Thursday, March 30, 2017

Let There Almost Be Heat

The OCD electrician's dilemma.   
Let me explain the picture.   When you are wiring AC, like you have in your house, black is the hot wire and white is the neutral.   But, when you are wiring in DC, like from batteries, red is the positive or hot wire, black is the negative or ground.   So this explains the dilemma.   In a mixed project like this where I have sometimes the black is electricity, sometimes it is not, it gets kind of confusing.   What I have been doing on the 12 volt side is to put a short length of heat shrink tubing around the black wire to indicate it’s true status.

But I really have to admit one crazy element of working on this project… I haven’t done anything with 12 volt in years.   I suppose it was model trains when I was in high school.   I have done so much electrical work is, “This is 12 volt”.   I can touch this if it is on or off.   And, this is 110 volt.   If I touch this, and it is on, it will kill me.”   Mixed system.

But mostly this night was filled with getting the final connections done on the furnace and getting the gas turned on.   I had been really close a couple of nights ago but I decided to change that design just a touch an put in a coupler instead of a place where I had a tee.   So after another trip for hardware purchase I was set to get it going.

It was a short coming of my past that lead me to a bit of trouble in getting the furnace all hooked up.  I am used to doing all of my building inside an environment where we are doing some cooking and cleaning.  When I was picking up stuff at Johnny Menards store, it didn’t occur to me dish soap would be in short supply where I was going to work.   Usually I work at home, there is always dish soap at home.   The magical dish soap fairy must see to that.  It wasn’t until I got everything hooked up and got ready to turn on the gas that I thought of it.  I dug around the shop and found some organic spray cleaner, whatever the hell that is.   Lucky to get that even, I guess. 

Basically, hooking up gas fittings with soft copper, there are two types.  The first is called flare, the second is called compression.  I think flare is the older of the two.  I feel like it is the most problematic to get to seal.  However most appliances come with flare connections.  So at least some of your work is going to involve these fittings.  To form them requires you have to buy a special tool but at least fortunately they are cheap.  I didn’t really plan for this.  I had one at home but this project is here in the city and I wanted to get it done.  It was ten bucks to buy the new tool.  Oh well. I think I will plan to leave it behind at the shop when I am done.

They are easy to operate, these cheap flaring tools.  Stick the gas pipe through the tool, the angled or flared side of the tool toward the end of the pipe.   Leave about an eight of an inch sticking up.   Tighten the screws down ends of the tool to lock the pipe into place.Then you have sort of a saddle deal that loops over the pipe holder and a pointy deal that sticks down into the pipe.   Turn the screw, the copper is flared out, or expanded, so that it will form the female end of the coupling, where the male end is what is usually coming off the furnace or stovetop.

You know the thing that is really funny?   I am going to leave it like this.  The way I wrote it, straight out of my head.   Because this is how I have done it more than once.   It wasn’t until I got to this point here of writing that I realized I had forgotten a step.   You will too.   It’s the easiest step to forget.   This project tonight had four flare fittings, in the process of creating them, I forgot this step once.   If you can do better than 75%, you win.  The flare nut has to go on first.   

What happens when you put the pipe into
the wrong size hole of the flare tool.   You
get a crimp in the pipe that makes it unusable.
You will be there.  Looking down at your work.  The perfect flare.   You will be thinking, “Finally, you have got this flare fitting thing figured out.”   You must have let just the perfect amount of copper stick through, tightened the flaring point the perfect amount.   Then you will realize you forgot to put the nut on first.  The way flaring works, you can’t get the nut on the pipe after the flaring is done.   You have to do that part first.   In a few rare occasions you will be able to work the nut up a short length of pipe if the other end hasn’t been flared, or had some other fitting attached.   Usually this doesn’t work out though.   It doesn’t take a whole lot of a bend in soft copper to make the sidewalls bow out into an oval.  You won’t be able to move the nut past this point.   Usually you end up having to cut off the perfect flare to make another one.

The second type of fitting is called “compression” and this is where you slide a nut with a brass band around the pipe and then tighten that assembly onto the copper pipe and it’s fitting.   These fittings have been improved in a couple of ways since I last used them.   The brass band is now permanently fixed to nut.   I thought this was nice because before it was possible to have the band too far away from the end of the pipe and when you went to tighten it, you couldn’t get it to lock down all the way.   Nice.   The second improvement adds a small brass tube to resist the tendency of crushing the copper pipe if it is over tightened.   Of the two I find compression to be the most foolproof and so was what I ended up using wherever I could.  

This is a pipe bending tool.   A spring which is sized to just
fit over the top of your soft copper pipe.   It will prevent you
from bending the pipe too far and having it buckle.
When I first turned on the gas I realized I had a leak.   I could actually feel it with my fingers between the tee and the valve.   A fairly strong leak so I shut off the gas right away and even opened up the garage door for a few minutes.   Then I dug around in the shop a bit and managed to find a bottle of spray cleaner.   It wasn’t the best, but allowed me to find where it was and thereby get that leak sealed up.  I really thought I had it stopped but as it turned out the soap solution of this organic spray cleaner was not that strong, it didn’t work all that well.

