Saturday, September 30, 2017


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


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:

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: