Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Nervous System

No, I'm not referring to the economy.  Although my nerves are a bit frayed, as of late.  I probably wouldn't have pulled the trigger on my new portable home construction if things in my life were what they were a few years back.  Yet, I will say that I am experiencing a great level of excitement in attaining the goal I've laid out before me.  Indeed, without a big project to jump into, my brain shuts down.  I thrive on challenge and the sense of accomplishment.

Electricity, the nervous system of our homes, is something we do take for granted, don't we?  Without it, where would we be?  What if we did light fires to keep us warm and to cook our meals?  One thing's for sure.  We would be doubled over with coughing fits due to the hazy soot in the air that would certainly block the wonderful view I have of the snow capped peaks near my home.

I actually thought about using an alcohol burning stove in my van, along with oil lamps for lighting.  The heat would have killed me if the carbon monoxide poisoning didn't, and both of those sources of energy are hardly sustainable or cheap.

Which brings me to the matter at hand -- sustainable energy.  My source for power will be the sun.  I've done ample reading on the 12 volt system and believe me, there are still plenty of questions I'll have for the phone sales attendant while I place my solar panel and battery order.

I've learned that 6 volt batteries in series are better than one 12 battery alone.  I've learned that a battery should never be depleated by more than 25% of its total capacity if it's to be charged quickly back to full.  I've learned that a 200 watt solar system will replace 70amps of my daily electrical usage over the course of 5 to 6 hours of quality sunlight exposure.

Taking advantage of the ability of my van's engine to supply supplemental charging power for the batteries, should the sun stay barricaded behind a cloudy sky, I will need an alternator that can put out roughtly 120amps.

Wire gauge is everything, if it's going to carry the electrons to my appliances and lights in an efficient manner.  Did you know that you can get an LED light fixture that uses 1 single watt of electricity?

An average house is wired for the potential of 200 amps of power, and my battery bank will have 220 amp-hours of storage.  But, at 12volts, that's not very much, because Volts x Amps = Watts.  Fascinating stuff.

Today I spent several hours figuring out my schematic for all of my electrical needs.  I'll want to be able to access 12 volt outlets (automotive cigarette lighters) at the kitchen counter, at my kitchen table, in the bathroom, and by the bed.  I'll want to have access to a regular household 120volt outlet at those locations as well, but only on the rare occasion when I will need the inverter flipped on.  It's more efficient to go with 12 volt appliances as much as possible including shavers, hair blowers, blenders, etc. 

I'll want to have access to a USB port at the kitchen table, so I can plug my lap top into the wall.  I'll have to link it at the other end, in my utility closet, where the printer and scanner will be (yes, wired into the wall ).  There will also have to be a 120volt household outlet in the closet for the printer to get its power.  Reading lights over the bed and some cool directional spots over the dinette will ad some mood, and my stereo will ad ambience with the help of the ipod that will slide easily into its wall mount nearby.  Whew!  So much to consider.  It's really like building a house. 

But, if I'm going to consider it at all, not to mention devoting the amount of time I have thus far, then why skimp?  As I've said, research is free, and planning saves time. 

Time is money, and I don't want to waste either.           

Friday, February 19, 2010

Artful Home

I have found that the single greatest challenge in this whole endeavor has been  the notion of interior design.  Sure, I could just build a workbench along one side of the van, stack up my stove and my fridge, put some legs under an army cot and bungee a portable radio to the wall, loose and lopsided.  And, I would be proud of that if I were twelve years old.  But, I'm not.  This will be my home.

I appreciate quality interior design.  I don't believe you have to live in Beverly Hills, The Hamptons or Pacific Heights to create a beautiful space.  A garden can grow anywhere, a can of paint costs about twenty bucks, and the internet is free.  Inspiration is everywhere.

That being said, I still stay up at night wondering just what in the hell I'm going to make.  I know what I want to feel when I open that door to my van and step inside.  And,  I know what kind of lifestyle I want lead with the help of my van.  I know what kind of impression I want to make on those whom I choose to associate with.

I began scouring newsstands, bookstores, websites and catalogues for imagery that turns me on.  I am an info junkie.  The best thing about the design stage of the process is that it's FREE!  And, here are the pictures that I flip through on a daily basis, studying and analyzing.  I break them apart and reassemble them in my mind as some sort of Frankenstein's monster, only one that won't be ugly to look at.  A friend sent me a link to this truck.  I about flipped my lid.  But of course, it's too big.

   But, look at the interior! 

Another friend forwarded a link to this vehicle.  Now you're talkin'.  I love the feel.  It's all about art and creativity.  But, it's a little too rustic in feel, and doesn't quite jibe with my vibe, if you know what I mean. 

