Thursday, July 28, 2011

Showers? What showers?

Over the past month, I've tried getting by with little to no showers, but washing myself down with a washcloth every night instead. It is working out very well. I feel cleaner, and I don't have to be near a gym all the time.

I can also do rather gross, sweaty, nasty mechanical work too, freely and without worry, knowing that at the end of the day I will be clean, and I can do the work not necessary within a short walk from a shower.

On a financial note, I made a profit this month, and was very pleasantly surprised by that! I managed to make back the loss that I suffered last month, so I'm basically back to just breaking even again. But I did it with only two relatively small projects, and both of them very enjoyable (though not terribly well-paying). So I'm happy about that.

Fighting off a summer flu now (the worst kind), and camped out in a lovely, quiet, but still centrally-located spot which is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Quiet is so important to me. It's really all I want, is quiet.

I'm not looking forward to driving down the coast next month. I'd really rather drive UP the coast, up north, that's where I want to be! Maybe later in the month I'll do that, if money permits. But for now I am committed to this trip down south, so we'll see. A lot of research was required to locate biodiesel stations along the way, but I think I have a path mapped out. Still, I'm going to take along an extra 15 gallons of fuel, just to be sure. I could always put dead dinosaurs in here if I really got stuck, but the fun is trying to do the trip without having to resort to that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More cleanups

I organized my storage so I could get to my files more easily, then I organized some of those files, now that I can get to them! And I found the receipt for my "biodiesel" pump. Turns out, I bought the wrong thing, it was NOT rated for biodiesel, just rotary oil pump. So now I'm going to sell the thing, once I finish cleaning it off.

I found a new biodiesel-capable pump online for $50, which is less than I paid for the incorrect one several years ago.

I also replaced a badly rusted bolt and washers on, my driver's mirror. Total cost $1.07, which is much better than the $200 that Ford wants to charge me for a new mirror assembly! The arm for mirror is rusted, so I will need to change it out eventually, but I just bought myself another year if I want to. And I might be able to find something aftermarket for a reasonable price.

I found the source of that whining sound at engine speed before the van warms up: it's either the transmission or torque converter. And the source of that "parp-parp-parp" sound that is like a loose bearing somewhere: it's the reverse gear on the transmission. The sound only happens in reverse, and for a short time after the vehicle has been in reverse, and only when the engine is fully warmed up.

My next significant mission is to check the transmission cooler/pump flow rate (for obstruction or other problems), and to drain all the coolant and replace it with new.

Also, a friend has found an interesting single-tank, electric-heated SVO system for Mercedes, which maybe could be adapted to my Ford PowerStroke. If so, and if I feel like trying another fuel experiment, I'd love to be able to run on straight veggie oil instead of dealing with biodiesel. But it may take me months of careful investigation before I'll even know whether I want to do that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Solar electrical notes, lots of them

Long post, originally intended as an answer to a vandweller mailing list post. It was too long, so I decided to put it here instead.

I started vandwelling with just a vague notion that I rely on electricity and internet a lot for my work, so I knew I needed "lots" of electricity. I overdesigned and underdesigned as a result.

After some years of thrashing around, I found out that the solution was to actually MEASURE stuff. Like, with an ammeter. And then do some math. Then I can make useful decisions to make everything work right.

For example, laptops suck for vandwelling, IMHO, especially if you rely on them a lot. Mine uses 2-5amps at 12v! When I started out in my van, I was also stupid enough to hook mine up to a large-screen monitor which required an inverter, for a year. The inverter was inefficient and used up current itself, as well as having somewhat low efficiency in converting 110v to 12v and then the monitor's own power supply converting it back to whatever the monitor used inside (probably 12v and 5v and 24v). Not smart.

What I learned is that netbooks and smartphones are nearly ideal for vandwelling. They hardly use any electricity and can be easily charged up off of your alternator (if you drive a lot) or a modest-size, relatively-inexpensive solar panel or genset and house batteries (if you stay local a lot).

If you use a 12v netbook, DEFINITELY get a car-adapter for it. Your batteries do not put out 12v-- they put out whatever they have left in them plus whatever is being used to charge them. Your alternator or solar charger or genset or whatever will shove 14V or more at your netbook. Mine took the abuse valiantly (probably has its own internal 12v regulator) but started making buzzing sounds when running in high-voltage situations. I got a DC-DC converter and all is well. When your batteries are low, they'll put out less than 12v. Get a DC-DC car charger/converter/adapter for the netbook that'll give it a nice regulated 12v no matter what.

Likewise, electric refrigerators are GREAT for a solar-based van setup, if you buy the super-efficient Danfoss (TruckFridge) models that only need 2A to run and only run a few hours a day, and keep your van and refrigerator insulated well enough that they hardly need to run at all. If you don't have enough charging or battery capacity, get a propane or 12v/propane/110v hybrid kind. My TruckFridge uses up 5-10Ah a day, and most of those during the day when the sun is shining bright, so they're hardly any drain on the batteries.

I had made the mistake of buying a cheap thermo-electric cooler and ran it for a few months-- it used 4A, ran half the day, and didn't even cool the food properly (only 20 degrees F below ambient). Dumb dumb dumb-- I trashed my very expensive battery array that way. This was before I'd learned to actually measure anything before deciding whether (or how) to use it. The TruckFridge works a lot better and uses less amps.

Having a separate "house" battery from your starter battery is a good idea in all cases, and essential if you are charging anything more than a smartphone. The House battery (or batteries) should be an AGM or other deep-cycle-- designed to be run down deeply over a long period of time. Starter batteries are designed to provide cold-cranking amps (to start your engine) quickly and then expect to immediately start being charged back up by the alternator. They do NOT like being deep-cycled or run down slowly over time, the plates get sulfated (ruined).

