Tuesday, December 11, 2018

EVEN MORE SHOE STORAGE FOR THE AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE

On a recent trip, my husband and I each needed five pairs of shoes.  Dress shoes, manual labor shoes, shower shoes (flip-flops), hiking boots, and casual every day shoes. 

That means storage for ten pairs, or twenty shoes.  In a van.

Back in 2015, I described assigned storage for four pairs of those shoes (here).  That became my most heavily-viewed blog post of this entire 4-year series. 

Four pairs down, six pairs to go!!

This became my next shoe conversion target - the recessed space in front of the hot water heater cover.  I first converted the panel itself to a neodymium magnetic attachment system (Airstream had screwed it into place, which made winterizing a real pain).

Obviously, anything else I built into this little space had to be just as easily removable.  Furthermore, I had a rule for this project:  no purchasing of materials.  We have SO MUCH MATERIAL that we have already accumulated during the course of doing four years of van projects.  We need to find creative ways to use up that stuff.  Everything I built here, I had to source from our garage.  There are many different ways to complete a project like this.  Mine involved the use of scraps and residual hardware.

In order to maximize that void space, I needed a shelf.  But in front of that pull-off panel, there's a cabinetry cross-piece, so I couldn't build a simple 3-sided shelf.  I had to make the "legs" less wide.
Like this.  This is a piece of scrap plywood left over from our dog's front seat platform project.  
Here you can see what I mean:
See the cross-piece in front?
Now, obviously I could not attach that shelf insert to the cabinetry, because I'd be right back where I started in terms of inconvenience in reaching the hot water heater valves.  But there was also the issue of shoes tumbling out of this shallow space when the van is in motion.  I know this happens, because we use that space for shoes now, and I'm constantly tripping over them when they fall into the aisle. 

In order to contain both the shoes and the unattached platform that would segregate the pairs of them, I went with a variant on the bungee cord theme.
See those two little neodymiums screwed into the lower cross-piece?  Those are key to this simple design.

Also, because I had to trim one of my Flor tiles in front of the door, I friction-fit a remnant from that piece into this slot, to give it a more finished look.  That, too, can simply be lifted out - it's not attached. 
I cut pieces of a bungee cord to length so that they would stretch between the top and bottom surfaces.  I used four small angle brackets for this attachment job, but rather than permanently attaching them at the bottom, I used more neodymium magnets, so that the cords would be removable.  They hold like this:


Next it was just a matter of sanding, painting, and assembling the shelf for final use.  Because we are in the month of December and it's too cold for paint to set up properly, I sprayed and then baked the pieces in my kitchen oven so that they'd dry quickly.  I may go back later, when the weather is warmer, and repaint them in the Sherwin Williams color-matched gray shade that I've used elsewhere in the van.

First coat sinks in well.  I typically use my kitchen oven about six times a year - once to bake a Thanksgiving turkey, and five times to bake Interstate parts.  It's not a bad practice if you don't mind your house smelling like xylene. 
And of course, the money shot:

Hopefully I will never again find my husband's malodorous Topsiders in the driver's seat.  That's where he has been storing them at night, because he had nowhere else to put them.
I don't know that this is my favorite design that I could have come up with, but it's a danged sight better than what was there to start with (which was nothing).  On with the road testing.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

FLOR CARPET TILES FOR THE AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE, PART 2: ATTACHING

See Part 1 for a description of why I chose Flor carpet tiles for our van.

Given that I want these tiles to essentially constitute three free-floating mats, I decided to try 2 mm cable ties to lash them together at the corners.   That process went like this:

Arrange the visual pattern, flip the tiles over, and mark the drilling locations.
The carpet backing is so dense that I don't think they will pull apart even if force is put on them.

I fitted a cable tie to figure out which was the optimal drill bit size, given that I need the ties to lay flat.
Drill, baby, drill.
The snippers are pointing directly at one of the cable tie heads inserted and looped through these holes.  Can you see it?
Probably not - it's a disruptive carpet pattern with black in it.  Plus I can kind of "fluff" some carpet fibers over the cable tie where it emerges on the front side.  
You are probably wondering about the obvious question: if we step on those cable tie heads in bare feet, won't it hurt?

