Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lots of progress

I've been busy while being not busy. It's a wonderful zen-like "effortless effort" way that I'm just now discovering.

Basically, I slack a lot. And I'm unapologetic about it, even militant about it, and I insist on enjoying being lazy as much as I can. I refuse to ruin it anymore by feeling guilty or panicked or pressured about what I should be or HAVE TO be doing. I'm doing nothing, and there's nothing that anyone can say or do about it. Tough. Whatever ain't done, is just going to have to stay undone.

But this also makes me much more productive.

This happened because I stupidly got so comfortable with being online all the time that I forgot about my 5GB/month limit with Sprint PCS. So, I downloaded a movie, which was 2.5GB, and blew away my online minutes for the month. Oops. I couldn't sit and websurf anymore. Instead, I started sitting and reading an actual book, and just being even more lazy. Then something amazing happened.

Work becomes slack. Part of slacking is taking the pressure off, and I sit here and think, "Screw it. What better thing have I got to do?" Most of the time, nothing, and that's what I do.

But lately, the answer has been, "I could be working on this or that project, just wasting time that way." So, in essence, I'm killing time by getting stuff done. I'm not attempting to finish anything, mind you, just killing time by working on the things.

This is a massive change in my life. I'm killing time by working it to death. No pressure, no deadline (well, occasionally a small deadline like having to be out of storage by closing time, or having to sleep, or running out of sunlight, or getting to a store before it closes). I don't care if I finish. I'm just wasting my time by working on stuff I might not ever finish, or might not be doing right, but who cares, I'm ENJOYING it. The journey is the destination. I am making progress by not trying to make progress.

I have my ceiling tile hangers in, and a few tiles in place. I've moved some furniture around (took two days of work, verrry sloowly and easily!). I reorganized a lot of stuff. I planned out my new interior, where my bed is going, where my sink and kitchen is going, how I'm going to move my electrical stuff around, and obtained (I think) most of the parts and materials I'll need.

I've done a lot of research on my transmission (needs to have its fluid and filter changed), scheduled an appointment to get my rear brakes worked on, and checked my rear tire pressure, which I'd been putting off for a long time.

I've done a lot of work on my computer setup that has needed to get done for years, and it took only a few hours to do it. And, perhaps most encouragingly, I've started to work on my art, my trade, again. A little. After all, what else have I got to do? I can pick and choose what I want to work on. I have an infinite variety of tasks to work on. I have a feeling that this is what being in charge of my own life actually feels like, and I love it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Curled up in the world's largest library

It is pissing down rain outside, and I'm sitting here, comfortably in my van, and on my lap I have the largest and most vast library the world has ever known.

I cannot think of a more perfect place to be, or the most perfect life to have.

Yeah, I'm a nerd. I love to read, and study, and explore. I have come to realize that this is why I'm vandwelling: to have infinite time and a comfortable place for websurfing.

The internet is the most amazing invention and resource. From anywhere, I have access to practically all the knowledge of the human race. I can sit here in my van and have access to it all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Patience is a virtue

And I'm learning the virtue of it.

Seems like projects I'm working on are taking-- and have taken-- forever. But I'm starting to be OK with that. I'm getting used to it. It's neither panicking nor frustrating me that things are taking so long.

I finally fixed "the" leak-- or at least the big one-- it was what Ford calls the "Fuel Filter Vacuum Indicator Switch", Ford part number E8TZ-9S283-A, International number 180435C1. $25 from International, as opposed to $80 from Ford!

This leak took me about 3 months to find and fix. That's insane. But I'm OK with that. I'm kind of liking this way of working: slow, methodical, patient. In the process of fixing this, I also cleaned out my fuel tank, put new O-rings on my fuel bowl, and fixed another leak which was from the drain plug. I also wrecked a new O-ring by shoving it in un-lubed (have to replace it again eventually), and ruined three or four expensive fuel hoses due to the old "Fuel Filter Vacuum Indicator Switch" continuing to spew biodiesel on my brand-new hoses after I'd replaced them. Which, had I been a bit more patient, I might have just left the old hoses in place until I'd found the actual leak. Oh well.

I'm not giving myself such a hard time anymore for being lazy and procrastinating. I'm actually enjoying being lazy; getting the most pleasure out of it that I can.

Even when it's not me who is procrastinating, I'm learning to just go with the flow. I'm fitted with a temporary crown on a tooth. I'm getting the work done through a local dental school; they work veery slowly. The temp crown has been on for months. I've managed to hold it together by eating mush, and only on one side of my mouth. I've just been told that I have to continue eating mush on only one side of my mouth for another month: they're off for the winter-break holidays. So be it.

My ceiling is still not in, and I have the tiles, and I just need to buy the hardware for them. I am leisurely pricing out the other things I'll need: Owens Corning pink insulation, a kind of strange hanger I'll need to find or fabricate for the unusual ceiling I'm hanging it from (steel hat-channel rather than dimensional lumber), etc.

I have the new injector O-rings which I need to replace in order to stop the engine from sputtering on closed-throttle deceleration. I'll get to it when I get to it. Also want to put in a new fuel heater to replace the broken one I removed, which might help my hard starting problems go away. And I want to replace my transmission oil filter and change the transmission oil, and do an engine oil change, and wow I haven't even checked my tire pressure in a while... it'll all happen.

My career is also on hold, and I don't have much by way of an income at the moment. These past few weeks it's been freezing cold and raining. More rain coming. Everything is on hold. And that's just OK with me. No sense in stressing; might as well just enjoy it while I got it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The cold, cold ground

I notice my van seems to be a lot colder this winter, so far, than last winter. In particular, the floor of my van, which is pretty well insulated with a laminate flooring, foam underlayment, and PE film, is freezing cold, and I don't remember my feet being so freezing last year. Actually, I remember it being quite comfortable last year. What is going on?

Oh. Yeah. I forgot. My floor vent. I didn't have one last year. I put one in over the summer. So, this year, I do, and I'm in the habit of leaving it open. So freezing cold air from the ground is coming up and chilling my floor down, hard core.

I've been meaning to put in another vent from the cab, one that will take in warm air that has been solar heated by the windsheild and side windows. The cab is a lot warmer than the box, summer and winter. It's nice to be able too isolate the air in summer, but in winter I'd rather be letting solar-heated air from the cab come in to the van, than freezing cold air from the floor, at least during the day (I guess at night it doesn't matter).

I have a vent. I just need to find a place to put it.

UPDATE: I figured out a temporary solution that works well. I close the ceiling vent, and leave the floor vent open. Warm air comes up (when available) through the floor vent, but doesn't vent out the top. Cold air vents out the floor vent. It's not warm in here, but at least it's warmer than the outside ambient air, so that's an improvement.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Means, motive, and opportunity

The whole time I've been a vandweller, I've been often outraged by laws that make it a crime to be poor. Laws against living in vehicles. Laws against vagrancy. Laws against dropping your garbage in a public garbage can (I'm not kidding; there's a $500 fine and 6 month jail sentence for it in San Francsico). Laws against... being poor! It deeply offends my liberal sense of fairness to treat poor people like criminals, just for being poor. The old French saying goes well: "The law in its majestic equality forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges".

