Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where'd that yellow thing go?

It turns out I screwed up big time in designing and using my solar electricity system.

First of all, I have the wrong controller. My Concord 4G AGM batteries want 14.4 to charge and 13.2 to float (similar to a wet-cell), and no equalize phase. My Morningstar ProStar 30 controller provides only 14.0 in GEL mode and 14.15 in SEALED mode, which is too little to actually charge up the batts. It'll equalize in SEALED mode once a month a 14.35v, almost up to spec, but only once a month. Worse, the Morningstar float charges at 13.7, which is too high. I had the thing set to GEL for nearly a year, which is wrong-- my batteries haven't been a full charge since I bought them. That's a sure way to destroy batteries-- they get sulfated if they're not quickly charged back up. Another problem with PWM controllers in general is that they aren't very efficient when winter comes. MPPT controllers are better for this; they get up to 40% more efficiency on cloudy days or short winter days.

Second problem is that winter is definitely here. The rains have come, and we went weeks with no sunshine at all!

Third problem is that my lifestyle had become accustomed to having nearly limitless electricity. I'm on the computer for 4-8 hours in a night, and in the summer the batteries would recharge enough that I never noticed any problem. I continued that pattern during the week when we had no sun, because I had to. And now my batteries are fried. I have been over-discharging them, every day, and under-charging them.

When I bought these batts they'd show 13.1v after sundown, and I'd hardly ever get them below 12.9v. I deep-discharged them in May (parked next to a tall building in the partial-shade all Memorial Day weekend, but kept hacking away anyway), but they'd start the night at 12.9v and hardly get below 12.7v by morning. Now they won't charge past 12.7v, and I can get it down to 12.5v in a typical night, and into the danger zone (12.2v) really easily.

So I'm doing a couple things. First off, I've changed the setting on the ProStar to SEALED to get it closer to spec, and maybe even equalize it. Secondly, I'm buying a MPPT controller. Thirdly, I may buy a plug-in electric charger (that'll handle high amps-- I have 440Ah of batteries which would require a 60A-80A charger), to hopefully bring these batteries back to life quickly, and serve as a backup in winter. Finally, I've ordered a low-power-consumption Asus EEE laptop to use for websurfing and 90% tasks for which I don't need the full power of my 2.33Ghz Dual-Core Intel laptop.

We'll see. But my biggest fear is that I've destroyed $1000 worth of batteries. I hope that I can get out of this mess without that kind of expense.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Glow plug relay disintegrates

After replacing my glow plugs this August, life got better: my 100% biodiesel-running 7.3L PowerStroke actually started up in the morning!

But then, all of a sudden last week it began having trouble starting again in the morning.

My instincts said: glow plug relay. Everything I've read on this subject, just screamed "glow plug relay". So I got a deal on a new glow plug relay, and bought it. But then I got scared. Fear is what has stopped me from doing just about anything good and necessary I've needed to do in my life. And here it was again-- I was paralyzed all weekend.

Finally on Sunday, a friend kind of shamed me into at least TESTING the thing to see what was wrong. It's a very easy test; all I need is a multimeter and not very much time.

Sure enough, I applied the multimeter, turned the key, and... nothing coming out of the glow plug relay. Zero volts. I tested the other posts, and they all had the voltages they were supposed to have, at the time they were supposed to have it. OK, time to R/R this thing!

So I located all the wrenches I'd need (8mm, 3/8", deep-socket 1/2", and deep-socket 10mm, in case you care), disconnected the batteries, and removed the relay.

It was cracked. The old glow plug relay casing had actually split in two. The relay contact inside was clearly visible, deeply rusted, and useless. No wonder the thing didn't work!

The new glow plug relay went in easily, and I tested it-- sure enough, voltage with the key on!

The thing now starts like a Honda. Beautiful. I feel so much better.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ooooh that smell!

One of the more disgusting things about vandwelling San Francisco is how the streets smell towards the end of summer. This is California, so for 6 months there's no rain at all. At that time, the streets build up a truly vile odor. A friend and I were walking around last month, and all of a sudden he spits, "Dog piss!". It does indeed smell like dog piss, and human piss, and spoiled food (Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Starbuck's, restaurant food garbage, etc.). And, in the areas where there are a lot of people living on the street, human feces. By August, on hot days, it is nauseating.

But then we get the first rains in October, as we did recently, and the streets all get cleaned off. The city smells lovely for a season, mixed with the cool fall air. It's a wonderful time to be alive.

Monday, October 6, 2008

U-bolt redux

With the help of a local vandweller who is extremely experienced with anything mechanical, and who has access to a well-stocked tool shed, we jacked the box up high enough to move the wood shims into their right places. I then torqued the u-bolts back down and all is now as close to original factory condition as I think I can get it without spending a lot of unnecessary money and time. Took a couple hours total.

It rained a bit over the weekend-- first rain since May, IIRC--, which reminds me that winter is now here. So this week I have to Parr-Bond the cab to the box, and maybe try to Kool Seal the crunched box corner too. And fix the window. Then, I am weatherproof and ready for winter.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Food and Energy

One of the more enlightening (in many senses of the word) of vandwelling is how much it has caused me to be in touch with my body and what's going on with it.

It seems like a silly thing to point out now, but it's a new revelation to me: the bigger and better meals I eat, the more energy I have. Well duh. But I'm a nerd and artist, and I live in a very abstract, absent-minded-professor kind of world; this kind of very basic thing never occurred to me.

It's very predictable. If I eat small, simple, kind of weak meals, then I'm tired all the time. If I load up with a huge burrito, a full meal of Indian food, or a big greasy burger, then I can work all day and all night.

This also gives me a new perspective on the brutal wrong-headedness of right-wingers and rich people who consider the poor and homeless to be "lazy" and "shiftless". I'm sorry, if you don't have enough food, you ain't gonna be able to do a whole lot of work or take a whole lot of initiative to turn your life around.

Feeding the hungry has to be priority #1, no matter what. With a couple good meals in you, then you can accomplish anything. Without that, you're unlikely to be able to accomplish anything. Just like a van: it ain't going anywhere unless you put fuel in it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Turns out that the rip-off artist I paid $2000 to in February to fix my brakes, screwed it up. The guy put the racheting gear on my self-adjusting rear brake shoes in backwards, so the thing wasn't self-adjusting, it was self-loosening. He also charged me for removing the axle when that was not necessary in order to access the rear brakes.

I found a reputable shop who put the gear back in the right way, flushed out my brake fluid, and replaced my both rear calipers, all for $450. Still a lot of money, but I've been advised not to mess around when it comes to brakes. I do after all have literally a ton of mass to stop, and the rains are approaching.

I still have a spongy feeling in the brakes. I'll have to take it back to them, to probably replace the valve that balances the front and rear brakes, and maybe the master cylinder, depending on where the sponginess is coming from.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The U-bolts

The box that I live in is attached to the van that I drive, via a half-dozen U-Bolts wedged to the van's frame via a bunch of long peices of 2x6 lumber.

The documentation on the box says to torque those U-Bolts every few months. I'd been procrastinating from doing that, because I didn't have the right size socket. Well last week I was under the vehicle checking stuff, and noticed that the bolts were loose enough that some of the wood had worked its way out! Yikes!

The danger there was that if the wood fell out, the box could collapse suddenly a few inches, and flip the whole van on its side! Scary stuff.

So I bought a bottle jack, loosened the U-bolts, jacked up the box somewhat, managed to slam the wood a bit further into place, and then correctly torqued the U-Bolts back down again. A couple of the split washers were crushed, and I bought some flat washers to replace them.

Over the next week or two, I have to do a better job (with a friend's help and equipment) of jacking up the box, and then really get those peices of wood into the right place, and then torque the bolts back down again.

As the rainy season soon approaches, my priorities will be checking all my fuel hoses for leaks or rubber disintigration, then correctly torqing my U-bolts, and then re-caulking the van box's connection to the cab. Sometime in parallel to that I may also finally Kool Seal primer/elastometric up the damaged corner of the box, which leaks a bit still.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How not to do an oil change

After changing my glow plugs, I was wondering if I'd done any damage to my engine by starting it so hard all the time (it took 3-4 attempts to start it every morning, before I put new glow plugs in).

A knowledgeable friend and fellow van-dweller, who used to be a professional truck mechanic, suggested that the smartest thing I could do is change the oil, even if I hadn't reached my change interval.

So I bought some Rotella, and did the oil change, using an excellent procedure I found on a PowerStroke website.

I made one very stupid mistake that the instructions didn't warn me against: I calculated the amount of oil needed, instead of checking it empircally. The docs on that website said 4.5 gallons of oil. Great. I bought two cases of 3 gallons each, figuring I'd have extra.

I filled up the filter before putting it in. Great. Then I poured in 4 gallons of oil. Then I thought, "Cool, I already have a half-gallon sitting here!" So I poured that in to get 4.5. Are you discovering the math error here?

Anyway, I overfilled the crankcase, big time. I had to get underneath the vehicle, pull the plug, and drain a half-gallon out, to cover the half-gallon I'd already put into the filter. Checked the dipstick, and, whoops, it's still too full! Pull the plug again, pull out another GALLON. Gallon and a half of expensive diesel truck motor oil, wasted and off to the recycling.

The problem is, that on this PowerStroke, the motor oil is used as part of the fuel injection system. So, when I drain the oil, I'm not really draining all of it. There's still a lot stuck in the fuel injection high-pressure pump and lines to the injectors.

The correct procedure, which I should have done first off, is to ONLY put in a little oil at a time, and then check the dipstick. Then pour in some more, check the dipstick again. It looks like this engine may take 4.5 gallons of oil, but when changing it I'll only need maybe 4 gallons, maybe less. That will save me money and time the next oil change around.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More preventative maintenance

Following future President Obama's suggestion, and with the help of a former truck mechanic who knew the trick to getting to the fill tube on the inner tire, I got my tires inflated correctly. Turns out the inner tire was only at 25psi! That was well below the 60 specified by Ford. The outer tires were actually over-inflated. I'd also over-inflated my front tires somewhat, probably due to filling them warm and not cold.

