First off, we feel the need to say that we are by no means experts on this particular subject. Everything we know about it, we learned on the internet (as is the case for the majority of our posts), so take whatever we say with a grain of salt. In this post, we’ll cover why you'll want to add a sound-dampening product to your van. We'll also discuss our choice for sound dampening on both of our vans, why we chose this method, as well as some installation tips.
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What is Sound Dampening and why do I need it?
There are quite a few options when it comes to sound dampening in a vehicle, and many articles online about which ones are better and why, although we didn't find much as far as impartial 'scientific' comparisons. The basic idea of sound dampening is that you are driving a large metal box, which may be quite noisy as you speed down the highway. There are many aspects of your build that may cause rattles and road noise, but you’ll want to set yourself up for success when you plan your build to reduce the vibrations from the start, in order to finish your conversion with the quietest campervan possible. Because trust us,you’re going to spend a lot of time driving that thing and you'll want to be listening to sweet jams or your favorite podcast, not your rattley-a** van!
As far as we understand it there are two main ways to combat road noise: mass loading and insulation. We cover our insulation choice in a separate post, which you can read here. The wool insulation does a great additional job of noise reduction as well, but this post is about the separate method of mass loading. Bare cargo vans have a ton of big, open steel panels on the wall and ceiling. In their bare 'factory' state, these thin metal panels vibrate like a drum when driving down the road. The process of adding windows and/or walls will inevitably make these panels more solid, which will also help reduce vibrations, but you'll most likely want to add a sound dampening product before you get started.
One way to reduce this vibration is to add mass (weight) to the panels. There are two main options to achieve this goal. The most straightforward and common is a stick-on product. The second option is to spray or roll the mass on like paint. It can be a bit overwhelming to research all the options out there when trying to decide which is best for you.
Which Sound Dampener is best?
We used the Sprinter-Source book on our first conversion, which has a helpful chart talking about a few of the more common options and their pros and cons. For our build we were focused on a few aspects of these products, namely overall weight of our build and (as always) sustainability. Obviously we wanted to dampen as much road noise as possible without weighing our build down, as total weight is a big consideration when building on a Sprinter platform. And we also wanted to use a product that has a relatively low toxicity level if possible (both in the manufacturing process as well as once installed in the van).
Overall, we were pretty happy with the Rattletrap product we used in our first Sprinter Van conversion. This time around, we used another very similar product called Kilmat. These are both foil-backed, butyl-based stick-on panels. The Kilmat comes in a box of squares and is easy to cut to size with a utility knife. We found this configuration a little easier than the large roll of Rattletrap, because in many spots we could just slap one on without having to cut anything. There was a small roller included to help flatten it out and get it to adhere to the panels. A little heat definitely helps with adhesion as well--you can use a heat gun or a hair drier, or if you install it on a hot enough day the sun may work its magic on both the box of butyl and the metal walls and you may not need an additional heat source.
Installing these products is simple--once any interior flooring and plastic panels are removed and you’ve got your van down to the bare bones, you peel off the backing of the Kilmat and stick it directly to the metal and then use a small roller to really press it on. You don’t necessarily have to cover the whole panel for it to be effective. From what we found, the manufacturers recommend around 25% coverage of the surface area you are working with. Sprinter Vans (and we assume most other vehicles), have a small amount of similar mass panels installed from the factory. They are not obvious as they are installed before painting the van, so will be the same color as the walls, but the manufacturer has likely started this job for you. We ordered 36 square feet of the Kilmat. It was enough to cover some of the floor between the corrugations, fully cover each of the rear wheel wells (we have it on good authority that this is where a lot of the road noise comes from, and you’ll notice most van converters cover the wheel wells, although we don't have any scientific proof that this is the best method), and about 25% of every panel on the walls, doors, and ceiling. If you don't have any windows, and aren't planning on installing any, it may be beneficial to order more Kilmat than we did as we didn't have to do those areas.
Honestly, it wasn’t straightforward to delve into the sustainability aspect of these products, and this is another one of those situations where we did the best we could with what little information and time we had. It definitely had me (Becca) wishing (again) that there was some sort of public database or reporting for all these products so you could easily look up the source, any known detriments/ toxicity level of the 'ingredients', etc. From what we could find from the all-knowing google, butyl has a relatively lower toxicity level compared to some of the other similar stick-on products on the market. We also investigated briefly into some of the roll- and spray-on options like the ones from Lizard Skin but we couldn’t find much solid information at the time on the products’ performance from neutral third parties and the sustainability of the 'ceramic' ingredients... they also call it 'acrylic' in some descriptions, but it's a proprietary formula, so there's not much solid info out there. If we were to do it again we may look a bit closer at the pros and cons of the spray-on option because we have heard since that the results can be good, and application is reasonable if you have the equipment necessary and the time to let it dry.
This is a tricky subject because it’s one of the first jobs you will do on your build, and you’ll probably be eager to get it done and move on to the next step like us. Even on our second conversion, we realized we hadn’t looked into the details of all the products until it was a bit too late--the ceramic sprays can take a few days to dry (vs a couple hours start to finish applying the Kilmat), so we went with what we knew.
One other thing to note is that the butyl can be a bit messy. We both ended up with some on our clothes and your hands definitely get a little gooey. Like we said, this probably isn’t the worst substance as far as toxicity goes, but it might not be a bad idea to wear some old painting clothes and protect your hands with gloves.
Please feel free to reach out and let us know if you have any real world experience comparing these products apples-to-apples or have more solid info about what they're made of. We'd love to be able to drive 2 vans side by side with this one difference and know how the different products perform!
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