Monday, October 30, 2017

Around the Table

I visited a chiropractor this past week.  It all started over the weekend with looking out Number Two Son’s window to see how bad the porch roof is.   I really needed to replace it this summer but of course I was a working on van projects.  Or, I was traveling in the van and having a good time.  Either way the porch roof didn’t get replaced.  I think my back went into pre-project sympathy spasms or something just thinking about all those rolls of half-lap shingles I would have to carry up a ladder.  I have been down and out for a week.  I tell you what, being 70 inches tall, living in a room with fifty inch ceilings, having lower back pain …sucks.  I didn’t tell the chiro how I am living.   I didn’t want him saying “…and he wonders why he has back problems, what an idiot.”  Today is the first day I would consider myself sorta cured of this bout.   There have been some rough, ice pick to the kidney, days though.

This is the second installment of a two part story about building a table for the van.  I didn’t mean to ramble on so, but the fact is, just like a family home the table is the center of all activity.   Eating, talking, drinking and work all happen here in this spot.  It needs to be big enough to do everything it needs to, but with so little space I can’t afford to waste any of it.  

Version one as it is folded up against the wall.
The gap behind the table doesn't look like
much in this photo but in context of van
space in real life it was huge.
The design I settled on was one thought of by The Wife.  It would have the ability to fold up against the wall, rather than down like my original design and everything I had seen before.  The legs would fold in against it.  And, because it folded up not down, it could actually overhang the bed slightly making a more comfortable table-chair relationship using the bed as a seat for working and eating. So this is the idea I started with as I built VAN_TABLE_VERSION_1.0.0.  The beta version.  —Can you tell work in IT?  :-)   

It was funny.  Back a couple of months ago when I first built the bed platform I did some estimates of how high the table needed to be off the floor.  I sat on some pillows, did some estimates.  I came up with 26 inches.  That’s what I used in my initial drawings and plans.   Then, once I had the mattress in place, forgetting all about the fact that I had already done this, I cut out a cardboard sheet to resemble the tabletop and made a mockup without measuring, I just set the height which was comfortable and measured after the fact.   When  I was all done and drafted it up I found my original plans.  The answer had come up exactly 26 inches both times!  Wow, I guess that is what it was meant to be!

Hinges on the backs of the legs allow
them to fold tight against the table.

Building this beta version of the table I cut the legs out of a 2x4 I ripped in half.  I just used a couple of scraps of plywood between the legs to hold them about ten inches apart.   The tabletop I cut out of the left over scrap from the plywood I used building the floor to ceiling shelf.  It wasn’t a perfect piece, it had a notch cut out of one side left when I cut out some reinforcement ribs building the shelf.   All I really wanted was something to use as a test to see if this design would work.

Initially I just cut the tabletop square.  But again, this table wasn’t really as long as I wanted it.  I made it as long as I could, figuring it would almost brush the ceiling in the up position.  But folded up, this put it on the outside of the frame.  In this position it stuck out into the room maybe four inches plus the thickness of the legs.   Far more than I had expected.  It was a good start, but it was really sub-optimal.   Here is where you have to start a game of balance.   You have to decide what is really important.  To me, the table sticking into the room so much when it was supposed to be in the folded up and out of the way position was a real problem.   

This is just a mockup so
it doesn't have to be perfect.

The only solution I could see to that problem was to cut the table shorter, so it would fit under the frame.  Shorter, it would nestle closer to the wall and take up less space.   But balance!  It was already too short!  So for the next few weeks I was caught up in this struggle.  No closer to any answer.  I did cut the table shorter.  I even cut an oversized rounded corner so it could really hug in tight.  Sure, that part of it was nice.  But the short table left me sitting very close to the outer wall when I wanted to type or eat.  I knew once I had the trim on in the upper corner of the fan I might have head clearance issues.  

WhatI really felt I needed was …as crazy as this sounds, a leaf or two for my table.   Having leaves would allow me to stretch my table out if I wanted it bigger.  I started looking into just what it would take to design something like this.  The only way I had seen something like this done was my kitchen table at home.  You get someone on each end of the table and pull it apart.  Drop the board into the middle.   To engineer something like this in my van though seemed beyond my abilities.   To make it strong, the wood is going to be heavy.  

Clamping the quarter inch
rim in place around the
table edge.

I found a company where I could buy aluminum runners instead but they made them for kitchens with real kitchen table sized tables and leaves wider than my whole table.  To buy from them I would need, you guessed it, cu$tom $ize$. But say I did do it.  If I spent the money.  Likely 90% of the time I wouldn’t be using the leaves, I would have them out.  I would have to store in the van two 6”x26” table leaves.  Where am I going to do that?   It doesn’t seem like much but they would be cumbersome and I don’t have extra space.  I had to give this idea up.  More time passed. 

Here’s where I discover it takes a community to raise a van.

Number One Son’s good friend wanted to stop over and see my project.  He had been hearing about it for months but the timing never really worked out that he was around when I was.  He is a sharp kid.   Literally brimming, chock full of ideas.   Genius, illegal, immoral, profitable and impossibly not, all those ideas are in there.   Over the years I have know him I have had a great time listening to them all spill out in his youthful enthusiasm.  Helping him sort them into those categories.  I explained to him my dilemma and he had an idea immediately. 

The leaf as it folds down into position.

