Friday, August 3, 2018

Nothing Good Happens at 3AM

The Wife and I spent last week at our favorite campground. To say I am less than motivated this week upon my return would be the under statement of the year. I lengthened the vacation some just so I would have only a three day week to hate life itself, rather than a full first week. Still though it is rough to leave almost two weeks in my lover's arms.

Additionally complicating my life, I don't have the van this week.  I’ll get into that in a second. But it really hadn't occurred to me how much I have let my couch network languish while I am living the van life. Wednesday morning on the drive in those realities presented themselves.

The good Doctor is off riding his bicycle across the United States….for whatever reason I will never understand.  It all seems very tiring to me.  I rode the North/South cross country route on a motorcycle one time and it like near to wore me out.  To pedal it?  Oh hell no.   I mean, Amtrak will let you do the same thing and you never have to break a sweat.

The true object of everyone's interest.  Yes, I drove the
van, thank you very much for asking!
Other friends are vacationing as well and then there is the one I have been promising a van tour who became hard to reach after I mentioned I was in the family van this week.  I guess the van has become my identity.  These days when I show up at parties people say, “hey Joe, great to see you!” as they are looking over my shoulders, “Did you drive the van?” with the first real excitement in their voice. I give a lot of tours.

It was amusing during the time we were camping because we ended up meeting a couple who we hung out with a bit over a couple of days.  Both of them in the education business, they had the natural curiosity of the genre.  He was a self admitted construction clutz and yet he was interested in every detail.  Shooting me rapid fire questions at first, settling back to random mid-conversation “how did you do this…?”  Or, pointing at a missing LCD panel, “what goes there?” questions as the four of us lounged inside.

She asked me the only question I have ever been stumped by in the almost two years of this project.  It was when I was describing the temperature probe network. At one point she said “why would anyone ever think of this?” I told her it is very important to know the temperature under the van for cooling purposes…and she got that, but again asked “yeah but why would anyone think of thinking about this?” I was genuinely surprised to get a new question.

It was at this point I had a choice.  I  could admit to being the obsessed tweeker my friend Craigie refers to me as, or I could throw it in the compliment pile. (I must be some sort of f-ing genius!) I chose the latter (of course) but replied, “too much free time.“

During this week as well our time at the campground overlapped with a genuine fan of this blog and project.  The heater salesman I have referred to in previous installments comes to the campground this same week as well. I talked to him about the project last year but he had not yet gotten his van tour.  It was interesting and reminiscent of the blog three blogs ago.  —Where my readers know as much about my project as I did.  He was interested. He wanted to see it.  But at a certain point we both knew I was grasping for details not already posted here. He knew the published story front to back.

The reason I am not in the van this week though is a touch on the scary side.  I had someone (maybe) trying to break in on me the last night I was in town.  It was about three am.  I woke up, likely because I heard a noise.  I realized I could hear a voice, or voices.  Now the van has a pretty extensive camera system.  I can use it to see all around the parameter.  But, I had that camera system disconnected because we were going camping the next day.  The Wife wanted to put her bag on the shelf where the camera hub usually sits.  I figured I didn’t need it taking a bunch of pictures of myself and others walking around a campground anyway.  So I had disconnected the cameras and cleaned up the shelf the night before.  The cameras were off.

I installed them!
Now when you are sitting someplace blind, things can be scarier than what they really were.  In hind sight, I am actually less sure about the break in part.  The night in question (I have always wanted to write that phrase) I was in the back corner of a parking lot I use often.  To me, I thought this parking spot was perfect.  It was out of the way.  I would park somewhat narrowly into the second parking spot in.  Making it rare then that anyone parked next to me, in front of my side doors.  Parked this way it was almost like I had my own private deck outside my doors.  The parking lot I am in is about three city blocks long.  At the far end is a convenience store.   At the back, outside of my doors is some ten foot chain link fence, then the railroad tracks.   The end oposite the convenience store there is no fence and the land drops away in a gully.  There is a fairly sizable homeless tent village down in there along the tracks.  Also at that end, a bridge and some stairs in the corner of the lot funnel all the pedestrian traffic from that whole little walking distance neighborhood across the middle of the lot.

I thought my spot was perfect because it was out of that foot traffic.  But what I didn’t account for was other people would find this spot its attractive as well.  My van, made it even better for them. They could hang out back behind it and do whatever they wanted.

So I woke up hearing noises and voices.  I couldn’t hear very well at all but I knew I didn’t want to move the side curtain or they might see motion.  In fact, it was more complicated than that.  I didn’t want to even touch the side curtain.  The night before I had gotten my new side curtain from The Seamstress and we had a mix up on how the magnets were sewn in.  It was just barely holding up.  I did not want it falling down making the whole inside of the van visible to whoever was outside.

I listened at the floor hole, but I couldn’t tell how many people there were.  In the end, I feel like there was only one.  I have deadbolt lock for both the side door and bulkhead door but I don’t have them installed yet.  There just have been other priorities.  I gotta admit, when I was laying on the floor, ear stuck down the vent hole, unable to hear over my own hyperventilating… Well, at that moment, those  priorities seemed a little wrong.

I kinda was getting a handle on it after a few minutes.  The practical side was starting to kick in.  I was beginning to think, “how am I supposed to go back to sleep with this joker outside?” So I must have been calming back down.  Then I heard a noise like maybe he was pulling on the door handles.   …Or maybe he stumbled and fell against the side of the van.  Or, maybe he moved his bicycle a bit and it scraped against the side.

