Tuesday, February 28, 2017

My Pink Sauce

Back a long number of years ago I got to New York City once or twice a year.  In that time I got to hang out with a crowd who were frequent visitors  …and voracious eaters.   They were the ones who lead me to America’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.   While there I had my first experience with pink sauce.   I was amazed.   It was in my gustatory top ten.   I spent a number of (pre-internet) years, eight or ten attempts, trying to figure out how they did it.   I thought it was a flour based white sauce mixed with tomato.  I kept ending up with tomato gravy over noodles.   Gross.

It was was relatively not that long ago I came to the revelation the white is alfredo sauce.  Discovering that allowed me to create a particular favorite with the kids in my house.

First you need to make an alfredo sauce.

One Stick Butter
One Pint Whipping Cream
One Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese.
Four to Five Cloves of Garlic Diced.
One Half Teaspoon Salt
Freshly Ground White Pepper

In a wide sauce pan place:

One stick of butter, add to this four to five cloves of chopped garlic.   Optionally you can also add some quartered shallots. Lightly saute the garlic in the butter until it has softened.   Control the heat because you do not want the garlic to brown.   When the garlic has reached transparency push it to the outside rim.   Quickly splash into the center of the pan about half a cup of the whipping cream, then quickly add to it the cup of Parmesan cheese.  Stir quickly and try to keep the cheese from coming to a significant boil.   You want to melt the cheese but you don’t want to scorch it at all.   Once it gets really melty controlling the heat with just mixing will be difficult.   Begin to add more cream to control the temperature and cool the pan.  Eventually you will have all the cream in, lower the temperature under the pan and slowly with occasional stirring bring the pan up to a boil.

Use caution, because though you want to rise to a boil, to thicken the sauce, if you boil it too much it will curdle.   Watch it close and stir constantly when it begins boiling otherwise you will have very tasty, garlicy, cottage cheese to spread on noodles.   Tastes good but looks gross.  You don’t want that.   So keep an eye on it and never let it boil too hard.

And you can stop right here.   Put this sauce over some wide noodles and you have fettuccini alfredo.    You can add some grilled chicken or shrimp on the top if you want.   Mostly we eat it with only noodles.   We eat it every year on Christmas Day and think about the movie _The Holiday_.   Pair it with a savagnin blanc or woody chardonnay.     Heart attack on a plate.

But if you want to take this further, into a pink sauce, here is what you need to do.

Here is the tip of my knife
and the new spice on it.   I guess
maybe a strong half teaspoon?
One Jar Spicy Spaghetti Sauce
One Half Jar Pizza Sauce
Red Pepper Flakes (Or my new red pepper spice)
One Half Teaspoon Salt

After a few minutes of boil add to your alfredo one jar of spaghetti sauce.   If possible, (and people in the rest of the world are saying “why would this be hard?”) try to buy a sauce that says something about spicy in the name.  I find that even though we are going to be controlling the final spice level with red pepper flakes the spicy labelled sauces have a flavor that up-spices better than the blander sauces.   I don’t always get what I want here though.   I live in the land where there are people who think catsup is too spicy.   So getting spicy spaghetti sauce is a crapshoot at the local grocery.  I usually pick some up in the city the week before.

Add to this mix the half jar of pizza sauce.   I find this adds a bit more tomato punch in the flavor.

Sometimes I will cast iron fry up some red
peppers and onions, adding this to the
sauce just before serving.
Then, add some additional spice.   I have always used about a quarter teaspoon of red pepper flakes but I found this new flake mixture at the local Asian grocery.   It seems to be flakes, stems and floor sweepings but I have been really liking the flavor it adds to dishes.   I put in one knife tips’ worth, tried it a couple of minutes later.   I think the flavor had not really opened up yet.   It didn’t taste spicy in the least.    So I added another tip and then it turned out really quite hot.   So I guess my advice is to give it a little time before adding more.

Bring this all up to a boil for a few minutes and then mix with cooked pasta.   I tend to use either linguini, particularly when I can buy it fresh, or once in a while I use angel hair as an alternative.  I like my noodles thin though.   Fettuccine would be the common restaurant solution.

Drain the cooked pasta, put into a bowl.   When using the linguini noodle I like to have a rough mix-in of the sauce.   Some members of the family like drenched noodles, other members like them almost dry.   Laddle in the sauce but keep it heavier on one side.   When I make the angel hair they must be fairly drenched or they clump into a bond stronger than steel.   You have to work quickly to coat these noodles before they clump.   But, if you are too rough on them they shred.   Those few times though, where it all just works out perfect, and the fine angel hair pasta is hot and slippery with cream and Parmesan, those times… are what I make pink sauce for.

This is the amount of Tony's seasoning I apply
to the chicken and the majority don't complain.
I like this dish best when I serve it with ribbons of grilled chicken.   I cut the chicken breasts in half the long way to cut their thickness in half.  I coat them in oil and Tony Chachere seasoning (..and forever thank you to the first pink hair’d girl I knew who introduced me to that spice) Grill them on a hot bed of coals four minutes per side or as you see fit.  Bring them in and cut them into strips.   The kids dive on them.    But still, the house favorite of the rest of the family is shrimp.  I raise a cast iron skillet with peanut oil to just beginning to smoke.   Throw shelled raw shrimp coated in Tony’s and my new red pepper flakes into the hot skillet.   Toss’em around a bit.  They cook quick though.   Three four minutes and they are done.    Do not over cook!

Some notes:
Do not make this recipe unless you are willing to fresh grate your own Parmesan Cheese.   I do not want you making one of my recipes by using some Craft Cheese green bag of pre-grated.   And that stuff that comes in the tall round can?   In our house we call that “Sawdust”.    No.   If you are going to make this you have to own a cheese grater and the muscles to use it.

If you are making alfredo sauce, the more money you spend on your Parmesan Cheese the happier you are going to be.   More money equals better.   —I have not seen that formula plateau yet.   It doesn’t so much matter in pink sauce so I tend to pay ~$9/lb.

