Category Archives: RETROvan

Electric Jellyfish

Yesterday I wired up the forward bank of lights on the same circuit, but on its own dimmer switch.

They look like a pod of electric jellyfish. Our mail carrier stopped by and said, “Wow, it looks like some kind of party bus.” I told her, “Well yeah, you know, it’s always happy hour somewhere!”

I also got word that my cabinets will be finished today, but they need to sit in the shop a while in order to “off-gas.” So I’ll pick them up from Sundeleaf Painting on Monday. Eric promises to send photos.

Today I plan to remove the rest of the ceiling panels and work on the wiring near the helm, and maybe test-fit some insulation. I’ll need to remove the motorized TV mount too, then figure out where all the wall mounted accessories will go. That includes the light switch, the Rover solar charger/controller, the TV jack, the power strip, the Apple TV and the Apple Airport Extreme.

To make this safe and tidy, I ordered a couple of cable pass-throughs for panel P1. This one will go right below the Rover to channel its red and black solar and battery cables, which are 8 AWG (thick).

And this is a black 12-inch grommet made for a mail slot. That will go in the lower section of panel P1 to feed about a dozen cables between the wall cavity and the helm. The helm might get one of these as well. Right now I’m using about ten 3/4″ holes drilled through the plastic, which are hidden from view.

Yesterday it rained pretty hard and I notice the ceiling was wet. This may explain the RETROvan’s insidious “leaks.” But it looks like it’s just condensation, collecting on the roof and finding a place to drip, thereby impersonating a leak. This makes sense when the relative humidity tops 80% or 90%. It turns out this is a common problem with RVs here in the Pacific Northwest.

After some research, I’m going to try running my PuraFlame LED space heater 24/7 on low heat to dry out the air. Just enough to keep the interior above the dew point. That may do the trick. We’ll have more thunderstorms today, so I’ll keep an eye on it.

I also ordered a $35 dehumidifier, made by Ivation. I don’t have high expectations for this but it’s stylish and small. If it works, I’ll drill a hole and fit a drainage tube to its collection tray so I don’t have to empty it every two days. That way it can run 24/7 and drip below the  RETROvan.

Once I’m sure the roof is leak-free, I can start buttoning up the insulation, lighting and ceiling panels.

Let there be light!

Today I hit the Home Depot again and picked up a solid 3/4″ drill bit to help with conduit holes. It made quick work of the aluminum ribs versus the hole saw I was using, but it had a tendency to get stuck. So it winds up taking just as much time in the end.More importantly, I finally pulled the trigger on insulation. I brought home three 4’x8′ sheets of R-MAX in the 2″ thickness and three sheets of the 1″ thickness. They had to hang out the back of my SUV up 99 West from Sherwood.

Since my ceiling and wall cavities are all 3″ deep, these thicknesses give me the option of Velcro’ing a thick layer to the top of each roof cavity, and a thinner layer below. I’ll custom cut each layer to dodge obstructions like vents and cables.

This insulation is a special type of dense foam (not styrofoam) and it has a layer of aluminum on both sides to form a heat shield. (Remember how hot the aluminum roof gets in the summer sun?) The 2″ thickness yields an R-value of 13.1, and the 1″ yields 3.85. So that’s a combined R-value of almost 17. For comparison sake, typical fiberglass home insulation is R-15.

Next, I ran the first of two dedicated 12V circuits for lights. Here’s how complex the dimmer switch wiring is. The red wire that’s twisted like a pretzel is an inline fuse holder. The little black box holds a 10-amp fuse in this case, on the positive side between the DC panel and the dimmer switch. This protects the switch’s electronics from any surge that escapes’s the panel’s 15-amp breaker (which will serve two banks). All the black ground wires connect as a Y, running back to the DC panel’s negative bus. I realized I had not yet added a DC ground wire from the DC panel to the RETROvan’s steel frame (because it’s considered optional), so I added that too as an additional safety precaution.

Once I got everything connected, I threw the circuit breaker labeled “LIGHTS” and… nothing! Just like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation.

So I wasted three hours trying to figure out what happened. There are numerous fail points. It could be that I mixed up some wire colors. I could have misinterpreted three sets of unrelated instructions. Any one of my crimps could be bad. Any one of the components could be bad. The DC panel itself could be bad. Maybe the circuit breaker failed. Or maybe I had mis-designed the whole bus bar scheme.

