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...