Sunday, April 1, 2018

EVALUATING CELLULAR CONNECTIVITY POTENTIAL

This post is a one-off published in the hopes that someone will raise a hand and tell me what I'm doing wrong, resource-wise and procedure-wise.
It wasn't working for us:
That white object extending upward from the rear of the vehicle is a Wilson Yagi directional antenna pointed toward a known (i.e., location-published) cellular source and cabled into the market's best booster which ultimately received absolutely nothing in the way of usable signal from this exercise and investment. 
After re-reading a couple of cellular troubleshooting forum threads, including this one in which the merits of this directional antenna are debated, my husband and I decided to get down to brass tacks and see if we could begin constraining the question with some actual computations, just as a first measure.

We know that cellular transmission functions largely according to line of sight principles.  There are some diffraction and reflection and other effects incorporated into the mix, but line of sight is the best bet, particularly as distances from the tower increase.

Tower details are public information and are published in both the United States and Canada.  The same is true of topography.  Theoretically, then, it should be a simple matter to determine a priori whether line of sight exists at any given location.  And here's the endgame:  If line of sight does not exist, how tall would a user's antenna mast need to be in order to achieve it? 

I'm primarily interested in determining these facts with precision within the context of a property that we own in rural eastern Canada.  However, for various reasons I will omit for brevity, that is a more complex determination, so I thought I would start off with a simple example where I've experienced cellular signal failure - Monahans Sandhills State Park in Texas.
It's a unique environment where the unprecedented small-scale topographic features play hell with connectivity.  This is an aerial photo of the camping loop where I stayed.  
Sand-bogged?! 
I'd like to coin a new term:  Cell-bogged.  
The Sandhills are particularly frustrating place to to get cell-bogged because we know that so many towers are nearby, both in the City of Monahans to the west and throughout the Midland-Odessa metro area to the east.
Good grief.  Starving in the midst of plenty.
Screengrabbed from Antennasearch.com 
So here's the basic procedure for making this determination.

You can see on the map above that there is one tower north of Monahans that is due west of the state park's campground.  I chose that one upon which to base this analysis.  Here are the stats on that tower according to Antennasearch.

This is where Hillmap comes in.  This blog post by the site's creators describes how to use Hillmap, but I didn't find any reference to the source data, and that's important, as we shall see below.

Here's a close-up of that tower's location on Antennasearch.

And here's the same close-up on Hillmap.
The blue line is tracing eastward toward the camp site.
For those of you not familiar with Texas, all those squares are drill sites.  This area is within the Permian Basin, an incredibly productive oil and gas reservoir.  
You can see from those two images above that I'm clearly assessing the same feature via Hillmap as I'm viewing on Antennasearch.

Now, here's a summary of the resulting topographic profile between this particular tower and the referenced camp site (map and resulting topographic profile produced by Hillmap, as annotated by me):

Tap this image to expand for clarity. 
Obviously we have major database problems here.  Just for starters, the two websites are in significant disagreement regarding the elevation of the land surface upon which the referenced tower was constructed.  That part of it should not be rocket science, but I can't determine the source of the discrepancy from the information that is readily available.  I will note that the tower in question was reportedly constructed in 1992.  That predated the commercial availability of high-quality GPS services, and maybe the available elevation data were much poorer back then - I don't know.

Hillmap was designed primarily as a backcountry hiking reference.  High degrees of accuracy are not necessarily needed for the fulfillment of their mission.  Again, I didn't find a statement regarding the source of their baseline elevation data.

I do realize that I've predicated this assessment on one tower that I wasn't able to confirm in the field as my actual source tower.  There are other factors that can influence line of sight, such as, the position on the tower of the cellular equipment.  The higher up a tower, the more expensive the placement.  Just because a tower is stated as 2,972 feet tall does not mean that the equipment itself has been placed on or near that height.  My carrier is the cellular giant Verizon, though, and I would expect their equipment to be commanding premium spots on towers.

Lastly, it's important to incorporate ground truth into any assessment such as this.  The ground truth in this case suggests that there is not necessarily sufficient resolution in the Hillmap database to accurately reflect fine-scale reality.  Here's a view to the west with my rig visible at intermediate range - in other words, looking generally in the direction of the referenced tower.  The highly-localized topography suggests that the rig may indeed fail where line of sight is concerned - there's a large sand hill to the west of it.
The camp sites are at the bottom of a sandy bowl. 
I picked this location for this blog analysis because the distinction between cell-bogged and cell-enabled was so clear.  All I needed to do to get good reception was trudge up to the top of the sand dune from which this photo was taken.  At that point, I was clearly line-of-sight.

In sooth, we need better data than what I've shown here if we are to do this type of analysis with accuracy sufficient to justify purchase decisions (which antenna, which mast, etc.).  If anyone has any source material suggestions or procedures that are superior to what I've presented here, please email me via interstate.blog -at- gmail. Thanks, and I will update this post in the future if I identify better evaluation methods.
My non-sand-bogged pooch enjoying the Monahans dunes at sunset. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

LITHIUM BATTERY UPGRADE, PART 2: AC SYSTEM

I will write these next three posts using the plainest language that I can muster.  My purpose here is to introduce readers to the components of our lithium system, and to how they work together, in a manner that non-technical people can understand.  Most people who want lithium battery systems in their RV or van are not engineers.  They don't necessarily need to learn enough to become system designers, but they should learn the principles behind the systems.  After all, lives are depending on proper system design.

^^ What HE said.
This quote is attributed to him.  The actual owner is uncertain.
If you really want to understand any van or RV electrical system, the best way to go about it is to break it down into the smallest possible pieces, and learn each one.
Dr. Feynman sorta took the original Einstein-attributed construct and, well, he Feynman-ized it.  
It's important to note, however, that there are no freebies with this process.  If you don't have a background in electrical design but you really want to learn a few things about this stuff anyway, be prepared to study hard.  It's time-consuming because it's not enough to simply gaze at this information passively.  You have to manipulate it in your head and visualize yourself applying it, or at least watching it in action.  You'll have to walk yourself through our design diagrams (I stop short of calling them schematics) repeatedly in order to solidify your understanding of this kind of system. 

