Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reflections on Six Months as a WorkCamper

So for the last six months (more or less) I've been enjoying the benefits of being a WorkCamper. I get to live in a city park with full-hookups (electricity, water, sewer, Cable TV and fast wireless internet). I'm a 5 minute drive to the grocery store, restaurants, the beach, and many other city services and entertainment venues. Essentially I get all the benefits of living in a city with mega-million-dollar homes, but my rent is 100% free. In exchange I offer up to 25 hours a week of labor for the park. I rarely work that many hours though. It's really a great gig, but I'm not earning any money.

I've finally found a way to earn some cash by doing landscaping and housecleaning work. That's helped tremendously, but it's not enough to build a savings in case something goes wrong with the RV and it need a major repair. I should clarify, I qualify and accept government assistance in the form of "Obamacare" and "Food Stamps." I don't qualify for any cash assistance, but at least I know I won't starve or be bankrupted by a medical emergency. To make matters a bit more complicated, if I earn too much money, I lose my health and food benefits, and my expenses would escalate faster than my earnings. I'm literally better off dirt poor than just mostly poor.

Still, I need money for gasoline, RV maintenance/repairs/upgrades, dog care and dozens of the other things we all take for granted.

The Arizona Expedition
I was recently reminded of the fragility of my situation after I took the RV on four-day, 1000-mile excursion from the California coast to the Arizona desert (and Phoenix). I knew my dorm-room-style 110v only fridge wouldn't function 100% on battery power. I knew I would be burning hundreds of dollars of gasoline. I was mixed with determination (I was visiting a friend who had flown out to Phoenix from Illinois), nervousness (will the RV make it?) and confidence (I have been maintaining the vehicle engine obsessively, checking the fluids every day).

The solar panel I installed worked perfectly! Even better, obviously, in the April Arizona sky, then the December Illinois sky (where and when I installed it). The generator, which I worked hard on re-building myself, also worked perfectly. The DieHard automatic battery charger, (which wasn't recommended as "automatic" chargers rarely offer the high voltage charge RVers need) worked perfectly to "top off" the house battery after a long day. Even with the solar panel charging the battery all day, I also used part of the solar energy to run the fridge through a particularly lossy inverter.

I've also found that my rig need some work to make it more "mobile friendly." I don't mean web pages on cell phones. I mean I have acquired so much stuff for daily living, that when I need to pack to RV for travel, the floor becomes so cluttered with boxes and furniture, that I can barely move around. I've also noticed I have a pretty serious internet addiction.

The Revelation
The experience not only taught me about my rig, but also about myself. I'm enjoying my time in Santa Barbara, but I do miss home. It's got me thinking that my current plan with the RV might not be the best for me. I do love the weather here. I accomplished my life-long dream of not having to deal with winter snow/cold this year! The weather is not enough though. I don't think I fit in with "SoCal culture," or Santa Barbara at least. This is a ritzy town with $4/dozen eggs and complete lack of Chicago-style deep dish pizza. :-)

Like Christopher McCandless, I've come to believe that experiences alone are not enough to satisfy the human spirit; that an experience is best shared with people you care about. So I'm going home to Illinois...in 2016.

The New Plan
I was planning on living in the RV forever, constantly traveling, maybe even driving her all the way to Alaska and back. I still want to live that lifestyle, but it will have to be in the future when I can afford a newer, better RV that's better equipped for long-term boondocking and distance travel. I do want to cross the country again and see friends and family in Illinois again, but I can't give up an opportunity I have now.

I'm already on the west coast, a trip that cost my $650 in gasoline and nearly a week of boondocking in Walmart parking lots to get here. I won't turn tail and run without at least visiting the Pacific Northwest. I feel I might fit in better there. I feel like the PNW will have a culture more closely resembling the midwestern culture I've come to appreciate (now that I'm removed from it, funny that).

I have friends and distant relatives in the Seattle area, and I've always wanted to visit Portland and Crater Lake, OR. I'll be finishing my WorkCamper job here next month and moving on. I'll look for a job where I can earn some serious cash to build up my reserves. Even though the PNW gets cold, if I find a good job, I'm sure I can upgrade the RV with tank heaters or maybe just find a sublet apartment for the winter months.

Have any of you all made significant changes in your plans after you started vandwelling/RVing? Did you find that you liked the wilderness, but liked the convenience of cities a bit more? Who else has moved from another part of the country to SoCal and found it lacking?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Diagnosing a no start, no crank condition

For the last few weeks I've noticed that when I turn the key in my RV, the engine wouldn't start, and wouldn't crank. After several turns of the key it eventually started. This was an issue I was all to willing to ignore for far too long. Without any research or prior knowledge of a no crank, no start condition, I convinced myself the issue was with the lock cylinder. I also spoke with my Dad, who owned a slightly older Ford motorhome and he suggested it might be the ignition switch.