Cops have been known to profile vandwellers, and single us out at least for suspicion, if not for abuse, just because we're living in vans, even though many if not most of us are totally peaceful and law-abiding. Homeowners can be just as suspicous and fearful as cops, and it took me a while to figure it all out.

Lately I'm starting to understand it though.

Tara the HoboStripper wrote a great essay some years ago (which I can't find right now) about the tremendous hassles she used to get from border guards in Canada and the USA, going back and forth from Alaska to the lower 48. The guards didn't want her in their country-- or hers (she's American). They searched her, they gave her a terrible time, they made her miserable. She eventually found the solution, though: simply tell the cops you're there for work. She was baffled at why the cops would give her a pass if she just told them she was a wage slave. She had a couple theories, ranging from sympathy (many cops are union workers and have solidarity), and beyond.

But I think it's a lot simpler. Think like a cop for a moment. To find your suspect for a crime, you are looking for someone with means, motive, and opportunity.

Poor vandwellers who are not wage slaves-- have motive. If you have a job, you have income, you do not have the motive for committing burglaries and such. But someone poor and unemployed-- or lacking a steady predictable paycheck-- needs MONEY. Where they gonna get it? Begging or stealing... two things that neither cops nor homenowners want anyone doing anywhere near their jurisdiction.

Being in a van gives you means and opportunity too. You can slink away, you have a place to hide stolen crap. So, if you're a cop, or a homeowner, or a border guard in Vancouver or wherever, what do you make of someone who lives in their van and does not have a job? Why are they entering your country, or your town, or your neighborhood? To steal from you, and then leave, never to be caught? I guess if you take it from their perspective, vandwellers can look pretty scary.

Tonight I got hassled by suburban cops for-- you will love this-- wearing a black jacket (it's cold out), and a backpack, then climbing into my box van, where they couldn't see me. At least that's what they told me. Backpacks are sinister things in suburbia? A black jacket makes you a criminal? Climbing into your vehicle is a suspicious thing to do? I guess so. Unfortunately, I didn't see the cops following me and watching, which is my mistake, I suppose. A car alarm had gone off a few blocks away. And some guy was walking around with a black jacket and a backpack. That's some really thin threads to hang a case on. So the cops came and banged on my truck, searched me, and then searched my truck-- looking for stolen stuff. I have receipts for practically every little bolt, screw, peice of wood, houseshold item, foodstuff, and part that is in my truck. So, nothing there for them.

They were polite about it, and I was nice to them, not only out of self-preservation and general respect, but also because, if there is anyone actually breaking into vehicles around where I was parked, I want them to catch the bastards. Since all my worldly possessions are in my truck, the only thing I fear more than cops, is car thieves and burglars. So, go get 'em; I hope the cops win that battle.

But the first thing the cop asked as he started crawling around my van with a flashlight, was: "What do you do for a living?". I told him. Then I wondered why he'd ask. And then, suddenly, I thought of HoboStripper's story, and I was enlightened. Means, motive, and opportunity-- according to the cop, I had all three.

I realize there is no way out of this. I'm also not as outraged anymore, either. This kind of crap is just a hazard of vandwelling; something to be understood, accepted, and managed.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The secret to Ford 7.3L diesel survival

I have finally figured out the secret to surviving with an old Ford 7.3L PowerStroke diesel, and not getting bankrupted.

1) Buy ordinary stuff (oil, basic stuff) from Kragen, or wherever it is cheap.

2) Buy Motorcraft stuff (filters, seals, non-engine-related parts) from a distributor, NOT from the dealer. I've found one locally whose prices are excellent.

3) Buy all diesel engine parts from International directly. This one is the key. The aftermarket Ford/Motorcraft places don't carry it. The dealer buys it from Ford, who buys it from International, and each adds an insane markup.

I am pretty sure now that the source of my leak was what Ford calls the "fuel filter vacuum indicator switch". It had failed, and started leaking.

It was $68 from the Ford dealer... and $24.50 from the International dealer.

Sweet! Now I know where I'm getting my parts in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The dogs

When I'm in the city, the biggest threats I face are car burglars, car theives, and teenagers with cans of spraypaint.

When I'm in suburbia, the biggest threats I face are cops, and the NIMBY homeowners who call them.

When I'm in rural areas, the biggest threats I face are: dogs.

Dogs take violent exception to my being in their neighborhood. I park, and I can hear them immediately become completely unhinged.

Seems like, in rural areas, everyone has a dog, and everyone's dog does not like me being around.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The "just a little dirty" theory of graffitti-avoidance

One of the more boring and annoying games that I have to play while living in a big white box truck, is "cat and mouse" with teenage chowderheads armed with illegally-obtained spray-paint cans.

It sucks.

But I've noticed something. When my van was clean, white, and new, it got tagged all the time. I got bored of scrubbing it completely each time, so I'd clean it enough that you could still tell there was grafitti there at one time, but it was mangled beyond recognition-- you couldn't actually read what it said. It was more like dirt and grime than actual grafitti.

And then, I stopped getting tagged so much. Now, this may be coincidence, because I also might have gotten better at finding spots to park where there weren't ass-clowns wandering around with spraypaint cans. But now I'm beginning to wonder.

I've been parking in the same places as I've done, places where I never got grafitti'ed. But I did get a spare can of Acetone recently and cleaned off the remaining "smudges" on the van, and cleaned it up much closer to white. Still dirty, but not looking like it had been recently cleaned of grafitti.

Once I did that, I started getting tagged again. In places where I never got tagged before! This could be coincidence: maybe crime is increasing, maybe the places I'm used to parking in aren't safe anymore, maybe the recent theft of a good deal of spraypaint from a hardware store somewhere has caused a sudden rise in grafitti.

So I cleaned up the most recent grafitti, hastily, and not completely. It looks dirty again, but you can't read what it said. And I'm parking in the same places again. And... I'm not getting tagged anymore. I basically am not cleaning their grafitti, I am ruining it, but leaving its remains there so people can see that someone tried and failed. Maybe that's a better deterrent?

Maybe a van that looks like the grafitti is not going to stay on it, is not an inviting target for teenage morons with spraypaint cans?

Whichever way it goes, for now I'm grafitti-free.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The edge of storedge

At the recommendation of several fellow vandwellers, I obtained last month a storage unit. Got a small cheap one that I could afford, only $20/mo. I was advised that I'll need a storage unit equal to roughly 4 times the size of my van, because I'll need to collect about 4 times the crap that I'll actually use. Well I couldn't afford that so I got what I could. It has been very useful so far; I'm in the middle of my ceilng, counter, and sink projects, and it is VERY nice to not have to be tripping all over the materials in my van. They're in storage until I finish the project, then they'll go in the van, obviously.

But the storage is already packed to the gills. In a way, maybe it's good to keep it small, to not encourage me to acquire stuff I don't need.

