Showing posts with label RVdesign. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RVdesign. Show all posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thinking My Way Out of a Dead End

Finally I have some good news to report about my new tow vehicle.  There are so many headwinds to face, thanks to easy financing by the Federal Reserve and more restrictive regulations coming from Washington, DC.  I have complained about these trends before, so today I want to discuss this on a different level. Let's think of it as an example of problem-solving in general. 

There's no point in pissing and moaning about these negative trends because I can't do anything about them, other than work around them as well as I can.

Even though I have fewer options for tow vehicles compared to the past, I have more options than other campers. 

Depending on how you categorize these tow vehicles, I have a half dozen options. None of them are terrible. So what is the basic approach here? So far, I have always thought myself half to death by trying to come up with one more option: one magical, exciting, new option that revolutionized the situation  -- something that I had somehow overlooked.

This approach seemed so irresistible. But it produced nothing. Finally I faced up to the fact that this was just juvenile romanticism.

Look at what I was doing to each of my half dozen half-decent options: I was immediately assassinating them with a 'yea, but...'

What if I actually acted like an adult, for a change, and accepted these half dozen options as being the 'hand of cards that I have been dealt', and tried to improve one or two of them, instead of running off to escapist romanticism about a whole new option? Well, I did it, and it worked: nothing radical, but a noticeable improvement of what existed before.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

UPDATE: Hope for the Generator Ghettoes During Winter

There is a tendency to be discouraged by the noise pollution when camping in the winter. Don't be. Things are improving. Solar panels and high quality generators are becoming more common.

And yet some people still buy one of those yellow P.o.S generators from China just to save $600. What fraction is that of their total rig expense? For many RVers, it is less than 1%. Hell, that's round-off error.

For those who are burdened by the $600, consider the alternative I posted about in the tab "Almost Needing a Generator," at the top of the screen.

Regardless of the noisiness of your neighbor's generator, most of its 'on-hours' would simply disappear if he put $200 into a proper "three stage" charger, such as Iota, Xantrex, Blue Sea, Samlex, etc.

But instead, your neighbor simply pulls the electrical power cord out of the hole in the side of the RV, just as he would in an RV park, sticks an adapter on the end, and plugs it into his generator.

Then what happens?! The AC power goes from the generator to his rig's "converter/charger", which powers the DC circuits and slowly charges the rig's battery at 13.5 Volts. You can't charge a battery quickly unless you get up to 14.4--14.8 Volts, which is what would happen with a proper three stage charger. Thus most of his generator hours are wasted. 

Does anyone know what fraction of RVs come from the factory with crappy "converter/chargers" that only put out 13.5 Volts DC to the batteries? After writing this post, I bumped into an answer. See the Epilogue below.

For instance I bought a 30 Amp charger from Samlex for $200. I charge my two 6-volt GC2 "golf cart" batteries this way, on a cloudy day.  I will run it 30 minutes, and be optimistic that the solar panels will get lucky later in the day.


Epilogue. Quartzsite is a good place to learn about these things. I was pleased to learn that the standard RV supplier of converter/chargers, Progressive Dynamics, sells a $30 optional module, with a cable and connector, that upgrades the Intelli-power 9100 series into a 4 stage charger. You just mount the little "Charge Wizard" module to a hole in a wooden panel, connect it, and push the button to go into 4 stage charging.

Hooray for them! This would be a good way for your neighbor to cut down on his hours of generator usage.

Check out the Series 9200 of Intellipower converter/chargers. It might have the Charge Wizard already built into it.   

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What If You ALMOST Need a Generator?

Long-suffering readers know that I like to poke fun -- gently I hope -- at campers who are Gandhi or Thoreau wannabees. They also know that I am not a solar purist. A rational and professional camper uses technology up to the point of diminishing returns. (Or more correctly, the point of diminishing marginal utility.)

And yet there are solar purists who make it work for them. People who have vans or motorhomes probably don't count, since they can always charge their house batteries from their engine battery on a cloudy day. So let's only discuss trailers.

A trailer-puller can connect their tow vehicle to the trailer, and run the engine. But that charges too slowly, perhaps 7 or 8 Amps.

So what do you do when you finally admit that even Arizona is not sunny every day, and that you occasionally park under trees, or near the perpetually cloudy Coast? Buy a windmill? Never heard anything good about them. Besides, you need to supplement a solar system with a secondary system that doesn't depend on the weather.

You could always suck it up and pay to camp at some place with electricity. But let's not give in to defeatism. We will remain loyal to the Cause.

