Thursday, May 24, 2018

Battery Access Version 2.0.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Stop, You're Cracking Me Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Fix Is In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

You'll Get a Charge Out of This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Realization Of Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Snow Days and the Stealthy Couple

Good scheduling, the gods, and twelve inches of snow all conspired to allow The Wife and I to spend ten days straight together.   She joined me, the two of us living in the van for three nights while I spent my work days in the office. We had the van in a good spot, we didn’t move it all week. During that time however I didn’t write a single word for this blog.  I was in a way, quite proud of myself. —Because I have obsessive tendencies.  Instead I devoted myself strictly to quality time.  Even so I had a bit of a backlog.  I was able to publish three times despite my total inactivity.  After this time though I fell prey to Newtonian physics.  I was an object at rest that stayed at rest for the next month and a half.

It has been consistently cold here in the Northland.   What we locals call “a cold winter.”  Most nights have been below zero, sometimes the daily highs are as well.  Weather like this makes me not want to move the van much.  I have found a couple pretty good parking spots and content myself with revolving between them. I work.  I either hang out at work until eight or nine, or I find a pub to drop into until then.  I open up my blogging tool.  I read the couple of paragraphs of what has eventually become this post.  I diddle with grammar and tense.  I ponder the orphans, the stray sentences I have written.  Then I spend the next couple of hours Trolling for Trumpets on Facebook and reading news sites.  It hasn’t been an exciting existence.

Snow buildup on the solar panels.
It was really fun having The Wife come and spend three nights in a row with me.  Lately we spend a lot of time talking about the future.  She and I are roughly five years out from empty-nestdom.  We love our children (no matter what they say about us) but seriously, this is a moment we have been anticipating for just over nineteen years.  As it inches closer we spend more and more time talking about what life will be like and what we plan to do with ourselves.  I have untested gypsy-like thoughts.  My bride is very much a homebody who has no idea where in the world she wants that home to sit.  Overlay that on an X-Y matrix of what we like -vs- what we can afford and you pretty much have our discussions in a nutshell.

What we are both pretty sure of is we have grown tired of six (or more) months of ice.  Last month when The Wife fell on our icy stairs was the turning point for her.  It has been a couple months and she still is moving gingerly.  She has to be careful sitting and one arm won’t reach the same as the other.  She went from cavalier-post-teen to "done with snow and cold" literally overnight.

The thing is neither of us have lived anywhere else and this is a very big country.  I dream about spending some time exploring it.  Likely we are always going to be urban dwellers and so a vehicle like the BV in some ways could be perfect for living on the road.  Rolling from city to city.  Seeing the sights.  Seeing where we like.  More important, seeing where we don’t.  A couple of years ago I did two interviews for a job down in Little Rock Arkansas.  It was winter here and those seventy degree forecasts were looking pretty appealing.  It ended up not working out (obviously) but in the meantime of the interviewing process I wrote a couple of friends of friends who live down there.  The realization my Bernie Sanders sign wouldn’t be welcome in most neighborhoods was a factor in our realization just how much we wouldn’t fit in.  …Almost more than the fact the position reported directly to the governor and paid $67,000.

So we know there are places we don’t want to live, how do we ferret them out? What I wax poetic about is living a life where we would travel around, finding towns where we would like to stay a while and landing in an AirBnB.  Live there a couple of weeks or even a month but in-between we would be living out of some sort of stealth camper.

The Wife seems to believe this would be entirely too much me in too confined of space.  As I look at it, the only way to dissuade her into any sort of nomadic lifestyle is to simulate it.

These are the types of things we need to figure out.  Five years from now I hope it will be van version 2.0.  Maybe by then I will have the money for a Sprinter van instead of the fifty inch ceiling I deal with now.  Being able to stand up isn’t critical for me, just needing four night a week cheap lodging.  Seven days a week for an indeterminate length of time is another story.

I just know my digital photo album is full of screen shots from Instagram.  Van dwellers who shoot pictures looking out the backs of their vans.  The view out that back window is limitless.