The van runs much better now. I'll have to see over some miles of highway driving how much better mileage I get. But it's got to be better than what I'm getting now, which is about 10mpg.

I also replaced the bulbs on my rear turn signal and brake lights, which should help safety a lot.

I isolated the problem with my running lights and my dashboard lights: there appears to be a short somewhere. Need to spend more quality time with the manual and with the multimeter to fix those, but I'm getting closer.

I bought two cheap cabinets last week and installed them in the van. Also pulled a small set of drawers out of storage, and am finding a home for it in the van, to give me more organized storage space-- a big improvement over the plastic storage bins I've been living out of for 6 months.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Exercise and cleanliness

Two things that are making me feel a lot better about life, are that I'm getting a lot more daily exercise, due to riding my bike at least once or twice a day, to get around. That exercise is helping raise my energy level.

Also, that makes me sweaty, and I'm showering more often as a result, so I'm getting and staying cleaner. And I've learned from a local fellow vandweller the importance of keeping stuff clean and neat. I've never been much for being clean or neat, but I'm noticing that things run better when they are, and even including me.

More power, Scotty!

I've noticed a strange phenomenon. Whenever I do ANY kind of repair to this van, my mileage and power improves. A lot. I have tons more power with less stepping on the gas. The engine sounds like it's straining less, and running more efficiently. It sounds tighter. It feels like it's running smoother. For some period of time, until it gets sloppy again.

Maybe this is because I always have to remove the air filter and intake hoses in order to do anything on this van, and I always tighten up the intake hoses really really tightly when I'm done. Tighter than other mechanics seem to to. It might run better with a tight, leak-free intake system; might make the electronic fuel injection happier.

It might have to do with the KIND of things that I've been doing to the vehicle. Like replacing the fuel filter, which might make it run better because there's a more free flow of fuel, and it's cleaner too. And replacing the glow plugs might help provide more complete combustion, but that'd only have an effect at startup. I dunno.

Or maybe it's because I always clean off the engine whenever I work on it. The additional heat dissipation might help it run better. That's almost superstitious. But there has to be a reason; machines are deterministic entities.

In any case, each time I work on the van, I get more power with less fuel.

Glow plugs are in!

I did the driver's side glow plugs, and now I have 8 new (ish) glow plugs! It was relatively easy.

I wish I had done this back in March, when I did the first 4 glow plugs (on the passenger's side). The driver's side were MUCH easier to do. No problem at all.

It takes a few cranks to start, but it does definitely start. But it's also warm and sunny this week. We'll see how it goes once it gets cold and foggy again.

I also changed the fuel filter. It was FILTHY, yet again! I think this is the fourth time I've changed it. I cleaned out a ton of gunk at the bottom of the filter housing, but couldn't get all of it because there is some kind of plate separating it. It's inaccessible. I did the best I could.

It's possible that the seals disintegrated on the fuel return lines because the filter was so clogged. The return line appears to head back into the filter. Perhaps the clogged filter was creating a high pressure area, and that's what was stressing those seals and caused them to blow out on me.

I don't know if I was able to clean out the fuel filter drain pipe though. That gunk might have it totally clogged still. I couldn't access the hole to poke anything through it to clean it out. And I can't access the drain hose from underneath the engine either; it's just not accessible.

So it's possible that the WATER IN FUEL! WATER IN FUEL! light was blinking at me because... there was water in the fuel! That'd certainly explain the hard starting in the mornings! Water doesn't combust very well.

It's possible that I have some kind of air bubble in that drain line though, because when I remove the filter then fuel comes gushing out of there! Doesn't seem very clogged to me. I still don't understand the physics of how that fuel/water separator is supposed to work anyway, and that's probably why I haven't figured out how to fix it yet.

But anyway, at least this thing has all new glow plugs. I hope that eliminates the hard starting problem.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

First CO scare

I got my first Carbon Monoxide scare last night.

It had been a hot day, and the van was pretty stuffy, even though I'd had the fan on and had vented the whole thing out pretty well. I was tired too. And I started heating up some food to eat, using my little Coleman propane stove. I had the vent open, but no intake really, and the fan wasn't on.

All of a sudden, I got really really dizzy. Felt like I was going to pass out, immediately, and a tiny bit nauseous too. It reminded me of when I used to drink, and drink a lot, but I wasn't very nauseous, so I knew this was something different. Head spins. Very bizarre. I was maybe seconds away from passing out when all of a sudden I looked at the stove and panicked; if I'd left it on, it might have fallen over and started a fire. That adrenaline rush gave me enough energy to immediately reach over and turn it off.

It was AFTER I'd turned it off, that the dizziness subsided a bit. Could the stove have been making me so dizzy that I almost passed out? Then I suddenly remembered about CO, and that it causes dizziness, and that propane combustion uses up oxygen as well as producing CO. I jumped up to turn the fan on, and then cracked a window and the door to the cab.

Scary! I was able to finish making dinner without incident.

Never again will I run that stove without the fan on!

Monday, August 11, 2008

The project is moving faster!

I bought an electric fold-up bicycle to get around in. It is a HUGE improvement. Instead of wasting very expensive biodiesel fuel in order to run errands, I can run them for free on a bicycle. The electricity is free too, as I mentioned, because now that the fan is in, I can park my van's solar panels in the hot sun without suffocating, and charge up the bicycle.

I spent the day on my bicycle, going around to dollar discount stores, shopping for cheap furniture. Cabinets and shelves will make my life so much more joyful. Places to put stuff without stumbling over it all the time! I'm so excited!

The sunlight and fresh air-- and also being around a very sharp and very mechanically-talented fellow vandweller-- has given me a new outlook on life, and on vandwelling.

I love it. I love my life! And I'm loving vandwelling. I'll only feel 100% comfortable once I have a semi-permament, secure, fully-legal place to park (on private property, and probably for some rent), but right now I'm very excited with owning my own home.

I just bought a small twin-size futon frame ("single" size, according to IKEA) to replace my homemade platform bed. It's low on the ground, which is how I prefer to sit and sleep anyway; this climbing up and down is killing my knees. Out of the remnants of the old bed, I'm going to try building a plywood "extension" to fit my larger "long twin" size futon mattress onto the "single" size futon.

Driving back from buying it, I got stuck in traffic. I was getting pissed off, and then I remembered: "Hey, I'm home already!" So I just parked, walked a few blocks to buy a fantastic Gyros sandwich, ate dinner, and sat down to post this.

I'm sitting down for the first time, after 6 months of full-time vandwelling, and actually planning out the space and the improvements I want to do on the van.

I'm going to do some van maintenance too: I'm eager to change the fuel filter (again), the oil and oil filter, and possibly even tackle the other four glow plugs

Monday, August 4, 2008

The fan is in!

Thanks to the craftsmanship and hard work of a fellow local vandweller, I now have ventilation! And some natural light too!

It's a MaxxFan. It's very stealthy; can't even see it from the street level. From above, it still looks like a delivery vehicle, just one with a vent in it.

I learned a lot and I'm eager to put in another vent-- one with clear plastic or tempered glass to let the sunlight in (and a frosted-white plastic sliding cover for privacy).

I noticed a few things. First of all, the vent creates noticeable drag when driving. Even with the vent closed, it feels like driving with the windows open-- lots of wind resistance. However, it doesn't seem to hurt fuel efficiency, in fact the 7.3L biodiesel-burner seems to actually like it that way.

Secondly, it totally screwed up the reception pattern of my WiFi antenna. It's not necessarily worse, just different. Spots that used to have great reception now have nothing, and other spots that didn't have anything, now have great reception. Not too surprising since I cut a 14" square hole in my ground plane, and also added a protrusion above it of a few feet of metal tubing (the skeleton for the mostly-plastic electric vent). So the radiation pattern of the antenna has changed a bit.

It's also a little less stealthy at night, but as I said you can't see the thing from street level. Apartments above might notice some light, but if I park somewhere that there are streetlamps, and since I just have my little LED lights in here with not much output, I don't think anyone will see the light from the outside.

Overall I love it. I have fresh air. I feel better. I'm not stumbling around in the dark when I walk in to the thing.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The seals again

The seals on the driver's side fuel return line went out, spewing biodiesel all over the place, and leaving me stranded. This is the same problem I had on the passenger's side back a few months ago.

However, I can HIGHLY recommend Mobile Diesel Mechanics of Petaluma (they travel to San Francisco and all around the Bay Area). Those guys rock. They are also very expensive, but worth it. They came to my rescue, big time.

They have a mobile mechanic shop. All the tools, everything you need to fix a diesel, on a truck. And they will roll it right up to your stuck van, and get you back on the road. They know diesels inside and out. In fact, their truck had the exact same engine mine does (7.3L PowerStroke)! Most of their customers are semi trucks independently owned or part of a corporate fleet, so they are VERY sensitive to the fact that you are stuck and need to get rolling immediately. That alone is worth the extra price. None of the nonsense you get from ordinary mechanic's: "oh, yeah, we're busy, you'll have to leave it, might not be able to get to it for a couple days. Oh, you need this part, we gotta order it, sorry, should be in by next week..." that kind of crap is fully unacceptable for a vandweller. And I got that runaround from the dealer last time I had a service, and from an independent shop the time before that, will never go back if I can avoid it.

But Mobile Diesel Mechanic is different. They got me on the road in 1/2 hour (and made me feel stupid because it was the kind of repair I could have done easily and for free... if only I knew what I was doing). They are fantastic. Can't recommend them highly enough.

