Category Archives: RETROvan

All Revved Up, No Place To Go

Today I got busy replacing my ignition switch and key cylinder. Because last month, I had set aside my lone RETROvan key for duplication and then promptly lost it.

I first ordered a replacement cylinder (only) but I couldn’t get the old one out of the switch because it was a slightly older design. Then I ordered a complete switch with a cylinder after finding the original Ford part for a 1961 P-400. But that one was completely different and didn’t fit the instrument panel. (I’m keeping it just in case.) So I finally figured out the rig didn’t have the original part, it had a universal Calterm part that may have been swapped in sometime later.So I ordered that since it looked the same. And you can see it comes with two matching keys.

Step One was to disconnect the starter battery. This involved simply lifting off my floor’s rubber puzzle tiles, removing my marine plywood hatch, then removing the steel diamond floor plate to access the battery shelf. Then I disconnected the Negative terminal.

Here’s the old ignition switch, which I removed from the instrument panel. Note that the instrument panel and all of its wiring hasn’t been restored yet. That’s an epic task for later this year, as part of Phase 3.

Taking careful note of the wiring on the old switch’s four terminal posts, I began transferring each group to the new switch.

And finally, I mounted the new switch into position through its hole. Then I noticed the nut you can see here is not the same as the original. It’s plastic—not metal, and it’s smaller. And worse, it doesn’t hold the switch as securely. So I’m not happy about that, considering that the photo on Amazon clearly showed a matching metal nut. But even my old nut doesn’t fit onto this switch’s threads. So, I’ll be following up with Amazon and Calterm to complain about false advertising.

But the good news for now is, the RETROvan started right up and the old Ford 3.6-liter 223-cubic inch inline six cylinder engine is now purring like a kitten on steroids.

Let There Be Music

Over the past two days I did the unthinkable. I tore open much of the driver side wall, top panels and berth base to run two new cables. One for left and right audio, and one for composite video. I plan to use the video cable later for my back-up camera, but I need the audio upgrade now.

This is the top corner panel behind the galley cabinet, which I had to disassemble. The dark gray cable up top is channeled through a pre-existing hole in the steel braces my Dad and I added. That way I avoided weakening those supports by drilling extra holes in or around them.

Here’s the audio cable, made by MediaBridge. This particular run is 25 feet long. I started by clipping off the 3.5mm Auxiliary jack and threaded that end of the cable from front to back through a total of four 3/8″ holes. I would later thread the separate (and thinner) video cable along the same route. This is all good because it keeps these signal-sensitive cables away from the noisier 120V and 12V power cables, while also protecting their insulated jackets from the heat of the aluminum roof.

Here’s the route they would eventually run, back to wall panel D6, just below RETROpod 3.

Here’s how they’ll terminate at the aft wall panel. This is a Leviton Decora QuickPort system, which I’ve used elsewhere in the RETROvan. The black versions have to be custom-ordered. The RCA jack modules snap into place after the wires are terminated into them. These jacks are not the simpler “pass-through” variety. That is, you can’t just plug an RCA cable into both sides of the jack. And that’s okay because an RCA jack is too big to snake through my routing holes.

The rear wires have to be crimped into the proper terminal slots, using the blue 110 Punch-Down tool you see on the right. That tool’s tip has a U-shaped “puncher” that pushes the wire into place. And then a small blade on one side of the tip trims the excess wire off. It took me a while to figure this out because I’ve never done this before and there are no instructions. You can find videos on YouTube but they tend to be geared for Cat5 (network) installations.

Here you can see the electrical box mounted through the wall panel and the 120V (with USB) outlet is wired up to the spare branch circuit I had the prescience to run months ago. The cables are stripped to reveal their inner conductors, which are still insulated at this point. In fact, the way the punch-down thing works, you don’t strip the wires yourself. You let the terminal blades slice through the insulation for you.

The thin black cable under my thumb is the video cable. It contains three wires: Yellow for video, Red for power, and Black for ground. Pretty straightforward.

