Friday, November 26, 2010

The simple joy of sunlight

Today I went to the beach, parked where I was facing the ocean (and the sunlight), and broke out of my strict-stealth mode, by opening the door to the cab. The whole van was flooded with natural light, for the first time in a year or so. And it heated up in here almost immediately, going from maybe 50 degrees to a comfortable 65 or more. The cab greenhouse is indeed an excellent solar heater. Interior of refrigerator remains at 35 degrees, batteries are at 14.4V.

Just joyful and wonderful. I took pictures and have posted them on the vandweller's Yahoo group, here. Looking at the pictures, I felt particularly good about the work I've done, and how comfortable I've made this home-- that I built, myself, with my own two hands (and a couple hands worth of help from friends).

Speaking of friends... sitting in a friend's Westphalia/Vanagon some months ago, I noticed that, due to the darkness of the interior, even though he had tons of windows everywhere, people still couldn't really see us inside the van from the outside. Maybe a shadow, a bit of motion, but not nearly as clearly as we saw out. It was more of a one-way-mirror kind of thing. So, I'm warming up (literally) to the idea of windows.

Maybe I'll spend a bit more time this winter (but never in summer!) with my door open, letting the warmth and sunlight in. It is so much more pleasant.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

First cold

Looks like this is the first really cold night of the year. Will be interesting to see how the TruckFridge deals with it. I have no idea how R134a refrigerators deal with temperatures that are at or below the temperature they're supposed to be cooling to.

Today it was really cold in here, and I've done such a good job insulating for summertime, that it didn't warm up in here at all when it got warm and sunny outside. Oops. I briefly thought about cutting a hole in the wall from the cab to the box, and putting in a vent, to let the solar-heated greenhouse air from the cab in here. There are windows on three sides of that cab, and it gets much warmer than outside temperatures in there. If I could vent that air in here, it'd be nice and toasty. But I'd have to figure a way to do it so that I could seal it off completely in the summer. Shouldn't be too hard, but I have to think about it some more.

In the meantime, I'm closing my roof vent and one of my two floor vents to try to keep it warm in here. Let's see how well all my insulation works in wintertime.

My batteries are very very happy now with the new TruckFridge. On even a mostly-overcast day, nearing the winter solstice, and up here in the north latitudes, I've got enough sunlight to keep get my batteries up to 14.3V by mid-afternoon! And it's great fun to be able to buy ANY kind of food without having to worry if it needs refrigeration. The upside is that I'm eating a LOT better, since I can buy more fish and meat and cheeses and things that need refrigeration. The downside is that I'm spending a lot more on groceris too, like almost twice as much. So I guess I have to work on that. It might work out OK if I can stop going to restaurants almost completely, and I've been able to cut back a lot on that now with the fridge.

I did a bit of work that made me some money. Between all the odd jobs I'm doing now, I'm ALMOST at my break-even point. It is encouraging.

I flushed out my brake fluid a few weeks ago; that was easy. Also found a new/old fuel leak. It's from the fuel regulator where the brand-new return hose comes in from the right head! Same place it was last time! Or maybe it's from something else and I just never fixed it the first time. There doesn't seem to be anything coming from my fuel pump, but I have the part in case I need to R/R it. I've become resigned to the fact that leaks are just a fact of life. I'll fix 'em when I fix 'em, as best I can. It's like shoveling sand against the tide, an impossible task.

It sure is great to get away for the long weekend though. I don't plan to do any maintenance or home imporovement, or any work for money, but I do plan to do a lot of work on other creative projects and personal organizing that needs to get done.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Extreme airflow sensitivity

I've noticed something very odd about this PowerStroke engine: if I screw up and don't put the air hoses and this odd, empty "percussion chamber" on exactly right and completely tightly, I have no power at all. Like, climbing a hill at redline and 40MPH kind of no-power. Like, thermostat is full open going a couple miles no-power. Like, blowing though a tank of very expensive biodiesel in half the time no-power.

I've made this mistake often enough that I dread taking the air hoses and filter off, because I know if I put all back less than super-tightly, it feels like I'm driving on a treadmill.

A somewhat lesser sluggishness happens if I forget to connect the air temperature sensor back onto the air filter housing. This happens often-- it's easy to forget to reconnect the thing--, and I can always tell, because my mileage sucks and there's a lot less power... though it's not nearly as bad as if I don't tighten/seat the hoses and have an intake vacuum leak.

I'll have to figure out why this engine is so sensitive to the tiniest intake vacuum leak, nor why I seem to get them so easily. I'm still reading the docs, and it looks like the mass airflow pressure sensor is in fact upstream of the leak, though I haven't gotten down in there to figure out where it is.

It may have something to do with the fact that it's a turbo, but I haven't figured out exactly how. Being lazy I guess. It's easier to just get out an 8mm socket and re-seat the hoses and re-tighten them whenever this happens.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I've got the wanderlust

Only two weeks of living in one place all the time, every day, all week long, and I'm already missing being mobile!

This weekend I made a long-ish trip just to get out, and I realized a weekend is not enough time. As soon as I got exploring, I had to turn around and come back. Drat.

I realize now that I'd gotten used to disappearing for 4-5 days at a time, whenever I wanted. I miss it now.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

TruckFridge FTW!

I sold some gear and was able to scrounge up enough to buy a TruckFridge.

These things are awesome. I'm stunned at how amazing it is. It's the size of my crappy TEC cooler, but much better built, a lot more expensive, and it actually works! It keeps the food cold, like 35 degrees cold! All the time! And it runs the compressor maybe 5 minutes out of every hour, and uses only about 2A when it does! This thing is PERFECT. I should have bought one years ago. It keeps my food colder than when I was using ice blocks, and I don't have to deal with ice blocks. And it doesn't drain my batteries either, like that awful TEC cooler did.

3 months of wrestling with the wrong thing, putting in hundreds of hours on microcontroller development and research, and I finally solved the problem in 1 hour by just replacing the peice of garbage with the correct and proper unit.

Truckfridge, and I have the same kind of refrigeration convenience that anyone in a stick house would have. At last!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Patience is a virtue

Finally fixed my right front turn signal a week or two ago, so I'll be much safer doing lane changes in the rain. It was easy (had to replace a short length of cable and connector). I've got a plastic checkvalve, a quart of DOT 4 brake fluid, and the correct size vynil hose (1/4" fits perfectly) to flush out my brake system. Just waiting for the rain to let up. I drilled out the rusted-out bolt on my mirror, and now I have to locate my reverse-thread tap in order to get it out and replace it. Just got my new fuel pump in, and I'm ready whenever the right time comes to put it in-- it's going to depend on a combination of weather, location to do the work, and time available before I end up employed again.

Speaking of which, same with money: I've got some breathing room now, but I'm using that to try to find some source of income. If I start now, I'll be ready by the time I really need to be ready.

It is very odd to be feeling this patient, but I like it a lot.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Be careful what you wish for

The old proverb is true: be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

I've been saying for years now that what I really want-- my end-game in vandwelling-- is to have a permanent, safe, secure, legal (or legal-ish), stable place to park, work on my van, and generally not have to drive around.