But it turns out the only defective component was my Craftsman multimeter, which I was counting on to help diagnose the failure. It had died, and when I opened the battery compartment the 9V battery connection was corroded and had a broken wire.

So like in software debugging, I started using brute force to isolate the bug. I swapped out the cable with a new one. I made a little jumper to bypass the fuse holder. I removed the switch from the circuit. Nothing worked. I finally decided to plug one of the LED lights directly into my test cable, but I accidentally did it backwards. And it lit up! What the hell?

It turns out these particular LED lights are stupidly wired for use in a house (even though no one uses 12V lights in a house), so the wire colors were black for load and white for neutral — not white for positive and black for ground. All I had to do was unplug each light and switch the wires.

And WA-LA! There was light, and it was good. The dimmer works brilliantly too. These LEDs are a warm white light, so not too harsh over the bed.

My DC load through the panel has been pretty light until today — just 0.5 amps. So now with six lights turned on high, the draw is about 3.5 amps. Once the forward bank of six lights goes in, that draw should jump to about 6.5 amps. I’ll also be moving the two ventilation fans onto one of these circuits, so that needle will be good for monitoring the overall DC loads. Right now those vents are direct-connected to the Rover solar charger/controller, which isn’t ideal. The wiring inside the helm is getting busier, so I’ll probably have to add a few bus bars in there for all the DC circuits. Either that or test how they handle being branched outside the helm.

But yeah, it was a good day. I even had a stare-down with the doe who has been raiding our garden.

Concrete 101

Today’s the day the RETROpad finally gets its pad. And not a day too soon, with a rainy forecast ahead.

Gary arrived early to set small plastic pylons under the rebar, to keep it elevated. We had measured the RETROvan’s wheels and concentrated the rebar under those stress points, where the concrete will support up to 2,500 pounds per square foot.

The Oregon On-Site Concrete truck arrived at 12:45 and Mike was happy to help again with the project. He explained that all the mixing happens just as the materials enter the chute. Apparently the days of the spinning cement mixer trucks are numbered. Modern trucks are really just storage compartments. Our mix even included hot water, since it was barely 60° when we started.

Gary started from the back using a wheelbarrow, since the truck is wider than the gate. From there it’s a race against time, especially for a one-man band like the Jackson 1.

The first pass at leveling is done with a 2×4. We had snapped blue chalk lines along the inside of the curbs as a guide for the drainage grades. We wound up using 3-3/4 cubic yards of cement mix, at a cost of just over $500. But the 9×30 foot slab is four to five inches thick.

The next step involves working the mix with a long-handled smoothing tool made of magnesium, called a bull float. This coerces the “fat” to the top and helps the gravel aggregate settle in.

It takes hours of edging, troweling and brushing to complete the finish. Stress cuts are pressed in using a special tool held against a straight board. These lines give the concrete a chance to crack cleanly if it should ever settle.

Oh no — someone’s damn horse ruined everything!

The RETROpad will be usable in six or seven days, once it turns white. Gary says the coming rain is a good thing, because that will make the concrete cure slower and become that much harder.

Hop on the bus, Gus

Today I removed some ceiling panels and wired up the bus bar for the aft lighting bank.

You may remember that the original ceiling was just one or two long sheets of aluminum. But my modular ceiling panel idea is paying off. After Olivia and my Dad helped dry-fit them all into position last month, it was just a matter of “strategic detachment.” A few new temporary screw holes were necessary to make this a one-man job, but those holes will be hidden and they’ll come in handy for maintenance access later.

Here’s the aft bus bar with the red and black covers removed. Load (red) on top and ground (black) on the bottom. Note that DC circuits in vehicles commonly use red and yellow, but the colors ultimately don’t matter as long as you’re consistent. The cable from the switch will connect to the larger posts on the left end of the bar with 12-gauge cable.

The hardest part was drilling four new 3/4″ holes in the ceiling ribs and getting the rubber grommets in place. But connecting my pre-terminated wires was super easy.

