Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Difference a Week Makes

Let me explain something about where I live. Last week propane was about the most important thing in my van life. I checked the propane tank level twice last week. The second time, when I found the primary tank to be empty and switch-over to the secondary tank had happened, I got myself to the convenience store across the street. I did a propane tank exchange and got a couple days of freedom. This week, totally a different deal. I checked on Monday, switchover had happened and I was on the second tank. I didn’t really think about it until Friday when I changed it before leaving town. Not because I needed it, just because I figured I should. The difference in these two weeks?  It is no longer double digits below zero. Instead it is nearly sixty degrees warmer (and still not t-shirt weather)  The furnace is no longer running 50-75% of the time.

I am looking forward to it this year. Spring. I suppose I always do, but I feel really good this year. It was a tough winter and I survived it. I was riding out the storm of maybe the two coldest days in my lifetime inside a steel shell with an inch of insulation. There is something empowering in that. But now it’s over and I am ready to move on. At home I started the process of widening our driveway. Shaving off the side of the ten foot pile of snow at the end of my driveway. Throwing it out into the street to melt.

I did a little van work this past week. In my original plan I was going to build a floor to ceiling shelf with a refrigerator on the lower level, microwave in the middle and then up top kitchen storage drawers. As the van project expanded and its expenses revealed themselves, a refrigerator had to give way to a cooler. The microwave took up its spot in the middle but I discovered a problem with the plan. You can’t pull out a drawer near the ceiling and see into it. Drawers have to be below head level. Duh.  Wow, come to think of it, in my kitchen at home there isn’t a single drawer mounted in the upper cabinet set. Of course there aren’t! In a van, it is easy to think only about how far off the floor something is, forgetting that isn’t what is important at all.

The top, paper drawer, with
it's front glued in place and
sides ready.
The microwave had to move up to the top shelf.  Building a project like this you have to work out the whole mental chess game of the order of tasks.  I knew immediately after moving in the microwave had to move up a shelf.  (Luckily I had built it tall enough.) But it couldn’t move up until the electronics board had been completed and installed.  That couldn’t be done until a lineup of other things got done.  Basically it took me almost a year to get finalized.  This past Tuesday I did the move.  The microwave is held in place by two self tapping sheet metal screws that pass through the shelf and into the steel base of the microwave.  I am going to need to move up to the next size larger sheet metal screw.  In the process of van building whilst living, I have had to remove it so many times the screws have stripped out the hole in the microwave base enough to make the screws lose their grip.

You can't see it in this picture but the
drawer base of the missing drawer warps up.
I think it is a good idea to build the drawers in a project like this as removable units rather than actual built ins.  Doing so will allow me to pull the entire unit of five drawers out in case I need to work on something behind them.  Since a bunch of the wiring lives back there the likelihood is high.

The construction was pretty simple.  I used mostly 1/2” plywood to build the drawer frame.  With the exception of below the thin paper drawer I substituted 1/4” to gain that last little bit in drawer depth.  Unfortunately, Johnny Menard’s stores carry only the crappiest quality plywood in small (2’x4’) sheets.  So this drawer doesn’t work well because the plywood is warped upward.  I am hoping a little time will help it relax and flatten out a bit.  In the meantime the drawer catches as I push it in and I have to lift it up at the end to get it to fully close.

A drawer front being epoxied in place.
I think this is even the inside out one.
The drawers themselves are 6mm fronts and bottoms with 3mm craft plywood sides. I built them differently in one way. I used epoxy to glue the drawer front to the base. Doing so allowed me to build all the drawers in one night. Before I could only glue up two sides and wait an hour for the wood glue to set-up. By using epoxy, I had a firm square start to glue the other three sides to in about six minutes.  It wasn't super strong at that point but it didn't need to be just to support the sides and clamps while gluing.  You can't make any mistakes though.  One of the drawers I glued the front on inside (slightly rougher) out.  So I had to sand that a bit when the drawer was done and I can still kind of tell.  But I am thinking of covering these drawer fronts with fabric anyway and so it isn't going to be an issue.

The almost finished drawer set in place.
I am happy with how it turned out.  I need to take a night and reorganize the contents of all my drawers.  But I am happy to have gotten this done and mounted in place already the table and surrounding areas are looking cleaner. We go on our parental escape camping trip for a long week in the middle of July.  I am hoping to have a bunch of these little projects done by then to really have the BV ship shape.