Try to avoid ultra pasteurized whipping cream and you can make this super unhealthy meal, slightly healthier.   Buy just the regular pasteurized and the triglycerides (I think?) are lower.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Shop, Power and the First Night

So as I told you in the previous installment, I have come into the access of a full wood shop.  This past week I confirmed with my friend his offer.   It was good.  I could use his company’s shop after six pm.   This is an amazingly huge bit of good fortune to my project.  I had done some of the initial building in my work parking lot, but the electrical outlets were so weak they couldn’t run my power tools.  The shop is about two thousand square feet.   Heated with a big hanging furnace, it was warm and toasty inside.   It has several 4x8 rolling tables to lay things out on.   It is setup with a Table saw, panel cutter, a *SWEET* Dewalt double bevel sliding compound saw.   (I would have loved to have had something like that through all my various house projects.)  The shop has a rollup door so I can drive right in.  Perfect in every way.

The project is really starting to ramp up.   I can tell this because each Friday I come home to a stack of boxes, all labeled with Amazon Prime.   If Amazon boxes are showing up at your house, it has to mean you have something going on.  This week the pile contains the furnace, main circuit breakers, shore power connector, the inverter and a few other miscellaneous parts.   Our family has been debating springing for Amazon Prime for over a year.   It has been this project that pushed it through.   The shipping on all the parts will easily cover the subscription fee, so we are members.

I also got four batteries purchased.   Sometime this week or next I will show you what I calculated I needed and why I purchased the batteries I did.  But for now let it be said I found two good options for buying the Trojan batteries I had picked out.   First off, they were expensive on Amazon and the shipping was killer.  …Go figure, they didn’t qualify for free shipping with Prime.   So I started looking for local dealers and I found two.  One in the same city, one from sixty miles south.   The one out of town was $25 per battery cheaper.   I figured though, I can’ drive this gas sucking van down there for free.   I ended up buying from the place in the city.

I really went there thinking I would buy six batteries.   As it turned out I walked out with four.   The sales guys really encouraged me to take time to figure out what my real electrical use was and how much I can charge.   They felt like for up to a year after the initial purchase you can add batteries.   According to these guys however there was some limit on this.   They said after about a year, if you add batteries into an existing system, the new batteries you add will suck up the charge easier.   The older batteries will no longer take a full charge.   It will lead to a prematurely short life of the older batteries.  I would think if I go the refrigerator route, my maximum use will be this summer.   I should have a pretty good idea fairly shortly in how my batteries are going to hold up.

So yes, things are being purchased.  But the real news is there has been some more progress.   In fact, here I am…  About to sleep in a cargo van for the first time in my life.   You know, life throws you some crazy-assed shit once in a while.   I have to admit, this was *not* in my five year plan a few years ago.   But you know, I just have to roll with it right?

The other thing I really feel like I must admit, I am cheating.

It is technically true I am sleeping in the van.   But, the van is  sitting inside a heated shop…  I have all the van doors open and it is nice and cozy.  Lets call this a trial run.

You have to kind of picture this.   Here I was, I had a 2-1/8” hole saw all mounted up in my Milwaukee drill.   I am standing there, looking at the spot where I need to drill the hole.   Hovering the bit about two inches away.   I am thinking…  “I just bought a vehicle and I am going to drill a two inch hole into it’s body.   THIS is about the weirdest thing I have ever done.”  But after a few moments, “…yeah, I am doing the right thing.” and “…Yeah, I have already double checked four times, I don’t need to make it five,  this is the spot…”  I finally went for it.

Sadly it didn’t totally work out for me that night.   I asked the hardware store guy when I bought the hole saw if it was “Bi-metal”   The label was a little vague on that specific feature.  Of course he told me “they perform similarly”  <sigh> Ah well.  I think the only way you could really imply it performed similarly is if you are referring to the fact that they both cut round holes.  But by all other performance measures it sucked.

Hole saw, sawzall and many other types of cutting blades come marked “Bi-Metal” or un marked.   (Except now I find this Hardware Hank grey area) The unmarked ones are fine to cut a few dozen holes in wood for a weekend project in new lumber.  It’s like they are disposable.  They are a lot cheaper but get dull fast and are only made for cutting wood and plastic.   The bi-metal blades can cut steel, like the body of my van.  They also last a lot longer when cutting wood.   If you are doing rehab construction you can cut through nails.   So the money you spend on a bi-metal blade won’t go waste.

What happened the first night was my bit cut in for a few revolutions but got dull very fast.   I tried to switch to the inside and drill out to see if I could sort of burn my way through.   What happened is in fairly short order my hole saw didn’t have any teeth left and I wasn’t half way thru the van body.   This project got put off to the next night.   Once a new bi-mental bit was purchased it was about a fifteen second drilling job to complete it.  

All of this hole cutting was for mounting the shore power port.  Shore power is a take off of a nautical term, where you pull your boat up to dock and can plug in.   The same thing happens with my van.   I will be able to pull into a camp site, pull out a power cord and plug the van in to charge it.  I mounted the power port with four, 3/4” self tapping sheet metal screws.  The port itself is a 30amp twist lock connection.   I could buy a 30 amp heavy gauge cord to plug straight into the port and most campgrounds offer 15 and 30.  Maybe someday if I have too much money I will buy one.   I don’t need that much juice but with the twist lock feature no-one will trip over it in the night and accidentally unplug me.   For now though I purchased a 15 amp (what y’all would consider a normal sized three prong) adapter cord.  This will allow me to use a heavy gauge 50ft power cord I already own.

The finished shore
power port mounted on
the back drivers corner.
I don’t really need that much power in the van.   About 90% of the time the only thing I will have running is the charger/inverter.  It’s job is charging the deep cycle batteries.   From time to time there will be some heavier gauge appliances such as a waffle maker or The Wife’s flat iron.    Fifteen amps will be plenty of power.