Anyway, whatever happened the panic button got pushed big time.  I opened up the bulk head door and slid into the drivers seat.  What I should have done at that point was open up and slam the door.  The bad guy would have said “Whoa!  I didn’t even hear that mofo walk up on me!”  Of course no one is a genius at three a.m. either.  I just started the engine.  A guy popped forward to look through the passenger window and then dashed back.  I heard some noise again, I was thinking he was making a last ditch effort at breaking in.  What he was actually doing was grabbing his bike before I ran it over.

I drove about three blocks away.  Pulled into a street parking space and crawled into the back.  About an hour of unwinding and I got back to sleep.  Lemme tell you what, I was a groggy unit at seven oh four when my alarm went off.

I am going to have to do a couple of things to the van this weekend.    I need to get the side door dead bolt lock installed.  The bulkhead door is less of an issue, but I will try to get that one done as well.   The back doors, when I am in my primary lot, are pretty safe.  I back right up to the fence and those doors are not really openable.  Still I don’t always park where this is the case so I will put a chain with a padlock across the back doors. I have burglary screens for all the windows but I have resisted putting them on so far.  I like being able to pull the blackout shades back and seeing outside and I think I would lose that.  I will do some more planning on that.

Window screen in place.  I now have
burglar bars!
Finally I ordered a siren.  I will mount it under the van somewhere.  I also have a bell that I plucked out of a dumpster a couple of years ago.  I haven’t tested it but it likely works.  If so I will put both of these units on switches so I can flip them on from my bed.  It will give me a chance to use a couple of the red covered switches I bought a while back.  I would sure feel better if I could make a whole bunch of noise.

The last thing, I need to re-evaluate my parking protocols.  I need to think less about my own convenience and more about security.  I need to park between two vehicles whenever I can.  If I can only have a vehicle on one side, make it the door side.

I have a friend who has a refrigerator magnet that says “Oh god, please let this not be another learning experience.” This project has been a continuous flow of them.  But, I confess, I have learned a lot via this thankfully harmless incident.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The First Heat Wave

Back when it was minus twenty four degrees, I complained.  Sure.  Everyone does. But I don’t think I complained very much because I knew this time was coming.   It is crazy that less than a month ago I was contemplating snow delayed travel plans and this past weekend was in the nineties.  Today, my first day back at work from a holiday, it was ninety three in our big city.  But it was never really a sunny 93, more of a hazy muggy one.

This morning when I arrived I forgot to open up the roof vent.  But, really it wouldn’t have made that much difference if I had.  About eleven it was pouring.  The roof vent would have closed and the fan shut off when it sensed the rain.  Then it cleared enough so I could grab some lunch before it rained lightly again.  By four it had stopped raining and cleared to a haze but the van was in the shadow of our office building.   I popped out and opened up the roof vent.  At that point the ambient air temperature was still about ninety.  The van was actually cooler inside than the outside temperature.  I was temped to just leave it sealed up but then in the end, opened it and had the fan blowing at 85%.

The square cut out of the poly-iso foam
to expose the plywood underneath. 
About six thirty I was contemplating my dinner options.  Everything I brought today was still frozen so I was contemplating a walk.  That got dashed when I stood from the cube farm to check the weather.  Not good.  I came straight out to the van it was already sprinkling when I arrived.  Inside, it was warm but really not bad.

I have the ability, via some temperature probes and some little process control computers (that I will get to in a later post),  to know a lot more about my environment now.  I just finished heating some dinner in the microwave and it is eight thirty in the evening.  It has been off and on raining since I came out.  Prior to that, the cabin temperature of the van was eighty degrees.  Cooking raised that temperature by two degrees.  But, the outside temperature is a wet seventy.  If it ever stops raining I am going to be able to kick on my roof vent and drop my inside temperature right down.

If it would only stop raining…

Here is the tape tab I attached to the
square of insulation.  This will make it easy
to pull the insulation out without damage.
This weekend was a hot one as well.  Record temperatures and muggy.  Despite that, I had a job to do.  The one I had driven The BV home to perform.    As I mentioned in my last post, or to condense here; 1) I have to be able to access the tops of the batteries four times a year.  I have to visually inspect the fluid level and test the specific gravity.  2)The buggers are heavy, and for energy efficiency, on as short of wires as possible.  Their mobility was both limited and difficult.  Therefore some type of top access panel needed to be constructed.

I pulled the mattress out and brought it inside the house. -This one step was the bulk of why the job was happening at home.  The single most valuable investment in the entire project, I wanted it well out of harms way.

Underneath the mattress I have the panels which will become my under-bed vent system.  Until such time, this is just the most convenient place to store them.  Under that I have one inch of poly-iso foam insulation.  Then, three quarters of an inch of plywood.

Starting out was really the difficult part.  I had to figure out where the batteries sat and then transfer those measurements up on to the insulation of the bed.  I cut a slightly oversized hole in the insulation.  That part was difficult because the utility knife I have only cuts a little over 3/4” deep.  I ended up using a ginsue knife from my cooking drawer to make the final 1/4” cut.  My friend Craigie has one of those nice extendable blade utility knives.  That would really be the way to go.