There's a plastic fuel tank there, waiting to go in. It's not urgent now that I discovered my galvanized fuel tank is not so bad off. I wasted a hundred bucks buying it though. That plastic tank might be waiting a few years, clogging up my storage, costing me hundreds of dollars! Maybe I shouldn't have rushed out and bought the first one I saw, and it isn't even the correct one for the vehicle. So part of the problem with storage is that it can be a cost that creeps up, and also covers-- or even encourages-- costly mistakes. Why am I paying to store something I don't need and shouldn't have bought in the first place?

Once I get this ceiling in, I'll be very happy. I'm moving stuff around, putting in a countertop and sink, more cabinets, putting in conduit and proper outlets/connectors for my electrical cables, etc. It's a big project, and it is all interconnected so it has to be done together.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Once again, I misread a series of instructions, and possibly caused damage (I hope not).

The Ford service manual gives no torque spec for the fuel pressure regulator assembly when reattaching it to the fuel bowl. Various instructions say only "be careful not to over-torque it", but don't say what torque exactly to use. There are two steel screws, holding a cast aluminum fuel pressure regulator housing onto a cast aluminum fuel bowl. Aluminum cracks and steel is harder, so care is warranted.

In my desperation to get the fuel bowl project complete, I pored over the manual and found a spec for "fuel pressure regulator"-- an insane 35 ft/lbs. Seems way too much for a little 8mm bolt and a tiny aluminum part, but, that's what it said. I could barely get it to that torque, it seemed WAY too tight.

Looking through the manual again today, I see that I made a grave error. What the manual cals the "fuel presuure regulator" is just ONE bolt, a very large one, that has a spring and a check ball in it-- apparently that does the actual fuel pressure regulating. It does NOT mean the whole assembly! So, I have a little overtorqued time bomb in my vehicle. I may have stripped the threads, or cracked the aluminum housing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sedentary vandwellers

I've met about a half-dozen fellow vandwellers over the past few years, and I'm surprised by how sedentary we are. Almost all of the vandwellers I've met spend most of their time within a mile of where they have their storage units. Not a whole lot of travelling going on. Surprising because living in a van is a set up that seems ideal for travel. But we're not travelling, we're just a bunch of homebodies, it seems.

I've seen many more vandwellers around, who I haven't met, but again they're always parked within a block or two-- not even a mile-- of the same place, all the time. And again I find this interesting. A "mobile" lifestyle that isn't a whole lot more mobile than someone in a stick house. Over the last 6 months or so, I've tried to be more mobile, and enjoyed it a lot. But when I'm in town, I stick to the same places a lot. I guess I'm just as sedentary by nature as the rest of the vandwellers I've met or seen around.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Accelerations at constant throttle

I've figured out what most astounds and delights me about having all this power now that my fuel system is cleaned up.

When I hold the throttle constant, the van accelerates. A lot. It's great. It rarely did that, usually only when I'd just inflated the tires, then it would stop doing it over time. Now it does this all the time: I hold the throttle constant, and the van stays at constant revs, but it keeps going faster and faster on the road... and then it shifts, into even slower revs! Fuel efficiency, yes, we like it. And it even does this going up a hill.

I did a lot of little maintenance this weekend. I put some Parr-Bond, thanks to the suggestion of Possum from the vandweller's list, on the leak where the roof of the cab meets the front wall of the box. Parr-Bond is basically airplane glue. Works out well for the tight areas and the vertical areas, but up at the top where the seam is horizontal, there's also a huge gap, and the Parr-Bond is runny, so it just runs into the crack rather than sealing it. So that needs to get fixed, somehow.

I also discovered a deeply-pitted spot on the van cab roof, where water pools up. I cleaned it off and primered it. Over the next day or two I will enamel it.

I put in the new starter I've been carrying around for almost 2 years now. Sadly, it turned out not to be a gear-reduction starter, just the regular stock starter, so the van doesn't start any easier than it did before. But it was a simple job once I obtained the right kind of wrench (17mm C wrench, or an S-wrench will do in a pinch).

It is very weird how this van is half metric, half SAE. A vandweller friend gave me a caliper, which is very useful: I see a bolt, I measure it, I don't have to fish around for the right socket or wrench.

I am still baffled by the leak under the van. I looked yesterday, and saw a golden-brown drop clinging to a random peice of metal-- the unmistakable look and viscocity of motor oil. Biodiesel won't hang from a surface that long, for sure. I found another spot that was definitely leaking fuel before I changed out the hoses and o-rings, but is once again wet now! So maybe I still have a fuel leak, and an oil leak also.

To find the leaks, I will need to take off the turbo so I can see back in there. The oil leak may be coming from the turbo itself, its o-rings, or perhaps from the fuel pump which is buried behind the turbo. I sure hope it isn't the fuel pump: a new one is $400!

I made some progress planning the interior. The most important thing I need is the ceiling. Nothing can really happen until I get that ceiling in, and I'm having a very hard time locating ceiling tiles and hangers. I still have to mount the remaining lockers, but I need to get the ceiling in first. Then I can move cabinets around, move my batteries around, and start running conduit for a more permanent electrical setup-- something I definitely want. I'm also eager to put in a kitchen counter ($10/foot, not bad) and the sink I have had sitting around for a while. Something as simple as a sink would be a joy right now. I will re-do my bed with 2x2's instead of 2x6's, and put in a closet for clothes and stuff... lots of plans.

But right now I'd like to not be leaving puddles of fuel or oil or whatever all over the road.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Italian tune-up

After all the tank cleanup work, I drove the van to get some biodiesel. It was running like crap-- no power, shifting late. Pedal to the floor, 55MPH on the freeway. Not good.

I filled up, still running poorly. Maybe my filter is plugged up from when I ran the tank down to empty? Maybe there's a vapor lock or bubble somewhere? Maybe I messed up by removing that little bag from the filler cap? Lots of questions, no answers.

I took it on the freeway to head to the suburbs, and got frustrated, decided to just gun it and keep it there. After about a minute, I had power, lots of it! The old Italian tune-up did the trick: beat it up, wind it out, push it hard.

The fuel lines are very long, going from the front to behind the rear axle, so my best guess was air in the fuel lines, or possibly some gunk still in there.

After doing that, I could feel the power even at idle, which was a very odd sensation. I'm not sure how to describe it. Not so much a sound as a feeling, as if the engine's stroke became more vigorous. I'm familiar with gasoline big-block muscle cars rumbling ominously at stop lights, but here was my biodiesel van chugging away aggressively with way more power than it needed, tons of torque at idle speed.

And still leaking what smells like engine oil now. Rain coming this week, so no major work scheduled. I'll patch a few water leaks in the cab roof tomorrow, finally, before the next rain starts. Might try to figure out what size wrenches I might need to do the starter too.

Anderson powerpoles

On a recommendation from Ron on the vandweller list, I purchased some Anderson PowerPole connectors.