Stupidly, even with this issue that could leave me stranded, I proceeded with my plan to take the RV out for it's first real test in over a year. I drove thirty miles to the nearest State Park. The weekend went off without a hitch. But when I went to leave the engine wouldn't start. The same issue I was having before. Lucky for me the gods were smiling on me and I got one more start and was able to drive all the way back to home base. Once back at home base however, the issue reappeared and this time my luck had run out. She wasn't starting no matter what.

This was the Wednesday before thanksgiving. I had an appointment to get the wheels aligned Monday so I had to get this issue fixed ASAP. Knowing the auto parts stores would be closed Thanksgiving day I drove to two stores and bought a Lock Cylinder and an Ignition Switch, so I can work on it on Turkey Day.

Again, I feel I must mention that I made a common mistake in diagnosing the issue. I didn't consult the literature and I decided, based only on a hunch that the lock cylinder and/or the ignition switch must be the issue. I carried on with this thought much too long. Here's how I decided my thought process was flawed.

I removed part of the lower dash, the "shroud" surrounding the steering column and the two bolts holding the steering collum up. With the shroud removed and the column lowered I could see the actuator rod between the lock cylinder and the ignition switch. The cylinder and rod were functioning properly. I convinced myself the switch the the culprit. Even with the steering column lowered it was very difficult to reach the ignition switch. Not wanting to damage the steering column I finally decided to look for other potential factors in a no crank, no start issue.

I was motivated by laziness, not proper diagnosing procedure, but the result was the same. I found other components that were far more likely to be the cause of the issue. It was as simple as doing a google search. I found a YouTube video by Eric The Car Guy who give a great overview of the proper procedure for diagnosing a no crank, no start issue. The components I tested were the starter solenoid and the starter.

Testing the solenoid was pretty easy on my vehicle. The solenoid is mounted on the fender directly in front of the battery. To test the solenoid, just clamp a jumper cable to the positive terminal of the batter and touch the other end to the "S" terminal of the solenoid. If you hear the starter turning, then the solenoid is bad. I heard nothing. This one test told me that it's very likely the starter has failed.

Just to sure, I installed the ignition switch that I bought Wednesday. It was difficult, but I was able to reach in and pull it out without damaging the steering column. The new switch didn't fix the issue, so I reinstalled the old switch. I can return the new switch and get my money back as it wasn't damaged or dirtied.

That leaves just the starter or some mechanical failure inside the engine as the culprit. I was a little worried it was the engine. I hadn't checked the oil in a while. Before I ordered a starter I checked the oil. It was low. I was scared. I just got a replacement engine, I didn't want to buy yet another one.

Removing the old starter was pretty easy on my vehicle. I didn't even have to jack it up. First I disconnected the battery, then I crawled underneath, undid the starter cable. Then it was just two shockingly long bolts and the starter came right off. Lucky for me the local auto parts store had several in stock to choose from. It's worth noting that this particular store had different starters for automatic and manual transmissions for my vehicle. It's also worth noting this information was in small type in the product description. It would be very easy for someone just reading the headline to miss this important detail.

Just for my gratification, I had the auto parts store test the starter before I picked up the new one. It was one of the few times I was really hoping to have a failed part! I left the store gratified that the starter was bad, so bad in fact it "broke" the testing machine. By broke I mean it drew so much amps that it tripped the store's dedicated circuit breaker for that machine.

Installing the new starter was as easy as taking the old one off. I feel pretty lucky that it was so easily accessible on my vehicle. On others it might not be. I also installed a new starter solenoid, since it was suggested by the manufacturer as a "best practice," and because it was only $20.

I still had the steering column partially apart. With the ignition switch still exposed I used a screwdriver to put the switch into the start position and...nothing. I was bummed...for about 20 seconds. Then I remembered I hadn't reconnected the battery. :-) With the battery connected it started right up! Success!

After that it was just a matter of buttoning up the steering column. I learned a valuable lesson about proper diagnosing procedure and strong motivation to check the engine oil regularly.

Lastly, I should point out that the starter I took off said "Motorcraft." That means it's likely the original starter, over 25 years old! So if the new one lasts that long, it will be $75 well spent.
The original OEM starter.

It's a good idea to take a picture of the starter solenoid before disconnecting it. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Solar Panel Installation

I decided to mount my solar controller on the wall seen on the left side of this photo. I had already run wires down the A pillar towards the battery for some other 12 volt circuit. I used that wire to snake the new wires from the over-cab storage area to the battery under the hood. 

Close up of the wires where the come out of the A pillar under the dash. 

