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.