In fact he gave me two ideas the day of his visit.  I will cover the second one in a few weeks as it pertains to a later project.  For my table what he suggested for the table is to build it with a double top.   The upper layer of the top would be split and hinged on the side next to the wall and on the outside end.   The normal position would be to have the two layers stacked, forming a double thick tabletop. But here is the genius, to extend the table would be a simple matter of folding up the one piece against the wall.  Then fold the other piece out into the room.  In effect the table would have built in, self storing, leaves.   Sweet!  Two days later I had built Beta Version Two.

Since I had spent a bunch of time hacking on the first version to get it to fit tight to the wall, I decided to scrap it and start over.  I had another hunk of plywood and cut it 24”x26” to form the tabletop.  Initially my plan was to make the upper tabletop the same way using 3/4 plywood.  That didn’t really work because the hinges needed something thicker.  I cut the top to size, then to increase the thickness I added a 3” rim of some quarter inch scrap to make the top roughly one inch thick.  It didn’t have to be pretty, this is just a mock up.   

The leaf supports in the swung out position.  In the final
design these should change to longer, thinner, slide outs.

The final design will have to incorporate some supports underneath the leaf.  I envision maybe some slide out 3/8” oak strips.  But for now what I did was just use a couple of drywall screws to hold two little hunks of scrap plywood.  When the leaf is not folded out, these scraps can be rotated out of the way.

After building this design, one issue I discovered is the exposed hinge on the outside edge isn’t very attractive.   Additionally the edges are quite sharp.  To counter this what I will plan to do in the final version is to make this hinge a little shorter.  Then I will cut a thin strip (~3/8-1/2”) of some attractive wood, paddock perhaps, cut a groove on the inside to cover the hinge.  I will mount some magnets to this strip and it will stick to the hinge.

This design is an amazing improvement on the original.  It answers everything I need.  Having a table small, yet large, folding up and out of the way when not needed but being the center of all activity when it is down.   When the leaf is out, amazingly I could likely seat four (really good friends) around a table of this size.   I love it!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Place to Bed Down

I am sitting in a dentist office writing this today.  Lucky for me, I am just here for transport.  Not so lucky for Miss Root Canal though.  She’s back in the back and likely will be for an couple hours.  I have irrational dental fears.  My favorite advice columnist Dan Savage, talks about relationships having a “Price of Admission”.  My price to The Wife is she must accompany me to the dentist.  She sits at the end of the chair, holds my foot and maintains a steady stream of distracting conversation. —Something she does quite well just naturally so that part isn’t a huge burden on her.  At the end of it, she forgets that she saw me quivering and drooling in the chair.  This was my time to offer to do the same for her since root canals are much more serious than the variety checkups.  She turned me down, thankfully, but still I am here in the waiting room.  You scoff, but even this is a big deal.  Usually I am out standing in the parking lot while she is seeing the dentist at our six month appointments.

The terminals on the isolator.  I wired it
before I attached it to the firewall.

A while back I very briefly talked about installing the battery isolator.  One thing I wanted to clarify because a couple of people have asked.  The function of the battery isolator is to prevent the electricity usage in the back of the van from affecting the starting ability of the engine battery.  It lets the engine charge my house batteries, but doesn’t allow house usage to strand me.  The isolator itself has two big terminals and two small terminals on it.  It is a pass through device, one side of the big terminals connects to the battery (via a fuse) and the other end connects to the house batteries (via another fuse on the house battery end).

The small terminals may or may not be marked for the positive and negative side.  Mine were not.  Their purpose is to run the relay that internally either connects or disconnects the two big terminals.  When power is applied, the relay connects them.   If the terminals are not marked positive and negative then it shouldn't matter.  One side attaches to ground, I just ran a short wire and attached it to the body with a self taping sheet metal screw.

A piggyback in place.  The red wire runs off
to connect to the isolator.

The other end attaches to the fuse panel on some circuit that only is powered when the key is turned on.  The easiest way to do this is to buy something called a fuse tap, or piggyback.  Ask for it at an auto parts store and they will be able to help you out.  The way this works, you pull a fuse and stick this in it’s place. The piggyback has two fuses.  One, the original you pulled out and a second fuse for the circuit the isolator is one.  It is an easy install but important to know what wire goes where.

This week I was looking at the amount of rust on the propane box I had my son’s friend build.  He told me back at the time I should throw a coat of paint on it.  But back then it was cold.  Then it was warm.  Now it is heading toward cold again and I am finally getting around to it.  Lots of rust had formed in the meantime.  I chucked up a round wire brush into the drill and took off the top layer of rust anyway.  Then painted it with some red rust preventing primer and on top of that a couple of cans of spray on truck bed liner.   —As a side note, this is the same paint I spray paint on The Wife’s “goth chick” boots so she can look all badass.

Over the weekend I insulated a couple sections of the ceiling.  I measure the space between the ribs and cut insulation to fit that space.  Then when I have two fit in place, I put a 6” strip of quarter inch plywood over the top of the rib, secured with some self tapping metal screws.  The strip will hold the insulation in place, additionally it will provide an air gap which allows me to count an R value of 1 for the foil lining of the poly iso foam.  Theoretically this gives me an R value of eight for air-gapped 1” poly iso and 1/4” plywood.  By house roof standards that is crap.   But, in my 63 square feet it is the best I can do.

The propane basket with some paint on it.

I realized, going back over my prior posts, I never talked about buying the mattress.   Originally, during the on-paper-design-phase of this project, I heard about something called a “small full” bed size.   It was very close to what I needed.  The width of a small full is 48” and the length just three inches longer than what I needed.   I thought maybe either this sized bed could be wedged in,  or not as fun sounding, maybe possibly I could cut the mattress to length.  I was hoping the wedging in would work.   What I felt would be handy though, I would be able to buy sheets and blankets in this size and not have a bunch of extra material.  I did all this research back in the first building days at the start of this project.   Perfect, I thought.  I went ahead and built the bed base 48” wide to hold this sized bed.