I love these. I spent hours this evening building switched powerpole jacks for electronics and utilities, and replacing a few cigarette-ligher cables and hard-wired cables with the new connectors.

I also organized a lot of my electronics parts, which have been just dumped randomly in drawers for years. I'm eager to get my electrical situation squared away in my living space: running conduit and putting in both 12v powerpole and standard 110v outlets in a few useful places.

I will head to a boneyard and try to find an RV with 12v flourescent light fixtures I can buy used. I like my "Super Bright LEDs" for general lighting, but for actually working on things (i.e. electronics), I need a 15W or 30W flourescent. If I'm doing my math right, that should be only a couple amps of draw; I have plenty of solar electrical, and I wouldn't need that much light all the time anyway.

I also want to create a weatherized 110V and 12V jack and place it under the box. Would make it easier to plug in lights and tools when working on the truck. My flourescent work light is indispensible. A 12V cigarette lighter would be especially helpful for plugging in my air compressor, so that I can keep my rear tire pressure up to spec.

Fuel tank cleaned!

My fuel tank is now clean. I obtained a 5 gal tote of biodiesel, and then ran my tank down to empty (on the freeway, which sucked, I had to pull over and put in a couple gallons to get moving again). Today I opened the drain plug in the tank, pulled out the sender unit, and drained everything. I wasn't parked on a perfectly even surface, so I had to use my 12v accessory pump to suck out the remaining fuel. There were 2 gallons of really lousy fuel. Water, glycerin, and some rust. The sender unit on this aft-of-axle 37-gal tank is 6" in diameter, so I was able to see in the tank, and also to get my whole arm in there, to wipe off the inside with a clean rag.

The tank wasn't rusted really badly, just a few spots of rust starting at the welds for the drain plug, and a thin layer of what looked like rust (but could have been residue of melted rubber fuel hose) on the baffles. I cleaned it all up as thoroughly as I could.

The tank is an interesting design: it has a spiral baffle, a few inches tall, that leads up to the sender unit. It's galvanized steel, which can get destroyed by bacteria that grows in water in biodiesel and attacks the zinc-- but in this case I hadn't much corrosion. The biggest annoyance was the glycerin and water from some bad fuel I bought last year from a guy who made the stuff in his basement. Nowadays I buy only ASTM approved biodiesel from any of the three commercial retail filling stations around the Bay Area that carry it. The right thing would be to use a plastic tank, which I now own and will eventually install.

I feel much better having this tank clean. The stock filler hose was rubber, and it was weeping fuel from a joint between the filler cap and the tank. So I threw it away and replaced it with a new vynil 1.5" ID hose.

I RTV'ed the cover for the flywheel-- the stock paper gasket had disintegrated and Ford doesn't sell the gaskets anymore. That might help me track down leaks better. There's still a very small leak or two on the engine, as well as the transmission and differential seals. I'm on a long-term mission to have a leak-free vehicle.

In a perfect world, I would have done all this BEFORE starting to drive the vehicle with biodiesel. Instead I deferred it for 10,000 miles, which isn't a lot. It's getting done though, and that makes me feel a lot more confident.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The simple pleasures

I'm discovering the joy of the simple pleasures in life-- the inexpensive everyday luxuries.

For example, I've been suffering for nearly a year with a Colemaan camping cast-iron pot for cooking in. It gets dirty, it's hard to clean, it has no handle so it's really difficult to deal with, it slips off of the Coleman burner if I'm not careful, it dribbles steam down the side of the pot, etc etc.

A few weeks ago I was at a Chinese supermarket getting some food, and walked past a whole aisle full of pots and pans, for really cheap. I thought, well why not just get one? I did.

I'm so glad I did too! For all of $8, my meals are pleasant. It has a handle. It has a glass lid so I can see what I'm cooking. It's coated with Teflon, so cleaning it up takes all of 5 seconds-- just wipe it down! Essential for vandwelling. It has a rough surface on the bottom so it doesn't slip off of the stove-- also a great safety feature in a van. It has a little metal washer and hole in the glass lid, so that steam escapes through it instead of around the sides of the pot-- no more mess on the burner. And it is a thinner metal so it heats up much faster.

All these little joys, from one very cheap purchase! The things that make life pleasant are not hard, nor are they expensive. I just have to keep an eye out for them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Warm, dry, quiet, and safe

It's raining up a huge storm, and I'm happily encamped in a quiet suburban area, safe, warm, and dry in my huge aluminum can.

Since it's raining and I'm not doing any work on the engine or fuel system until the rain stops, I'm planning the next steps for the interior: a countertop (at last!), a sink, and a more permanent mounting for the cooler, water supply, and propane stove. Turns out that laminate countertops are cheap, about $10/foot new, possibly even available for free, and easy to cut holes in.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's a process, not an event

I'm in the middle of a major project on the van. It's not a project, really, in the sense that it has a well-defined end or finish point. It's more a process than an event. I'm getting all Zen on ya here, but that's what it is.

It started out as a project to find the leak. I had what I thought was a massive leak coming from somewhere in my engine, and it seemed like fuel, or oil, I couldn't tell which. I knew for sure that the fuel/water separator valve was leaking, but beyond that, I didn't know.

So first step was, a month or so ago, cleaning off the filth under the van, trying to find out where the leak was coming from. I'll write more about my friend's method for cleaning a van without messing anything up or leaving a huge mess on the street-- indeed without leaving any mess at all-- which is very time consuming but it works. I found that there were several leaks of varying different fluids. I decided to start with fixing the fuel leak, which was probably caused by O-rings failing from being exposed to biodiesel.

I was expecting a big project, but nothing like what happened. I settled into a safe parking place in a suburban area near public transportation, and got to work.

First I took the fuel bowl out. It was a huge hassle. Then I started cleaning up the mess in there. Even huger hassle. Turns out my fuel bowl O-rings were in fact shot, and the two rubber fuel return hoses from the heads to the bowl had been destroyed by exposure to biodiesel, and had liquefied. They left a gooey mess all over the engine. In order to get to the hoses, I had to remove the serpentine drive belt, vacuum pump, A/C compressor, large bracket for both of those (including power steering pump), and alternator. I had to go to the Ford dealer, who had to order the new hoses, which cost $80 and took a day.

I rebuilt the fuel bowl using Viton o-rings. I made two dumb mistakes though: I accidentally laquer-thinnered off the Teflon coating from the fuel pressure regulator O-rings, and didn't have Viton replacements handy. So I'll have to replace those. I also forgot to apply Vaseline to the fuel heater O-ring, and tore it when forcing it in. I ordered a replacement.

The main mistake I made was in not being patient enough, and trying to do the fuel bowl rebuild in a hurry while I wasn't done dismantling or finding all the problems with the rest of the system. Rushing things is never a good idea. I was trying to do a detailed job which required focus, while still not finished cleaning off the engine or even dismantling the stuff I needed to get to the return lines, or even finding the horizon of how much work was going to be required. I ended up doing the fuel bowl rebuild again-- this time much more slowly and carefully-- before putting it back in. While in there, I put in new biodiesel-rated 3/8" and 5/16" fuel supply and drain hoses.