As is genius, so is learning generally.  Especially when it comes to challenging content like this. 
The first thing we need to do is review the meanings of some words that are used to describe electrical systems.  This is not necessarily the best place to ask "Why?"  These are definitions that just need to be accepted as-is.  I'll try to minimize the extent to which these are needed, but they may come in handy before this post series is through. 
The plumbing analogy can be helpful because electricity cannot generally be "seen" but at the same time, it needs to be visualized.  People are generally familiar with how water moves through pipes or hoses, so this serves as a comparison of sorts.  
Three of those units in that table above relate to each other in a very specific defined way, as this diagram shows:  
The common instruction is to cover the third of the triangle that you are intending to derive, and then either multiply or divide based on the spatial relationship of the other two thirds.  
When describing the flow of electricity through a wire or certain devices, this handy diagram is often invoked:
Now that the internet has barfed up this wealth of handy electrical references, here's our basic simplified AC diagram below.
Tap or click to expand for clarity.
Blogger downsamples embedded images.
I'll generally describe each of the diagram's numerically-superscripted components in terms of:

(a) what the component is (with links, or, where specific models have been discontinued, I linked to the closest-available substitute), 
(b) how it gets the electricity that it receives, 
(c) what it does with that electricity, and 
(d) why. 

I've also set up this narrative to follow the general electrical flow from points of origin to the points where it is expended by doing work in a specific way.  Remember - if this material is unfamiliar to you, then it might help to return repeatedly to the analogy of water flowing through an interconnected series of devices and pipes. 

1.  Shore Power – Our van was wired by Airstream to receive 30 amp AC electrical service (larger RVs with more extensive electrical loads are usually designed around 50 amp service).  This is the electrical supply that is commonly referred to in the vernacular as “shore power”, a phrase borrowed from the boating industry.  It is obtained by connecting a heavy power cord from an electrical outlet (often mounted on a low pedestal in campgrounds) to the plug-in connector on the outside of the rig.

2.  Surge Suppressor - Some shore power sources supply voltage that is not held steady at 120V, which is normal household supply.  Voltage spikes and brown-outs can occur due to electrical storms, overloaded campgrounds, and problems with the grid where the electricity is originating. Allowing electrical fluctuations into a van or RV can cause serious damage to the internal components and appliances.  We installed an integrated surge suppressor (Surge Guard Model 34520) to protect against these events.  This device is mounted on an interior wall under the street-side rear couch.

3.  Generator - Our Airstream Interstate camper van was delivered with an Onan Microlite 2800 series propane generator installed.  Much like shore power, this device supplies 120V AC when it is running.  We were not the first owners of this vehicle, and we didn’t choose to have this generator.  We would not have ordered it given the limited ways in which it can be used - it is too noisy, plus our van's propane tank is not large enough to run it for long periods.  But given that it was functioning well and had low run-time hours on it, we decided to keep it as an active component of the electrical system for now.

4. Automatic Transfer Switch (ATS) – This device (a Parallax ATS301 switch) contains a toggle style of mechanical component called a relay that makes the choice to accept AC from either the generator or shore power, with priority given to the generator.  If an ATS were not present, then accidentally connecting shore power and turning on the generator at the same time would result in the combining  of two out-of-phase AC voltages. Each independent source would contribute 120V and, depending on how they alternated, they could double up to create a 240V difference between the shore source and the generator, and damage to the system would occur from the resulting rush of current.

Components 5 and 6 are first discussed separately and then in terms of how they share the incoming AC from the switch-selected source (either the generator or shore power).

5.  Lithium Charger – This Progressive Dynamics Inteli-Power PD9100L Series unit accepts 120V AC and converts it to 14.6V DC with a maximum output current of 60A (14.6V DC is the voltage at which the lithium battery charges most efficiently).  This process will be discussed in the future Charging / Inverter System blog post.

6.  Inverter – The model we chose is the Xantrex Freedom Xi 2000W unit.  An inverter is an device that changes direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) – in other words, it does the opposite of what an electrical converter or charger does.  That being the case, you would be justified in your curiosity if you wondered why a source that was supplying AC to start with (shore or generator) would need to be routed through an inverter before it could ultimately be sent on to do its job in powering certain downstream AC appliances.  The answer is that the inverter is essentially serving as a “pass-through” device in this scenario.  It contains its own embedded ATS that chooses between issuing AC from one of those two upstream external supplies, versus issuing AC from its own self, via inversion from battery supply.  Priority is obviously given to the external supply, because it would make no sense to invert power from the battery if shore or generator current is available. If the Inverter didn’t have an internal ATS built in, an external transfer switch would be needed to safely connect it to the AC supply system.

If you look at Diagram 2 of 4 above, you can see a bifurcation issuing from component 4, the ATS.  So how does the incoming current “know” to split itself between the Lithium Charger and the Inverter? As they are wired in parallel, they both get equal priority, similar to multiple electrical outlets on the same circuit in your home.  In our van scenario, there is a maximum of 30A available on the circuit to be shared by the two appliances.  In a scenario in which the Lithium Charger draws 9A AC (the maximum it can accept) to convert to 60A DC for battery charging purposes, a remainder of 21A is then available to feed through the Inverter to the appliance(s) that are activated.  In some scenarios, charging may need to be disabled in order for higher-consuming appliances to be run.  More detail on this process will be given in the post that discusses the Charging / Inverter System.

7.  Circuit Breakers – The 30A and 20A circuit breakers act as safety mechanisms that prevent excess current from accidentally routing to any of the appliances that are either hard-wired or plugged into the AC outlets.  Most appliances have their own internal circuit protection, so the circuit breakers are primarily designed to protect the wiring from shorts and overheating.  As described above, the Inverter passes through shore power which feeds into the 30A circuit breaker first.  That limits maximum downstream loads on all circuits to a total of 30A (if more is added, the breaker will trip).  From the 30A breaker, the current proceeds to three 20A circuit breakers across which the appliance loads are distributed.