Fast forward to bed buying time.   It seems Small Full beds are a European thing.  That’s the trouble with doing research on a global internet.   Can you imagine the shipping cost of one mattress coming from  Luxembourg?  I know I sure can’t.  Same trouble with the sheets.  Doing a project like this, you have to be flexible.   I started to cast around again.   I looked into futons first.   My idea would be to buy a full sized one of the cotton batting variety, then cut it down.   The Wife was dubious of my ability to pull this off.  To answer this, I found a company in my Big City that will make custom size futons either of the spring or cotton variety.  Cotten futons are still expensive, the custom sized ones not surprisingly are more expensive yet.  For the size I was wanting I was looking at ~$900. 

Looking up at the ceiling, you an see the strips of
plywood running across and holding the insulation in place.

I spent a little time looking for used ones on Craigslist with no joy.  You might hear stories of the free futons being given away by people moving.  I sure couldn’t find anything being sold for less than a hundred.  The ones there were almost always the spring version.  None of them looked new.  The last thing I needed was a smelly bed bug infested mattress to start off with.  I was looking for the cotton batting version but even if I could cut it to size, they have issues when you try to use them this way.  You have to pull them out a fluff them up a couple of times a year and you should really rotate them every other time you change sheets.   My research  turned up they can develop mold because of warming cooling cycles of van life in the wintertime.

Eventually I had to give-up the futon idea.  I started looking into foam.   People were giving me tips about cheap sources of foam mattresses.  I was told Sears sold them but I think they got out of that business years ago.  From what I found there are a few different types and not surprising, you get what you pay for.  The softer foam is a little cheaper, but won’t be good to sleep on long term.  Soft foam allows your body to sink in and doesn’t provide you with the support you need for a comfortable night’s sleep.   The other thing, soft foam breaks down and needs replacement.  The lady at the foam shop told me I would need to replace soft foam yearly.  I doubt that.   Particularly since I only sleep on it four nights a week.

I also have heard a lot about memory foam.  This is a foam that reacts, softening, from the heat of your body.   It holds it’s shape and cradles you, spreads your weight on a long pressure point because the heavier parts of your body sink in deeper.  Lots of people love it.*   So I priced a 6” memory foam mattress as well   I had no idea what stuff like this costs. Twelve hundred dollars!

(*Do your own research.   Lots of people hate memory foam as well.   They say it is hard to climb in and out of and it is super warm/hot to sleep on.  There is no middle ground grey areas for memory foam users.  They either love it or hate it.)

What I ended up with is a pretty comfy slice of the best of both worlds.  The lady at the foam shop had me lay down on a few different examples of thicknesses and stiffness.  I ended up with a six inch thick piece of the second firmest regular foam.   The cost was $516.    I was pretty shocked that it cost this much.  I don’t know.  When I started this whole project, I just had it in mind I was going to be able to buy some kind of bed for at the most a hundred dollars.   So I considered this a way over budget item.

When I asked her about memory foam she suggested putting a thin memory foam topper over the top of what I had purchased.  The price on a 2” topper from her shop was another ~$400 but when I demurred, she looked around, leaned towards me and in a conspiratorial whisper said, “Just go to Target.  You can buy and inch and a half memory foam for about $30 and cut it down to size.”  Wow, very cool.  Thank you!

While I was a Target I picked up two sets of regular bed sheets.  Sure, they are a little oversized and floppy but I wasn’t needing to pay shipping from London so I was happy.  I had this all put together and in place in time for a Royal Visit.   The Wife came and spent two nights with me in the big city.  I know she enjoyed the investment because while I was hard at work, she was sleeping in the parking lot until almost noon.  As for me, what did I think of it?  Prior to this I had been sleeping on three layers of rock wool carpet padding.  I thought it was divine!

Look how I am sucking my gut in on this shot.  I must
really be trying to impress y'all.  But here, what I am
trying to determine is what the table height should be.
Now, with the mattress in place I was really starting to look into the design of the table.   The mattress had to be there because it forms the primary table seating area.  My original ideas and plans were for a bit of a wall cabinet built into the wall just behind the side doors.  The cabinet would be about six inches deep (out from the outer wall) at the top.  The width would be the same as that of the table, maybe 24-26 inches.  I was planning the top could have enough room enough for some cup holders.  Maybe there would be a napkin (more likely it would end up just filled with junk) holder in the top as well.  I was even thinking about trying to design in the way to hold a couple of folding chairs into the cabinet itself.  The tabletop would fold down against this cabinet base.

What led to the failure of this idea was math. Once I started looking at how long I wanted the table to be I realized it couldn’t fold down because the length of the table would be determined by its height above the floor.  I wanted it longer than that.  Additionally, in a folding down design, its edge would have to be beyond the edge of the bed.   Any stray bedding would get caught up in the table folding process.  I was bummed, as I always am when one of my designs won’t pan out.

The original table design with cup

The wife didn’t like the idea from the beginning.  She felt like the cup and napkin holders were wasted space.  She made a good point, “are you going to be drinking at the table when you are going down the road?”  No.  “So why do you need cup holders?  What are you holding? They will only collect crap!”   Ah she knows me so well.