What is so bad about good generators?, such as a quiet-running Honda 1000 watt inverter generator. Well of course, there is the $850 cost.
  1. You must put it inside at night, worry about it walking off, or increase your insurance. Lifting a 30 pound device into a vehicle is asking for a back injury. You must be careful.
  2. Do occasional maintenance, and drag a gasoline can around. Invariably you will forget to fill the gas can when you fill your vehicle.
  3. Find space for it. (probably in a plastic tub, that won't leak oil.)
You must also get a 30 amp, three-stage, battery charger. Of course you need one of them to plug into shore power, although it could cost less.

So I tried an experiment:
  1. Hook an inverter to the battery of the tow vehicle, and run the engine.
  2. Run the output of the inverter to a battery charger for charging the house battery.
Obviously I run the van's engine when the inverter is sending 500 Watts to the battery charger in the trailer. I use a common outdoor 25 foot long extension cord to connect to the charger in the trailer.

The furring strip screwed to the bottom of the plywood keeps the whole thing from sliding off. I added an external fuse to the positive line of the inverter and the charger.

So far, so good. Remember, this is only to be used occasionally, as an alternative to buying a generator. (About 20 days per year.)

I did learn not to take the nominal ratings literally [1].  So I downsized the battery charger to a Samlex 30 amp charger [2]. Initially it eats 500 Watts from the inverter. After 15 minutes it has charged four flooded golf cart batteries to the point that they are going into the second stage -- so called "absorption" stage -- of charging, and the power falls gradually. I plan on shutting everything down after 20 minutes total.

You might consider this solution a bit of an extravagance: the pure sine wave inverter did cost $250, after all. Perhaps a modified sine wave inverter would have sufficed, and cost $100 less. But I have had mixed with results with these. 

And the new inverter will be my backup inverter, and perhaps be able to power a 110 VAC tire inflator or powerful tools with it. If it were really necessary, you could get double duty out of your house inverter, if you made it easy to remove.

[1] A 45 amp IOTA battery charger was too big for a 1000 Watt pure sine wave inverter (Xantrex ProWatt SW 1000), even though the nominal ratings would suggest otherwise.

[2] I always buy electrical controllers, inverters, etc., from in Oregon. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Murphy's Law Has Loopholes

Obviously the world doesn't need to see any of my photographs of the Moab area, with all the tourists running around with iPhones. Still, I like to take a few photographs on a mountain bike ride, perhaps just as an excuse to stop and enjoy certain spots. I did so here.

Just then I noticed something weird happening on my face. My prescription sunglasses had just fallen apart. Actually it was just that one screw in the frame had come off. Can you believe it? With all the crap that I bring along and never use, I didn't have the little screwdriver and a couple spare screws that you need to fix eyeglasses.

What if I were a rock climber and this had happened? Or a sea kayaker? Is this why 'four eyes' used to get draft deferments?

At any rate I was able to mountain bike back to the van with only one lens, and the other eye closed. My three-dimensional vision was messed up, and it is surprising that I didn't goof up on the Utah slickrock.

But just think. I've been wearing eyeglasses for 50 years, and this is the first time that something like this happened outdoors, on some kind of outing. Why doesn't it happen frequently? Anything could damage a pair of eyeglasses: going over the handlebars on a bike accident; stepping on your eyeglasses when sleeping in a tent; a rambunctious dog chewing on them, etc. 

And there is no Walmart optical department in Moab. That means that you will have to go to a real eye-doctor. The receptionist will probably inform you that a new state law requires you to get a $150 eye exam whenever the customer merely needs a new nose-piece or tiny screw for his existing eyeglasses.

When I came home I easily fixed the sunglasses once I had found the little screwdriver and pile of spare screws. The last time I went to the Walmart optical department, they used Loctite threadlocker on the tiny screw, so I did that too.

Looking around the trailer I wondered if there were other things that are miraculously immune to Murphy's Law. There are.
  • the propane stove,
  • screws sunk into wood. They never rattle loose, despite the washboard roads,
  • the Shur-Flo water pump,
  • roof vents, and Fan-tastic fans,
  • Rubbermaid storage tubs made out of 'LDPE,' low density polyethylene. The opposite applies to Sterilite tubs made out of 'PP', polypropylene.
  • mountain bike tires and tubes. I can go for years without a flat,
  • and LED lights, I suspect, although they are new enough to be unsure of.
Since most people spend quite a bit of money and worry on repairing automobiles, it seems counter-intuitive to claim that most of an automobile seems immune to Murphy's Law, but let's not forgot just how many parts there are.

