Friday, December 8, 2017

Here's Something We Don't See Very Often

At least not around here in Central Texas

The usual weather guy wasn't on the air this morning and I have to wonder if it's because they put him on time-out.

Yesterday he predicted that a winter mix just might, maybe, reach down from the northwest counties as far as the city he broadcasts from, but he didn't think so.

Overnight it flat out snowed, not only into the city but all the way down to the coast over 100 miles further to the southeast. . .

These photos are a little dim and not as sharp as I would like because it wasn't yet sunrise when I took them; handheld. The air temp was already above freezing so none of this is going to last too long.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh - - -

We have a holiday tradition around here. It starts by trolling the craft-stores right after Christmas for supplies, then, usually about 10 months later, there's a frenzy of Christmas tree building. Miniature Christmas tree building.

These miniature trees, though very inexpensive if bought in January, tend to come with rinky-dink little plastic bases and and the first task for most of them is to pull off the plastic base and switch them over to simple wooden bases like you see above,

but this tree came with a metal base that was spot-welded into place. The base was too light and small for any sort of stability (and since this tree was destined for Elmer down at the travel trailer it needed all the stability it could get!) so we had to come up with something a little different. Oh, and The Wife had determined that there were 9 lights too many for the tree on this string so we came up with the idea of embedding the extra bulbs into the stand. (The Wife will string lights, strip them off, and string, strip, string, strip over and over again as she frets and frenzies herself into finding just the perfect arraignment.)

We started by scribing circles on paper with a compass until we both agreed that we had the right diameter for the base, then scribed that circle onto a bit of scrap wood.

Since the stand was going to be two layers thick I stuck another scrap of wood to the first with double-sided tape, then rough-cut them down a little on the table saw.

Then it was on to the lathe where I cut them down to the scribed circle and rounded over what will be the top edge. Notice that it's a little difficult to differentiate between the grain of the sandwiched layers here. That's because when I taped them together I matched the grain as best I could because - well, why not?

What is nearly invisible here is a small V-notch I cut along that seam between the two layers while I had it on the lathe. This creates what wood-workers call a reveal where the two pieces meet.  Wood constantly moves which makes hiding a butted seam, such as here between the upper and lower pieces, nearly impossible over time. Rather than trying to hide the seam and ending up with what looks like a mistake, a reveal turns that seam into an architectural detail that's supposed to be there.

 The next step was to turn the blank face down and mark 9 evenly spaced spots that would be where the extra lights from the too-long string would go. There's several ways to divide a circle into evenly spaced segments but my favorite bench-top method, though simple in practice, is more of a blog-post of it's own to actually describe.

Once I had the segments marked I drilled a small hole straight down through both layers where each ray crossed the scribed circle, then I marked a line, a witness line, on the outside edge of both layers so I could put them back together again in the proper alignment, before prying the two layers apart.

I needed them apart now because I would be doing different things to each one.

The bottom layer, the one closest in the photo above, got pockets drilled into it where the nine lights would eventually sit, then it was back onto the lathe to carve out a central pocket where the base of the tree would sit.

The top layer, farthest away in the photo above, also got pockets drilled into it for the lights then it too went back onto the lathe so I could cut a relief into it to make room for the wires running between each light.

Now that I knew where the lights and wires were going to fall, I added a couple small dowels into the bottom layer with matching sockets in the top layer so that getting the top and bottom back together in the proper alignment in the future would be simple. In this case I used short lengths of a round pencil because it was handy. One of the dowels is near the outer edge while the other is closer to the center. That way

when I cut a pie-shape out of the top layer, there will be no question as to which piece goes where on the bottom layer. Before cutting the wedge out of the top layer I drilled the center to fit around the stem of the tree and also enlarged the holes from the bulb pockets through to the top to let light shine through. After cutting the wedge I carved a notch along one edge of it for the wire coming out from the bulbs to the box containing the batteries

I test-fit everything by setting the tree into the bottom layer and laying the nine bulbs into the pockets created for them with the wires laid out where the relief in the top layer wouldn't pinch them. Then the larger piece of the top layer was put in place and held there with a couple screws up from the bottom. Finally the small piece of the top layer was put in place (If you look  close you can just barely see it there behind the tree) and held there with a single screw.