If you own a diesel and find yourself around the Bay Area, go with Mobile Diesel Mechanic. There's my strongest possible endorsement.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Floor is done!

This weekend I finally put the laminate floor in.

As I usually do, I screwed up at least one critical detail, but other than that, it looks beautiful. I love it! It's clean, it looks great, it's fun (and safe, now) to walk around barefoot on it.

I'll post pictures, most likely on the Vandweller's list.

The only thing I messed up, is that I forgot the proper dimension of the last row of floorboards. I measured 6 1/2", but then by the time I got the ruler out and started drawing cut lines on the boards, I remembered it as 5 1/2". So there's an inch-wide gap between the end of the floorboards and the moulding, on one side of the floor. No big deal, I'll live.

I also helped two friends move on two different days this weekend. It was interesting to fit an entire apartment worth of stuff into my van, in addition to my stuff. I had to be careful not to scratch the new floor. It already has one scratch; no idea where that came from.

It was a week of manual labor. I moved THREE people's stuff in and out of the van over the course of three days: first my own stuff got removed and replaced so I could do the floor, and loading and unloading all the possessions of two friends too. I didn't do it alone, obviously, but that's a lot of moving.

I slept on a futon whilst I had all my van stuff removed and was in the middle of the floor project. I like futons! I've shopped around a bit and I'm going to replace my homemade hack bed with a real futon. A twin-sized three-fold futon should fit nicely, and would use the mattress I already own. Plus, it'd give me a nice La-Z-Boy style couch when folded up.

I'm feeling hopeful about this whole adventure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The batteries like being overcharged!

I've noticed that the numbers on my solar controller don't always tell the whole story.

My Lifeline AGM batteries really like being overcharged, hard-core, in bright sun. Even though they say 14.1 volts when fully charged in a dull fog, they aren't as fully charged as when they get to 14.1 volts in the blazing bright sunshine, and are subjected to that for many hours.

So, for example. It was really foggy a few weeks ago. It took me several days of sunshine and very little battery usage to get my batteries up to full charge. But, even then, they'd deplete very quickly! Sure, they'd charge up quickly too, but then they'd deplete quickly. I'd start the night out with 12.9 volts, and after a few hours of computing and Internet, I was down to 12.5 volts!

But then it got hot and sunny for a while. I deliberately parked my van in baking-hot sunshine, day after day. The controller was whining up a storm, and my batteries sat at 14.1 volts for days. Well after all that, I'd start those nights at 12.9 volts alright, but after being up nearly all night on the computer, with the hard drive going and a second Linksys file server going, it'd still be up at 12.7 volts by the time I called it quits!

This morning, the controller was pulling over 12 amps out of the solar panels, charging up those batteries. They got plenty thirsty!

So these AGM batteries have a very long tail on their charging. They get up to full charge quickly, even at low amps, but they really like to be charged up hard, with lots of amps, in order to hold their charge longer. The volts at charging, or after charging, don't tell the whole story. HOW the batteries got to full charge has a lot to do with how slowly they'll discharge.

It was the fuel

I figured out what was causing that awful hard starting problem and all those clogged fuel filters I had to change: I was getting crappy, low-quality fuel.

At the bottom of my biodiesel barrel, was a thick layer of sludge and grime. Unprocessed fatty solids, apparently. Disgusting. The guy who makes my fuel wasn't too surprised. Apparently that was in the fuel he was selling me all along, until he very recenly upgraded his equipment to use a better process.

Now that I'm getting better fuel, the hard starting problem seems to be dissipating. And the "WATER IN FUEL" light even goes off sometimes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Dealing with solar in the fog

I think the party is over with the solar. Winter is here now, and it's foggy all day long. The sun is out until 9pm, theoretically, but you can't see it. I'm pulling 6 amps at noon, maximum. And for some reason my batteries seem to run out of charge a lot faster. Maybe I deep-cycled them a few weekends ago, and they've lost capacity as a result. I'd say that maybe it's taking longer to charge them, but I'm not seeing that. I can get them up to 14.1v easily still, by conserving electricity. But they seem to end up down in the 12.6 range VERY quickly now. Maybe I'm just using electricity more extravagantly? But I don't see how that could be possible.

Anyway, here's what I'm doing to help conserve:

I turn off the wireless router when I'm not going to be using it. It's silly to leave it on, even though it only draws 200 milliamps or so, just to keep it associated with a network.

I kill the inverter too. Also silly to leave it on, drawing I don't know what, but the manual says less than an amp, and the power supply on my monitor, and I don't know how much that draws either.

Those steps seem to help now that it's foggy. The laptop draws about 400 milliamps overnight when in sleep mode. I have to leave it in sleep mode because I haven't figured out how to get it to hibernate in Linux yet. But if I could do that then it'd draw zero amps when asleep, and that'd probably help keep the batteries fresh in the morning.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Standards of cleanliness

I've never been a neat and clean kind of person, but I'm realizing now how high my standards of cleanliness had gotten-- and how much they've lowered since vandwelling.

For many years I've been a shower-once-a-week kind of guy-- yeah, sloppy I know-- but now I get dirtier. I'm still on the once-a-week program.

It took me only a couple days to get used to peeing in a Nalgene bottle and emptying/cleaning it.

Never been much of a floor/walls cleaner, but I'd gotten used to those being relatively clean. Not anymore-- my floors are loaded with dust, dirt, hair (I'm in my 40's-- the stuff is falling out) and bits of food and stuff. And it bothered me for a while but no more.

But I've always been scrupulous about keeping food and food preparation areas clean. But I've gotten over that. When I started vandwelling in Feburary, I tried to scrub every utensil, bowl, and food storage container. Not anymore. I wipe or rinse forks or bowls and put 'em away. I clean my pots and pans with bread, and then give them a rinse with a spray bottle and a once-over with a sponge and soap, then off they go until tomorrow. I started out rinsing and cleaning my cooler out every few days; I just cleaned it yesterday for the first time in several months.

What's starting to bother me now is the smell. I still don't have my vent in, and the van is getting stuffy. Smells kinda funky in here now. I suppose the vent/fan will help, as will a clear plastic skylight that lets UV rays in (UV is a disinfectant), and then I'll sweep the whole thing out in order to put in the floor. Once the new floor is in, I'll have to sweep it once in a while too.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Found the limit

I've found the limit of what my solar power setup can handle, and did my first deep-cycle of the batteries.

I was very much an Interet hermit this weekend, and spent three solid days curled up inside the van, on the computer almost the whole time. I didn't leave the van except to go to the bathroom and buy some food. But I was also parked in a relatively shady spot, with the sun obscured by a tall building most of the morning and by trees all day except for a few hours in the afternoon. And winter has arrived in San Francisco: our cold season is now, when it's foggy and windy all day every day. So not much sun.

With the computer running all day and night, and not enough sun to really fully charge the batteries in the day time, the batteries got down to 12.1 volts for the first time ever. The yellow warning light came on to the charge controller.

Today I'm in full sun, trying to recover from this error. The solar panels are pulling 11 amps, and the battery is STILL not charged at 11AM, and the yellow warning light is still on.

I'm going to get off of the computer now and let the batteries charge up all afternoon, in the hope that by late afternoon they'll be back up to their customary happy 14.1 volts, and the charge controller will be buzzing like an angry bee, which is what it does when the batteries are full up and there's tons of sunlight streaming onto the panels.

I hope it will, anyway. It'll be an interesting experiment.

Sorry, batteries. Didn't mean to pound on you so hard.

UPDATE: Well after a full day of 11 amps, the batteries STILL did not fully charge! I shut everything down, and now after a foggy morning at about 6 amps, and an afternoon that's starting to clear and a few hours of 11 amps, I'm finally seeing 13.8V and the controller is finally starting to buzz and whine as it does when the batteries are nearing full charge. Still no 14.1 volts yet, though, and that's full charge. I hope to get there within a few hours.

UPDATE 2: It took THREE days. It is May 29, and, after sitting it in full 11-amp sun, and not using anything electrical all morning long, by early afternoon the thing was FINALLY up to 14.1 volts. Very happy that it got there. Tonight when the sun went down the batteries were at 13.1 volts, which is the normal "start point" for the evening for me. Usually after many hours of nighttime computer use, by the time I go to sleep the batts are at 12.7 volts.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Peace Go With Ya Brother

It's raining. In May! This does not often happen.

I'm up late, reading the news, about the price of gas escalating, and the collapse of the housing market, and a possibly fatal crisis of the fiat money system, and the skyrocketing prices of food, and a dramatic raise in the price of biodiesel I'm paying, and just worrying about very hard times ahead. Not just how I will survive, but how everyone will. I'm reading a story about a Russian researcher who's uncovered evidence that suggests that nearly 7 million people starved to death in the USA between 1931 and 1932, using the same methodology that Russians recently used to uncover the starvation of the Ukranians (some history which the Communists suppressed) during the same period. I'm slowly processing the realization that this country will soon go through a convulsion that will make the Great Depression look like happy days.

I had parked in a place that felt sketchy to me. Too close to all-night activity. I was worried that I'd snore and then someone would call the cops (how can you be "stealthy" if you snore??!). I was going to stay up and then sleep in, so that my snoring would be covered by daytime activity.

It's getting close to 4AM, the Time That Bad Things Happen To Me In My Van.

I'm just about to go to bed. And then, at 3:45AM, I feel it... the van is moving from side to side! WTF? It wasn't windy. Wait, I know what that is... someone is climbing in to my van! I slam on the wall really hard. It doesn't stop anything... still more van shaking. Then the door to the box opens! Someone is not only in my cab, but trying to get in here to where I'm sitting! HEY!!! I yell, as loud as I can. I grab a big, thick flashlight (good for seeing-- or bludgeoning someone into unconsciousness). Someone in a dark coat closes the sliding door, climbs out, leaves the van, and closes the driver's side door. I hear him walking away. It's still raining. Who would be so brazen as to break in to a vehicle, and then just WALK away?