You could say the same of animals' bodies, including human bodies. It isn't Murphy's fault that people squander their youthful, healthy years while hoping to "really start living" at a retirement age that is past their biological expiration date.

If you want a challenge, make a list of the things in your life that seem curiously immune to Murphy's Law, and then make the opposite list, of things that seem invented just to exasperate you. Can you explain the common property of the items on each list? Things can't end up on the 'good' list or the 'baddie' list at random. There must be explainable principles at work.

On the 'evil' list I would put zippers at the top, closely followed by those hateful butane flame throwers that you need to start the stove. Regarding the latter, why don't I just use matches? They seem pretty immune to Murphy's Law.

'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars...'

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Counter-intuitive Habit #2: Navy Showers

Well, thank goodness that last post is over. It doesn't happen very often: this blogger flipping into "prophet" mode, and coming down from the mountain top with stone tablets, full of warnings and proscriptions to the Children of the Wheel.

So let's just reiterate the bottom line: Counter-intuitive habit #1 = Learning to start an outing going downhill, when it makes sense.

At the moment I am trying to entice a friend to come up and camp with me. She has the most perfect rig I have ever seen for hook-up-free camping, down dirt roads, on public land. And coming from me, that is worth something. It is a "Tiger." In fact, considering how illogical most people's rig-choices are, it might make sense to say that choosing a Tiger is on our official list of counter-intuitive camping habits. Let's let that stew awhile...

Unfortunately I suspect that she is still a slave of "real" showers, as one gets at New Mexico's state parks. My sermons have not inspired her to renounce sin, apparently.

Very well then, when I was a lad my father, a sailor in World War II, was disgusted with the wasteful and decadent showers that I always took. A hundred times he said something like, "We only got a gallon and a half per day on the ship, and that was for Shit, Shower, and Shave." I was not impressed. I would just park myself under the hot spray, and count on erosion to do the job. I barely used a wash cloth. The shower only ended when the water turned cool. Thus, when I started dispersed camping without hookups, I really wondered if I was doomed to failure. 

It helped to break the problem into pieces, and to use words exactly. The sheer quantity of water was not my weakness -- the temperature was. To this day, I despise swimming in cool water. But as long as the water was plenty hot, it turned out to be pretty easy to be happy with less of it.

That is particularly true if you want to minimize trips to somebody's water spigot, and you want to minimize the weight and cost of camping. Water is the heaviest thing that you have discretionary control over.

As with any habit that initially appears abstemious and puritanical, I helps to visualize it in a positive way. Believe it or not, I get pleasure from visualizing a molecular layer of surfactant and a couple layers of water molecules starting at my head and running downhill, until they exit at the toes. I know that sounds silly, but it works.

Although it takes a certain amount of trouble to set up the shower in a small rig like mine, this can be turned into a positive thing if you visualize it as a "sacred" ritual, or at least the moral equivalent of cultural rituals like "getting the tea going" or entertaining guests with a complete meal. Let it be leisurely -- it helps you savor it more.

Or consider reading a broad historical survey of human civilization. Think of how important water has been! You could easily make a long list of turning points where water was crucial. And if that isn't enough, consider how much of your own rotting carcass is water. But does anyone living in a First World economy every dwell on such things, deliberately? Wouldn't it be great to actually appreciate this marvelous and fundamental material? You do that every time you take a navy shower. And it isn't just sentimental abstraction -- the appreciation is solid and real.

My success at converting to navy showers was helped by avoiding the "back and forth" syndrome. Most people are more successful at eliminating bad habits if they snap over to the new habit all at once, and never "reward" themselves by backsliding into sin. There is a fine quote from William James on that, if I could find it.

Aw hell, I'm wasting my breath. Trying to talk a damn woman into navy showers is like convincing her she can be happy without Bed Bath and Beyond, or Trader Joe's, or Costco.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cost of Converting a Cargo Trailer into a Travel Trailer

Reader: consider ignoring small font print and footnotes on a first reading of this post. It will flow better.

Usually I don't write or read about so-called practical issues, because practicality depends so much on individual circumstances, which usually don't match well between the reader and the blogger. 

I'll make an exception today because it is so hard to find the bottom-line cost of converting a cargo trailer. Why the conspiracy of silence? I could speculate on the reasons, but let's let it pass, and instead try to redress the information gap. 

