In the past, the industry definition of an ENG van was typically the Ford E-350 Super Van, modified and fleshed out with an operations interior and power system suitable to support a live shot. Many gimmicks have come and gone (such as the Ford Expedition). The conversion-style raised roof is nothing new, but the same standard-height van used by police has always been the go-to. However, the UAW-built Ford E-350 roof, along with the Ford E-350 van itself is considered by many to be a vertically challenged product.
Extended interior height obviously means the technological and operational advantage of more rack space. Does that give one station the edge over the others in its market? Maybe. Does the station that sees other affiliates running around with extended interior capacity, while still chasing news with a standard-height van, freak out? Probably. Does the requirement for an extended roof van change how ENG manufacturers and station engineering staffs approach ENG in general? Definitely.
Being the world leader in television production vehicles, we saw the same sort of the same thing happen with trailers. Remember, expanding side production trailers were a rarity until the '90s.
The Globalization of ENG
With regard to the expanding interior height of ENG vans, enter globalization and the European approach. Along with the dollar, the E-350 has been overtaken by the European style cargo van, in the form of the Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter. As early as three NAB shows ago, we started seeing the Mercedes Sprinter, along with its stand-up interior, tight turn radius, an extra 500 lbs. GVWR, and an economical 5-cylinder diesel motor. With the purchase of Freightliner by Mercedes-Benz, the US market was opened to Euro-style options that had not been considered previously.
Being from the Heartland, and the great State of Ohio, most of us here at Gerling & Associates must admit that we weren't terribly excited about embracing a European van. In fact, we were downright dubious with regard to the Sprinter. Just look at it--with its vertically elongated profile--it seemed as though you could just knock it over with a good, hard, hockey check. The sidewalls seemed kind of flimsy, and those cute little wheels looked as though they belonged on Leonard DiCaprio's little wind-up Toyota Prius, not a commercial vehicle.
However, the darn thing actually works, and it works well, even with all of the problems outlined above with regard to turning, GVWR and interior height. The payload capacity makes the ENG outfitter's job that much easier, and just about every end-user that has one just loves it; and if the client loves it, then so do we.
That said, we wonder if there aren't a lot of our customers who would just rather use vehicles built by an American company. Those wishing to remain firmly in Ford's camp, whether it's a sense of national duty, or trading time with the local Ford dealership, still have a great option in the extended conversion-style roof. This style of roofline comes in a variety of permutations, from a fiberglass cap that is installed by an outside vendor, to a wholly custom aluminum/fiberglass raised roof.
And Then There's The Cost
As with everything in the universe, there's a cost to doing things differently than we're used to. The material and labor for the extended E-350 roof is in the thousands, and the Sprinter averages $12,000 more than the Ford from the factory. And don't forget the weight that comes with extra space in the vertical.
From the ENG van manufacturer's perspective, a main goal is to build the "rack ready" unit (the broadcast vehicle totally finished, less baseband and RF equipment), with as much weight "headroom" or payload available to the maximum GVWR as possible.
In the vernacular of our engineering department, that available payload of a "rack ready" vehicle is called "tech payload." Our experience has been that the more tech payload we can provide, the more equipment, cable, microphones, cameras, cases, empty cases, manuals, reading material, food, empty food wrappers and personal items will live in the vehicle.
As a result, we are always going to be at maximum GVWR and unfortunately the maximum GVWR is not good on either the Sprinter or the Ford E-350 with the extended roofline.
Incumbent upon the manufacturer is the ability to trim weight from the vehicle without sacrificing integrity. At Gerling, we have long been known for maintaining light weight in all our vehicles, right on up to our expanding side 53-foot production trailers.
Using what we've learned on 53-footers, our ENG van methodology produces a lighter end-product while strengthening the integrity of the vehicle.
One of our tricks is not to use spray on insulation in the sidewalls because that product is very heavy. We utilize a very lightweight insulation material (which has been used by NASA for years; truly "space age" stuff) and that alone is a major weight saver, along with aluminum-infused honeycomb polymer to cover the insulation, then a lightweight finish wall carpet for effect. Console counter tops from feather plywood are another great weight saver as well as aluminum rack rails (we manufacture our own).
The result is typically a savings of 400-600 lbs., a great deal for a van, but absolutely required for a stand-up ENG unit.
Your input is critical in this process. Obviously, the equipment and cable compliment is a huge factor, but what about big chairs? Is a full-length "camera platform" really required? When was the last time you sent a camera operator to the roof of a van to get that live shot that the mast cam couldn't take from a far better vantage point? A lot of what putting a platform up there is about is to service the mast features, so perhaps a shorter-length platform might be sufficient.
Of course, what has not been mentioned in this discussion is that the raised roof ENG actually allows for most folks to stand up in the vehicle. For some end-users, this actually is a big deal. It's completely dependent upon each organization's needs. For most stations, however, this is a somewhat minor consideration in terms of the decision to undertake the extra cost of a Sprinter or raised-roof E-350.
The decision to stand or sit is determined by the budget, the required rack space and other specific operational needs... as well as whether or not the other stations in your market have them, because they're also really cool-looking.
The Bottom Line:
When it comes to considering the type of van used for ENG work, the recent trend for taller vehicles, which allow folks to stand up inside and more rack space, comes with added cost. If standing up and slightly more rack space is a big thing for you, then consider spending up to $12,000 for the privilege. But if it's not, a standard Ford E-350 will serve you--and your budget--just fine.
Fred Gerling is the Founder and President of Gerling and Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.