I spend a few minutes collecting myself. I resist the urge to go chase him down. After the raw, animal territorial fight instinct has dissipated, I realize that my van doesn't start so well, and I could be a sitting duck there turning the crank trying to start it. Hmm. I wait a few more minutes, thinking, and looking through my surveillance portals. I see a figure lumbering away, but slowly and with no apparent destination. WTF again?

So I take my flashlight, and climb into the driver's seat, and the thing starts right up. Whew.

The figure who apparently tried to break into my van, is shuffling along, a block away. I decide to leave the neighborhood, but feel compelled to go towards this guy instead of flee from him. Now that I've calmed down, I'm more curious, and no longer angry or afraid anymore.

The guy looks over his shoulder at me. He crosses and uncrosses the street. Then I figure it out. He has nowhere to go! He's not a car thief; he's homeless. It's raining. He was looking for a dry place to sleep. How did he get in though? Did I leave the door unlocked? That would have been very stupid of me, but possible. It was wet, and raining. Maybe the guy thought this was an abandoned van he could curl up in or a few hours to stay dry? And my whole feeling towards this guy changed. I felt a tremendous sympathy for him. I'm not that different from him. I kept hearing in my head the Gil-Scott Heron song "Peace Go With You Brother" (this link might work still: ), one of his lesser-known songs, and one I've been thinking about a lot lately.

I find a new place to park, a few blocks away, in a different direction from the one he was wandering in. I step out and look at the outside of the vehicle. No signs of break in; the lock appears not to have been tampered with. I guess I left it unlocked; how very stupid. I'd better be a lot more cautious about that.

The cab smells awful, vaguely of human feces. I feel itchy all over. Yep, that was it. Homeless guy, trying to stay dry. Suddenly I feel very lucky, very privileged, very rich, in my van. And very guilty for having been so vicious and territorial towards someone in such a hard situation.

I hope he makes it through the night OK. I definitely didn't want him in my van at 4AM, but I really regret not having found some other way to have helped him.

Peace go with ya, brother.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Beautiful day!

Currently I'm parked at a beautiful and nearly empty beach, down the coast, doors and windows open, overlooking a huge open field of native plants and of course the Pacific Ocean, spectacular cliffs and rocks, and a harbor off in the distance, and listening to the crash of the waves and the songs of the birds. What a great way to cool off on a hot day!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

First police encounter

Had my first run in with the police last night. It was because of my own sloppiness of course. One thing that sucks about vandwelling is that one relatively small mistake can cause huge, serious problems. Gotta stay on my toes-- or else.

I have been working a lot lately (which is great... but for very little money, which is not so great) and had gone 24 hours with very little, if any, sleep. So early in the evening I headed to what was one of my favorite suburban beach spots, to watch the sunset and cook some dinner, and then take a nap. There's a 10PM limit on parking at this location; I didn't remember the exact time but I knew I definitely couldn't spend the night there. I was too tired to cook. I decided to take a nap. Right before I passed out, I had a thought to set my alarm for 10PM so that I could get out of there before cops came around. But I was so wiped out I didn't have the energy even to pick up the alarm clock and set it. I've been unable to nap more than a few hours anyway lately, and I didn't think I'd sleep too late. It was only 6:30PM, after all.

I woke up to someone banging really hard on the van. I could tell I'd been asleep a long time. I grabbed my glasses and got up to take a look to see what's up. Then I heard it "Whoop! Whoop!". Uh-oh, cops.

So I stuck my head out of the van and there's a cop standing behind the van, yelling at me to get out. Fine, I stumble out, hands out, still asleep really, but waking up quickly, police car headlights shining in my face. What are you doing here, he asks? I came for the sunset, I replied, and I took a nap, and must have overslept.

The cop asked me if there was anyone else in there. Nope. OK, license and registration please. He comes close enough to me to take my outstretched license, but still stays quite a distance away. I climb back in to get my registration and insurance for him. And I close the door to the box, which apparently I'd left open when I first came out.

He asks if I can open the rolling door and see what's in the back. My first reaction is to say, "No", because I do not want to consent to a search, or answer a lot of questions about living in a van. But I thought, there must be some reason he wants to look around, and I should tell him why I don't want him to. So instead I said, well I know the rules about being in the parking lot after hours, but I also know the rules about search and seizure. He replied, I'm not going to search, there's just a lot of weird stuff that goes on around here. "Weird stuff", I asked, like what? He said, I want to make sure you don't have an exchange student tied up in there or something.

Yikes! No wonder he's so being so cautious. OK, sure, I open the box. He pokes around with a flashlight. This makes him comfortable; cops in general are used to being able to poke their flashlight into your vehicle and look around. He looks at the sheets of insulation. What's in those boxes, he asks? Those aren't boxes, they're sheets of insulation. He reads the label on them, indeed, that's what they are.

At this point I'm very glad that I have those there. I left them there to keep crooks and criminals from seeing any valuables in the van in case I have to open the back-- it just looks like a cargo van filled with crap. But it also came in handy here too. He stood there for a long time, not moving, not saying anything, and not really aiming the flashlight at anything in particular. Then I figured out why-- he was listening, probably for anyone moving or breathing in it. There's nobody in there though, and he pretty soon figures that there's no "weird stuff" going on, just an old hippie who might be in one of the building trades, with a van full of insulation and scrap plywood and tools, who came out to watch the sunset, and probably smoked too much pot (I don't smoke at all, actually, but I look like I do) and fell asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time. OK, you can close it up. So I do.

He does all that license stuff. As he does, I notice the whole parking lot is empty. It's totally dark, except for two police cars with their lights on.

And I'm thinking, damn, are there kidnappers out here at night? Was I safe here after dark? I'm starting to be very glad that they woke me up, even if it was in a kind of jarring way.

When all is done, he sends me on my way. I'm happy that the van started up on the first try too.

Things I have learned:
1. NEVER EVER take even the shortest nap anywhere that there's a time limit, without setting an alarm first.
2. Secluded spots might not be such a good idea. Hiding in plain sight (i.e. more populated ares) might be safer, depending on who is populating them.
3. I'm glad I learned how to deal with cops: just answer their questions simply, don't offer any information unless it's specifically asked for, try to understand the fear that a cop has of making a mistake that'd embarass him by letting someone dangerous get away-- or, worse, getting seriously hurt or killed himself, and don't try to make up any B.S. stories.
4. NEVER have a favorite or regular parking spot. You're playing the law of averages, and repeatedly going back to the same spot is asking for trouble. Move around, and don't ever get comfortable (this one is hardest for me. I really want to be comfortable and sedentary, and I'm a creature of habit; moving around is work).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

More randomness

I've also noticed that I get a lot cleaner when I shower and/or dry off outdoors in the open air. Also seems to dry me off faster. I don't know why, but it works.

Speaking of one of the things that sucks about vandwelling is how dirty I get. Man, do I get filthy! And I'm going a week or so between showers, so I smell pretty evil too.

I found a public pool that is cheap and convenient, but they want a doctor's note before they will let me in (liability issues-- this is California, the most litigious state in the most litigious country on Earth), and the doctor wants me to make an appointment. And I don't have medical insurance anymore. So I'm at a bit of a stalemate. I guess I'll call and make the appointment-- being able to shower whenever I like would be a big help.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The dangers of talking to yourself

Tonight I stopped for dinner at a tiny little restaurant next to an inn down the coast. Had a great little meal; reasonably priced and it's been a few months since I've been there, so I treated myself.

Afterwards, I hung out in the parking lot, and arranged some stuff in my van. Talking to myself-- quietly, or at least I thought I was. Some dude starts knocking on the van, loud, BAM BAM BAM. I wait a minute, then slide the door open and peek outside. It's a very friendly-looking older guy, very coastal looking (skinny, with grey goatee, looks like an aging surfer), asking, "Can I help you guys?". Huh? You guys? I look at him indignantly. No, I said, I just had dinner right here. "Oh!" he says, "Sorry, I didn't know that!" Well, then WTF are you banging on my van for, I thought. The difference between the suburbs and the City, again-- people are going to "may I help you?" in the suburbs, whereas in the City they leave you alone.

I bolted out of there fast. Thinking to myself, "You guys? Did he think there was a party going on in here? Was I really talking loud enough to be heard outside this van, and it sounded like a conversation? I'd better get moving on that soundproofing-- fast!". Well, I thought I was thinking it to myself. Or was I saying it out loud?

I'd better cut out this talking to myself before it gets me into some big trouble.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

PE film

I'm about to tackle the flooring project. My laminate flooring instructions say that, if I'm on a concrete floor, I need to put "PE film" as a vapor barrier underneath before I throw down the underlayment and the floor.

So I wandered into Home Despot to find "PE film". They looked at me like I was from another planet. PE? What is that? Physical Education? I need a gym coach to lay down my floor? Or is it Public Enemy? What is a "PE film", a Public Enemy video? I need Chuck D and Flava Flav to come here and tell me how to lay down my flooring?

After a lot of head scratching by Home Despot staff, it was determined that PolyEthelene film is what I needed. I got some, it was cheap.

This weekend, the "fuel/water separator", the glow plugs, and the floor. I'm steeling myself up for it.

This is not a billboard

I swear, 4am almost to the minute.

Total silence in a residential neighborhood in the City. A big V8 vehicle pulls up and idles. Someone gets out... two young guys, mumbling to each other. Then I hear the hissing.

I punch the wall. I hear, "What was that? Did you hear that?" "Nah, it was nothing". Then more hissing. I scamper over to the peephole and look. Yep, two teenage kids, Vato-style clothes, standing around with spraypaint cans. So I yell, "HEY!" in my best Sicilian mobster voice. The footsteps scramble into the car, instantly, and it drives off. Fast.