For the two sets of three Flor tiles bound together down the center of the van, this is not likely to be a problem because the ties are pushed to the absolute edges of the carpet tiles.  That leaves the pair in front of the slider door as possible issue in this regard.  I stepped on a head in bare feet, and while I could feel the head, the carpet cushioned the experience, and it wasn't like stepping on a pebble or anything.

I had to trim the fore-most (as opposed to aft-most) pair to size, and Airstream's squaring of the cabinetry opposite the sliding door was atrocious.
It was off-square by 1.5 cm over a span of just 19.7".  
But I was able to fit the area by measuring carefully and cutting the carpet tile with a razor blade.
Wide angle GoPro shot from above.  Freakish.
It's hard to tell from the wide angle, but the Flor tiles are virtually identical to the width of the wet bath door.  The placement was obvious.

Anyway, these groupings are fairly heavy now that they are cable-tied together - they tend not to slide around.  Next I will road test this assemblage and see if they need any additional measures to keep them in place. 
Another wide angle shot.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

FLOR CARPET TILES FOR THE AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE, PART 1: FITTING

I have a feeling this will be a multi-part blog post.  Ultimately, I'm not sure how I'll configure these tiles in our Airstream Interstate - that answer will come with trial and error. 

Background:  I wanted a mat or carpet solution that would be easy to remove from our rig for cleaning purposes.  We almost always boondock, we are often chain-sawing and hacking our way through the wilderness, and I cannot use a vacuum because we don't have shore power for weeks at a time.  I have to remove any mats or rugs I use, and get the dirt out of them the old fashioned way - by beating them. 
I am not the very last person on earth to remember this Les Nessman quote, but I'm really, really close, as evidenced by the fact that I can't find a decent meme of it, or even a complete reference.
To this end, I did NOT want a conventional fitted rug such as this one:
Look at that - it can't even be kept clean long enough to do a quick YouTube video.  And what would I do with the likes of this without a vacuum?  It's too cumbersome for me to remove and beat.

Floor shot of the new Interstate 19, as uploaded by YouTube user John P.
Whatever I put in there has to be removable in pieces and has to stand up to being beaten, scrubbed, and sprayed off with a garden hose.  Conventional carpet cannot be treated that way, but Flor carpet tiles get pretty good reviews in that regard.  They stand up to a lot.  

One caveat on a Flor installation in a van like ours:  The tiles are stiff and will not conform to the shape of table receivers if you have them installed in your floor.  Ours had two in the rear section, but I stopped needing them when we installed our Lagun table (see here).  So I first had to remove those:

And I'm glad I did, because the chassis holes need some remedial attention.
Hey, there's the label on the Onan generator which was installed under this section of floor.
Ugh... the usual good OEM job on sealing the subfloor and chassis frame itself.  Thanks, Airstream. 
Rodents would have a name for these holes - "Stairway to Heaven".  I'll have to get thin sheet metal patches while I figure out what to do with them longer term.  
So here's a few shots of my initial configuration.  Note that I have two tiles overlapped in front of the slider.  I have to cut one of them down to size, but I haven't done that yet.

  
You can see that the edges of the cabinetry are not continuous all the way from the front to the back.  There's a jog in front of the curbside couch, and another jog aft of the wet bath (photo right).  It would be difficult to fit a single unbroken rug in this area even if I wanted to.  

They coordinate with the existing cab carpet, even while adding a bit of pattern to what is otherwise a design composed of solids.  I think they suit the van. 
I don't mind the discontinuous appearance - it does break up the long linear hallway.

The remaining question is -- how am I going to attach these, either to each other in three groups, and/or to the floor?  How will I NEED to attach them?

I'm not sure yet.  The carpet backing is very dense and they are not very slippery, even as loose individual tiles.  Watch as I try to scoot this one around:


If I can figure out an unobtrusive way to bind them to each other (in groups of 3, 3, and 1.5, the last being in front of the slider), I may not need to attach them to the floor at all.  They might stay put by themselves without assistance.    

Anyway, that's a recap of stage one of this process.  I'll figure out what to do next by using these carpet tiles in practice and seeing how they perform.  
WKRP is so old that it hasn't been meme'd decently at all.