I had a class to attend at a conference being held at a local shopping mall.   The mall had a parking ramp attached and I was really just thinking of making this my first off grid night.   But, when I came back to the van after the day’s classes, the smell of propane gas in the cabin was very strong.    I opened up the back and turned off the gas at the tanks.  Then I cracked the windows in the front, and fanned the side doors a few times.   I didn’t want to create too big of scene.  When I was up at the bar for the social later I started thinking about what would have happened if that baby would have blown?  I would have been in the locked down shopping mall, watching FAUX News and seeing reports of a suspected terrorist car bomb at a large shopping complex.  I would have been looking at the helicopter footage on tv, thinking, “shit, that looks kinda close to where *I* parked.   I hope the van’s ok…”

Gas to the furnace hooked up, now just need
to add the run from the Tee up to the where
the cooktop will sit.
I was at The Professor’s last night, meeting his new gf, eating some pizza and sleeping a night on his sofa.  I was telling him this whole story.   We all had a good laugh.   He enjoys hearing about my predicaments and near disasters.  I think it makes him even more appreciative of his quiet, staid, university life.  Things almost never literally explode in his life.  So it was he, during my story, who was the one who laughed the loudest.   I felt like it was a bad time to remind him that I used his apartment address on my van title to get my in state license plates and just how unlikely the first person the FBI arrested would be the guy in the back row of an IT conference in the mall…

Monday, March 20, 2017

Eliminating the Red Light Zone

I was planning on going out for a beer tonight.   I am in the city on a rare Friday night and here it is, St. Patricks Day.   I had really thought about going out for a beer.   But it is about six block walk from the shop to the bus.   It is windy and cold and damp.   Going, the wind would be mostly behind me.  But coming back, well, I know I would need at least three pints to make that walk into the wind and I have more conference to attend tomorrow.   No, I just couldn’t do it.   I would never drive there and drive back.   I don’t hold my liquor that well any more.  …Out of practice.   With no heat the van isn’t quite setup to drive there and sleep over in the neighborhood.  Getting very close though.

In fact I suppose I could have even been there.  I think I have all the parts purchased for the furnace hookup.   But I really wanted to work on something else.

Beside the bed the plan is to have a shelf/closet that goes from the floor all the way up to the ceiling.  …Uh, well not that there is all that much “all the way”, …but you know what I mean.  This will be home to the microwave I purchased earlier tonight.   It might also house the refrigerator  —if I can afford it and this continues to seem to be the best spot.   We are entering the phase of the project where the infrastructure is starting to come together.   The things that have to be in one particular spot for some reason are getting placed there.  Now it is a matter of doing some active design.   Where I have a pretty good idea of the rest of the things we need, the question is now, where should these items really sit?   Is the best spot for a refrigerator really in the base of this?   Or, would a better spot be more in the kitchen next to the furnace?   I think decisions like that are impossible to form yet.   

Calling the bottom edge square, the paper
sticks out beyond the cardboard by about
ten inches.   This will be the profile edge.
What I am going to try doing is something I have read about.   I can do some cardboard mockups of the refrigerator and move it into various spots.   I don’t have the money for it anyway.   I have refrigerator dreams on a cooler budget.  So it isn’t really a matter of slowing down the project by having a box in here that is labelled refrigerator.  In the meantime maybe I will discover I can survive on the cooler, maybe I will decide I can’t live without using that 2.7 cubic feet for something else.

So folks, it’s back to the shop and it was a great night to work on the van.  

Tonight what I did was cut out the side walls of the floor to ceiling shelf.     I had thought some of hooking up the furnace.   But, I will be quite honest with you, I have ulterior motive for working on the shelf instead.   With this wall in place while I am laying in bed it blocks the light from the red exit sign here in the shop from hitting me right in the eyes.   I have really been looking forward to this night’s sleep.

To install the shelf I needed to produce a profile of the van cut in 3/4” plywood.  I started with a hunk of stiff cardboard, like from a heavy box.    The cardboard stiffness was more important in this case than it has been for the prior templates I have cut.  Because it was standing up and I wanted it to stay square with the floor, the stiffer board helped that.  That cardboard was maybe a little less than two feet wide.   It was about six inches less than the height of the van.   Next I used another sheet of my fish poster paper.   You could use any sort of fairly stiff paper I suppose card stock or construction paper would be perfect as well.   I took one poster and cut it in half the long way.   This gave me two long strips.   Tape them onto the cardboard with about ten inches hanging off the edge of the top and one side.   This will be your profiling edge.   I lined the cardboard up with the edge of my bed.  Then it was just a matter of trimming the paper and sliding the cardboard edge closer to the outer wall.  At first you can cut off some fairly major hunks but as you go, take off smaller and smaller nibbles.

Ready to start cutting.
I am building with the thought I want to be accurate within half an inch, but a lot closer in a couple of key areas.   It is my thought this van has a fair amount of body flex.   So given this, I think I want to have only a few really solid mount points.   The side next to the bed will mount firmly to the edge of it.     On the frame corner, where the ceiling meets the wall, I will screw wooden blocks into the frame and then glue and screw them to the shelf wall.  Basically the way I look at this as, I am going to attach my shelf everywhere the ribs are attached, which is the top and the bottom.  I think the skin of this van needs to be able to shift around a bit.  I don’t want it touching the outer skin anywhere.  I think that is how you make squeaks.

After the profile is all cut to fit, lay it over a sheet of plywood.  Here is a place I made a little error.   But, though I did what I did by mistake, I don’t think I have wanted to do it the right way.   The short version of this is my cooktop requires a 24” counter top.   So thinking in terms of my shelf walls, I thought, hey this is great because I need two and a sheet of plywood is 48” wide.  The trouble with this logic was my shelf goes (almost) all the way to the outer skin, attaching to the struts.   But the counter has to be 24” from the surface of the interior wall covering I have yet to build.   My shelf ended up being about two inches narrower than that.   So it was an error for me to cut it this way, but in the end, I am not sure I would have done it any different.   To have done it right would have taken the purchase of a second sheet of plywood, an extra $50 for two inches.   This will commit me to some sort of solid surface countertop material.   Corien, or the like, because the end of the counter with the cooktop has to be 24, the shelf end only 22.

Tonight though I laid my template over the plywood and traced it out.  I used the bottom edge of the cardboard and lined that edge up with the end of the plywood.   I put the curved, paper cutout side of the template toward the center of the sheet.   When I got one traced out, I flipped it over and traced out the second upright, again with the paper side of the pattern facing in to the middle of the sheet.   When I was done I had the two sides of my floor to ceiling shelf drawn out on the plywood.