But that wish was mostly based on a combination of panic and fear, and not really understanding the vandweller lifestyle: keep moving! It's counter-intuitive to think that moving all around is safer than being in the same place, but it is.

And, in the last few months, I've abandoned my wish for a stable parking space, and I've finally learned how to be a vandweller, and to come to terms with a nomadic lifestyle, even to prefer it! I don't feel a need to have a "safe" parking space; I've learned that the safest thing is to move around every day. I have MANY "safe" space. I've come to enjoy being in a different place every day.

Well, that's over now. I now have a consistent, reserved parking space, and I pretty much have to use it, for at least the next few months to a year.

It's in front of my ex-wife's house.


How did this happen? Now that my ex has found a job, I'm back on dad duty, and, due to her new and very long commute, I'm on dad duty every morning starting really early, making breakfast, packing lunch, shuttling kids to school. This is the job I did when I was married, and it looks like I'm back to it, for at least some time.

Since I often work nights, it doesn't make sense for me to try to find a parking place and then get up and drive down to my ex's house. And where she lives is, for now anyway, a block with a huge number of commercial vehicles which tend to be parked there for years at a time. Mine fits right in. It's walking distance to many things so I don't have to drive. I can work on my truck there without worrying about being grafitti'd or ticketed. It's got plenty of sun for my solar panels (as much as anywhere around here gets sun, that is). It's literally a perfect parking place.

Except for where it is. It feels to me like going backwards. I don't want to be stuck in her orbit. And I also need to get some kind of job or income soon too, which will shuffle the schedule around as well. So it'll be interesting to see how this works out, and for how long.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

TECs suck

Well it turns out that my whole project of attempting to run my TEC cooler on a short duty cycle in order to save electricity, is pointless.

TECs run at only 5-10% efficiency. If I'm using 48W of electricity, I'm only getting 2.4W of actual cooling!! That's a HUGE amount of wasted electricity, considering my entire panel gives me only 200W in full sunshine, maximum exposure, daytime. It's also not enough to actually cool the food. This would explain why the specs on TEC coolers are that it will only cool to 40 degrees below ambient, and not down to refrigerator-safe temperatures. And in winter? I'm getting NOTHING when running it on a 15-minute-per-hour cycle (1A), which is all I can afford in the dark, certainly not enough to run this damn thing, and definitely not enough to keep food from spoiling. This whole TEC cooler idea is brain-dead.

I need to get an actual refrigerator that uses state-change, a condensor, an evaporator, and a compressor. These get 40-50% efficiency, and so to make an even comparison, my 48W of electricity would get me 24W of cooling.

There are plenty of small 12v high-efficiency refrigerators out there, but they are VERY expensive: anywhere from $1500 to $700 to $400. This is crazy. Although, there's one out there that supposedly uses only 10Ah a day. That is what I need.

It seems that these super-ridiculously-expensive units use the Danfoss compressors, which are especially efficient on electricity, and also run off of 12v. A fellow vandweller (who is also an EPA-certified refrigeration tech, luckily), suggested I just buy an old, small, college dorm refrigerator off of Craigslist, then buy a Danfoss compressor, and weld it in, then have him charge it up with refrigerant. I'm really liking that idea. Even better, I can pull the condensor out of the unit, and mount it and the compressor OUTSIDE of the van, underneath it. Got plenty of room under there, and it would keep the heat out in the summertime and also the noise out all year long. So that's an especially intriguing idea.

But either way, this cooler has got to go. It was a good experiment, but it just won't survive the winter, and certainly won't work in the summer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lead feet save fuel

I've discovered something very bizarre. I get MUCH better fuel efficiency when I really slam on the pedal and use up more fuel! Very, very strange.

But then, I drive mostly short trips. I have a diesel engine, and it takes forever to warm up, and it's totally inefficient when it is cold. But it's always cold, because I don't drive it long enough to warm it up, so my fuel efficiency sucks.

Well lately I've been laying my foot into the thing the second after I start it. Winding it out, giving it way too much, and climbing hills aggressively on a stone-cold engine. The net effect of this is that the engine warms up really quickly-- on a 4 mile trip uphill I can actually get it up to operating temperature by the time I'm done.

And I'm getting nearly double the mileage I used to get when I was babying the engine, bogging it down, keeping the revs low, and not letting it warm up. Plus, it idles smoother and seems happier.

Who'd have thought? I've dramatically increased my fuel efficiency by being a lead foot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Refrigerator progress

I've spent the last few weeks being a total geek. My refrigerator uses way too mcuch electricity-- 4A @ 12V-- so I needed to build a timer to keep from having it on all the time.

My ultimate goal is to have a microcontroller interface with my SunSaver MPPT controller and read how many amp/hours I have coming in off the panels, and decide whether to run the refrigerator based on that. I have spent months researching how to do it-- MODBUS protocol stacks, serial interfaces, etc.. I now have a solid design and software that will work, and I'm still working on the last bit of electrical design.

But the rains have already started, and the sun is gone. I can't wait for this fancy interface-- I need to stop this cooler from using more electricity than I have available.

So, in the meantime, I hacked together a little Atmel microcontroller and a relay module, and wrote some code to let me choose a duty cycle of 15 minutes per hour, 30 minutes per hour, always on, and off. I'm choosing them manually, via a switch connected to the microcontroller, but it's better than nothnig. With the 15 minute duty cycle, I'm using only 1A per hour. This keeps me from running my batteries down at night. It's been so dark, I have to use the 15 minute cycle even in the daytime too.

Friday, October 1, 2010

You've got to be kidding me

But wait, it gets better!

I get on the bus, go do my errands, and come back... and some douchebag tagged the whole roll-up door in the back-- the one that I just spent a weekend painting a month ago and looked perfectly clean!

Lovely. Middle of the afternoon. Broad daylight (well, thick fog, but that's our daylight). Million-dollar houses all around. And some fool's name sprayed all over my brand new door.

What is going on, is there a moron festival happening this weekend?

My door had been painted a month ago with a glossy top coat, his paint was still fresh, he painted onto a dirty surface, and the weather was wet, so douchebag's name came right off in 10 minutes with a couple rags and paint thinner. He must have just been there not even an hour before I got back.

Still, the cleaning left a residue (and took off a little bit of my paint), and now the door looks like crap. I have a half a can of white top coat left, so, when the weather warms up a bit, I'll just spray another coat on and cover up.

Grafitti bozo fails. I WIN.

Rattle, rattle

Tonight I parked over by one of the several universities here, a spot I've parked probably dozens of nights before, though I haven't been there in many months, and haven't parked there regularly in over a year now. It's a very busy area, but also residential and usually very safe and relatively quiet.

By about 2am, I was very tired, but working on my relay/timer microcontroller project for my refrigerator. Was just about to go to sleep, when I hear the unmistakable "rattle rattle rattle" of a spraypaint can. And something totally different happened. Instead of an immediate flight or fear or panic response, or even anger and frustration, my first instinct was confrontation! This was a big difference for me, and a big surprise to me as well. I didn't bother with peepholes or yelling; I wanted to get up close and personal into this. I didn't feel cornered or want to retreat, I wanted to push back! I jumped out of the van almost instantly, and, sure enough, suprised a spoiled punk white kid standing next to my van with a spraypaint can, who immediately set off to running down the street before I could say a word. I looked at my van, and he hadn't had a chance to even make a single mark yet. Across the street, on the other side, watching, were three of his buddies, obviously spotting for him. They just looked at me, frozen.

I looked around some more. I usually park in diagonal spot where I'm very visible, but tonight I was on the side of the street, where it was very dark and secluded on the curb side. Sure enough, that's where the punk was planning to create his "masterpeice" on my truck. OK, my mistake.

Again, without fear, but with some resignation and effort (I was exhausted), I packed up my stuff, and drove off for a less hostile environnment. I found a bunch of much more visible spots across the street, but decided I didn't need the hassle, and set off for the quiet suburbs instead. I found another bunch of good spots just a block away, but, standing right there, and looking frozen, were the three kids who were standing around spotting for the "artist". They just looked at me with apprehension. I just looked at them, not so much angry or frustrated, but, what's the word?, focussed. I studied all of their faces as I passed by.

I found a lovely quiet suburban spot just a few miles away, on the outskirts of the city, and a short bus ride from where I needed to be in the morning. Great!

I really do feel like a different person. I'm definitely not the scared little squirrel that first set off on his own almost three years ago. Not only can I manage now, but I can do a lot more by instinct than I ever knew how to do at all.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I've noticed that lately I've started eating more vegetables. Not just vegetarian food, which I've tended towards for a long time, but now just vegetables. I've always eaten a lot of bread and grains, also cheeses and lentils and the like. But I've discovered something fascinating about just plain old fruits and vegetables.

I can make a meal out of them, eat not very much, and be totally stuffed to the point where I can't eat anymore. I found this surprising. I can eat a ton of fish, or a full load of grains, and a complete meal, and it will take a lot before I want to stop eating. But the other day I made a meal out of just a tomato and an avocado. That's it. I couldn't hardly finish the avocado. I had to force myself to finish it! And, with that, I was stuffed for a full day. Same with squash. I have to FORCE myself to finish it. I'm full, my body is going, "NO MORE!". But if it was a bag of french fries, or bread, or fish, I'd probably be able to keep eating and eating. Odd.

But other vegetables can fill me up for only a short time. Then I get hungry again soon. This isn't a bad thing, but I'm still figuring out what does what to me.

I'm enjoying kale. I've figured out how to make a dish of leeks and kale, pan fried in olive oil and garlic, and I add in some random Asian meat-curry spice mix that makes it really really tasty. I eat it with quinoa usually. Today I made it, and I thought, hmm, this'd be really good with nuts of some kind, maybe walnuts. Sometimes I add feta cheese in there. Today I didn't, and I'm hungry again a few hours after eating. Still figuring this whole thing out, I am.

I'm on a budget now, so I'm trying to buy restaurant food much less than I used to. The last few weeks of the month, in particular, usually will involve no restaurant meals at all. I only have enough to do restaurant meals for a few days a month, and I tend to use them as soon as I can. I love food and I love not haviing to cook it. Oh well.

I am saving a lot of money by eating vegetarian, too, but I love my fish, in almost any form I can get it, and I'll never stop eating it. I also enjoy Vietnamese pork sandwiches, which are, thanks to their extreme cheapness, one of the few restaurant meals I can buy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Registration decisions

I researched re-registering my vehicle as an RV (a "houscar", in California legal-speak).

I'd save money-- maybe as much as $250/yr. I'd have to fill out a form stating how much I spent on the conversion, which would then increase the value of my vehicle, which would possibly raise the cost of registration. What I'm not sure of, is if it'd raise it close to what I'm already paying now for commercial.

I also might get hassled by cops too. If I have noncommercial plates on what is obviously a commercial van, cops might look at it and assume that it has stolen plates on it. Or think I was trying to cheat my way out of paying a commercial reg fee. Either way, it's attention I don't want to attract.

Finally, I am smog exempt as a commercial diesel. As I read it, the law now is requiring non-commercial diesels after 1997 to be smogchecked, so I'd get netted in on that. However, since I run biodiesel, I might pass it, if they're checking for particulates. Then again, if they're checking for NO2, or OBD2 codes, I might not pass. There are a lot of unknowns.

Do I feel lucky, punk? I do not.

The current game plan on registration is to pay the outrageous $350 to keep it a commercial for one more year. If the laws or conditions change, then I can revisit getting it reregistered.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Plugged in and turned on

We've had almost a week of continually foggy, dreary, dark weather, although it's also been HOT and humid and I've needed to keep my refrigerator running. So I tried plugging in my spiffy new 1300W converter. No problem. It works, and it charges up the batteries REALLY FAST. Didn't blow any fuses too, which is excellent, or set anything on fire, which is even more excellent.

Good to know that it works. I also suspect I won't really need it much though. When the weather is cool, the thermostat on the cooler runs it at a reduced duty cycle. It's more just something to have for emergencies, i.e. if I get stuck parked in the shade for a long time, or we get another snap of cloudy-but-warm weather.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Clean the fan

After almost 3 years I finally took the screen off of my vent and cleaned the fan blades. I found out something interesting. They're transparent! Or, they were, befor I let them get so filthy that they were opaque with dirt and dust and grease (from cooking, I suppose).

I sure can breathe a lot better now. I wish I'd done this in the spring, before the warm weather came along. I think I'd have had a lot better airflow in here.

Or even earlier. Perhaps this junk and dirt is what I've been breathing all winter, spring, and summer too. Yuck.

I don't like cleaning, but I'm discovering that it's just something I have to do, there's no getting around it. It's not like I have a lot to clean, anyway, but I guess I have to keep on top of it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

In praise of LEDs

Lately I've been getting back into electronics again, something I messed around with a lot as a child but didn't really understand (I thought like an artist, not an engineer) but now am having great fun with.

I started back into this in order to build a little microprocessor-based controller for my refrigerator, which would measure voltage and then shut off the refrigerator when the sun isn't shining and batteries aren't charging, so as not to run down my batteries. The refrigerator is a TEC, and it uses 4A, and has no thermostat built in, so this is important.

But, also, I discovered that many basic facts of electronics and electricity weren't in my grasp. I'd skipped over them, thinking the stuff was "magic". Now that I've purged magical thinking from my life, I can approach this with a new mind, an open one, and realize that it's all just electrons flowing and they obey basic laws (Ohm's, Kirchener's, etc.). So I'm re-learning all the basics of DC circuits, from scratch.

Along the way I discovered I needed more light in here to work on electronics projects. In keeping with trying to reduce my electricity usage, and to test my understanding of the laws of DC circuits, I decided to build myself LED lights.

