Installing a New High-top on Your Van

Hight-top-van

(My deepest thanks to Christine for this wonderful guest post on getting a high-top installed!! She asked me not to post prices because Fiberine doesn’t want their prices getting out to their competitors. However, she very kindly offered her email so you can email and ask her: christine@christineon.comFiberine is located in Wilmington, CA. Here is their website: http://fiberine.com/GVMR/Home.html  )

Hi everyone! I’m Christine, and this is my van. Her name is Gypsy. I bought her last March, and I had the high top installed about a month after I bought the van. My boyfriend, Jef, and I plan to live in the van full-time as soon as we finish converting it. I get a lot of questions about the high top, so I’m going to try to be as thorough as possible in this guest post.

I have a lot to say about this subject, so in the interest of communicating in a coherent manner, I’ve divided this post into three segments:

  1. Gypsy’s High Top
  2. Things to Know if You Are Considering a High Top
  3. About Fiberine

1. Gypsy’s High Top

Gypsy’s top is a 30” camper top. It was designed by the manufacturer so that a bed could be installed in the space over the cab, and an air conditioner could be mounted on top of the roof. I will be doing neither of those things, but that doesn’t mean that the top will be any less useful.

When I purchased the top I did intend to put a bed over the cab, but a test run using  some plywood and an air mattress revealed that the space was simply too small for two adults. There is only 26” of space up there, and it’s 55” wide. After putting in a plywood platform and inflating an air mattress, there was less than 18” of vertical wiggle room. That might be workable for a small child, but it didn’t work for us. It was very coffin-like—not that I’ve ever been inside a coffin, but that’s what it reminded me of. I kept hitting the walls and the ceiling when I moved around. Instead of a bed, we plan to use the wonderfully cavernous space for storage.

HT-Overhead-2

There is only 26” of space above the cab. You can see that even without a mattress or bed platform in place, I still can’t sit up straight.

The photo above was taken after I put in the sound deadening and insulation. You can see the white areas that I left untouched. Those areas are being reserved for windows, which I plan to install myself later on down the road. It’s worth noting that I specifically asked Fiberine not to place any wood reinforcement in that area. I gave them specific instructions for where to place the wood reinforcement, and wrote out a list of specifications. Here is one of the photos that I sent them:

HT-Deminsions-3

With the high top installed, Gypsy now stands at 110” tall. She has the tallest high top I’ve ever seen on a van. Inside, I can stand up straight, and in some spots there’s a good ten inches of space between the ceiling and the top of my head. That said, Jef and I still haven’t gotten used to having a high top on the van. We usually walk around crouched over as if the van still had the original roof. And, of course, when we remember that we can stand up inside, it never fails that we try to stand up in one of the few spots that isn’t high enough to stand up in.

Installing sound deadening. The lowest part of the camper top is still several inches above my head.

Installing sound deadening. The lowest part of the camper top is still several inches above my head.

Here’s a photo illustrating how much room there is. For reference, I’m 5’5” tall, and this is the lowest part of the ceiling.

2. Things to Know if you are Considering a High-top

I  did quite a lot of research when I was looking at high tops. Most shops quoted me $2700-$3300 for an 18” high top, including installation. While it’s always tempting to simply go for the lowest price, you have to be very careful and very explicit in telling the shop what you want. I’d advise anyone considering a high top to visit the shop and ask to see real examples of installed high tops. Ask as many questions as you need to fully understand the details.

High tops come with a variety of options. It’s helpful if you know exactly what you plan to do with your high top before you order one, so that you can choose which options your need.

Wood Reinforcement

High tops can be purchased with or without wood reinforcement. Wood reinforcement is essentially just strips of wood embedded in the fiberglass. They provide a sturdy backing for anything that will be attached to the high top. If you are planning to purchase a high top solely for the purpose of having more head room in your van, then you will not need any wood reinforcement. However, if you are planning to attach cabinetry to the inside of the top, or mount an air conditioner on the roof, then you will absolutely need wood reinforcement. Lightweight solar panels may or may not need wood reinforcement, depending on how heavy the panels are and how you plan to install them.