Since the RV industry makes expensive junk, it has become more popular to convert an enclosed cargo trailer into a travel trailer, in order to optimize your camping lifestyle, comfort, and low cost. You then tow it with a moderately-priced pickup truck or van.  

A small window was added to the door and the driver's side, after this picture was taken. But what really counts is being able to camp in places like this.

There is a discussion forum dedicated to these conversions, . It is quite useful if you can be patient with the usual frustrations of public discussion forums. 

But I noticed something strange. Despite wallowing in microscopic details, they seldom mention the 'bottom line' regarding the weight and cost of the conversion.

My cargo trailer is a standard size for a single traveler: nominally 6 foot X 12 foot, single axle, standard steel frame with an aluminum skin on the walls and roof, with a blunt V in the front. It has proven to be the perfect size. 

(Cargo trailers are sized rationally, by the size of the box. Travel trailers are sized by the total length, even out to the hitch. So a 6 X 12 cargo trailer is the same size as a 6 X 16 travel trailer.)

Weight: a naked cargo trailer of my size weighs 1400 pounds with brakes. When the conversion was done, it weighed 3000 pounds, which amazingly enough is the nominal GVWR. 

(Even more amazingly, the weights on the left and right tires were equal, to within 10 pounds!)

Well, what do you think? Is adding 1600 pounds [1] during the conversion good or bad? Note that the 3000 pounds was weighed on a scale, and it contains all my stuff for real living.

Footnote [1] may convince you that I am not cheating by ignoring something, and that the grand result is self-contained for hook-up free camping. 

Although I was surprised how much the little things added up to, in weight, I am happy to be able to downsize my next tow vehicle. Essentially it will be the same as for towing one of the larger fiberglass trailers, like the Casita.

The inside standing height is 6.5 feet. It takes a bit of looking to find that extra height at a dealer's lot. The standard stripper height is 6.0 feet. That might be OK if you are under 5'9" tall.

Cost: The trailer was bought off a dealer's lot for $3000. It included an RV side door, a ramp in the back, and lovely 15" tires. But a standard trailer off a lot has those dreadful 4 inch drop axles, and no brakes. Half the reason for doing the conversion is to escape the low ground clearance of lightweight travel trailers. So I swapped out to a straight axle, resulting in excellent ground clearance. 

The cargo trailer has this kind of ground clearance after the straight axle was installed. And the springs are UNDER the axle!  I could switch to a bigger diameter tire when the time comes. No drain plumbing dangling below the trailer. Success.

You can get brakes added after you buy the stripped down trailer from a dealer. You get this done at a trailer shop -- which usually is not an RV dealer.

So, after swapping to the straight axle and adding the brakes, the naked trailer was now up to $4000.

Now we can proceed to the cost of the conversion proper. Some people think this is under $1000. But it costs a lot more for a fully self-contained camping machine for a full-time RVer. 

Most do-it-yourself projects start off with naive expectations about saving vast sums of money. The mind gloms onto a couple of the larger expenses and ignores the thousand-and-one small expenses.

The final cost of the converted trailer was $11,500. Therefore the conversion proper cost $7,500. [2]  There is no clerical error. All receipts were saved. No costs were hidden by moving "off budget," which is the usual stunt. I double-checked the total from the receipts by looking at the total of the withdrawals from my bank account.
I hope you aren't disappointed with this number. Remember that this was a "do it all at once" conversion. You could take the opposite approach: treat a naked cargo trailer as a hard-walled tent, and make piecemeal improvements as funds permit.
I would do this again. Remember that it only uses the skills that any home-improvement enthusiast has.


[1]  A 5 gallon jug of drinking water, a 5 gallon porta-potty, food in a 12 volt compressor-based refrigerator, two burner propane stove, small sink, large and pretty laminated kitchen counter-top, clothes, tools, office chair, etc.

It only includes one small (5 gallon) tank of propane, four deep-cycle flooded 6 volt batteries, and 480 watts of solar panels.

The conversion did not add a water heater, awning, or microwave. The spare tire is put inside the tow vehicle. Most of the drinking water is in 5 gallon jugs in the tow vehicle.

[2]  But surely, you say, I must have been extravagant. I could supply character references if you like that less than $50 was spent on making things look pretty.

A) could have knocked the four batteries down to two, you say. 

Well yea, but then you just cycle the batteries deeper and they don't last as long. How does that save money?

B) could get by with 320 Watts of solar panels instead of splurging on 480 Watts.