Mmmmm, the smell of new power tools!
I might have mentioned in a previous installment my Craftsman jigsaw gave up the ghost.  I didn’t remember having a problem with it the last time I used it, but on this project it had no power at all.   It would cut, very slowly if I didn’t push it too much or turn any corner that might bind the blade even a little bit.   In those situations it would just stop.  I had to pull back to give the blade a little room and then it would start cutting again.   Very sad.   This saw and I have been through a lot of projects together!   Tonight since I ended up buying a microwave sixty dollars cheaper than the original one I had picked out, I figured I had a little extra money.   I bought a brand new Dewalt jigsaw.   Sort of a middle of the range saw, but wow!   I couldn’t believe how well it cut.   I am not sure my trusty Craftsman did as good even when it was brand new.   …And it hasn’t been brand new for at least 30 years.   It cut through that 3/4” plywood like butter.

An opening for the gas pipe and electrical
wire going to the furnace, lights and toilet
vent fan.  This list might grow so I oversized it.
Once the basic uprights were cut out I brought them into the van and marked a couple of things.   The differences between the two.   For instance, the back upright had to have a cutout for the wheel well.  The front one needed a hole for the gas pipe and electrical runs to pass through.   Additionally, I had cut the front one just a little taller than the back one.   There seems to be a little bit of height difference between the two areas.   Maybe a quarter of an inch.  Could it be the frame sags down a little?   I had left it just a it longer than I should have so I had to trim it just a little bit to get a perfect fit.

When I was done, I had the two uprights in place just to get a sense of the space.  It was really interesting, since I have been looking at this van as open space for almost three months now.   Suddenly it has this wall in it.   Really different.    I am almost positive when The Wife is on board we will sleep with our heads at the other end.   It is a claustrophobia issue for her and it is possible she will think this wall too enclosing.  And yet there is the privacy issue.  We are both intensely private people when it comes to bathroom usage, even after 25 years.   We think it is crazy there are open door bathroom couples.  So this is very out of character for to have toilet use in the room we are both in.   With our heads at the wall end the view to the toilet will be blocked.   I will just have to see how that plays out.

Of course I had a little diversionary project I tried to do as well.  In order to manage my ADHD I tend to putter a little on this and a little on that.   I look at it like this van project list as not all that long but it is about a mile wide.   I move it along an inch at a time.  This side project jumped the tracks pretty quick though.

Being St Patrick’s day, I have to wonder if I don’t already have an infestation of the ‘wee folk before I even have the thing built!  I mentioned previously my saga with losing the ANL fuses.   I had them.   They were in my hand at one point.   So I know I received them from Amazon.   But that was the last I saw them and I spent about a week of spare time digging through the shop, the van, my cubical and my home.   No fuses.   I gave up.  Ordered more but won’t have them for two weeks.

Digging through the electrical
bag to find the auto fuses.  
Ok so tonight I decided to install this cool little LED gas gauge that reads the battery charge.   I am sure it is wildly inaccurate, but it sure looks cool!   I installed on the panel just inside the back door.   It might stay there or I might install it where I can see it in bed.   I will have to see how bright it is.   I had to bore out the mounting holes a little bit to accept some #6 black cap screws.  Then I mounted it onto the panel.   The 12v circuit panel was right there and good practice dictates this meter be fused.   I have plenty of spots so wired it into the #12 spot on the fuse panel.   Done.   Ready to test.   Two weeks ago I purchased not one but two boxes of “Misc Small Auto Fuses”.   These like you used to have in your cars until about ten years ago. The little variously colored plastic fuses with wide metal legs.   I was figuring to have enough fuses for the life of this van by having two boxes.    

Well I spent a good thirty minutes digging through everything to find those boxes of fuses.   Never found them.   Damn.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thick Cable

A lot of people could care less about vans.  Particularly about the intricate details of building one into a stealth camper.   So folks, this ones for you.  I’m gonna tell a story from my past.   Any electricians in the crowd, why don’t y’all stop back next week and skip reading this one.

This was about thirty years ago.   I was younger then.   Bullet proof and even more confident than what I struggle with now.   I was moving my small business from it’s second location to its much bigger third location.  …But of course doing it on a shoestring budget.  Myself along with a couple of partners were doing a lot of the work ourselves.   In the past few years from a prior landlord I had learned a whole lot about starting a small business on the down low.   I guess I was living the stealth life back then too.   At that time, it was the building inspector I was hiding out from.   I signed a lease on about six thousand square feet of ground floor office space with a full basement.  I could afford it because the place was in rough shape and I was able to negotiate eight months rent free to rehab it.   “Free?   Yeah, I have that much money, where do I sign?”

But the *only* thing that made this cash flow at all was to do most of the work ourselves.   Doing work yourself is something big cities don’t like at all in commercial buildings.   Serious penalties.  But the building inspectors office is also short staffed and overworked.   You play the odds and cover the front windows with three layers of black plastic.  Do all the work on the inside.  Keep traffic low.  Unload all construction materials quickly and after dark if possible.  Don’t get an onsite dumpster, we got one at our old location and hauled the construction garbage over there.  Don’t get a building permit for anything.   Absolutely no “COMING SOON!” sign out front.  Whaa-laa you open a new business in about three months.

We actually did have a walk in building inspector at about the sixth month.   It was at a desperate phase of the project.   We had moved in at about month two, but didn’t have the whole place ready.   The main section of the space was not finished yet but it was rented to a client in about a week so it *had* to get done.  I was bogged down in laying the clay tile the floor in the new bathrooms.  We had built a kitchen in the center of one room and I still needed to hook up the gas.   We had hired two drywall tapers.  —They were working on their own.   We also hired an old retired carpenter back in about month three.   The day he arrived we told him he had been promoted to foreman.  We were his crew, we told him what we wanted to build and the four of us went to work.   We were making a nice place, lots of wide woodwork and salvaged architectural antiques.  It took time.   

