Category Archives: RETROvan

Shore Power!

On Tuesday, Brett came back to button things up in the engine compartment. He replaced the carburetor gasket that we couldn’t find before, he installed the PerTronix 1261 electronic ignition kit, he chased down some leaking oil and transmission fluid, and he fixed the exhaust manifold to lock its damper in the open position full-time, since we don’t have the spring and can’t find one online. Brett said everything’s done and she’s good to go — finally!

Mission: Accomplished. And I think $6,000 is quite enough money spent on the engine for a while. Hopefully a long while…

Yesterday and today, I got more of the helm wired up. Here’s what the inside looks like so far:

Up on the left is the AC panel, and on the right is the DC panel. The Inverter is the big white metal box. Directly above it is a 200A fuse on the red positive cables. Below the fuse is the USB socket with two ports. Below the inverter (not pictured) is the battery bay.

On the AC side, I decided to wire things more simply and directly than originally planned. Basically the 120V current now flows like this:

Shore Power (or Batteries) > Inverter > AC Panel > Branch Circuits

The AC Panel has a main breaker that turns the other three AC branch circuits on and off, and each circuit also has its own breaker. So far, the only circuit used is an extension cord to power my refrigerator. The second circuit will feed the galley’s AC outlets, for plugging in the toaster oven, microwave oven, coffee maker, waffle maker, etc. The third circuit is reserved for either the HDTV or future air conditioner.

Meanwhile, the DC panel is only using two circuits so far. The top circuit is for the instrument panel backlighting, and I haven’t connected the AC’s red and yellow backlight wires to the DC panel yet. The second circuit is for the USB socket and eventually other DC sockets (12V and USB) throughout the cabin. The third circuit will be for the overhead lights, the fourth for the AppRadio and stereo system, and the fifth will be for the galley’s water pump.

By far the most frustrating part of wiring such a compact electrical cabinet was gravity. I dropped small screws down into the battery bay no less than four times, and had to fish them out with a variety of magnetic and sticky picker-uppers all while dripping sweat and dodging live wires. This reminded me of that classic game Operation, because with the slightest jiggle or bump I wound up dropping the screw again.

I eventually learned to spend extra time lining my work area with rubber sheets (much like the Oval Office). And even then a loose screw would still bounce or roll off and drop into the chasm.

When I finally connected the extension cord to the outside of the RETROvan, I was rewarded with a KA-CHUNK sound from the inverter’s transfer switch. And in that moment, I felt like Doc from Back to the Future.

Here’s a shot of the inverter doing it’s thing, relieving the solar panels by charging the ‘house’ batteries from shore power when plugged into our garage via a regular extension cord:

The RETROvan finally has enough power to keep the most precious cargo cold. Soon I’ll post a shot of the helm all lit up at night. But right now it’s Beer:30.

Okay, it was really Wine:30. Here’s the money shot, after I wired up the AC panel backlights:

Looks like we’ve just engaged the warp drive, doesn’t it?

Sparkly.

Now that summer is in full swing, I was extra motivated to do some electrical work and get my ventilation system going. No more sweating like a pig at a bacon festival.

I’ve got the batteries in the helm, and they’re connected up to the Renogy Rover 40A MPPT solar charger/controller. The Rover is the black box that I temporarily mounted above the helm on the right. That’s connected to the four 100W panels on the roof with 8 AWG cable. Then the two FanTastic Vents are connected directly to the 12V load terminals on the Rover.

And that makes a self-sufficient off-the-grid system, using solar energy to charge the batteries and the batteries to run the fans. The fans are super smart, too. They have thermostats and rain sensors that can open and close their domes automatically. So as soon as the sun heats things up to 72°, the fans kick on. As it gets warmer in the afternoon, the fans speed up. And some time after sunset when things cools down, the fans slow down and turn off. And if it should rain, the fans will turn off and the domes will close by themselves. Pretty sweet, eh? And yes, they work manually too.