Last week when I was over at Craigie’s house he was saying to me “Hey what you should do is stud this out, wire it, then just spray foam the whole thing.”   I told him that doesn’t seem to be what people are doing but I had to be honest and confess I didn’t really know why.   When I had some time to kill the next day I did a little looking around on Google.   Here is the answer.  I am going to have about an inch and a quarter of insulation on the side walls.  The spray foam, like “Great Stuff” has an R value of 3 per inch.   So I would have just over that.   The rigid pink (or sometimes blue depending on who makes it) foam insulation has an R value of 5.  The real winner is Poly-Iso (polyisocyanurate) foam.   It is foil lined on both sides.   The foam has a R value of 7.   Plus the foil, if you have an air gap (it isn’t touching the van’s outer skin) will add a couple of more.   I think I will have a gap because of how I will apply the foam.   I will do more checking into that later and get back to you.   Where expanding foam really excels is in old houses.   So for Craig’s work, expanding foam is perfect. The foam absolutely stops air infiltration.   I don’t have to worry much about drafts when I am living in a steel box…

My body has been trying to decide if I am coming down with another cold again or not.   So I was taking it fairly easy tonight.   I got the van unloaded and some stuff stashed in a back corner of the shop.   That was almost an hour long job right there.   The past couple of weeks of working while at the same time having all the building materials in the van was very difficult. It felt great to get everything out and get the van cleaned up.

Earlier tonight I cut up some of the 1-1/2” poly-iso foam.   Just to make it easy on myself I cut a small chunk that I measured to fit into the floor of the under-bed storage area.   Then two four foot by four foot chunks I was able to easily handle.   I first brought in one of the 4x4 Poly-Iso 1-1/2” foam boards and put it down on the floor as far back as it would slide.  It butts up to the bed frame.   I pushed it against the drivers side wall.   In my van, about every twenty inches, I have a metal strut coming down from ceiling to floor.    What you want to do is cut out the pattern of the struts in the foam.   Allowing the foam to conform to the wall profile.  You don’t have to be exact.  When I get the floor all laid down I will go all around the edges with expanding foam.

Once I got the driver side done I pulled it back out and then did the same on the passenger side.   This side is more complex as well.   There is the cutout for the side door step.   Here I pushed the limits of “you don’t have to be exact”.   I got sort of off at the wrong angle cutting the round part for the step.  The expanding foam will have to pull its weight in this mistake area.   It should be just a matter of filling in the gaps and then having another go at cutting it to the radius.  Putting both of these sheets in place left me a gap of about a foot in the middle.  I cut another strip and wedged it into place.

That was it for work on this night.   I cleaned up the shop and called it a night work-wise.   Another night I will glue the insulation panels down.

Wire for the solar panels also arrived this week!
Right now though I am sitting where I am going to be sitting at the end of my day.   Actually I guess, now that I think about it, doing what I am going to be doing at the end of my day.   It is interesting being here.   Thinking about how this is playing out.   Imagining how I am going to use this limited space.   Sitting here  right now, here are some of the things I am thinking about:

We have always been thinking in terms of pillows.   I should consider how this wall I am leaning against could be contoured just a bit.   Maybe have some built in padding so fewer pillows would be required.   Just a thought anyway.   It can’t really cut headroom of the sleeper so maybe it wouldn’t work out.

Today I got a idea about how to build the table and how to support it’s legs.  When I am installing the final flooring, I will build some square holes into the floor.    The holes will have a rare earth magnet glued into the sub-floor.  I will have a couple of square blocks with either magnets or metal washers glued into them.   On the tops I will find some brass pull fittings.   Something that will just sit flush with the floor when they are closed.   But, open them somehow and you will have a handle to pull the block out of the floor.   Blocks should have some storage area in the table.   They would have a tendency toward lossage in a lived in van unless they have a home.  

Pull the blocks out of the floor, raise the folded table up and the table legs drop down into the holes.  The legs need a brace a floor level.    They need another brace at top.   Legs are drilled through at the top, and a sturdy brass rod passes through them.  The legs should fold against the tabletop and the whole thing drop into the down position.   I would like there to be a base built into the wall that would have a cup holder in the top.   It will have enough room against the wall to hold a folding chair.

The tabletop will be red stained maple like the end tables we have in our office.   For me, this is my kitchen table.   It has to be sturdy.  It is going to have crap piled on it.  It could have heavy pans on it some day.   It will have me typing from it.    I see it being built out of one inch lumber.   The hinge on the end of it needs to be sturdy as well.   Not a barn hinge exactly but maybe a very heavy duty music wire?   It would need to have screws that went in an inch or more.

The remote attached to the table will mimic these LED
display and switch functions on the inverter.  
Some thing I am wondering about, do I want to have the DC fuse panel inside this area?   I need to place this panel someplace accessible.   What really needs to be in this area though is the remote panel for the power inverter.   This panel shows the battery voltage and if the batteries are charging or not.   It allows me to turn off the inverter, so all voltage is applied to charging the batteries.   Or, to a “DC Off” setting, meaning the inverter will run when I am plugged in, but will turn off when I unplug and head down the road.   These are read-outs and switches I will use often.   I think mounting them in the table base will be a great idea.

Tomorrow I need to text my furniture builder neighbor, Tim about a table design.

Sitting here and looking around I realize I have one other job coming up I am really not looking forward to at all.   The wiring harness for all the brake lights, tail lights turn signals etc is inside the cabin.   I need to move it to inside the unibody frame.   I know that is going to be an ugly job with a chance of failure.   I will have to cut the wires and make sure I have them labelled up well enough I can hook it all back up again.  I don’t foresee fun.

And a final though as I am packing up for tonight, I wonder if we shouldn’t have wall paper on the back side of the bed.   A while back The Wife sent me a photo or Pinterest link to a van that used lath strips inside for wall design.  Maybe this would be the spot for that?   Kind of like a headboard?   Painted (pink?) underneath white slats?