A ground fault circuit interrupt (GFCI) is a device that shuts off an electric power circuit when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path, such as through water or a person to ground.  Some RV configurations, including our Airstream Interstate, had electrical systems designed to include GFCI-enabled circuit breakers, if those breakers delivered electricity to AC outlets in potentially wet areas.  In certain circumstances, an electrical inverter could interfere with the operation of GFCI breakers because of issues involving the configuration of ground and neutral wires (some technical detail is omitted here for brevity; this Xantrex Technical Note (PDF) provides discussion).  In lieu of maintaining the original GFCI breakers, we opted for individual GFCI outlets as described below.

8. AC Outlets – Our rig contains five AC outlets that were wired by Airstream (galley kitchen, bottom of the street-side overhead cabinet, refrigerator alcove, microwave cabinet, and curbside exterior van body).  When AC is being supplied, these work like regular household electrical outlets, with the caveat being that they are collectively limited to a maximum of 30A, as that limitation is imposed by the 30A circuit breaker.  If GFCI circuit breakers are not being used for the reason described above, GFCI outlets are advised.
Like this one, which we added above our galley kitchen. 
9.  Priority Switch – An Intellitec automatic energy select switch is installed because the available current is insufficient to run both the roof A/C and the microwave oven simultaneously.  The roof A/C (described below) requires approximately 13A to run, and the microwave needs 8.3A.  Both appliances also require start-up surges of greater current, so their total instantaneous demand can be far in excess of the 21.3A that results from simply adding their continuous current values.  Out of necessity, it is an either-or scenario when it comes to running them.  If we need to run our microwave, we switch off our roof A/C momentarily (the microwave and the A/C share a single 20A circuit breaker). 

10. Microwave – Our van came with a Dometic CDMW07 (PDF) series microwave oven which nominally requires 1,000W of power to operate (8.3A).  Some people question why anyone would need a microwave in an off-grid van, and our answer is because it reduces propane consumption by the hot water heater, saves fresh water, and conserves gray water tank space, all because of the extra dishes that we don’t have to wash (throw some tamales on a paper plate and pop them in that microwave and voila – no clean-up).

11. Roof A/C – A Dometic DuoTherm 11,000 BTU coach A/C unit (no longer manufactured) was installed by Airstream in our van’s roof.  The manufacturer represents that this A/C requires 13A of current to operate (3.5A for the fan and 9.5A for the compressor).

12.  Soft Starter – We installed an electronic device called a MicroAir EasyStart 364 into the body of the Dometic roof A/C for the purposes of modulating the amperage demands that are imposed on our electrical system.  Without a device of this type, starting the high-demand A/C would overwhelm the Inverter, exceeding what it is able to supply while it is drawing from the lithium battery, and shutting down the operation of the A/C as a result.  The Inverter is capable of providing power up to 2,000W (16.7A) continuously and up to 3,000W (25A) briefly, but the A/C start-up demands a surge that is greater and for a longer duration than the Inverter can accommodate.  The soft starter contains electronic components that essentially start the A/C compressor motor more slowly to prevent this kind of shut-down.  With the soft starter integrated into the system, our lithium battery can power our roof A/C for about 2 hours before becoming overly depleted. 

If you have questions on this section, please contact me via interstate.blog at gmail.

I had to have at least one dumb meme in here...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

LITHIUM BATTERY UPGRADE, PART 1: GENERAL OVERVIEW

Over the next four posts, I'm going to present consolidated details regarding the DIY lithium battery system that we installed in our 2007 Airstream Interstate Class B van.  I've previously touched on some of the peripheral details in previous posts including the following:

(1) This post described some of the required lower cabinetry modification, and
(2) This post described upper cabinetry expansion, which was done in part to accommodate the new electrical control panel.

I've also interspersed anecdotal progress reports through various trip descriptions, but I've never pulled together any comprehensive description of the entire system in terms of either its components or its operation.

There's a reason for that - it's an enormous job to describe an incredibly intricate, one-of-a-kind long-term project.  As of this blog post, the chatter on the project's corresponding Air Forums thread, which my husband named "My Interstate Lithium Battery Adventures" stretches from its inception in June of 2016 though November of 2017 and includes over 450 comments, LOL.

The enormity of the job raises questions in the minds of people who are less familiar with lithium systems, mainly, why even do it?  Why go to all this kind of trouble and expense in the first place?
Route map from my September 2047 blog post titled "Top ten lessons from an off-grid month on the road".  We didn't hook up to campground utilities during any of that time because we no longer have a need. 
^^ That's why.  Because conventional RVs and camper vans were not designed with a "go anywhere" mentality.  They have limited battery capacity and their design assumes that the owners will be staying in full-service campgrounds every night during their travels.  That is an out-moded assumption that doesn't fit our chosen lifestyle and in our view, it rather negates the whole purpose of having a camper van in the first place.  An upgrade to a lithium-based electrical system can make pretty much every off-grid difficulty disappear, as it has in our case.

Anyway, first, a few necessary disclaimers.  Our general disclaimer applies - if you work on your van or RV without knowing what you are doing, you could get yourself killed -- and that is especially true when working with a dangerous commodity such as lithium battery cells, which can cause electrical fires if not managed safely.

In terms of a more specific disclaimer, if you imagine that this blog post series will teach you how to engineer a lithium battery system, here's what I have to say to that:
In other words, a big fat NO
Don't even think about it.
This series is for general information only, in order to give you a qualitative feel for how such a system can be designed and implemented in the context of a van.  There are approximately one million technical details that will not be included in this write-up for reasons of sheer practicality - if I tried to describe every wire and connector specification, for instance, I'd be sitting here writing for the next six years.