RV interiors as designed by manufacturers are generally uninventive.  I'm not sure if it's just because of the kind of individual that's most likely to purchase an RV or just that the designers are lazy or just not creative.  I can't place my finger on it.  But, when I browsed the selection of rigs at my nearest dealership, I just wasn't impressed.  I didn't find the interior energy to be inviting and the flow within is generally horrible.  These, by the way, were being offered for well over $100,000. 

I figured that since my home won't have any windows to suggest anything going on inside other than equipment storage, then perhaps boat design would serve more as an inspiration.  Ah ha!  I stumbled onto something really cool.  There's definitely more romance in sailing.  When did you ever hear anyone react poorly to someone who said, "Oh yeah, I live at the marina," versus "Oh yeah, I live in that truck parked at the corner of Hill and 3rd."  I think the crowd that gravitates to the sailing lifestyle must have something else going on in their hearts, because boat interior design is super cool and very aesthetic.  


So, I found my vibe.                                                        

It's a little bit mission style, a little bit modern, warm and inviting.  I think it's me.  And, lighting is everything.  It's a small space, so I'm toying with LED's due to conservation of battery usage and heat.    Here's a wall sconce idea that I think will look super cool above the dinette, both as a light source and as a place to display my photographs of the places I visit.  I could change out the transparancy at my whim.  Pretty neat, huh? 

Art needs to be function in an environment with no room for waste.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mom Necessity!

Indeed, without her, where would we be? I'm pleased to announce that I've cracked the code for the perfect river rock shower pan composite, "moho" style. And, it's easy-peazy!

I'll admit that I avoid Home Depot personnel like the plague. First of all, I really do enjoy traversing the aisles while searching for what I need, because I usually stumble upon an amazing treasure that I can use for some sort of project in the future.  But when it comes to the people who work there, it seems as though every time they volunteer to help, I pose a question they can't answer.  I'm always trying to find a way to use a product in an application it's not marketed for, so one step forward essentially sets me two steps back.  I don't try to be a pain in the ass.  It just happens that way.  However, this time I gave in to an aggressively helpful fellow in the roofing department. I tried to fend him off, but he displayed an impressive persistance in trying to figure out what I was trying to achieve. 

Understand that I don't necessarily blame the employees of Home Depot for their lack of knowledge.  There must be ten thousand items stacked upon those towering shelves in aisle after aisle of merchandise.  And, I know that it would be next to impossible to educate a staff of that size on everything Home Depot carries.   I can't deny that he did seem genuinely engrossed in my notion of creating a river rock shower pan in a camper -- I swear, I get the craziest looks from people.  But, he was right on the money!

So...I took Henry 204 Plastic Roof Cement and slathered it over my test plastic like frosting on a cake.  The stuff is very easy to work with, smells like tar and takes about 4 days to dry -- FYI.  Next, I poured the smooth and small river rocks evenly over the thick layer of  cement and pressed them flat with a board.  This made a very nice even surface, with no jagged edges jutting out. 

Once the whole layer of rock set firmly, I mixed and drizzled the Glaze Coat broadly over the surface.  I then smoothed out the resin with a nylon brush, evenly covering all of the rocks. 

What you can't see, unfortunately from the pictures, is that the layer of rocks are completely embedded in a thin layer of rock hard resin.  The stones stick up and have relief, but due to their rounded edges and a nice even packing with the flat board, they can easily be walked upon.

This, of course, is simply the top layer of the shower pan.  Beneath all of that will be the wood base, the pvc shower liner and graded layers of vinyl sheeting that are normally used for the shower wall liner.  I'll be building all of that after I acquire my vehicle.        

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Shower Floor

Believe it or not, the shower pan dilemma has been holding my brain captive, as of late. At dinner, my girlfriend would be talking about her day at work, while I'm gazing right through her, wondering how in the heck I'm going to make a shower pan fit within the dimensions I need for my layout. I know. I'm an obsessive super freak, and she'll be the first to tell you.

The standard resin pans are around $250 dollars and don't come in the shape I need. And, besides, they're white and boring. I need something that speaks to the theme of my build -- river rock!

I bolted to Home Depot and gathered up the necessary supplies for a test of my crazy idea. Basically, the concept is to build layers of plastic upon one another, in order to create the relief necessary for water to flow toward the drain. I would then slather Henry's 900 Roofing Adhesive over the entire surface and press small pebbles into the soft compound. When dry, the adhesive forms a solid layer of rubber.