What she proposed was a great idea.  Rather than fold the table down, taking up the prime space of the van, why not make it fold up against the wall?  The first thing to begin to test this out was to build a cardboard mockup.  We had some big boxes and cut out an initial tabletop.  Starting out, I just held this in place.  We had one side taped to the side wall.  Over the span of two weekends we toyed with a couple of versions of this mockup and could see it’s advantages.   The first being, it didn’t take up floor space when it wasn’t in use.  The length of the table could now be limited by the ceiling height (being greater) rather than the distance down to the floor.

….Gosh, I’ve never done this before.  This post is getting long.  Lets continue this in the next installment.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Maker Space

Even our small town has what is called a Maker Space.   I have been driving by ours for years.   They have a sign, they have some model rockets hanging from the window.   I just figured it was some kinda hobby store.  Frankly, I was worried if I went in there I would be assaulted by scrapbookers.  I hate scrapbookers!  So I have driven past.   

It wasn’t until this past Sunday night I had ever given it a second thought.   Talking to The Wife, who is Scoutmaster for one of our town’s Boy Scout troops.   She and her committee are always looking for activities for the scouts to do and it was suggested there was a real nice woodworking class taught in The Maker Space.  I asked her, “They have a shop available there?” she whipped out her trusty Scoutmaster iPhone and gave me the full list of tools they have.   …And I mean to tell you, it was full.  The light went on in my head and I realized what these places really are.

Two nice table saws with full outfeed tables.

During my workday yesterday while in the process of waiting for something to finish happening, I did a little research.   My big city has two such places.  Both of them advertise their laser cutter ownership.   One of the web sites did have a notice posted saying the laser cutter was broken.  There were no pictures on the broken laser cutter place, but there was on the other.   The place looked huge and extensive.   Both places offer tours on specific nights and tonight was the night for the broken laser place.

It took me about an fifteen minute drive via mostly freeway to get to the place.   It is located within a small (~five square city blocks) older, industrial development inside a very desirable neighborhood on the south side.  Just exactly the type of thing that never works out if you are playing Sim City, and yet here it is working in real life.  —Who’da thought. 

This Maker Space is a older, single story building.   It looked a little rough on the outside. I walked in and the tour began.  Inside the front door the seedy 1950s era offices are hoped to one day become a computer lab.  —They had a ways to go.  In the corner there is a ham radio station. The basement is an art area with some big tables, drafting table etc.  I noticed a 3D printer.  A sewing room with a dozen vintages of machines.  There were a couple of other areas like this, I can’t remember it all.   

The reason I am really here.  Critical to the
building of a tabletop!

Then upstairs.  Walking into the shop it was split into four bays.   Maybe eight thousand square feet total.  One bay was storage where I would be able to keep a plastic tote nine of materials.  One bay was a welding shop.  One bay a machine shop with three metal lathes (one of which my guide guaranteed worked.) two vertical mills.  One of the mills was named Bridget. :-D Metal band saw, bending equipment, etc.   I don’t know that stuff well so maybe I am easy to impress.  I thought it looked good.   

Then the wood shop.   Two big table saws with full out-feed tables.   A nice looking Jet jointer (the tool that actually set off this search for shop space) along with a wide planer and two smallish lathes.  They had a CNC machine that was currently broken down.   I don’t even know what that is, I am just passing on what they told me.   They didn’t have a wide sander, which would have been a really cool thing for one of my planned tasks.  Otherwise it seemed like a very well decked out shop.  

The wood shop equipment was the newest in appearance the table saws in particular.  The other equipment, to me, looked pretty old.   But stuff looked well maintained.   My tour guide described the place as like a big crazy extended family.   It is volunteer run.  It sounds like some members are around a lot.

The welding shop.

Here is what really seals the deal for me.   This Maker Space is $55 a month, 24/7 building access.  The other place with all the nice pictures on their web site is $200 a month, three month minimum commitment.   Not a job shop.  I really can’t afford to spend that kind of money.   I don’t need high tech stuff to build a table and a few other custom van parts.  I really *wish* this was a drive-in shop so I could get the van inside for some of my stuff but the expensive place doesn't have that ability either. 

I think I will sign up and meet with the shop foreman next week.  Before I can work I have to attend an orientation. He wants to show me where everything is, and also I am sure, confirm that I am a low risk hazard for myself or his shop.

Ok and here is another aspect to the whole shop.  It is the corner lot of an industrial dead end street set in the middle of a nice safe south side of town residential block.  A place where a cargo van would be totally invisible.   Interesting.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Its Always the Little Things

Converting a cargo van to stealth living space has given me lots of big projects to write about.  There have been lots of big tasks to accomplish.   I don’t write about them near as much but also, behind this are a ton of little things.   The little thing project list is lots longer and might never be completed.  But this week’s post I am going to cover a few of these instead of the big ones.  Just like the project list, this post is going to be longer than average.

First off I want to tell you about a what should have been a little job.  I say should have been, because though it should have been a fairly quick little job, it took hours.   

My van is a cargo van.  So when it was built, all the wires (referred to as a wiring harness) going to the tail lights, blinkers, etc. were run on the surface of the frame.  This is opposed to, in the passenger version of this same van where they are run out of site.  Inside the upper frame.   My van is all about, “who needs to look nice?”  The cargo doesn’t care if there is a bundle of wires going across the ceiling.  This is I suppose a time saver for the manufactures, since they are building hundreds of thousands of them.  For me though it has created a dilemma.  I have been going back and forth about if I want to take the time and effort to move them inside the frame.

Wrapping tape around the offshoots will
keep them from snagging as you pull.
Pulling wires through the frame is a task fraught with cut fingers and torn skin.   Many of the edges inside the access holes of the frame are quite sharp.  Even the places where they aren’t that sharp, by the time you’ve wedged your whole hand in there to grab hold of a wire which is, dammit, just barely at your finger tips…    You will shed blood. 

