It might look like an ordinary late-model Ford van, but don’t be fooled.
Engineering student Aaron Plvan’s 1997 Ford Econoline is actually a sustainable, tiny-living mobile house with room to hold all of his favorite hobbies. He’s lived in it at the ocean, stayed in big cities including Boston and New York in it, and in the case of his 2021 internship at GE Aviation’s Rutland site at his colleague’s dairy farm.
The view from windshield? A full panoramic of Vermont’s Killington Mountain, thanks to staying on his colleague Phil Chambers’ farm.
Gifted the van by his friend’s dad, the University of Cincinnati electrical engineering student has spent the last three semesters living in it during co-ops, including a previous stint at GE Aviation’s Auburn facility. What started as a wheelchair accessible van, Plvan has transformed into van-life at its finest. Thus far, he’s invested about $16,000 into repairs and outfitting it, including underbody work and building his own custom cabinets and carpentry.
But his proudest accomplishment was designing and installing a full electrical system, including Bluetooth compatibility to all devices and accommodation for AC/DC power. His fridge even becomes a freezer with a few taps of a smart phone.
“Installing an electric system is a challenging prospect,” Plvan says. “Drilling through your roof to put up solar panels is always a scary thing.”
But he was prepared with exactly how much electricity he would need to pull thanks to meticulous notes and planning. For months before he settled on the final design, he walked around with a device that measures the electric required for every single thing in his life, down to powering his computer and phone.
With 70 pages of notes about how it might be laid-out — including multiple options and pros and cons for each component — Plvan left no question unanswered. He knew his electrical usage needs, considered how things might work while in motion, space requirements for food and water storage and, most importantly, ensured he’d have room for his favorite things in life — skateboarding, biking and hiking.
GE Aviation internships
Rutland was actually Plvan’s second GE Aviation internship, with the first being in 2020 at the Auburn, Alabama site, GE’s advanced manufacturing additive facility. Between the high-tech experience at Auburn and the traditional manufacturing experience of forgings and the toolroom at Rutland, Plvan is gaining deep experience across the spectrum at GE, in addition to meeting truly special people.
“I always give the apprentices my email and personal phone number, and I ask for theirs as well,” says Scott Gregg, Toolroom leader in Rutland. “That way if they lose touch, they can call me or their parents can call me. We make sure they are taken care of. We had three interns last summer and I asked them, ‘Where are you staying.’ They all said in an apartment, with a roommate or without roommate. And then Aaron says, ‘I’m going to live in my van.’”
Gregg and Chambers still laugh at their initial shock.
That’s when Plvan shared with them the details behind his tricked-out van and how he’s been traveling all over the U.S. in it. They chuckled thinking of the Saturday Night Live skit where a motivational speaker, played by Chris Farley, lives in a van down by the river. But when Chambers discovered Plvan was living on a less than desirable street in the van, he stepped in, offering his family’s farm for parking.
“He had a view of Killington Mountain and the farm all to himself really. And the farm is down by the river. Otter Creek,” Chambers laughed. “So he had a full view of the second highest peak in Vermont and he really did live down by the river.”
On the road again
With help from his dad, Mark, a millwright, it took just a few months to spec and build-out the van. It is also entirely powered by the sun, thanks to the solar panels Plvan installed. Even the fridge, a specialty, marine-grade version that is great for tiny home and van applications, pulls only as much electric as it takes to charge a cell phone.
“My favorite thing about van living is the flexibility,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing where everyone is traveling around and experiencing the beauty of the U.S. Driving to Vermont we stayed in Boston for several days. People think cities are tough, but they are the easiest because there is so much parking.”
There are challenges to van living of course. Though the van has air conditioning, when it gets really hot, it’s harder to cool. And showering and using the bathroom has to be pre-planned. But he’s strategic about it, ensuring he always showers at the gym, for example.
The only thing that he loves that he can’t use in the van is his 3D printer, which he uses for electronics projects and skateboard parts. It simply pulls too much energy and wastes too much space.
“Everything is a resource,” he adds. “You know how much electricity you use, how much food you have to store, how much water you need. Sustainability wasn’t my main driver for this, but I’m on my computer right now and the sun is out and is powering it, and being an electrical engineering student, that makes it extra special for me.”
Plvan has already been accepted for a third GE Aviation internship in summer 2022. He requested the Asheville site not only for its scenic location in the mountains, but also because it produces one of GE Aviation’s most advanced materials, Ceramic Matrix Composites (CMC).
But with sites in almost 40 cities across the U.S., Plvan is prepared for anywhere with the van. Above all, he is resourceful and will take advantage of wherever he lands.
Like last summer. Living on your coworker’s dairy farm but might an unusual arrangement for an intern, but it suited Plvan and Chambers perfectly. When he wasn’t helping design automatic vending machines for tool stock with Chambers (“You could substitute a Gatorade for a tool and not even know, they look just like vending machines,” Plvan says of his work in Rutland), he spent as much time with Chambers and his family talking about life in general. Chambers, a U.S. Marine veteran, said it was great to have someone to exchange stories with, from his time in the Marine Corp to Plvan’s cross-country adventures.
That’s been one of the surprises for Plvan about van-life. People go out of their way to be kind and to help.
“You don’t think people will go out of their way that far,” Plvan says. “Vermont is a special place. Phil would give us as much life advice as work advice, and sometimes you need that.”