The next big challenge was to figure out how to mount the ProMariner 2000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter safely inside the helm — with the key word being ‘safely.’ So here’s what I came up with:

I drilled four 3/4″ holes in the sides and inserted two pieces of 1/2″ EMT conduit. I later ‘capped’ the ends of the pipes on the outside to keep them from slipping out of their holes, as they did repeatedly when I tried to wrangle the 45-pound inverter through that hole.

And here’s the result. The inverter is straddling the pipes about two inches above the batteries. The inverter can slide left or right depending on which end I need to access. I’ll also try to remember to put a strap around it before I drive off anywhere.

Now normally you’re not supposed to put electronics inside a battery compartment. But remember, these are sealed AGM batteries, not flooded lead-acid. So they should emit no combustible gasses. And just to be sure, I will be cutting plenty of ventilation holes in the helm and installing a fan if necessary. It probably won’t be necessary because the inverter has a fan on one end already.

The helm’s hatch hole seems to provide ample access to the backs of the AC/DC panels. I won’t be using the hatch cover that came with the helm itself. I’ll be having one made custom at TAP Plastics later. And yes, it will be cool because it’ll be the first thing you see when you step up into the RETROvan.

One nice thing about my floorplan is that when working inside the helm, I can just sit on the steps and everything’s at eye level. It’s also nice that none of these powerful electronics take up any valuable cabinet or storage space.

I also installed a Blue Sea Systems USB port to power the helm’s iPad mount. And there’s now a Blue Sea Systems 200 Amp ANL fuse block mounted just above the inverter, on the inside.

Now comes the hardest part: Wiring up the AC/DC panels. For this I got 100 feet of Ancor 12/3 marine grade cabling for AC, and 100 feet of 12/2 to go along with the 100 feet of 16/2 I had already bought for speakers. I’ll have to make all my own terminal connections, so I ordered a Wirefy kit with hundreds of assorted heat shrink connectors.

Now if I could only follow the wiring diagrams for the panels, while still incorporating the inverter. The diagrams seem to omit important information, like what size main fuse to use. I might start with the DC side because it’s a little safer. But I have done plenty of AC work inside our house. The one thing I’m sure of in the RETROvan, is that the Marinco 120V Shore Power Inlet will connect directly to the dual-pole main circuit breaker on the AC panel first. And from there to the AC input side of the inverter. But the fun place to start would be the backlit analog gauges. Because then I can see things coming to life as each circuit is connected.

Oh, I almost forgot. Those massive red and black cables pictured above are 2/0 AWG. I bought them pre-terminated in three sets, made by WindyNation. 1-foot, 2-foot and 3-foot. I used a red 1-footer as the jumper between my two 6V batteries. I used a red 3-footer from battery + to the 200A fuse block, and then a red 2-footer from the fuse block to the inverter +. The negative side is simply a black 3-footer from the battery – to the inverter –. So that means two black cables go unused, but that was a lot less stress than trying to cut and terminate my own battery cables which are 70mm in diameter and stiff as hell. But in the end, they all seem to fit inside the helm without kinking or tying in knots, much like your lower intestines. The trick was to dry fit everything before connecting anything.

There was one moment of terror when I disconnected the 8 AWG battery cables from the Rover but forgot to disconnect them first from the batteries, and then they both touched the bare diamond plate floor.

To quote Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man: “Sparkly.”

3… 2… 1… IGNITION!

Today’s the day the RETROvan became ready for its first test flight, and just in the nick of time for Independence Day.

Nearly four weeks after the discovery of a cracked intake manifold, Brett from McFarland’s Mobile Mechanics has finally installed the remaining new parts and fluids:

  • 1 foot of 5/16” low pressure fuel hose
  • 1 foot of 5/8-inch heater hose
  • 2 gallons engine coolant (full strength)
  • 6 AutoLite spark plugs
  • 6 quarts Type F transmission fluid
  • 6 spark plug wires
  • Distributor Cap & Rotor
  • NAPA AFP 4208 Fuel Pump
  • NAPA 787147 Oil Sending Unit Pigtail (aka Cigarette Lighter Connector)
  • NAPA BK 8251006 Thermostat Hi-Perf 
  • NAPA RAY 2449622 Power Premium Plus Starter
  • NAPA FIL 1271 Oil Filter (Gold)
  • NAPA FIL 3034 Fuel Filter (Gold)
  • Edelbrock 9129 Internal Allen Head Pipe Plug Fittings – Set of 2
  • PerTronix 1261 Ignitor for Ford 6 Cylinder

And then there’s the 6 quarts of special “old school” (high sulfur) engine oil that was supplied by Portland Engine Rebuilders.