Rather, my point is to tell you how we did it, moreso than the nitty gritty of what we did.  Vans are tricky - the amount of space available for any given upgrade is extremely limited.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen an aftermarket lithium job presented on social media only to think to myself  "Congratulations owners - you now have extended boondocking capability courtesy of the lithium system which, by the way, happens to have consumed every cubic inch of space that you otherwise would have had for storing your boondocking supplies, duh."

But of course there's a good reason why even the best aftermarket installers tend to gobble up available storage space indiscriminately - it happens because the alternative is to have the labor costs mushroom out of control.  Every electrical component that has to be custom-fit to a van crevice here or there is going to require re-wiring, extra cabinetry work, etc.  So the installers tend to take the path of least resistance, which then causes secondary logistical problems for van owners.

My husband and I got around that problem by taking our time and meticulously splicing every electrical component into its own hand-picked individual void space, all of which were existing and not otherwise earmarked for other purposes.  We probably expended at least five times the average installation labor in the process.  But hey, it's DIY, so the only thing we spent was time, and it's a hobby, so we don't consider that to be a loss.

This first of the four posts presents the consolidated general lay-out that we achieved.  The three posts that will follow (and I'll back-link them here after publication) will break down the process to describe the construction of the AC System, the Charging/Inverter System, and the DC System respectively.

First, a brief review of where we started oh-so long ago.
Gross.
 That image above shows a view looking down into the van's closet beneath its raised floor, which was removed for the photo.  The area essentially began its life as a dog's breakfast of tangled wires and water lines as they were installed by Airstream - ugh, nothing creeps me out quite like mixing live electrical wires and questionably-constructed water lines in close proximity in a confined space.

Despite the obvious mess, this area proved to be a gold mine of recoverable space, because we realized that the two bulkiest components of a lithium system (the cells themselves and the electrical inverter) could be made to fit here without triggering exterior cabinetry modifications.  The battery cells could be regrouped and re-strapped into an assemblage that would conform to this shape, and the inverter plus certain associated components could be installed on a shelf suspended immediately above the lithium cells.

Furthermore, because we were working under a closet and adjacent to the street-side overhead cabinetry bulkhead, we realized that we could run all wires under the couch, to the top of the closet, and through to the bulkhead beside the closet without needing to add any external cabinetry elements.  The spaces were contiguous in other words.

Here is what the resulting lay-out looked like, after hundreds of hours of research and work:
Tap to expand for clarity, as Blogger still downsamples embedded images.
Diagram updated 20180207.
For those of you reading this on small devices, here is an enlargement of just the lower left portion which shows the general view inside the cabinetry and below the couch:
Tap image to expand for clarity.
Diagram updated 20180207.
Now that you've put eyeballs on this much, and have hopefully gotten a general feel for the components and the lay-out, the wiring diagrams to follow in the next series of posts should begin to make sense conceptually.  Stay tuned, because some of the corresponding narrative is complex, and it is taking me quite a bit of time to translate it into layman's terms, even if I am cutting necessary corners for brevity.

Friday, October 6, 2017

ROAD NOISE CONTROL IN AN AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE

This is the kind of blog post that puts bloggers in a "damned either way" position.  It supplies not enough information to get us off the hook with readers who are professional engineers, as such readers will quickly spot technical flaws in this limited analysis.  At the same time, this post might be guilty of supplying too much information to the point of confusing the hell out of non-technical lay people.

Engineers, please realize that we know this work is sloppy and incomplete - it is so by design.  Our intent here is not to establish rigorous quantitative proof of a specific result so much as it is to give a more general "feel" for the outcome of this van improvement project.  We are DIYers and bloggers, not automotive researchers.  But at the same time, we have to supply some de minimis level of actual measurements and data in order to substantiate our qualitative (quality of life) claims, so that's what we've tried to do here, is split that difference. 

OK, with that massive disclaimer aside, we undertook a project to add sound deadening improvements to our 2007 Airstream Interstate.  This Class B RV was built on a T1N Mercedes Sprinter cargo van, and no cab noise control had been integrated into the design of Airstream's upfit.  
We had already realized substantial improvements by commissioning a custom carpet job for the cab, but that left the remainder of the body in its original "tin can" condition.
Here's a picture of that carpeting job.  After we got this, we noticed, "Wow - we can actually hold a conversation on the road now!"  
But here's what the door looked like on the inside with the finish trim removed.  Tin can.
I must confess that I didn't take many photos of this project because part of me doubted that it would amount to much.  We had already done the carpet, and I assumed that most of the controllable road noise had been coming through the floor, courtesy of the wheels.  So my show-and-tell is limited in the sections that follow.

My husband chose the vendor Sound Deadener Showdown LLC as the supplier of the products that we used in the doors and on the firewall.  It's basically a 3-part process as follows, and as demonstrated more completely on their website:
  1. Control vibration and resonance using what that vendor calls CLD Tiles.
  2. Block sound with a dense barrier that consists of mass-loaded vinyl (MLV). 
  3. Absorb middle to high frequency sound using a closed-cell foam product.
In tackling those additions, first, the interior door trim has to be carefully disassembled.  There are various sources of information on how to do that, including this Sprinter Forum thread.  

Next, the CLD Tiles are added.  Here's a photo of the interior of one of our doors with those in place.  They intentionally don't cover the entire interior door surface. 
Those silver rectangular things. 
Here are some scraps of the other two products on our garage floor.
The MLV is on the bottom.  It reminds me of dance floor material, what they cover dance studio floors in. 
After the CLD Tiles are applied (they have an adhesive back), sheets of the other products are cut to fit the inner door frame area, with cut-outs for all the little knobs and pieces and whatnot.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pics of those materials as they are added to the interior of the trim section.  I will say that it's easiest to lay the trim section upside-down on a cushioned surface so as to not damage it, and fit them that way.  

Once those are fitted, the trim piece is then replaced on the door, and re-attached using the integrated clips and bolts that hold it on.