Well yea, but by adding that last panel ($200), I was willing to do without a generator. These days, skimping on solar panels is false economy.

C) could get by with an ice chest. Or restrict your diet to brown rice and oatmeal.

Give me a break. Besides I carried over a used ($500) Whynter refrigerator from the old trailer. So the $11,500 total does not include a refrigerator. 

D) don't really need a water pump to survive. You could use baby wipes, and wipe a little here, and a little there. 

Big deal, a water pump costs $80, and is one of the real success stories of RV technology. It gets used 30 times per day, and will last for the next 20 years. It spares you all that spillage. And how do you take a shower, or clean anything for that matter, unless you rinse it off with pressure?

E) added two small windows and a Fantastic fan roof vent. Your trailer would be more stealthy if you had omitted those extravagances. 

This is not a stealth cargo trailer. You are at the wrong blog if you are interested in that.

F) shouldn't have wasted all that money on fancy woodworking, exotic paneling, imported Italian granite countertops. (eyes rolling) 

Once again, character references will be supplied on request...

G) included two months of rent in an RV park for the conversion. You could have done it at an LTVA or in a national forest and saved a fortune.  

Yea right, transportation is free. Do you have any idea of how many trips you take to the hardware store on a project like this?

I had great luck by finding an RV park in Farmington NM that let me boondock the old and new trailers, side by side, in the storage row in back of a regular RV park. He charged a total of $175 per month. I was a couple miles from Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Ace, a trailer store, and even a metals supplier.

So I had it as good as it could be. Still, all that running around was ridiculous. I included $500 in the total for transportation and eating-out during the conversion.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Architecture Enables Lifestyle

Most people probably think that architecture is partly civil engineering and partly artistic design and beauty. How important is the subject of beauty to architecture? For the moment let's interpret 'beauty' the way that most would: a combination of shapes, colors, and textures that are somehow pleasing to the eye.

Shapes?  A rectangle is a rectangle, an arch is an arch. There are only so many building materials and most of them are flat, so you can build with only so many shapes. Even when you see a structure as radical as a geodesic dome, you have to eventually say, "So, I now know what an equilateral triangle is."

Colors? How many colors can a building have?  White, earth tones, metallic grey, rust. Anything else would look ridiculous or age in an unseemly way.

Texture? Rough or smooth.

Of course, reductionism like this is unfair. Couldn't we also say, "How many notes are in the musical scale? So when you've heard a few minutes of any music, you've heard it all?"

Or if you were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Paris in spring, and the young buckaroos were doing some serious girl-watching, would you volunteer, "Well after all, they all have the same parts. The end result is just diapers and bills-to-pay?"

OK, so I admit that beauty does exist in architecture, but unless you plan on hiring an architect and spending millions of dollars on some edifice, how important can it really be to most of us?

So then, let's dismiss (visual) beauty from our consideration of architecture, and find something else to value.

I gave a hint in the title of the last post, What is Architecture? Recall Tolstoy's book, "What is Art."  He rejects the conventional idea that art is all about beauty, and decides in favor of defining art as a work that infectiously transfers emotions from the artist to the viewer/reader/listener.

Let's do somewhat the same thing regarding architecture. Last post, a commenter started maneuvering towards the idea of architecure possessing moral beauty and expressing cultural values. This is the right direction, I think, but it would take a book to discuss it all. Let's specialize the value of architecture to the question of,  "How does it let me live?" (I am not discussing how one should live.)

In the rat race, one's life is pretty much consumed by the standard things. Even in retirement, I'm not sure that the architecture of a stick-and-brick house would affect your lifestyle all that much.

The best examples of how architecture can affect your lifestyle are:

1. Sailboats, especially during the Age of Discovery, when Europe basically took over the world.
2. Tepees of indigenous tribes in North America.
3. The wagons of the Roma, aka gypsies.
4. Wagons of the North American (European) pioneers.
5. Igloos of the esquimaux. 

Alas, these are all in the past. In the modern world, the architecture of RVs is probably the limiting case of  architecture-leading-to-lifestyle. And yet it so easy to design or buy an RV without really focusing on how it will let you live!

Despite all my years of experience in this racket, when I think about the design of a rig, my mind doesn't switch to "How will it let me live?" as rapidly as it should. Instead, it wallows in secondary issues such as motorhome versus trailer, size, weight, brand, color, style, floor plan.