Here is the lip that will hold the access
panel door in place.  This is only glued in.
I could have shot some brads in as well
but that would have required battery removal.
When cutting this foam to cut a block out, you have to cut a relief.  That’s a second cut, about an eighth of an inch outside your primary cut on two adjacent sides.  When I dug out this relief, the inset cut square of insulation could be lifted up out of the hole.  I wrapped the edges of these squares with wide metal foil tap. I also put foil tape tabs at each end of the squares.  These tabs will fold up over the top but make it easy to pull out the foam square in the future.

Now it became serious.  It was very, very important to not cut *any* wires while cutting the plywood.  I set my circular saw depth to barely cut though.  But then I also checked it out closely underneath.  I had one screw in wire clip holding one of the wires coming from the solar charge controller.  That clip was about in the middle of my proposed door.  I removed it.  That allowed that wire to drop out of likely saw blade harms way.  At the back I have a second shunt on the line going/coming from the inverter/charger.  I hope to some day record my high voltage appliance electrical usage separately from my twelve volt.  —Data geek, remember?

"We're in a tight spot!"
Once I had the foam out, the wires out of the way and the saw depth set, I was ready to cut.  And I did.  For almost two inches.   Ah yes.  Old house.  I used the saw to cut some lath and plaster in its last use.  I had to divert to the hardware store for a new blade.  The circular saw cutting was really fairly minor.  Only a few inches on each side, but it is way easier to control your depth of cut than a jig saw would be. 

I undercut the corners just a bit.  Leaving the square hanging.  Then, after a double check to again make sure no wires would be affected, I used a portable jigsaw to cut the final little bit in the  corners.  Once I had the doors cut out I used them to trace an oversized hollow square out of quarter inch plywood.  I made it a little over an inch wider on three sides, a touch narrower at the back because it was butting up to the divider wall between the battery compartment and the rear storage, behind the drawers.

You can just see the battery cap.
Once cut out, I glued it in place under the bed —Uh, that is after another trip to the hardware store.  Any project worth doing requires at least two trips to the hardware store.  My glue must have frozen in the great New Years freeze-up.  Back when I ran out of propane over Christmas break.  Back from the store with the glue, I clamped it all in place.  It was a tough job getting all those clips and clamps around in such a small space.

Of course I forgot to take a picture of the finished product.  But, in all of this I never did check the fluid levels so I will have to be in there again in a couple of weeks.  I will get some pictures of what is involved in the process.

The two battery access panels out and the glue-in lip
in place with clamps holding them.
It was an exhausting day though.  Temperatures in the nineties and lots and lots of climbing in and out of the van to check cuts, clearances, etc.  I think I drank about ninety ounces of water and sweated it all back off.  Plus, I used it as a juicy rationalization for consuming about half a jar of kalamata olives later that night.  ...I had to replenish my salt, didn't I? :-)

It is currently a little after eleven pm.  It has been raining fairly steadily (excepting for the periods where it was pouring) since a little after six thirty.  Tomorrow night, when we have forecast more of the same, I am going to park on higher ground.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Battery Access Version 2.0.0

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but then never pushed publish.  It is crazy how much the weather has changed since I wrote it....  Back at that time I was saying "Yeah, remember that snow storm in the forecast this past weekend?  Six inches of fresh snow? Never mind about that, it was almost seventy today." Tonight I am sitting in a bar with an outdoor patio.  It is purely crazy to be living somewhere you can be drinking beer in a t-shirt looking at a snowbank from the bar parking lot plowing that must be twelve feet tall.  Purely crazy.

I have come to the conclusion I have made another mistake.  This one though, this one is going to be a tricky one.  You see, The Wife was the one who said I should build it a different way.  And she’s the very devil when it comes to matters of me being wrong.  In my defense though, I have some sound scientific principles behind the decision I made.  If I was, say twenty seven, I wouldn’t even recognize the problem I have.  Sadly, I am not.

Here’s the deal.  To maintain my cabin batteries in top condition I need to check their fluid level in each cell of the battery.  Additionally, in my case since I had that wiring problem, I really should be checking the specific gravity of the fluid each time with a battery testing hydrometer.  This should happen four times a year.  Each battery weighs 62 pounds.

The battery tucked in under the bed.
What my plan had been was to place the batteries on some polypropylene squares and slide them out each time I needed to.  I figured some 3/8” plastic with some rounded corners would not bend with the weight and slide around pretty easy on the steel of the van floor.  I hadn’t quite figured out how to keep these sixty two pound bricks from sliding around all the rest of the time.  --Like when I am driving down the road and take a corner a little too fast.  I was hoping to work that all out once it had become a problem.  But when I was planning these plans I also hadn’t actually seen a van up close yet.  Once I did, I immediately saw why these plastic slides wouldn't really work.  The van floor isn’t the smooth waffle around the outside parameter like it is in the middle.  It has seams with rubber calk coatings.  No way my plastic slides were going to work in this environment. They would stick to the calk.

I ended up just putting the batteries right on the floor.  They are pretty solid there.  Even though they are not attached down at all, they still don’t slide around.  They are still movable if I need to drag them out like I did a couple of months back for the re-wiring job.

Snow storm that week, ninety this week.
Here’s where The Wife got involved.  She suggested I build battery boxes with access down through the bed.  She suggest I make an access panel I could get at with the mattress out.  The problem with that idea from a safety perspective is when you charge lead acid batteries and particularly when you do what is called equalizing them.  The equalizing process charges them at a high voltage.  The purpose is to remove a film which builds up on the lead plates. The batteries actually boil during this process.  In this case, the steam that is coming out of the pot as it were is pure hydrogen gas.