The day the inspector showed up I was gone, picking up black iron pipe to run the gas to the kitchen.  The drywall tapers had been working in the front and recognized him when he pulled up.  They grabbed the carpenter and hustled out the back door before the front door ever opened.  My business partner, who was perhaps the only man far sneakier than me, was wearing a tool belt and had a hammer and chisel in his hands.  The very definition of being caught red handed.  But, he showed the inspector a section of the maple flooring where he was cutting in a patch.  The inspector asked if any other construction was going on and my partner looked him straight in the eye and said, “No, just a lot of cleaning and a little paint.”

But all of the stuff I did on this place, wiring outlets & lights, running gas pipe, plumbing, sewers, pales in comparison to one job.   Because you see…

The tricky thing was the electrical panel.   We didn’t need to do all that much, mostly just some basic wiring of lights and outlets.   Really much less of that than in a typical business.   I felt ok doing all that stuff.   When I was in high school I considered being an electrician when I grew up.   …That was before I decided to be a photographer and way before I ended up being a computer geek.   My dad hired any electrical work done on the farm.   To get out of chores and things I was supposed to be doing, I hung out a lot with the electrician and asked questions.   The summer between tenth and eleventh grades, while other kids were going on vacations with their parents, I was taking a vacation from pulling weeds in a bean field by taking a week long college course on being an apprentice electrician.    I don’t think they were expecting *me* to show up.   I am willing to bet they added an age requirement to the application form the following year.   But once they determined I was the student who came a distance (driven there by my mother) and was paid in full, they sort of shrugged their shoulders and told me to take a seat.   I learned a lot in that class.

My point is, I knew enough to not end up electrocuted and keep the place from burning to the ground.   I think all the work I did might have even passed code, had it not been totally illegal for me to be doing it.   But there was one big issue.  Here’s where it gets a bit technical for a second.   The building had 300 amps of 208 three phase.   About six times the amount of electricity coming into your house.  But, it only had one service disconnect that went to a small sub panel and two large fuses.   “Upstairs” and “Downstairs”.    You couldn’t run a business like mine on two circuits.   But, I also couldn’t call the power company and say to them, “Hey, could you guys come shut off the power at the pole for about an hour?    Why?   Oh, no special reason….”   No, that would be a very big red flag that something was going on at Ten South 13th Street.   Permits would be asked for.   Inspectors might be called.   No, we couldn’t turn off the power.   We were going to have to do it live.

I bought a new service panel and one afternoon, by flashlight, I installed it.   A shiny new Square D breaker panel with room for about 40 breakers.   It was great.   But a scary, scary job.   The major problem was the wire from the new panel to the disconnect was thick.   About as big around as my thumb to carry all the current.   Not all that much thicker than I just worked with here on the van project, wiring the twelve volt from the inverter to the batteries.   But really different because in the van I could use welding cable which is flexible to the point of floppy.   House wire on the other hand, like I was hooking up this breaker box with, is not flexible at all.   I could really just barely bend it with to hands. A couple of times there were two of us pulling on the wire to bend it to fit somewhere.   Imagine this…  A shallow electrical closet on a hot day.   Three people are packed in there representing 75% of the voting shares of my small corporation.   The treasurer is holding a flashlight and a broom.  He says he will use the broom to push anyone being electrocuted off the wire.  …I am glad we didn’t have to find out if that worked or not.   I threaded that thick wire through and into the box with live wires in it.   Bent it around and tightened the lugs to lock it into place.   There were no missteps and it all went sweaty but smooth.

There is a frame shop there now, and over the years, they have made some changes.   They removed the curved glass block wall and my beautiful little conference room that was behind it.  For that sin, they might never discover the secret panel in the bookcase of my office.  Certainly not from me.  But where I really wanted to look, that day I was there, was in their electrical closet.   I know that panel is still there.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dreading The Moment, But It Wasn't Bad

The top line is the edge of the furnace
the fold at 8-1/2 is where the wall meets
the floor.   All measurements are based
from those two points.
My mother was an insomniac.   She would sit up in her chair every night, unable to sleep.   Worrying.   My mother worried a lot.   I suppose, I must own at least part of that.  But me, as I’ve gotten older?  I’m not an insomniac.  I just have all these extra hours in a day.   My work day starts at 9am.   I sit in my cubical.   Usually eat in lunch at my desk.   But I do take about a thirty minute nap out in the van every afternoon.   I work rolling the IT dung ball up the hill until six or six thirty if I am making progress on something.   I get some dinner and then I arrive at the shop about seven thirty.   I work on building the van and clean up the shop by midnight and write for about an hour.  I sleep in the van, in the shop.   Just over a partial wall there is a small manufacturing wood shop.   Those guys show up for work about six am and I can hear them over there gabbing and talking smack like a bunch of guys who work together do.  I drift in and out of sleep depending on their noise until seven when I drive to work and sit in the cafeteria there writing for about an hour.   Writing and remorsing over the fact that we just hired a new guy who sits down hall from me.   He buys all the plain cake donuts from the cafeteria right at 7am when they open.   How could you do that?   Start work at some place and buy all the cake donuts!?  Day one and you already have a plate full of enemies.

I am unbelievable close to hooking the gas up to the furnace

I shimmed out the box just a little bit extra
with a small strip of the concrete board.
I decided to build a flame proof enclosure around the furnace.   The instructions don’t call for such a thing but I really feel it seems like a “why not?” idea.  It is build out of some 3/8” Allura fiber cement backerboard and is really just an 11” square tube.   I first scored the concrete board into three strips each eleven inches with a utility knife and snapped it.  Then I placed the sides in place and used a pencil with a 3/4” block between it and the outer wall to trace the wall profile onto the cement board.  I used a wood cutting sazall blade to cut the profile in the board.   Initially I tried a metal blade but the cement board chewed the teeth right off in no time.  The wood blade cut through it with no problem. Next I cut the cement board strips to length to match the pad I installed a few nights ago and sat them all aside.   

