Sunday, April 29, 2018

Season 2 is coming a little earlier than originally planned

There isn't a video for this post (at least not yet), so don't be surprised if I get a little wordy.  Actually, that's pretty much the normal for me when writing -- deploying superfluous words to convey complex creative thoughts.

First season coming to a close

As I write this, we're approaching our vanniversary.  We rented this 2014 Winnebago Travato from it's original owner about this time last year and ended up purchasing it.  And as you have probably already seen on the rest of this blog, done some upgrades to make it work better for us (otherwise known as "mods").

This next month also brings a change in my wife Crystal's occupation, going from where she's tied to home base, to being able to work from the road as I already do.  I do software development, and she's starting an editor position.  This gives us the flexibility of travelling longer trips that we have up to this point, but also puts the burden on me to finish up a few more mods that I've been lagging behind on.

Data loss is a pain, but also an opportunity

This last week I had an incident -- there was a sudden change in a light, where it went from green to yellow right at the perfect time that I would either end up running it or be forced to slam on the breaks much harder than I like to.  Of course, things went sliding.  My laptop computer, which I normally leave on the dinette so I can just swing around and do some work conveniently when I have a chance, took a tumble.  It's actually perfectly fine, as the only moving parts are a fan (it has an SSD hard drive).  However, I had the 1 terabyte external drive (with old style spinning platters) that I use for storing videos for this blog still plugged into it (which was a really bad idea).  It tumbled to the floor also, and is pretty much a total loss.  I attempted to do a recovery process on it, and discovered that most of the allocation table was inaccessible.  Even though I could see the directory of files I wanted, there was no way to recover their actual contents.  Since either one head or platter was evidently damaged, there's enough holes in any large file to make it pretty much unusable.  So from this I have learned and share 3 pieces of advice:

  1. Always batten the hatches (put everything away, close and latch everything) before taking off.
  2. Always have another backup (don't put all your eggs or files in one basket).
  3. When disaster strikes, make lemonade.  Or hot tea, depending on the weather.
So there will be new music tracks for the next batch of videos.  I have the original logo, but I'm thinking of updating it a bit, maybe some simple animation.  And we'll be doing more travelogue episodes along with the regular fixes and mods.  I'm hoping to enlist some family and friends to help with some of the upcoming videos as well.  Should be interesting, I hope you'll stay tuned!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Better Shower Drain Filter

NOTE: An alternative to this solution has been found:

The shower drain on the Winnebago Travato 59G model is a strange animal.  It drains water to the grey tank, but because of the position of the shower relative to the tank, and the vehicle structure that in the way, a suction pump is used to pull the water out of the drain and send it to the grey tank.  That pump is slightly inconveniently located under the bottom board of the cabinet under the kitchen sink, which generally collects a lot of miscellaneous necessities for travelling, making it difficult to access.

It sounds like this complexity should simply be a managed by an easy flip of the switch to power the pump when you're showering.  However, there are small amounts of clothing fibers and other particulate matter that are washed down to the drain, and these can easily clog a suction pump.  To protect the pump, there is a small mesh filter connected to the pump inlet that strains out the gunk first.  This filter is unfortunately small and full of water when it finally fills up to the point where it no longer drains - which makes for a mess when removing it to clean it out.  The solution to that is to add a filter washer to the drain in the bottom of the shower - but that being even smaller of course ends up needing to be cleaned even more often, and small bits still get past that first filter and end up still clogging the small filter.

I've been thinking for a long time on how to improve this situation.  Ideas I've considered include removing all the filters and taking a chance on the pump clogging, or possibly still working but at a slower rate which would still be acceptable; also reworking the plumbing to bring the drain tube horizontal above the van floor and then into the grey tank, eliminating both the pump and the filters.  Each seem problematic and costly.

Instead, I've come up with an alternative option as at least a temporary measure to reduce the frequency with which the small filter must be cleaned.  This involves adding an additional much larger filter (strainer) before the original one, and thus eliminating the filter washer.  The filter I choose to add is this one:

SHURFLO 1/2" Raw Water Strainer - 50 Mesh Screen

Which is available at the amazon link above, or from other locations at possibly a lower price.  It's not cheap, but it's the largest one that I can find that still has the same 1/2" fittings that all the existing plumbing connections use.  In addition to that, I also picked up a 1/2" nipple (short 2" pipe with threaded male connection on each end) from Home Depot (available at most hardware stores).

This is the video of the installation process, which is fairly simple (remove the input hose from the pump, add the new filter and nipple, and reconnect the input hose):

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Solar Panel Installation

Solar panels Activate!