I will skip the ritualistic flailing at, and spoon-feeding of, "practical"  details. Anyone who is near retirement age and has owned a house can work all that out for themselves. But they may benefit from being reminded to always put "How will I live" at the front of their mind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Different Kind of "Open Range"

After sermonizing about grasslands in the last post, I started wondering whether this could be just one example of a general urge that some people have...

It all started when my Patagonia AZ host tried to make an "honest man" out of me.  No more driveway mooch-docking and eating delicious leftovers from her catering business: now I had to earn my keep with a "small" repair project in her house.

How lucky this turned out to be! It made me furious. All it required was a bit of electrical wiring, and then mounting something to the ceiling with four screws. Sounds tough, eh?  But it was enough to remind me how frustrating it is to find something solid to sink the screw into! That is true of stick-and-brick houses as well as standard RVs. 

I have been infuriated with this all my life, until I converted a cargo trailer into my new trailer. In a way I don't want to lose the ability to become enraged when the Half-Insane is widely accepted as normal. 

The desirability of plywood walls in the converted cargo trailer can be seen here, although most people wouldn't appreciate it:

Your screw hole was off by a quarter inch? No biggie. Just move it over.

Those plywood walls are a type of vast open range for the necessities of life. To tweak in your improvements, you need only get out your drill and zzzip, another pilot hole into the plywood. In seconds the project is done, inexpensively; and it is strong.

Del Norte, CO: a grass and sage range at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.
Perhaps there is a common denominator in aversions to:
  • unscrewable walls, 
  • zippers that jam up,
  • campground spaces in RV parks, 
  • sharp corners or trees at the mouth of a driveway,
  • over-sized pickups in parking lots or narrow forest roads, 
  • dense forests, 
  • overly steep mountains, 
and an overpopulated and over-regulated world, in general. Some people feel a type of "kinetic" claustrophobia about any restriction on their movement.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Another Helpful Idea for Large Boondocking Rigs

From time to time, readers want me to try harder to write about "practical" issues faced by RV boondockers. Very well then, today I nobly set aside my usual arguments about the self-defeating nature of "practical" blogs and the stultifying prose of phony pragmatism.

In return I ask the reader to go along with the idea that clear thinking and clear expression are more practical than flailing away at -- and drowning in -- fractured shards of picayune details.

For instance, when people complain that their rigs are too big, too wide, or have low ground clearance, and therefore "can't boondock very well,''  let's rephrase that to what they really mean: there are zillions of good camping sites that would accommodate their behemoths. The trouble is in getting to those campsites, rather than what happens when you get there. 

Some recent operations on my rental lot in Yuma might provide some inspiration and guidance. You see, my landlord is in the construction business. He is currently downsizing his detritus in order to sell the lot. 

The big show started at sunrise. As with any major operation, including romance and love scenes in a movie, setting-up is most of the time and work. The actual deed is a bit of an anti-climax.

All the old boys in the neighborhood were gathering for the big show, and to provide supervision and advice. But my landlord looked like he had done this a few times.
Finally all the fussing around is over and it is time for the big lift.

And off she goes: a 20 foot long sea container at the back of the lot. The reader is supposed to visualize their "poor boondocking" RV in its place.

Now it is time for the mighty crane to swing its load over the tall brick wall, and set up to drop it onto a flat bed trailer in the (nice) neighbor's driveway.

Here the frustrated boondocker is supposed to visualize his rig being lifted over any number of topographic obstacles in order for the RV to reach home.

Well there it is, my attempt at providing practical encouragement to people who say their rigs aren't good at boondocking. Of course one of these cranes is rather expensive to own. It would be more practical if RV brand-affinity-groups would buy one and rent it out to members. Just imagine the discussion forums that would grow out of this experience. And it would lead to some healthy competition between the upscale brands.

If you don't care for this attempt, there is always my earlier try, Boondocking with Big Butts. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Euro-Vans, Go Home!

Once again I took advantage of a mountain biking event to check out the motor vehicles, used to carry bikes and camping gear around. Once again I didn't learn much, because most people had the bikes on external racks. No thanks.

I didn't see one homemade, plywood cap/shell on a pickup truck. That is my best plan for the future. The commercial caps are expensive, not tall enough (at the stern), lack barn doors (at the stern), and have too many windows. (The first mistake in any vehicular design is too many windows.) Besides, I want to mount furring strips, shelves, and hooks on the inside, just like a cargo trailer. Are you really going to drill holes through a new commercial $2000-3000 cap?