I got a complaint from a regular reader who said I was forgetting to practice what I preach and only put one space after a period. I guess it makes a difference particularly on portable devices. I will try to do better. Lots of these posts I actually write on my iPod where double tapping the spacebar gives me an auto period. I get lazy but I do like to keep my audience happy.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Water is Life

First off, some old business from our last meeting to update you on.  I don't need to buy a new inverter.  This is both a happy and a sad time for me.  I don't like the inverter I already own.  But I don't really have the money to buy the one I like either.  So when I discovered the blown fuse on the cable between the inverter and the batteries I was relieved and bummed.  I am impressed with myself in one way though.  The fuse was 200 amps.  Easily the largest fuse I have ever blown in my life.  #goals. :-)

In other news I have spent the last couple of weeks working on improving my water system.  It is going to be a great move forward, but living through it has been a little more intense than I expected.

An Arduino sitting on top of some of my
retirement paperwork.  Sadly, I didn't
win though...
Let me explain it to you this way.  The van is 63 square feet.  A constant I have to live with. The water tank and its surrounding area comprise about six square feet.  Think about if a three week construction project came to your house and you had to give up ten percent of your space.  That ten percent happens to be where you store the bulk of your random stuff.  You have to fit everything currently in that area into your remaining space and incorporate it.  To you non-van-lifers six square feet is nothing.  It is only turning the numbers into percentages that gives it a sense of scale.

Starting out I had only one goal. I wanted to keep my water tank from freezing up. I learned the first winter living in the van, anything in direct contact with the floor is going to freeze.  I need warm air from the furnace passing between the floor and the tank to prevent that from happening.  I thought maybe it would work to just have an air gap.  Convection.  Over Christmas break I had the van home for a stretch of days and did the re-plumbing job I posted about.  Part of it was adding some foam blocks under the tank lifting it about an inch. No joy.  Maybe it didn’t freeze quite so easy but it has been a cold winter so it was frozen pretty often.  There was just not enough air movement.

To hook up the temperature probes I used a telephone
module available from Home Depot.  This allows me to
wire all the probes into one spot that can be disconnected
from the Arduino for service.
Casting around for other ideas, at first I was trying to come up with a direct solution. Thinking of ways I could pump direct furnace air to the tank via some kind of duct work. That always seemed too complicated. I started to think about something less direct.  Here is what I came up with.

I used an Arduino —what is called “open source hardware”. Arduino is classified as a micro-controller platform.  A very small programmable computer dedicated to a single task. Generic Arduinos cost $11.  To this I connected five temperature probes.  Why five?  That’s how many are in a bag for $7.  I wired to the Arduino a two channel relay, $4 and to the relay I attached a fan originally meant to be installed in a brand new Cray supercomputer. …Had its box been closer to the top of a pallet of fans, that's how it would have lived its life.  Instead the last box of twelve, the spares left over after the Cray rolled off the shipping dock, found its way into my hands via number one son.  Cost zero.  Finally I am an information geek so I bought a little OLED display $3 to tell me what the temperatures are at each of the probes and optionally the RPM speed the fan is turning.

To make the phone board work I had
to wire some jumpers on the back and
then covered them in a layer of epoxy.
About a twenty-five dollar investment. But with it and a little woodwork. I have built a system that takes air from the middle of the van and circulates it down  and around the water tank, its pipes and pumps.  This air only circulates when the furnace is running so it won't be a source of draft.  Pretty slick stuff.  This is how I built it…

First what I suggest is to develop some standards in what color of wires you use.  The temperature probes have yellow red and black wires.  But they are too short to be of any real value.  I extend them by using cheap CAT5 network wire.  I connect it to the probe using the following scheme:
Brown -> black (GND)
Blue -> red (+5v)
Orange -> yellow (data)
These are not random choices.  I might get into that in some later post but these colors correspond to POE or Power Over Ethernet standards that Voice over IP telephones use.  Using a standard like this will allow me to build on it and not worry if something random gets plugged into one of my wire jacks.

Starting out I used a small breadboard to get things tested
and working.  Then I wired it all to the Arduino.
Do I really need five probes?  Of course not.  I could have built the system using only two.  Only two temperatures are critical.  What is the temperature at the water exit (is it close to freezing?) and the furnace (is it running?). Beyond that it’s all just the cheap price of probes and my natural curiosity.  I will know about the temperature of the air at the intake of the fan system. The pump is the most valuable cog in the wheel so it seems a good idea to monitor its temperature as well. Finally just out of curiosity I wonder how really cold it is at the back of the tank, next to the outer wall.