After the compound dried, I knew I would need something to seal the rock. I found another cool product at Home Depot -- Glaze Coat. You mix equal parts resin and hardener and pour over virtually any porous surface. Low and behold, the Glaze Coat created a hard clear plastic surface over the rocks that I could actually stand on.

The only problem is that the rock I chose was a bit too jagged and a single layer just didn't cut it. I would need so much resin to even it out, that a pool would actually have to encase the rock. And then I'd just be looking at a plastic floor with rocks embedded in it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I guess, but not really what I'm going for. Really, I just need to build up the layers of pebbles so that a board can press them completely flat. Essentially the top layer locks into the bottom layer, thereby forming a perfectly flat surface.

I decided that further testing was necessary. So, currently, I'm waiting for my new product, Henry's 209, to dry. It's a black sealant, rather than gray, which I think looks pretty cool around the stones. The three types of stones I'm trying are small pond rocks, micro rocks, and polished white rocks. I found them at a masonry supply store.

As soon as the black compound dries to a hard shell, I'll brush a layer of the Glaze Coat over the stones. Once the whole thing is dry, I'll determine how solid the new test results are.

At that point, I will make an informed decision about my shower floor.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


So, I've taken the first step. I went out and slapped down plastic to make my first purchase. I guess it's really on, now. After about six months of research, I've decided to start assembling the various parts and pieces necessary for my build, in advance of the vehicle's arrival. That way I can roll up to the garage with my newly purchased van and "hit it hard" rather than having to go out and gather up stuff while my empty home sits idle in the driveway -- not a very productive order of things.

My first step is the plumbing test. I've learned my lesson with plumbing for my home, and if memory serves me right, I know that I'll want to make sure the plumbing works all the way through before sealing up the wall of a new construction project.

I had a few burning questions that were in dire need of answering, the first being, "Is it possible to use bathroom hardware, commonly found at a home improvement store, for an RV?" After searching the net for bathroom and kitchen fixtures, I began to grasp the dismal selection of interesting options offered by retailers of RV accessories. Basically, the stuff is just plain junky and ugly looking. The decor variety is virtually at zero, and the options for a variety of features stand exactly at zero.

I knew that there must be more in store and I couldn't see why a Moen fixture wouldn't work with a 1/2" plumbing system in an RV the same way it works in a building. So, here's the fixture I purchased. It's a Moen single handle 3 port valve for use in a "shower only" bathroom system.

Of course, once I got everything tightened up and found the proper way to prevent plastic tubing from spewing water in every direction from every junction, my Moen brass valve stopped the flow of water beautifully. A word of advice: Buy the connectors used for "PEX" tubing. Snapping the system together requires no tools or teflon tape. If Fisher-Price made "My First Plumbing System" for toddlers, this would be it.

Next in line was the question of heating the water. Upon looking at the standard issue two-handled RV faucet, I surmised that this common style of valve is actually inefficient for a system that has a limited water supply. It occurred to me that one would have to fiddle with both handles to properly adjust the temperature while sending a huge amount of precious water swiftly down the drain. And, my tank will probably hold no more than 50 gallons. At 2.8 gallons of pumping volume, my water capacity won't last for very long if I wish to shower on a daily basis in my portable home. I figured that with a single-handled valve, I could easily remember the setting for a comfortable hot and cold water mixture.

My choice for water heaters was made after researching a few of the outdoor camping showers offered on line. The Eccotemp on-demand camping shower looked small and simple to use, so I went for it. The packaging says "for outdoor use only" yet, I've never met a water heater anywhere that was designed for indoor use. Obviously, proper mounting in a dedicated compartment and adequate ventilation is in order, something I've already designed into my van layout. I hooked the heater to a propane tank and the water line "in" and "out" spigots, and turned it on. It operates on -- get this -- two "D" batteries. Can you imagine that? Talk about low energy use.

Of course, I'll have to transfer the on/off switch to a better location inside the cabin, but aside from that hurdle, the system worked beyond expectations. Upon turning on the faucet handle, the pressure switch from the pump activates, sending water through the heater. The heater's pressure switch activates the burner, thereby sending instantly (and I mean instantly) heated water right to the faucet. I even added a realistic length of hose I think will be necessary for carrying hot water from the heater's location to the shower faucet.

A Pleasant Surprise

The shower hose handset has an on/off switch. With the hot water mixture set to my liking down at the valve handle, I can use the hose handset as the on/off control for the water supply. I inadvertantly designed a shower system with an automatic thermostat control separate from the volume control -- a feature commonly found only in expensive showers in high-end homes. This is something I've never seen offered in an RV and I really can't understand why. I now won't have to fiddle hurriedly with two handles while trying to set my temperature controls in an effort to save water!