But then I got a little excited about seeing the rebadged Fiat cargo van that Chrysler is selling as the RAM "Promaster." My goodness, where do they put the engine in this ugly, snub-nosed thing? But 'ugly' is OK with me. I knew that it was front wheel drive, and therefore wouldn't be much good for towing. But at least the ground clearance in front looked pretty good.

As the RAM Promaster van drove away, I managed to get a photograph of its rear end, practically dragging in the dirt. Maybe this is how they grade roads in Europe:

Gee, now that you mention it, maybe the "Zamboni" (that smooths the ice skating rink) is a branch of Fiat of Italy.

They can't be serious?! Why don't they go back where they came from? We don't cotton to their kind around here, in the great American West. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Finally! The New Ford Van in Real Life

In August 2014 Ford started manufacturing the full-sized Transit van -- not to be confused with the teeny Transit Connect. The full-size Transit is the replacement for the venerable full-sized Econoline E-series vans, which is what I have been driving for the last 239,000 miles. 

So why haven't I been able to find one on a dealer's lot? Somebody suggested it was because the dealers don't really know what the market wants, and they don't want to guess wrong. The new 2015 Transit has a lot of choices: three roof heights, two wheel bases, cargo versus passenger, and three engines to choose from.

At long last I got lucky and saw one at a truck stop:

Unfortunately it was a long-wheelbase passenger van, rather than the short wheel-base, low roof, windowless cargo van that I want. Still, it made a positive impression. Remember that this is a uni-body -- stamped and spot-welded sheet metal -- rather than a box on two frame rails, like a truck.

I didn't have a tape measure handy but there was a Ford Econoline van right next to it, for comparison. The new Transit was a couple inches lower in overall height, an inch or two narrower (hooray!), and closer to the ground (boo!). 

The ground clearance was better than I thought:

Looking from the bow, towards the stern. Pretty clean underneath.
I've often wondered how they measure the "ground clearance" of a vehicle: to the lowest point? To the lowest vulnerable point? And how vulnerable?

From the back we can see the lowest points, I think:

From the stern, looking towards the bow.

The lowest spot might be the welded bracket that grabs the lower end of the rear shock absorber. It also sticks out low on most vehicles, including pickup trucks.

Unlike the Econoline, the new Transit has a (horizontal) rear stabilizer bar, similar to the one in front. But this stabilizer bar is slightly higher than the bottom of the differential housing, as well as slightly aft of the differential. So although the stabilizer bar looks somewhat vulnerable, it might be protected by the differential housing.

The weakest spot in the Transit van are the small tires. There is no bigger handicap than small tires! They aren't even LT series. They are about 3 inches smaller in diameter than the ones on the Econoline van right next to this Transit van. 

But the wheel-wells are pretty roomy. If you could fit bigger tires on the Transit, it might be a viable option as a boondocking machine. But it is still over-priced, and fuel economy is poorer than a pickup with the same engine.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Part 2: Thinking Your Way Out of, and Into, a Box

If you too are in the habit of coming up with "brilliant" ideas, only to find that they don't work out as well as expected, you might enjoy having a good laugh at my frustration.

Since only a small fraction of the readers have the same needs for a new tow vehicle that I do, I will try to drag my problem towards more general ideas, as the post moves along. 

Until then, recall the starting point of this problem-solving exercise: the most economical way to live at the point of diminishing returns regarding comfort and camping freedom is to pull a converted cargo trailer. I have had this opinion for a decade, and now I am proving it in real life. 

Now it is time to move on to Phase 2, finding a good tow vehicle for a lightweight trailer (3000 pounds loaded). By "good" I mean:

1. Something far less than the standard pickup price of $65000 (or whatever).
2. Something that can get over 20 mpg unhitched. (I only tow 2000 miles per year, so I can be a good loser and accept deplorable fuel economy when towing. Besides, there is nothing much you can do about it.)
3. As much ground clearance as a full-size van. Pickups and truck-based SUVs have more, crossover utility vehicles (except Subaru) have less, minivans and passenger cars have far less.
4. Modern goodies such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. I'd probably be happy with rear wheel drive, just for economy's sake. By "goodies" I don't mean electronic bells and whistles, motorized mirrors, and all the rest of that crap.
5. Good storage: the ability to carry two bicycles inside, with the front wheels off of course, but without lowering the saddle of the bicycles. Also I need enough room to store a half dozen medium sized plastic boxes and 20-30 gallons of water. 
6. A nominal tow rating of 5000 pounds.