Put everything back together again. This entire job took 12 days, during which time my vehicle was taken apart, parked in the same spot. At one point I had to rent a car for a day ($50) just to go get parts and to get to a work obligation that required driving. You can bet I was very glad to be back on the road.

It still leaked. Not as much, and from different places. And here is where I realized: this isn't an event. It isn't about finding and fixing "the" leak. There are many leaks. This will be a never-ending process of identifying and fixing leaks. Some will be massive projects. That's just the way it is. I cleaned some more. Lots of cleaning.

The vehicle runs poorly though. Loss of power. Then I remember that I forgot to re-attach the air temperature sensor. I re-attach it, and my van runs like a dream, tons of power, smooth, good mileage.

While I was dismantling pretty much the whole vehicle, I noticed new bolts on the A/C compressor, alternator, and water pump, and what looks like new RTV goop over-applied to the water pump and the sheild covering the High Pressure Oil Pump main drive bolt. So, I can guess that maybe the original fleet owner of the vehicle replaced the HPOP, water pump, and alternator. Good things to know.

The next leak looked like oil, maybe, down the passenger side of the oil pan. I found some videos on fixing a PowerStroke, which said maybe my dipstick fill tube O-ring was leaking. Also said that Ford didn't put enough bolts there, didn't even put a gasket between the oil pan and the block (it's just RTV goop), and those bolts need tightening periodically. I got under the thing and tightened the oil pan bolts. They each were a half-a-turn loose. The leak from the passenger side stopped. So I'm guessing that was oil. But the leak behind the oil pan got worse. Oh well, at least I'm mobile again.

I noticed my fuel filter was caked with reddish goop. Rust? Maybe my tank is rusting? It is a steel tank, and I'm using biodiesel which eats steel, and is hygroscopic which means water and rust. I run down to a boneyard to buy a plastic tank. It doesn't fit my vehicle, but I can maybe make it fit. I have a box van with an aft-of-axle fuel tank. The plastic one is midship. I'd rather have a midship tank than aft-of-axle, for weight distribution. I'll have to come up with custom mounting hardware for it. But at least it's the correct material for the fuel I'm using.

Back to the engine. I still can't figure out what substance is leaking. It's oil or fuel, but seems more like oily fuel or fuely oil. It's now on the underside of the back of the block, near the top. Weird. Probably multiple leaks still. Tightening the oil pan bolts on the back makes it slightly less leaky.

I decide to take off the bellhousing/flywheel sheild and look inside. The gasket on that has totally crumbled, and the flywheel is spewing that leaking substance all over, making it harder to trace. I don't have a replacement gasket, so I put the old one back on and torque it down. Leak has moved: it's now coming from the drain hole at the bottom of the sheild instead of spraying out the sides or top of it. This is progress, sort of.

While I'm scoping out locations for the new fuel tank, I notice my transmission seal has failed, and is spraying gear oil all over the underside of the floor of my box. Also, the rear differential seal has failed, and is seeping gear oil also. I don't have the time to clean it off enough to see how much and how recently it is leaking. But at least I know the tranny and diff leaks can't be blamed on biodiesel.

Back to the biodiesel again. I clean the outside of the steel tank, undo the sender, and look inside. The sender is 6" diameter: plenty of room to look in there, even to get a hand and tools in there if needed. The tank is galvanized. The sides don't look corroded, but water is heavier than biodiesel, so the rust would be at the bottom if it were there. I can't see what's going on down there. Biodiesel eats zinc, so I can't guarantee it's not rusted. I buy a tote of clean fuel, and set out to drain the fuel tank. I buy a 12v universal pump intending to use it to suck out the old fuel. While under it, I notice a 3/8" square fill plug. A socket extension fits it. I drain it that way instead, 3.5 gallons of $3.87/gal biodiesel goes to the dump. I'm in a hurry to get this work done before the rains start, so I miss a huge opportunity to look into the tank while it's empty and see what's going on in there, or to get in there with a wire brush and try to remove the rust. But I have a good idea what's wrong. The drain plug is magnetic, and a cylinder of about 3/4" of black rust came out along with it. Ugh. The zinc coating is gone, and my tank is rusting. I rush to Loctite the plug and return it. I put in 5 gallons of clean fuel. The van loses power and runs poorly now. I can only hope it's because of air in the fuel lines. Also possible is that I kicked up a ton of rust and plugged up my filter. I will find out next time I drain the tank, which I'm sure I will do again, perhaps once these 5 gallons are used up. Or maybe I'll get an aluminum tank to replace this one, if I can't quickly come up with a mounting strategy for the plastic tank.

Back to the leak in the front again. I smell unburnt fuel, but not as much as I used to. It also could be oil with fuel in it. It's possible that my fuel pump is leaking, but I can't see it with the turbo in place. It's possible that a pool of old fuel is still down in the back of the V from the previous leak, but I can't see it with the turbo in the way either. It's also possible that the turbo o-rings or the turbo itself is leaking oil, again, next project will be to remove the turbo and exhaust and see what's going on in there. I'm waiting for Viton O-rings for the turbo to arrive in the mail, and to locate replacement exhaust up-pipe bolts in case I have to destroy these in order to remove them. I will also buy a spare fuel pump, just to have it. In fact, a spare fuel, water, and power-steering pump are good travel companions for an old Ford diesel van.

But I'm taking a break for a few days while a big storm is on its way. No wrenching in the rain, if I can avoid it. When dry ground returns, I'm also going to crawl around underneath and replace that gasket on the bellhousing sheild, and see if that helps me narrow down the leaks (there are definitely more than one). While I'm down there, I'll put on the new starter I bought almost 2 years ago, and haven't put on yet. A new starter will make winter more pleasant.

I'm now three weeks into this, possibly a hundred or more hours of work. I've been waking up early and going to bed late, putting in 12 or 18 hour days in addition to my other responsibilities. And I still don't see an end point, and that's OK. There isn't one. You see, it's a process, not an event. The goal isn't to fix one thing and "be done with it". There isn't a specific project. The goal is to find things that need fixing, and fix them. There are many of them, which I've neglected for several years, and which the previous owners neglected for many more.

It's an endless project-- a continuous process. The price of an old vehicle is continual maintenance. And the price of running an unusual fuel is having unusual problems. The difference in my attitude is: I'm fine with that. It's not necessarily fun, but I'm OK with it; I accept it.

It's costly-- I'm maybe $500 in so far-- but much less costly than if I'd sent the work to a shop. Plus, I'm learning, and I know exactly what I've got under me when I'm driving.

I'm in the suburbs now, away from freeways and noise, and it is lovely to have quiet at last. I have had many restless nights, and long days.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Easy on the miles

In the 20 months that I've been vandwelling, I've driven a total of 10,000 miles. That's pretty sedentary City living, I'd say.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Simple awesomeness

Sometimes the obvious answer is right under my nose, and it feels so good to finally find it.