Monday, January 22, 2018

It is a Control Issue

I got together with a group of friends tonight who I hadn’t seen for a few years.  It was fun seeing these people who I used to connect with every week over softball.   …the couple years I was motivated enough to play softball, that is.  But now it had been a few years. The last time I saw them it was at the funeral of one of our players.  On the upside, at this happy hour none of us were dead.  But at one point we talked about our lives and our aches. The impact of aging.  No, we weren’t dead, but the yet was implied.

I have to confess part of the reason I have stretched out the installation of the solar panels over four blog posts is because it took forever for me too.  Everything about them went slower than expected.  The delivery, building the frame, rebuilding the frame.  It all took forever for me too.

In the meantime the solar charge controller has shown up.  It was larger than I expected it to be and on top of that, it requires six inches of headroom above what is truly an impressively large heat sink.  Where I had planned on installing this device won’t work at all so it was back to the drawing boards on that for a bit.  What I ended up coming up with, I have to confess I am really happy about.

Looking in from the back doors you can see my control
panel and how little space I have to go on the left.
My original plan was to have attached it to the back side of my bed, next to the back door, which has turned into my defacto van wiring control panel.  It has been sort of amusing/scary to me.  We have all had the experience where you start to hand write a sentence, maybe as you write and think you add another word.  Suddenly you start to look at the edge of the piece of paper looming closer.   You tighten up your words  and letters hoping to make it.   That’s called “kerning” btw for all you non-typography-geeks out there. It’s the same way with my control panel.  When I started out I had real estate between components.  The spacing has gotten tighter and tighter as I have moved across the board.

That’s why when the charge controller showed up I realized I had a problem.  The spot I was going to put it, because of it’s height, it would be hanging down interfering with propane tank swapping.  This stuff sure looks smaller on a five and a half inch screen!

All the wires going into the charge controller.
I had to find it a new spot but you know where I live.  I don’t have a lot of spots.  I thought about putting it up in the cab behind the passenger seat maybe. The advantage is I am closer to the solar panels and closer is better for voltage drop reasons.  But, looking at the thing, it has this huge heat sink on it.  Even a layman like me knows that means it must produce a lot of heat.   Do I really want to put it up in the cab where it is already going to be really hot?   All that extra heat could cause damage in the unit itself. 

For the same reason I ruled out putting in my living space.  I haven’t totally given up the thought of someday putting in a refrigerator.  Those put out a lot of heat themselves, I didn’t want to add even more heat to the living space.  Heck, I even thought about building a box for it under the van.  The perfect spot really except for all the road salt six (to seemingly eight) months a year.   Really when it came down to it though the only spot I had was back by my batteries and rear doors.  The area I call the garage.

The solar charge controller in its "swung out of the way"
postion.  When swung in, it is under the fuse.
I’m sittin’ in a bar right now so I can’t tell you for sure but I am thinking this unit is maybe ten by ten inches square and maybe fourteen high.  Then you have to figure the headspace of six inches it needs for cooling.  Some of the wires might have to enter the unit through the bottom, that adds even more apparent height.  I live in a world where a cubic foot is a really big deal.  There just wasn’t a whole lot of places I could even attach this thing.  The only place it could really fit was a place it was totally in the way.  It would be nice if I could install it there and then just swing it out of the way when I needed to.

In the end, that’s exactly what I did.  I used two pieces of 3/4” plywood and two large hinges.  I countersunk the hinges so the two pieces of plywood formed a book.  I attached the front cover to the charge controller and the back cover to the van.  Wha-Laa, I had the controller where it needed to be and would be able to swing it out of the way when I need access to the batteries or the inverter.  The multitude of wires I was able to run down the hinge line, then behind the “book” in the space with the weatherstripping so they stayed very much out of the way as well.

The patch I put in to cover the tear I made
in the insulation.  The patch doesn't need to be
water tight, it is to prevent oxidation.
The charge controller takes a lot of wires coming to it.  Number four gauge wires coming down from the solar panels, even thicker number two gauge wires going to the batteries.  Then all the other stuff.  There is a temperature probe that runs from the controller to the batteries.  There is a voltage sensor (thin) wire that has to go to your battery bank.  Two ethernet cables, one going to the van network and the other to the remote control panel.