The rest of the hookup was easy.  The fan, not surprisingly for a multi-hundred million dollar computer component, is pretty sweet.  It is actually two counter rotating fans back to back. Two fans in series, turning in the opposite directions, with fan blades mirrored of each other.  No vibration, very little noise, but lots of air movement.  The fans run at twelve volts and so that is why I use the relays.  The Arduino sends them a small signal causing them to switch and turn on the fan. 

Simulated furnace on with a probe laying
on my laptop.
I even got fancy.  If the temperature reading from the probe at the water exit is merely a little cold, only one fan comes on.  If it is freezing the balls off a brass monkey cold, then it kicks on the second relay to power the second fan motor.  I will some day take it a step further.  Another fancy feature of these fans is they are PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) fans.  Meaning I can make them spin at whatever RPM I want to just by sending them signals from the Arduino.  I can make them push exactly as much air as I need to without making more noise and draft than I really need to.

I have this whole system built, sitting on my desk at work.  The next step will be to get it installed in the van, a process I will be telling you about in a future post.

Here is the Arduino code I wrote to make it all work:

Friday, March 8, 2019

Inversion Therapy

I figured out what has done-in my inverter.  But I am a little confused as well.  It has to do with last weekend while I was home.  I had the van plugged in and I was running an electric space heater inside.  I had run out of propane and the back doors were all iced up.  So it was the electric heater that was keeping the whole van from freezing up.  When I unplugged from the house, it didn’t occur to me to unplug the heater inside.  My inverter is not an on-demand type, I have it on a control panel switch.

I even thought about it at the time but I knew it would stop running as soon as I pulled the plug.  I just didn't care beyond that point.  Those Monday mornings, leaving bed and the warm beautiful wife it contains, are not my best times.

Fast forward.  The next night I was hungry and turned on the inverter switch.  What I noticed was it dropped my battery voltage more than I expected.  What I didn’t notice was the little electric space heater must have kicked on.  I popped my food in the microwave and started cooking.

The offending heater...
A little side note here.  When you live with the limitations of batteries it changes your life.  Every time you turn something on you check the battery power level.  Every time. You think of what you are consuming.  I know turning on the inverter means when I flip that switch my battery level drops 1%.   I am trading that for something else. Its one of the great things about living this way.

My inverter is a Tripp Lite APS 1250, so 1,250 watts with the ability to supply up to 2500 watts for a short burst.  This was one of my early investments after buying the van.  I read about it on some van life blog and the author sounded so convinced it was perfect.  And who knows, maybe it was for him.  But for me, not so much.

Inverters come in three types.  Their basic function is to turn the 12 volt DC you have coming out of your battery bank into 110 volt AC just like you have coming out of the wall at home.  Here is the thing though, not all electricity is created equal.  We don't need to get into a bunch of complicated electrical theory here…

What comes out of them is what makes them different.  —The type of alternating current, or wave.  First off, the cheapest, is a square wave.   If you are paying less than a hundred dollars you might be thinking you are getting the deal of a lifetime.  You aren’t.  Unless it specifically mentions one of the other two types you are getting a square wave inverter.  It won't work for you.  You will regret it greatly. Appliances can’t consume this type of power without damage.  Electric motors in particular.  So don’t go here, it won’t work for you.

The better inverters have a remote control panel that
will let you turn them on from inside.
Then there is the type of inverter I bought which is called a modified sine wave.  These tend to be in the $300-$500 price range and are certainly much better than the square wave type.  But, they are not perfect either.  I could tell my microwave didn’t like it.  It was very noisy when I was running on inverted power.  Even unhappier was my guitar amp.  The electrical buzz coming out was even louder than the music.  Totally unusable, I ended up buying a small practice amp that would plug into the 12 volts.  That did solve the amplifier problem.  What I couldn’t buy at twelve volts though was a loop pedal.  They all run at nine.  So I wasn’t too happy with my purchase.  Honestly though I don't amplify much anyway.

What I should have bought was a pure sine wave type.  More expensive (naturally) but your appliances and electronics really don’t notice any difference between this and electric company power.  My microwave won’t sound like it is in agony and I will be able to hear every single missed and out of tune note on the guitar.