Here are two data compilations showing noise measurements taken before and after the completion of this project.
Readings were taken with the sound meter held in the same position mid-cab, along the same stretch of concrete freeway, under comparable weather conditions and time of day.  (Tap or click the image to expand for a clearer view.)
In this graph above, you can clearly see the that suite of "after" measurements is reflecting lower road noise levels as measured in the cab.  Laypeople need to realize that the decibel scale is not a linear scale - what looks like a small average reduction here is actually substantial.  I'll explain more about that in the chart that follows. 

There are visible differences in the two data suites - most notably, why is there so much greater spread among the "after" measurements?  Well, we tried to hold all variables constant, but we don't dictate what transpires on Houston's freeways.  Traffic was worse during the "after" measurements.  I was stomping the accelerator more frequently, trying to hold proper speed for sound measurements, I was lane-weaving, and I was having more vehicles blast past me.  That explains a lot of it.  

Despite those distributional differences, you can clearly see the effect of the sound deadening effort, which becomes even more apparent when we attempt to look at it in baseline terms rather than looking at the more complete suite of data above.
My husband used the Omni calculator for some of these calculations.  I'm omitting details for brevity. 
The human sensory apparatus is not very good at defining absolute sound intensities, light brightness levels, etc. in anything remotely resembling quantitative terms.  I can't tell you definitively what's twice as bright or half as loud using my ears or eyeballs.  I can tell you perceptually that this door and firewall sound deadening job has made a BIG improvement in driving quality of life.  I can say, "Our Interstate is much quieter now."  By these rough mathematics, the typical level of freeway speed noise was reduced almost by half.  Very roughly speaking.  Which was a big surprise to both my husband and me.  We expected to maybe realize a little in the way of gains.  We got a lot.  

It cost about $250 for the materials we used in this project, plus we have some left over from that purchase.  I'd say it's well worth it, and I recommend a similar approach for anyone who has a camper van in which this kind of improvement was not a part of the original upfit.  
Fat chance of a stereo helping that ^^ situation.  Maybe now that we've got this improvement done, I'll be able to listen to some of my music on the road without going slowly deaf from having to turn it up so loud to hear it over the road noise.  

Saturday, September 30, 2017

UPGRADING THE TOILET IN AN AIRSTREAM INTERSTATE

All I can say about this post is, crap.
Do yourself a big favor:  Don't Google the phrase "toilet meme". 
This gets Un-Fun Blog Post of the Year Award, so I'll keep it short and not-so-sweet.

On our way back from Canada a few weeks ago, we started noticing abnormal odors from the wet bath.  By the time we got to Houston and were moving the van into storage, not only were there odors, but small trails of water were snaking their way across the center hallway from beneath the cabinetry adjacent to the wet bath.  Another repair was clearly indicated, but initially it wasn't clear whether the toilet or the plumbing and black tank system were involved in the breach.  Here were the steps involved in resolving this.

(1) The first thing I did was flush the black tank better than it has ever been done before.  I musta ran 50 gallons through that thing.

(2) My husband de-installed the existing toilet, which was a Thetford Aqua Magic V.
That's the hole cut in the wet bath enclosure, and the black tank beneath it. 
The plywood edge should not have been left raw like what is shown above, so I sealed it with oil-based enamel paint, which just happened to have been red. 
(3) I then inspected the black tank thoroughly using both my iPhone, which I shoved in there to take pictures (it was clean), and we also bought an endoscope, which I ran to the dump line from above and from below.  The black tank in this model of Airstream Interstate is very tabular.  It is only a few inches high, but it must be four feet long, extending under the wet bath, under the refrigerator / microwave cabinetry, and all the way back to our lithium battery bank (in fact, the black tank holds up a couple of our peripheral electrical components).

I could see no evidence of damage or breach, so we moved on to the next step, which was to fill the black tank very full of clean water, and cap it so that we could take a test drive and slosh it around really well, to see if any water emerged.
This common 3-inch drain plug is available at any big box hardware store.
(4) No water emerged from the slosh test.  We therefore concluded that the Thetford was the only source of our problems.

Ah, the Thetford. What an extraordinary piece of crap. Never have I seen a worse design in the entire universe of RV products, and I'm not the only person who feels that way.  Almost simultaneously with our troubles, Roadtrek Life published this post describing his troubles with the Thetford, of which he reportedly had purchased three inside of six years (!).  Wisely giving up on the model entirely, he replaced it with a Dometic 300, but not before explicitly showing what is so horribly wrong with the Thetford.
The internal body of the Thetford, the space between the bowl and the outer wall, is fully open to the black tank.  Black water sloshes up into there due to road bumpiness and when you slam on your brakes.  And it deposits waste inside the body of the toilet, if you can believe that.
 At first I didn't totally register what Roadtrek Life was saying.  Frankly it was too horrible and too stupid a design to even contemplate.  Just as I had trouble comprehending it, so too did the readers of Air Forums (this thread) when I politely attempted to describe what was happening.

I finally got it when I visually examined our own Thetford.  And then I performed this test.
I turned the de-installed Thetford upside down on a step stool, filled that interstitial space full of water, and left it overnight.  And this happened.
Not only does Thetford's design allow black water to slosh up into the body of the toilet, the body of the toilet is not waterproof.  The hose water steadily leaked out onto the ground, as you can see here.  So apparently, it's only a matter of time before you'll have odors and then black water leakage with that model of toilet.