These are all parts I intend to stock up on for the inevitable breakdown. Nervous or otherwise.

Shortly after my third trip to an auto parts store in one afternoon, just to find one last 1/8″ pipe plug, the engine coughed and sputtered and then roared to life. With a few tweaks Brett got it to settle down to a steady purr. And then the entire back of the van started rumbling with harmonics, probably because it had been gutted. It reminded me of a hound dog shaking off in your face after a swim.

After Brett Gorilla Taped the limp accelerator pedal back to its linkage, I bolted the ugly driver seat back on and broke moor.

Video of the RETROvan’s First Flight!

The drive up and down the street was exhilarating, like when a long lost friend awakes from a coma. Or as my wife likes to say, like stripping off your clothes and diving into a volcano. Or as our cat Mazy might think, like a 3rd of July parade that nobody knows about.

I later realized I had forgotten to release the parking brake the whole time.

So now, finally, I can focus on all the less-dramatic stuff, as I inch closer to the assembly phase of the project, hijacking our garage as a staging area and workshop:

Pizza in the Sun

The other night, we made our first pizza in the RETROvan. This little convection oven burned the bottom one and undercooked the top one, but we still had fun.

And today, I installed the four solar panels on the roof. I used white Gorilla Tape to secure them and to prevent water from getting under them. The two main 8 AWG cables drop down through a single 3/4″ hole with a rubber grommet and a waterproof gland. I’ll post a photo of that later, once my knees recover from second-degree burns from being on a hot tin roof!

Here’s a shot from the Scenario One drone. Note the panels aren’t connected yet. That’ll come later this week.

I had to reorder my WindyNation red & black 8 AWG cable set because I cut off the wrong ends, and wound up with black on the positive side and red on the positive side, which could be disastrous if mixed up at at the helm. It matters because the MC4 connectors are either male or female, and I didn’t realize my $40 mistake until after I cut off one end of them. Oh well, I can still use those cables on the other side of my charger controller no problem, because they will need lugs instead of MC4 connectors anyway. Had to buy a $62 Ancor ratcheting crimper for that.

Hey, tomorrow (July 3) is the day Brett finishes installing the RETROvan’s engine, with my brand new re-welded intake manifold. All we need is a driver’s seat, considering I removed it last week in preparation for mounting my International Harvester tractor seat and Attwood Swivel-Eze adjustable pedestal.

I finally met Ron at Portland Engine Rebuilders on Friday, when I picked up the manifold. I asked him if I’d need to baby this baby, but he said, “Oh no, that’s a good weld.” Apparently with cast iron, you have to heat the whole thing up in a furnace and then weld it and let it all cool down very slowly. Someone had attempted to arc weld this manifold years ago, hence the failure. Ron and Ted had their welding shop hit it three times because they kept discovering new hairline cracks after inspection. But now it should be good to go.

Aluminum Paneling

 

I picked up my first batch of 19 aluminum panels today. One of them had to be cut into a trapezoidal shape while I was there, so I got to see metalsupermarkets.com‘s 10-foot shear in action.

I had made one simple request to the shop: Don’t write on the panels. Use masking tape. But what did they do? They wrote on them with black Sharpie. So now I get to spend hours removing the labels.

I then dry-fitted the panels into position using only a piece of Frog Tape along the top. This revealed that the shop made one mistake and I made a second, so those panels will be recut next week.

The panels are individually measured to cover each rib cavity within 1/16″, and with a 1-inch overlap. Those overlaps will be drilled and screwed into the aluminum Z-channel and C-channel ribs.