Remember high school chemistry and the big chart on the wall?  Hydrogen occupies the upper left square.  The significance is this gas has little tiny molecules and it can seep into the smallest of cracks.  Propane gas is both significant larger in molecule size and it is heavier than air.  Any propane I leak in the back of the van will escape out the floor.  Hydrogen on the other hand is lighter than air so it will try to work its way up into the cabin.  Let me switch you from Chemistry to History.  Remember the Hindenburg?

So it was for these scientific reasons along with my opinion of the labor of pulling the mattress out every three months just so I could test the batteries seemed like too much work. I ended up just pushing the batteries back in place and told myself I would pull them out as needed.  The next eight months passed real quick as I shuddered each time I thought about doing the fluid level check.  The batteries were not critically low when I finally did get around to it but they certainly were not great either.

I have come to the realization I am going to have to build the hatch through the bed and confront the gas leakage with some weatherstripping.

At the same time I have come up with an idea for reducing the under mattress condensation problem. I covered this a few posts back with a long list of my possible options.  What I settled on was building something myself.  But since that time my design has changed.  I was thinking of using some strips of 3/4” plywood as spacers, then some 1/4” plywood on top with holes drilled in it.  Then, the mattress on top.  I was never really happy with this idea.  I felt like the mattress would only really dry where the holes were.  I just wasn’t so sure about the area an inch away from the hole.  I was concerned I would still have mold growth.

My new design puts the thin plywood on the bottom.  I would still use the same spacers but stapled to the spacers I would stretch some #4 (1/4”) hardware cloth.  This design would allow airflow almost everywhere.  It will be strong enough to not sag and let the foam block the channels.  I think this will work perfect.  Likely the building of this setup will be one of the next blog posts.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Stop, You're Cracking Me Up

It is a Tuesday but since I was doing something else last night, and I like the chicken sliders, I am sitting in my usual Monday night haunt.  I was unaware Tuesday is Karaoke night.   And not like good Karaoke.  More like late night on the Love Boat style.  I fired off several disparaging texts to The Wife, even taking the time to look up and send the _Anguish Face_ emoji.  Of course I had no sooner gotten done and a woman came up and sang an amazingly passable version of Tina Turner and _Proud Mary_.  It didn’t last long though.

April here in the frozen wasteland of the north.  The middle of April in fact.  I know this because I can look at the calendar app on my device and read the date.  Yet I had to shovel twelve inches of snow this past weekend.  This spring I did a: “Here son, let me give you my old snow blower for free!  …And can you come back and blow me out once in a while?” Quite frankly if it hadn’t have been for that The Wife would be lining up a bagpiper for my wake today.  …And telling her boyfriend they no longer have to sneak around.. ;-)  It has been a crazy year. We have plans to go out of town this weekend and where we are going is predicted to have six inches more starting the day we leave. “Ugh.” There is just no other way to describe it.

The pump as it was mounted, way in the back.  The new
pump I will mount much closer to the front where it is warmer.
I worry it is going to be one of those “flip the switch” years where it is thirty four and random snowflakes on Monday and eighty six on Thursday with ninety eight percent humidity and that lasts until mid October.  Going from the haunting cha-ching of the heating gas meter rapidly turning right straight into the electricity sucking AC season. But so far it has only been cold. Colder than expected over the past weekend as well so I arrived back to a van empty of propane.  When I left on Friday I debated turning the heat off completely.  I have been doing that the past few weekends just to save a little propane cost.  As it turned out I am glad I didn’t.  There isn’t a whole lot left in the van to freeze  but I hate surprises.

I did a double tank exchange at Johnny Menards, using the self service machine. It worked fine the first time, but then tried to give me an empty tank for the second one.  Customer service had to get involved and they didn’t seem the least bit surprised, telling me this happens often.  I am really glad it wasn’t the middle of the night after the store was closed.  That would have then sucked.

The under counter sink in its above mount configuration.
Then there is a moment in Karaoke where a burly guy gets up and sings an amazing rendition of _Poor Unfortunate Soul_ from _The Little Mermaid_.  Wow.

Last week I did some digging into what is going on with my water system.  I thought I had gotten lucky with the whole dead battery/freezing up/getting towed debacle  which happened over Christmas break. I wrote about it a few posts back.  (If you haven’t read that story, eh, that’s ok.  Don’t bother. Nothing to see here, move along.) Thinking everything was ok, I put water into my freshwater tank and turned the pump on but got nothing.  Pressurizing the system a little bit by blowing air into the water tank got me a leak somewhere in the vicinity of the pump.  To really track it down I took it all apart.

What I found was I was not so lucky.  My pump had a crack going across the top of it caused by the expansion of water in it when it froze.  I did some checking into replacement parts but they really don’t seem to be available.  I guess we live in that disposable world.  A $72 pump was shot.  That sucks.

The crack in the pump chamber.
I did a little more checking around this time buying a replacement pump.  The one I had was a Shurflo 4008.  Top rated, but since the moment I opened the box I was a little shocked at its large size. It measured 5.5 x 4.75 x 11.5 inches.  Half a cubic foot.  Not something you normally think of in your house but I just think, “great, only 283-1/2 cubic feet left.”  It suddenly becomes significant. The new pump, a Flojet 03526 also purchased off of Amazon, is going to be 9 x 4 x 4 inches.  It should be noticeably smaller.