The thicker dark gray cable is much trickier. As it turns out, the Red wire is the Right audio line. The Orange wire is the Left audio line—which should be White. And the frayed copper you see is the Ground. Apparently in this type of audio cable, the ground is common between both channels. And it is braided around the signal conductors to help shield them from outside RF interference.

The next challenge was to terminate the jacks and test them out. As you can see, this looks like a mess. I had to separate the ground wires and twist them into something resembling a single wire, one for each jack. There is potential here for a short or a loose wire. But at least the jacks would be easily accessible from the wall panel now. I just wish the ground had two separately insulated wires.

In this photo I’m holding the video cable up. That one was much easier to punch down into the Yellow jack, given that its Red power wire is unneeded for now.

And here it is all buttoned up. Works like a charm. And now, I can finally connect my iMac’s headphone jack to these wall jacks. And the sound comes out all four RETROpods in real time. No more Bluetooth lag. And that’s vital when working on music production with a MIDI keyboard.And as you may recall, I overcame the hideous Ground Loop Noise problem by using this gadget on my iMac’s headphone jack.

Ground Loop

I’ve been pulling my hair out, trying to piece together an even cleaner way to integrate various A/V components in the RETROvan.

My plan involves installing a second dual-gang outlet box on aft rear wall panel D6 using two USB-enabled 120V outlets and a pair of RCA audio jacks. This also involved carefully researching and purchasing three new cables and Leviton QuickPort modules. Those cables have to be the right lengths, they have to have the right connectors—and most importantly they have to be adequately shielded against RF interference.

The goal is to be able to connect my 5K iMac to the wall, and then to my AppRadio 4 receiver via the receiver’s AV input jacks, which are male RCA plugs. This direct connection would essentially eliminate any latency when playing music from my AKAI MIDI Controller keyboard, via Apple’s Logic Pro X DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). If connected merely by Bluetooth audio, you press a key and then hear the sound a half second later. And that’s not ideal. Normally this isn’t a problem because most of the time, you’re consuming A/V content not in realtime, but on a timeline that is kept in sync by your Mac and its operating system.

What I didn’t anticipate is something called “ground loop” interference. This manifests as a loud, low-pitched humming or buzzing noise playing through your speakers. This can happen when the components of your audio systems are connected to different power sources and/or at different voltages. There may be other causes, such as running an audio cable next to a power line, but that’s not a concern here.

In my case, my AppRadio is powered directly by a 12V circuit because it’s essentially a car radio. But my iMac is powered by a 120V wall outlet, fed from my ProMariner inverter. And apparently, the iMac’s headphone jack is not properly isolated or shielded. I know this because I can plug my new cable into the headphone jack of my TV or iPhone and the sound is crystal clear.


So next I tried a little gadget branded by Sabrent. It’s a USB Audio Adapter that plugs into your iMac and then you plug a 3.5mm headphone cable into the gadget. The assumption is that surely the iMac can produce digital audio that bypasses its own ground circuitry.

Same problem. Nothing but loud humming/buzzing noise. Apparently the iMac’s USB bus is still plagued by this design defect, and somehow that signal makes its way into any external analog jack no matter how far downstream it is. So next I tried isolating the problem with my favorite ThinkGeek external USB hub:

Same problem. I could try using a self-powered USB hub, but I’d still have to plug that into my 120V power so I don’t think it’s worth buying one.I eventually discovered this little device. It’s an inline Ground Loop Noise Isolator. I get it on Tuesday and can test things again then. My concern is that it’s basically a filter. So the question is, what other frequencies will it step on?

Let it Rain Music

Today I installed a simple bypass wiring harness on my Pioneer AppRadio 4. That allows it to have full A/V functionality without being connected to the parking brake, which isn’t a safety concern for me since I’m almost always docked on the RETROpad. The bypass also allowed me to finally update AppRadio’s firmware.

This CarPlay-enabled receiver puts out 50 watts to each of four speakers, so the sound is rich and full. I’ve had good audio out from my TV from day one, just by using an RCA-to-3.5mm audio cable to the receiver. But now that I have a music keyboard, it’s important to run audio from my iMac to the receiver as well.