I really hadn’t been looking forward to the next step.   Cutting the holes in the side wall for the chimney and air intake.   I started to dread this task the second I read the install instructions.   They included a drawing and I saw it’s measurements labeled in 16ths.   As in, “cut the center of the hole 3-15/16ths from the floor.”   Uhhhhh.   I am a house builder.  Used to “Eh, plus or minus half an inch, it’s fine!” and now I am looking at needing to be quite exact.   Where being off by a 1/32nd of an inch doesn’t seem like much until you consider that is an error of fifty percent.

But this was a task that had to be done.  I started by making a template for where the chimney and air intake holes had to be drilled.     I took a hunk of one of the fishing posters I am using for template stock.   I suppose the piece was about twenty inches long, about a foot wide.   I squared it up along the edge of my fireproof box and folded it in half.   Then I placed it in position with half of the fold on the floor, the other half against the wall and the corner at the fold, very square.   I taped the paper in place.   Then I placed the furnace on top of the paper and marked where the side of the furnace fell on the paper.   Once this was done I lifted the furnace back out again and pulled up the paper to take it out to a worktable.   Following the diagrams in the furnace install instructions *exactly*, I marked the center point of the chimney and air intake holes.  Then I taped the template back into the van.   I drilled quarter inch pilot holes through the paper and then pulled the template back off.   After I pulled the paper off I followed up with a 2-1/4” bi-metal hole saw.   I had been dreading this point for fear of doing something wrong but it really seemed to really work out great.   I am glad I thought of the template idea.

With the holes cut, I put the furnace back in place and ran a couple of drywall screws through the mounting holes.   It only seems to be attached at the front.   I suppose the chimney holds it in place at the back.

Once the holes are drilled you should follow up with a little spritz of paint, just to cover the cut edge.   Painting that edge will really help reduce rust.   This is a spot that is going to have a lot the heat differential.  Because of the air intake and chimney this will be a point where you will build up some condensation so paint will help.   The instructions mention this as well call and for silicone caulk around the holes, paying particular attention to putting a bead between the two holes.   I should have taken a picture but of course I forgot.   I think I had about a quarter inch bead.   I feel like it wasn’t enough.   I got no squeeze out except through the cover plate holes.   I think there should really be some come out around the edges, just to prove you got good fill.   I suggest something more on the order of 3/8” if you are installing. 

Oh yeah, one other thing I have as a suggestion, do a better job of squaring it up on the van than what I did.  I put in the first screw then knelt down to take a look and place the second screw.   I should have stepped back a bit maybe.   It is a little bit crooked.  Nobody is going to notice but me, but I will notice it every time I walk up to the driver’s door.   Right now it is shiny and silver though.   I will spray it with some high temp white paint next week and that will make it stealth in a little better.  Then I might forget to notice it is crooked once in a while.
Now with the furnace all attached to the floor I built the rest of the flame proof enclosure.   I just used PL-200 (or Liquid Nails) to glue the edges.  I put a couple of cardboard boxes on each side to hold it in place and then put a toolbox on the top to apply some pressure.

While this was drying I prepared the gas pipe.   I am using 3/8” soft copper pipe but I was concerned in places the pipe is going to be in contact with the steel frame of the van.   I got thinking the vibration from driving could cause the steel to wear through the copper.   To prevent this from happening I purchased some 1/2” plastic tubing.  I pushed the copper pipe through the tubing - a job that started easy but was increasingly difficult.   The friction of the copper against the plastic made it bind up.   Plus the plastic had been coiled since it was manufactured.   To get around this, I clamped one end of the plastic to a workbench and pulled it straight.   Really the best thing would have been to apply some talcum powder to the copper as I pushed it into the plastic.   I think that would have kept it from binding.   After it was plastic wrapped I cut a hole into the propane box and threaded the pipe through and ran it up along the driver’s side of the van to the vicinity of the furnace.   Job complete until the glue dries on the box.

I have spent a week looking for the ANL fuses.   I bought them.   I know I have them somewhere.   But if they are not going to show up in a week of me digging through all the bags and buckets and boxes I have stashed in the corner of the shop, they are well and truly lost.   Damn.   I have also done some checking around and found they are impossible to buy locally.   Even here in my big city.   That actually makes me a little concerned.  If I go this route, I better get a couple of spares.  Maybe I should just use circuit breakers instead.   But, I have heard they trip off too quickly to use in an ignition circuit.   I have heard that the fuses are slow-blow, and can handle it just fine.  Still deciding.

Don't try this at home.   A wire in place
of a fuse.
But I am horribly impatient.   I really want to get the batteries charged so that when I get the furnace hooked up I am ready to test it.   I was confident of my wiring.  (Famous last words right?)  Don’t try this at home.   I used a length of 14 AWG wire and bridged the fuse position.  I will get some fuses ordered up tomorrow and have them with me on Monday.   Until then, I just have to be a bit more careful around the battery area.   Putting this in place allowed me to plug in the inverter and get the batteries up to full charge.

My friend Tim stopped over for a look at the project the other night.   I am talking to him about assistance, up to and maybe including building for me, my main table.   It was still too early for me to provide much information for him.   I need to get the floor to ceiling shelf that sits opposite the table built first.   Then I will have some idea of what size everything needs to be.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Hacker's Soup

Back before the web there was something called Usenet.  It was like a big text based bulletin board where people could post and read messages.   Geeks only.  No pictures, no colored backgrounds, just words.   During that time I found this recipe and though I might have modified it a little here and there it is pretty much stock, as I found it in 1989.