A few minutes later, I hear a vehicle speed past. A few minutes later, another one (or the same one again). I dunno. Should I go to sleep, or try to get the vehicle to start (might take a few minutes worth of cranking)? I may wait it out.

UPDATE: I waited, and a few more times the vehicle (looked like a 60's Nova or something) sped by. I went to sleep. I woke up, and all they had managed to do was tag the black tailgate of the box van with some white paint. Glad I stopped them; who knows what they'd planned.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Scary rich people

In my hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing frustration trying to find a parking space (seems to get harder and harder every night), I found myself wandering into a super-rich neigbhborhood. Like, multimillon-dollar walk-up mansions and super-upscale luxury apartments, movie stars live here. And I found a spot right on a fairly big, ordinary-looking street! So I decided to settle in.

I hear footsteps. The footsteps get closer. Clomp clomp clomp-- women's shoes or boots or something with heels. No big deal. Then they stop. Then they walk away, fast. Hmm. I continue getting my dinner ready.

A few minutes later, footsteps again, getting closer, but a couple people. They stop. And I hear a conversation pick up again in the middle, in a tony, upper-class female San Francisco drawl: "I dunno. I've never seen a truck like THAT before!" More conversation, but at this point I don't hear it, because I'm putting everything away immediately and preparing to get underway. The footsteps go away again. I jump into the front seat, start up the beast, and high-tail it out of there faster than you can say "Gee, honey, do you think we should call the cops?".

There is nothing stealthy about a big box van in a rich neighborhood. Doh.


I think that I shall never see, something as maddeningly frustrating as a tree!

I love trees, but I'm starting to hate them. One of the thing that really sucks about having a box van, is that it is too tall. Trees used to be friendly, wonderful things to me, but now they are evil, threatening things that reach out with deadly arms to destroy my van and anything on it.

Over the last two days, I've had three really nasty encounters with trees. Yesterday, one left several of its branches embedded into the roll-up door in the back of my van. Today, another one rammed my van right in the right front corner where it is already injured. A little while ago, another one scraped the crap out of the roof so much that I had to move, the noise when the wind blew (which is constantly, here) was louder than traffic.

Yeah, I know I shouldn't be parking next to trees. And I should look first. That's just it, even if I could see them before I decide to park, there's no other choice. These foul van-destroying creatures are planted every few feet on every block in every neighborhood, rich, poor, old, new, residential, industrial, retail, it doesn't matter. And parking isn't that easy to find regardless. There is no choice: to park, there will be a tree in the way.

Naw, I do love trees. But it bothers me how much I'm starting to dislike them. I feel like soon one of these is going to rip the top off of my van, or screw up my solar panels, or just generally cause me great grief. It's not a good feeling.

Independently poor

Back when I was an obnoxious Silicon Valley yuppie, one of the dot-coms I worked for at the end of the 1990's was clearly going nowhere, so I quit. I didn't have any job lined up. I had some savings from stock sales from the previous company I'd worked for, enough to live on for maybe a year, but nothing major. I was going to try my hand at doing odd jobs-- consulting gigs. The other guys were horrified: "How could you quit with no job lined up?" My soon-to-be-ex-boss said, "Oh, he's independently wealthy." No, I was quick to point out, I'm independently poor.

That's how I feel now, although my expenses are a lot lower now than they were then. I kept that dot-com money mostly intact for almost 10 years, and a huge chunk of it went into buying and converting the van. Whatever remains of it, is my insurance in case the van gets stolen or wrecked. With that, and a little bit of alimony, I am, once again, independently poor.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Urban vs Suburban Stealth

I'm tired, and fighting off a cold, so I'm not sure if this will make any sense.

But I'm realizing how different trying to blend into a suburban environment is, instead of an urban one.

In an urban environment, being LOUD blends me in. I find it very easy, because that's my nature. Breezing along, doing my thing, with a little bit of an attitude, like, "hey, I belong here", makes me invisible. Everyone is anonymous anyway. Nobody gives a damn. People working are just doing their 9-to-5 (or whatever shift) and don't mind me doing whatever I want as long as I don't put them out or get them into trouble. This morning I walked into a bathroom in a random office building while a dude was painting the stalls. All he cared about was that I didn't mess up his wet paint. No prob. I asked if I could close the door and he said sure. Nobody cares, people mind their own business. They're just trying to make a living. I can dump my van garbage into a can next to a bus stop, and the people waiting for the bus certainly don't mind. In an urban environment, the only threats to me are thieves and graffitti "artists"-- my "stealth" goal is to stay hidden from them. The loud, well-lit, fairly busy areas keep me safer. I am not hiding from authority as much as hiding from criminals or predators.

But in a suburban environment, being quiet and kind of finicky is the only way to blend in. People care a lot, about everything. Homeowners and people who own their businesses take everything really seriously. This evening I had a terrible time finding parking in the City. The only spots I could find were in "tree lined" areas and I kept backing into the trees-- which were so low that I couldn't actually get into the spaces! I also don't feel well and I wanted quiet. So I headed out to the suburbs. I pulled into a suburban gas station to check any damage to my van. I found a huge tree branch stuck to the gap in my roll-up door! I took the branch out and put it next to a shrub growing out of the curb in front of the gas station. The gas station owner came out, livid, yelling at me to clean up the "mess"! Leaves and branches are a mess? Compost is good for plants, ya know. The transition from urban to suburban can be jarring and kind of frightening. In a suburban environment, the biggest threats to me are homeowners, business owners, and cops-- my "stealth" goal is to stay hidden from them. I am hiding from authority. That requires a totally different way of being: very polite, very careful, very quiet. And I actually don't like it very much.

All in all, I much prefer the urban approach to the suburban approach. If I had better soundproofing in the van, I'd probably never go near a suburb again.

Another reason I love cities

Cities are my country, I think. I love walking in them as much as other people love walking in nature. Then again, I love walking in nature too, but walking in cities makes me feel even more settled and at home.

Walking down the street, I found a little storefront business that sold corned beef. That's it! Just corned beef! A whole business-- mind you a small one-- that just sold one particular specialty food. And obviously has been there for 30 or 40 years, and also obviously still doing well (delivery van parked in front looked brand new).

Now, I'm mostly vegetarian and I don't like corned beef anyway. But this kind of specialty business is the sign of a thriving, diversified economy, IMHO, and you only find this kind of thing nowadays in cities.

I suppose after gas gets to US$10/gallon, and the Wally World empire with its truck-driven JIT inventory techniques comes to a screeching halt, then maybe small towns will once again evolve the kind of economic ecosystem as well-- lots of small shops and independent business owners, selling things grown and made locally, that kind of thing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

More great and simple things

Someone on the list suggested cutting the top off of an empty gallon jug of water, and using that to store the ice in the cooler, to contain the melting water so that the cooler doesn't get all wet.

Brilliant idea.

I got a 2 gallon jug, the square one, so that I can fit a 10lb block of ice in it. It's a tight squeeze but it works. And it keeps the cooler dry!

I also got a box of baking soda and put it in there to alleviate the "stale cooler smell" too. Works like a champ.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stealth parking

This truck is BIG. I can't slip into most parallel parking spots, unless at least one side of it borders on a driveway, a white/yellow/red zone, or a corner. I also can't turn around fast enough to nab a new spot that comes up on the opposite side of the street; by the time I get there, it is gone.

But, I can do something most people can't. During the day, anyway, in any kind of commercial/retail district, I can double-park to my heart's content, and nobody bothers me. Just turn on the blinkers. It's a big white truck. It looks like one of a million other big white trucks delivering to any of the businesses around.

I can't use this too often, but for things like popping into a store to buy something quickly, it's a lifesaver (and a fuel saver). A BMW double-parked with his blinkers on is an asshole who needs to get a ticket. A delivery truck double-parked with his blinkers on is just another random working stiff doing his job.

I know, I feel kind of dirty. But I gotta do what I gotta do.

I am ninja, you are ninja, he is ninja too

I am an urban ninja.

I slink in and slink out unnoticed. I am part of the shadows. You do not see me, because I am anyone and everyone. I am not actually there. And then I am gone.

A delivery truck parks and is not noticed. A random guy walks into stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars, and public buildings, and uses the bathroom, just like everyone else. The random guy buys stuff, walks up to the counter, pays, and then disappears off into the street.

I get in my truck and go. I was not there.

Last night, I noticed that I even walk differently now. I step quietly, padding around, and making no footstep sounds. I am silent in the dark-- part of the night--, and part of the crowd in the day.

I love the anonymity of urban vandwelling. It's like being a hermit, but in the middle of a fairly large city filled with interesting things to keep me busy. It is perfect for me. I have always wanted to just disappear. Now I am doing it, every day, every night. It's a dream come true.

The Linksys-Area Network

There are very few open access points nowadays compared to 4-5 years ago when I last used a mobile WiFi setup.

But I've noticed that there are still quite a few "linksys" SSID's out there.

And... for some reason... my Linksys router seems to be able to connect to them not matter how bad the signal quality is! I've been in neighborhoods where there are perfectly good free networks or open access points with great signal strength, but I can't associate with them. But there's a "linksys" way down in the noise floor, and no matter how crappy the signal is, my Linksys WRT54G will connect to it every time, no problem.

From a technical standpoint, based on what I know about radio, WiFi, and networking, I can't imagine any way that this could be happening. Signal is signal. But yet, my experience leads me to suspect that Linksys/Cisco is doing something different enough so that it's easier for their radios to connect to other radios of the same brand, than to any other brand.

Very very odd. I guess I'd have to actually look at the waveforms with a spectrum analyzer or oscope in order to see if any thing weird is going on. But for now, no matter where I am, I'm part of the Linksys Area Network, which seems to have nodes everywhere.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A key benefit of urban vandwelling

How else, on a fixed income, would I be able to afford to live within walking distance of any nightlife in town? There's no other way.