The reason to more the wires is it will make it much easier to fit the trim.  But, the downside, the odds of screwing something up and suddenly the tail lights don’t work any more are quite high.   What I ended up doing was a combination of both.   Now that I am done, sitting here on the safety of this barstool, I really have to confess I have created the worst of two worlds.   

What I (stupidly) decided to do was not bother with the long run of wire going down the side of the van.  I only changed the wires going across above the back doors.   The reason for this decision was because I already had several wires run inside the frame going down the kitchen side of the van.   I was worried the harness wires would get entangled with my new wires and I wouldn’t be able to get them free.   In hindsight, because of how I taped the harness wires up, I don’t think this would have been likely to happen.  But it was certainly still a possibility. 

The vent behind the tail lights, once I got
it broken out of it's home.

The problem with the decision I made was with the wires outside the frame on part and inside in the next part I lost about three inches of total length.  I shouldn’t be surprised, again because the manufactures are building hundreds of thousands they make the wires *exactly* the length they need.   There isn’t much slack to give and getting everything hooked up again after losing that three inches was really tough.

Here is what I did.  This seemed like a four handed job again so I enlisted The Wife’s help.  I unhooked the harness from the brake & tail lights.  Pulled it through to the drivers side.  I actually own a fiberglass fish-tape but didn’t have it immediately available.   I just used a length of 14-3 wire that I poked through the frame from the passenger side to the drivers side, above the back doors of the van.   I hooked the wire up to the harness.   Then I applied tape around each of the harness connectors and strapped them tight to the harness itself.   Using this tape I was also able to taper some of the square corners of the connecters so they wouldn’t snag on the frame or other wires.  Doing this taping is what would have made it so I wouldn’t have had to worry about snagging if I had decided to the long run up the side of the van, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Once the vent was pulled out I had access to
the wires in the channel inside.

Getting the wire pulled through the frame was tricky and difficult.   I should have used the fish-tape rather than the wire, that would have made it easier because it would have slide through the tight areas whereas the wire wanted to catch.  Then in the end, we came up short.   There was enough harness length to barely plug in the connectors, but not enough to really reach them well or to get the anti-snagging tape removed.   I fought and I struggled.   My hands got all chewed up from reaching in the holes of the frame trying to move the wires along or get the tape unwrapped.   

In the end I had to go outside the van and remove the passenger side tail light assembly and the trim.  Then I had to break out the rear internal frame vent so I could get my hand inside the space to access the wires.   It totally sucked.  All in all it was about a three hour job.  Not fun at all.   For now I just covered the vent hole with tape.  I don’t know if I will buy a new vent or not.   I really can’t tell you if this project was worth the effort or not.

The LED light pods attached to the underside of the bed.
Each of these plastic pods contain four bright LEDs.

The next project was totally worth the effort and is going to be great.   I think I have mentioned (maybe in a need to keep this normalized) I have named spaces within the van.   Sure, I only have 63 square feet.  But I still refer to areas within that space with names.   I have the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room, the living room.  I even have what I refer to as the garage.   That’s the space under the bed where the batteries and propane tanks live.   So my next project is to add lighting to the garage.   

I used what on Amazon Prime are called (12V 40 LEDs Van Interior Light Kits, Ampper LED Ceiling Lights Kit for Van Boats Caravans Trailers Lorries Sprinter Ducato Transit VW LWB)   These are ten little square pods of four LEDs all wired together.   I cut the wires between most of the pods so I could spread them out further.   I spliced in longer sections of wire and put heat shrink tubing around the joints to keep it all tidy and dry.   Not a big job, just make sure you keep track of the positive/negative wires and don’t mix them up.  These lights are AMAZINGLY bright.   They seem to draw very little current and the ten of them light up every inch of my garage space.   Very much worth the fourteen dollars I spent on them!  I bought another set which I am thinking I will wire into the cab some day.   I will be able to light everywhere.   Under the seats, under the dash.   All of it lite up at the flip of a switch.   

The garage, all lit up!   This area subject to needing to
work on things, now I am going to be able to see what
I am doing!  This project turned out great!

Speaking of LEDs, I like my color changing mood lights in the bedroom area of the van so much I am going to run a separate string of them in the kitchen area.   I have the bright puck lights mounted into the ceiling but wow are they bright.   Sometimes I just want enough light so I can see what I am doing without being blinding.   What I am going to do is run a length of LED above the countertop, but then I also bought some six conductor extension wire, so I will hook a strip of these lights under the table as well.  I can’t really put the lights in place yet because I need to get the trim installed.   But I got the six conductor wire run in the frame and I got the light controller mounted in the kitchen side of the floor to ceiling shelf.

Gluing the bulkhead door plywood onto the
door.   Because of the way the door is built,
there is nowhere to attach screws.  So it is only
held by the glue and a guitar hanger base.
I got a step further on the main bulkhead project.  First I took a six inch wide strip of the blackout shade material and fit it to the gap on the hinge side of the bulkhead door.   I had to cut out the areas for the hinges.  I ran the fabric through the gap on the hinge side.  I taped it to the insulation on the inside, and to the bulkhead steel in the cab behind the drivers seat.   With this fabric in place there is no more light leakage.   No more bright strip of light inside the cab and causing a loss of stealth.   Once this fabric was in place I cut out the size of the door from the sheet of bead-board plywood and affixed it into place.  One step closer to having the bulkhead finished!  Very cool!