The receiver sports a variety of inputs, including HDMI plus analog A/V over both RCA and phono plugs. What it lacks, sadly, is a digital audio IN. My TV doesn’t have an HDMI OUT but it does have a digital audio OUT (using a fiberoptic TOSLINK cable), so that would be ideal. That way the AppRadio could process Dolby surround sound. But no, it looks like I’m stuck on analog unless I find an HDMI switch box that takes TOSLINK plus other sources.

So my plan is to run another long (20-foot?) 3.5mm audio cable from my iMac to all the way around the galley and up to the receiver. Then it can connect to the audio (red/white) RCA inputs and the AppRadio should just ignore the video (yellow) jack.

By the way, Bluetooth sounds great for Logic Pro, GarageBand, Final Cut Pro or iMovie audio output. But the inherent latency rules it out for realtime keyboard use. It’s no good to press a key and then hear the sound half a second later. Live audio needs to be transmitted by cable so all those electrons get to the speakers in time.

What also sounds good in the RETROvan is a torrential rainstorm, like the one we’re having right now. Mazy is curled up in the passenger chair on her blanket, just above the fireplace. Happy as a clam to be with me after a rough night last night. Her kidneys and digestive tract are failing. No more leftover cereal milk for her…

RETROvan Credits

As 2017 and Phases 1 & 2 of the RETROvan project draw to a close, it’s time to thank everyone who helped directly or indirectly for over 400 parts and other line items. Here’s an alphabetical list of the sources and sorcerers involved:

If I forgot anyone, I’ll add you later with my apologies.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Day After Christmas Eve

We celebrated Trump’s imaginary War on Christmas with our dear friends and neighbors.

Bob is an accomplished Jazz Photographer and a former Professor of Filmmaking. Diane is a Public Relations professional and Editor. Together they built a craftsman-style writing studio behind their house, which served as an inspiration for the RETROvan.

Here we are, Olivia and me, after discussing an interesting media project. More on that later. Meanwhile, all four RETROpods filled the air with holiday cheer.


This is a cute little retro camper sent to us by Robbie & Beni. Bob & Diane also gave us a cute little retro caravan ornament, customized with a RETROvan license plate on the back.

We had strung up some LED lights on both top shelves. The reflections remind us of the Northern Lights. We would like to see that for real someday…

Happy Winter Solstice!

Thursday was the Winter Solstice—the shortest day of the year in the worst year in American history. I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. Well, not officially. We’ll still say “Merry Christmas” and all that because we try to be nice people. And because Mazy still believes in Santa Claws.

In the morning after Crunch Berries and coffee, Steven helped me install the rear RETROpod speakers. They look and sound great!

This was no easy task, in part because the rear shelves and ceiling panel T7 had to be removed. And then one of the mounting bracket’s threads were malformed. So we had to do what Engineers do: Improvise.

We also had to move my mounting holes in four inches because I failed to allow space for the shelves. But no worries, I’ll dress them up later. Then I introduced Steven to the joys of low-voltage wiring.

The kids spent the rest of the day playing with new toys. With Steven on his new mini keyboard, the All-Shannon Girls Choir on vocals, and Collectible Batman conducting with his Batarang.

After some HoneyBaked Ham, punkin’ pie and whipped cream, Mazy got drunk on egg nog and stumbled to bed with visions of defenseless baby mice dancing in her head. The holidays can be so exhausting…

Thoughts & Prayers

We’ve really been enjoying the RETROvan lately, especially with the new oil-filled space heater keeping things at a cozy 69°.

Olivia found a cool mini retro Christmas tree and Mazy loves the rubber floors. I’ve been working in Xcode on my 5K iMac, updating some of my smaller apps in the App Store. I even rewrote one older Objective-C app in Swift. I’m ramping up to take a new gig somewhere in early 2018, all part of the plan.

Shows flashes of brilliance. Works well with others.

Today, the 501 Amtrak Cascades derailed near DuPont, Washington killing at least three people and wounding up to a hundred. Tomorrow, Steven and Shannon were booked on the same train from Seattle to Portland.