Yes, it is cold in my water storage area!
Finally, the APS 1250 I bought was really too small.  It can really only run one thing at a time.  Here is what happened this week when I turned on the inverter.  The space heater started running.  That little unit sucks up a lot of juice.  It is 1500 watts.  Already it was overloading my inverter by 250 watts but still within that the 2500 watts peak.  Then I started to heat up my plate of spaghetti.  The microwave add 900 more watts.  Now I am sitting at 2400.  The inverter handled it but maybe 30 seconds in it couldn’t take it any more.  Poof.

Something happened I just don't know what.

The inverter has a couple of pop-out fuses.  One on the input side for the charger (this same unit charges my batteries when I am plugged in)  Then the other fuse that should have popped out because my load was too high.  The thing is, that fuse never popped out.  So what happened?  The inverter seems totally dead.  Pushing on the fuse does nothing.

I did some inverter shopping today and it seems like getting what I want is going to cost me six hundred and change.  Plus I will have to wire in a new control panel which won’t be the most fun job ever.  But it will be the cat's meow system. The control panel will give a lot more information on my batteries and their condition.

I am still holding out thinking maybe there might be some other solution that proves my existing system not dead. That would be the best possible outcome. Van life might be cheap compared to domestic alternatives but it sure isn’t free.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Other Side of the Coin

Its only been about a week since I wrote that last post.  Buried in the low voltage depression of some dark grey winter days.   It even had The Wife writing to me about sounding down and out. But today it is better.  Today is Fat Tuesday.

Mardi Gras. I don't think that my better mood can be contributed entirety to that amazing margarita I just had. But it does have me thinking about warmer places.  Drinks with umbrellas.  You know, the big decisions in life.  Pink or lavender with this one?

It certainly can't be the weather.  We are back into an arctic freeze up again.  Twelve degrees below zero last night with wind.  The furnace ran a lot.  More by luck than good planning I parked nose into the wind.  I don't know how much difference that makes in heating costs but it is great the house doesn't rock around so much.

Ah, but they do make a
fine margarita.  It is a pity it
is fourteen dollars though.
I got my house batteries warmed and charged up real good over the weekend.  I put an electric heater in the battery space and ran it for 36 hours while charging them up.  They needed it.  They were frosty on the outside and swollen.  Barely holding 50% over the night.  The last couple of days I have been waking up to the batteries still being in the mid 80s.  It has been great not having that worry of wondering if I was damaging my batteries.

Living spaces, no matter if they have basements or wheels, are trouble and expense though.  Last night my inverter made an unhappy electrical noise while I was running the microwave and it stopped working.  No lights on the control panel, no lights on the inverter itself.  I checked the circuit breaker and it wasn't popped out.  I unplugged it and plugged it back in.  It did not recover.   When it is below zero and windy that is as much trouble shooting as I am willing to delve into.  But I am concerned what this means in this day of disposal appliances.  That was an expensive item.  Four hundred fifty dollars on Amazon.  On top of this, it was a bad match for me and I never liked it… Still, I am not looking forward to replacing it.

Looking up into the fender, you can see it
is about a quarter full of ice.  Hitting it with
the car wash pressure washer melted it back.
This past weekend was one of ice.  We got another six or eight inches of snow on Friday night.  Spoiling some plans we had for weeks.  I wasn't going any where in the BV anyway, I was letting it thaw out and re-charge.  I didn't bother to clean the snow off of it at all.  What happened though is the snow melted off the roof and down into the door hinge fender areas and building up and re-freezing.

By Sunday morning  it was totally froze up.  None of the doors would open.  I had to take a heat gun to the passenger side door which would at least unlatch and open not quite an inch.  Blowing hot air into the crack on the hinge side of the door, eventually I melted enough ice in the pocket of the fender so I could open it enough to squeeze inside.  From there I could hit it with more heat.  Once the one door was more or less operational I took it off to the car wash to melt out the remaining doors.  I ended up soaked from rebound water.  Big job at the self serve.  Twenty nine dollars.  The most expensive car wash of my life.

Signs of an ongoing project.  A path down the
middle, from bulkhead door to bed.
The BV is a bit of a boars nest right now too.  I am working on enclosing the fresh water tank.  So I have all the stuff that normally inhabits the area next to the water tank, strewn around the floor.  Or stuffed under the table.  Or piled on the countertop.  All flat surfaces covered. Really quite bad in here.  When I get this done though it will be another milestone.  The ability to keep my fresh water tank un-frozen and working regardless of the outside temperature is going to be great.  Plus the ability to tell how much water I have even though I will no longer be able to see the tank.  Wish I could have gotten this done last fall rather than now when winter is (hopefully) wrapping up.