Another challenge was how to combine two wires into one. These dimmer switches only have one ground wire, and the instructions say to connect a ground to the “other side of the light” — as if you’re only wiring one light. So I came up with a cool solution. I found that a female connector can be spread open slightly to allow two male spade connectors to penetrate at the same time for a nice tight fit. 🙂

This wiring task leads me to believe that I need to adhere 2-inch rigid foam insulation to the top of the cavity, and leave a 1-inch gap below that for wiring. Fiberglass batting would certainly be more flexible, but I hate handling that stuff and it just gets filthy over time.

Here’s one of the cables dropped down through panel T6, ready to plug a light into. You can see a connected one on the other side of the vent. I’m planning to test this circuit soonly.


Tonight I finished prepping cables for all the light circuits and branch circuits. I used Ancor Marine Grade 16 AWG duplex wire (red & black), which is a bit overkill but it will minimize voltage loss. I measured each circuit and rounded up to the next whole foot. There are a total of twelve LED lights in two banks of six. Each bank gets a dimmer switch. Each switch feeds into a six-way bus bar. And from the bus bar, each light gets a dedicated 12-volt circuit.

This is called parallel wiring. If they were daisy-chained in series, then each light would only get a fraction of the voltage it needs. I’ve read some bad reviews about these lights, but it’s because they weren’t wired correctly. And it doesn’t help that the instructions say to wire them in series — which is easier but wrong!

These cables, lights and switches are terminated with spade connectors, and this is what takes a lot of time. The male side (the spade) plugs into the female side (the slot), and this makes it possible to unplug parts of the system when maintaining the roof panels or adding new features to the cavities.

The Wirefy terminators I’m using come in various sizes and shapes, and of course I keep running out of the ones I need. For some reason it’s cheaper to buy an inefficient assortment than it is to order just the ones I need. And I just had to order my fourth set.

The termination process goes something like this:

  1. Measure each cable from its spool, along a yardstick and cut it to length with heavy wire cutters.
  2. Remove the vinyl sheathing from each end. This is something I had to learn and perfect. Basically I use a utility knife to score the sheathing all around, without hitting the insulated conductors inside. Then I use the blade to split the sheathing down the middle, toward the end. This makes a “tee” in the vinyl. And then it’s easy to peel the sheathing off the wires. Any other method will take much longer.
  3. Strip each conductor to the proper length — with the proper tool. Mine is a Klein Tools Katapult, and it wasn’t cheap. For my terminators, that length is about 3/16″. Then make sure all the strands are together. If not, give them a gentle twist.
  4. Place the terminator into the color-coded crimper divot. Not just any crimper, but a good one! Mine is made by Ancor, and again, it’s worth every penny. It has red, blue and yellow divots to help you pick the right size crimp. The color should match the color of the terminator’s vinyl jacket. Then gently ratchet the crimper down so it holds the empty terminator like a medical clamp. Make sure it doesn’t deform the collar yet, or you’ll ruin it.
  5. Carefully insert the bare copper into the terminator and visually inspect it. Most of the time it’ll twist right in, but sometimes you have to fiddle with it. Be patient, and gentle.
  6. While making sure nothing slips, squeeze the hell out of the crimper handles. I can’t seem to do this without clenching my teeth too. My jaw muscles must be wired to my Kung Fu Grip muscles.
  7. The crimper ratchet is designed to release once you’ve exerted the proper pressure, at which point the jaws will release the terminator.
  8. Now inspect the terminator with a gentle tug. You don’t want to pull the copper out of the collar, you only want to confirm that it doesn’t slip.
  9. Repeat for the other conductor (or two more if you’re using triplex cable).
  10. And finally, break out your heat gun and carefully melt each terminator’s vinyl jacket so that you can’t see any air bubbles.  You’ll have to watch closely and roll the cable between your fingers to apply even heat. This step serves two purposes: The inside of the vinyl jacket acts like an adhesive, which keeps everything stuck together. Enough, in fact, to compensate for a marginal crimp. And of course it also adds some protection against moisture, considering how you’ve removed the cable’s sheathing to make this termination possible.

Action! Take 2

Yesterday I went to move the RETROvan, put it in gear and it wouldn’t budge. I thought maybe when Brett had done the transmission work in July he forgot to reconnect the gear shift linkage or something. So I texted him and was lucky he was nearby. He checked it out and determined it was simply low on transmission fluid. He didn’t charge me for the diagnosis because I think he enjoyed checking out the project.