I'm finding that there is a safe, upscale, quiet residential neighborhood with decent parking, within 4-5 blocks of just about any nightlife-oriented strip in the city.

Very nice.

The key is to nab a parking space early, either before too many people get home from work, or after they leave to go out for the evening. Camp out there, have dinner in the van, get online (plenty of WiFi), maybe take a short nap, then go out. Walking is my favorite exercise and I miss it a lot. I'm a city boy so I have no problem walking many blocks, and I prefer it to driving anyway. Walk home, and go to bed. If I get lucky with a spot that isn't on street-cleaning day, I can even sleep in the next morning. Sweet.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Panel hel

Five hours. It took three hours to put in last four luan panels, and that included cutting them to fit and taking everything apaart to get to the walls again. And then two more hours to put everything back together again. There is NFW that I was going to rip out any of these to do anything with them and then put them back in. What I got is what I got.

And then, hours after completing this obnoxious task, what do I discover?

Green Glue.

So what I should have done is waited to put the luan panels on, and first bought some Green Glue, splattered that on, and then put the panels on. Oh well.

At this point the big sound leak appears to be the ceiling. I don't hear a lot of noise coming through the walls but the ceiling is just beer-can-thin aluminum. Once I drop the ceiling I'll bet it gets a lot quieter.

The panels look OK, considering they were polyurethaned by kids who insisted on "helping" (and then made me pay them US$8 for their work too). It definitely looks a lot more warm and homey now.

Next I get to take EVERYTHING back out of the van again, and put the flooring in. I'm definitely going to put some kind of insulation underneath the sound-dampening floor underlayment. Probably #30 roofing felt which was recommended to me.

And then the ceiling vent, which I'm still not confident about and have been delaying. And then the dropped ceiling. And then the interior walls and sliding door.

I'm still at least a few months away from getting this completed. My original plan was for all this to take about a month. That was in November. I found a van to buy in January. It's going to be April in less than a week. I estimate that I'm about 50%-0% done.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why a city is better than Wally World

I've been alternately dismayed, amused, and exasperated when people on the vandweller's list have suggested Wally World (Wal*Mart, Sam's Club, etc.) as an answer to all "where do I buy this" questions. I guess that's not too surprising though; most vandwellers seem to seek out rural areas where Wally is the only store around for hundreds of miles in any direction. Perhaps more importantly, Planet Walton has been very, very vandweller friendly and has-- very wisely-- earned a great deal of customer loyalty from those vandwellers it lets park in its lots overnight all over the country.

But I'm discovering that the City has much more to offer than a Wally World does. It just takes more work to find. A Wally World is basically a miniature, self-contained city shopping district in itself anyway, or it tries to be (and the Wal*Mart corporation deliberately destroys any existing shopping district in any town in which it opens-- that's part of its business plan). But one can find anything here in a city of any substantial size. City stores are a lot more democratic, open, and not as well-organized as a centrally-planned as a federalized Wally World is. But there are tiny niche shops for everything, and lots of huge shops offering incredible selection of anything imaginable.

I just have to walk around, and ask around in town, not online, and I'll find it, whatever it is I'm looking for.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

LCD monitor arm

Possibly the best US$100 I've spent yet.

I bought one of those LCD monitor arms. Mounted it to the new bed I built-- it fits perfectly on the 2x6 frame. It's fantastic. Lots of room to work, and it keeps the monitor in a relatively secure and stable spot while driving. I can leave the laptop stowed while working (I need to build a permanent place to keep it), and use a keyboard and my nice big LCD. The WiFi is via a Linksys box mounted to the wall, so the laptop can now be hidden away.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I tried to be clever with the dishwashing stuff, and I screwed it up badly.

It was driving me nuts having to hold the squirt bottle upright in order to clean dishes and stuff. So I thought I'd be clever, and just run a little hose from the squirter to a gallon bottle of melted icewater that I get from the cooler. I leave the bottle on the ground and I can hold the squirter any way I like.

Only, that's dumb. First of all, the squirter takes forever to get any water up through that long hose. I actually have to siphon it by sucking on it. Doh. Also, in order to keep water in the hose after I siphon it, I have to keep the squirter on the ground, under the water level. Only that's even dumber, because it'll leak water all over the floor that way.

I think I'm going to buy the 12v water pump and be done with it. The squirt bottle idea is sub-optimal.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hardware stores, revisited

So, as an example of what I don't like about what hardware stores have become: today I went into a generic ACE Hardware looking for a 10mm deep socket. Know where I found it? Next to the Turtle Wax.

Why? Because these stores, like Radio Shack's I mentioned earlier, nowadays are more oriented towards consumers than producers. So the wrenches are buried in the aisle and the display cap is waxing compound.

Staying a few nights

The other night I found a parking spot that was so good, safe, quiet, and sunny (and has lots of WiFi), that I've stayed here for two days now.

I now know what Tara was talking about-- being "van sour" and feeling stuck to the van and unable to leave it for fear of it getting stolen or burglarized. With the van's engine partially disassembled, it was wonderful to get out of the thing and just walk around instead of driving. I do love walking and I do not like driving.

I really love staying more than one day and night in the same parking spot. I really hate burning up fuel, money, and time searching for a spot and worrying about getting ticketed or hassled. And I really hate having to put everything away and batten down the hatches in preparation for getting underway. Man that gets tiring every single day. I like being disorderly and leaving stuff out wherever it's convenient, and I do not like cleaning things up and putting things away.

Once I find a good spot, I want to stay in it for a while. Alas, I can't do that in the City because it would invite hassles from cops, robbers, or both.

My long-term goal is to find a parking spot that I can stay in for months or years at a time, somewhere that is safe and quiet and has many things within walking distance, and then hardly ever drive again. Maybe build or buy an electric scooter or even do an electric car conversion, and dock it to the van for charging (after adding more solar panels-- I've got plenty of room for them).

I looked on Craigslist and parking spaces are US$200-300/month. For a parking space. Ugh. I guess my dream will have to wait until I find a freebie or trade, which will happen eventually.

Glow plugs

Today I finally bit the bullet and started installing new glow plugs. Since switching to biodiesel, the van has been really hard to start in the mornings. I guess the biodiesel congeals a little more in the cold than dead-dinosaur diesel does.

So I did the first side-- four plugs. I've made a decision not to use foul language in this blog, but it's really hard when talking about this project. I guess it's enough to say that I now remember why I decided to get rid of my cars 8 years ago and take public transit instead. Working on internal-combustion vehicles is no fun (although, I really really want to build an electric car, and I suspect that soon I will do exactly that).

Things I do like about this van is that the engine is INSIDE the cab! Much nicer for vandwelling! Instead of standing outside in the freezing cold or rain-- and in plain view of everyone who passes by-- I can do a lot of work on the vehicle from inside of it.

Also, when running biodiesel, the inside of the engine smells yummy! Instead of the sulfurous stench of diesel, or the alcohol-y stink of gasoline, the valve compartment smells like fresh motor oil, a hint of french fries, and that's it.

If you have to replace glow plugs on a 1998 7.3L Ford PowerStroke, the key is to remove the stupid hose clamp that blocks access to the front valve cover bolt. Then you can get a socket wrench in there and turn it to get the bolt off that also holds the engine-oil dipstick tube too.

I was surprised to find that the bolts on this van are metric! A Ford-- metric. Wow. The glow plugs are 10mm and the valve cover bolts are 13mm (not 1/2").

Also, do NOT use a 3/8" drive deep socket for getting to the glow plugs. It's too wide and as the plug comes out, the socket will get wedged in against the rocker arm ball. Ouch. I found a thinner socket and it worked better that way.

But, what a PITA! Lots of difficult bolt access. Luckily, the Ford engineers angled the glow plugs so that they were easy to access with a socket wrench extension. That was the easiest part. Getting the valve cover off was the hardest part. Also, whose decision was it to have electrical components in an area completely bathed in engine oil? Trying to get a good solid electrical contact when putting the new plugs in was nearly impossible. The tip was completely coated in oil. I hope they work-- I ran out of daylight and will have to wait for the morning to torque bolts and put the air filter assembly back in.

I did the passenger side first. If you number the bolts 1-10, with 1 starting at the leftmost side of the valve cover, bolts 1-5, 9, and 10 were easily accessible from inside the cab, bolt 6 from under the hood (after removing the hose clamp that was in the way), and bolts 7 and 8 from underneath the van.

When I started, the passenger side looked easier, but now that I've done that side, the driver's side actually looks like it might be easier, once removing the oil filler hose and stuff. Seems like there might be more bolts accessible from inside on that side.

Also, when buying auto parts, I stumbled upon a dollar store, and finally found a spray bottle! Works very well-- an indispensible tool for water conservation in vandwelling. Should have been the first thing I bought.

More WiFi observations

I've noticed that the more "rural" a suburban area is, the more open access points it has. Also, the less-frequently populated by vandwellers, the more open AP's it has. Some of the areas I've been in, close to where I've seen other vandwellers, have completely locked-down AP's. Likewise in some denser areas of the city. But out in the sticks, it's not like that. Although, in denser areas I'm more likely to find restaurants and coffee shops with intentionally-open AP's, and the Free the Net mesh too.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Van Tetris

I hate playing Tetris. And for the last few months I have been forced to play Tetris, every day, with every single thing I own. It's making me very cranky. Every project... scratch that, every single activity or thing I might want to do... requires moving everything I own around.

This is because I did a very stupid thing and bought supplies (insulation, paneling, flooring, underlayment, etc.) before I was ready to make use of them. I am just now starting to install these things so they're not in my way anymore.

I also didn't do the bed FIRST, which I would recommend to anyone. Even if it's just a sheet of plywood over milk crates, I'd say do the bed first-- having storage space under the bed is a huge sanity-saver.