The final step was to fill any stray tool-marks with wood-putty, do some sanding and spray on three quick coats of a metallic silver paint.

Actually the final step was to assemble the finished tree and stand and deliver it to Elmer, but I managed to forget to take any photos of that. . . figures. . .

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Van Goes Airless

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that will question my sanity at removing the air-conditioner from The Van, and they may have a point, but I have my reasons none-the-less.

For one thing, most of my camping is done in places without shore-power, and without shore-power the damn AC unit doesn’t work very well as anything other than a 100 pound chunk of metal sitting high up on top of the roof. In fact it’s been close to three years since that AC unit has done anything other than screw with The Van’s handling. Something any high profile vehicle can do without!

For another, I’ve already got a hole in the roof that I'm sure I could make much better use of than simply plugging it with an unused appliance. - - - OK, so that's pretty much just a different way of wording my first point, but that just goes to show how strongly I feel about it. 

I’ve been threatening to jerk the AC unit off The Van and replace it with a MaxxFan Deluxe vent for quite some time now. In fact it was scheduled to have been done a while ago, but stuff, you know, things like life and budget, got in the way.

Oh, I was feeling so smug about having the finances for this project all planned out, but then the smug got slapped clean off my face with three quick trips to Michigan in the space of three months (I had budgeted for one trip . . .) that burned through my travel budget, my project budget, and even had me tapping into our emergency funds.

No offence to the ghost of Frank Sinatra, but it was not a very good year!

I had resigned myself to cooling my heels and trying again with next year’s budget but then The Wife, sitting on my shoulder with trident in hand and her horns showing, (Oooh I like when her horns show!) convinced me that in the overall scheme of things the one-time cost of the MaxxFan wasn’t all that much, especially when compared to our monthly health-insurance premium, and it would be alright to ‘borrow’ against next year’s project budget. - - - OK, I’ll admit that borrowing against a future budget goes against my instincts, but that didn’t stop me from coming up with excuses why we had to make a city trip (that would take us right by Camping World) even before she hopped down off my shoulder. 

Instincts or not, I was standing at the door with the leash in my mouth like a puppy ready to go for a walk.

Normally I buy things like this from PPL. I’ve built several campers over the years and most of the stuff for them came from PPL. For a while there they knew me by name and gave me a commercial discount, but you may remember that when I tried to quit Good Sam last year they rejected my rejection and renewed me anyway with a fancy 'deluxe' membership, cost free. Well it just so happens that we pass right by Camping World on our normal run to the organic produce place, but to get to PPL we have to drive much deeper into the city than normal, so I got on-line and found that, with my Good Sam discount, Camping World sells the fan I want for the same price as I could get it at PPL, $250.

Well I’m here to tell you, that’s bullshit!
I pulled off the freeway at Camping World, checked against the back wall of the store to make sure they had the fan I wanted, went back up front to grab a cart, wrestled the big box into said cart, trundled my way awkwardly back through the narrow aisles to the checkout, handed the checker my membership card to get the discount, got into another wrestling match with the big box because I had foolishly put it in the cart with the UPC on the bottom where it couldn’t be scanned, then everything came to a screeching when he told me the bill was nearly $400.

“Oh no, that’s not right! On the web site the price is $250, $249.98 to be exact! “ At this point I had pulled the page up on my phone and showed it to him to prove I knew what I was talking about. - - -Apparently I didn’t

“Oh”, he said all chipper and bright. “That’s the on-line price, not the price we sell it for here at the store”.

“Oh”, I said all pissed and grumbly. “Well then screw this shit!” And walked out, not caring that I left the cart just sitting there in the way, because I won’t be back.

Like AARP, there’s always been a heavy marketing component to Good Sam but, also like AARP, they had some good points as well. But that ended a few years ago when Good Sam was tanking and partnered up with Camping World in a last ditch effort to stay alive.

Now the damn thing is purely a marketing machine using practices that border on fraud, so from now on I’m going to vote with my dollars, or rather lack of dollars, and shop elsewhere.

Even with the extra time, gas, and $2.40 in tolls, I came out way ahead by going on down to PPL to get my vent, for the advertised $250.

A few more $ for the supplies necessary to keep water from leaking through the great big hole in the roof, and I was ready for operation get-rid-of-that-damn-air conditioner.