I wanted to reduce the amount of time I would need to run the generator while living "off-grid" i.e. mostly boondocking (we do a lot of in-city boondocking). And I wanted rid of the ugly eyesore of a TV antenna that wasn't doing me any good (took the TV out in the first week).  So I did a lot of research, and finally came up with the best set of solar panels to fit and a way to mount them using the same brackets that my awning uses (the 2014 Winnebago Travato 59G used a Carefree of Colorado awning - later models used Fiamma which had their own roof rack system, and most recently Winnebago has gone back to Carefree but sourced a rack system from another vendor).

Solar Panel Selection

I created a google docs spreadsheet "Solar panels power and cost" and added to it every panel I came across with all the specs necessary to calculate Watts output per Square Foot of panel.  My goal was to maximize the output with the available roof space, with cost/watt as a secondary concern.  After eliminating panels that were too large to fit, I came across the GS-Star-180W as being the best output.  At first I thought I might be able to squeeze 3 panels in between the windshield and the fan vent, but as it turned out 2 was already close enough to covering up the running lights on the roof.  I can still get one more panel between the fan vent and the air conditioner however, should I want to go that route.  I  did not concern myself with sticking to 12 volt panels (which would be compatible with the Zamp charge controller used by Winnebago in later models) as I instead wanted to use a Victron MPPT controller that would be compatible with my other devices, and provide more efficient power conversion.  The one I chose can handle up to 100 volts of panels in series, or any combination thereof up to 700 watts.  Putting the panels in series makes the wiring simpler, and is slightly more efficient due to higher voltage (under the same solar conditions) meaning less drop over the cable run to the controller.

Roof Rack

I came up with my own roof rack system using 3/4 EMT pipe and a new connector from a Kickstarter called Maker Pipe (  The Maker Pipe connectors allow you to clamp conduits together at right angles, and easily make changes.  This has allowed me to add the solar panels, and even more recently a roof storage box (for more tools of course).  Once I devised a way to mount the first two 10 foot pipes to the Carefree mounting brackets (I bought a second set to put on the drivers side), the rest of it was pretty easy.


This is not an exhaustive list of all the parts I used, but covers the majority (there was also some nuts and bolts and washers and the like).


Four Leaks Found and Fixed

Leaking pipes is a serious problem.  Left unchecked, you can end up with rotted wood, mold, rust -- things you don't want in your house, much less your RV.  In some cases, it can be easy to spot and fix.  In others, where the connections are behind walls, cutting into them may be necessary to get access to fix it.

In my 2014 Winnebago Travato 59G, I found a series of leaks last fall that seemed to be correlated to a specific type of pipe.  Winnebago uses a special type of pipe in place of PEX when near a screw-on connection.  This pipe is a more flexible white material with a fiber braid around it, which allows the pipe to bend sharper than PEX and makes the connections easier to attach.  It's also good in places like the water pump where there is a certain amount of vibration.

However, connections to this type of pipe is where all the leaks were found.  I'm not saying that the use of this pipe itself is at fault, nor the PEX style silver crimp ring connections that were used, nor the original plastic PEX fittings.  But somehow a combination of these allowed the leaks to develop over time (nearly 4 years from manufacture in about March of '14 and November of '17 when I fixed them.  Also, a cold snap may have contributed.  Some of these fittings had clearly been leaking a little bit for a while, but I was acutely aware of the pump running when it shouldn't due to having just done a lot of plumbing work to bring the pipes above the floor instead of exposed underneath, so I was expecting and looking for leaks, just not where I found them, in parts of the plumbing I hadn't touched.

My solution was to replace both the plastic PEX fittings with brass equivalents, but also to use copper compression rings instead of the silver crimp rings.  I continued to use the same flexible pipes, although mostly for convenience I replaced much of the regular PEX pipes as well (getting the fittings apart sometimes resulted in damage to the pipes).  The four places where I found a leak was:



Toilet Tee in wall

Spray hose outlet

Unfortunately, I didn't get video of this leak.

Full Video (all 4 repaired)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Bathroom Sink Remodel

I replaced the original bathroom faucet with this model:

DE-002 Kitchen Faucet Valve
Note: the faucet may not be in stock at the DudaDiesel website on the link above.  It can also be purchased directly from China through Aliexpress: Thermostat Bathroom Faucets Kitchen Faucet Bath Tub Hot Cold Mixer Tap Faucet Brass 360 Swivel Basin with several different options (Option "D" is the same as what I installed).  Be sure to select one with a diverter and the spout of your choice.
It's thermostatic, which means that you set the temperature you want, and it automatically adjusts the hot vs cold input levels to achieve that temp (if possible).  This is great for when you have a small hot water tank (4 gallons) and the temperature slowly cools as you're showering.  Until the hot water isn't hot enough as it reaches the faucet, you get a fairly consistent temperature shower.  It also makes getting the shower started easier -- leave the faucet at the temp you want and run it until the hot water gets to you.