I love these things. I recommend them to any and every vandweller. They are cheap, and easy to build. You just buy the raw white LEDs online or from your local electronics store, solder them together, and you've got light. Thanks to the Internet, you don't even have to understand Ohm's law in order to design your own lights, just use this: You can run them off of 12v easily.

LED lights are very bright, and they use very, very little electricity: less than a watt for even a decent-sized array.

After destroying two flourescent lights (flourescents don't seem to like working off of a Cobra "modified sine wave" inverter, sadly), I'm hooked on LEDs. Let there be light!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pit toilet splashback is the nastiest

I've spent most of the past 3 years urban camping, but over the past few months I've done quite a bit of camping at actual campsites and out in rural areas.

I have to say, splashback from pit toilets is the absolute nastiest thing I've experienced yet. From 20 feet down comes-- straight up at you and onto your body-- a vile splash of ammonia, chemicals, and who knows how many people's effluent. Grossest thing ever.

In urban areas, I have to say the only thing that has come closest have been BART bathrooms. BART has the nastiest bathrooms ever; they're worse than any gas station I've ever been in.

I've generally had good luck with portapotties, both in urban areas and in rural campsites.

Also, I finally learned how to do a proper cowboy shower (a spongebath). It works really well! I still like my urban camping strategy of staying within a few miles of somewhere that my gym membership is good-- hot showers and running water are really nice-- but it's also good to know that with about a gallon or so of water and a washcloth and towel, I can stay pretty clean no matter where I am.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Painting and maintenance

I successfully painted some rusty and weathered parts of the van. Looks a lot better now. I hope I stay grafitti free.

Also, being out in the HOT made me realize that I didn't have enough ventilation. I have a 13.5" square exhaust vent, but only a 9"x5" intake vent. This was no problem when I had the roof bare, because the aluminum roof would pull air up and force it to circulate by convection. Basically, it was a huge stovepipe. But since putting in the drop ceiling, it stays beautifully cool here in the morning, but once it heats up, it's impossible to cool it down again. It was miserable in here with even 70-degree weather. So I cut an additional intake vent, which helped a lot. Convection seems to be occurring again, and also the fan doesn't have to work too hard to circulate the air when I turn it on.

I found another problem too. Even though it's very dark and very well-insulated in the box, that aint' so in the cab. The cab is covered with windows on three sides and gets like a huge solar oven-- if it's 70 outside, it's 90 in the cab. The problem is that way too much of that heat was radiating through a fiberglass "dent" behind the driver's seat (it's there to allow the seat to slide backwards) and through the wooden box door. So, I bought another sheet of isocyanaurate insulation to cover those and stop the radiation.

I'm happily back in the fog zone again, and I've noticed that the extra vent helps solve a lot of the dry-mouth problems I was having. Maybe that will help solve some of my dental problems.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Strangest break-in attempt ever

I needed to do some painting, so I needed to leave the 50-degree fog belt and find someplace with less than 50% humidity and temperatures over 70 degrees. So I ventured out to the way far white-bread rich distant reaches of the bay area, where the wealthy lead sheltered lives amidst their million-dollar 1960's Eichler tract houses.

Parked happily (and quietly and safely) in the hills, I'd left my driver's side door unlocked. Around dinnertime, and just before dusk, two pre-teenage girls skipped past my truck, then stopped. And whispered to each other. Then one opened my door, and climbed into my cab, while the other took a picture! Then they ran off down the hill, giggling.

I was a more than a little stunned that those young girls should had absolutely no fear at all. They saw a big white truck, and thought it was something to play with. They obviously live an innocent, shelterd life so completely homogenized, so completely devoid of any crime or danger, that they saw nothing to fear, and decided to play instead. It was completely opposite reaction to what people in middle-class suburban areas closer to the city have: they're damned paranoids, and they eye me warily or even call the cops on me.

It was similar to the level of acceptance and lack of fear I get in rural areas, or in working-class suburbs: just a big work truck, nothing to see here.

But there was a different element to this, one which concerned and annoyed me: not only in their innocence, but also their arrogance. This wasn't their truck. They had no right to be in it. Where did they get the idea that they could just jjump into other people's vehicles? Maybe everything on their block is so safe and they all just share stuff, so this is no big deal to them. But I doubt that. More likely, there was a rich person's arrogance, that an obviously working-class person's truck is just not to be taken seriously. A kind of "let them eat cake" attitude, like my truck was just a peice of junk left on the sidewalk for others to pick up and do with what they will.

I got a bit worried because of this, and I was concerned that their teenage brothers might come around with spraypaint and demonstrate their sense of entitlement in that way. But no, I made it through the night quite safely and happily. Alas, the fog followed me, so the next morning it was just as foggy here as by the ocean. I kept driving and eventually found an even sunnier spot.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yay Cobra

I bought a Cobra CPI 2500 inverter in December 2007-- in fact it was one of the first things I bought for the van, even before I'd bought the actual van (solar panels and batteries were the next things I bought, a week or so later). I installed it, and used it mostly to power my LCD panel display, but since switching to a netbook I don't even have the LCD in the van anymore (it's in storage), and I use the inverter only for occasionally running a flourescent work light or a vacuum cleaner. It worked, until it didn't.

The inverter just died a few weeks ago. Stopped working entirely. So I boxed it up and shipped it back to Cobra. I don't know what kind of warranty it came with, but they sent me back a brand-new unit of a totally different model, a CPI 2575 with a bunch of new digital bells and whistles (voltage/wattage indicator, USB power port, etc.). It's a lot smaller than the old unit too, which is nice, but it's also of a lot more cheap/flimsy construction-- this one is mostly plastic when the other one was almost all aluminum. And it's noisy, not only when running, but it emits a crazy and obnoxious set of beeps whenever it starts up and a short one when it shuts down.

But the new one works, and they didn't charge me a dime, even though the old dead unit was quite possibly out of warranty. Nice job Cobra. I hope this one lasts a lot longer.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The wheels on the van go round-ish and round-ish

I've noticed for a while that the rear wheels feel "lumpy", especially at low speeds-- they don't seem round. And they don't roll, I have to use a lot more fuel to get the vehicle moving and it doesn't coast, it just stops and I have to give it more throttle. I do not like any of this.

I thought maybe my wheels were out of round, but I asked a tire shop to spin them, and they're plenty round. And still the problem persisted.

I loaded down the van to haul some stuff, and noticed that the passenger's rear outer tire was bulging out the sidewall. Hmm. A vandwelling friend hipped me to the physics of tires. Apparently I'd run over enough curbs as to damage the belts of the tire, and caused a lump. I decided to spend $50 on a used tire to see if this was indeed true. And it was! New used tire (got a good deal: 65% tread), rides smooth like glass. No more lumps. The van coasts from one stop sign to another, almost from one traffic light to another, no throttle.