Hacker's Soup

What’s worse than waking up with a pounding head, a scratchy throat, and stuffed up nose?   I’ll tell you.   Rolling out of bed with all those symptoms and trying to conquer your current programming project.

Like all worthy noodle soups this one’s warm and comforting as it goes down, but that’s not all.   Eastern medicine teaches that shiitake mushrooms and scallions are top immune-boosting ingredients.   

Ginger and chili flakes help clear sinuses and bronchial congesstion while soothing aches and pains.   Snow peas, leaded with vitamins and iron nourish your entire body.   This soup contains all that good stuff and it takes just fifteen minutes to prepare!   Slurp it up, rest your weary body and then get back to work.


2 Cups sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 Cup thin slices scallions.   (Use green onions if scallions are not available)
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1/4 Teaspoon of red pepper flakes
4 Cups canned chicken broth 
2 Cups boiling water with 2 teaspoons decent (not Wylers) chicken bouillon 
2 Cups snow peas cut diagonally into 3/4” pieces
1 lb medium raw pealed shrimp
1 lb rice stick noodles

Rice stick noodles are readily available
at Asian grocery stores.
Replacing the dried red pepper flakes, you can use three Thai hot peppers with their seeds removed.

Heat water in a separate pan to cook noodles.   When it is nearing a boil continue on.

Combine shiitake mushrooms, scallions, ginger, chili flakes and broth in a large saucepan.  Place over high heat and bring to a boil, then turn down to low and simmer for eight minutes.

After the simmering time of the broth in the sauce pan is complete, turn off the heat under the water in the noodle pan and drop in the rice stick.   Set a timer for six minutes.

Turn the heat back up to high under the sauce pan and drop in the shrimp and snow peas.   When the timer for the rice stick goes off, drain them and put them into the broth.   Serve immediately.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Subfloor and More!

This past weekend The Wife and I were at a friends house for his annual party.  While she was off on a bathroom trip that I assumed must have extended into conversation  (as it turned out, she was cornered by a whiner.)   I struck up a conversation with a woman who was standing at the end of the eats table.  Pleasantries ensue.   It turned out we had worked in the same industry years ago, she had worked about three blocks from a company I used to own.   We knew some of the same people back then, and knew a few skeletons in a few closets so it was a fun time telling some stories of the old days. 

Then the conversations turned to what we are both doing now.   Well, I am sort of a one trick pony these days and so found myself rolling into the stealth camping story.   But then at a certain point of the lead in… basically first and second story in this blog narrated… I realize I am about to tell this beautiful woman, this nice classy lady I just met, this woman who looks like she lives in some placid subdivision somewhere, that I am working toward living in a cargo van on the streets of the big scary downtown of my city…  Well that was a whole kind of awkward moment for me.  I soldiered on, because by this point I was committed.  What was I going to do, change the subject five minutes in?  But I was really wishing I had come up with some other element of my life to impart.  By the time The Wife eventually returned we were back to the safe ground of war stories and old times until we parted ways with our new friend to fill our glasses.   Maybe this whole thing of van life is a little less crazy to the vanillas because they have seen TV shows about tiny houses.   It is still a rough concept to for them to understand though.

Toilet and furnace in place.
I’m not surprising anyone here when I say there is a social stigma against homelessness.  Particularly, I suppose, when you bring it up in conversation at your friend’s casual dinner party.  Though I am not homeless, there is certainly an element of all of this that feels that way.   No, it isn’t a cardboard box, it is a steel one and I have 62 square feet.  

More good progress on the van.   This day in terms of flooring.   Before I  could glue down the last of the floor insulation I had to cut two vent holes into the floor up near the bulkhead.   These are the vent holes for the composting toilet I will install.  I am going to cover a bunch of stuff about toilets but for now suffice to say I needed to cut two holes.  One for an air intake, the other for an exhaust.  The pipe itself is 1-1/4 but I felt like I wanted a little extra room so I cut them 2-1/8.  

It was a tough job using a hole saw in the truck bed flooring of the van.   Due, I think to the uneven surface of the bed, the hole saw would catch and edge right after the pilot bit went through.  I manage to break or severely bend three pilot drill bits in the process of drilling two holes.    I guess it might be a good idea to pick up a couple of spare pilot bits if you are following in my footsteps.   Another option, if I were to have to do it again is to drill through a scrap of 1/4” plywood first.  Then hold it in the spot where you want to drill the hole and proceed.  I am guessing the plywood would prevent the drill from slamming around.   After the drilling it is a good idea to spray paint any holes you cut in the body of the van.   That will help prevent rust from starting on the cut edges.

Toilet vent holes cut in the floor.
Once the holes were cut I glued down the last of the 1/4” plywood strips to the valleys of the truck bed.   Then I glued the insulation over the top of that.   I put a very heavy coat of glue around the vent hole edges.    Here again, this is for rust prevention.  I don’t want any salt spray getting up between the flooring and the insulation and get rust started.  The insulation, the subfloor and the flooring I will lay right over the top of the toilet vent holes.   Then, when I am ready to install the toilet I will drill up through the insulation and flooring.   Once the vent pipes are installed I will go under the van and use a little expanding foam around the edges of the pipe where it passes through the floor.   Both to hold the vent pipes in place but also to get a really good seal against water coming in.

After drying overnight I was ready to glue down the last of the sub floor.  I suffered from a bout of impatience here.   As soon as I got to the shop I took some expanding foam (Great Stuff) and went around the edges of the ridged foam insulation.  It took a whole can.   Actually, it really needed a touch more.   I ended up running out and leaving a spot in the center of the floor with a quarter inch gap.   I didn’t want to open a second can though.   Seems like you really need to totally use those up when you open them.   At this point I really should have waited another night.   But in this case I didn’t have the parts to do anything else.   So I puttered around on some stuff for about an hour, then came in and trimmed the foam off.   It was still a little wet in the middle of a couple of spots.  Then I was ready to cut out the floor.