The camper top that I ordered has an area specifically designed to receive an air conditioner, and therefore has extra of wood reinforcement at the rear. The sides, front, and back are reinforced with 0.5”x6” wood strips (except for where the windows will go), and the ceiling has three 0.5”x4” strips running down the length of the top. Here’s a photo illustrating placement of the wood.

Here's a photo displaying the placement of the wood.

Here’s a photo displaying the placement of the wood.

Gel Coat

Gel coat is a resin that is applied to fiberglass to provide a smooth, shiny finish. While gel coat does come in a variety of colors, most high top manufacturers offer it in white only. You may order your high top without the white gel coat, in which case, it will most likely come with a grey primer. You can then take the top to an auto body shop where they will paint it to match whatever color you choose.

Lining

High tops can be purchased with or without a liner. The liner is a thin fiberglass layer that provides a finished look to the interior. It’s smooth, easy to clean, and it gives the interior a polished look. Without a liner, the interior of the high top will look very much unfinished. It will be bumpy and unsightly. Some shops give you the option of having fiberglass insulation inserted between the high top and the liner.

The liner cannot be installed with wood reinforcement, so you’ll have to choose one or the other. If all you’re looking for is headroom, then you might want to go with a liner. If you plan to install cabinets, you’ll need the wood reinforcement, and  you can plan to cover up the unsightly areas later.

Windows

Taller high tops (generally 24” and higher) can often have windows installed wherever you like. If you plan to add cabinets and windows, then you’ll need to specify where to omit wood reinforcement because wood reinforcement will get in the way of the window installation.

Cut Lines

Part of the original van roof can be left intact to help support cabinetry and other structures that will be attached to the high top. I chose to leave about 18” of the original roof at the rear because I plan to use that space for storage. Be very careful with the edges of the original roof. They’re unbelievably sharp, and they can be difficult to see because they’re so thin. Cover the edges with rubber tubing right away, and you won’t cut yourself as many times as I did.

This photo shows the 18 inches left on for rear storage. That edge is very sharp!!

This photo shows the 18 inches left on for rear storage. That edge is very sharp!!

At the front, most installers will cut just behind the first cross bar behind the driver’s seat. This is because most people don’t need a raised roof over the front seats, and will use this space for storage. If you have special requests regarding where to cut off the original roof, be sure to communicate that to your installer.

The extra front area left on with the idea of becoming a bed.

The extra front area left on with the idea of becoming a bed.

Preparation

If you’re having a high top installed by a shop (versus doing it yourself), there are a few things you will most likely need to take care of prior to installation.

  • Remove the seats. The people installing the high top will need to be able to move around easily inside the van, and seats will not only get in their way, but also stand the risk of being damaged.
  • Remove the headliner. They’re going to cut a gigantic hole in the roof of your van, so the headliner will most definitely get in the way.
  • Rust on the roof and drip rails should be addressed. The high top will sit on a 4” band around the perimeter of the original roof. Once the top is installed it will be impossible to get rid of any rust along that band because it will be covered by the high top flange, so if rust is a concern for you, get rid of it prior to the high top installation.
This is the hole that was cut in the roof just before the high top was installed.

This is the hole that was cut in the roof just before the high top was installed.

3. About Fiberine

My experience with Fiberine was 100% wonderful, and I feel totally comfortable recommending them to anyone who is in the market for a high top, or any other type of fiberglass product. They also manufacture running boards, shower pans, and fiberglass furniture.

Fiberine has been in business for over 30 years. They have plenty of experience with high tops, as evidenced by the stacks and stacks of high top molds taking up room at their shop. Here’s an abbreviated list of the makes of models of vans for which they can produce high tops:

  • Buick Terraza
  • Chevy Astro
  • Chevy Express
  • Chevy Uplander
  • Dodge Sprinter
  • Ford F-350
  • Ford Transit Connect
  • GMC Savana
  • Nissan NV
  • Toyota Sienna
  • VW Vanagon

At Fiberine, manufacturing a high top takes 3-4 business days, and installation takes one full day. I mailed them a personal check on a Friday, they received it on Monday morning, and they started manufacturing my high top on Tuesday after the check cleared. They called me that Friday to let me know that the high top was finished, and the very next week they installed it on my van. It was a very smooth process.