Well – almost ready.

First I had to figure out how I was going to get that 100 pound beast off the roof of The Van while minimizing the risk of killing myself in the process. The second part of that statement is kind of important because, if you remember, I already tried to kill myself a couple times this year, once tip-toeing along a ledge in Dog Canyon and then again when almost ‘riding the chute’ all the way to the bottom of Little Grand Canyon, and wasn’t sure if I had used up my annual quota of freebee-mishaps or not.

After taking some measurements and running through a number of possibilities, some on the far-fetched side, (How many drones would I have to borrow to lift the AC??) I decided using a gin-pole attached to the tractor’s fully raised loader bucket would do the trick - - - maybe - - -

I grabbed a six foot length of inch and a half steel tubing left over from building the porch for the travel trailer, propped the ends up off the ground and stood in the middle. It flexed about an inch and a half under my significant weight but showed no signs of kinking even when I jumped up and down on it.

Using some quick, in-the-brain pseudo structural-math I figured hanging the 100 pound AC unit off one end of the tubing would give me less than 4 inches of flex, which I unilaterally declared acceptable. Though I also made note not to position myself under the damn thing – you know, just in case. (because I did not get all A’s in math class!)

I drilled a couple holes in each end of the tubing. On the tractor end the first hole was for the hook of a 440 pound rated strap I would use to attach the tubing to the bucket and I put a bolt in the second hole to act as an additional anchor-point for the second strap I added just to make sure the tubing and the bucket didn’t separate until I was done with them.

On the other end, the business end, of the tubing I installed a pair of bolts that would keep the two straps I planned on actually lifting the AC unit with from either falling off the end of the tubing or slipping down towards the tractor, since I figured neither one of those scenarios would end well.

With the travel trailer down on the coast being abused by Elmer, for the first time in 5 years I had access to the nice level concrete pad there beside the barn, so I took advantage of it

and carefully centered The Van under the raised gin-pole.

When ready, all I had to do was ‘dump’ the bucket a little to lower the gin-pole into position, strap the AC unit to the pole, ‘retract’ the bucket to raise the AC unit, then drive out from under it. --- um - maybe if I - nope, nope, I have a plan and I'm going to stick with it!

But I still had a few things to do before I would be ready for all that. (Whew! Who ever said procrastination was a bad thing never contemplated hanging a heavy weight over top of their beloved van on a kluged up crane!)

RV AC units, at least the ones I've had, use 120V power for running, but they also use a separate 12V circuit for the thermostat controls. I’ve been working with electricity since I was 17 and I’m here to tell you, electricity, in any form, can bite the crap out of a person!

So in addition to opening the battery disconnect switch, I also pulled the fuse from the 12V circuit feeding the AC controls since you can't be too careful.

Then I dealt with the 120V circuit as well by disconnecting the hot line from the breaker and the neutral from the buss-bar. (The Van is not plugged into shore power but I made sure the main breaker was off anyway!) Though not needed for the MaxxFan I left the 120V wire in place, just in case The Van eventually ends up in the hands of someone that would prefer AC to a fan, (Besides, removing the wire would mean taking down cabinets and ceiling panels and that wasn’t going to happen!) so I carefully insulated the ends of the wire and tucked them out of the way inside the distribution box.

Now I could begin disconnecting the AC unit from The Van, starting with the wires.

It was never very effective, but when the AC unit was installed a 4” ducted outlet was included. Since it sits just inches away from the unit itself, this was a handy place to pull the wires back through in order to get them out of the way.

The yellow 120V wire, along with the tan thermostat wire, will be coiled up into the ducted space, out of sight and out of the way but available if ever needed again.

The red and white 12V wires will be routed back to the new vent.

Fortunately Sportsmobile ran #10 wire from the panel to here, much heavier than needed for the 3 amps the AC unit required and more than heavy enough for the 10 amp circuit called for by the fan. (#10 wire is rated for 10 amps at up to 27 feet in length. This wire is less than 6 feet long and at full speed the fan draws only 3 amps.)

With the wiring out of the way I was able to back out the 4 long bolts and drop the control box, which also acts as the clamp to keep the AC unit from flying off the roof.

But even with that out of the way the AC unit wasn’t ready to come off yet. It was well calked and the calking wasn’t letting go that easily!