Does it seem like I am asking for "the moon and the stars"? I don't think so. But automotive industry, government regulations, and financialization trends have made it difficult.

My "brilliant" idea was to hang out in Crested Butte, CO, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking, and study all the vehicles coming in. Over half of them had mountain bikes. Surely I could get a good idea or two. Why 'reinvent the wheel?'

Alas, I was completely skunked. The visitors were just tourists with external bicycle racks, usually on the rear. I even saw a full-size van, like what I am driving now, with the bicycles stored on an external rack. Sigh.

So I retreated downriver to Gunnison, a far better area to mountain bike. While nursing my wounds, guess what I saw? A couple homemade pickup caps (shells, canopies). I said "cap" (an inverted tub that clamps to the rails of the cargo bed), not "slide-in camper."

Why didn't I think of that before?! Well actually I did, but a painted plywood cap seemed too downscale and embarrassing. Not so. They looked fine. I am really excited. 

This post is getting too long, so I'll live up to my promises next time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Be Careful What You (Don't) Wish For

Before this, I had only heard an adult woman scream -- really scream -- once in my life. It was a college girl having an argument with her boyfriend. Then she started running down the sidewalk, with him chasing her. As luck would have it, I was the first person on the sidewalk for them to encounter.

"Pass" would be a better word than "encounter", since the latter implies a confrontation. I had decided, with only a second or two to think about it, that I wasn't going to confront the boyfriend, despite being a young man at the time, and therefore, a bit of a fool.

But I always wondered how I decided to keep out of it. Was there something about their body language or her scream that suggested a harmless lover's quarrel? Can a woman's scream be broken down into a language as a dog's barking can?  Dog owners learn the language of their dog's barks (plural) after a couple years of practice. There is something charming and Saturday morning cartoon-like about my dog's raven-bark. But her coyote-bark is completely malignant. (I guess it is analogous to a mainstream RV wife's assessment of bachelor boondockers.)

As part of the homework needed for buying a new tow vehicle, I don't find too helpful. It is just a male pissing contest about whose pickup truuuuuck is rufffer and tufffer than the other guy's. 

People with a lightweight trailer are better served by, even if you have no interest in that particular type of trailer. What matters is that their towing forum pertains to 3000 pound trailers, of whatever type.

One day was discussing the need for electric brakes. My cargo trailer has a GVWR of 3000 pounds and is not legally required to have electric brakes. I worried about whether I should buy a trailer with brakes or just take a chance. After all, new tow vehicles all have anti-lock brakes as standard equipment, and that is a big plus. But if you want to downsize your tow vehicle, 3000 pounds is still a load to brake, and if you lack electric brakes on your little trailer, then you will just wear out the brakes on your tow vehicle faster. Thus it probably will cost you money to not have brakes on your little trailer, regardless of safety.

The good news is that you needn't decide this in advance. Most single axle cargo trailers on the dealer's lot (3000 pound GVWR) will probably not have electric brakes, just to keep the price low. But it is easy to have brakes put on after-market at trailer repair/welding/hub greasing shops.

But I had decided I would forgo brakes on my little cargo trailer. Besides anti-lock brakes on the tow vehicle, I had no reason to tow during rain or snow. I don't even tow at night, nor on windy afternoons. Case closed. Simplicity, minimalism, frugality, and all of that.

There is such a thing as being too high up, too close to the big peaks when you are camping in Colorado. Mountains are cloud makers. I got fed up with the fog and rain of Crested Butte and decided to retreat to 7000-8000 feet near Gunnison.

In fact I fled during a morning rainshower. Didn't I just get done saying that I never tow when it is raining? I slowed down for a small tourist town.

Then I heard the woman scream. It was different than the one mentioned above. Once again it seemed like I only had a second to "do something."  Then a large white dog came trotting out of the yard. He crossed the highway, while being completely unconcerned about traffic. I hit the brakes and swerved, but didn't overdo it. I just missed the dog, and so did the other cars.


I took this as a significant and lucky warning. My arguments about not needing brakes on my trailer were a little like the bullshit people gave when seat belts were new: "I'm only driving to the grocery store, so I won't put the silly thing on. I'll "save" the seat belt for when I go on long drives."

The next day I made an appointment for installing aftermarket electric brakes on my little cargo trailer.

Adding brakes to a small trailer is a bit expensive ($600) because of all the parts and wiring. But it will cost a lot less to maintain the brakes, because the entire plate (brake shoes, springs, electric actuators) is replaced as one modular unit.