Friday, October 26, 2018

LITHIUM LOAD TESTING A 200 A BOSCH ALTERNATOR

This blog post is a placeholder containing two video clips of our 200 A Bosch alternator.  We took these as we were trying to ascertain why our previous alternator's clutch pulley failed at 17 months of age (original blog post here; Sprinter Forum discussion commences at post #110 on this page here).  Was it caused by the dynamics of the lithium charging?  Or was it an unrelated failure?

It's very difficult to tell.  These two tests do not represent actual vehicle operating conditions, which would include high engine RPMs, cab a/c cranking and placing its own load on the alternator, other vehicle systems engaged, road roughness contributing to vibrations, etc. 

The results are utterly inconclusive.  There is evidence of pitch changes when the lithium charging loads are applied and removed, but no obvious thrashing of the belts, or visible vibrations, or anything like that. 

I'll have more on what we plan to do about this failure in future posts, but in the meantime, here are the views from below and above.




Friday, October 12, 2018

FRONT SEAT DOG PLATFORM

For the life of me, I'm constantly losing track of where I place my content - is it on this dinosaur of a blog, on Instagram (@Interstate.blog), on the forums (@Interblog), or some combination of these?  Usually the answer is the last.  It's all over the place, like a dog's breakfast.  

Anyway, just a quick recap of how I improved our dog's front seat accommodations.  First, a description of the need:


I started by considering the potential utility of existing devices on the market:
Nope - these are only available to span the entire seat width.
Nope - I ordered this exact item, and then found it too flimsy to support a dog platform.  Fine for preschoolers on airplanes, perhaps.  
I hit pay dirt with a 55 cm exercise ball.  They are cheap (less than 20 bucks), very durable, and can conform very well to the space (partially inflate it, place in the seat foot well, and then continue inflating).  

I coupled the exercise ball with a quarter-inch plywood platform which has a tang at the back.  The tank inserts into the crease where the seat and seat back meet.  I painted it with three coats of oil-based enamel so that it will stand up in high humidity environments.  

This configuration makes use of an off-the-shelf 2' x 3' crate pad (although I did make a nylon liner for the memory foam so that the outer gray cover can slip off and on easily for washing... it's a bear to keep clean without this improvement, because the memory foam results in such high friction with the fabric of its cover).  The leading edge of the crate pad gets folded over the plywood so that it won't scratch the dash.  

When the dog and I are traveling solo, her seat will look like this (below).  When my husband flies out to join us, I can:
  1. Place the crate pad on the floor.
  2. Deflate and stow the exercise ball.
  3. Store the plywood behind the driver's seat.
Well, that's assuming that the dog will actually give up her seat, because she vastly prefers this to life on the floor of the van.

Money shot:


Here is a link to an Air Forums thread describing other options and products along these same lines.  But not as cool, I don't think.  The exercise ball was really the breakthrough on this project.  Without that, I couldn't keep the plywood stable enough for a 53 pound dog.   

Sunday, September 23, 2018

PSA: ALTERNATOR CLUTCH PULLEY FAILURES ON LITHIUM SYSTEMS

I put this information on Instagram (@interstate.blog), but not everyone is on IG, so here is a regurg, starting with what I posted, upon which I will then expound in this blog post, because this is super-important.  For you guys who have a lithium system charged by a single engine alternator (plus or minus other charging options such as generator, shore power, or solar), if your alternator behaves as mine did, the outcome could be life-threatening.  DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOU ARE SAFE FROM THIS TYPE OF FAILURE IF YOU HAD A PROFESSIONAL INSTALL YOUR LITHIUM SYSTEM. 

My IG tile. 
Text

Our 17-month-old 200 A Bosch alternator began failing last month when I was on the road between Houston and Nova Scotia. This was a particularly pernicious problem because my first sign of trouble had nothing to do with our camper van’s lithium system - instead what happened is that I started losing the chassis electrical system, which would have developed into a middle-of-the-freeway potentially catastrophic breakdown if I hadn’t caught it in time. There’s a #vanlife myth floating around out there that if you have a Sterling battery-to-battery charger in your system, it will protect against engine alternator damage. This is not true - it will protect against SOME types of alternator damage, but it will NOT prevent your alternator’s clutch from wearing out grossly prematurely, which is what happened to ours (we had it diagnosed by a repair shop today; I estimate that this alternator did perhaps 20 hours of heavy-load lithium recharging spread across the 17 short months of its life before failing). Those of you who have single-alternator lithium rigs might be sitting ducks if you haven’t hardened your electrical system against this kind of weak-link-in-the-chain breakdown scenario. See vids by YouTuber Alternatorman for more detail on alternator clutches. Thanks once again to @million_mile_sprinter for helping me out last month.