But I tell you what, and I think is at the root of my happiness.  I woke up before my alarm this morning.  Looking up I noticed…  Light in the skylight for the first time this “spring”.  The days are finally getting longer.  My solar panels can work more and my batteries less.  I will have survived two winters of living in my van.

The ice block at my back door.  Opening
the door further would have broken the
plastic body material going around the corner
from the side of the door to the back.
So here is the deal about van life.  You are going to have some dark days.  There will be challenges.  And unexpected expenses.  But for living the type of half life I am needing to live these days, it has been great.  The nomadic life calls to me.  It always has.  This van life, as crazy as it is and for as many times as you have to put up with hearing the “down by the river“ joke, it is still worth it.  It has allowed me to live out a life dream. The option of having the best of all worlds right outside my door in the morning has been great!

Stuff, stuff everywhere!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Feeling Low (Energy)

There is no two ways around it. Sometimes van life gets me down.  Take tonight for instance.  I am low on power.  It has been cold again and my engine battery seems unable to handle it.  I went to start the van last night so I could move to another part of town. I got one weak roll over.  Not enough to fire, and that was it.

Today over lunch hour I pulled the battery out again and brought it into my cubical to warm up and thaw out.  Always a cold finger freezing job when it is near zero.  Other people have a plant in their cube.  I have a DieHard.

Additionally, my house batteries are really low.  We had a nice clear and sunny Sunday.  But there was a foot of snow on my solar panels.  Not much collection happened that day.   Prior to that, and since, it has been cold and grey.

A thawing DieHard on my office floor.
When batteries get weak they can't handle the cold well.  They freeze and don't hold much power.  That is a bit of the cycle I am in here as well.  Even if I plug in to charge, if the batteries are half frozen they won't charge much.

I spent part of my workday today doing some research on small propane heaters.  It seems like I am going to have to somehow heat the house battery space.  But figuring out a way to do this and not get battery acid fumes inside the living space seems the trick.  But at the same time I have to come up with some solution that doesn't suffocate me by burning up all the oxygen in my small space.  So far I have not found the right answer.

I looked at the Little Buddy by Mr Heater.  The size was bigger than I really wanted but the area it wanted for clearance from flammable materials was the real deal killer for my situation.  I just don't have that much space.  There was another small propane heater that screwed on to the top of a one pound cylinder.  But it was built to point up at a 45 degree angle.  No way to change that and really I need to point down 45 not up.

Here is a way to feel even more crowded.
Stack up a bunch of boxes.
What I have done tonight is pull my slide out drawers and have them stacked by the side door.  I won't be warming the battery space but at least the space next to the batteries.  Hopefully that will be good enough to make some difference.

Right now is the lowest I have ever run down my batteries.  You shouldn't run them down to even 50% and I am sitting at 51%.  Some battery damage is likely to occur.  Tomorrow I have to get some sun or I have to get someplace where I can plug in and charge up.

All of this stuff is the harsh reality of van life.  Particularly cold weather van life that can get a person down.  Sometimes it just plain and simple isn't fun to be living in 63 square feet when it is -11 inches away, outside my steel walls. When a few other things go wrong, it all starts to pile up.
At least there is no shortage of white stuff!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Wait, It Gets Worse

So when I last wrote I was a day past the second coldest day of my lifetime. I was home for the weekend. I had the boiler running.  The house was warming up, the family was happy and everything was looking great. 

I was naive.

On Saturday I did my morning inspection and realized the house temperature wasn't really where I expected it to be.  We keep the kids-side of the house thermostat set to 59 degrees (they will work through our parenting in therapy when they get older) but this morning it was 55.  Sure, even with the really great furnace we have it takes hours to raise the house temperature by a few degrees but once there it does a really great job of holding it.  When I saw it was low I had an ominous feeling.

A radiator with a hairline crack running
almost the full length of one fin.  Research
tells me this can be filled with JB Weld.
It seems like a good summer project.
That feeling intensified when I got to the basement. The boiler panel read PR_0.  I have seen that once before. It means Pressure Zero.  Somewhere in the system there was a leak.  To find it I turned on the fill valve and walked around.  It didn't take long.  In a small room off the basement garage where it is our understanding the driver used to live, back in a time where our house employed servants, there was water gushing from a radiator.  It was a foot long split in the cast iron.