Good night fair readers.   I turn off my shop light and bed down for this big night dreaming of a project being complete.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Keeping Cool and Enclosed.

I am a small town farm boy.   Growing up with frugal and old fashioned parents, I had begged them for air conditioning when it got hot.  They didn't seem to care though.  Usually telling me to be a good boy and it won't be hot when I get to the hereafter.  Thanks Mom.   As I have grown into adulthood and my own degree of frugality, I have discovered I don’t mind the heat as much either.   Maybe I am preparing for the hereafter.

To keep the van cool I am looking at a few options.   First off, while I had the boys and their plasma cutter at work cutting the hole for the propane tanks, I had them cut a secondary hole near the front of the van.   This hole is going to be used as a vent.  If I am parked somewhere for a few hours, the coolest air around me is going to be from under the van.   I am thinking of making some sort of metal sleeve that will drop down through this hole.   If I make up some sort of heavy fabric column that can attach to the sleeve via some magnets, I could pull air from ground level.   At night, that air will be significantly cooler than air at the top of the van.

Since the back of the van doesn’t have any windows that open, just a hole in the floor isn’t going to do much.   So the second thing I am looking at is a temperature controlled roof vent.   Maybe even two of them.   There seems to be two competing brands of fan.   

The first is named Fan-Tastic  (The model 7350 from Amazon)and is a company that builds the traditional looking camper fans you have all seen. Except these new fans are nothing like the ones my parents had in their 1977 Coachman.   They have a digital remote control with thermostatic control.   So I can open up the vent in the morning (with a button on a remote not a crank!) and once the van heats up to the degree I set, the fan kicks on.   Another big difference from the old school fans, they have rain sensors.   So if I open the vent up and look out in the afternoon and it is pouring, I know my van is still dry!  And they are bi-directional, so particularly if I have two of them, I could set one to go-zinta and one to go-zouta, and have some built in draft.

The second brand I am considering is a Maxxair.   (The model 6200K available from Amazon)They have much the same feature set as the Fan-Tastic, but with one fairly major design change.   It goes back to the rain feature.   On the Fan-Tastic, I open the vent up the fan is blowing.   But it starts to rain, the fan shuts off and the vent closes.   …Well, it still might be kinda hot outside and in.   Now it is hot, damp and stuffy.   If I am sitting in there, that doesn’t sound like much fun.   The Maxxair is designed so it can’t rain in, even if the vent is open.   It starts raining, the fan keeps running.  Nice!  The Maxxair fans are pretty good sized though and they are black with a company logo on the side that is a downside.   A big fan on the roof bends the stealthy-ness factor rule quite a bit.   Even if I were to paint it white.   That is why the jury is still out and I haven’t bought anything yet.

What I would really like to do, were money no object and I could get around the concern about stealth, is buy one of each.   Put the Maxxair up front, the hole just behind the bulkhead door.   That fan could double as a stove vent.  Put the other fan in the back under the solar panels and modify the vent cover to more of a flat piece of plastic I slide.   This is all still very much in the design/budgeting phase though.

I feel like this combination of ground vent and ceiling fan(s) can get me through most of the warm and pretty darn warm, maybe even most of the hot days.   But there are also the damned hot days, and the days where The Wife is joining me.   For those days I might need something additional.   

Version one of a business card for the blog...
Here is where I started out.  I thought the solution was like one I had seen on someone else's stealth van.  They bought a very small conventional window air unit.  I think it was about a five thousand btu size.  They mounted it inside, under a bench, near the floor in the driver's side.  They cut a large hole in the side of the body and mounted a metal lattice cover inside an angle iron frame, painted white to stealth it up some.  You really couldn’t tell it was a radiator behind that screen.   The effect was very stealth.   This person had quite a bit of solar on the roof and had gotten a really good deal a bunch of used lithium ion batteries from a cell phone carrier.   Between those two things he could run the AC on his van eight hours on a sunny day.    He couldn’t quite cover the AC with his solar, but he would only drain down (or fall behind) by about 10% of his battery capacity per day.   Meaning he could run AC five days straight if he was real careful to not run much of anything else.

But the thing was, I think that would work out great where they were.  Down south.  But I was always troubled by this solution.  Up here in the great white north, they put a lot of salt in the roads.  I thought I would have to figure out how to seal this door up, otherwise getting any snow/salt liquid inside there would kick off a bad case of rust.   I just didn’t feel I could seal it that tight.   So I have been sort of casting about for other solutions anyway.

What appeared as a solution was involved in another question.  Do I need a refrigerator or not?   And if I do, where can it fit into the design.  I didn’t see it fitting in anywhere.  Where it really needed to sit was exactly where I had designed in the window air.   So it was really a choice.  Either a window air conditioner or a refrigerator.  But there just isn’t room for both things to happen.

At one point I described to The Wife how I seen someone who used his van for two day desert trips.   He had modified some type of house AC unit that was two piece.   It had a compressor unit that sat outside the window and allowed you to mostly close that window.   It had a couple of pipes/tubes that came inside the room and plugged into a plastic tower that had the fan and all that other mysterious equipment that creates air conditioning.   If you have central air in your house you know exactly what I am talking about.   It is just like your central AC  unit, just really scaled down to window size.   The guy in the van had it rigged up via a hole in his side door.   In describing this I realized I hadn’t really tracked this down much.   Are there other portable air conditioners?   I will get back to you on this.

Here the side wall of the bed once I got it set in place.   I was really happy how it lined up close.   I feel like this nice tight gap will be easy to insulate.   I will put some tape over the gap underneath and then put some expanding foam in the gap.  It will be a nice solid place to bring the sidewall plywood down to.    The sidewall insulation should also be able to nicely fit down and form a good seal.   Can you tell?   I am pretty happy with the bed top.   But I will admit this, after the struggle and workout of getting that bed plywood in place, I took about a week off from working on the van.   Recovery.

