Monday, July 7, 2014

Changes and Improvements (I hope!)

With more early morning interruptions and not being able to get outside while it's still cool, I have been working on updating the floor plan for the trailer. I also installed that new floor plan on the download link that you can find on the other blog, which you can find HERE. Go about halfway down the page, and you will see the link in bold. It's in an OpenOffice spreadsheet file, using the drawing program, so it can be opened with Excel, also. I forgot to change the date on the file after today's updates, but I'll do that the next time.

Providing Fresh Water and Heat

Space is always a problem on small RV's, as well as weight. Originally, I had planned on using a Wave 3 catalytic heater mounted into the front of the kitchen cabinet, but have since abandoned that idea in favor of a portable heater.


An example of a Wave 3 mounted into a cabinet.
To use a Wave 3 right requires something larger than a one-pound bottle of propane. (A one-pound bottle only lasts about 5 hours, so in cold weather you would have to get up in the middle of the night and change it.) To solve that problem I was going to add two 20-pound bottles on the front hitch with an automatic changeover valve. The propane could also be used for the stove and for a water heater later on. But that adds a lot of extra weight on the tongue.

That's why we are now going to use a Mr. Heater Big Buddy propane-fired catalytic heater.



The Big Buddy heater has at least two advantages, the first being that it holds two bottles of propane, and therefore can run twice as long. The second advantage is that is has a built-in fan, which can run off D-cell batteries, or there is an optional AC adapter available if you have AC power or an inverter handy. There are other accessories, too, like a nice carrying case, a filter for the propane line and extension hoses, if you want to run it from a larger propane tank. All are available on Amazon.

One thing to note here, the very first thing to go on any gas appliance is always the thermocouple that keeps the pilot light going. We will order an extra thermocouple, also available on Amazon, just in case it ever quits. And of course, they always quit on a very cold day when you need the heater the most!


Since we plan to travel with the weather, there will probably be only very rare times that we will even need the heater, and even then, only to take the chill off in the mornings. If we have power available, we'll use the electric space heater. We won't be going through that many one-pound bottles to break the bank. And they are very easy to get, and easier to store. I'll sacrifice the cost against keeping the weight off the tongue and keeping the "stealth" looks of the trailer intact. Besides, that's just one less mounting bracket that I have to spend money on.

The old layout called for the fresh water storage to be behind the Wave 3 catalytic heater, with no way to get to it. It would either have to be refilled using the city water connection and back feed it into the tank, or I would have to add a fresh water gravity fill door on the outside. The latter option was OK, except I still wouldn't be able to see the tank to tell how full it was, except when the excess started gushing out of the vent pipe!

The more I thought about it, the less I liked that idea. I'm trying to stay away from any access doors on the outside of the trailer. I could add some sensors to the tank and run it to a monitor panel, but that also involves more work on something that should be simple. The more technology you add to something, the more chance of something going wrong and costing more money again!

Also, the more I thought about it, I realized we aren't going to be camping in cold weather at any time. We'll be in the Southwest for the winter, and if it gets chilly, it won't be for long. All we need is some auxiliary heat to take the chill off in the mornings and then we'll likely be out for the rest of the day. If we are at one of our resorts, we'll have an electric hookup anyway, and can use an electric heater instead of wasting our own propane. Another thing, is the expense. A Wave 3 heater is not cheap! I can buy two Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heaters for what one Wave 3 costs! The fact that the Wave 3 was to be mounted in the cabinet in front of the water tank was the final straw! Something had to give!

I started looking for portable water carriers, which is really what I wanted, and came across a great idea. I found an 8-gallon portable tank on wheels, with a pop-up handle, that will be ideal for our use, and they are relatively cheap (under $40). They're called a Reliance Hydroller.



By removing the Wave 3 heater completely, along with the drawer above it, and the cabinet piece below, and widening the opening slightly, the Reliance Hydroller will roll right into that opening (after the handle is lowered), and all I have to do is make a hole in the cap large enough to fit the pump hose through. The tank already has a separate vent cap.

Most RV water pumps use a diaphragm to pump water, rather than a centrifugal impeller. That's why they make the pulsing sound when running. By using this method they can run dry, and they are also self priming, so you don't have to get water into them first as with impeller pumps. All I need is a Polyvinyl hose to go from the pump into the water tank (the Hydroller), and the pump will suck the water out of the tank on its own. And since the pump is also a "demand" pump, it will shut off automatically when the faucet is closed. Although I wish the tank were a little larger, this will do the job very nicely.