Also, make sure you match the battery size to the amount of charging power you have. Solar panels only trickle-charge a large battery array-- it depends on how many amps it generates-- though a large solar array could bulk-charge a small battery no problem. I was dumb enough to buy 400Ah of battery capacity for a solar panel array that could only generate 15A when at full sun at noon in summertime. Some simple math would show why that was moronic: how long would it take for a 15 amps to charge up a battery array cycled down only part way, say to 300Ah, which would need 100Ah to fully recharge? It can't do it in one day for sure; there aren't enough hours of full sunlight, even in summer. Also, batteries need a few hours of continuous charging EVEN AFTER THEY ARE FULLY CHARGED to stay in good condition. You don't want to let deeply-discharged batteries-- even AGM's-- sit around for days or weeks (or months or years, as I did), before hooking them up to something studly enough to fully charge them within a few hours.

It's OK to have a larger number of amp-hour capacity in your batteries than you can charge up in just a few hours of sunlight at whatever amps your panels put out, but you'd also need an AC converter or genset (or both) that'll put out enough amps to really bulk-charge your batteries should you run them down, and be able to do that a day or two after running them down. (I bought a 75A 110V converter a few years ago and finally hooked it up at the beginning this year. Dumb of me to wait so long.).

My old G1 Android phone has 1.4Ah batteries, so charging it up from completely discharged state uses only a couple amps. I don't worry about it either. My panels generate 15A in sun in summer, and at least 5A even in fog and winter. The phone is a non-issue.

Back to the original question (from the vandweller's list) about leaving the charger plugged in: best to measure it and find out. I put an ammeter on my smartphone charger and found out that it uses 0.01A (10mA) when idling; so it's not crucial that I turn it off or unplug it all the time. Likewise the charger for my netbook uses 0.01A when the netbook isn't plugged in, and the netbook itself uses the same amount, so to have my netbook on and sleeping only uses 0.02A (20mA)! So that's something I don't worry about most of the time.

However, my dual-core 64-bit laptop and the charger for it uses almost 0.5A (500mA) when the computer is TOTALLY OFF (weird, or design flaw), and can draw up to 5A when running all-out! So I rarely if ever use it anymore, and only when in full sun and my house batteries are all charged up. I don't even have the big-screen monitor hooked up anymore.

Very long answer, but figured I'd share some of this at some point, and this seemed like a good enough place to do it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Productive day

I went to the car wash and pressure-washed (with soap!) my van. It looks better than it probably ever has. Fits in much more nicely in suburbia now. Maybe the neighbors will be happier with me. It was worth the $6. I may do this more often, And also I might avoid parking directly on the beach; the van gets soaked with spray and salt and gets very dirty-looking. I like it better clean.

Also, I put in two shelves at storage, one big one, and one mezzanine. I threw out 3 large garbage bags of crap I didn't need anymore. It's much more organized, so it'll be easier for me to get in there and clean up paperwork now, remove more stuff, and just be a more useful storage space.

I noticed my transmission grinding sound is back again, but only in 2nd gear. All the other gears are fine.

I also put together some trim items in the cab that I'd taken apart to get easier access for other work. It looks a lot cleaner now.

I've been really enjoying doing maintenance work lately! And home-improvement work, and even just cleaning and organizing. I like it. What's wrong with me? I was never like this, was always a creative type. Now I'm enjoying cleaning, maintaining, and organizing much more than creating.

I located my biodiesel hand-pump at storage, and it drove me crazy how dirty and rusty it is! I felt a compulsion to get a wire brush and some paint thinner out, and start cleaning it off. I had other work to do, so I put the pump in the van and I guess I can clean it off some other time.

I'm loving how my van runs now, how great it sounds. It's got a new low-end hum in its exhaust note, and feels like it has got a lot more power too.

I will very likely take a long trip on the California coast next month. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It was empty

I went camping this weekend, and on the way back I climbed up a deserted, winding mountain road. It was fun to throw a 1-ton van around like it was a sportscar!

But as I got to the top of the hill, my transmission (under my feet) felt really really hot again! Oh no! Didn't I just change the fluid and solve that problem?

I found a flat spot near the top of the road, and checked. The transmission dipstick was bone dry! DOH! I put in a quart of fluid and kept on going. It helped a little.

When I got back into town, I checked on a flat spot again. Sure enough, still empty.

The service manual says that it takes 20 quarts! It says I was supposed to put in 14 quarts, then put in a half-pint at a time, with the engine hot and running, run it through all the gears, then check again, until it got to the fill line, which should be 20 quarts. Well, the dipstick is the fill hole, so this is a huge pain, because not only does this take forever, but it takes even longer since the dipstick tube gets coated with fluid and the reading is useless. You have to wait like an additional half hour for the fluid to drain out before the dipstick reading makes any sense.

So, I just cheated, and since there was 13.5 quarts of old fluid that came OUT of the transmission, I just put 13.5 back IN and figured that should be the same. I assumed that there just was more fluid somewhere in the system that I didn't manage to drain out when I cleaned it.

Well, I was wrong. The transmission was dangerously low all along, and I filled it dangerously low with new, clean fluid. That was not smart.

So what I've done is, the slow way: fill it with a half-pint, go drive somewhere wasting fuel to heat the thing up, find a level spot, check it, fill it with another half-pint, go do some more useless driving, then check it again, fill it again, etc.

Slow and wasteful of expensive fuel. But, it works. I've got the transmission full to about halfway up the hot fill range. I'd like to top it up a bit more, but that can wait. It does seem to run a lot better now, and the grinding sound I had for years is gone. Temperature feels fine too.