I used a pair of self-jacking Power-Poles, one of which can be seen above, to put upwards pressure on the AC unit while I worked a blade around the opening, gradually separating calk from roof.

There was a moment of triumph when the AC unit released from the roof, but that was quickly tempered by the knowledge that the only thing left to do now was the actual lifting of the unit.

(Annnd we're back to the tractor looming over The Van. . .)

The gin-pole was lowered, the straps were carefully positioned and tightened, everything was double checked; then I climbed back up on the roof and checked again, because this is the point where things could go terribly wrong!!

But eventually there was nothing left to do but very gently retract the bucket to raise the gin-pole to, if all goes as planned, lift the AC unit free.

Oh no, this isn’t stressful at all!

Damn! I could use some drugs right about now! And it better be the good stuff because I don’t even want to think about what my blood pressure is reading at the moment!

After I drove The Van out from under the dangling danger and gently eased the AC unit onto a handy cart, (The unit is already spoken for and just waiting to be picked up now) it seemed like a good time to take a break.

Except that there’s this big friggin’ hole in The Van!!

A nasty, dirty hole.

Silicon caulk won’t stick to silicon caulk. This is important because my favorite apply-once-and-pretty-much-never-worry-about-it-again outdoor caulk, designed for gutters and flashing, uses an MS polymer blend in its formulation and though proprietary, (at least that’s what the various companies claim, but I’m not convinced that it all doesn’t just come out of the same vat) most MS blends include compounds from the silyl group, which is related to silicone.

As far as I’m concerned, besides longevity and effectiveness, my favorite caulk has two other key attributes. It contains no solvents or isocyanates which might eat into the plastic roof-ring of the MaxxFan, and it cures chemically which means it will cure all the way through no matter how thick it’s applied.

Unfortunately, though silicone won’t stick to silicone, it sure as hell sticks to everything else and the only way to get it off once it's cured is to scrape, and scrape, and scrape. Not knowing for sure just what caulk had been used on the AC unit, I was going to have to assume there was silicone involved and remove it all before attempting to seal the vent in place.

Anticipating this, I had been watching the weather and chose not only a rain-free day, but also a cloudy day for this project, but as you can see by the hard shadow of the solar panel in the photo above, that cloudy part didn’t work out too well for me and I spent a couple hours up there on that highly-reflective, bright-white roof slathering on sunscreen under my chin and on the bottom of my nose in between bouts of frenetic scraping.

By the time I was done, besides noodled arms and cramped hands, there were little bits of cured caulk, ranging in size from really big snow-flakes down to tiny, dust-like specks, covering everything, but the roof was silicone free and ready for the next step.

Which involved bedding the roof-flange in place.

The MaxxFan is designed such that the bulk of the unit can be detached from the roof-flange and removed without disturbing the seal between flange and roof, always a good thing. The flange is a made of thick plastic and has clips that the main part of the fan/vent screws into when it’s slipped over the flange.

I laid a continuous strip of butyl tape around the mating surface of the flange then added a bead of caulk around the inside edge before setting it on the roof which had just been wiped down with alcohol. Once screwed down firmly but not too tight, another bead of caulk was run around the outside edge of the flange and a dab was added to each of the 16 screw-heads. By gently swirling my finger on top of each dab with enough pressure to move it but not enough to squish it, I ensured that there was a good seal all the way around each screw-head.

From here the job went so fast it was over before I knew it.

The electrical connections were made. (Remember that I have loads of room to pull excess wire back out of the way inside the ceiling so I left the wires generously long)

The unit was set into place against the built-in gasket of the roof ring and the 4 screws that keep it there were installed

The one-size fits all ceiling trim-ring was marked, cut down to fit The Van's relatively thin roof structure,

and installed.

I don’t know if the impressions left on the ceiling carpet by the AC unit will ‘fluff out’ over time, but for now they speak to the history of The Van. After all, she's not a virgin so there's no sense in freting over making her look like one.

Also note the round vent cover just peeking in from the left edge of the photo. It no longer functions as an air duct, but it does hide the coiled up wires left over from the AC unit era.

To finish up I slapped a 10 amp fuse and a new label into slot 12 of the distribution panel, closed the battery disconnect switch, did some testing,

and all that’s left to do is put away the tools.