You can also lay these tanks down. There is a spout built into the inside of the cap, so if you turn it over and put it back on upside down there is a handy spigot with a valve on it (like an ice tea jug). That can be very handy for gravity feeding water from a picnic table, or even from the side door step well of the van.

We had a 30-gallon fresh water tank on our truck camper, and even camping for several days at a time, we never used even a third of it! It was a waste to carry that much weight around! I'm sure that 8 gallons with a spare will do just fine for us.

We will likely buy a second tank to keep in the van, just as a spare. If we run out of water, we can switch them out easily. Also, since they are totally removable, we can wheel them outside anywhere there's potable water to fill them, without having to move the trailer.

The Gray Water Dilemma

After reading about the stipulations on one of the free places to stay (HarvestHosts.com) we found that one of the stipulations is that you have to have a "built-in" gray water tank. The places listed on their site typically don't have tent camping available, nor do they allow any gray water dumping, regardless of how "clean" and biodegradable it might be. I can't blame them. Even though it's only kitchen sink water, it can still stink! If they have that rule, I'm sure there are other places out there, too. This is a problem for even new factory built trailers like the "Retro", as well as tear drop trailers and others that don't have a gray water tank. It's something I had never thought about before!

But with our space restrictions, I had not figured on having a "built-in" gray water tank. We already owned a 25-gallon wheeled waste water tank from when we had a larger RV, and I figured that anytime we had to catch the water we could run it into that, even though it's WAY larger than we need. It was similar to this 22-gallon tote shown below.


But no...in some places you can't even do that! So now I had to figure out how to add some kind of tank to the interior of the trailer. We ended up selling the 25-gallon tote shown below because we just didn't have room for it!

Our Barker 25-gallon 4-wheeler tote.
At first I was going to put the gray water tank under the kitchen cabinets, where it would be next to the sink drain and also over the outside drain, for ease of plumbing. The problem was finding one that would fit in the space and have all the inlets and outlets in the right places without having one custom made. After researching prices, it seems that a custom-made tank would be in the $150-$200 range. Besides the cost, having one permanently mounted limits things. I hate limits! I like choices!

So after checking some measurements on our existing Barker 25-gallon tank and realizing it was WAY bigger than we really need, at 9 x 24 x 38 inches), I decided to go with the 15-gallon Tote-N-Stor shown below.




Having it in the back will solve several issues. The first is that it will still be portable. And I can choose whether or not to even use it! All I need is a diverter valve setup under the sink so that I can let the water flow to the tank (in the rare cases that we would need to), otherwise, I can close that valve and open the one that lets it flow straight to the outside drain. None of these lines have to be too big, and I plan on using standard garden hose for most of them. I'm thinking that the diverter setup can be a standard "Y" connector for a garden hose with individual shut-offs on it, available from any hardware store.

A typical garden hose Y diverter valve.

On the tank end, ideally, the drain can be run into the garden hose fitting, typically used as a flushing device on the tank, as well as an air vent when emptying it. A "Y" connector can also be used there, pointing one side of it up to create a top loop in it for an air vent, while keeping water from running out of it. The other end of that line can go down through the floor to vent outside. The other side of the "Y" would be the inlet into the tank. At worst, if we forget to check it, any overflow would go out through the vent and onto the ground. But for one night at a time at one of the places that would require an inside tank, I doubt if we will add more than a couple of gallons to it, and we can dump it the next time we get to a dumping station, so that shouldn't even be an issue. I doubt we will even need to use the tank more than once a month, if that.

And it won't add enough weight to the back end to be worth mentioning, since it will be empty most of the time!

Swapping the Piano for Appliances...maybe.

As stated early on, one of the stipulations that my wife had in full-timing was that her Estey spinet style French Provincial piano go along.

An Estey French Provincial Style Spinet piano just like ours.

Her sister already has a piano, we wouldn't trust it with anyone else, and putting it in storage was not a safe option due to temperature and humidity problems, although we do expect to maintain a small storage unit until such time as we can streamline our traveling and have everything with us.

Yes, we do have a nice portable keyboard, a Yamaha PSR-500...

A Yamaha PSR-500 just like ours, including the stand and bench.

...but the Estey piano was given to her by her parents when she started taking lessons in her school years, and she just isn't ready to part with it...yet. The biggest question is whether keeping it in tune is more hassle than it's worth.

Anchoring it is no problem. I will need to move the "in-floor" D-rings (formerly used to anchor a 1200-pound motorcycle) to a new location, but a large 2-inch ratchet strap from the floor near the outer wall and run diagonally over the part just above the keyboard will anchor it down as well as pull it toward the wall, so I doubt it will go anywhere.