The posters laid out on the
particle board for marking.
For this job I used a bunch of fishing posters I found in the recycle bin at work.   I taped two of them, end to end, down onto the insulation.  Then between using a scissors and a utility knife I cut out the shape of the wall as it met the floor.   I transferred this pattern on to 1/2” particle board and cut it out.   I tried to bring the entire eight foot long strip in and fit it into place but I couldn’t quite get it to maneuver into position. I ended up still needing to cut it half so I could fit the two halves in and get them test fit into the floor.   It was a perfect fit on the first go.  I brought the toilet in and determined where that was going to have to sit.   

The cement board pad in place where the
furnace will be mounted.  
Then, from that fixed position, I marked the area of the floor where the furnace is going to be installed.  I wanted it to be as far forward as possible but the toilet needs to slide in and out for operation.  If the furnace is too tight against it, this will be made difficult.   The toilet is narrower at the bottom and this allowed me to let it overlap some over the top of the furnace.  I think it is in a good spot.  Once this got determined I could move onto marking the location of the furnace.

The furnace needs 5/8” clearance on the top and sides between it and combustable material.   I’m not really a very trusting guy though.   I wanted to change that a little.   I made it 5/8” to non-combustable concrete board.  That gives me a little more confidence that any fire might be contained there for a little bit.   To prepare for the non combustable area I cut out a section of the subfloor that was the furnace width plus 1-1/4” (5/8 times 2).   I cut a piece of 1/4” and 3/4 plywood to fit the hole.   When I glued down the subfloor I dropped the 1/4” plywood into the hole first.   More glue, then the 3/4” more glue and then the concrete board on top.   I placed my dad’s big old red tool box on top of the stack and worked on some other stuff for the rest of the night.  My final product is 3/4” of an inch above the grade of the sub floor.   When I get the final flooring nailed in it should be right at grade.

Tonight I also mounted the propane tank switchover valve.   Again using some fish poster, I put a section over the back of the meter and pressed in with my fingers where the mounting holes need to be, creating dimples in the paper.   Once done I used a Sharpie to better mark the spots because my eyes aren’t what they used to be.   Then taped the paper inside my propane tank box and drilled through the marks.   I used some inch and a half, 8-32 machine screws with fender washers to secure the valve.   Because the mounting holes were just a bit too close together I had to grind flats on the washers.   It was easy getting the first screw threaded.   I just stuck the screw through the plywood and very gently turns the valve onto it.  Not near as easy getting the other three lined up right for the screws to start threading.   Lots of trips from the back of the van, inside to lay on the floor and slide back under the bed and get to the screw heads.   Eventually though I got them and got the valve tightened down into place.

The bathroom readers of the world have requested I make my blog entries a touch shorter.  It is true they can read Dostoyevsky on the toilet but they do not finish it.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fat Tuesday and a Night of Van Work

I wish you all a happy Fat Tuesday.   That’s about the only thing I still use my catholic upbringing for any more is knowing when Ash Wednesday (and it’s important predecessor) falls.   This past weekend I was telling myself I would go out tonight.   Find some music.   If it was the right crowd, maybe give out some beads.  But here it is, the night of the event and I am sitting in the pizza joint Barack Obama visited when he came to town a few years ago.   I am eating some pizza and getting ready to go work on the van.   I am hoping to finish wiring the 12 volt system as far as the fuse panel as well as fixing a mistake I made in the wiring and discovered as I was giving it the final look-over.   I asked The Wife if she would send me a few mardi gras themed selfies and I would pay her in beads in a few days…

Up here in the snowy white north, the sun doesn’t shine every day.   Sometimes we even go a stretch of grey days.  So not every day is going to provide my solar panels with sufficient light to replace an evening’s usage.  My concern then is I need to have enough battery capacity to run the typical number of days between sunshine.   The first step to figure out what you need is to figure out what you use.   Most every electronic item is marked with information about how much power it uses.  If you can’t find it marked on the appliance, often times a few google searches will get you in the ballpark.   Or, if you want an even more exact figure for household (110v) items, check into the Kill-a-watt meter from Amazon.    This meter allows you to exactly know how much power your device consumes.   Then, knowing how long you use it and a little bit of math, you will know how much of your battery it consumes.

The van is going to have two different electrical systems.  The first is twelve volt, straight off the batteries.   I want to get as much on this system as possible because it is the most efficient way to use my battery power.  This will provide all the cabin lighting.   I can run a 12 volt LCD TV.    

Tapping into the 12v port
Lots of things made for the camper market are made for this.   So for instance, my furnace is a twelve volt furnace.   If I can come up with the money for it  I can run a 12v refrigerator.   Other things which maybe you use in your house that have the brick in the cord, such as a wi-fi router can be made to work just by purchasing a different cord.   The 12v system will power the USB charge ports I will have at my table and at my bed.   Also, using 12v I can “maintain” on my laptop by plugging it into a USB port.  —Meaning I can’t charge my laptop battery while using it, but I can provide enough juice the battery doesn’t go down.   It would charge fully overnight when I am not using it.

Not everything is available or doesn't work well as low voltage.  For instance, there used to be one company that made a 12v microwave.  It was being marketed to truck drivers. Product reviews though were brutal.   It seemed to be solidly one star.  Everyone hated it for being slow.   It didn’t have enough power to pop corn.  Checking today, I planned to put the link in here, and I see the product is off the market.  