I had no idea how a Fluid Coupling works. Apparently there’s a turbine on the engine side and a turbine on the transmission side. There is a chamber between them that is supposed to be full of transmission fluid. When there is, the engine turbine spins the fluid and the fluid spins the transmission turbine. But when there’s no fluid, there’s no hydraulic contact between the two, hence no movement.

Two quarts of Type F automatic transmission fluid from NAPA Auto Parts did the trick. So now I know the capacity is at least four quarts, maybe five. Teach a man to fish…

I turned the RETROvan around in the driveway so the driver’s side faces the sun, and then started applying my other clapboard branding decals. Here’s some more detail on how that works:

I first measured the corners from the passenger side and made matching reference marks. Then taped the eight-foot piece of aluminum angle in place and traced a line with grease pencil. Next I removed the straightedge and carefully applied the panels. I bit the bullet and wrapped the vinyl around the gas cap area, and it worked out great.

This piece of aluminum made me think that if I ever need to replace the vinyl, I’ll mount top and bottom aluminum rails and fill them with painted wooden segments. That would make for an even more intriguing 3D clapboard.

Here I’m working around the rivets with a special plastic tool, which I call a “spooger” for no apparent reason. This leaves a carefully crafted “blister” which I then poked with a razor and hit with my Wagner heat gun and coerced into shape. The trapped air escapes through the poked hole, while the vinyl shrinks to fit and the hot adhesive does its job.

And here’s the result; a mirror-image. I’ll try to cut my fresh water inlet at the “hinge” position, similar to the shore power inlet on the opposite side.

A couple of neighbors walked by and said, “Looks great!” Made my day. My next step is to get my “” and QR code elements over to Signs Now, after which the branding will be done for marketing and tax deduction purposes.

The Bends

Today I took my eight aluminum corner panels over to Archers Precision in Tigard. They’re backed up, but Alex and Casey liked the project and agreed to do my 90° bends for $10 each. It’ll take up to a week but that’s fine with me.

I’ve been fighting a stomach bug this week but I’m hoping to get started on insulation and lighting soon.

More delays: Gary Jackson told me the RETROpad concrete pour won’t happen today after all. The company has two trucks and one driver “down.” So hopefully tomorrow. Which means maybe next week.

And now Sundeleaf Painting reports that they had an equipment malfunction in their shop. Their booth fan flew off and set off the fire suppression system. My project wasn’t damaged, but it is delayed a week.

But some good news: My retro table and countertop moulding arrived already at HomeMasters. So I’ll go pick it up shortly. Hopefully I can get the 12-foot tube in (or on) my car!

And lastly, I’m considering turning off comments on this WordPress site due to the constant deluge of spam comments. Sorry, folks.

Fenced In

Gary stopped by today to help install the fence panels on the RETROpad. So now we’re just waiting for the slab to be poured on Thursday.

The concrete trough under the fence line had set up enough to shim the panels on 2x4s and get them as plumb as possible.

The panels were much heavier than anticipated but we got ’em hung on six stainless steel hinges with 54 #12 2-1/2″ screws per panel. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere,” as Gary would say.

Here’s a closeup of the hardware and screw patterns. Some of the hinge screws had to go in at strategic angles to miss the 6″ TimberLok screws in the inner frame. The four post caps are LED solar lights.

From the outside it all looks pretty seamless and you can’t see any hardware. The gap at the bottom is between 1-1/2″ and 2″, which is pretty standard. The concrete makes it easy to sweep or blow debris out of the RETROpad and prevents animals from burrowing under the fence.

We even found a home for some cast iron stars Olivia and I collected near the Grand Canyon a few years ago. These will look better once the concrete cures and I hit them with a wire brush.


Yesterday, between rain showers, I applied my trademark branding to the starboard side. The clapboard geometry took a total of eight rolls of vinyl wrap, measuring 12″ wide by 60″ long. So each bar is eight feet long and one foot wide. Four rolls were matte white and four were matte black. The material came from at about $10 per roll.

I used a Fiskars self-healing cutting mat, so it was just a matter of lining the rolls up against the grid and cutting the 45° diagonals with an aluminum straight edge and a razor knife made specifically for vinyl wrap.After producing 45 parallelograms and triangles and weeding out some defaced pieces, the next step was to decide how to compose the whole element on the RETROvan. I opted to use the power inlet as the clapboard’s “hinge.” From there, I taped a 96″ piece of aluminum angle to the hull with Frog Tape and then taped a couple of scrap corner pieces to help visualize the fit. After a few adjustments, I scribed the two inner angles with a black china marker, which wipes off easily. Then I started applying each piece, starting from the hinge and working aft using a special felt-covered smoothing spatula to coerce the vinyl home.

