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.