I bought a second battery level gauge.   I have one already in the garage because it was nice to know how much juice the batteries have in them when plugging or unplugging from shore power.   But all the rest of the time when I am living inside, having the gauge only back there sucked.   I couldn’t read it and my work around was to lean over the bed and hold my camera down there to shoot a (usually out of focus) picture of it.   The second gauge I wired into the top of the floor to ceiling shelf.   What I didn’t realize is just how bright that little sucker is.  It lights up the whole van when I am trying to sleep.  So, going to have to figure out something there too.

The toilet docked in its bay.

I built the plywood base for the toilet.   My original plan was to mount the toilet to some plywood that would slide out for use.   Thinking more about this and how sturdy the toilet is built I decided to just cut out that step.  What I did instead is cut a chunk of 3/4 plywood to fit the space, then I set the toilet in place and marked the base of it.  Then, I cut that section out as well and placed felt furniture moving pads on the bottom of the toilet.   Now it sides in and out and nestles into place when it is stored.  It seems heavy enough to not really slide around when I am going down the road unless things get really violent.

To get the vent holes to line up I marked the centers on the bulkhead wall.  Then, I transferred those marks to the plywood when I had it in place.   I drilled out the holes oversized by a quarter inch.   That way there is a little room for discrepancy.   Plus, I thought it wouldn't hurt to have a bit of a ledge there. 

Use a round object to trace
curved profiles.

One last small project.  I built the bulkhead for under the kitchen counter.  The one that separates the kitchen storage area from the toilet area.   This is built out of 3/4” plywood because I wanted it strong enough to support several drawers.   The first part was really easy, cutting it to the right height.   Everything is (surprisingly) level and square so it was just a matter of measuring and cutting.   Then I slid it into place and used a round object —I used the cap from a jar of honey :-) to mark the curve of the side wall onto the plywood.  Something round works much better in a case like this.  Just make sure you are marking the point furthest from the outer wall.  When you are done marking, slide the cap up and down to make sure you can see your pencil line the whole way.  If your mark disappears at any point, you need to re-mark it. Once the line is drawn and confirmed, I cut the curve, then fit the plywood back in to mark the cutouts for the wire passage and trim holding the back of the counter.  For now I just taped this plywood in place using some aluminum tape.

The under counter bulkhead
in place.

A project for the future is going to be figuring some way to tighten the hinge screws for the bulkhead door.   When I took it apart to cut the door off, I should have put it all back together with thread lock.  I didn’t though and now over time and miles the nuts have vibrated looser until the door has quite a bit of play at the bottom.  The nuts are sealed in place by the bulkhead plywood though and I can’t get at them to tighten them up.   They just spin.   I am thinking maybe I can drill some small holes and then use a nail through the hole to keep them in place.   I have to think more about this though.

I guess the good news is it's only flat
on the bottom.

If you don’t remember it, and I would be surprised if you did, I was talking this spring about a particular flare fitting on my gas lines.   I was having trouble with leaks and I couldn’t get it to seal.   Back at that time I heard about putting oil on the threads of the flare and some thread lock on the actual surface of the flare.   Well, some time has passed and that fitting seems to still be tight.  Of course, the first step would be to take the fitting apart first and see if you can determine why it isn’t sealing.  But if you don’t come up with anything I am going to call this a cure and recommend it as a fix if your joints don’t seem to seal.  

I don't know where y'all store your spare drywall screws.  I guess I store mine in my tires.  

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The B.V.

Number Two Son doesn't normally get involved in naming things in the household.  That duty is officially covered by The Wife my very own ICANN.   Secondary, and usually unofficial naming, nicknames and the like, fall to Number One Daughter who started this practice not long after she began to talk.   The rest of us just have to follow along.  So it was from this unlikely source the family has adopted a name.   He started calling my project “The B.V.” (Big Van) and it seems to have stuck with the rest of the kids and family. 

At this point in the project I have had the countertop and the sink in place for a month or so now.  I even got the drain hooked up a while ago, so I can brush my teeth via bottled water.   In a way, it is interesting each step I take, makes it so much more civilized than it has been.  I feel those things.  So, is it optimal to be using a bottle of water to be cleaning my teeth?  No.  But damn, it was so much better than it was before, I can move on to other projects for a bit.  --Like that fan I just put in.

The other thing, quite honestly, this step costs some money.   $75 for the pump (SHURflo 4008-101-E65 3.0 Revolution Water Pump)  I needed a fresh water tank for $61.  I chose a ten gallon (Custom Roto-Molding L1A RV Fresh Water Tank).  I think that is plenty of water to be carrying with me.   I decided to spend a little extra and get a $42 Pressure tank (SHURflo 182-200 Pre-Pressurized Accumulator Tank) and with it a pump silencing kit  (SHURFLO 94-591-01 Pump Silencing Kit) for another $26.  So total for the project, not counting all the surprises is a bit over two hundred. …And in case you hadn't already noticed, there are always surprises.

I use just a regular switch and wire to
it the 12 volt lines.

Then one Friday payday came and their hadn’t been the rush of disasters running a family of five normally entails.  I had the money.  The main parts came from Amazon Prime.  To put together this whole thing, I also used some bits I had on hand and there was at least two trips to the hardware store. …Because no project worth doing can be done in less than two trips to the hardware.

This particular project sort of crosses over a whole bunch of disciplines, starting with the electrical system.  I knew I wanted a switch near the faucet to control the pump.  The pump is on the 12v system and it should have it’s own fuse.   I used one of the runs of the 10-3 wire I pushed through the frame up to this spot back in the very early days of this project.