Building the Propane Enclosure Box

The next thing to build after I got the bed top in was the frame to go underneath it.   I know that seems counter-intuitive, but this is a situation where you build from the middle out.   There would have been no way to have gotten that bed top in place with the frame already there.   There just wasn’t the room.

I texted my friend Craigie.   He is a full-time small job carpenter.   He works for a company that keeps his calendar full of various fixes up to full remodel jobs where he works as part of a team.   The fix it jobs, he just has to walk in the door and know that he can fix whatever is broken inside out of the tool repertoire he has in his own white cargo van.   Basically this is exactly the kind of guy I want to help me with this next part.  

The next night I was backing the van up his driveway.  The weather was again warm enough for us to work outside in coats.   The job here was to build a box surrounding the propane tanks.  That box is built to the height I want the bed to be.   In my case the number was fourteen and a half inches.   Doing this design of dropping the tanks through the floor had lowered my bed height from 21” to 14-1/2”.   That doesn’t sound like much in some ways until you realize that adds 15 cubic feet of living space to my very small house.   Huge. 

Craig and I ran a couple of sheets of 3/4” interior plywood through his table saw and cut off some 14-1/2” strips.   We put two of them paralleling the wheel wells.   With a piece of one inch poly-iso foam between the plywood and the wheel well.   Then ran some deck screws down through the bed surface into the edges on the plywood below.   Once in place we cut a strip of the 14-1/2” across between the wheel wells.  And two more strips on each side of the propane basket, heading toward the back door.   I stuck in a little PL-200 glue here and there and the whole thing we put together with T-20 head deck screws.   It was pretty darned solid when we were done.

If I would have known I was having company I would
have swept up...   Here you can see the aluminum angle
that attaches the plywood to the floor.
At the base of this plywood where it met with the floor of the van we used some angle aluminum I had picked up at the big box lumberyard.   It is one inch on each side.   We cut that aluminum into chunks to match the base where the wood touched the floor.   Drilled holes in it just slightly larger than some one inch self taping sheet metal screws I had also picked up.   Then, ran the aluminum along the base of the wood and screwed it all in place.  Both the floor side and the plywood side.  …And Craigie’s got all these fancy cordless drills.   Really powerful so the self taping screws bit right in.  It made the whole thing just a great experience.

Finally as a last step we cut out a door to fit on the back of the basket.   The jury is still out on exactly how the door is going to work.   For now it is just measured to fit in tight.   It might get some barn hinges on one end so I just swing it out.   It might get some clasps and I lift it out and set it aside.   I don’t really know.  I am thinking it will have the propane tank switch mounted on it.   So I am leaning a little toward hinges.

So now it is done.  I have a box built around the propane tanks.   I will put some expanding foam insulation around the base where it meets the floor.   It is important this box be fairly air tight.   As I mentioned before the propane tanks do vent a little propane gas.   I want these tanks sealed away from the cabin so the propane can harmlessly (and smellessly) go out through the holes in the bottom of the basket.   (As a side note, the batteries have to be sealed away as well and that is a little trickier.   Batteries vent hydrogen which is lighter than air and would readily leak up into the cabin.

The finished propane box bed frame.
I am sitting tonight on The Professor’s sofa.   Still doing the couch surfing thing while the van is under construction.   I want to sleep in it.   Really excited to in fact.   I brought in a whole bunch of blankets from home when I came in this week.  But tonight is six degrees, tomorrow night might be the one, it is going to be twenty four.   After than we are going below zero for what looks like a stretch.

A couple of months ago, back while this whole project was still gathering steam, I suggested to The Wife we go for a drink at a place that usually has a pretty good guitar player.   It is an interesting restaurant, close to a university campus.   The food is kind of marginal.   I think it works out great for students to bring their visiting parents to.   Overpriced and under flavored, but a real attraction looks-wise.   The whole place looks like a stream train engine repair shop.   Looks like it has been there for a hundred years before someone turned it into a restaurant.   It isn’t until you really start to look close and examine some of the materials that you realize the whole place is new.   As it turned out, the guitar player was on vacation the night we were there so we stuck out one drinks worth while listening to the jazz piano replacement act and called it a night.

On the way out though, I ran into a friend of mine.   Chatted with him a bit.   Caught up on his news.  Then he asked me about mine.   Well I only had one exciting thing to talk about.   I thought I had solved my housing problem with this new concept I had just heard about called Stealth Camping in a cargo van.   I think the last time I had talked to him was during the summer monsoon season and I had been in a tent at the park that week.   He was excited about my project as well and happy for me that I wasn’t going to have to be camping in the rain any more.   But the real exciting information came at the end of the conversation.   Offhand he asked, “So where are you going to do the work on this van?” and I confessed I was likely going to be working on it in the back parking lot at my work.   He said, “Hey, my company has a shop.   Nobody is ever in there after six or so.  You could drive right in and work on it inside….”   Wow.   Yeah, that’s an offer I am interested in.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Here is where some actual work starts to happen on the new van.

I know what y'all been thinkin'.   I am going to spend month after month writing about this and never actually get any work done....  Wrong!   

Look at the problem.   Here are a couple of propane tanks sitting in place.   To this height, add some bed frame.   Some bed.   Some insulation on the ceiling.   Pretty soon there isn’t much space left.  The first version of my plan set the bed height at twenty-one inches above the floor.  At that time I thought I needed to build a frame for the bed as well so I was taking three and a half inches out for that.  (Later I was able to take these inches back out, just using 3/4” plywood instead) if I had an eight inch mattress, and two inches of ceiling lost to insulation, from the top of my mattress to the ceiling was going to be twenty three inches.   Not like totally coffin-like but I knew this was less space than my wife would entertain.

