel. Most manufacturers have vehicle type approval in order to register a vehicle as a motorhome right from the start of its life. Type Approval is inflexible – once gained, the exact design and specification of the vehicle cannot be changed.

Since many motorhomes are built according to a customer’s unique wishes and requirements, there is also IVA (Individual Vehicle Approval). This is done by VOSA (the agency which regulates car MOTs). VOSA can approve vehicles on an individual basis for new registration. However, this means one vehicle can have very different results at different test centres. The waiting time to get an IVA can often be measured in months.

Technically, for a vehicle to be classified as a motorhome, it needs to pass either type approval or IVA (individual type approval). This is an important confirmation of the safety of any work that has been done to convert it.

So why is it hard to tell whether a conversion is safe?

Gaining approval can be very time consuming, expensive and can be an unreliable process. However, if a vehicle is first registered as a commercial van, and then reclassified as a motorhome, it does not need approval. Campervan conversions therefore generally start out registered as commercial vans. This avoids the costly and inconvenient approval process – but also means regulation is virtually impossible, with the DVLA only ‘cherry picking’ a few re-classification changes to look at in more detail from the thousands they receive.

It should be clear by now why the industry is flooded with businesses, and only a few of us are achieving particularly high quality and safety standards. At Vanscape we are regularly asked to help when a conversion by another firm has failed, and some of these conversions are frighteningly dangerous.
So what are the common problems to look out for? Here are a few:

Gas and electrical systems

All too often we see vans with unsafe electrics. 12v electrics are sometimes dismissed as low-risk simply because the voltage is low and won’t kill – but even 12v electrics could cause a deadly fire if improperly installed.

We have also tested a number of vans with gas systems which clearly do not meet regulation to find they are not even holding pressure (meaning they are leaking gas into the vehicle, even if it’s not enough to noticeably smell!).

At Vanscape all staff are trained and certificated in electrical installation with all work being designed, constructed, inspected and tested to BS7671 and BSEN1648. Most staff are also certified for LPG gas installation and testing so all our vehicles get properly tested and certified before leaving us. Anyone qualified to work with gas will also have a certification photo ID card which you can always ask to see.

Elevating roofs

One of the most common changes made to a vehicle during conversion is the addition of an elevating roof. We fit the REIMO roof which is TUV Approved (this is a German approval to check and certify the safety, performance, and quality of equipment). The REIMO is one of only two roofs that I am aware of to meet this. The approval covers the roof itself and also the strengthening frame, to show that in the event of accident the vehicle will hold its structural integrity. For this the roof must properly fit the roofline of the vehicle – this sounds obvious but we are often shocked by how badly the ‘REIMO copied’ roofs are installed and how badly they fit the vehicle.

Seat/bed systems

Another equally important element of camper conversion safety is the seat/bed system. We have only used the Scopema RIB seat since we started as they meet the full EU regulations. The seat belts, the seats themselves and the mounting hardware which holds the seat in place are all exceptionally well designed and are arguably the safest seat/bed system on the market.

However, there are many ‘rock and roll’ systems all over the internet, advertised in magazines and often used by the smaller converter. They meet lower testing and safety standards (UK testing is often carried out by STATUS) if they meet any standard at all. In many cases they are just plain dangerous.

Rock and roll seats are normally low backed which means the belt would pull your shoulder into your body in an accident and offer no upper back and neck protection, and that’s if the frame of the seat doesn’t collapse and trap you first. Also, with some designs, even without anyone sitting on them, there are insufficient mounts to hold just the seat in place in the event of an accident. Disturbingly, we have also seen people who have bought the safer RIB seats, thinking they were buying the best seat on the market – only to have had it so poorly installed it would offer no greater protection than a ‘rock and roll‘ seat.

Don’t be distracted by the cool stuff!

There are a number of different furniture styles and options being offered by different conversion companies, as well as the different VW Vehicle options. But I hear all too often that someone is more interested in whether a van has a tailgate or barn doors and alloys than if it has legal safe rear seating. Sometimes low prices can also seduce buyers into handing over their cash without checking that the gas or electrical system is safe.

Enjoy the wide choice that is out there, but if you’re not buying a campervan which was purpose built from new with Type Approval, make sure that it has a proper certified and safely installed rear seat and that the rest of the work has been properly and professionally installed (i.e. by someone properly qualified) and that the gas and electrics have been tested.

A van can be attractive AND safe

We work very hard with all the aesthetics of our conversions, individually scribing and fitting all the furniture to fit each individual vehicle by properly qualified carpenters, and we have won awards for our simple but striking and practical designs. But at Vanscape your dream van is more than skin deep – it is structurally sound too. We are always happy to talk through all elements of our work if you have any questions. Being involved in the design and building of your own camper doesn’t have to difficult, and having the specification you want with an agreed timescale and budget can be one the best things you do.

Thank you for reading to the end!!

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