So for these appliances I will need the second electrical system at 110 volts.   It will have two ways to run this higher voltage.   The first, most obvious, is when I go someplace like a campground, I can just plugin.   But the second is by using a device called an inverter. (I chose the Tripp Lite APS1250)   Its job is to take the 12 volt direct current (DC) out of the battery and increasing it to 110 volts and at the same time turning it into alternating current (AC).  Suddenly the battery power becomes just like the power outlets you have  in your house.   The microwave plugs into this.  My laptop charger.   Keurig coffee pot.   Guitar amp.   Phillips Hue lights.  All that stuff plugs in just the same way as home.

The dash installed USB charge port
However, all this transforming and alternating comes at some cost.   The inverter, just by being turned on, consumes some power.   When it is actively powering an appliance it consumes even more power.   The model I picked out is roughly 85% efficient.   What this means in real numbers is my microwave, which is a 900 watt model, will require 1065 watts of battery power.   So that loss can add up.   Additionally, the inverter is rated at a specific size and get spendy as they get larger.   I went for one rated at 1500 watts, about as much as I can afford.   This is limiting because, not that I am inclined to use one, but for instance a hair dryer is 1500 watts.   You would think, inverter 1500, hair dryer 1500, no problem, right?   You forgot about the inefficiency loss.  Due to the inverter tax really I would be trying to use 1764 watts and the circuit breaker on the inverter would trip.

I broke my list down into two parts.   Required and desired.   Saying this and knowing still that “required” is sort of a fuzzy line as well.   Say it is ten below zero out and I have been running a number of sun-less days on my batteries.   Would I be willing to not watch TV, charge my phone or laptop,  and use minimal lights just so I could keep the furnace going another day?   Of course I would!

But lets say we are talking a normal night.   You can check out this spreadsheet.   I will keep it up as I figure out some more stuff.

But here is what the spreadsheet really boils down to.  Refrigerators are expensive.   I am using worst case scenario of a hot summer day and it is going to be using 40 watts when it is running and during a summer day it could be running 50% of the time.    Running that through some math (I will explain on some later day) I can convert this to amp/hours, I get 40 amp/hours (the math doesn’t usually come out that equal either)  So on a typical day I will be using 40, I have 250 total.  If my van only runs the fridge, no lights, no ceiling fans, nothing else, it will use up my batteries’ charge in six days.

The base I built for the
main switch.
Other stuff is seasonal.  I bet I don’t run the ceiling vents very much in the winter.   Maybe a touch if I am cooking something on the stove.   But I have them in the spreadsheet as running 3 hours a day year round.   I love my Phillips Hue strip lights though.   Those I might end up using at least three hours a night.   The lights themselves are not that much energy but to use them I have to be running a hub and a wireless network.   So those numbers have to be effectively added in.   …And yet, I am sitting here in the van and I know I have the ability to get a wi-fi signal, I am going to have my wifi network up.

Of course there are all sorts of back and forth on this and no way to come up with any definitive number.   Even here in the frozen wasteland I live, during the summertime it would be extremely rare to go six days with without a mostly sunny day.   One good sunny day and my batteries are back up to full charge.   And, during the wintertime, most of the day I will keep the interior temperature ~50.   It is only in the evenings for two or three hours when I might be sitting in here typing or watching a movie with The Wife. (She watches at home, I watch on my laptop but we start simultaneously and text back and forth)  During those times I will keep it comfortable.  The rest of the day, that refrigerator might only come on four times.

Side view of the main switch
In other news, I have been making some good progress on the van.   Last night I got the 12v power run up to the light switch by the side door.   One this is hooked up, the switch will allow me to turn on the main cabin lights.   Two flush mount LED ceiling fixtures will point down into the kitchen area and over the storage drawers.   I got the holes drilled in the floor for the toilet vents, and once that was done I got the last two pieces of the floor insulation glued down.   My plan is to let that get good and stuck down.   Then I will drill up from the bottom to cut through the insulation and subfloor.   Also, I got the main switch in place.  This is a 50amp rated switch installed right off the batteries.  I can use to completely shut off the 12v system.   

Up at the dash I installed a USB charger port.   When I started looking at this install I thought I would have to run a wire to the fuse panel, but once I looked into this more it seemed intimidating.   There was a live-all-the-time 12v port on the dash panel.   I certainly could have just plugged an adapter into that port but I don't really like those adapters.   It seems like they only last a year or so.   I am hoping this dedicated USB will last a lot longer.   What I did for the install was get in behind the 12v port and cut the wires there.   I spliced in a wire and ran it over to the USB.   With it being live all the time that means it has power regardless of the ignition key being on or off.

And the last thing I did was to install the 12v fuse panel.

All in all it was a great night’s work.

Here is my night's work and the mistake.   While I was
disappointed the wire coming off the switch crossed the
other wire before going into a 50a breaker, I should have
been reading the shunt install instructions. 
I remember the inverted triangle I learned about in high school english.   How you put all the really important stuff up at the top because you lose readers as the text continues.   That’s why I am sticking my mistake confession down here at the bottom.   I figure most of you are already gone by now!  The thing was I should have really known better.  I really like shopping on Amazon because of the product feedback system.   I feel like I have avoided some real losers by looking at the stars and reading what other people who bought the product though.   So when I found the digital power usage meter, I thought it was pretty cool and exactly what I need.   But why did it have only three stars?    In this meter’s case, it was really easy to tell.  Mixed in with all the 5’s were a whole bunch of people bitching about “Received product, didn’t work”  to which the seller was tirelessly replying “You wired it wrong.   It goes on the negative side of the battery, not the positive”  With a very few people sheepishly replying back “You were right!”   

Well, that was a month ago and I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch.   So last night when I was on a roll, wiring stuff up, I should have at least remembered this was a tricky item and looked at the installation instructions WHICH ARE VERY CLEAR.   But no, I was more interested in getting all the components in a straight line and being kind of bummed I had to cross two wires making it less aesthetically pleasing.   To me, logically everything should go on the plus side but logic is wrong in this case.