Let that sink in, parents…

I-5 southbound will be closed up to 48 hours while WSDOT deals with the carnage and the NTSB conducts its investigation. So we got refunds and booked the kids on flights instead. Anxious to see them tomorrow and spend some quality time over the Winter Solstice.

This was the 501’s inaugural run and the route was new. The tracks, however, were built for freight and military trains. Not passenger trains. Amtrak calls that a high-speed train, which is ridiculous if you’ve ever ridden an actual bullet train. The 501 has a top speed of 79 MPH — on a straightaway. But for some reason, it tried to take a 30 MPH curve at 78 MPH, over a freeway overpass. The criminal negligence in that scenario is off the charts and I’m sure the victims’ families will show no mercy to Amtrak.

Some would be spouting “thoughts & prayers” at such a tragedy. Others know those are empty platitudes. Thoughts and prayers don’t keep trains on tracks, folks. That is a job for physics, engineers and lawyers.

Safe travels, everyone.

RETROpods Away!

Today I got busy and fabricated my other three RETROpods.

These are custom aluminum and acrylic speaker enclosures that resemble torpedoes.

The “bullet” style speaker cans are sold for wakeboard towers on ski boats. They’re made for 6-inch speakers but my Sony Marine 2-Way speakers didn’t fit the hole pattern. So I had to get four red adapter rings cut at TAP Plastics in Tigard months ago. Above, you can see I placed a can in a mixing bowl for stability while I worked on it.

The process goes like this: I align a red ring on the can’s lip and tape it in place with Frog Tape. Using a safety pin, I reach inside, find the four screw holes I want and then scratch their location on the ring from the bottom up. Then I drill out those holes and countersink them to keep the screw heads flat.

Next I align a speaker on the ring and make sure the Sony logo faces the right way. Then I mark the mounting holes simply by spinning a screw hard enough to scratch the plastic.

Now I can drill out the mounting holes. Note how they’re offset by 45° from the first set of holes. The plastic ring is has a 1-inch lip, compared to the can’s original 3/4-inch lip. This gives the speaker enough lip to mount on. And it will also look better, using the RETROvan’s color scheme of red, white and black.

Next I made an 18-inch section of 16 AWG marine-grade wire with heat-shrink spade connectors. I threaded the cable through the center hole and then screwed the heavy aluminum mounting bracket in place from the inside of the can.

And lastly, I screwed the speaker in place with the four screws it came with. I used a power drill only long enough to tap my new holes and make sure they were coerced back into alignment where necessary. The rest was hand-tightened so as not to stress any plastic.

And here’s the result. After snapping the screw covers into place, this RETROpad is ready to hang in one of the back corners using two bolts coming down through aft ceiling panel T7. I’ll wait to do that until Steven gets here next week, since that’s a two-man job.

Warming the Nest

George Morlan Plumbing in Tigard came through today. I took my water tank in and showed them what I needed. It took some digging but Tim found the exact three fittings I needed. They were the last ones in stock and the total came to a whopping $4.68. The parts include two barbed elbows and one plug. I drilled a small hole in the plug to form a vent. That vent will keep the water tank at an equalized pressure when filling or draining.

I returned my disappointing First Alert CO and Smoke Detector to Amazon because of its cheap build quality. I also returned a slew of unused parts to Home Depot and I got enough store credit to buy this for $119:

This second-generation Nest Protect device not only looks better, it will send alerts to my iPhone even if I’m not in the RETROvan. It monitors for smoke and carbon monoxide solely on ten-year batteries, and it’s easy enough on my eyes to even mount over the dinette table and berth. We feel safer already.

It’s been in the 30s at night lately and my cool little space heater is struggling to keep up. So I found this cheap ($60) oil-filled unit made by NewAir. It only consumes 400W and it too has a built-in thermostat. So that should be efficient enough to get the RETROvan through some cold winter nights. It’s just the right size to place under the table near the back doors, keeping our feet (and Mazy’s paws) warm. Plus it looks pretty retro.