Involved in this whole pump change out, I am going to move my sink to an under-mount.  That was my original plan, but was persuaded against it by my friend, Craigie.  The trouble, he said, was the Paperstone countertop.  It was so hard, glue wouldn’t stick and you couldn’t really attach screws.  So there was no way to firmly attach a sink to the bottom side of the countertop.  And you know, in a normal kitchen, I am sure he is correct.  But what I have is something different than normal.  I don’t have stacks of dishes in my sink, I only rarely have one or two.  I don’t have a sink full of water and even if I did have, I bet it wouldn’t be much more than a gallon.  I never wash any babies.

You rub its spine of course!
So with all this going for me I think it can work out.  I am going to build a wooden frame to hold the under side of the sink and increase the glue surface.  This ties together because at the same time I am going to move the pump into this sink area.  Maybe suspended from the sink frame by some rubber straps.  Plus, I have some ideas to sound proof it with some auto body sound deadening material. I just need spring to come so I can go park in Craigie’s driveway and schmooze him into helping me with using a router to cut the countertop to fit the sink. ..I buy the pizza.

A woman who should have been told she couldn’t sing years ago singing KISS _Beth_.  Gahhh.

I am always on the search for someplace to go and something new to experience on a week night.  Last night I went to a bar that has a monthly Harry Potter trivia contest. I discovered this event a few months on Facebook.  It was one of those deals where I thought, “I know what a horcruxe is.  I should do this!”  It was kind of like that time I thought I should enter a Jesus look alike contest because my son described me as looking like Jesus in a red truck.  My Lord.  No.  I guess I don’t really.

Chapter name and book?  Uhhh...
Back at the time I found it, something came up and I couldn’t go that night, or the interceding months but last night worked out.  It was really a pretty amazing experience.  This is a bar filled with ~400 people who have forgotten more Harry Potter knowledge than I will ever possess.  Do you know Luna Lovegood’s mothers name?  How about I show you an illustration and you give me the chapter name and what book it is from.  People were in costume.  Wands were frequent.  I have to go back.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Fix Is In

I guess I should apologize for the last blog post. The Wife, who usually does my final proofreading, described it best when she said “This is too boring to finish.“ She was right. It was a long slog to put out all that technical information on my power consumption.

The trouble with doing something new, something no one has really done before, is you spend a lot of time learning. You spend a lot of time saying “I hadn’t really considered…” and “I must not have thought this all the way through..” That’s just the way new projects go. Or at the very least that's how mine go. There are year round van dwellers and there are van dwellers who live where the latitudes get big, but I’m the first person I have found to be doing both at the same time.

The charger hooked on one end means
the first two batteries get charged, the
second two, not so much.
I was bummed out by the whole realization of the wiring problem. It made perfect sense when explained. You can look at the diagrams I will post with this and see the problem. In my mind, how I thought of it was like I had two copper bars at the top and bottom of the batteries in my figures. Logically (discounting how things actually work once you add in physics) I looked at this and said “everything is all connected together. This will work.” I assumed it would make no difference how it was all physically connected together. To me, batteries are magic anyway.

What actually happens though is electrons get “pushed” into batteries. By hooking up the charger the way I did, on one end of the chain, the electrons couldn’t get pushed all the way over to the batteries on the passenger side. The further complication is batteries are fussy things. Do it a little bit wrong and suddenly you have done some battery damage. That's where I am now. I won’t really know how much damage until a little time passes.

Here, the charge has to go through
both batteries.
So yeah, I found out I had a problem, now what? I explain again later what springtime here is like but the short version is, it’s cold here. I knew this was going to be a multi hour job. There was no way I was going to be able to do it outside. I cast around a little bit in my big city but my resources are scant and my vehicle is tall. Giving up, I got in touch with number one son to check around his redneck buddies for someone with garage that could accept a nine foot clearance vehicle. I think it took him all of a couple hours.

About two miles from my house lives a former race car driver and friend of my son who has a tall shop complete with hydraulic car lift. All I cared about was it was warm. The dead animal skulls, well I guess that was just frosting on the cake.

Where antlers outnumber people.
The process went pretty smooth. My son was curious about the whole project so he was there to do the heavy lifting. Quite honestly though I was scared. Only twelve volts, yeah, but you can't shut it off. It has to be wired live. With cables as thick as my fingers they would transfer a lot of energy in a short time. They would make one hell of a spark if I touched them to anything other than battery or wood.

This ability to rapidly discharge is what makes these deep cycle six volt batteries perfect for the task at hand of running a microwave. It is also the trait that would burn a hole in a wrench if I touched it to the metal of the van body while I was tightening a connection. ...And here's the thing, those are the best things that can happen if something goes wrong. Batteries can explode, spraying hydrochloric acid, under sparking discharges like that. Talk about something that would ruin your day.

I love a shop where there is a foos ball table raised to the
ceiling by a pulley system and Bambi looks on.
If you suspect you might not be up to this level of work I encourage you to hire it done. If you do it yourself, be very, very careful.  Know where both ends of your wrench are. 

I had to undo each connection and had to be very careful to keep track of every single wire. They can't be simultaneously disconnected so at times I had some live wires hanging in space while I disconnected the other end.

Eventually we had them all out and sitting on the floor. The prior week I had also purchased a lead/acid battery tester. These units resemble a syringe with a rubber bulb on the top. To use it, open a top cap of the battery and dip the hose tip into the battery acid. Suck up enough liquid to bring it up to the mark and read the number the needle points to.