Fiberine takes payment in two installments. The first installment is due at the start of work, and can be a personal check, cash, money order, or cashier’s check. The second installment is due when work has been completed, and must be cash, money order, or cashier’s check.

Fiberine’s products come with a 90-day warranty for defects in material and workmanship. They do not warranty the gel coat finish on their high tops, and they are refreshingly upfront about it. The kind of gel coat they use is not fully UV resistant, and can yellow and dull over time. Fiberine recommends waxing any gel coated surface 3-4 times per year to maintain the finish. I’ve had my high top for 3 months (my, how time flies!) and haven’t noticed any yellowing or dulling at all.

When I know that I’m dealing with a company run by nice people I feel better about forking over my hard-earned cash. Fiberine is family owned, and everyone there is super friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating. Their work is excellent, and their prices are reasonable. I had a very positive experience with them, and I’m sure you will, too. http://fiberine.com/GVMR/Home.html

So there you have it. This was probably more than you ever wanted to know about high tops. Kudos if you made it this far. With that, I’ll wrap it up. Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions. christine@christineon.com. Safe travels, everyone!

 

Bob

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

Posted in Conversion Details
36 comments on “Installing a New High-top on Your Van
  1. Harmony Rose says:

    Awesome account of installing a high top. Thanks Christine and Bob!
    would love to see some inside photos of the van to check out how you set it up 🙂

    • Christine says:

      Glad you liked it! The inside is still in the planning phase. I’m hoping to start building it later this week or next, and I anticipate that it will take a few months. I work slooooooow.
      Christine recently posted…Rack PlansMy Profile

  2. Rob says:

    Great information. Greatly increases functionality of a basic van.

  3. I’m doing fine with the E150 Ford without the high top. I still can’t see why anyone would install one except to stand up straight. I can do that on the outside….I guess if I want to reduce gas mileage and stand out more and do something with about 3 thousand dollars then it’s all in!!

    • Christine says:

      Storage. Lots and lots of glorious storage. For two people and a dog, the cost of the high top was nothing compared to the cost of buying, maintaining, and fueling a second rig.
      Christine recently posted…Rack PlansMy Profile

  4. yesican says:

    Very well done Christine. Your info helps a lot. I would really like a van but would need a high top. Now I know what’s involved and approximately how much it will cost. I do have one question for you…Did you notice a considerable drop in gas mileage with your high top. Your design looks less aerodynamic than a regular high top but you get that extra bed/storage space above the cab. I was curious if you feel that space was worth the decreased gas mileage.

    Rae

    • Christine says:

      It’s hard to say exactly how many mpg she gets because I have a lot of trouble filling the gas tank. For some weird reason, the gas pump shuts off when it shouldn’t. As a result, I end up guessing how full the tank is.

      That said, with the high top, a mostly empty van, going about 65-70 mph, I think I got 14.3 mpg. Without the high top I think I got about 16 mpg. On a 400-mile trip, that’s a difference of about 3 gallons of gas. If I drive 800 miles per month, with gas at $4/gallon, it’s about $288 extra per year to have a high top. I think it’s worth it, but that’s just me.

      • Mark says:

        I know this post is an old one but wanted to comment on this MPG situation since there are some terrific apps nowdays that can help you track your MPG. Have you had a chance to get a better idea on your MPG with such an app?

  5. yesican says:

    I was hoping you were going to say that! Thanks.