This image above does not show a toilet, but it represents an analogous problem. Except the space suit helmet is air and water tight, unlike the Thetford. 
(5) The question then became, what do we replace this disgraceful Thetford with?  I called my marine wholesaler contact and asked for advice (I'd bought our Vitrifrigo fridge from him).  For a simple gravity toilet, he recommended the SeaLand 500 series, hands down (SeaLand was acquired by Dometic so the terms tend to be used interchangeably).  He noted, however, that many smaller RV and boat baths have insufficient room for mounting a 500 series toilet (PDF with specs and instructions here), and that did prove to be the case with our wet bath.  Therefore, we were stuck with the cheaper 300 series, specifically the 311 (Roadtrek Life had even less space than we did, and reportedly installed the 300).
This is a view of the underside of the Dometic 310/311 (I can't get full clarity on those model numbers), and my finger is pointing toward a plastic shield that the Thetford lacks.  That's what stops black water from penetrating the full body of this toilet model.  Compare to Roadtrek Life's annotated Thetford pic above. 
The Dometic 311 fit our available space, but it is not the quality that I'd hoped for.  Multiple reviews report that the 310 and 311 tend to develop leaks at the seam between the porcelain bowl and the plastic base (e.g., see reviews at Amazon).  But given our fit constraints, we couldn't find a better, higher-quality choice.
^^ This is what I was feeling like when I was reading low-ended gravity toilet reviews.  No model was reported to be free of problems. 
Furthermore, the Dometic 311 is not the dimensions I'd prefer in a perfect world.
You can see how close the rear hinge is to the back wall.  There's no way we could get a larger and more expensive toilet model in this space.  But that's not the only size issue - it's not as short as I would prefer, either. 
It's slightly higher than the Thetford.  At 5'6", I'm taller than the average American woman, but even I can't place my feet on the floor when I'm sitting on this thing.  That's not a comfort issue so much as it is a durability issue.  I know that this is not necessarily recommended, but my husband and I use the toilet when our rig in underway at highway speeds (we drive up to 760 miles a day - using the head on the fly is a necessary evil under those conditions).  Now that we know how cheaply made all of the available fit-able gravity toilets are, what I'd prefer to do is not put my full weight on the seat while the rig is in motion, lest we hit a pavement crater and start slamming around.  My weight on the toilet at that point would almost certainly add to wear and tear stresses and shorten its already-suspect lifespan.  But if I can't reach the floor, then I can't easily take most of my weight off the seat.

Sigh.  What a pain.  If we go to all this trouble and spend the money, it sure would be nice to have a problem solved long-term, and a reliable outcome at the end of a project such as this.  I don't think that this model of toilet represents an auspicious completion, but at least it's an improvement over that God-awful Thetford, for the time being.

I like to keep my neighbors guessing.  "Um, did she just put a giant stuffed bear on the van toilet...?"   Yyyyyeah.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TOP TEN LESSONS FROM AN OFF-GRID MONTH ON THE ROAD

As regular readers and some online forum participants know, I just completed a trip that spanned six thousand miles and lasted just a few days shy of a month (my conventionally-employed husband joined me for two weeks of it).
There's a sociopolitical story behind this cartoon, but for brevity I won't describe it fully.  Suffice it to say that it has to do with a tongue-in-cheek political statement that allegedly turned into a real consideration for some people, culminating with the Washington Post asking, "Can a remote island in Canada become a safe harbor for those who want to flee Donald Trump?"  Myself, I just wanted to temporarily flee the urbanization associated with 6.5 million people.
In terms of geography, this was similar to the trip we did last year, but strategically it could hardly have been more different.
It's an absurdly long drive, and it transits some of the most difficult corridors in the country.  I drove up solo, taking five days to do it (sanely restricting myself to less than 550 miles per day).  My husband flew up to join me mid-way through the adventure, and we drove back together, clocking as much as 760 miles per day with two drivers. 
Rather than traveling strictly for leisure this time, I was intent on combining work, family, social functions, and property development.
That's exactly what it is - a piece of dirt - which is why it conjures for me the Los Lobos classic "Good Morning Aztlan". Earlier this year, in preparation for this trip, I hired a contractor to improve the access to a lakefront parcel that I had owned for decades but completely neglected for all of that time.  This is a drone shot of our rig parked on the boondocking pad that resulted from that effort (see this earlier blog post titled "Stumbling toward a new summer cottage paradigm.") 
With those differences in mind, here is my lesson listicle, interspersed with pretty pictures for contrasting effect.
Like this one, for instance. 
1.  It is easy to live a conventional life.  It is easy to live a van-based boondocking life.  It is surprisingly difficult to combine the two. 

The principal challenges revolve around hygiene and issues of functional efficiency.  There's a reason why women never entered the paid workforce in large numbers prior to the availability of major appliances such as washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, as well as public infrastructure such as running water, centralized sewer or septic systems, etc.  Basic human maintenance tasks consumed a disproportionate amount of their time and energy before those conveniences, and the same is true of boondocking.  If we were simply camping in the woods vacation-style, we could afford to make perpetual slobs of ourselves, but we ended up participating in at least four family get-togethers (most of which did afford access to a shower, thankfully) plus three unrelated social gatherings inside of two weeks.  Trying to maintain a state of cleanliness and grooming on par with the rest of society even as we were chain-sawing our way through a dense spruce forest in the absence of running water was basically impossible, and even the partial effort ate up way too much of our time.  Sometimes the contrasts felt a little absurd.  For instance, we had a ten-year anniversary portrait taken about an hour after the both of us washed our hair and bodies outdoors using water boiled in our Kelly Kettle.
This Kelly Kettle.  It works when it's not raining out, but it takes time. 
It can be done, that struggle for basic cleanliness, but it gets tedious  quickly.
But of course the upside is that we got to see the likes of this as a routine matter of course.
2.  Don't underestimate the intensity of the culture shock associated with remote boondocking.

In short, ...
That's Houston's Katy Freeway on the left, and a higher-altitude drone shot of our boondocking property on the right.  
I've lived in both of these depicted places, plus, I believe I'm more adaptable than the average person.  Despite these things, the transition still proved to be surprisingly challenging for me, in part because I was unable to set up cellular access to do proper work despite having hired Technomadia to get me prepared for that aspect of the trip.  Every time I turned around, there was some other routine task of life that I could no longer do, and new reasons why I couldn't do it.  I was fighting to achieve what typically comes naturally and automatically, and it became a bit discouraging at times.
All directionally dressed up in the wilderness, with almost nothing to receive.  The evidence we collected suggests that it was primarily the fault of the local cell provider.  Technomadia probably specified all the right equipment, but the local alien gremlins simply didn't seem to be transmitting sufficiently well.  
3.  You might want to plan a separate vacation, because this type of trip won’t be a vacation.