This cell reads just at the bottom of the "good"
it will be interesting to see how it tests in
three months.
Another important safety note. Get battery acid on your clothes and it will burn a hole through them. Get it on your hands, if you wash it off with soap right away, it won't hurt too bad. Get it in your eyes and it pretty much sucks to be you. Gloves and eye protection would be a really good idea.

Running the tester, my numbers were not great. Bottom edge of the green for most of the cells. Solidly into the yellow on others. With what I hope will be some proper charging now they should recover somewhat. I plan on a schedule of checking the fluid level and testing the batteries four times a year. It will be interesting when I read it next to see if they actually have.

I don't mean to make it sound like everything went perfect. Have you ever noticed that sudden genius ideas seldom work out? The problem was it was dark in the back of the van. I forgot to bring my portable trouble light to setup behind me. The one the shop had didn’t seem to work when I initially tried it. But I knew the van had these great LED “garage lights” I had wired up and told you about several posts back. All I needed was a way to power them when the van was unplugged. This is where the apparent genius idea rears its ugly head. I had a car battery charger. If I hooked it to the van circuits I could power the van and its LED lights from this charger. Hindsight research the next day told me car battery chargers put out about 15 volts, I burned out my 12 volt garage lights. They were cheap, I think less than ten bucks. But it took me a whole afternoon to wire them up.

It ended up taking me two days to get everything hooked back up and running. I did try to take a little extra time and soldered the connections. In van wiring version 1.0 I crushed the connections with a hammer. But doing it that way is asking for corrosion to form in the gaps between the wire and terminal end. I had a limited quantity of heat shrink tubing big enough to go over these wires but I used what I had. That will help with that corrosion problem as well.

Eventually though it all came back together. When I made the final connection and flipped the switch the lights came back on and I was happy. Now we will have to see how it goes and see how the numbers look when I next read them. I am hopeful.

One exciting development in my van world involved getting in touch with one of my former landing spots from the couchsurfing period of my life. Back at that time she was an aspiring photographer and in my former life I was the technical expert for my big city in that business. I talked hyper focal distance and the inverse square law and she provided the couch. It was barter at its finest.

Propane tanks and batteries pulled out.  Ready to
start the rebuild.
But for over a year now my need of couches had been greatly reduced. I dropped out of touch for a while but over the past couple of months we have been trying to line up our schedules. Crazy how two people can be just busy enough it took us that long to make it happen.

When it finally did, she had lots of news. Love and loss, world travel and finding the only craft beer fan on a whole continent. Buried in all that was an application for my project. She was all but leaving the world of photography, working now as a seamstress for a costume and cosplay Etsy company. Interesting. I asked her if she took custom work, thinking actually about a project that could make me a hero with The Wife. Her reply, “Everything I do is custom work. Why, you need something for the van?” Need something for the van? Wow… Yeah totally. Developing…

Testing and making sure I don't mix up the order.  I think
it best to put the batteries back in the same way they came
out.  Not to shuffle them up.
In other news, even though friends who live in other parts of this country are experiencing spring, we here are not. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the van, its body gently rocking from side to side. I was riding out my first true northern blizzard inside the van. About thirty years ago I had to sit one out for a couple hours in a nineteen seventy-three Chevy Caprice. This one, with my feet in front of the furnace and a nice hoppy IPA, was undoubtedly nicer. The weather outside though was much the same. A pure white-out. My mother used to love to quote a local radio weather forecaster who always explained “Lots of B.S. out there. —That is the official national weather service designation for Blowing Snow” She used to say it the same way each time, and laugh. I think it was the dirtiest joke she knew.

I had the van pointed north and there was a very strong east wind. As a friend of mine recently said, “the kind of wind that puts whitecaps in the toilet bowls out here on the prairie.” Parked this way the double doors leak a lot of air. This air doesn’t just come in around the doors but all the frame members on the east side had a light breeze coming in. Given this leaking, the van cools down fast after the furnace runs. There have been lots of nights this winter that have been colder and saw less furnace time.

Phase one of the storm over, an hour later I would have
barely made out the van at this distance.
I pondered walking downtown that night and totally would have if I would have had my serious winter coat on board. I have this Eddie Bauer parka from back in the days when that company made warm clothing instead of designer labels. I think it was rated for eighty below zero. You really can’t wear it unless it is single digits or colder. Any warmer and you have to wear it unzipped. I keep it in the van over the really cold times but it is huge, taking up way too too much space. I took it home months ago.  So equipped, I love big cities during snow storms. It gets so quiet and the roads so abandoned. You can walk in the middle of the streets because there are no cars. At times like this I love the quiet beauty of cites. It’s fun to see the hard core pubs that stay open no matter the weather. Because no matter the weather, they have customers.

Friday, April 6, 2018

You'll Get a Charge Out of This

Sometimes getting a kickstart back into blogging is all I need.  Sometimes it is as simple as some random heater salesman writing to me, saying he is on the edge of his seat, waiting for a new blog post.  I have spent my life always making it a point to respond well to flattery.

“So how is the van project going?”, you have asked…

Where I left off I had just gotten the charge controller wired up. The solar panels were about to start producing. I was writing that whole story in January, but when it actually happened was late fall 2017, six months ago.  Lets jump forward in time to now…

Something I was always bothered by was how little power I seemed to get out of my batteries.  I have four Trojan T-105 6v deep cycle golf cart batteries for a total of 450amp/hours (ah), or “a usable 225ah” of electricity. (Because whatever you have in your batteries, you can only use half their total capacity without damaging them)
Two and a half watts of mood in
the back of the van.