The wires from the charge controller to the batteries is number two gauge jumper cables that I have cut the ends off.  Using the jumper cables had some advantages.  First off, it was cheaper to buy jumper cables than it was to buy raw wire from the welding shop.  The second, jumper cables are idiot proof!  I need that!   They are color coded red and black whereas the welding cable is any color you would like as long as it is black.  Henry Ford would be proud.  I did have one problem.  I needed to separate the two wires and did so by pulling them.  I wasn’t careful initially and caused some tearing of the insulation on the wire itself.  I caught myself doing it though and so was able to fix it right up with some heat shrink tubing.  I wanted a really good seal so I used three layers of tubing, one over the tear and two overlapping over that.  I feel confident it is air and moisture tight.

The faring coming up through the van roof.  Red for
positive, black for negative.
Up on the roof of the van I had two wires going to the solar panels.  So far they were just raw wires.  I bought some MC-4 connectors off Amazon.  They come in pairs, I really only needed one pair, wouldn’t hurt to have a backup.  Smallest quanitity you can buy?  Ten pair.   Ah well.  They were $20.  At the same time I bought a “Renogy MC4 Solar Panel Mc4 ASSEMBLY Tool”  because it was advertised on every Amazon page that other buyers had purchased one of these as well.  Total waste of money.  Only an extra seven dollars but they got me.   What you will need is something I already had, a crimp tool.  This tool locks the connector down onto the wire but doesn’t deform it so it still fits into the little plastic MC-4 bits.

The wire stripping guides to attaching these connectors are important.  This is something you have to follow the instructions and do it just right, otherwise you won’t get a water tight seal.  Once you get the ends crimped in place though it is slick, one solar panel connects to the other one (because my panels are in series) and then you just snap connect the two wires coming up from the van to the panels.

A nice sunny day in the early fall and
I am pulling in 337 watts at 25.3 amps.
It was a big job getting this all hooked up.  Really once this was done, dropping in the solar panels (once they fit) was totally anticlimactic.  After a test fit, I lifted the panels back out and drilled three holes per panel side through the side of the steel frame.   Then I dropped the panel back in and attached it with some stainless steel self tapping sheet metal screws into the aluminum frame of the panel.

I have been looking forward to this moment in the van project for a long time.  It is really an indescribably cool feeling to look at numbers the first time and realize you are generating electricity from sunshine.  Kind of like the first person who dug a hole deep enough in arid land and discovered water.  You realize that you have harnessed something willing to help you survive.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Swing and a miss...

It was nineteen below zero yesterday morning in the wasteland I call home.  This afternoon I filled out two job applications in a city that was sixty.  I don’t need eighty five and a beach but living someplace where the cha-ching of the gas meter turning doesn’t keep me awake at night seems kinda nice.

When we last talked I had just gotten the frame for my solar panels built and I had turned down Number One Son’s offer to have a friend powder coat it.  Yeah, I totally should have had this solar panel rack powder coated.  Instead I elected to spray paint it myself which turned out to be a pretty huge job really.  Getting good coverage in all the nooks and crannies with spray paint seemed to be impossible.  The expanded metal had all these inside edges which needed paint.  So painting the frame was a job that sucked but I didn’t know what was coming next.

Four holes drilled through the roof
of the van.
With delays and rain storms and running out of paint and even more trips to the hardware store, the process of painting the rack took about three weeks.  Finally though I had it ready enough.  Like I said before, I could have sprayed another dozen cans onto this frame.  The coat of paint on it is thin and seems to chip easy but I had enough.  I wanted to move on.

I had number one son stop over and between the two of us we lifted the painted frame up onto the van.    I made one last trip to the hardware store and picked up a whole bunch of U bolts, washers and nuts along with a few drill bits to fit.  Drilling steel it is much easier to have a nice sharp new bit.

Along with having the frame built I bought some 12ft long sticks of 1-1/4” square steel tubing.  This is the same material we built the pipe holder out of.  These sticks I drilled with holes just fore and aft of the cross braces of the roof rack.  Then I ran a U bolt through the holes and over the cross brace.  Flat washers and lock washers both for this application.  The idea here is to let these be the platform for the rack to set down on.  I spaced three of them somewhat equally across the space from the frame attachment ears over to the upright on the passenger side of the roof rack.