Speaking of which: today I made a bed! I followed Michael's advice off of the Vandweller list, and used 2x6" wood, with a 3/8" plywood top. And lots and lots of screws and L-brackets. Air mattress goes on top of that, and there's 2 feet of storage underneath, so I'm not tripping over my stuff all the time anymore! This has reduced my Tetris-playing a lot.

The SOB weighs 150 lbs though, according to the lumber yard guy. Also, the lumber was cheap (US$30) but the braces and screws and all ended up close to US$80! Took all day but it's done now. I chose 6'x4' as a size. I'm kind of wishing I'd made it 3.5'x7', but it is what it is.

And now I absolutely have to rent a warehouse, because the thing is so big, there's no way I can do the floor without taking it out of the van, along with everything aft of it in order to get it through the roll-up door.

I also experimented with wall placement, by using sheets of isocryanuratete insulation. Getting close to figuring out the layout.

Oh and I love that Nashua aluminum tape with the backing paper. That stuff will stick anything to anything. Thanks to whomever suggested that; it's great. I used it to stick scrap peices of insulation to the slats of the roll-up door. Helps attenuate the sound a bit more.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Seeking out the country

I launched out on this vandwelling adventure intending to live in the City.

But at every available opportunity, I find myself wanting to get the hell OUT of the city and into the country, even if it is the beach, the park, or up or down the Coast.

I think it's the quiet and the fresh air. I don't see much view here in a big box that (still!) has no windows or skylight. But I still have no insulation on the roof, or the roll-up door, or the floor, so the traffic noise drives me nuts in the City. And even with no vents in yet, I can smell the exhaust and road dust. I just want to get away from it out to fresh ocean air and the sound of crickets and waves, whenever I can.

I looked up the BLM site and found some great and free possible camping spots pretty close by! I'm already trying to plan when I could get a week free to head up there.

Take only pictures...

Even in an urban area, the whole vandwelling thing reminds me of the old camping adage: "take only pictures, leave only footprints".

It's a good motto to live by, whether in a city or out in the woods. I'm trying to live by it as best I can. I consider a successful vandwelling stay as one where nobody noticed I was there, nobody noticed I'm gone, and nobody can tell I was there.

An open-AP-finding robot

I wrote two little scripts to turn an ordinary Linksys WRT54G into an open-AP-finder. Yeah, I know this is questionable legally, etc etc. So is vandwelling (in most jurisdictions). Like I said, I try to seek out truly public networks. But I takes whatever I can find, and tread as lightly as possible.

These scripts work with OpenWRT (Kamikaze) on a revision 2.2 WRT54G. They require the "wl" tool which is a binary Linksys program that's also redistributed and included in OpenWRT.

Script #1 is called "parsescanresults":




if [ "$1" ] ; then

while read i; do
#ssid line is foist
sstest=`echo "$i" | grep '^SSID' | cut -d':' -f 2`
if [ "$sstest" ]; then
#gotta reset eerything now!

#parse the RSSi and noise!
sntest=`echo "$i" | grep noise`
if [ "$sntest" ] ; then
sig=`echo "$snline" | cut -d':' -f 3 | cut -d' ' -f 2`
noise=`echo "$snline" | cut -d':' -f 4 | cut -d' ' -f 2`
let SNR="$sig - $noise"

#caplien is third, also has bbssid in there, maybe useful
captest=`echo "$i" | grep Capability`
if [ "$captest" ] ; then
weptest=`echo "$capline" | grep WEP`
if [ ! "$weptest" ]; then
#i only want the ones i could realistically associate with
if [ $SNR -ge $THRESHOLD ]; then
#i hate a certain pay network
echo "${SSID},${SNR}" | grep -v SSID_Of_Pay_Network_That_Annoys_Me

The other is a daemon called "openleds". I start it from /etc/rc.d.



set_led() {
local led="$1"
local state="$2"
[ -f "/proc/diag/led/$1" ] && echo "$state" > "/proc/diag/led/$1"

while true; do
#first reset everthang

wl scan -t passive
wl scanresults | parsescanresults > /var/log/netsinprogress
let opens=`wc -l < /var/log/netsinprogress`

if [ $opens -ge 1 ]; then
set_led dmz 1
cp /var/log/nets /var/log/lastfound

if [ $opens -ge 2 ]; then
set_led dmz f

if [ $opens -lt 1 ]; then
for i in dmz wlan; do
set_led $i 0

cp /var/log/netsinprogress /var/log/nets


So I drive around, I try a parking space and look at the LED's on the Linksys. If the DMZ light is lit, I have an open AP within range. If the LED is flashing, I have two or more!

I want to set another LED to light when I have one of my preferred public networks within reach. Also need to parse the output of "wl scanresults" better to indicate those networks with good signal/noise ratio, or filter out those that don't have good reception.

This whole exercise feels temporary to me. I should just pay up for Sprint MetroPCS, but right now I can't afford it.

Far too many AP's are WEP these days. The more popular brands such as Netgear, 2WIRE, Apple, etc., all ship with WEP on by default. So the days of "wardriving" are pretty much over. Still, this helps for those of us in difficult financial situations-- the Linksys cost me US$35 used, I already had the pigtail cables around, and I made the antenna myself.

But connectivity is nowhere near as easy to find as it was 4-5 years ago the last time I tried anything like this. If this trend keeps up, I eventually will have no choice but to try to find money for Sprint or some kind of Metro service.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Stuff I like

I don't like buying things. Due to the rush that I was in to start this project, and how green I was, I bought a bunch of stuff that now I think I shouldn't ought to have bought. However, a few things, I'm totally happy with-- delighted, even-- and would recommend to anyone:

1) SuperBrightLEDs from . I got the recessed light fixture and it draws so little current that even when I turn off the power mains on my solar controller, the light is still lit, just off of the drain current from the controller! I had to put an actual off switch in there for it. It's as bright as about a 20 watt bulb and uses no electricity to speak of. US$20.

2) Nalgene bottle for peeing in! It was US$9 at Sports Authority. It's brown. It's got a wide mouth and you can't tell what's in it from looking at it. Thanks to whomever on the vandwellers list suggested it.

3) Hand-cranked drum pump for biodiesel, $80 from Whitecap in San Francisco. I was recommended a 110v motorized pump, but it didn't work and needed to be primed. The hand pump works just fine and I don't have to plug it in or prime it if the drum goes empty.

4) Igloo 5-day cooler. This thing really does keep everything cold for 5 days. Very, very nice. I added a faucet bibb to make it easier to drain-- I can open and close the faucet. I am going to have a metal shop fab up an icebox to put in there, connected to the spout, so the water doesn't get into the food and so I can drain it without tipping it over.

5) Isocryanaurate insulation (from Home Depot). This stuff is light, not too expensive, and it insulates very well (both sound and heat). Easy to work with and cut.

6) Old Linksys WRT54G router running OpenWRT. Love these things. You can use the wl utility to scan for open AP's, it shows the S/N ratio of each, and then iwconfig to pick an AP to associate to. I will write a script to do this automatically, and will customize it to flash LEDs showing how many open AP's are around as I drive.

7) Kyocera solar panels-- I got an 85w and a 130W. And Concord Lifeline AGM batteries-- I got two 220Ah batts. And a Cobra 2500W inverter. This combination gives me enough juice to run the laptop, a 110v LCD, the Linksys, and a bunch of USB-powered accessories, for as long as I can stay awake, every night.

8) Ryobi power tools with the 12V car charger. If I work with the sun shining, I can do tons of stuff and charge up the batteries as I go, all powered by the sun.

9) Nasuha aluminum tape with the backing paper. This stuff rules! It'll stick anything to anything, and seems impervious to temperature, condensation, or moisture. Highly recommended for vandwelling.

10) Colman single-burner propane stove! These things rule! They are hotter than a regular stove, I've found. Gotta be careful not to burn stuff. And they're so efficient! I bought a single canister of propane FOUR YEARS AGO and I'm still using it today. Same canister! It sat for many years unused, but I've been using this canister every day for cooking dinner, for months now, and it's still showing no signs of slowing down. I love my Coleman stove.

I've got some other good accessories and tools/toys too, which I haven't used enough to comment on yet. But the above feel to me like good, smart purchases, and I'm happy I bought them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

As soon as I'm done, I'll know enough to start

I keep thinking of the old saying about painting a car: as soon as you complete the project, you'll have learned enough to be ready to start it.

I've never sawed anything before buying this van and living in it. I've never built anything out of wood except for Junior High wood shop (a LONG time ago). Never worked with metal either. Never dealt with solar, or ran electrical for household use, though I have worked with electronics and low-voltage since I was tiny little kid. I've done lots of work on lots of different kinds of cars, so that part's not new to me, but that's also not what this project is about. This is a home improvement project-- really more like building a home from scratch.

Little things like knowing how to operate a drill and motorized screwdriver, I am just learning as part of this project (i.e. setting it properly to not strip the heads of screws, etc).

I've also been camping maybe five times in my whole life. My family was not outdoor people. So I'm totally new to living out of a cooler, cooking with propane, and general camping-type stuff.

This is, however, the way I do things. I jump in, feet first, totally unprepared, and learn as I go along. So far so good.

Wall insulation 75% complete

Only two more panels to go-- the small ones in the back.

I did one today-- the one where the battery box is. Took about 2 hours-- I had to remove the battery box mounting brackets, move the battery box around, and unscrew the inverter and then screw it back in.

The rails for the roll-up door in the back, attach to the panel via pop rivets, so I couldn't remove the whole panel. Instead I bought a circular saw, set it to 3/8", and just sawed the thing in half across the top, right under the rails. I slipped the insulation underneath and that's that. It's in. It's ugly but so what; there'll be a drop ceiling there hiding it. I covered it in aluminum tape for now.