And where they go in, the over cab storage area. 

Wires are run!

I ran the wires from the controller to the panel up though an existing hole in the roof vent. I also set the panel up on the roof and marked the location of the holes I needed to drill. 

Time to drill! The scary part. 

Most of the holes looked like this from inside:

But for some, the fabric ceiling wasn't cut by the drill, but twisted around it.  

So I had to cut it:

No bother, they got covered by my wood backing plates: 

When it was time to bolt it down, I applied Butel Rubber to the brackets first. When it was snug, I covered the top and sides of the bolts with more Butel Rubber.

The black wires on the left come from the panel and were supplied by Renogy in the kit. The other wires are 8 AWG I supplied myself. The 8 AWG is slightly too thick for the controller. I had to struggle to get them to stay in.

The Volt Minder (purchased separately) measures the voltage of the storage battery and sounds an alarm if it drops below a 12.2 volts (or whatever limit the user sets). It was mostly cloudy the day I took this and I was getting 14.5 volts from the panel.

I don't have any pictures of the fuses I installed on positive wires on either side of the controller. I couldn't find a pre-wired fuse with 8 AWG so I bought an un-wired fuse holder from RadioShack and soldered them myself. The Volt Minder came with a fuse pre-installed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Removing and re-installing a Rooftop Air-Conditioner

So my rooftop AC has been causing me problems. Several months ago rainwater started leaking through the seal around the AC and into the RV. Like many RVs the AC is directly over the bed. This meant waking up in the middle of the night during a rainstorm to discover the IKEA foam mattress was slowly absorbing water. I don't like to sleep in a wet bed so I had to frantically removed the mattress (which isn't as easy as it seems) and break out all my extra towels.

Part of me knew that I should have removed the AC unit then and replaced the seal, but I thought of a lazier way. I used a very liquidy roof sealant. I poured the sealant around the AC unit and let it flow until it found the leak. It worked. It stopped the leak, but I also blocked the drains meant to whisk rain water away from the AC unit. I didn't know this for several months though.

Cut to a few months later and it's getting hot in Illinois. I start running the AC a lot. It's fine for a while, but to my surprise, water starts running down onto the bed. It must be condensation from the AC. This is a problem. the condensation finds a different path each time. Once it fell directly from the AC unit onto the center of the bed. Other times it would slowly ooze out the side, get caught by the top side of my new ceiling and run past a 110volt outlet I installed for my TV and XBOX! It even found a way to drip down onto my wall-mounted TV. Lucky for me the TV and XBOX remain undamaged, but this is clearly a problem that needs a permanent solution.

I knew it was going to be a lot of work. Lucky for me I'm camped out about two miles from my parents house, who have a garage full of tools and equipment that will make it project a lot easier. First and most importantly is space. My campsite is alongside a friend's house, I can just barely fit the RV through the gate and the rear bumper kisses the edge of her deck.

Also critical to this mission is a recent purchase my Dad made that at first I mocked him for, a seven-foot tall rolling scaffolding. I'm not saying you need one to make this kind of repair, but it sure is helpful. It was especially good for me since in addition to replacing the AC gasket, I had to clean up my mess from when I attempted to seal the leak with that liquidy sealant.

Here's the first step in my process. I removed the ceiling from over the bed area. I imagine most people will not have to do this, but I thought the gray tubes seen here were the condensation lines. These are in fact the rain-water drain tubes. The AC unit is clamped to the roof with four long bolts. Here I've already removed the bracket and nuts holding the unit on.

This is a close up of one of the bolts holding the unit one. This was taken after the gasket was replaced. The original had shrunk to about 1/4 of the new gasket's thickness. Removing the unit was actually the easy part, sort of. Since I had used that sealant, I had to use a floor jack and a long 2x4 to press up on the AC unit to break that seal. Once it was broken, the unit lifted right off (but it was still heavy). 

With the unit removed, you can see the aftermath of my lazy attempt to seal the leak. Let this be a warning, don't be lazy, you'll only end up doing more work in the long run. I scraped, sanded and scrubbed with various solvents for about three hours. 

I started with a putty knife and pried as much of this crud off as I could. It wasn't going very fast so I upgraded to a power dil with a sanding disk.

Once the majority of it was removed, I used Acetone and scrubbing pads to get it perfectly clean. 

I figured "might as well." Since I had the unit off, I decided to open it up and clean it out. Here you can see how compressed the old gasket was. You can also see there the condensation hole really is and how blocked it is by my previous "lazy" attempt to seal the rainwater leak.

I'm sorry I don't have more pictures of the cleaning process. Here's the unit on it's side in the garage. As you can see the gasket has been removed. Like the roof I had to scrub with acetone to get all traces of the old gasket off. I also opened the unit and removed dead leaves and twits. Then, just because, I coated the rusty pieces with Rust Converter and give it a quick spot-painting. Notice the clean and clear condensation holes. 