I cut a hole through the side of the floor to ceiling shelf.  Into that I hooked on one side of the switch one of the wires from the #10 wire.  On the other side I went to a red 12awg stranded wire and ran that wire to the area of the sink.  At the same time I ran hooked a black twelve gauge wire to the ground bar on the floor to ceiling shelf and ran that wire also to the area roughly where I thought the pump would be.

The life saver!  The ability to pull out the
sink while working on this stuff.

Back when my friend Craigie was helping me install the countertop and drop in the sink, I was very eager to glue the sink in.   But his advice to me was not to do it yet.  I realized in this project what he was talking about.   He told me, “when you install the rest of that plumbing, in this tight of space, it could be real handy to be able to pull that sink out.”  He was totally right.  It would have majorly sucked to attach the pump for sure.  But the whole rest of the job would have been more difficult.  I even say that including the fact, during disassembly, having the trap from the sink slip out of my fingers and dump all over my lap and the floor.   Even including changing pants it was less work to pull the sink to work on that plumbing.  Thanks Craigie.

I mentioned earlier about spending a little extra money for the pressure tank.  I think that's money well spent.  The way this works is the pump has a built in pressure switch.  It pumps the water up to a certain pressure and then it turns off.   Now, you open up a faucet, the pressure drops pretty quick.  But, the pump takes a second or so to wake up and start pumping.  In that time, the pressure has dropped quite a bit.  Your eye sees this, the brain kicks in, and automatically your hand turns up the faucet more to get the water output the brain wants.  But now, the pump is starting to come up to speed and starts really pumping some water to built the pressure.  What happens is suddenly you have way more water coming out of the faucet and splashing around than you expected.  You can train yourself around delay this splash causing situation but it is irritating when you forget.

This whole problem gets cured when you add a buffer tank.  This is a little tank with a thick rubber balloon inside it.  Pump air into the balloon a couple of times a year to pressurize it.  The ballon maintains the pressure in the waterlines giving the pump time to come up to speed.   Rather than the surprise splash, it is just like the kitchen sink at home.
The parts tacked into place and the wires
hooked up and ready to test.

The first step is to set your major components in place. Water weighs eight pounds per gallon and so I potentially had a dense eighty pounds which needed to be secured to something.  I really only had two attachment options.  I could strap it to the furnace enclosure, but case of in the high g-force event, such as locking up the brakes to prevent impact, I couldn’t say what would happen.   I didn’t want this weight breaking my furnace and it’s accompanying propane line free inside the van.  Something like that could make it more enjoyable to have just hit whatever jumped out in front of me.

Really that was the only other option. I knew where the water tank had to sit.  It had to be strapped to the floor to ceiling shelf.  That is the strongest wall outside of the bulkhead wall. 

I bought a pump that was self priming.  The ones that are not specifically labeled self priming are instead known as gravity priming must sit below the water tank.  You need gravity or a hand pump to prime (or initially fill) the pump with water.   Gravity priming pumps are in general slightly less susceptible to damage from freezing and much cheaper to purchase.  But I felt this design was far too limiting because it locked me into where the pump had to sit.   A self priming pump can sit anywhere vs only below the water tank.  My pump ended up directly above the tank.  That placement couldn't have been done with a gravity pump.

But it was this mounting of the water tank that determined where everything had to sit.  Once the water tank’s home was firmly established.   I tried the pump in a few different spots.  I just wasn’t feeling it until I put it on the floor to ceiling shelf wall up above the tank.  I think having it on this more solid wood wall, rather than the thin plywood of the side walls, should make for a lot less radiated noise.

The pump has some rubber footies that I ran some two inch drywall screws through.   The pressure tank had the same.  Thinner plywood on the outside wall I used some 1-5/8ths.  Getting the pipes all run and tightened down was difficult.  I ended up with some loops.  I guess that is supposed to reduce radiated pump noise.

Down there you can see the three-way
elbow.  A plumbing first for me!

To the fresh water tank itself I wanted to use ridged pvc pipe.  I’m not really sure why.  I guess I just have a deep mistrust of the flexible hose and it’s connectors.  Maybe having actual pipe makes it seem more like home. :-)  I don’t know.  I only needed a couple of feet and as The Wife always reminds me, I never throw anything away.   I already had some of the straight sections of pvc in stock, left over from a plumbing project on my house a few years ago.  It took a trip to the hardware store to purchase a 1/2” pvc three-way elbow.  I have to confess this is a bit of a specialty part and the first one I have ever used.  Basically, this is a T connector that is also a 90 degree elbow.  I wanted the water to come out of the tank and either go to the right to a valve which if opened drains to the ground, or up to to where the pump is going to be attached.

I ran the pvc pipe up to about the top of the tank where it changed to flexible reinforced plastic tubing.   The reason for not tying the pump to the hard plumbing was vibration noise.   The plastic tubing takes the vibration out.   The pipe attached to the pump, and then the buffer/accumulator tank.  I initially attached the pump to the wall and then was trying to attach the supply lines to it.  I ended up removing it from the wall, hooking the lines up while I could better line things up, then reattached it.

The pump and buffer tank with the sink removed.
The section of pipe heading off to the floor drain I screwed down to the sub floor and in one section put some PL-200 construction adhesive alongside the pipe.   I drilled a hole down through the floor and mounted the pvc pipe into that hole with expanding foam.

The system as I have built it, to a home builder, looks fatally short of valves.   True, this isn’t like a home where you have a valve in front of and behind everything to facilitate repairs without shutting off all the water.   This project is a little different than that.   It is just so much smaller there was no need for all the additional cost and complexity.