With the AC unit up there The Van’s vertical clearance was 9’8”. Now, with the much narrower and shorter vent in the closed position, which it will be when moving, the clearance is 9’1”.  I wonder if I’ll be able to see a difference in fuel mileage?

Unlike the FanTastic vent, the MaxxFan has no rain sensor to close it because the cover is designed so that it can be left open in all but the worst of weather


and I can tell just by looking at her


that The Van is feeling lighter and more nimble, lean and mean, sleek and sweet, trim and – well I better stop while I’m ahead.

With limited cross-ventilation I'm pretty sure that extra vent and fan is going to make a big difference, but a full on review of the MaxxFan will have to wait until the calendar catches up to my travel budget and I have a chance to actually live with it. (Don't you just want to punch those doofuses that write reviews along the lines of my widget just arrived, packaging looks good, haven't used it yet, 5 stars right square in the nose?!)

For now it’s time to disassemble the gin-pole and put the tractor back in its barn.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trailer Lights Gone Wild!

Back in September of 2014 I wrote up the saga of installing a hitch on The Wife’s Ford Escape. Of course this also included installing a tail-light-to-trailer-light converter as well.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago; no, on second thought, since it’s such a short journey, just barely 3 years later, a leisurely stroll will do just fine, no need to rush. The recycling trailer is nearing the critical point – you know, of fullness – so we make our plans, collect our shopping lists, sort some last minute recycling into the bins, strap everything down, haul the trailer out of its nook by the barn and hook it up to the car, then do the light checks.

Well that’s not right!

No matter what combination I try, running lights off, running lights on, right blinker with and without running lights, left blinker with and without running lights, emergency flashers with and without running lights, and finally brakes (You guessed it!) with and without running lights, the trailer’s right brake/blinker stays on bright and the left blinker/brake refused to blink/brake or even wink.

Well crap!

Cue The Van. Which means unhitching from the car and dragging the trailer, which is small but still sort of heavy right now with a full load of recycling in it, over to The Van, get the 7-way to-4way adapter out, plug the trailer in, turn The Van on, (For some reason the 12V powered tail-light-to-trailer-light converter in The Van, installed by Sportsmobile, has been wired to a switched power source. A pain in the ass since this means I can’t turn The Van off while using emergency flashers with a trailer hooked up behind me.) and go through the light-check all over again.

All the lights on the trailer work just fine, which is what I expected since the most likely problem is the converter on the car, but trailer lights are strange beasts, what with screwy grounds, cheap fixtures, and  current back-feeding through un-lit filaments causing all sorts of weird things to happen, so I wanted to make sure before I rendered my verdict.

Verdict rendered. . .

That fancy, and expensive, Curt converter I bought to go along with the hitch, because let's face it, hitches are pretty useless without the lights to go with them, has pulled a Jimmy Atwood on me. (Jimmy was the fellow crew member at my first real job, maintenance and general dog’s-body at a summer camp, that had a special knack for wandering off and doing no actual work.)

I paid the big bucks for the name-brand Curt converter in part because it came with T-connectors that just plug into the car’s existing wiring, eliminating the need to hunt down the right wire, always a pain in the ass, then splice into it, but also for the peace of mind of having a well-made and reliable product - at least that’s what I assumed.

Silly me.

The Curt converter uses a separate power source to operate off of rather than tapping a little bit of the voltage going to the trailer lights like ‘lesser’ converters do. So – I opened the hood, removed the cover over the mostly hidden battery and pulled the 10 amp fuse in the Curt’s power wire, then plugged it back in because – well, you always reboot first, right?

Yeah, well – no joy there – the damn thing was well and truly dead.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice – and all that crap. So this time I went to town and bought one of those cheap converters you can find just about anywhere, including Walmart.

Before I went I checked my stock to make sure I had at least 4 appropriately sized suitcase splices because the plan was to cut the Curt converter loose but leave the fancy T-connector wiring in place and just splice the new converter in. Easy-peazy.

OK, this photo is crap, but a bridge is being installed in place of a pair of 6' culverts that tend to wash out regularly on the county road we use when traveling east from our place.