What's the best container to put ice in so that it doesn't get my cooler all wet when it melts?

Oh, how about... an ice bucket?

So obvious. So simple. $25 at Smart & Final. A stainless steel ice bucket, the kind that is used for chilling bottles of champagne. After a year, I finally realized that is the thing to buy.

It's the perfect size for a block of ice, if I get a hammer and bang about a half-inch off of the corners of the ice block. Fits right in, and close the top of the cooler. Cold food and a dry cooler.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Street Cleaning, bah.

One of the more annoying costs of vandwelling for me these days is street cleaning tickets. I've gotten nailed twice in the last two months.

When I was in the city every day, I got in the habit of always looking at the signs and taking careful note of what day it is (or, the real gotcha: what day it will be at 2-4am!).

But I've been spending several days a week in the country or suburbs, where there aren't obnoxious street-cleaning regulations. Then when I come home again, I have to re-learn this diligence, painfully at $50 each shot.

Turns out the city has a website which lists the street-cleaning times for any address you type in. If I can get a GPS working, I'd like to write a mash-up that will look up the address of my location, look up the street-cleaning schedule, check the current day-of-week (and, more importantly, tomorrow's day-of-week), and put up a big huge warning if I'm in a danger zone.

There are some hurdles involved in getting that working, but it'd sure save me a lot of money for the effort.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

First four-legged breakin attempt

I've been staying out in the rural coastal areas lately, whenever I get a chance. I love it. Quiet, fresh air, peaceful, beautiful.

Last night, however, I had my first break-in attempt by a four-legged creature. And, this will come as no surprise, at 4am.

I was in a dead sleep, and awoke for no particular reason, probably from hearingsome kind of unspecified noise. Then I heard a distinctive "thunk" that sounded like someone or something bumping into my floor vent, really hard, and a tiny screeching scream. And finally a double thump of an animal jumping down from somewhere and landing somewhere else. And then: silence.

My guess: a mouse was trying to get into my van through the floor vent, and was stopped abruptly by a cat who had been stalking it as it was scratching around trying to find its way in. Either the cat or the mouse must have banged into the vent, hard.

I have a window screen on that floor vent, otherwise the mouse or whatever would most surely have gotten in-- the vent louvres are big enough for a small mouse to fit through.

Having been a pet owner, I instinctively shouted "NO!" when I heard all this. Luckily no humans heard me or gave it much thought ("What, is someone walking their dog in the middle of the night?"). I got up and inspected the screen for damage, and didn't see any. Then looked at the clock: 3:58AM. Wow.

One of the things I love about more rural/suburban areas is how quiet and peaceful they are, and no hassles from two-legged folks (cops or robbers). But one of the biggest hassles of some of these areas is the four-legged creatures; most of time it is the local dogs take violent exception to my being here. The past few nights I've parked and had two or three separate neighborhood dogs at the same time start get very pissed off at me for being there. *sigh* Sometimes I just wait for them to get over it, other times I have to move.

The life of a vandweller is never boring.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Wall of Voodoo

I'm very happy to report that I have finally put in the wall in the back of the truck! I left about 2 feet in the back as a storage area for my bicycle, tools, ladder, and some bulky/heavy gear I use for work and need to haul in and out of the roll-up door. I'm going to put shelves back there too.

I'm no longer tripping over or wrestling with sheets of insulation or breathing toxic insulation dust, and it's noticeably quieter. Should be cooler on hot days too, and warmer in winter.

The design was courtesy of a local fellow vandweller. I framed it out of 2x2's, sheetrocked the inside part of it, and put plywood on the other side for hanging tools and mounting shelves and such. There's a "movable" section which was works kind of like a trackless sliding door, but the sheetrock is so heavy that I'll probably just leave it in place most of the time. The movable part is cut with a 30-degree angle cut, so it fits in nicely, and slides out when I need to get back there. There's a long peice of 2x2 angle iron at the top, drilled into the box and the non-movable part of the wall, which provides a slot for the movable part to fit into.

I'll take pictures at some point and post them.

It took me a couple days to do, all together, maybe 18-20 hours of work. But I've never framed a wall before, never worked with angle iron or sheetrock, never even built much out of wood either, so it was a huge learning experience for me. I'm very grateful for the advice I got. Major project complete!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And maybe it wasn't a ghost after all!

A few months ago, I thought I had heard and seen dangers when there weren't any.

But maybe I did, and maybe there was.

Some days ago, at around dusk, I went by that suburban shopping center again. I shop there often, and it's a common stop for me. And as I pulled up, a half-dozen cop cars were there, across the street, in the parking lot, everywhere. And a couple gangsta-looking thugs were sitting out on the curb in front of the houses across the street from this parking lot, handcuffs on. The whole building was on the lawn and hanging out of their windows, looking at what was going down.

Whatever it was, I didn't want to know. Instead of camping there, I went to the store, did my errands quickly, took off in a hurry. And wondered if, that night when I woke up in such terror, maybe there was some actual danger after all.

I went by there again today to run some errands, parked in my usual spot, and the little Toyota next to me had on its windshield a ticket! Never seen one of those there before. Apparently they are now busting people for parking overnight there. The ticket said "FINAL WARNING" on it, so they might even tow the guy, which would really suck.

Never, ever, ever again will I stay there overnight. It has become a hostile environment. And maybe my instincts were very right the first time around.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Taking care of the simple things

The label on my box says to re-torque the U-bolts every six months. Since the big drama with the U-bolts back in September, I'm pretty sure I've checked them at least once. But it's been a while, so I checked them again today. Guess what? About a third of them were loose, some significantly. Good thing I did that.

Been wrestling with some strange tire pressure issues. The van is pulling to the right, and I had a slow leak in the passenger front tire, which would explain the pulling, but the leak seems to have gone away. Perhaps that wheel is just flaky in some other way-- maybe out of round? I'll take it back to my alignment/tire guy and find out what he has to say about it this week.

I'm also fed up with dealing with ice, and am looking for deals on a 12v refrigerator. Might could have found one, will see. It's an expense, but the convenience factor will be worthwhile, I hope.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I've got the wanderer's itch now

I've spent the last three weeks on the road. Got completely out of the city, and stayed there. First time I've done that since I've been vandwelling.

I love it. It was fantastic. I spent weeks on the ocean, up the rivers, in the mountains, in the redwood forests, and it was great.

I've got the travelling itch now. I've got the van and there's really no reason for me to stay in one place, let alone in a grungy, dangerous city.

I want to go find some land out in rural coastal California and go live there forever. I do NOT want to go back to the city again. I don't feel safe there anymore. I don't feel healthy there anymore.

After travelling back, I hung around in Marin for a few days, which was also wonderful. Then to the East Bay for a few days, seeing friends I haven't seen since last year, and then spent an afternoon being a dad again. Now I'm down the coast, wandering and hiking around the beautiful natural areas here. I have to go back to the suburbs again, and then I think I'm quite done with the city from here on, if I can get away with it.