I haven’t decided whether to have them powder coated or not. We kind of like the clean sheen as-is, and it doesn’t seem to reflect that much heat. It reminds me of the classic Airstream.

The ceiling panels will be pretty tricky to hang, of course. I’ll need some help for that. They need to be precisely measured and cut out for vents and lighting as well.

I measured and ordered my second batch of panels for the upper corners. Those will be bent by a separate fabricator to 90 degrees, overlapping the wall and roof panels by the same one inch.

The metal cutter didn’t seem to understand that the panels they sell have a brushed “grain” to them. And I want the grain on the upper corner trim panels to match that of the walls and ceiling. So this took several attempts to communicate. That’s just one more thing they are liable to screw up (which they did).

Overall, this modular design makes everything easier to transport, handle, mount and unmount. That way if I need to fix some wiring or plumbing, I only have to unscrew a panel or two.

Wood Shop 101

It’s supposed to be 101° this weekend but my goal is to get all of my plywood cut in the garage. All those weeks of wood shop at Junior High School in Casper, Wyoming are paying off.

The biggest challenge is learning how to do clean cross-cuts on large workpieces without the luxury of a big cabinetry workshop. My table saw isn’t big enough and I don’t like using circular saws for that because they’re cumbersome. And even the best radial arm miter saws only have a 16″ reach.

So, I’ve become best friends with my jig saw followed up by some orbital sanding. And that seems to be working fine, even on the long angle cuts on my counter top and bulkhead.

To center the sink over the cabinet door, I first positioned the countertop and then traced the tool chest’s top opening from the inside. That was important because there are brackets in there to secure the countertop to the metal frame. This gave me a “safe zone” within which to center the sink so that the back and side margins are the same distance.

The wooden cabinet’s left wall will stand up just to the right of the sink. The faucet will be wall mounted behind the galley, with the water supply line and drain snaking through the wall to belowdecks. That way the plumbing is minimized inside the cabinet, thus maximizing usable storage space. Not sure where the water pump will go, but there are plenty of options.

And no, the RETROvan will not have a toilet. Eew!

I spent the rest of the day cutting all the pieces I could from eleven sheets of 24″ plywood. When I know pieces will become small enough to trim on the table saw, I just rough cut them a little bit large so they can be cut to dimension against a fence. That’s working great for prominent pieces that are around 24×18″, like the galley shelves and top.

Most of the plywood came with dinged corners, so those had to be squared off, first. That that was a major pain considering how they were individually packaged to prevent such damage. I’m guessing there’s careless handling at the mill before packaging.

The bench bases are taking shape. They have to be cut conservatively because nothing is really square in the RETROvan, like those wheel well boxes. They also have rivets and other bumpage to measure around.

I’m using my adjustable pedestal as my reference height. Here you can see it in the fully-down (berth) position. It too will mount atop a 3/4″ plywood floor in the middle of the van. The bench bases will have 3/4″ plywood tops, and the pedestal table/berth platform will also be 3/4″ plywood. So in the berth position, the top surfaces will be level and the cushions will simply span across, forming a flat queen bed.

Note also how much storage I’ll have in these boxes. The back compartments are each 2×2 feet (4 cubic feet), big enough to store a barbecue grill or form a battery compartment. The front L-shaped compartments are 3 feet long. They’ll all be accessible via hinged doors. I’m leaving some room on the back ledge to accommodate any handles, to get a foothold, or to set a drink down from the outside.

 

Up on a Pedestal

I finally pulled the trigger on a pedestal that will help convert my back dinette table to a queen bed. Because, you can’t have a mobile home office without a comfy place to stretch out and take a power nap. Right?

This one is made by Garelick and runs $712.94 on Amazon.com. It’s an aluminum three-stage device with a gas (pneumatic) assist and stainless steel hand (not plastic) ring clamps. It ranges in height from 12-3/4″ to 28″, which is as good as it gets without drilling a big hole in your floor so the post can travel under deck. That may work for boats, but not necessarily for land yachts.

This means my bench boxes now need to be 3/4″ taller so that the cushions will all be at the same level. Fortunately I haven’t cut them yet and have enough slack in my stock to make those adjustments.