A typical in-floor flush mount D-Ring similar to ours.

We have quilted moving blankets to put behind it, and we'll obviously use something over the front where the strap crosses it. I can always anchor it to the wall, too, if the need arises. But the tuning could still be an issue, just from road vibration. She realizes that all we can do is "try" it for awhile and see how it does.

If that doesn't work out well, she said she will be ready to part with it if she "has" to. The problem then would be weight...or rather the lack of it. I have designed this trailer to be as nearly balanced as it can be, both side to side and front to back. On the left, we'll have most of the cabinets, including the fresh water tank, up to three 225 amp/hour AGM batteries (roughly 80 pounds each), the porta-potty, and the main closets. And most of the weight is slightly in front of the axle. All of that should balance out the 360-pound piano pretty well. But if it goes, we have to put something in it's place.

The new floor plan shows an extra right-side elevation drawing at the bottom of the sheet, that shows what we would do if the piano is removed. And with this in mind, I will be building the upper cabinets accordingly, as just in front of the accordion and file folder cubbyhole, I would add a floor to ceiling cabinet with probably two doors on it with a floor between them. It could be part pantry and part closet, or both top and bottom could be used for the same things. Just forward of that, we would add a Splendide washer/dryer combo, or a Westland, like the one shown below.

A typical Splendide Washer-Dryer Combo Unit


We've owned two of them before in previous motorhomes, and we loved them! They are so quiet that if you are more than 5-feet away you can hardly hear them run! Granted, they're small, but if we have comforters to do, we can always take those to a laundromat. This will still be a lot more convenient for every day things.

Just in front of that (and to the side doorway) we would add an 18-inch wide dishwasher.

A typical 18-inch Wide Dishwasher.


A typical 18-inch Wide Dishwasher Interior.

We had one in our custom built park model in Mesa, and it was more than enough for the two of us or even when we had company. Another option is a smaller countertop style, which can usually be built in, and then we could have extra storage below it. Amazon sells this one that would work nicely:


Over the top of both appliances, we would add roughly 4-feet of countertop to match the kitchen counter on the opposite side. This would give us a total of about 8-feet of countertop in this little 6 x 12 trailer, even though about 20-inches of it will be occupied by the refrigerator between the closet and the sink on the driver's side. Still, over 6-feet of usable countertop in a unit this small, and with a washer/dryer AND a dishwasher is amazing! I've seen nothing on the market that even comes close to having the amenities that we could!

Keeping our cool.

We had thought about a roof air conditioner first, and then abandoned that idea because of weight, cost, and the "stealth" of the trailer, as well as possibly adding solar panels to the roof at some point. Then we looked into portable air conditioners, but again, the cost was high for a two-hose model (the best kind), and they are heavy (over 55 pounds, and usually closer to 70) so the thought of shuffling it back and forth between the trailer and the van as needed was impractical. Besides that, it would take up floor space. Still, for some people, one like the one shown below would work nicely.


A trailer with a ramp door doesn't allow for putting a window air conditioner in the back, and besides, the rear bunk would be in the way. It could be put through a side wall, and not stick out any farther than the wheel wells already stick out, but I worry about rain leaks with wind currents going down the road. The same applies to putting it through the front. And then there's the issue with being "stealth" again. So we went back to the idea of using a regular window air conditioner, and mounting it into the front of the couch near the side door. It could go in the middle, too, except that it prevents longer items from being stored under the couch. Window air conditioners are inexpensive compared to other types. They are easy to get at any Walmart store or builder store. If it goes bad, we can easily buy another one for less than a service call would cost on a roof unit!

A perfect type of air conditioner for our use.

The photo above shows a nice little 5000-BTU General Electric air conditioner that can be bought at any Walmart (online and delivered to the store) for $109 (current price). It is perfect for use in lower locations because the vent diverters rotate to direct the air upward as well as to the side. This is a very important feature for mounting an air conditioner in the front of a couch! Also, in an RV that is going to be on the go a lot, manual controls are better. Digital controls often involve having to reset clocks, plus, the heat build-up inside a parked RV that is not plugged in, can often destroy the digital readouts on appliances, and replacing them is often costly. We found that out the hard way on the microwave that we used for our truck camper. After the first year, the readout was...well..."un"-readable. The same goes for microwaves in any RV. Plain old knob controls are much more dependable.