  6. dan novinger says:

    Nice article. Good detail. One area that you didn’t address is the impact on the dynamics of the vehicle, except in your comments on MPG. But in addition to the wind resistance, I would think other dynamics considerations are: 1) vehicle handling, including both cornering and braking 2) wind resistance [to a wind coming from the side] both while driving and while parked. One concern to using the upper area for storage is moment of inertia. If you have enough weight high above the axle, there is a “tipping” risk if you take a corner too fast, not to mention the added weight of the fiberglass itself. You can model the forces by determining the center of mass for the top and that should not be too hard, and then placing the mass at that location, and then calculating the moment arm of the torsional force by multiplying distance from the center of the axle to the center of mass times the mass. I would recommend reviewing that data with a mechanical engineer to verify that you haven’t created a dangerous situation for yourself. You’re probably ok, since there are campers out there that use the very same technique, however it goes without saying that any time you modify the geometry and center of mass of a dynamic vehicle that you should consider the impact on possible operational scenarios to keep yourself safe, even if it’s just to know that you’re ok in most of the scenarios, as I’m pretty sure is the case. For what it’s worth. Good luck, and congratulations on an excellently written and well organized article. Regards,Dan
    dan novinger recently posted…Installing a New High-top on Your VanMy Profile

    • Christine says:

      Yes, all valid points.

      I probably should have mentioned that I’ve made two lists for all my stuff: dense and not dense. The denser items like the house batteries and water will be stored at floor level. Overhead storage is strictly for lighter, less dense items like comforters, paper towels, the dog’s toys, etc.

      Thanks for your comments, Dan! Sure do appreciate it.

  7. CAE says:

    Is there a way to install a pop-top?

    • Christine says:

      I’m sure there’s a way, but I’ve never seen it done before. If meeting other van dwellers has taught me anything, it’s that anything is possible. You just have to figure out a way to make it work

    • Bob Bob says:

      CAE, there are a couple of ways. The cheapest is to find one in a junk yard and install it yourself. The more expensive way is to find one new and install it yourself. The most expensive way is to find a new one and pay someone else to install it for you. You will just have to search the web for them. Sportsmobile sells them and used to install them, but I have been told they have stopped installing them unless they are part of a vehicle you order from them. I don’t know that for a fact though. http://www.sportsmobile.com/ I would bet they would sell you just the top though and if not I bet they can tell you where to get them.

      google is your friend!
      Bob

  8. Naomi says:

    Great article, Christine. Thanks!

  9. Boyce says:

    Who might you have to say is the very best regarding Volkswagen components?

    Looking for things like roof racks, alloy wheels, and also rv accessories.
    There exists a major shortage of suppliers around where I live
    Boyce recently posted…BoyceMy Profile

  10. Gray says:

    I am considering a conversion (more daydreaming at this point, but we all start somewhere) using the same top and I have a couple of questions:

    1. How wide is the cutout in the original van roof between the flanges on the top?

    2. How low is the lowest point on the top? If I forego wood reinforcement in that area, would that net me a little more space? I do not plan on a roof air conditioner, the van is already tall enough with the camper top.

    My idea is to build a raised platform bed with storage underneath in the back of the van. Rather than lay plywood across the roof cutout, my bed would be supported by columns secured to the two rearmost pairs of pillars with the bottom of the platform even with the top of the rear door windows. I am hoping that will give me sufficient height for a sleeping area.

    I hope to be able to forego wood reinforcement of the top entirely. The only things I want to put on the top are a couple of solar vent fans and some semi-flexible solar panels (5 pounds each) designed to be bonded directly to the roof.

    Thanks for the great and informative article!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Gray, I didn’t write the story nor is it my van, so I can’t answer your questions. However I give the link to the manufacturer of the high-top so y0u could contact and ask them. I like your idea of a bed in the middle height above the back door of the van. That’s a great idea! I think I would build a shelf-unit on each side of the door to act as a load-bearing wall to support the bed.
      Bob