The trouble with the low cost propane tanks is they have to remain vertical.  So even though they are twenty inches tall and only thirteen inches wide, you can’t use/store them on their sides due to the way they have to vent.  You can buy special ones, built specifically to lay on their side.  But, they are way more money and I am back into that business of having to get my tanks refilled, instead of doing a propane tank exchange at the Menards/Super America/Kwik Trip across the street.

As a side note I pass this information on just so you can someday win a trivia contest…  Propane tanks have to vent.   They might be cold when they are filled and then a few days later they are sitting in the sun.   The pressure inside them will increase.   If they don’t have a way to release that extra pressure….   Well…   Boom!   They explode.   The reason propane tanks can’t sit on their side is because you only want to be venting propane gas.  The tank has to be built so on a vertical tank, the vent is at the top where the light weight gas is. Not below the surface of the liquid.   On a horizontal tank they are “keyed”, so even though they can sit on their side, they can only sit on one side, so the vent is again on the top side of the tank.  The reason for this is liquid propane gas is only liquid because it is under a great deal of pressure.   If by chance you leak some liquid propane, that pressure goes away.   Well, with no pressure propane expands to it’s various state.  It increases in size by 277 times its original size.  It wouldn’t take much of something expanding at that rate to blow out the windows of a cargo van.  …That’s even before you introduce something like a spark.

To give me more ceiling height what I have decided is I am going to have a hole cut in the floor of the van.

The idea I came up with was to drop the propane tanks through the floor under the bed.   I knew I wasn’t qualified to do this job, I talked to my local auto body shop.   It’s owned by a pretty open minded guy who I have had build me a couple of custom jobs before.   This one wasn’t really in his area though.   Talking to him more I realized the bid he gave me was him subbing out the actual fabrication.   I wanted it built out of heavier grade steel than he was really tooled for.  He was just turning around and hiring that part out.   All done, painted and under coated, he wanted eight hundred and forty five dollars for the job.   Way more than I had in the budget for this task.   He understood when I told him that.   He was contracting out fabrication and marking it up.   He gave me the names of a couple of fab shops he might work with.

Just to give you a bit of an idea of what I was thinking about, I was also considering by lowering the tanks I was placing them inline of the bumper.   In engineering parlance, the “crush zone” of the vehicle.   To counter that, I wanted the enclosure to be built out of a heavy grade steel.   In the event of getting rear ended, the steel should offer considerable protection to the tanks.   Other people mount them higher but they are seldom contained in anything other than plywood and would likely go flying in a crash.   Basically, I don’t think the dropping through the floor design is any worse.  If I am wrong about this, I want it to be said my final words were: “‘Hol my beer and watch this”  

It was really, thinking about that old joke that led to the solution.   Back a number of years ago my oldest son was living at his mother’s house in a gated community of a big city.  Following an argument about a lost TV remote control that descended into violence he escaped to my house.  In the big city he had a couple of friends.  But when he moved out here to the sticks he met his people.  The rednecks.   He never really had fit into the city kid crowd.  The guys with trucks who went mud’n, and had a shop out back, those people he got along with just fine.  So I called upon number one son for his network and because really it was his, “sending me some conversion van photos” that had lead me down this path.

Number one son did not disappoint.  Within a couple of weeks I had a kid with a torch under my van.   I worked this whole deal through my son.  Never actually met the kid who did the building but (small town) I had helped his older brother out a number of times.   He was a great guy!  That’s the way small towns work.  

I marked the rough area I thought the hole should go in sharpie and wrote up the following instructions:

The floor is marked with the assumption that we shouldn’t be cutting through the horizontal frame members.

What I am looking for is to have a basket built to hold the propane tanks.   No reason to sink them more than eight inches through the floor because I won’t be able to lower the bed down more than the width of a propane tank on its side anyway.

I would like the hole cut as far over to the passenger side as possible.   I think that is where I have it marked, but if it can go a little more, that is great.

If it can be moved closer to the back door by cutting the rear frame member and strengthening it somehow to make up for that loss, that would be great too.

I need the hole to be wide enough to turn the tank somewhat on its side to lift it out of the hole.

I would like it to be built strong enough so I might be able to survive a minor rear end collision.  I don’t want the floor or frame to scissor into tank and cut it open.

A couple of vent holes will be required in the floor of the basket.  Propane is heavier than air so any pressure release would just vent out through those holes.

In addition to that, I drew up one possible idea on paper and sent along.   I suggested angling the top rim backward.   He didn’t do that.   I think that is just as well.   It would have been more complex to build and what I have seems to work really great.   He gave me a bill for $48.17 for the steel, I paid him $300 for his work.

Now I have two tanks in place.   I started looking into some way to switch between them.   Initially I was looking at manual control.   The way that works is: “Honey, does it seem kinda cold in here?”   Ah… I have to turn the gas valve switch.   Three way gas valves are kind of expensive.   Maybe around $90 and I couldn’t figure out how to easily and safely place it inside the cabin.   I wanted to avoid having to go outside and open up the back door to manually change it.   Not after I wake up cold to discover this.   No, that wouldn’t be fun at all.

I also looked at just dual tank gas hoses.   I would run both tanks at the same time, I could run twice as long as a single tank but when they are empty they are both empty.   This would never happen at noon on a sunny day.   It would happen in the middle of the night on the coldest day.   I would have to immediately go do two tank exchanges.   I don't know if Seven-11 does them at 3am.   No, I had to have a primary-secondary setup.   

What I am going to do is have a propane valve switch.   I bought mine from a big box lumber yard.  Here is a link to the same thing from Amazon:  Mr Heater Changeover Stage Regulator If you are a Prime member, it qualifies. I could have saved about eight bucks.   ...If I would have known what I was looking for.   Browsing a brick and mortar store, I found it.   The way this works is you hook two full propane tanks to it.   You make the switch point at one of the two tanks and the indicator on the top turns green.   Check back a week later, or two weeks or however long it turns out being (I guess I will let you know) and if the indicator is red, and the switch is pointing half way to the other tank, you know it has switched over to the backup.   There is no interruption in service.   It should be interesting to notice if I hear it switching.  I am a pretty lite sleeper for close sounds.   Anyway, when the indicator goes red, sometime in the next couple of days it is time to walk the empty down the street to the Seven-11 and get a tank exchange.   When I get back with the fresh tank, I will drop it into the basket and hook up the hose.   Switch the switch the rest of the way over to the backup tank.   It is now the primary and the indicator goes green again.   Should be pretty slick.