And I learned the secret to not running over curbs. Pull way far IN to an intersection when making right turns, until I'm practically hitting oncoming traffic. That's the only way for my rear wheels-- 17 feet behind me-- to clear any curbs. Between these two things, hopefully I can keep my tires running longer.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


For a few years, I had a pretty good system going: I'd buy 5lb block ice at a few places near where I was often located anyway, round the square edges off by smacking it with a hammer, then stuff it into a very cool stainless steel ice bucket I bought at Smart & Final for like $20. The block ice would last 5-7 days on average (unlike 2-3 days for ice cubes or 1 day for crushed ice). When the ice melted, I'd dump the water into my 1 gallon cleaning water container, which had a hose and a spraybottle nozzle, and that would be my cleaning water. Efficient and easy!

But I was getting really frustrated with dealing with ice though. It was getting expensive: $3.50 a block. Block ice is only available in a few places, and I wa finding myself in those areas less and less. With biodiesel up to $4/gal now, driving from where I was, just to get ice, was an extra $5 cost or more! And some of the places started to run out of it more frequently.

So I trolled Craigslist and found an Evercool electric TEC cooler for $75, and bought it. It's interesting.

It is a TEC, so it cools only to 20 degrees below ambient. So, in 60-degree fog near the Pacific Ocean, it'll refrigerate food to 40 degrees. But anywhere else, it's just a cooler, and the food will spoil. I suppose I should keep my ice bucket around for dealing with hot weather.

Also, it's noisy. The fan is on ALL the time, it has no thermostat. The fan is about the same loudness as my netbook, but I don't try to sleep with my netbook on. And, it uses 4A at 12v. That's twice what a TruckFridge uses, but a TruckFridge is like $600, and this was $75.

So I first of all built a cabinet for the cooler, and insulated it to keep the noise down. I've got ducts to its intake and exhaust, and will run them outdoors for better cooling and also for noise reduction. I'm building a little microcontroller thermostat for the cooler, to run it on a sparse schedule on cloudy days to allow my batteries to charge, and on an even sparser schedule at night to avoid draining the batteries too much in the first place.

I enjoy not having to scramble around getting ice anymore though, at least in cool weather.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Things to avoid when choosing a parking spot


If there are garbage cans out on the street, this is a bad thing. Do not park here at night.

It means bad smells all night long, which will keep you awake.

It means loud, obnoxious noises early in the morning, which will wake you up once you finally fall asleep.

Avoid the garbage cans on the street! They are evil and are made of fail.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Glow plug relay AGAIN?

Weird. I replaced my glow plug relay almost 2 years ago, and it has been dying for a while now (making buzzing sounds, giving me hard starting), but after I did the injector seals, the glow plug relay just stopped working entirely. I put a multimeter on it, no voltage, nothing. So I just replaced it again-- $60 and two hours later it's done. Easy this time around, because I wasn't panicking or freaking out this time around.

But still, WTF? Two years for a glow plug relay? Seems a bit short to me.

Also, I checked my maintenance log, and it seems I've put 14,000 miles on this in the nearly 2.5 years I've been living in it. That's all! Lots of local driving, short trips. I don't know if that many cold starts would kill a glow plug relay so soon, but maybe.

I still have to replace a bent wheel, and maybe do my brakes, then I'm going on a couple long (for me, 200-300 miles) trips this summer. I'm still amazed and a little frightened by how much money I've put into this vehicle over the years, to drive so few miles.

But I do love it. It's my home, and I built it. Nothing can ever take that away from me.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More simple solutions to complex problems

Found the solution to the oil leak under the engine, I think. Just tightened the oil pan bolts to 40 ft/lbs. The manual said between 30-45ft/lbs, which seemed like a pretty wide range. I went towards the high end, and, so far, it's bone dry underneath the thing.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Simple solutions to complex problems

It turns out I was choking myself to death in here with drop-ceiling dust. The dust was getting dropped from the tiles whenever I bounced around on the road, or whenever the wind shook the van. It was a very fine dust that I couldn't see until it accumulated on surfaces for a while, but could smell and taste. Not only was the dust screwing up my lungs, and drying out my sinuses, and making me cough and have scratchy eyes and not be able to breathe, but it was drying out my saliva. I had dry mouth.

It turns out that saliva is very important for preventing tooth decay! It balances out the pH of the bacteria in the mouth. Having dry mouth was like the equivalent of eating tons of sugar and not brushing, for months. And that is very likely why my teeth suddenly started collapsing on me.

The solution was simple: a huge $9 roll of contact paper, splattered somewhat haphazardly all over the ceiling, completely covering the tiles. I got it for half-off at the hardware store because it was opened already. It took me two hours to apply it.

Now I can breathe easily, my mouth is not dry, and it's only slightly noisier in here. It's also still toasty warm in here on cold foggy days, but somewhat cooler in here on hot days because the air circulates better-- the contact paper is smooth.

Such a simple, cheap solution. If I'd done this in Feburary or March, I'd probably have saved myself $600 worth of fillings (two fillings) and lots of pain.

So far the contact paper is sticking just fine. If it falls off I can replace it-- it's cheap-- or find a plastic with a more permanent adhesive to use instead.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Another hazard to watch out for

On very foggy or rainy nights, NEVER park underneath any telephone wires. They are the worst. They cause irregular but very loud SMASHES against the roof, as drops land on it. I can't sleep with that going on. This limits my parking options quite a bit on those kinds of nights.

So, adding that to the hazards to avoid, including (just to name a few): nosy/NIMBY homeowners, cops, crooks, car theives, wild parties, teenage graffitti "artists", hidden driveways, heavy traffic noise/pollution, WALKways, extreme hills, air compressors or industrial HVAC compressors, drug dealers/growers/manufacturers, buzzing/crackling streetlights, parking meters, street sweepers, lawnmowers/weedwhackers/chainsaws/bandsaws/jackhammers/leafblowers, garbage collection trucks...

It's quite a job sometimes, in densely-populated areas and even some suburbs, just finding a place to sleep!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The "courtesy notice"

Several times over the past few years, in various suburban environments, I've awoken to discover a helpful "courtesy notice" glued obnoxiously to my windsheild or the side of my van. Getting this thing off is a pain, though it comes off of windsheilds pretty easily with a razor blade.

The "courtesy notice" is not a ticket, but it looks a lot like one-- only a lot stickier and harder to remove. It just says that my vehicle appears to be "abandoned" (how does anyone actually determine that?) and I have 72 hours to remove it before it gets towed. All of these notices cite the same California law (never a local municipal one) forbidding "abandoned" vehicles.

A couple times, I got these by parking in an out-of-the way place where there weren't many other vehicles like mine around-- and I could see how an alert cop might look sideways at it. So I've learned not to do that; I could do without the attention, thank you very much.

Last week I got one completely unexpectedly. Apparently I was blocking a front walkway (not a driveway), and it pissed someone off. Now, it's obviously not illegal to park in front of someone's WALKway: if it were, I'd have been cited for it. So instead I got a "courtesy notice" that took 15 minutes with paint thinner to remove. Which was fine, I guess, compared to the half-hour it took me the same DAY to remove the grafitti that some punk sprayed all over the side of my van, not even an hour or two AFTER the cop had already been there! I took care of both tasks with one trip to the hardware store.