Anyone who owns a second home knows that there's a lifetime's worth of work that could be done on both of their properties.  Ours is no different.  The land doesn't currently have any building structures on it, and the access road doesn't require any work obviously, but the young growth spruce forest has run amok after decades of non-management, and at the very least, we needed to establish lake access, which is one hell of a job just in itself.  We brought a new chain  saw with us and it worked fabulously.
As work goes, this was difficult to resist.  We knew that there was a million-dollar view lurking behind all those spruce trees, and we were determined to uncover it.  The boondocking pad is perched on a ledge above the lake, and so it's not just a little sliver of lake that is visible - it's a whole panorama.  We managed to open up this one keyhole view for now.  That's my husband down there for scale, standing in the gap after felling the final tree.  
But it was too easy to let work consume the entire day.  There were times when I just had to say no, I don't care how close we are to finishing - there can simply be no work done today.  Otherwise we're going to leave here exhausted with no quality experiences to show for it, just a memory of work, work, work, like we never even left our primary home.
Our dog agreed - we needed to spend time relaxing, sitting around the campfire, admiring the sunsets, and exploring the lake by kayak.  
Upon concluding the trip, I feel even more strongly about this.  We need to have one to two weeks a year where we simply don't lift a finger for any reason.  Next year, we might fly for a separate trip in which we just hike, relax, indulge ourselves, and hang out.  Then perhaps take the van knowing in advance that it's not going to be "the" vacation.  Life is all about expectation management.

4. There will always be unforeseeable problems, no matter how carefully you plan.

I spent weeks going over that damned van with a fine-toothed comb before I left, and still, this happened.

Oh, how very special - I stopped on a one-lane bridge to take a quaint photo, only to notice that I'd blown a headlight, which I then had to proceed to locate and install myself in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately there's a retail phenomenon up in that area called Canadian Tire, and my husband was able to walk me through the procedure by cell phone. 
And then this next thing happened - the Fantastic ventilation fan shorted out and started every erratic behavior known to mankind, which woke me at night repeatedly, contributing to fatigue and a shorter-than-usual temper on my part.  I got around that problem by leaving the raise mechanism on the manual setting even as it tried valiantly to lower itself using its motor (my husband speculates that the rain sensor went bad) - I just let the damned motor grind away for hours at a time when I needed to use the fan (Airstream Interstates were not designed to ventilate passively - the fan is absolutely required for air flow).  Fortunately it didn't catch fire during all that motor-grinding.  The rain sensor and the motor are both getting de-installed as soon as I can find the time to do it.  More automation = more things to simply break.  These things are not conveniences - they are just liabilities waiting to happen.

And then this next thing happened.
Two tires spontaneously flattened 25 miles from civilization, due to faulty valve stems.  See this Air Forums thread for a discussion.  
Now there's a sight you never want to see while on "vacation" - your rig on jacks at a tire shop.  I had the two totally-failed valve stems replaced in the field on an emergency basis (Good Sam travel insurance saved my bacon), then drove directly to the nearest civilization (Sydney, NS) to have the other two replaced preemptively.  More quality time wasted.  
Well, metaphorically, yes I did.  But the other tire problems were caused by bad valve stems rather than forks. 
And then this next thing happened - we broke an air seal somewhere in the black tank system.  I can't yet imagine where, because we had already replaced and hardened the vent line.  We could still use the system just fine, and there was no evidence of liquid leakage, but some seriously abnormal odors developed, and I'll report back later on the troubleshooting.

In sooth, there will always be problems.  I was hoping that I had cut all incipient degenerative conditions off at the pass prior to leaving on the trip, but obviously I was mistaken.

5. There may even be full-blown catastrophes.

There wasn't a catastrophe at my remote location, but it was very disorienting to watch Houston undergoing major destruction from Hurricane Harvey's flooding.  I had left the city under a benign blue-bowl sky, and a few days later, its very future - the future of my home city - was suddenly placed in doubt.
The National Weather Service needed to almost double the range of the color scale to reflect the amount of rainfall received during the wettest hurricane in recorded history. 
That map above is not fully accurate.  Our neighborhood received at least 48 inches of rain (according to the local Wunderground stations) but shows as having received less.  For a while, we knew that odds were not better than 50/50 that we'd keep our house, despite being outside the 500-year flood zone (don't even get me started on that bunch of pseudo-scientific bunk that the federal government uses to define such things).  As it turned out, our house did not flood, thankfully.  But it was very hard watching this happen to Houston, hearing about friends and professional associates flooding one after another after another, their homes destroyed and their lives up-ended without warning.
An Instagram image I developed to illustrate the surrealism of watching the experience from afar.  I was using my kayak to explore a peaceful and beautiful lake even as some of my fellow Houstonians were using the same popular brand of kayak to fight for their lives in the flooding. 
6. Go big or go home (aka it all has to work right).

The central nervous system of every camper van is its electrical system.  In the time between last year's trip and this one, my husband designed and installed a lithium battery system for our van, to replace the old single-cell AGM Lifeline battery (very lengthy Air Forums thread here).  An enormous amount of work went into that effort and many thousands of dollars.  But if you are going to live off grid (not just vacation off grid), you will find that you have no choice but to do it right.  You won't be able to cope with the demands of life if all you've got to work with is the half-assed electrical system that your van was sold with, if it's an Airstream Interstate, at least.  Unless you own a cutting-edge new rig by one of the producers that is striving to make lithium standard, you're going to either need to DIY a system, or hire out an electrical upgrade.  Don't think you'll need to use a microwave oven or toaster or hair dryer or coffee percolator off-grid?  Trust me - you will.  Your system must be capable of handling those normal everyday types of needs.
Our power control center, all home-made.  
I could not have done this trip without this touchless, self-sustaining electrical system.  I simply could not have lived off-grid for almost a month without this system.  It would not have been physically possible with a lesser design.  There were enough other simultaneous challenges (see items 1, 2, 4, and 5 above, plus other challenges that I'm not listing for brevity) that I simply could not have dealt with a substandard electrical system on top of the rest.