Cutting between the holes to make the hole
to attach the faring.
Once I got these in place I bungie corded the frame attachment ears in place, then I tipped the frame up and braced it up.   Then  went inside the van and made the final decisions on where I wanted the solar wires coming down into the van.  I measured and marked the four corners of a little faring I bought.  I drilled out the four corners with a bit large enough to allow my jig saw blade to pass through.

Back up on the roof I used my portable jigsaw to connect the dots and cut this square out.  I layered up a good double thickness ribbon of the butyl tape on the edge of the hole.  I drilled several holes around the edge of the faring then attached it with some half inch self taping sheet metal screws.  Drawing it down until the butyl tape was squeezing out from all the way around.

With this all done, I tipped the frame back down and undid the bungie cords.  Then attached more U bolts to attach the ears to the roof rack.  As a final step I used some strapping to attach my six inch PVC pipe.  My frame was all in place.

All set to drop my panels in and hook them up.  This is all really going great.  How often have you just finished saying that when everything goes to shit?

The U bolt I used to attach the frame.
Here is my best explanation for what went wrong.  The damn thing shrank.  No really.   Metal shrinks and expands with heat.  The expanded metal must have been hot from the grinder cutting it before it was welded in place.  Anyway the middle area of the frame where the expanded metal was attached was bowed in almost half an inch.  The Welder stopped by and with a grinding tool cut a slit in the expanded metal.  That helped a lot but not really quite enough.   It was a crazy deal.  We had those solar panels installed in place when he originally tack-welded the frame together.  Then we pulled them out so they wouldn’t get damaged by sparks and he finished welding it up.

With the cut expanded metal the panels almost fit in but I am a woodworker.  If something is a 16th off, you just run a belt sander across it a couple of times.  In metal it doesn’t work out that way.  Another couple of weeks had to go by for the stars to all align, then Number one son took the van out to the shop and they cut it apart and welded it back together.  I guess it took a couple of tries to get it right.  I was pretty happy The Welder considered this a warranty job.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blending in With Solar

I grew up a farm kid.  People in that demographic tend to have a pretty wide skill set.  But for those of us who have moved off, it isn't a skill set we have maybe used in a while.  In theory anyway, one of those skills I have is welding.  But the last time I welded anything was 30 years ago.  Building a grid work of pipes so a movie production company could hang lights over a set.  It was up next to the ceiling on a hot summer day and after the first few welds I was totally overheating.  Taking full advantage of my maleness I whipped off my shirt and spent the next several hours finishing the job. …not to mention getting easily the worst sunburn of my life.  Ah but isn't all education expensive in some way?  Welding puts out a ton of ultra violet light.  Pipes never fell down.  That’s the important part.

I have my solar panels, I want to mount them to the roof of the van.  But I don’t really want them visible because that breaks stealth.  I have to have a couple of pretty good sized (Number 4 gauge) wires coming down from the panels and going into the van.   It would be very nice to disguise those wires in some way as well. 

Underside of a frame corner.
What I came up with as an idea was to build a steel frame.  I would paint it white so it would blend in and cover the black edges of the solar panels.  The frame would have some sort of textured metal that would cover part of the underside to provide some busyness the eye would tend to just flow over.  But most importantly it would hide the middle part of the backs of the solar panels where the wires attach.  The last design feature I wanted was to have the frame hinged in some way so if I was really desperate for electricity and didn’t need to be stealthy I could tip the panels up and increase my solar collection.

On the side of this frame I wanted a bracket that would hold a six inch PVC pipe.   If you start to watch cargo vans you will see them all the time.  I think carpenters use these long pipes on their roof racks to hold thin pieces of wood trim.  Well I wanted a pipe just like that.  Behind it, the wires could drop down from the solar panels and enter the van through two holes I will cut in the roof.  My PVC pipe will hold folding chairs and maybe a tent. :-)

Tacking the weld on hinges.
During this van building work I gave really serious consideration to doing this job of building the solar frame myself.  The shop that I am working at has a full metal fabrication area with welders and the like.  But I don’t really like working with metal as much as wood.  I would have to do some cutting and I am not very familiar with metal cutting band saws.  The shop offers training on all this stuff once a month so I could have done it.  But, did I really want to?  This is to be a frame, holding something expensive, on the top of my van.  A weld breaking loose at speed could be way more excitement and cause way more damage than what I really need at this point in my life.  I decided against it.