It's a lot quieter but I still might need some more sound insulation. I'm thinking maybe cork, or some special cork-like stuff that a local lumberyard suggested. I bought a bunch of luan, and I'll throw some clear varnish on that, then put it on top as a finishing paneling whenever I get done with the insulation. Then I got my walls. On to the floor and ceiling next. When will this be done again?


I bought an old Linksys WRT54G router, and loaded the OpenWRT Linux firmware on it. Then I loaded the kismet package, hooked the Linksys up to a 12dBi omni antenna, and set the antenna outside the van (it's eventually getting mounted on the roof; this was the proof of concept). Kismet just ran, and discovered tons and tons of networks! And, it uses a prism0 interface, not the wl0 interface, in "repeater" mode, so that I can probe for networks and get online in client mode, both at the same time. So I've got WiFi in a huge way.

The LED's on this router are under software control in OpenWRT, through a shell script. Since I'll only be plugging in my laptop, I don't need LED's for each switch port to flash whenever there's traffic on a port. So my next step is to write a script that lights up more LED's whenever it discovers open (unencrypted) networks. And maybe blinks them when it sees traffic on them-- a LED version of the Kismet client UI. And then sit the thing on the dash as I drive around. So I can pick a spot to work based on how many open networks are around. Kind of like one of those handheld WiFi monitors but smarter-- this one will only show open networks (if someone has locked their door, I don't want in). Maybe flash a different special LED whenever it discovers the Free the Net mesh, which is my preferred way of connecting.

A bit more progress

(this was posted to the Vandweller forum)

It's been a very rewarding and fun few days. I've done tons more
conversion work and will take pictures soon. I basically built a
"sliding door" and wall for the back of the box out of two 4'x8'x2"
isocryanote insulation slabs. I also bought some cheap shelving units
which have helped a lot. I found 1 1/2" webbing at a great hardware
store, and buckles for it, and tied everything down. Now I'm no longer
having to play Tetris with everything I own, all the time.

I got out into nature. That was a huge improvement. Vandwelling makes
a whole lot more sense and is a lot more fun out in a rural area (I
drove down the coast). I'm starting to look at it like I'm on a
4-year-long camping trip.

I think I figured out the safe parking thing too. The residential
neighborhoods out in west side are a lot safer and more
vandwelling-friendly. Downtown sucks for graffitti, crime, and parking
tickets, and "nightlife" oriented areas aren't any better. But the
purely residential districts (i.e. Sunset, Richmond, etc.) are great--
nobody notices.

I see vandwellers EVERYWHERE, all over the City. It's like when you
buy a Toyota, you notice how many Toyotas there are on the road. Well
now that I'm vandwelling I see people everywhere doing it.

My goodness, you are a busy bunch! I can't keep up with the messages.
What a great community. Thanks everyone for all your help and moral

I found that onions, and dishes with lots of onions, make me sleepy.

Powdered garlic and dried minced onions are great for cooking.

I made a dish by accident and it was the perfect meal. I took some Pav
Bhaji powdered mix from an Indian grocery store, and prepared it as
directed (mix with water, then fry in Ghee), then instead of adding
fresh veggies I didn't have (tomatoes, potatoes) and boiled for a half
hour I didn't have, I dumped in a can of garbanzo beans and shredded
up some fresh Kale I had in the cooler. Delicious and nutritious. Kale
tastes like meat to me, it has that kind of filling-quality. That was
a dinner and a lunch the next day.

Quinoa with powdered garlic, powdered coriander, dried minced onions,
and some broccoli, worked for dinner tonight. All cooked in one pot,
on a Coleman one-burner. Food has so far been the easiest part of this
whole thing for me.

Hung out on the beach today and met some cool people. Too bad parking
isn't allowed overnight on the beaches around here.

More Ford electrical woes

Just a few hours ago, I ran the winshield squirter (or tried to; it's
apparently dry) and the windsheild wipers. AND THE DASHBOARD LIGHT

You may recall (ahem) that the dashboard light dies right before the
ignition stops working. I expect in the morning that the POS will
refuse to start.

So, the Ford dealer was FOS. This has nothing to do with the freakin'
steering column. They wasted $1,000 of my money and a MONTH of my
time... for nothing. It is an ELECTRICAL problem.

Luckily, this time I have the schematics. Screw the dealer. I'll look
it up in the morning and see what-all else is connected to that fuse.
I have a hunch it's the windsheild squirter motor-- that's probably
fused or otherwise dead and is shorting out the fuse.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Old-Skool hardware store

I'm delighted to have found a hardware store like they used to make 'em. It's in the City, and I'm keeping it a secret (sorry).

In recent years, most ACE-style hardware stores feel to me either like 7-11's-- small and no selection-- or huge behemoths trying to be Home Depot.

Even though it's an ACE, the store I found felt noticably different, like hardware stores used to be when I was a kid: big enough to have everything I might need, but small enough to be able to get around in. And very well-organized. I found what I wanted, and then things that I definitely needed but would have forgotten to buy, were right there logically next to them, all in the same place. Sweet.

I also discovered a huge industrial supply store too-- a totally different beast but one which is also good to have around.

Now if only there were an electronics shop like Radio Shack used to be-- with actual useful parts and components and stuff, instead of cellphones and TV's and keyboards and radio-controlled cars. Sheesh.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Getting messed with

(this was posted to the Vandweller's Yahoo group)

My friend who was homeless for several years, warned me, "You're going
to get messed with. The cops will mess with you. Criminals will try to
rip you off. You'll get messed with. Just deal with it." Of course,
she used much stronger language than that. I thought I would be clever
and stealthy enough to escape. But so far, she has been right. I guess
I have to be more clever-- or more careful.

I've gotten tagged wtih graffitti three times so far. I found that
acetone is amazing, by the way. It takes off graffitti as easily as
wiping down your kitchen counter. Takes the underlying paint off too,
but, very nice anyway.

I actually caught someone spraying me, and stopped him a few nights
ago! I was in a nightlife-oriented area because I desperately needed
wireless access and I knew there'd be lots of it there. There was. At
around 2AM, I'd had enough and was deciding whether to stay or to go
find another parking spot to sleep in. Just then I heard "sssss". My
first thought was about the source of that "ssssss" having an
unhealthily close relationship with his mother. I was furious. Way too
angry to be scared. So I slid the door to the cab, and looked out via
the mirror. There was a white kid, about 20, totally clean-cut,
looking like he was straight from Indiana or something. I opened the
passenger door and shouted, "HEY!! CUT THAT OUT!!". He looked at me
sheepishly, like he'd just hit a foul ball through my living room
window. And said, "Ummm.... sorry". Then he put his spraypaint back in
his backpack and slinked away with his tail between his legs,
muttering, "Sorry... sorry", while I glared at him.

Then, the other night, someone tried to steal my van! I was in a
somewhat poorer residential neighborhood that had some industrial
shops around, figuring I'd blend in. I woke up at around 4AM to the
van being shaken, like someone was pushing on it. I can't do a Rebel
Yell, being a Yankee, so I did my best Joe Pesci voice, and hollered,
"HEY!" Silence. Nothing. I went back to sleep, thinking it might have
been the wind or someone just leaning up against the van. I woke up
the next morning to find that someone had drilled out my driver's side
lock! I guess the guy was pulling on the door to try to get in. That
was scary. Maybe he lived in the apartment building next to which I
was parked, and saw the solar panels on the roof, or something. Or
maybe he just thought the van might have something valuable in it, I

Cops, of course, have ticketed me four times. My own fault for not
being an expert on the vehicle code. Once for parking on the street in
a town that didn't allow any commercial vehicles over 10,00 GVWR.
Three times for being on the wrong side of the street; in some areas
where I find myself, you aren't allowed to park on certain sides of
the street on certain nights because of street sweeping.

Bad things seem to happen around 4AM. 4AM-5AM seems to be Bad Time for
me vandwelling.

My safest nights so far have been in suburban strip-mall parking lots.
That seems to be the best spot. Nobody around, relatively quiet,
well-lit, no kids messing with me, too small to have private security
guards, and since it's private property there are no cops issuing
parking tickets. The box van blends in effortlessly there. Of course I
hate being in suburban areas or strip malls, but I'm discovering
that's the safest place to be at night.

It seems like the key is to be in a neighborhood too upscale for
desperate street criminals, but too grungy for the cops to monitor too
closely. It's a delicate balance.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sending from the box van

(this was posted to the Vandweller's Yahoo group)

I am sending this from my box van, via WiFi, powered by solar energy,
having driven here via biodiesel. This is progress.

I bought an automotive/marine style fuse box from West Marine for
US$28. That's my distribution block.

Last night I actually got some computer work done, via the big 220Ah
battery. It got down to 12.5V by the time I was done. After a few
hours earlier this morning, it was up to 13.5V.

Some more data:

The lappy uses 2-2.5A when idling, 3A when the disk is running or a
CPU-intensive task going.

My USB WiFi card sucks power even when the PC is asleep. I guess the
driver for it doesn't understand sleep mode.

The laptop uses 3.5A to charge up its internal LiOn battery when it is
asleep or off. With the thing on, AND recharging at the same time, AND
the USB WiFi card on, it sucks 5.2A total. That's what it's doing
right now.

In dead thick ocean fog at 10AM, the controller is pulling 2.9A of
juice out (I'm assuming that's the maximum available since I'm drawing
5.2A now). It seems to be rising very rapidly so pretty soon I'll be

Hah, battery down to 12.8V. But if the solar amps keep going up, then
it should only take an hour or less to top up this battery! And this
is only one battery-- I haven't made the interconnect cable to hook up
the other one yet.

No luck at the boneyards-- none of the boneyards around here seem to
have dead RV's. One guy says he doesn't even bother dismantling them;
he sends them straight to the crusher.

All in all, though, it's going very well.