Let me put that into perspective.    If I have everything turned off, just the stuff that monitors the battery condition, the thermostat for the furnace, all the little LED lights on the USB charge ports.   I am using .16 amps of power 24x7.   So I take that .16 times 24 hours in a day and I know monitoring consumes 3.84ah.  The van could run it’s basic monitoring equipment without charging (not even solar) for roughly 58 days.

I am sitting in the van right now.  It is night and I have the joyous sound of a train going by my back window.  I have the white overhead LED “puck” lights on.  I got the mood-light’n on in the back.  I have my iPod plugged in.  I do not have my laptop plugged in.  —I don’t usually. What this all means is right now, with this stuff added in, I am using .81 amps.  If I had to take that times 24 again, it would add up to a much more significant 19.44ah but still, that is eleven days.  With the lights on continuously.

But that never happens.  Usually I have the lights on for about an hour.  I do some stretching.  I work on a few things.  A little music.  If I have a network connection my current obsession is SimCity Builder.  Then I crash out for the night.  Lets just say that takes two hours.  Take .81 times 2 which equals 1.62ah.  Add that to the 3.84ah I use for monitoring and that is 5.46ah a day.

We aren’t quite finished yet.  The furnace runs.  When it does, I add another 2.68 amps.  Which again, compared to some LED puck lights is significant, but it doesn’t run all the time either.  Right now, unbelievably the furnace is still running in April.  The typical run-time seems to be twelve minutes.  But, as far as how many times in a day?  I don’t really have that data.  That will vary with the outside temperature. Tonight it ran for the twelve minutes and off for thirty-five.  It’s a balmy 21 degrees out there because we are weeks into spring.  Back when it was really cold I never thought to run my stopwatch and get the numbers.  I would believe, for the sake of argument, it ran twice an hour.   By next year I will have some things in place to track both the exterior temperature and furnace runtimes.  For now I just have to guess.

A 1.6 watt LED "puck" light.
I am going to round the math a little.  It makes it easier to explain to you, plus I don’t have to go to the bother of displaying my ignorance if I do it wrong.  Remember, its ok to round your numbers but *always* round pessimistically.  Lets say that furnace runs 15 minutes instead of 12.  Fifteen minutes is a quarter of an hour, but it runs twice in an hour.  So I take the 2.68 amps and divide it by two, and get 1.34ah it uses.  To calculate the use in a day I take it times 24 and I have 32.16ah.  I need to add the 5.46 from the previous step and I have 37.62ah

Now we are really starting to take a bite out of those batteries.  The 225ah of battery power divided by 37.62 a day.   I should be getting six days.  Again, this is with no charging at all.  Like I don’t actually have 520 watts of solar panels on the roof.

I have a computer network, I was trying to run it 24/7 but that was consuming 1.76amps or 42ah a day.  In the fall with the still abundant sunshine, that was fine.  But once I started watching the power meter a little closer it was the first thing that had to go.

The control panel for the inverter.  
Let me explain a little what the computer network is, just to give you a little peak ahead. I have a Raspberry Pi (single board computer) based camera system to keep an eye on what is going on outside.  I have been meaning to post about that but only have that one partially written. I admit the computer network wasn’t well designed power-wise, and I was running it 24x7, but I thought I had power to spare.  I shut it off. 

The second thing to be turned off was the inverter.  That’s the little box that turns the battery power into 110 volts for a microwave or coffee pot.  It only really needs to run when I am using one of those appliances though.   I only ran the microwave once a day unless it was full sun.  If it was cloudy, with a cloudy forecast, I didn’t run it at all.

But even with cutting all these corners, I could run the furnace and minimal lighting four cloudy days and the power meter percent charge would be in the low 60s.  Most of January was very cloudy here but I would typically get some charge every day.

When I am collecting solar, this looks great.  When it
drops to 70% as soon as the sun goes down, not so much.
I don’t have a refrigerator. Those things are total pigs even in the wintertime. So I am lucky there. I do run the microwave and that consumes tons of power as well but I only run it about ten minutes a day max. I don’t really have those numbers because I don’t have the monitoring stuff setup on the 110v side.  I also don’t have any exact data on how much I took in from the solar.  I just wasn’t ready to gather that information yet.  Given these facts coupled with some gut feelings, I felt like mathematically I should have had enough to run the van for ten days without even being especially careful. When I was actually living it, there was no way.

So that’s where it really just hung most of the winter.  It just wasn’t right I didn’t think.  But I have never lived this life before.  Batteries are not as efficient at low temperatures so I was thinking maybe that was the reason.  Then there was the fact I couldn’t do a whole lot anyway.  I didn’t know anyone with a garage that could fit the van’s height with the ladder rack and it was flipping -20 Fahrenheit outside.  So I just sort of limped along.

Just over 200 watts coming in off
the solar panels on a typical cold
January day.
Lurking in the back of my mind though, I suspected I had done something wrong in the initial battery wiring.  At the time though I really didn’t know who to ask.   When I was doing a bunch of research during the beginning of the project I found several companies who sold equipment. Those companies would not give me any information on how to wire up what they just sold me.  They would only tell me to hire an electrician.  I get it.  Liability.