At this same time pressure on me was intensifying to get the water working in the kitchen sink.  This is also the families source of filtered drinking water and talk was happening about maybe the need to buy bottled water.  Something I consider fine out of necessity for an event but six people in a house can go through an environmentally unconscionable amount of bottled water in day to day living.

I had been running an electric heater in the sink basin for a few days, but it had just been so cold it couldn’t seem to un-thaw it.  I began to suspect the freeze-up was not actually in the basin but in the garage below the kitchen.  When I did further inspection I found that not only to be the case, but in a way it was lucky because the pipes, old fashion CPVC plastic had split and broken.  Both the hot and the cold.  If it had thawed out in the basement I would have had a real mess. Now added to my task list was re-plumbing the kitchen.  As much as the family wanted a working sink again, it wasn’t going to be a quick fix and getting the heat back on took precedence.

The Pex tubing where the radiator used to sit.
What I did to get around the radiator problem was to just bypass it.  I installed a 3/4” Pex line from the radiator input to its return.  Tightened the whole thing up and moved on.  The basement room would no longer have heat, which is going to cause us more trouble in the bathroom off our bedroom.  The plumbing there will be even more prone to freezing that it already is.  But at the time I didn’t know any way around it.  Since that time I have done more research and discovered a product called JB Weld.  A two part epoxy putty with enough flexibility to stay water tight through the expansion and contraction of the radiator.  I might write more about it later when I actually apply it.

There were two dead cars in my driveway.  I had to replace one battery and brought the other in to thaw out.  It was a long day but by the end of it I refilled the heating system with water.  Got the pressure back up.  Everything was holding water.  The house was beginning to warm up.  I had one bedroom prone to air bubbles in the system that wasn’t heating yet but I was feeling pretty good.  This whole freeze up was behind me.

I was naive.

The cold water pipe to the kitchen sink.
Lucky for me this pipe was still frozen.
Sunday morning I knew everything was fine.  I lounged.  I drank coffee.  I relaxed.  Basking in my confidence of surmounting every difficulty.  About ten we were planning lunch for the family and I went to the basement to grab something from the deep freeze.  What was that sound?  Gushing water?  Is someone running the wash machine?  I opened the laundry room door and discovered my state had added a new lake over the course of the evening.  Lake Laundry. The boiler was back to showing PR_0 and I had new problems.

When things freeze up, they take a very long time to unthaw.  What I didn’t realize is when the pipes froze they had large plugs of ice inside them.  With the basement just barely above freezing it took a long time for those ice plugs to thaw out.  When they did, the heating water could get to places it hadn’t been able to the day before.  Those places all had pipes that had broken in the freeze.  In my case, the cold water return pipe for the radiator in the garage had three broken spots in it.  In the process of discovering that I found the cold water pipe going to the laundry sink was cracked as well as both traps in the drain.  My wife had been bothering me to replace the sink for years, it looked to me like just as good a time as any.

I love how the Pex tubing can be color coded.
By Monday night with the handy plumbing assistance of my youngest daughter we had everything running again.  We used Pex tubing for all the new plumbing.  I drained out the radiator in the garage and determined it had not frozen.  For now that radiator is bypassed as well.   I will plan to hook it up in the summer as another heating zone.  A new laundry sink has been purchased.  We bought a two sided sink and I have cut out the center divider so we can use it as a dog washing station.  And, we have framed in a stud wall in the laundry room so we can insulate it this summer after I remove the window and replace it with some glass block.

So this freeze up was huge.  Record setting cold temperatures made for a record number of problems.  But I guess we got through it.

I love Pex tubing.  It is super quick to work with.  Really
easy to add things later.  And can handle freezing!

The sink with the center divider cut out.  

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Trouble On The Home Front

I make no secret that I live on the frozen tundra of the northland.  The last few days the outside temperatures have been nothing short of brutal.  Meanwhile I’ve been cozy as all get out in my Big Van.  Going through a 20lb propane tank in about three and a half days.