We are done talking about propane for a little bit.   Lets talk about the bed.

The base of the bed I wanted to be 3/4” plywood.   For this job I wanted to spend the extra money and go for the marine grade plywood.   It is heavier and stronger than just regular plywood.   Made from higher quality wood.   Since I really want minimal support under the bed I thought buying this stronger plywood would keep it from flexing.  Now that the propane tanks are sunk through the floor this was the next height to establish.   

The weather has been, as I described before “warm”.   Upper 30’s.  I let the security guard know I was going to cut a piece of wood in the back parking lot.   Then pulled the van into a spot where they charge the electric cars.   I was able to plug-in there and run some power tools.   It was really a great night for the hearty to be working outside.   I started in a couple of heavy sweatshirts and ended up in a t-shirt.  

What was really strange was I was parked in one of the spots where they charge the electric cars.  I was really expecting the power supply to be much little better than it was.  First off of course, I should admit I picked the outlet the furthest away from the building (and the guard). I don’t know who cut this particular corner when construction was happening, but the voltage/amperage drop at this plugin was horrible.  I had had a fluorescent trouble/work-light and every time I started my jig-saw the light would blink out for a few seconds.  The saw ran slow and had little power.   When I started the circular saw the light would go completely out.   I was sawing by street lamp.   I felt like saying “Quartermaster’s on the take” from the movie _Scent of a Woman_.

Oh look!   An Amazon box!
To get the bed top cut, the first step is to make a template.   I used a cardboard box that I cut on one of the corners to make it flat.   Then, taking this flat strip of cardboard I cut it out so its profile matched the side of the van.   Marking where the support members come down so the bed perfectly fits close to the wall.  When I say close, I mean a tolerance of 1/2” on each side.   You don’t want the plywood to actually touch the metal sidewall or struts.   If it does, it will squeak each time it moves and you don’t want that.  Once you have this template cut for both sides,  then measure between the struts from side to side.  Use this measurement minus one inch (for that 1/2” per side) and place the templates on the plywood.   Mark the template onto the plywood.

Cutting this out I used a combination of a circular saw to cut the longer straight areas.   Then came in with a jigsaw to cut out the struts.   In very short order I had my bed top cutout and ready to place.  I thought the hard work was over.   …It wasn’t.   As a matter of fact that was the dead easy part.  The van tapers top and bottom with it’s widest point about twenty inches off the floor.   It is considerably narrower at the top.   Now I have this plywood cutout.   It is almost as wide as the *widest* part of the van.  The measurement from outside wall to outside wall.   The struts that come down inside that wall, combined, cut three inches off that width.      The plywood is too wide to get in the back door and I can’t put it in and rotate it.   The only solution was to bring it in the side door, then if it was angled 45 degrees.  I had about an inch of play.   It took me, working alone, maybe two hours of struggle getting that plywood worked back the length of the van.   Thirty degrees in a t-shirt felt just fine.

Why do I have a level on the bed?   Because I have been a
house project builder.  It took me a bit to realize I am in
a wheeled vehicle on a sloped parking lot.  You make
things square, not level.   Throw away your level.
Lesson learned, have a friend around for this step.

The other lesson I learned…. Sometimes I really don’t think things through very well.   The insulation I bought is called Poly-iso foam.   It’s a sandwich of two pieces of aluminum foil with an inch and a half of foam as the meat in the middle.  When I was setting up I pulled all the materials out of the van to start work on it.   I leaned all the sheets of insulation against the side of the van.     Then proceeded to climb back in and work for the evening.   While I was working in there, walking back and forth.   Lifting things in and out.   The van was going up and down on its shocks.   Regular foam like I have used before, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  But this, with its metal skin was scraping the paint.   It put an eight foot long burnish mark down the side of the van.   It might buff out.   I will sure try once spring arrives

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bad Ideas For A Great Reason

A down and depressed week followed by a week of being sick.   I started coming down with it on Friday evening while involved in volunteering for The Wife’s boy scout troop.   An overnight lock-in at a local school just at a time when what I really needed was more sleep.   A perfect storm.   Playing chaperone and welcome to the land of ice and snow.

Back into the deep freeze here.  It is below zero at noon and I wore my parka on the eight block walk up the hill to the pizza joint I love.  They serve a great “pizza sandwich” something the rest of the world would call a calzone.    This place is off the beaten path and usually fairly quiet.  If I leave work and take a right, I go downtown.  Lunch is gonna cost me eleven or twelve dollars easy.  I walk up here and I have a great meal for $5.37.  I tip $4 and I am still at least a buck ahead of walking downtown.  The waitresses treat me like visiting royalty.  …Even the really cute one.

Plans for the van are really coming together now but I want to offer you some advice.  The reason it is really great to have a number of eyes look over your plan is because there will be things you are doing for the wrong reason.

I will catch some hell for writing about this because I never say anything negative about my wife.   I tried to write it from an outside perspective so I wouldn’t name names.  That didn't really work out though. I still would have been in trouble and y'all would have been confused.  It isn’t about the negative though, it is about the bad ideas that come for the best of reasons.

After a few weeks, the plan firms up more and more.   There are less pencil marks on the printouts between version numbers.  Less edits. The ones that happen are starting to become additional data.   Like remembering to measure the distance from the floor to the bulkhead vent holes so this can be added into the plan.   Or the actual dimensions on the pillar just behind the side door.   But at this point, for the really big things, stuff is getting pretty well nailed down.