This vandwelling is a delicate balance-- getting both grafitti'ed and "courtesy noticed" in the same day is a great example of it. A vandwelling friend calls it "cops and robbers": there is a war going on between cops and robbers, and, the secret to my survival is to avoid being collateral damage between the two. Apparently, I inadvertently parked somewhere that there was gang activity going on-- a war between cops and robbers. My van became collateral damage, receiving fire from BOTH sides almost simultaneously. I am getting better at avoiding these situations, but sometimes there's just no way to know until some kind of sign like this shows up. I'm getting more philosophical about it.

When I first started vandwelling, I was very nervous and scared, and felt very weak and guilty and apologetic and submmissive about how and where I was living. I was terrified of getting ripped off, but I tended to park in dangerous and skanky areas because I was even more terrified of getting busted. A friend used to smack me around a bit, and basically tell me to man up and claim my right to live how and where I choose. He'd point out that too many people believe that anything that isn't explicitly permitted is forbidden, but that American law works in exactly the opposite way: anything that isn't explicitly forbidden is permitted. And even if I'm doing something that is forbidden, the state has the burden of proving it. For example, if "habitating" (very loosely defined) is illegal in a vehicle between certain hours in certain cities (i.e. San Francisco), the police first have to prove that I'm "habitating"-- not easy if I don't admit it, and I won't-- or even that there's anyone inside the damned vehicle at all! So, when I get "the knock" on the van, I certainly don't have to reveal myself, let alone explain myself.

This was hard for me to swallow, because I don't like breaking the law, and I don't like even being suspected of breaking the law. I never will. But I'm starting to understand and adopt his more confident, assertive way of thinking. If I am parked legally, not disturbing anyone, certainly don't mean anyone any harm, and the only law I'm breaking is a minor and deeply unjust one which discriminates unfairly against the poor, then I don't think anyone has any right to push me around because of it.

A few weeks ago, I went hiking on a beautiful day in a remote area. I was parked perfectly legally, within normal permitted daylight hours, in a public park. I came back, tired and happy and filled with sunshine, and took a nap. I woke up to hear a knock on the van, and a police officer calling in my license plate on the radio, and the dispatcher responding with my name and registration info. What the hell? I have no warrants or tickets, my registration is paid up, and my vehicle is NOT stolen-- and this is probably exactly what the dispatcher reported back. So I just went back to sleep. My alarm was already set to a half hour before sunset, when the park closed-- my confidence comes in large part from knowing the law and doing my best to live within it-- so I figured if there were any cop issues I'd deal with them then.

Sure enough, with nothing to see or do, the cop took off. What I understand now is that parks like that are war zones in the "cops vs. robbers" drama. There were signs posted warning of car breakins and how to keep valuables from being stolen. I deliberately chose to take the risk, since I wouldn't be hiking long, there were lots of other hikers about, and I knew if I were hanging around any longer, I'd be physically inside the van. The signs also said the area was patrolled, which I figured was fine too-- I was somewhat alarmed but certainly not surprised when a cop came by. Or even that annoyed or indignant either. This is the balance. If my vehicle had in fact been stolen, I'd have been very grateful for it being recovered by an alert cop running a plate on it. But then, I don't have to expose myself to harassment either, so if they knock, I ain't coming out. Dealing with these kinds of fine lines is not fun, but it's reality, and I'm OK with it now.

The 12-hour time shift

One of the weirdest things about my new insulation situation, is that there's a 12-hour time-shift between the inside and outside temperature.

Normally, in California, days are warm and nights are cold. I've got it the opposite way around in here: the nights are stuffy, hot, and sweaty, and the days are cool and crisp.

The insulation is so good, that it takes all day for the interior to warm up, and by that time, it's nighttime. Likewise, it takes all night for the interior to cool down, and by that time, it's daytime.

Useful, though: on hot days, it's really nice and cool in here, and on freezing cold nights, it's nice and warm in here. But still, the 12-hour lag is kind of weird.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Wow, no wonder my brain was fried for the two years that I lived in noisy environments!

I've been spending the last 4-5 months in mostly suburban areas, and the last month almost exclusively so. Today I went over to my storage unit, which is right next to a freeway. It was so damn NOISY!!! Even with my new ceiling and insulation-- the noise came in through the vents and it was loud. After about 5-6 hours, I couldn't think, and my ears were ringing. All I wanted to do was to get out of there ASAP.

Now I'm back down in a rural area... aaah, peace and quiet at last. What a relief; it feels so good, like when someone finally stops hitting you over the head with a hammer.

I hate noise, especially machine noise (cars, trucks, traffic, busses, lawnmowers, weedwhackers, chainsaws, air compressors, jackhammers, leafblowers, etc.). It's lovely to be somewhere the only noise is the surf pounding against the beach, in the distance.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Another reason for staying in the suburbs

I'm late to the doing-my-taxes game here, but I finaly am getting it done.

Digging through my finances, it seems I spent almost $300 last year on parking tickets. And that was just the first half of the year, when I was still living in the city.

Parking in the city SUCKS, bad.

But in the suburbs, lots of free parking, GOOD.

Mind you, I've probably spent a lot more this year on BART and busses getting back and forth to the city, but I bet it ain't no $300.

Plus I get fresh air, and safety, and QUIET. No way to put a price on those, but they're all very important to me.

Happy not to have to pay parking tickets, for sure.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Adventures in insulation

Discovered the source of my heat problems. It turns out that I hadn't insulated the front part of the van up near where the running lights are, or on the side posts. And, there was also an air hole in my ceiling tiles on the right side where the conduit came through to go to my electrical system. All this was right above where my air intake vent is.

The result of this was that cool air would get sucked into the van by convection (yay), then get either sucked up into the ceiling itself, or heated up by the radiation coming off of the metal box up where the running lights and side posts are. It got really bad when the front of the van was turned facing the sun.

So yesterday I pulled some scraps of insulation and ceiling tile out of storage, and boxed in that hole at the top, and also covered up the metal areaup by the running lights. So everything is insulated nicely. And, it works! Major difference, I can park in bright sunlight on a warm day, and the cool air convection is working wonderfully-- stays nice and cool in here now.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sound and wind

I'm really into hanging out in quiet, suburban areas these days. Clean air, and QUIET! Even with my insulation, it's much noisier here than in a stick house.

I'm getting good at sheltering myself from the wind, and I noticed that it also makes it quieter too. I never realized how much sound travels with wind! If the wind is blowing at me, I can hear sounds a mile away upwind as if they were inside the van. When I find places away from the wind, or days when the wind is not blowing, it's so much quieter.

I've taken a break from working on the van or the interior. I have a new sink, and counter, and I put the counter in, but haven't plumbed the sink yet, nor gone shopping for cabinets to put under it. But even just having the counter is a huge help and makes life easier.