Part of the reason for the rapid use is it has been too cold to even go do anything. Rather than walking downtown to visit a pub or go see a movie, I have just been just walking to the van and determining it is too cold to go back out.  So every night I am just hanging out in the van. Running the furnace and needing to keep it…sitting around playing guitar, doing some writing, or van planning... temperature rather than being able to lower it down to the sleeping under a pile of blankets setting.  So yeah, I am burning more propane.

Minus ten below floor temperature
under a few layers of sweatshirts.
The coldest outside air temperature for two nights was around minus thirty two degrees Fahrenheit.  Fairly calm the second night but the first night was very windy too. The BV was rocking! Like I said, sitting up on my bed I was plenty warm.  The floor though was cold.  Particularly in spots.  By the side doors, which as it turned out, were on the windward side.  Around those doors it was very cold and drafty. I put my big coat on the floor in this area.  That helped a lot.  Under my table, which is at the back of the side doors, I threw down several sweatshirts.  Later in the night I checked the floor temperature back there and it was minus ten under those shirts.   I had no idea sweatshirts were such good insulators. 

I thought this was cold.  ...This
was not cold.  It went down another
five degrees.
By the back doors there always seems to be a gentle breeze on my face when I am sleeping.  These two nights of course this breeze has teeth.  I took to wearing a hooded sweatshirt as part of my night attire.  I woke up at one point and felt my nose trying to determine if it could be getting near frostbite temperature. …I don't think it was but it was cold enough for me to decide to roll over.

All of this must sound really miserable, but it is just my life right now.  I look it all as an adventure, and as Bilbo Baggins would tell you, adventures always have some rough patches.  Nasty uncomfortable things, adventures.

But my van life is only half of the life I live.  At the opposite end of the spectrum from the sixty three square feet I live in five days a week is the sprawling manse I live in the other two.  A big old one hundred and ten year old structure I am sure on my deathbed will be the pinnacle of cool places I have dwelled.

When the salty road ice freezes on your tires.
As I lay sleeping one of those awful cold nights my phone rang at four AM.  When I saw the caller ID I knew this could not be good news.

The Wife said the kids were complaining about being cold in their rooms earlier when they went to bed. But what can you expect?  It was only two degrees shy of the coldest temperatures I had ever lived through.  Given the size of the house, we are cheap how we heat it.  The kitchen and our office/bedroom we keep around seventy.  But the rest of the place, including the kids bedrooms we keep 59.  Add wind and sure they complain some.  She didn't think anything of it.

It was the four AM call to nature when she remembered she had not reopened the dining room doors.  Those doors hide the thermostat and we have discovered in the past will throw off the whole house temperature.  She walked to the other side of the house to open them and discovered the kids were not lying.  The house temperature was 43 and the furnace was not running.

We did some debugging over the phone to no avail.  You know, the normal stuff you try.  We power-cycled it a couple of times.  She got some boots on and went outside to check the air intake and exhaust for obstruction.  No joy.

Low sun cresting just over the fence top
at eleven in the morning.
This didn't seem like a situation that would wait until the weekend so I took a day off.  I have a friend who is a plumbing - heating guy and so I am able to call him up for some advice from time to time.  He suggested the trouble was in my flame sensor and told me how to go about pulling it out and cleaning it.  I had to call him back a few minutes later when I pulled the sensor out and a gush of water came out of the hole.

So here is what happened.  The basement got very cold.  As in very, very cold. The condensation pipe coming out of the bottom of the boiler has a trap in it just like a sink drain.  I suppose that keeps bugs from climbing up inside the burn chamber during the summer.  With the cold basement temperature the trap filled with water froze up.  The condensation could no longer drip out.

I hooked up an electric heater to blow on this area while I was cooking supper and about an hour later it drained.  I still cleaned up the flame sensor before I put it all back together.  But then the boiler lit right up.  It took about five hours to heat this barn back up.  Two rooms aren't getting any heat.  I expect the radiator pipes might frozen.  Now with the heat back on they should thaw out.

What a condensation tube trap looks
like and how it changes your life.
That was one crisis abated.  The kids bathroom was frozen up. That is a common occurrence.  It freezes up if it gets below twenty.  In fact we joke we can tell you the outdoor temperature based on what plumbing is frozen in the house.  Still though, setting new records breaks new records. 

As I sit here tonight four of the five bathrooms are frozen up.  The kitchen sink both hot and cold and the laundry room are all without water… So I will have a busy day of it tomorrow and look forward to warmer days ahead.

The flame detector re-installed in my boiler.