  11. Carre says:

    I’m glad I stumbled across your article; I found it very helpful. I have a really nice full size 84′ Chevy van(very clean) which I lived in for about a year w/ my doggy. Although I haven’t lived in it for the past 5 years, but I can’t part w/ it. I drive it like a regular car, but I live in S.F. & they have very strict parking regulations & I can’t just move because, I like my job here. Basically, If I replace my high top w/ just little lower top, parking will be easier. S.F.’s parking regulations are…any vehicle longer than 21′ OR taller than 7′ is not allowed to park between the hours of 11pm to 6am, so no over nite parking if your vehicle is too tall. If I want to keep it, I find paid parking, which have waiting list’s or replace my top w/ a top that is under 7′ tall in total. I will still be able to stand w/ a lower roof, I see other vans in the neighborhood w/ lower high-tops that fit w/in the city’s limitations. Fiberine is the co. I’ve been looking at, & my price guess is pretty close to your article,which was very helpful. Thank you for writing this article.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi Care, you have an unusual problem wanting a lower top on your van! I’ve heard nothing but good things about Fiberine, I hope that works out well for you!
      Bob

  12. Rhod says:

    A lot of great onfo! Thanks. I currently have a van and am trying to decide whether I should get an extended body van and put on a high top or buy an almost new pickup and put a camper on it. Next weekend I am going to kick tires at an RV show. I thought I had given up on a van but after reading this, maybe not. Looks like I need more time to research it.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Rhod, it’s a tough call between them. It’s a major disadvantage not having the pass-through from drivers seat to the house in back. Vans have much better stealth and generally get better MPG.

      If you get a camper, I highly recommend you get the smallest one you can. The monster big ones are very heavy and fall apart.

      A van with a high top is a pretty outstanding way to live.
      Bob

  13. Mark says:

    Bob,

    I wanted to take the time to thank you for inviting Christine to do this guest post. I forget how I discovered this post or your site but I am currently looking into cargo van conversions and your site is getting me off to a great start with all the information I have been looking for.

    Keep up the great work, sir.

    Mark
    Mark recently posted…The Saturday Edition : Morning PostsMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      You’re very welcome Mark! I’d encourage you to join my forum where there are many others doing the same thing where you can get a huge variety of ideas and experience.
      Bob

  14. Mark says:

    Hey Bob. Thanks for the info. I’m looking into adding a high top to my wife’s ford e350 cargo van. She works out of it. (Catering). It will be specifically just for headroom so she can stand up inside. One question is are there prepare tops to choose from instead of getting one manufactured from you. Thanks

  15. Just getting started in researching the van /ev lifestyle. I am committed! I need a van that is liveable, gets decent mileage and has power enough to handle mt. passes in the winter. Suggestions?
    I am a single, 5’3″ woman living in SE Idaho. Thanks!

  16. Cheri says:

    I have been looking at tiny houses and/or converting a van to a camper. Just recently my Toyota van motor burned out. After doing much research I have decided to buy a new car and keep my van and convert it into a camper. However to do this I obviously had to put in a new engine. All of the information that both of you listed is extremely helpful. I didn’t realize how much more research I needed to do to put a van topper on. But now after reading all of your information I’m very excited about turning my Toyota van into a camper. Thanks so much again for all your information it will be a super help.

  17. Boyink says:

    How much interior height does the van have with the hi-top added? We’re tall folks (6’3″) so wondering if we’d still be walking around stooped over.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Tops come in all different sizes, the average conversion van with a “TV” top is only like a foot and only very short people can stand up them. For you I’d think at least 24 inches would be required and it may not even be enough. I’d shoot for a 30 inch top. Bob

  18. Hi Bob, great article about the hi-top in-stall procedure. I’ve only started getting interested in the van dwelling life recently even though I heard about it a couple of years ago. I’m Bradford by the way and just retired. I don’t have a lot of cash but do have a Chevy Express van from my expediting days. I have the midsize one ton van with a 5.7 V8 gas engine. My wife is still tied to her job but I’m getting itchy feet. It may take awhile but once I get the fever I pretty much don’t give up.
    Point is I’m watching your videos and gathering info so don’t be surprised if you hear that I’ve got it together and headed up your way. Thanks again for the add as well as the videos of inspiration. Bradford

    • Bob Bob says:

      Bradford, my main goals are to inspire and educate, and If I’ve done that with you, I’m very grateful! Don’t give up on your dreams! Bob

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