This vinyl uses a low-tack adhesive for easy repositioning. That made it fairly easy to get things aligned properly, even a few times per piece.

The biggest challenge, of course, was navigating the seams and rivets. For that, I broke out the heat gun. A quick blast caused a soft bubble to form around each rivet. Then a little jab with the razor blade allowed the air to escape while I worked the spatula around each rivet head. You can see the result in the photo above. It looks like paint, even close up!

You may remember this branding from my custom headrest cushions.

I’ll do the port side when the weather clears this week. And then the final branding elements (“”) will go on, along with a QR code like this:

Rain Delay

Today is probably the last day of 80° weather, so I spent it building the two fence panels for the RETROpad. We decided to abandon the louvered design because of concerns about privacy, strength and bowing. So I made the panels just like the gate, and the whole thing will look seamless now. This meant cutting and sealing 48 more planks of western red cedar, and that took forever. We’ll even hang the panels with the same beefy hinges, but on both sides of each panel.

Gary made some final cuts on the ragged patio edge. We’ll set a concrete trough under the fence line tomorrow morning, and hope to dodge the rain. That will require sixteen more 60-pound bags of cement mix. The trough will prevent debris from building up. I can just blow or spray leaves and dirt under the fence this way. The final pour for the RV pad slab is now scheduled for next Thursday, due to rain. That pour will be done by truck and wheelbarrow.

Diamond Fence came yesterday to install the RETROpad’s gate and a short segment of fence between our arborvitaes. But the gate was mis-measured and didn’t fit, so now they have to order a new one. You would think a fence company’s #1 task is to get the measurements right before involving a welder. But no… There was a miscommunication on their end. Three week delay.

The gates will provide some privacy and security, and make the RETROvan more insurable. Did you know that most insurers won’t cover a restoration project or a “vintage” vehicle like this? They will only consider insuring a completed show vehicle that is kept locked up and only driven once in a blue moon — like to auto shows. So the RETROpad will provide safe harbor and private access. It will get the RETROvan farther away from the street and make it less of an attractive nuisance. From gawkers, that is.

By now you probably find my posts about the fence and gates pretty boring. But they are an important part of the RETROvan project because this work will allow the rig to become an integral part of our patio and home. We also have to get this work done while the weather’s good. So the RETROvan itself is taking a back seat, while the cabinets are in the shop. And I still have plenty of rainy-day tasks to perform inside the van, the garage or in the house through the end of the tax year. Yep, I said tax year. The RETROvan will enter service as a Schedule C, Section 179 tax deduction in 2017.

The paint shop is starting on my cabinets tomorrow, once the special undercoat primer they need arrives. So those should be able to go back into the RETROvan late next week and I can start the final assembly phase in October.

I’m trying to order a couple 12-foot pieces of retro extruded aluminum tee trim from Eagle Aluminum in Minnesota. This metal band will go around my dinette table and along the front of the galley countertop. The problem is shipping. Because it’s so long, it has to be carried by freight and that can cost up to $200. But I may have to splurge because I only want one seam in the trim. The table is 24×48″ with rounded corners, which is slightly less than 12′ total. Fortunately Gary at HomeMasters agreed to take freight delivery. Otherwise they would charge even more for a residential address.

The top of the dinette table will be laminated, remember. But this trim has to be tapped (literally, with a rubber hammer) into a 1/2″ slot cut in the table’s edge, with a special slot cutter used as a router bit. So I’ll order one of those tools from the same company.

Speaking of exorbitant shipping costs, the cool picnic table I ordered still hasn’t arrived. The company ( is trying to extort additional shipping costs because UPS and FedEx refused to pick it up. It’s already painted and ready to go, but now they want almost $300 for shipping. I think that a deal’s a deal by law, and they should honor the order as-is. If they refuse and cancel it, then I’ll probably build a traditional picnic table out of cedar and fir timber to match the fence.

I can’t wait to post photos of the final cedar fence on Saturday. It will be beautiful. 🙂