In late January and early February we were going through a long multi day cold patch and I was burning propane like crazy.  There was one stretch where I went through a 20 lb propane cylinder in six days.   Sixteen below at night, getting “up to” -10F during the days.  Inside I stayed as warm as I wanted to pay for.  I would keep it set to fifty during the days when I was gone, then turn it up in the seventies when I was there in the evenings.  Back down to fifty at night when I was under the covers.  All in all it wasn’t bad. Surviving a winter in a van like this will be a story I will get milage out of for years to come. I had a few problems, the water tank froze up. I will cover that in a future installment.  I am going to have to do a little redesign there in the spring.  But the only thing was, it was bright and sunny every day. The solar numbers should have been looking fairly good.  I really shouldn’t have been having power problems but the batteries hovered around the 70-80% mark.

The frost line on the batteries.
One night I was doing a propane tank exchange and I noticed something odd about my batteries.  The two batteries on the drivers side appeared frost free while the two on the other side seemed frosted from the liquid level down.   Now in the van, theoretically the two sides *should* really be equal.  They are both in the back, under the bed, but I realized also there could be a ton of environmental factors that could be causing a slight temperature difference from side to side.  Even at eight below if the drivers side was parked in the sun, it *might* just be a little warmer.  If my insulation isn't quite as good on that side, I could be leaking warm air into that space from the interior of the van, etc.  Like I said, tons of reasons but I was really concerned. I started thinking maybe the batteries were not getting charged as well on that side and I was getting some freeze-up.

Just to give you some background information.   A fully charged, strong battery, won’t freeze even here in the frozen wasteland in which I live.  The strong battery freezing temperature is -76F air temperature and so far this winter (or any of the other winters in my lifetime) the air temperature hasn’t gotten quite to that point.  Windchill, sure we hit those temperatures every few years but windchill doesn’t matter.

With the frost showing up, that indicated to me I might have some freezing going on.  A sign the battery was weak and not fully charged.

Since the initial van research time I have moved more into the marketing phase of this blog I have found some new sources of information.   I found an internet forum and posted a summary of my situation and question there.   Within a couple of hours I had the answer I couldn’t find before.   I had in fact wired it wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Realization Of Progress

When I last wrote, I was thinking I would be back on task again, pumping out blog articles. But, my muse only really sails on calm waters. Try as I might, my life seems to be occasioned by squalls. But I am motivated and have things to say.  I will again try to rededicate myself and get back on my regular schedule.

A year ago today I was sitting in this exact same spot, the corner of my big cities’ bonsai garden.  I was here for the exact same reason. My employer had asked me to attend an IT conference that ran over a Friday-Saturday, leaving me unwilling to make the hundred and eight mile round trip home just for one very short day. I elected instead to just stay over. The visitor traffic is heavy this morning and it isn’t the tranquil spot of reflection it really could be. Still though, it is a nice place to be. Working at home for so many years I got fairly good at tuning out distractions. Children specifically.  Did you know “bonsai literally means tray planting or tree in a pot”? I do because I am sitting next a sign saying so and every parent walking through reads it to appear a genius to their kids.

Another thing I am reminded of by being here is just how far my van project has progressed. A couple of days ago Facebook was kind enough to remind me of my post the night I hooked up the house batteries. I also remember it was the night before this conference last year that I got the gas pipe and wires run to hook up the furnace. It was my original plan to spend my first overnight in the van on the Friday night. I was hoping to park within walking distance so I could have a very short commute Saturday morning.

In the end, this plan was foiled. When I left Friday evening, I could smell propane as I walked up to the van! When I opened the driver's door the smell was overpowering.   I had a gas leak in the pipe connections I had plumbed the night before. I had to turn off the gas and then very carefully go around and open all the doors to let it air out. I was just lucky I hadn't had to explain to police it wasn’t a car bomb that went off just a matter of stupidity. I spent the next several months with off and on gas leaks until I determined I had used the wrong connectors and replaced them all. But that night I had to seek other accommodations.

Back then, I had just the barest shell of what I have now. I had no mattress, I had no insulation.  It wasn’t going to be a comfortable night, it was going to be a milestone night. This year was a different story. The conference was about half an hour drive from my normal parking grounds and the check-in time was eight AM. I really shouldn’t be driving without coffee and though I am in much better shape van-wise than what I am now, I am having a few battery issues (which I will post about in the next few days). I don’t really have the spare power to run my coffee maker.

I discovered via google maps there was a metro train station with a park-and-ride lot which allowed overnight parking in a few designated spots. This lot was just four stations away from where I needed to be. I drove down there on Thursday evening and it was really great being able to wake up in the morning so close to my destination. I woke up, hopped the train and fifteen minutes later I had a cup of free conference coffee in my hand.  It was wonderful!

This isn’t a huge surprise but parking in a completely new spot doesn’t make for the best sleep the first night. There are all the new sounds and always the concern something unexpected could happen. A sign saying overnight parking allowed is one thing, quite another if some roll-through security suspects my living situation. Overnight lodging is not the same as parking and I could suffer the police pounding on the door at 3am. The second night is always much better for some reason.  Maybe someday I will be over this. I will realize the truth I have been preaching to you for over a year now. Cargo vans are invisible and that it is a much safer world out there than the network news would have me fear.

At the IT conference one of the sessions I attended was a grammar in technical writing. Put together for attendees to learn to write better documentation. I enjoyed it, a room of geeks debating the Oxford comma. But one of the points the instructor pushed was to not double space after a period. It will be a matter of the old dog new tricks dilemma to try to train myself out something I learned all those years ago from Mr. Richardson in twelfth grading typing class. I am going to try. I have been hearing this from other sources as well and finally need to make the jump.