It was a happy moment, that first night.  Living in a van that now had running water.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

It's Only Fair

Being away from home four nights a week I am always on the scout for things to occupy my time.   A concert here and there.  An iMax 3D theater movie.  A long public transportation trip to get to a far away sandwich, just to burn up some hours.   Of course the last few months, working on this van, I don’t have as may of those hours to burn.  Don’t think it escapes me it’s possible this is one of The Wife’s motives.   I get in less trouble when I am busy.  But even with my long project list, sometimes I need a little break from the van.  That’s when I am fitting in these concerts, movies and sandwiches.  The thing is, I don’t often I have anything span more than one night.

That all changed though.  The State Fair has come to my big city.   Just to the north of the midway, they have their very own campground!  As soon as I heard about it I knew I had to do this.   I had to put in a camp site reservation way back in May.  The sites sell out in hours so I had three different types of calendar reminders for the opening of sales.  When the hour came up, 10AM on a Thursday, I was busy hitting reload on my browser.  I felt like that time I was trying to get Stones tickets.   The second the sale was open, I registered for a site.

It was cool, having something like this to look forward to the length of a summer.  About a month before fair-time I invited The Wife to join me.  I thought she would maybe do it for a night, two at the most.  She was somewhat noncommittal when I asked her.  But in the interceding time we got the week long sans-kids camping trip.  We got another shorter camping trip with the whole family, the rest of the members all snuggled in their tents.  The two of us sipping scotch as we relaxed on our  wonderful soft mattress.  We were accustomed to having great times and marvelous adventures in the van.  By the time of the fair, she joined me four of my five days.   It was great!  I went to work every day via public transport, then back to the fair each night.  We had a fabulous time wandering around, eating, and people watching.  I think her phone registered nine miles one day.  We literally walked through our feet in the span of those days.  I had one extra night pre-paid for my camp site.  My feet said “go home.”

I was really surprised by was the value for the money I got from the food venders.  I just remember fair food of years ago.  Greasy gut bombs that about killed you.  The prices were high and portion sizes small, the only real flavor was fry oil.  I felt like that was the biggest change of the entire fair.  I thought the food this year was pretty amazing.   Everything I had was very flavorful.   Even the food I love the most, the cheese curds in the food building.  The amazing thin batter.  Salty on the surface.  Not too melted on the interior.  They were perfect.  I had them every single day.

We had fish tacos one night.  She had a gyro one day for lunch while I was at work and proclaimed it fantastic.  Fresh cut fries, great burgers.  I just can’t get over how pleased I was with the quality and value for the money of the fair food.    Compared to normal city prices, fair food was right in line.

…Don’t get me wrong.  I ate mini donuts too.

In addition to all the daytime fair walking, we are nighttime walkers.  I don’t know if y’all realize it or not but, just like looking from your kitchen window and seeing someone walking their dog by your house at two in the afternoon…  There are people walking by at two a.m. as well.  Several times over the years The Wife and I have been driving around town in the daytime and be surprised at the color of a house.   Purple?!  —We had only seen it at night, we thought it was grey!  Let me clue you in on something.   Fairgrounds get weird after midnight.   That’s even coming from a guy who has a pretty high bar constituting weird.  I’ll say no more.

As far as van life, there were about four of us camper vans there.  Plus one cute little pull behind trailer camper.  Seriously, it was just too cute for words.  I’m guessing they had a third less square feet that what I have.  Built in the late 70’s in all it’s round cornered fiberglass glory.    I talked to the owners a bit.  They lived in the even colder, next biggest city to the north.   A young couple with a little baby.  Down for a week that spanned the previous weekend.

They really do look a lot alike.  I never even noticed that
big dent in the front fender until now.
There was one other stealth white van.   I talked to that lady the third day.   I really felt I had to.  You know how it is.  Coming out of the bathroom late at night.  Eyes lock onto a white van.  They really do look all the same.   Lucky in a way, I decided I should grab a bottle of water from the cab and decided to do it via the front passenger door rather than through the bulkhead.    Even when the mind said “key hole seems lower than I remember it being…” I pressed on.   The key wouldn’t fit.  I jiggled it around some, trying to get it into the lock.  Puzzled, I took stock of my surroundings and realized my error. 

So I had to apologize to her the next day.   She was a fair worker who travelled from state to state.  Nice Ford stealth van with the bed setup along the side.  She said she was a sound sleeper and hadn’t heard a thing.  I hope she was sleeping just as soundly two nights later when I nearly did the same thing again.  What an idiot.

I talked to another guy who was driving a dark grey windowless Sprinter van.  God would it be nice to be able to stand up.  This van was the model with the lowered floor so it really didn’t even seem very far off the ground.  Bed across the back and a very small kitchen area.  No real storage.   The center of his van life seemed to be the front passenger seat that could swivel to the back.

The feet of a Keens wearing fair girl!
Otherwise the campground was filled with your typical mix of money oozing gas guzzling buses and seen better days antiques.   Each of us parked just a touch over seven feet apart.  The guy who helped me park told me to be very careful and even ask him for help again should I pull out of the campground and come back.   The fire marshal often makes surprise nighttime visits.   Best time to catch everyone home in their campers at a fairgrounds campsite?  3am.  They have a seven foot long stick.   If they can’t walk it between your campers they wake up both vehicles and sort out getting them moved.  The guy encouraged me to not be involved in such a scene.  I let him know once I was parked I was settled.

The fair was a great time and I can’t wait to do it again next year.   Being right there, with all that entertainment right at our fingertips we found to be lots of fun.  In our van we had the perfect way to do it!