There was also some difficulty with the sink basin rising up from the plastic molded counter, allowing water to leak through.  I glued it back down with some adhesive caulk, which has held up for many months but has started to crack again.  I think the drain pipe may be contributing to the problem, so when I redo the drain plumbing to gain space under the kitchen counter I will fix the sink again.

Here's the video:

UPDATE: In the video you will notice me cumbersomely using a piece of wood to align a drill bit to make the hole larger for the faucet to fit.  As others have discovered, and I've also done since (when installing this faucet for others), the hole can be widened much easier using a step drill bit, such as the larger one in this set from Harbor Freight: 2-piece-titanium-nitride-coated-high-speed-steel-step-drills.  Drill down from the top until the copper threaded section fits through the plastic top layer, then drill up from the bottom to widen the remaining plywood so that it fits all the way through.

The correct assembly sequence (if you want to avoid watching me make every mistake possible int he video) is as follows:
  1. Remove 10 screws from front (facing the sliding door) cubby door that are hiding behind black seal, score through caulk, remove door and cubby.  
  2. Remove existing faucet hose connection and faucet, clean top of sink
  3. Drill out the hole to fit threaded section for new faucet
  4. Remove the extra pressure reducers from the end of the two supplied hoses
  5. Starting from below, place two supplied hoses skinny end first through big copper nut, then up through hole.
  6. Now working above, put two hoses through the large flat washer, then through threaded section, then firmly screw threads into base of faucet.
  7. Screw the threaded section firmly into the base of the faucet, then place threads through washer and into place in the hole.
  8. From below, thread the large nut over the threaded section and tighten well.  The faucet can be rotated back and forth to allow hand tightening the nut easier, as a wrench will likely not fit in the space well.
  9. Attach the hoses to the supply lines.  The faucet hose coming down on the side of the temperature adjustment knob should be connected to the cold supply.  The original cold supply line extends past the bathroom sink to go to the toilet and rear sprayer, while the hot line terminates at bathroom sink.  Later Travato models will also use red and blue pex tubing.
Also, many people have chosen to install the faucet to the rear hole instead, leaving the front hole available for a soap dispenser.  Using a soap dispenser that includes a long hose to a bottle that can be set under the kitchen sink will avoid needing to access the space under the bathroom sink to refill.

Finally, on later Travato models, the 1/2" fittings from the hot and cold pex water supply lines are closer to the bathroom faucet, and the hoses that come with this faucet can be used in place of the original extension hoses, thus eliminating the need for 1/2" nipples.

New Kitchen Counter and Induction Burner

Crystal didn't like using the propane burner, and wanted a new counter.  We had experimented with an induction burner and found it very functional, but we wanted to build it into the counter to maximize counter space and reduce space to store the induction.  Also, I ended up switching to a very thin induction unit with more controls:

The new counter is acacia wood assembled somewhat like butcher block, which we purchased from an outfit local to us called Southeastern Salvage Home Emporium.  It's kind of a cross between Pier 1 and Big Lots.  I ended up using only about half of the board, so I can redo the table with the same wood later.

The process was supposed to be fairly straightforward:
  1. Remove the old gas burners and cap off the gas feed line.
  2. Remove the sink & faucet.
  3. Pull up the original counter.  This was difficult as there was a lot of screws hidden in places.
  4. Here's where I went slightly astray: I decided to get rid of the ugly covered offset in the backsplash, and ended up doing much more than originally planned:
    1. Removed the plastic backsplash (both pieces)
    2. Which necessitated removing the cabinet overhead
    3. While I was at it I removed the metal shield (later models use glass) over the burners
    4. Put copper sheeting on the bottom of the cabinet instead
  5. Organized a fresh bit of plywood to serve as the base of a new backsplash, which bridged and smoothed out the previous gap.
  6. Trimmed the counter to fit against the new backsplash
  7. Cut openings for the sink and the new induction burner
  8. Trimmed the counter down to about the same overhang on the front, but more on the left side to create extra counter space behind the screen door slider without need of a fold-up section.
  9. Cut angles on the corners to make it easier to move around
  10. Installed the sink and induction burner.  The induction burner rests on two wood bars I installed under it so that it's supported by it's original feet.  I drilled them down incrementally until the unit was flush with the counter.
  11. Finished the counter top with clear shellac.
  12. Installed copper tiles on the backsplash.
  13. We also put some oak veneer over some side panels.
It turned into a several week project, and still has one unfinished part: I need to build a wood trim piece to sit against the screen door slide, to reinforce it.  But in the meantime Crystal really likes her new kitchen!

Here's the video:

Replacing the toilet seal

As many have experienced, or rather smelled, the toilet seal on the Thetford toilet can sometimes not work as well as it should, and leak fl...