OK, now the expound.  When I said "I started losing the chassis electrical system", what I meant was that I began noticing that I could no longer crank my air conditioner fan up to its highest setting.  I was driving through Mississippi in August - trust me, under those conditions, it's noticeable if the a/c starts to wane.  I literally had a panic attack when I realized that there's basically only one thing that could bring about that result - a failed or failing alternator.  I opened up the OBD Fusion app on my iPhone which bluetooths to a reader that we have permanently mounted in the van's OBD socket.  Sure enough, the chassis battery was reading 12.8 V, which is way below what it should have been.  The alternator was not charging the chassis battery.  The van was about to stop dead in the middle of IH-59 between Hattiesburg and Meridian (i.e., middle of nowhere). 

I pulled off the road and sprang to the back of the van to look at the lithium charging status.  I had done my usual thing that day by driving from Houston to Laf Louisiana, stopping for lunch, and running our roof air conditioner off our 300 AH lithium battery for about an hour while I took a nap.  I then got back on the road with the alternator engaged to bring the lithium battery back up to full charge (a heavy-load scenario for the alternator because I'd run it down to about 50% state of charge (SOC)).

Cue additional horror when I got to the back of the van, which is where our electrical control system is located:  my lithium was reading about 90%, which means that the alternator had been, and perhaps still was, charging the house battery at the expense of the chassis battery.  That should never, ever, EVER happen, and I didn't understand how it was even physically possible given the way we had configured our system. 

Immediately I de-loaded the alternator by isolating the lithium charging circuit.  (Yes, we'd had the foresight to install a kill switch for that when we DIY'd our electrical system). 

I then got back on the road, praying that whatever was remaining of the alternator functionality could then put its full contribution into the chassis battery, which was dangerously low at that point.  I had planned to stop for the night in Toomsuba MS, but I kept driving straight through to Tuscaloosa AL to give the battery time to recover.  That's a 615 mile run on the day, more than I prefer to do when driving solo, but it was necessary.

I got to Tuscaloosa (excellent boondocking Cracker Barrel there BTW), pulled out my voltmeter and measured the chassis battery directly, terminal to terminal (we don't rely on the OBD exclusively because it seems to not have foolproof accuracy; story omitted for brevity).  It was reading not ideal but reasonable.  I knew I'd have enough juice to get the van running properly in the morning. 

No more deep lithium discharges from that point forward.  No more alternator charging, period.  I was in a rare pocket of cooler summer air (a cool front had passed through) such that I could live without a/c, and rather than bailing on the trip and returning to Houston, I continued heading north, hoping to intercept Joel Sell (Million Mile Sprinter) in Philadelphia.  I had my husband (who was still back in Houston) make contact with him to see if he could replace the alternator while I was en route, and he said yes.  A Philly detour would add only an hour or two to my total route.

Here's the maddening part:  Through no fault of his own, Joel couldn't determine conclusively on the spot what was wrong with the alternator.  Of course he could take it off site and get it diagnosed, but that takes time.  I arrived at his place around 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and I didn't necessarily want to hang around until Monday morning.  So we made the decision to just go ahead and replace the existing alternator, which clearly had something wrong with it, so that I could get back on the road.

The replacement deed in progress.
As for what was wrong with the alternator, that would have to be determined later.  Joel and I did some preliminary testing just so that my engineer husband could have data to noodle on.  It looked like this:
Tap to expand for clarity.  If you are a less-technical person, know that higher voltages indicate a better-performing alternator. 
I continued to Nova Scotia without further incident, carrying the half-dead alternator with me.  A 200 A alternator is big and heavy and a pain to tote around in a small van.  After I off-loaded my meal-encapsulating solid ice blocks at my father's place, I used our hitch-mounted Yeti to carry it.