What the hell does that have to do with a crappy photo?! Well the shortest detour for us is down a single-lane track that at one point crosses an active pasture. (thankfully there's only one laid-back bull among the cows and cattle-guards at both fences so we don't have to mess with gates) The two ends of this 4 mile detour feed a couple driveways and has a dusting of gravel on it, but the middle is more of a tractor-trail than anything else and as such gravel is scarce and sandy dirt is prevalent. Well just as I clicked the shutter for this photo I bumped something under the car there and a facefull of tractor-trail spilled right onto my - well, face. (I mean where else does a facefull end up?) In my rush to get out from under there to divest myself of said facefull of crap I banged my left ear on the muffler, bounced my right temple off the tire hard enough to leave tread-marks, and scraped a good bit of skin off my left arm on the bottom of the bumper. At this point taking better photos was not high on my list of things to do so y'all will have to make do with this one.

By the way I hate crawling around under cars!!

So anyway. . . as the photo shows, if you know where to look and what you're looking at that is, I had forgotten that the wiring harness on the Curt, though sold as being specifically designed for the Ford Escape, was inexplicably short. This caused the converter, very dimly visible at the end of the wires up there, to hang halfway up inside the fender/bumper where I couldn’t reach it very well. In fact without benefit of a lift I couldn’t even get both hands up in there at the same time, let alone be able to manipulate tools. And I tried!

(Did I mention that I hate working under cars!! At one point The Wife walked by and hearing all the groaning and moaning and inventive cursing drifting out from under her wheels said that what I needed was a sort of car-rotisserie so I could turn the car up on its side or even upside down, so I could stay on my feet while working on it. She’s brilliant!!)

But due to the lack of available car-rotisserie, I eventually had to abandon my original plan and tossed the useless tools clear, (maybe a little harder than necessary since I had to hunt through the field to find my side-cutters) and drug my muttering and frustrated ass out from under the car. After regrouping, (and collecting all the tools I had scattered) I resigned myself to removing the left tail-light assembly so I could get to a portion of the Curt wire-harness that I could actually reach.

From there I dropped a weighted line down behind the body-work and used that to fish the wires from the new converter up to the tail-light

and spliced them into the Curt harness just down-hill of the T connection.

This I could do while standing up, which allowed that blue-haze left behind by all the colorful language to gradually dissipate in the gentle breeze,

but then it was back under the damn car to splice in the green wire for the right turn-signal, and swap the white wire (ground) of the old converter with the new converter, completing the removal of the defunct Curt.

Then there was that long, painful process of hunching my way back out from under the car without putting yet another tail-pipe sized dent in my head or ripping an ear off on some low-hanging, sharp-edged bit, then rolling my old bones on the unforgiving gravel to get into position for the multi-staged process of getting back to my feet. 

All this so I could fetch the trailer from where I left it over by The Van and make sure the new converter was doing its – well – converting.

It was!

 In theory, sucking some of the voltage off to operate the cheap converter will dim the trailer lights slightly, but even with incandescent bulbs this would be difficult to notice and since the trailer has been upgraded to LED lights – well, should'a saved my money in the first place!

But any joy generated by this success was short lived as I was right back under the car. (OK, 'right back' implies some modicum of speed, but the process is anything but speedy, especially by now!)

First to route the 4-way trailer connector over to its bracket

And then to do a really crappy job of gathering up any excess wire and securing it and the module in place under there, all with the one hand I could get up there with.

And thennnn – after reviewing that photo, I had to climb back under there, yet again, cut the whole mess loose and install a short piece of wire-loom I found in my electrical scrap-bin over the brown/red/yellow wires to protect them from that abrupt edge because if they short to the body that takes out the car’s left taillight too! Then, of course, I had to go through the contortions (And language) of tieing the whole mess back up out of the way.

No photo of the rework because by now I was in no mood!

When I was growing up Sears was a big deal and a lot of the stuff in our house came from them. Back then they had this good – better – best rating for products. My parents taught us to buy ‘better’ because ‘best’ was too much money and ‘good’ wouldn’t last. That may have been true at one point, but I’m not so sure it still works today. So far I’ve got $60 invested in converting the car’s tail lights to trailer lights, $47 of that in the Curt that’s now languishing in a landfill somewhere, and $13 in the cheap Wallyworld “crap” that’s successfully operating the lights now.

OK, one more time: I hate crawling around under cars!!!!!!!!