This is a big exciting planning event in our lives and The Wife and I are talking about it a lot.   Particularly when we are together.   I, showing her the latest version of the plans.  She, playing devils advocate  …her favoritest thing in the whole world. :-)  We were talking about storage and how much she likes storing things in drawers.   Under the bed in the back, if everything goes according to plan, we will have something on the order of fifteen inches between the bottom of the bed and the floor.   When I was thinking in terms of the ultra cheap solitary boars nest of a van, I thought of putting plastic tubs under there.   Really though this area would have to serve as primary closet.   She was pushing for maybe a stacked set of two seven inch drawers and a fourteen inch deep on the other side.

The original idea with the batteries all on the right
side, cutting into storage.

But here was the deal.   With the way we had the plan laid out at the time, the battery bank which was on the right side of the van, considerably cut into the storage area.  Plus on the left side, the floor to ceiling shelf wouldn't allow a drawer to pull out.   The Wife came up with a great solution.   One that I thanked her for at the time and couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of myself.   By shifting the battery bank over to the left side the storage space could be greatly optimized.   One set of drawers fully available.   The other single drawer compromised by requiring the table to be folded down to fully pull out the drawer.   No wasted space!   Perfect!

The modified plan, shifting the batteries to the left.
Then I posted my plans to a public forum to garner comment.   The very first one encouraged me to look at the left side of my plan.   Batteries, inverter, microwave, fridge, counters, all lined up on the left side.  Basically everything heavy all lined up on the left.   Hell!  This thing was going to drive like a three legged pig.   I might just as well keep my left turn signal on permanently.

The lesson I am trying to pass on to you is to have lots of people offer opinions on your ideas.  The new eyes that see it, will see it in new ways.   Some of those opinions are worthless and if you have already done a lot of research you will be able to identify them.   Others, lacking the history of it being all about the drawers will be able to see it for what it really is.

Lets talk about some other design.  The van is going to need a table.   The table is going to be a desk.  It is going to the primary eating area.   It will be the primary horizontal surface.  So, if the van is going to be stationary for a few days, this table will accumulate the crap a horizontal space will tend to.  It will need to be strong.   In addition to those physical requirements, it is also going to be a center of information.   This is where the Inverter Control Panel is going to be.   It will have a couple of USB ports for charging devices.   It might have a couple of drink cup holders.

This will be one of the next design processes.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Yes, *That* Chicken Curry

I have thus far written about seven thousand words in this blog.   In that time only one real question keeps coming up.  And so, for you perverts, here it is. 

1-2lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts
1-2 Red/Yellow/Orange Bell peppers
1 Large Sweet Onion
1 Can (14oz) Coconut Milk
1 Can (17oz) Coconut Cream
16 oz Chicken Bouillon
2 Tbsp chopped peanuts
Honey (see instructions)
2 oz Fish Sause
Panang Curry Paste is available at any Asian grocery store.
4 oz Can Panang Curry Paste
2-3 TBSP peanut butter
1 heaping TBSP Corn Starch
1/2 bag frozen peas
5-7 Thai Basel Leaves (rare here in the frozen northland)
Red pepper flakes to the limit of your constitution. 
Fresh cilantro. 

Jasmine Rice (buffalo rice)

Thin slice/shave chicken breasts, cut onion and bell peppers into 1/4” wide strips, chop peanuts into 1/8” granules.   In the microwave  heat 2 cups (16oz) water to boiling and add bouillon.   Put rice into cooker and start.

*When you are making one of my recipes, buy some decent bouillon.  *Not* Wylers cubes for god sake.  

This day I forgot to buy the onion.   It still tasted great!
In a very hot pan or wok quickly fry onion  and peppers strips to desired tenderness.   If you use peanut oil in your pan you can get it hotter with less smoke.   

Once the onions and peppers are looking good, lower temperature somewhat and add curry paste and honey.   Stir.  Keep it moving around.  This will both keep it from carmelizing and help to cool the wok more for the next step.  

OK, let's talk about the honey for a moment.  The purpose of the honey is not so much to add sweetness, it is to moderate the spice.   The more honey you add the less spicy the dish becomes.   Generally I put in ~2 TBSP but if we have boring people coming for dinner I will use 3.  I remember once when I was still dialing this all in, I was using more like a teaspoon of honey.  At about five minutes before dinner was served one night, we got a surprise call from a nephew who found himself in the neighborhood.  “of course!” I said, “come to dinner!”   Well the kids dug right in.  My first bite it occurred to me I never asked him if he minded spicy food.   Have you ever watched a 30 year old man, sweat running into his eyes, trying to not flinch under the gaze of a five year old?

Back to the cooking. 

Heat the curry, honey, onions & peppers for about two minutes to open up the flavor of the curry.   Then, add the chicken and cook until nearly done.

Add the peanut butter and blend it into the mix.  Make sure you don't leave any wads of peanut butter mixed in with the chicken. It’s easy to do and surprising how it sticks together and mimics the chicken so get them broken up.

Then add the coconut milk and cream and the bouillon, holding back about a quarter cup or so.   Add the corn starch to the remaining bouillon and stir with a fork until well mixed with no lumps.   Pour the starch mix into the wok.  Allow to heat fully and begin to boil, then add the remaining ingredients except for peanuts.   Personally, if I am cooking for myself and the kids I throw in a bunch of cilantro at this point too.   But, The Wife hates cilantro and so I have to hold it back.

Bring to a lite boil and hold for ten minutes.   Get some rice on your plate and ladle mix over cooked rice and garnish with chopped peanuts and if you are so inclined, cilantro.   I often serve this along side a variation on Pad Thai I am working on developing and might write about some day.

I can't guarantee the same results as my friend The Professor.

This is a common Thai dish usually served over rice however I have made it using rice noodles as well.   I first started working on its reverse engineering when my favorite Thai restaurant chain, Big Bowl, raised their prices by fifty percent, cut the portion sizes in half and watered down the curry.   This injustice could not stand.