But this also made me rethink my floor levels and I realized (too late) that my galley countertop was also going to fall 3/4″ shy of my 36″ target height, which is the standard ergonomic metric for counter height. But I lucked out again, because I have enough waste plywood from my first round of cuts to remake those five vertical pieces.

What’s the old saying? “Measure twice, cut once?” Well, that only works if your assumptions are right the first time around.

Basically, the entire RETROvan will have a 3/4″ plywood floor behind the cockpit. But the three base boxes I’m building will have their sections of the floor built-in, for modularity purposes. So in the case of this table pedestal, if the minimum height is 12-3/4″ from the top of the floor to the bottom of its table’s plywood, that means the bottoms of the middle cushions will rest at 13-1/2″ above floor level. Therefore the bench boxes must be a total of 14-1/4″ tall, including their section of flooring. My cushions are 6″ thick, but of course they’ll compress when you sit on them. So they should still come close to the standard 18″ back-of-knee height for seating. Perhaps even closer than before.

Here’s my amended cut plan, with “bad” cuts in red and “better” ones in yellow. This includes a new 24×48″ piece for the dinette/berth table:

Not a lot of waste, eh? By the way, the Garelick pedestal narrowly beat out this unique one made (and subsequently discontinued) by Springfield:

I liked this design better, but its range was shorter (12″ to 25″) and I had concerns about its mechanical stability, just looking at it. Plus, it was mysteriously cheaper and didn’t have any published reviews. Perhaps it just wasn’t a good product? As several contributors pointed out, the Garelick simply looks sturdier because the physical load is straight up-and-down. And that was the clincher, especially considering the RETROvan will be a rough ride once underway.

Oh! The folks at CushionSource.com sent me photos of a short prototype head rest today, and it’s looking great:

Cabinet Meetings

I spent yesterday starting on cabinetry for the galley and the bench/berths. Here’s just the galley:

And of course everything I do starts with a meticulous plan:

All of my wood stock is 3/4″ maple plywood, sanded nicely on both sides. This comes in 24″ widths and either 48″ or 96″ lengths, and all dimensions are actual — not nominal:

This stock is cabinet quality but not marine grade. In other words, the glue between the plies is water-resistant but not waterproof. However, it will technically be indoors and I’ll be sealing every surface with polyurethane anyway. So in theory, no humidity should get in or out of this wood when I’m done.

I’m going with gray on these pieces, since there’s plenty of black, white and red elsewhere. Two or three coats of this Varathane should do the trick, and I’ll be testing it on scraps first:

Update: This stuff sucks. I won’t be using it.

I bought a Diablo 80-tooth fine finish blade for my Craftsman table saw, and it cuts like butter. The only problem is the fence on my table saw. It has to be carefully calibrated for each cut in order to stay on line. Very frustrating.

Each piece will include its own solid base, which will later integrate flush with the rest of the RETROvan’s floor. I’m making things modular for structural strength, for maintenance purposes, and to provide a nice finished interior for each accessible storage space under the galley and the benches.

The top is not yet attached in this photo because the galley base isn’t sanded, stained and sealed yet. But if you look closely you can see a pair of pocket screw holes on the middle support piece.

The Kreg pocket screw jig system is amazing. I can’t imagine joining cabinet pieces any other way. Once I got that jig set up for a 3/4″ material thickness, everything started coming together quickly and professionally using Kreg’s #10 1-1/4 screws.

Shocking!

Today, Olivia and I “watched” a golf tournament and a Cubs baseball game all in cloudy weather on our covered front porch, all from solar and battery power. I guess that makes us officially off-gridders — at least for an afternoon.

The meter on the Renogy charge controller never dipped below 75% the whole time despite expectations to the contrary. Yes, this portable Sony Bravia TV is not drawing much wattage compared to a toaster oven. But at least that means three solar panels can adequately service a Sunday’s worth of football games even on a cloudy Portland day. And, I have a fourth solar panel arriving on Monday.