That's it! The whole process took me about six hours. If I didn't need to clean up my mess, I think I could have accomplished the whole thing in about two hours. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

As the Sun began to set and the rain started to pour

So last night, just as the Sun began to set and the rain started to pour, I noticed a massive water leak. Rain water was pouring into the RV from the rear doors, soaking the bed. I thought I just hadn't closed the door well enough. I opened it, exposing the bed to even more downpour and slammed it shut. No change. Again, I opened and slammed. Still no change. Frustrated, I kicked the door open it swung out, hit the max and rebounded back. Still no change. I was starting to freak out. Seeing no other option I went outside in the dwindling light and heavy rain to try slamming it shut from outside. I was soaking wet by the time I walked the ten feet toward the rear doors. I slammed the door multiple times as hard as I could. Nothing was working. I screamed and cursed. Even that didn't work!

At this point the bed sheets were soaked and fearing the water would soon soak through to the mattress I figured there was no option but to attempt to repair the door right then and there in the pouring rain and twilight sun.

I gathered my tools and attempted a quick fix, banging the door frozen door latch with a hammer and screwdriver. That had no effect, I had to removed the latch. At this point I knew I was in for a bigger, longer job so I pushed the mattress off the bed frame, further into the RV to minimize the damage already done. I removed the three bolts holding the door latch on and pushed it out of the way. This allowed the door to close, but of course it wouldn't stay shut without a latch. I was already wet so I figured, ok, I might as well take the door panel off and fix it right.

At this point water had pooled up on the bed frame and was running off the bed frame into my under bed storage area, not so bad most of it was pooling on top of the water tank, but my camping gear was also under there as well as some electronics. I had to protect it. I remembered I had a tarp but I couldn't remember where. I searched under the bed frame's rear access, not there. I frantically searched the front, not under the left side. Oh, there it is, in the front center section. I got it out and laid it down, draping it out the back so water would run down out of the RV and towards my feet. Did I mention I had to walk through mud to get from the rear doors to the side doors?

I took the door panel off. Luckily it's not that difficult on this old RV. Just a few philips-head screws, I don't even have to stand on my head or use an extremely long bit holder to get them out. Once it was off I found it obviously hadn't been removed in a long time. the dust and dirt inside started combining with the rain water to make a muddy mess. The greasy door latch came out easily enough and after some tinkering I was able to "unfreeze" it.

Back in it went and horray! the door closes and latches, no more leaks. At least for now. By this time I was working by flashlight and I could clearly see the problem. The heavy 20" tire bolted to the rear door is clearly too much weight for these door hinges, and kicking it open so hard it rebounded probably didn't help it either. I considered taking the tire off right then and there, but one look at the bolts told me it wouldn't be possible without a four-foot wrench for leverage and possibly a blowtorch.

The rain had stopped by this time so I couldn't be sure I had fixed my leak issue. Out came that tarp and I struggled to get it over the roof to cover the rear doors, just in case. It took me a few tries but I got it. Then I went to work on surveying the damage and drying out. I was lucky, water had stayed away from the electronics and hadn't even run off the water tank onto the floor. My camping gear was a little damp but it's designed to dry quickly so I figured I'm ok there. I soaked up the water remaining on the bed frame and removed the bed sheets and mattress cover. In a few minutes I was even starting to dry out. In about 30 minutes I was ready to relax again. I set the bed up again and laid down. This time my mattress cover was in the wash and my bed was a bare foam pad with a mostly-dry sheet draped over it.

Needless to say I was pretty keyed up. It was close to 10pm; about the time I usually like to be feeling relaxed enough to get ready for bed. That wasn't going to happen without some sleepytime tea and a little Comedy Central on YouTube. I was angry, depressed, even considering that I should give up this RV idea and go back to an easier, if more costly, life. Then I remember something a friend told me when I called him freaking out about a breakdown in rural Missouri. I didn't pick something that was easy. I had decided to do something that was difficult. Then I remembered the community of vandwellers and full-time RVers I've met online and decided that things like this were and are part of the lifestyle I've chosen.

It sucked working in the pouring rain by flashlight as my bedroom was nearly flooded, but it was an experience I'm glad I had. It's something that sets me apart from those who would never consider taking up a challenge like living in an RV. I remembered how even though I was "freaking out" I also remained calm enough to consider my options and quickly make decisions. I remembered that I was prepared for this, that I had the tools I need to make repairs and the tarp and bungie cords to protect my investment. I feel good knowing I was able to raise to an unexpected challenge and be able to relax and sleep that same night.