It'll be hard to make the rural thing work, but I can much more easily swing the suburban thing.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Oil change, part deux

My second oil change today went a lot better than the first one, 9 months ago. Still a bit of drama, but not too bad. I already had everything I needed, and a plan, and the entire process took almost exactly 45 minutes from beginning to end.

Only bummer is that once again I overfilled the crankcase. Not too much, just a little. I'd partially-filled it, ran the engine a while, then checked the level before topping up, but the oil was so clean and clear that I couldn't really see how full it was. I noticed a lack of power, probably from the crankshaft sloshing around in oil instead of powering the vehicle. So after driving on it a while, I pulled the drain plug and drained out maybe a quart or two extra. Out of 4 gallons, not too bad.

The secret next time will be to run the engine for a LONGER time after partially-filling it, and before checking the dipstick-- long enough that the oil gets dirty and black and I can clearly see the level.

I found Rotella CJ-4 oil at Kragen this time too, really easy, and relatively cheap-- no special out-of-the-way trips to locate the stuff.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Seeing/hearing ghosts

Lately I've been avoiding the urban areas I used to park in, and feeling a lot safer, healthier, and more secure in the suburbs. I don't feel safe downtown anymore, among people living on the street and lots of fellow vandwelleers. I feel bad about it, but I much prefer the suburban areas of San Francisco, or the suburbs of San Mateo County surrounding it... or of course the beaches or out in the woods when I can there!

The other night I parked in a very safe suburban shopping mall parking lot. It was a windy night. At almost exactly 4:00AM (what is it with 4AM?) I was awakened by loud rap music booming, my van being shaken, and the sound of my van door being opened! I made my most intimidating-sounding angry shout. I heard nothing.

I looked out my peep-holes. I saw-- or thought I saw-- a vehicle parked sideways, aiming directly towards my vehicle. WTF? And nobody else around. I felt very, very scared and alone. I was in a panic for about a half hour, trying to decide what was going on and what to do. A car thief would have left as soon as I shouted. Who was parked there? Why were they parked that strange way? What did they want? What if they were armed? What if they tried to break in again?

After a while, I decided I'd climb out and start my vehicle, and drive somewhere else. As I got out of the box and into the cab, I noticed that everything I thought was wrong. There was no vehicle pointing at mine; there was a limo parked right next to mine, and the streetlights shining on it made it look like headlights aiming at me. I was not alone; there were dozens of cars parked all around. There were also people coming to work at one of the stores already, and a security guard on duty!

So what happened? I was perfectly safe. I got back the van and went back to sleep.

There were several problems. First, the peepholes make everything look really far away. It's a fisheye lens. There were cars parked all over me, and people a very short distance away. Secondly, my van was shaking because it was windy, or because someone parked too close to me and banged their door into me. Third, the sounds I heard was probably whomever owned that limo, parking it after getting off a night of work (it's prom season, after all). Fourthly, I'm a little skittish from being in the city for a while, or a little soft from being in the suburbs and out in the country.

I was seeing ghosts. No break-in attempt. No gang-bangers. No danger. Just the echoes of it, a delayed reaction.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Long Sleep

After running on an average 4-7 hours a night of sleep for the last week or so, even though I had a cold for the past few days, finally I somehow slept for almost 12 hours straight, and feel "caught up" at last.

Got back home to the truck at around 1AM last night after working, ate a very late dinner, then fell into bed. Woke up around 8AM (as has been my habit for the past week or so), was awake for maybe 20 minutes, then went back to sleep again and just woke up at.... 1:30PM.

It feels great actually to be rested at last. It's been an incredibly productive and insightful couple weeks.

Monday, May 4, 2009

I'm a Vandweller, and I Vote!

I've been wondering for a while how the homeless can avoid getting disenfranchised by the political system, considering that you have to have a physical address in order to vote. I managed to get around this in the last election by paying a mailboxes place to give me a physical address. I thought I'd solved that problem. But, alas, the modern computer age has made that more difficult; the elections office recently invalidated my registration because it was a "commercial" address, and knew it was a maildrop. Crap. FedEx and UPS have no problem with this address, neither does the DMV, but the County Elections Board does.

The solution is easy though: apparently the homeless are protected by law from being disenfranchised in San Francisco, which is excellent news. It is possible to register to vote with only a streetcorner as an address! So that's what I did. I still needed a valid mailing address for correspondence, voter information packets, etc., but a PO box is fine for that, and so is my mailbox place.

This may be the case in other cities as well. If you're living in a van, on the move, then at least here it's possible to pick a streetcorner and make that your address, and thus maintain your right to vote.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mirror mirror

I finally got my front ball joints replaced... expensive but it needed to happen. And the mechanics also fixed my window-- something I'd been meaning to do but never got around to-- and also my driver's side lock. I had to go back and re-do some of their work on the lock since they didn't put it back in properly, but it was nice of them to start it for me.

But the mechanics did something else for me that was amazing and tremendously useful: they adjusted my mirrors properly!

For a year now, I've been driving around with my passenger side mirror adjusted totally wrong! No wonder I couldn't see where I was going, having nail-biting lane-changes, was scraping the curb all the time when parking, and crunching people's vehicles when maneuvering around tight spots.

The secret is: I have to be able to actually SEE the passenger side panel of the big box in the mirror. Even if it takes up some of the viewable area of the mirror, too bad, I have to be able to see it.

Why? Because then I can actually see how close I am to things. I can also almost see behind me too, or at least some distance behind me. And, I can see the wheels, so when I park I can tell exactly how close I am to the curb! Finally, parking is now a joy not a nightmare: I can see exactly how much space I have, and who and what (if anything) is behind me.

Simple things that make life easy: having my mirrors adjusted properly.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

MPPT Solar Controller Double Plus Good Good!

This MPPT solar controller is totally amazing. I love this thing. Between this controller, and my new low-power EEE netbook, I just don't worry about electricity anymore.

Tonight I parked underneath a couple streetlamps. And as I sat down to do some computer work, I saw my MPPT controller's charge light blinking. WTF? It's 11PM. No... no way... it can't be... it is! The thing is actually trickle-charging my batteries overnight, using the energy of a City of San Francisco halogen streetlamp!

Probably not a huge amount of electricity there, but it's non-zero. I still have to hack up a USB-to-MODBUS interface to plug my computer into the thing and get more detailed data from it. But, no matter what, the old PWM controller wasn't capable of boosting the tiny voltages from a streetlamp up to a level where it could actually charge the battery. MPPT controllers can.

I'm putting the MPPT controller on the (very short) list of things I'm very, very glad to have bought.

Friday, March 20, 2009

MPPT controller in!

After 3 months of procrastinating, I finally installed the new MPPT solar controller. It is fantastic! I had very little sunlight this afternoon (more rain coming this weekend!), but I had to charge up my electric bike. Batteries were down in the critical zone, 12.4V. As soon as I hooked up the new controller, within a few minutes it rescued my batteries back up to 12.6V! I can't wait to see how it does tomorrow.