This test was perhaps the most stressful to date for the RETROvan. None of these components are made by the same company or guaranteed to work together other than in theory. The installation manuals for both the Renogy solar charger/controller and the ProMariner inverter/charger/transfer switch are negligently omissive. Neither product explains any interconnection steps or even acknowledges the fact that people might want to combine solar with shore power. And really now, who wouldn’t?

The other challenge is that the cable sizing, stripping, terminating and wrangling will drive even professional electricians crazy. In part because what’s in the manuals will not match what the companies tell you in person, nor what’s on the reference charts. That may be because everyone is so concerned about erring on the safe side, they keep compounding the problem. The cables between the inverter and battery bank are 2/0 AWG, which are nearly 3/4″ thick. And that just seems excessive to me, not to mention difficult to bend. The cables between the solar charger/controller and the batteries are 8 AWG, and the terminals on the Renogy component are terrible. You can’t really just screw them down and walk away, because as soon as the box moves, all of those connections come loose whether you’ve screwed down the bare stranded wires or terminated them in ferrules or butt connectors. Also, I had to search for a stripper that would even come close to handling 8 AWG cable, because every retail tool tops out at 10 AWG.I finally found a nice Klein Katapult device at Home Depot that cuts and strips individual conductors in a single step, up to 8 or 10 AWG depending on whether the wire is solid or stranded. But that’s still after taking five minutes to remove the outer sheathing with a box cutter. If you’ve ever wondered why electricians are so expensive, the menial labor is why.

So, while this test was successful I’m less than 100% confident in my cable choices and terminations for a permanent installation despite getting recommendations from both companies. Every vendor recommends hiring a professional electrician to cover their butts, yet they sell these components through retail channels like Amazon and West Marine without any hesitation. That’s similar to how the big pharmaceutical companies run TV ads urging ordinary mortals to use their dangerous prescription drugs.

The scariest part was when I went to secure the final battery positive connection from a stacked combination of my fused inverter cable (2/0 AWG), the solar charger/controller’s temperature sensor, and its  8 AWG positive battery cable. The post sparked like hell as soon as I touched it, so I stopped and went to get my neoprene gloves knowing that I would have to secure these three connectors to that post by hand and with a metal wrench.

I tried to research this sparking problem online because the ProMariner manual doesn’t mention anything about this in the installation steps. But of course, it’s Saturday and no one is answering the phone at ProMariner headquarters. Not impressed about that, since someone could get killed installing their product the day before Father’s Day while they’re offline. What if there were combustable gasses in the air? The device claims to be “ignition safe,” yet here we have a massive spark on first contact that could have brought the Hindenburg down?

But… when I finally worked up the nerve to try again — no spark. This suggests I had experienced some kind of static build-up charge that dissipated after that initial contact. But still, to have no connection instructions or warnings in the manual for an $800, high-powered device that could kill you in a heartbeat?! Really? Yes, a trained electrician should be doing this job, but what if he didn’t expect that little zap to happen either? Seriously, electricians are like surgeons. Even the best of them will get caught off-guard. I’ve seen it happen.

By around 7 PM, the inverter felt warm but the batteries and all cables felt the same as the ambient temperature. So that’s all good.

Windows & Solar Testing

Today I got the custom window order off to Jeff at motionwindows.com in Vancouver, WA. The cost for eight identical windows is $2,200.

They’ll have a cutout dimension of 14×14″ with a 3″ corner radius and a wall depth of 3-1/4″. Nothing like this was available commercially. I went ahead and ordered a 6″ hole saw from Home Depot and will carefully mark the cutouts soon.

Because the windows are so small (more like portholes on the Space Shuttle), they’ll just be fixed, dual-pane glass that won’t have any sliders or screens. I don’t want anything to obscure the views, and I already have two vents for ventilation up top. I’ll be adding windows to the back doors and those can have traditional sliders and screens.

Today’s also the day I get enough cables, connectors and fuses to test my solar panels, charger/controller and battery bank on the front porch. Unfortunately it’s not a sunny day but that makes for a good test too. Sunday, however, should be 82° and clear.