I'm busy with work projects now, including a fairly massive one, so I'm applying my workaholism to projects that I originally started vandwelling in order to have time/money to do. It feels great to actually make progress on those; it really feels like I'm moving my life forwards, and I'm enjoying that a lot.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Unintended consequences

Ah, the joys of unintended consequences.

Before I put my ceiling in, air circulated rapidly in here due to convection. The roof is a beer-can-thin sheet of aluminum, and it'd heat up quickly and lose heat quickly. Thus, there was always a big differential between the air temperature at the floor of the van (which is well insulated) and the top, so air would blast through here as if there were a fan running.

But now with the acoustic ceiling and insulation in, the air temperature is uniform thoughout the van. The ceiling doesn't warm up; it's very well-insulated. Air just stagnates in here unless I run the fan. So, a bit of the quiet that I wanted so badly, has gone away, because I have to run that noisy fan a lot now. Oh well, I guess in the summer when it is REALLY hot, it'll be a lot more pleasant in here.

On the positive side, one of the unintended consequences of making my bed 14" high instead of 30" high, is that the bed moves a lot less when the van is being pushed back and forth by the wind. My big flat box has zero aerodynamic capability, and every wind gust makes it shake like an earthquake. When my bed was higher, I felt every bit of that, and it'd wake me up. No more; I'm lower in the floor plan now, so those movements aren't so annoying anymore.

And, finally, spring is here! I couldn't be happier. I love spring in California, especially on the coast. The sun is out, and here comes the fog already!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Leeward Side

I've noted here before that I'm getting pretty good at picking parking spaces that are to leeward of some major obstacle: a hill, a mountain, a large office building, etc. That helps me sleep, by not get my van smacked around by the high winds we've been having. And I'm also staying upwind from freeways and other sources of pollution, which makes me healthier.

But I've discovered another interesting thing. It's a lot quieter too. I didn't realize the degree that wind carries sound. If I'm near a freeway, and I'm either upwind or on the leeward side of a building from it, then I don't hear it hardly at all.

Days of high winds, there's more highway noise all around. Calmer days are just quieter.

Wind carries sound like it carries odors? Really? I don't understand the physics of it, but so far my experiments indicate that this is indeed what happens.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


A vandwelling friend had some trouble with his laptop. Laptops tend to fry when you run them with the power on and when the battery is fully charged-- I ruined an old Sony VAIO that way. The charging circuitry doesn't like that, and tends to fry the dc-dc converter inside the unit. The DC-DC converter is usually a set of surface-mount components, not easy to R/R, and usually means replacing the motherboard, which of course on a laptop is pretty close to the same cost as just replacing the laptop.

Now that my van is so quiet, with the new ceiling, and the sunshine is back again, as I'm sitting here in the van working on my netbook, I notice a crackling sound coming from the powersupply section of the netbook. I am running my netbook directly off of my solar, since the netbook wants 12v and my solar electrical system is 12v. But wait. It's not 12v; the solar charger just sends battery voltage out, it doesn't regulate it. So, in sunshine, with my house batteries charged, my netbook is getting anywhere up to 14.1V! Not too smart, and could be frying all kinds of components. May have been doing so for a year, but it's been so damn noisy in here that I haven't noticed the complaints from the switching DC-DC converter inside the unit.

I unplug the laptop from my house batteries. The crackling sound goes away. Drat.

Some quick online shopping locates an external power adapter/regulator (which is, basically, a DC-DC converter itself), to give me regulated 12v, for $15 including shipping. Off goes the credit card, and I'm done. It's possible I've been frying my netbook for the last year. So far, no signs of damage, but I'm not going to risk it any longer. $15 is a lot cheaper than $300.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

./configure; make; make install

Just opened up and checked my fuel tank; it's clean. So I finally changed the fuel filter, after it had been plugged with disintegrated rubber sludge. I also put in a new fuel heater since the old one had fallen apart; that might be helpful next winter.

The engine is running somewhat better now, but the engine computer is very confused since the running conditions have changed. I'll give it another dozen or so miles and see how it goes, but it certainly does seem to have more power now with a clean filter and no more sludge in the system.

Checking the fuel tank, and even draining it, took an hour. Changing the filter this time took a couple hours. It's becoming routine. I know how to get the air filter off in the most efficient way, get to the fuel filter, lube up the threads, etc etc. This has to be the 5th fuel filter I've put in within two years. No more homemade fuel for me! From now on, it's only ASTM-grade commercial biodiesel.

I'm almost at the point where the maintenance work is routine. It's become like the "./configure; make; make install" dance to compile software on Linux, which I've been doing for a decade now and is second nature.

It's very similar to diesel mechanical maintenance. Most of the time it's routine, but there can be all kinds of crazy stuff that goes wrong if you don't have everything together, and knowing what to do in that case requires expertise. I remember the first time I did it-- either compiling software or doing maintenance on my truck--, there was all kinds of drama and crazy things going wrong that I didn't know how to fix, and turned the whole procedure into a huge, long, drawn-out nightmare. But no more. I can compile software, get it to run, and fix bugs that prevent it from compiling, often without much thought. I can do most of the maintenance required on the truck now, and it's routine and drama-free, most of the time, just because I've done it enough times now to know how to prevent things going wrong, and what to do if it does.

And now, I've got to get to work on my actual work, what I started living in a van in order to be able to do. The means is nearing completion, now it is time to focus on the ends.

The one small distraction is that I still have to reconfigure my living/working space for more efficiency and to give me more time for my work, and more convenience in my life. And I'm almost there with that too. Good times.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ceiling, bearings, leaks

Just another update. I have finally, FINALLY, after two years, put my ceiling in. It's all there now: dropped ceiling, LED lights embedded in, electrical buried in conduit above it, and pink fiberglass insulation stuffed in the plenum. It was ridiculously, mindlessly simple and straightforward-- took me a couple hours including cleaning everything up. That's it-- I'd been procrastinating for years, and it took me a few hours to do.

Now it's quiet in here. REALLY quiet. What a joy! It's like being inside a house, or the body of a really well-insulated modern car. It's very pleasant, home-like. I can still hear what's going on around me, but it's not deafening anymore. The beer-can-thin sheet aluminum just wasn't any kind of insulation; it was like literally living out on the street. At least now it's quiet, and warmer. At last, I have a home.

I had a little emergency last week with my rear bearings. They were destroyed, and burnt up, from driving around on bent rear wheels. That little disaster cost me $700! I have to stop jumping curbs when making tight turns, or just parking stupidly. I'm now shopping for used wheels and some newer used tires. Hopefully very soon-- before I destroy my new $700 bearings. Ouch. One step forwards, three steps backwards: that's how my life goes. I'm OK with that now.

I also finally received the correct metal fuel return lines in the mail from GreaseWorks, as well as Viton short supply hoses, and put them in! Very expensive, but they at least are the correct hoses for biodiesel now. The fuel leaks appear to be over-- for the time being at least, and possibly for good. I had to do that job in the pouring rain and with a bad flu, but it had to get done.