I got in touch with number one son and he, in touch with his redneck network.  As it turns out I ended up going with the same guy I hired for cutting the hole in the floor of the van and building the basket for the propane tanks.  I got him a drawing of what I had planned and we setup a Saturday to do it.  The really great thing about working with one of these young, positive thinking kids is they are really open minded to building something non standard.  And, even more important, they have already built lots of custom stuff.  They have a lot of really great ideas on their own.

The first thing we looked at was the bracket to hold the pipe and the hinge.  My original idea was to use two pipes of the diameter they could nest together.  I would have the smaller diameter pipe attached somehow to the van at the edge of the roof rack. I would have the larger pipe attached to the solar frame.   The frame would extend out beyond the hinge point and to the under side of this extension would be this custom pipe holding bracket to be built.

My original design for the custom pipe
holder bracket and frame with pipe hinge.

But I had to concede two points.  First off this bracket was going to be a tremendous amount of effort to produce.  The only way I knew to cut a 6 inch radius in heavy steel was to cut it with a torch. Then grind it smooth, but that process could run an hour per bracket.  I felt like I needed three of them.  The second point against my design was with the hinge point back at the roof rack. Tipping the solar panels up would cause the pipe to strike against the side of the van if tipped more than about thirty degrees.  At my latitude I have to tip my panels up to about 66 degrees in the wintertime.   My design accounted for this by making the bracket swingable.  I would be able to unhook something or other and let the bracket swing down and not hit the side of the van.

In the summertime, sun bright in the sky, I am not going to have a shortage of solar problem.   The time I am going to need to resort to these extreme measures to gather electricity is in the dead of winter on one of those bright clear twenty one below zero Fahrenheit days.  Those days, am I really wanting to be diddling with some kind of (frozen) fastening system on my big white pipe?  Something I am going to only really be able to access from an icy stepladder?  No.  No, that is what you call a design weakness right there.

Cutting sheets of expanded metal.
The Welder took one look at this and made an immediate design change.  He had some weld in hinges.  What he suggested was to move the hinge point out to the outside edge, we would double up the frame and let attach back at the roof rack via some two foot long “ears” from the frame.  It solved the whole pipe hitting the van problem because the pipe would never move.  It would be below the hinged frame.   No fuss, no muss, I would just be able to tilt the panels up without having to touch anything about the pipe.  This was a fantastic idea.  Exactly why I like going to guys like this.

For the under part he had some “expanded metal”.  Imagine taking a sheet of steel and cutting a whole series of little slits in it.  Then, pull it from the end and the slits open up to form holes.  This is what expanded metal is.  I picked out some that had the added feature of being flattened.   They take the expanded metal that has sort of a twist to it that leaves lots of exposed sharp edges and run it through some sort of roller that flattens it all out.

The underside of the solar panel frame before the pipe
holder and attachment ears are welded on.
It was really interesting watching the whole fabrication process.  Number One son and The Wife were both there as well so it was a fun time.  The Wife is a townie and had never been in a metal shop before, let alone seen the entire process of building something.   Before the day was over she had a welding mask on and really seemed to have a good time.

The frame came together well and I think it took us maybe five hours all told.  But one thing to factor in, this was one guy working and three people asking him questions.

Here is where I made a little bit of a mistake.  Number One Son said, “I know a guy who can powder coat it.  You want me to run it over there?  Take a couple of weeks...”  Powder coating is when you take plastiscised paint particles (dust) that have a positive charge to them.  Then you take your object, in my case a solar panel frame, and you put a negative charge on it.  The dust sticks to the object due to static electricity and some long forgotten property described to me in a college physics.  Then you run the object into an oven and you bake that paint right on.   It makes a great finish.  Really hard and long lasting.

This is a weld on hinge at the edge of the
solar panel frame.
Two weeks?   Nahhh, I’m gonna paint this whole thing this afternoon!   I confess, this is the largest object I have ever spray painted.  I didn’t realize how little actual paint is in those little cans when it comes to covering something of this size.  I figured a couple of cans of primer.  It was more like five.  Must have taken six or seven cans of white and three weeks.  Really it could have used a couple more.  I totally should have had it powder coated.

The frame is all built, the next step is to mount it on the van.