The long delay was due to my trying to find the "right" way to terminate the huge #8 wire I'm using. The problem was that the new MPPT controller has screw posts, like a terminal block, not holes with screw-downs. And nobody seems to make screw lugs that'll fit #8 wire! The closest I can find are Kragen ones for #10 wire. I decided to blow off the right way and just do whatever worked, which meant prying open the #10 lugs, shoving the #8 wire in, and then clamping it down. Not the ideal solution, but it works.

I tried to solder the lugs on, for more security, but neither my battery-powered soldering iron nor my 110V iron could get the huge wire hot enough to melt solder. I guess that's why I chose that wire in the first place-- it won't get hot!

But I'm happy the thing is working now. Next step is to build the RS485 ModBus to USB interface I've been pulling together a schematic for, so I can get all the huge reams of data off of this controller and really study how my solar electrical system is working out.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring has sprung!

Almost exactly a year ago, I first hooked up my solar electrical system and started drawing power from the sun.

I can tell spring has come now, because I looked over at my solar controller and saw it pulling in 10 amps! That's something I haven't seen in a long, long time, probably not since September.

I'm stunned at the tremendous variability in sunshine here in the northern latitudes of California. It's a huge difference: from 10 amps a lot of the day in the summer, to maybe 1-2 amps for a few hours of the day on rainy days in the winter.

There are several problems. First, San Francisco is in the upper latitudes, so the angle of the sun is lower, especially in winter. So my flat-mounted panels just won't pull in during the winter. Secondly, and also because of the high latitude, the hours of sunshine varies a lot between winter and summer. And, finally, California has a wet season and a dry season. It does not rain all spring, all summer, and all fall! Then we get all our rain in the winter... and then it's over.

Which means: LOTS of rainy days in wintertime, combined with few hours of sunshine, and a very low angle of the sun. So the factor of sunshine between winter and summer is like 10-to-1.

I installed my system in the springtime and started designing my usage based on that type of constant availability of sunshine. As I've blogged before, the end of October was a disaster for me: the rainy season startd, and my electricity usage suddenly way outstripped availability. I recovered by buying a small, low-power netbook. But still, that cost me a lot of money.

Now that spring has come, I can relax a bit more and be somewhat more lavish with electricity. But I've learned just how seasonal this type of thing is.

If anyone is designing a solar electrical system for their van (or for anything), my advice would be: design your system so that it provides enough power for all your uses, in the dead of winter with next to no sunlight. That will be expensive, but not as expensive as having to purchase new, more energy-efficient gear to cope with the lack of sunlight in wintertime.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I went down to the junkyard and bought myself a set of 18 small lockers, 18"x12"x18" each. This is wonderful. They look awful (I need to paint them!) but they are much sturdier and roomy than that awful cheap Costco plastic shelving I was using.

I couldn't get them into the van standing up, so I laid them down on their side. makes a nice shelf, but this position is temporary. I want to mount two of them on the wall, at head-height, one on either side of the van, and one standing up in the corner. That'll free up a lot of space.

For now, though, I'm just happy to have them and all my stuff a lot more organized.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mobile broadband is the awesome

I just signed up for mobile broadband service. $60/month, and I can get high-speed internet ANYWHERE. It is perfect. I am no longer so limited in terms of parking spots. I can pick spots which have no open WiFi access points. I can even (and will, probably, soon) get out into the woods a bit, and still get internet connectivity.

This is a great amenity.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Links to photos

A few weeks ago was the 1-year anniversary since I moved into the van.

I recently reviewed my picture album on the Vandwellers list

Wow, what a journey this last year has been! It was a brutal, difficult struggle for a long time. Looking back, it took me until around August before I finally got settled in-- 7 months.

I do have a big project still to do: the wall and the ceiling. And also a better bed (a proper futon). And I have to get the front end ball joints done soon too. But, you know, it's home, and it has been home for a year now.

Three more to go before it all pays off.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

House sittin'

Got an opportunity this week to house-sit.

Man, running water is a good thing. A bathroom. A sink... and being able to leave dishes in them for a couple days. Refrigeration. As much electricity as I could want, with no worries about sunshine (or lack thereof). Not having to put stuff away all the time. Insulation in cold weather!

It took a day to adjust to being in the van again. I immediately noticed how much WORK everyday living is now. Stick houses are cushy by comparison.

I still can't afford rents though, so I'm staying a vandweller. But I might do some more housesitting again every once in a while. It sure is nice.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A year in vandwelling

Well in a few days it will have been one year exactly since I bought this van and started living in it.

So much has changed that I find it hard to sum it all up and analyze it in any meaningful or insightful way-- sorry--, so I'm just putting up this placeholder post instead.

I haven't added up what I've spent, but I almost certainly have spent as much or possibly more than I would have spent on rent and utilities, if I'd instead decided to go that route. However, I would have had to have had roommates, and done a lot more driving and/or public-transportation-ing around. Maybe I will try to add it up, since tax season is coming up anyway. I did this kind of on the deluxe program, and I also got royally screwed when I bought the van. I know I could have done it a lot cheaper, but I was in a hurry, had a particular set of goals in mind. Which, by the way, I still haven't fully achieved.

My van conversion is still only about 50% done. Completed projects: floor, vital deferred maintenance, ceiling exhaust vent, makeshift furniture, solar electricity, beginnings of insulation, and some security stuff. Still to complete: more deferred maintenance, wall, ceiling, floor intake vent, extra seats, futon, cabinets, and sink. Things which I'm still not sure about: some kind of under-bed box, and some kind of toilet.

I've learned a lot about survival and what is and isn't important. I've figured out where to park safely, how to stay cool and warm, how to blend in, and how to fix a lot of stuff. I have become a great deal tougher in many ways, and a great deal softer-- more compassionate-- in others. My driving skills still suck, but I have learned how to park a house while only occasionally destroying other people's vehicles in the process.

My divorce became final last week; I am now officially single. I have been fairly successful so far in getting steady work, but not yet in getting paid for it. Luckily-- thanks to alimony--, I may still have a few years ahead to figure that part out.

I'm a lot happier in general, and there's no way I'd ever go back to the way it was, say, in 2007. 2008 was a very tough transition year though. Luckily the price of biodiesel has gone down dramatically. That is a huge help for me. Although, I spent the entire last week parked in one spot. I got around a lot on the Muni-- $1.50 a trip to go anywhere in the city-- and didn't start the engine once. That was fantastic and a hint of the life I want: to find a safe, cheap-or-free, semi-permanent place to park this van, and live by walking and public transportation, as a city dweller.

The future is still scary, but every now and then I realize, "Hey, this is MY life now and I get to decide what I do with it!" This thought alone can get me out of bed, any time day or night, no matter how cold it is, whatever I might be worried about or terrified of, or whatever else might have been getting me down.

This is MY life. I own it. I get to decide what I do with it, to the degree that I can. To the degree that I can't, I get to decide what it means, and what I do about it. This is a huge change from last year or any previous year in my life, and it's this urban vandweller's happy place.

Happy New Year to all.