I mounted a little plastic tupperware underneath the inspection cover, to catch drips and leaks. So far so good. There is still some kind of leak dribbling down, but it appears at this time to be oil, not fuel. Possibly from just a poorly-sealing oil pan gasket, or maybe it's from the turbo, I dunno, but it's minor and I'll deal with it when I deal with it.

The engine runs MUCH better now, since there is no longer melted-rubber sludge circulating through the fuel system. Actually, there still is, and I am going to ruin one more fuel filter between now and when that all gets cleaned out. But it idles evenly and has a lot more power. Once I run my tank low again, I have to drain the tank yet again and clean out all that sludge-- hopefully for the last time. The challenge will be coordinating all that with the rainy weather; crawling around on the ground under the fuel tank is very unpleasant in a rainstorm.

The only remaining rubber that I have to replace which contacts biodiesel, are the injector seals. I have all the tools and parts to do that job; now I just need to block out the time and summon the courage to do it.

I purchased the proper coolant to replace all my current coolant, as well as SCA test strips and the correct DC4 pH additive. Before I do that job, first of all I have to find a place to dump the old coolant, but also I've got to track down why my heater doesn't work. If it's a simple matter of reattaching a flap open/close wire, that's great. If I have to pull the heater core, I might as well wait to change the coolant at the same time. The hoses leading to the heater appear to be warm, so I hope that means that it's not plugged.

I'm also going to replace my transmission fluid and filter, but that's waiting until some of the more high-priority stuff is done. This is all basic maintenance I should have done two years ago, and I'm just getting to now. Buying a used vehicle that has been poorly-maintained or unmaintained is a bad idea in the first place, but if I do ever do such a thing again, I'm personally, myself, changing all the fluids and filters immediately upon buying it, not counting on some shop to do it or not.

I'm also eager to move my bed to its new position and put in my sink and counter, and mount my cabinets. I expect these to be fairly easy jobs, and they will make my life infinitely more pleasant. I've got to take care of the wheels first, though.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ceiling good good good

I'm very happy to report that with only half the ceiling tiles in, and no insulation even stuffed in the gap yet, it's a LOT quieter in here! It's so quiet I can even hear the fan running on my netbook. It's also a lot warmer, and, for some reason, a lot drier. Perhaps the ceiling tiles are absorbing moisture, I don't know.

But either way, it feels a lot more like a home: a lot more comfortable, peaceful, livable. I wish I'd done this 2 years ago, but I didn't know what I was doing back then.

Same with the van maintenance: the leak is gone, and I'm on to the next set of issues like replacing injector seals, changing out fluids (transmission, coolant) that have probably never been changed, and longevity-oriented preventitive maintenance.

It's been said about painting a car, that once you've finished the project, you know enough to start it. I guess that's true about the massive projects I took on two years ago and am finally getting settled into: vandwelling, Ford 7.3L diesel repair and maintenance, biodiesel conversion, building out an interior of a custom RV, and a massive self-improvement project too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lots of progress

Just an update. I have been very busy these past few weeks.

I removed my fuel bowl and replaced all the O-rings. Getting some of them back on properly was very difficult and I was lucky to have some help when I got stuck. I put everything back together, and, I don't mean to jinx it but it does look like it's finally stopped leaking.

The new fuel return hoses I just put on in September are already melting from the exposure to biodiesel; I finally ordered braided metal/Teflon(tm) fuel lines from a biodiesel shop. When they arrive I'll put them in and be done with external fuel leaks.

The inside of my fuel bowl was filthy. I'm not sure with what. It's either rubber from the melting hoses, or more likely, oil from my completely shot injector o-rings. I already have the o-rings; I just ordered the special tools I'll need to remove the injectors and replace the o-rings. I'm scared of doing it, but I have to do it. Once it's done, every single o-ring on this vehicle which contacts fuel will have been replaced. At last. And I should be able to continue run biodiesel for as long as I can get it, without problems.

I also torqued down my transmission pan bolts; about half of them were almost two turns loose! No wonder I was losing fluid.

And I completed an oil change. It needed one since I've been driving this vehicle abusively: short couple-mile-long trips on a cold engine. For this oil change I was somewhat less of an idiot and didn't overfill the crankcase. I filled it up exactly correctly by accident. My crankcase takes 3.5 gallons of oil, not the 4.5 gallons I thought it did. So I "partially" filled it with 3.5 gallons, then started it up to check the dipstick to see how much I needed to top it up. Zero was the answer: it was already at the maximum of the full line. Next time I'll actually consult my notes before doing the job.

I also fixed my custom rear door so that it slides without scraping the floor (and kind of fits better), put a new tire on my bike so I can ride it again, adjusted its brakes and shifting so I can now get all the gears, finished mounting all my conduit, and... put in 1/2 of my ceiling tiles!! It's beautiful. I'm not even done yet, but can sit here and it's quiet enough that I can hear the fan on my netbook. And I've been busy with work-related tasks, all of which are going smoothly.

It feels like I've made a major breakthrough in my life very recently. I'm starting to learn how to "think like a German": to handle problems and tasks analytically and somewhat coldly and detachedly, to plan ahead, work in an orderly and clean fashion, to approach things with more confidence and without fear. It works.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Black Sludge

I think I have figured out why my van was running like crap: uneven idling, lack of power, hard starting.

I decided to have a look and see why my van is still leaking fuel. I saw that the fuel bowl still appears to be leaking from every orefice (except the ones I filled with new seals). So I decided it's time to pull the bowl again, and this time replace all the seals, not just a few, and do a total fuel bowl rebuild.

I hooked up the handy-dandy new drain hose I put on the bottom of the vehicle, positioned a container under it, and opened the drain plug on the fuel bowl. Boy do I wish I'd done that months ago. A full pint of pitch-black sludge started coming out.

Rubber. My "new" hoses are melting. The fuel bowl was probably dangerously filled with this black sludge, but my "Water in Fuel" light wasn't coming on because rubber isn't conductive, and the water-in-fuel sensor works by testing for the conductivity of water.

I pull the filter. Plugged up and filthy, after only a couple thousand miles. I am a little worried about what damage this might have done to my injectors.

The fuel return lines are literally disintegrating: melting, sweating from the outside. Based on the sludge content of the filter, the insides of these hoses must look even worse. The brand-new ones after only a few months are already in the same condition that the old ones were after nearly two years. Scary, and frustrating.

I located and ordered, from, a proper biodiesel-rated fuel line kit. Expensive: $125, but still less than I spent on the WRONG hoses back in September. I will put a few new but completely inadequate hoses on, just to buy me some time until the correct hoses arrive in the mail (should be next week).

After the correct hoses arrive and are installed, the game plan will be to run the engine for a while on the new filter and new hoses, then run the tank down to empty, drain it, clean out the rubber sludge that no doubt is collecting at the bottom of it, run it some more to filter out all that crap, and finally to change the filter yet again. And... if I did all the right things, not change that filter again for another 30,000 miles or whatever the spec is.

This is my fifth filter in two years. At $35 a pop. I really hope to have finally gotten this right.