7. Go small or go home (aka if you think you’ll need something, you’ll probably need it doubly).

If you flip back through the pages of this blog, you'll note that I expended an astonishing amount of effort on minor van tweaks and projects designed to increase readiness for this trip.  I don't regret a single dollar spent or a single item created.  I used every bit of it, and wanted for more, specifically the following, in rough order of importance and urgency:

  • We need rear air suspension for the van (more on that later). 
  • A USB charging outlet needs to be added at the rear curb side of the van. 
  • I'm thinking very seriously about an upgrade to an efficient tankless water heater, for those boondocking days when it's pouring rain and I can't fire up the Kelly Kettle.  The existing water heater is grossly inefficient and not compatible with a longer-duration boondocking paradigm.  
  • The OEM window screens need to be done over in no-see-um netting rather than mosquito screen.  Whoever designed those things had no clue what life is like in the south.  
  • I need to add a second closet shelf above the folding bike.
  • The curbside overhead cabinets need to be expanded just as the driver's side cabinets were
  • More interior gear-lashing points would be helpful.
  • Minor point, but the wine glasses would be best mounted under the spice rack.  Every single space-maximizing conversion counts in the grand scheme of things.  
  • I ordered a second Infusion Living silicone water bucket. I had a cheap folding camp bucket (the one that looks like this), but it kept collapsing spontaneously and spilling the contents.  Those silicone and stainless steel buckets are expensive (about $30 each), but absolutely worth it.

The blue one shown here at bottom. 

  • I also ordered a second GSI original Fair Share mug (shown in the bucket).  That thing has ten uses. 
  • I'm sure more will come to me. 

It was a lot of work, creating and assembling all those van accessories over the months leading to this trip, but I can relax knowing that the work is largely complete now, and all ready for the next trip.  I won't have to invent no-see-um awning enclosures or kayak carrying devices or any of the other items going forward.  It Is Done.
The ability to carry the inflatable kayak on the van roof was essential to the quality of this trip.  There was one morning in particular where the dog and I took the kayak across to the other side of the lake and discovered a mysterious old logging road that we hiked for over a mile.  
8. Plan for expansion outside your boondocking rig in all but the most arid climates

If you read Instagram and keep up with the #vanlife posts, then you know that it never, ever rains on Instagram.  There is never any foul weather or adverse conditions - bad weather simply wouldn't dare to occur.  Well, that's Instagram, and this is what real #vanlife actually looks like:

Direct URL:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bqXmLzON6s

We need to put in some kind of a small shed or perhaps a home-made spruce lean-to, to keep firewood dry at a minimum.  This hail storm was just one example of the weather we faced.  I used tarps to cover firewood and other items, but it wasn't enough.
Do you see that system that had spooled up off the eastern seaboard?  That's some of the smeared remains of Harvey mixed in with other tropical crap.  My husband actually got hit by Harvey TWICE - first in Houston and then a few days later when they both made it to Cape Breton. Water, water, everywhere, in both places.  We had inches of rain in deep rural Cape Breton.  That doesn't make for optimal boondocking.  
9. You’ll probably only do a quarter of the things on your wish list during a trip like this. 

See item #3 above, and I reiterate -  this type of trip is not a vacation.  I was actually naive enough to bring a few books to read - with forest management, family activities, and local social involvements, employment-related work when conditions permitted it, plus the recurrent struggle to achieve a basic bath and hair-washing, who the hell would have time for books?!  I must have been daft to even think such a thing.  I never cracked a single page during the entire month.
We did have several really nice camp fires, though. 
And that's not all.  I brought my folding bike and never got to ride it locally, in part because of all the rain.  There were beaches that we never got a chance to discover and hike.  Trails we never hiked.  Restaurants we never got to visit.  The list is endless.
I brought my hammock and got to relax in it on the lake shore for perhaps 45 minutes total across just two sessions (again, largely because of the rain).  Here you see our dog sitting bolt upright in an obvious state of stress and tension.  That's because my husband went out in the kayak without either one of us being with him, and she was in a major state of worry waiting for him to return.  
10.  No matter how challenging off-grid life gets, remember that many on-gridders have it much worse than you do.

On our long, long, long drive back to Houston, we diverted for a day into Shenandoah National Park, which is en route on IH-81 and which is rare among national parks in the extent of dog access that it allows (I'll have a separate blog post on that).  Our original intention was to spend the night in the park's Loft Mountain campground until we discovered that ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN OF ITS CAMP SITES ALLOW THE USE OF GENERATORS!!   Here is the PDF map - count the damned things yourself if you don't believe me!  Intending no disrespect, but SWEET JESUS, WHAT ARE THEY THINKING?!
They've got all this publicity surrounding air quality in the park, but what do they do?  They allow extensive generator use - generators are one of the most polluting combustion / mechanical devices for their size and output.  Generators may not be the cause of the large-scale air quality impacts that plague the area, but the park management sure is violating the spirit of the principle in permitting the very activities whose adverse effects they are simultaneously denouncing. 
No.  No matter what else I do, I am NOT living in that kind of a hot mess, not even for one night.  We instead found a stealth camping opportunity and said to hell with any notion of a campground like that.  To hell with it and its generator racket.  What a barbaric way to live.  Our stealth site was exquisite.  Crickets chirping all night and zero disruptive human activity or sounds.

In sum, it was a successful trip.  It was a good trip.  It challenged me, it challenged us, and it exposed us to new experiences, particularly on social and technical levels, none of which I'm describing here.  It was not a perfect trip.  It was not an easy trip.  It was not a trip I'll strive to repeat exactly the same way.  But it was an indispensable learning experience on multiple levels.

Buenas noches.
Probably my favorite pic of the boondocking pad, taken before the key-hole was punched through the spruce forest for a view of the lake. 

Direct URL:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1UcoEXQieU