These were my 2018 ice blocks, 35 pounds apiece with vacuum-packed home cooking embedded in them.  Many good meals were had by at least seven adults courtesy of these, which I prepared in Houston and took with me. 
Five weeks after I set out, my husband and I returned to Houston, never having resumed alternator charging.  We had the old alternator diagnosed yesterday.  The clutch was worn out and was slipping under high-load usage scenarios.  It's being repaired as I speak, and I'll follow up with a separate blog post on that process.  And BTW, who even knew that alternators have clutches?!?!  They did not used to have this failure-prone add-on.  I'll also discuss that subsequently. 

First moral of this storyNO MORE SINGLE ALTERNATOR OFF-GRIDDING.  We are going to reconfig our van for a second isolated alternator which will be dedicated to just the house lithium battery.  That way, even if we have another such failure, it won't kill the chassis battery and disable the Sprinter's native electrical system to boot. More on that later.

Second moral of this story:  This whole failure episode of mine is exactly why off-grid vans need as many redundant systems as they can support within their space limitations.  Many have asked why we'd go to all the trouble and expense to put solar on the roof when the alternator is going to outperform solar's recharging ability by a factor of somewhere between 3 to 4.  The answer is that STUFF BREAKS.  Sometimes it breaks in ways that nobody can predict.  Never before this had I heard about alternator clutches failing, and I've been following all of the vanning and off-gridding forums for four years now!!  Neither had my husband ever heard of this phenomenon, and he had done months of research on mobile lithium systems.

My boondocking property in Canada, where there was no crimp in our style.  We completed a 5-week off-grid trip even with this limitation of not being able to use our new alternator, because our solar alone took care of our lithium battery.  We had to be careful with our usage, because my property is surrounded by these high trees, limiting sun exposure.  But we spent 2 of our 5 weeks here without any recharging problems, running on solar alone. 
I'll close this post with this 3-minute video that describes alternator clutches.  Read it and weep.  Watch it and weep.  The manufacturers took a pretty good device (alternators have been around for a long, long time) and screwed it up by adding this failure-prone clutch part.  More on that later, too.

Link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUs4Y5ZMiTU

Embed:


Saturday, June 23, 2018

SIZING A CGEAR SANDFREE MAT FOR THE AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE

Just a wee blog post here to let you know that one CAN successfully resize a CGear Sandfree mat for a Class B RV. 

I don't know what in the hell I was thinking when I bought an 8 foot by 8 foot mat of this brand name.  I used it once and realized that it was way too large for our needs.  Furthermore, it doesn't pack down very small size as the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) of which it is constructed is rather unruly.  Furthermore, it is only sold in square sizes, and I wanted a rectangle to fit beneath our awning.
NNNNNOOOOOOO!!!  I want RECTANGULAR!!!
Here are a few #vansizedsewing tips for working with this product.
I used this binder for my cut edges, which bought via Amazon. Strapworks rules.  I've bought stock from them before, usually directly because their entire inventory is not on Amazon.  Color is silver gray. 
So I chopped my 8'x8' mat in half, but may I say, this mat is truly aggravating to sew.  It's made of two independent layers of HDPE fabric, both of which float free except at the bound edges.
It's quite springy and it became a bit of a chore to wrangle both halves into the new bound edge. 
Important:  As you are feeding it through your sewing machine, keep it under tension.  Left hand pulls away from you, right hand pulls toward you.  This will prevent rumples and wrinkles.  And for goodness sake, bind up your excess so that it's not running away from you.  I used binder clips to keep it under control.
Push-me-pull-you. 
Can you tell which part of it is my bound edge, vs. CGear's OEM work?
Wait until it gets a bit dirty.  Then this slight difference won't be visible at all. 
Of course, I had to sew new binding on both of my chopped halves, because if I had left the other half just sitting there, I'm afraid it would have started to curl and perhaps unravel.  But I'm satisfied with the finished product, and if the first half gets worn out from use, then I've got another half to fall back on.  Two of the right rectangular size, for the price of one square.
Half the size and half the bulk. 
And yes, I know my grass needs to be cut. 
Fair warning - if you Google "push me pull you", you'll get a few pics like this, plus a large number of pics of animals copulating.