So now you are probably asking, how will we vent it on the "outside" end?  The same way that other RV manufacturers are doing. We'll install some baffles to keep the incoming and outgoing air separated and vent it down through the floor under the couch!

Nearly all air window air conditioners pull outside air in through exterior side vents, and then blow it straight out through the fins in the back. So all that is needed is a way to direct that outgoing air straight down through the floor, through a screened opening. A couple of "walls" on either side, extending from the rear corners of the unit to the exterior of the trailer will suffice. They can be made out of sheet metal or plywood.

On the sides, all that is required are a couple of "walls" at least 4-inches out from either side of the unit, extending from the front of the couch to the exterior wall of the trailer. Between those walls and the unit, there will be a hole on each side going down through the floor, with screens AND filters on them. The filters (which can be cut down from a standard furnace filter of any size) will be to keep dust out of the unit. No filter is needed on the back side because that air will be blowing out, rather than in.

The size of the holes in the floor should be roughly equivalent to the size of the louvered vents in the sides and the back of the air conditioner, otherwise air flow could be restricted, and the efficiency of the unit will be decreased.

Then a simple top piece to cover over the entire air conditioner space under the couch will keep the incoming and outgoing air separated, as well as to keep it from pulling air from within the RV. The front section of the air conditioner that you see in front of the couch will then be able to recirculate the air within the RV, and as that air cools, the process will become more efficient until it reaches the desired temperature.

Oh, I know, it would be more efficient to have the air conditioner up high, as cool air drops anyway, and it would counteract the heat off the ceiling better. But I have seen them down low on other small RV's, and I'm sure it will be good enough for us. We can always run an extra room fan to circulate air if we need to. Besides, we don't plan to stay in hot and/or humid weather very long.

We are installing TWO Fantastic vents in the ceiling, one at the back and one at the front. They will both be reversible, so we can pull air in with one and blow it out with the other. On high, that should make for quite a breeze through the trailer! Out west, we may not even have to use the air conditioner at all! Both fans will have three speeds and thermostats on them, so if it gets "too" cool, they will shut off automatically. In actual use, and with rain covers over them, low speed will be more than enough,


I was originally going to get the ones with rain sensors on them until I realized that if it's hot and humid, and it rains, they would close and not having windows, we wouldn't have any ventilation at all! So as much as I hate to destroy the "stealthy" looks of the trailer, I can see that adding Maxx-Aire hoods over the fans is the best way to go.


There are several styles of Maxx-Aire and Fantastic vent covers available, but we are going with the style shown above (or similar to it), as they are the most cost effective. This is a 14-year-old trailer, and if we ever trade, these things will have to go with it, so we don't want to put any more money in it than what it will take to get the job done. We have used these before with the Fantastic Fans, and they work fine.

Keep in mind, the major appliances (washer/dryer, and dishwasher) are not things we are going to be using unless we have full hookups. We can run the little 700-watt microwave long enough to heat coffee or tea, or warm leftovers, but it and the refrigerator will be the ONLY things (other than lights and chargers) powered from our batteries through the 1500-watt inverter!

I am only putting a 20-amp power cord on the trailer, but will make a provision for adding a 30-amp cord (or even a 50-amp cord) if we feel a need for it in the future. We can easily run one or two appliances at a time, and that should be plenty. Even our 40-foot motorhome only had a 30 amp cord on it, when in reality it should have had 50 amps. But we "made do" with it for several years, and can do the same here. I'm a master electrician by trade, and I know what can and can't be done, and how to revise it when the need arises. We'll be fine.

Keeping a level head...and tail.

Another thing I thought of when taking pictures the other day, and that's the stabilizers under the back of the trailer. Right now, we just have the "flip-down" kind, but they are a pain to use.

Flip-down stabilizers like these are NOT jacks!

For one thing, even with them fully retracted, the trailer sets so low to the ground that you either have to dig out under them to be able to swing them back into position, or you have to let the front end of the trailer down to raise the back end. With a manual crank-type jack post, that's a pain to do, especially with a bad back. At some point down the road, I will have those removed and have scissors jacks welded on in their place, like the ones shown below. Then, instead of just holding a position, they will truly be able to jack up the trailer as needed for leveling.


I will also have the crank-type jack post in the front removed and add a power jack post to the tongue. Not that I'm spoiled, but I do have a bad back, and fighting a hand crank is all it takes to throw my back out sometimes. The amount I pay for four chiropractor visits will pay for a power jack!

More power!

Another minor change was in the location of the electrical "periferals". I originally had the converter/charger, inverter, fuses and other things in the battery compartment in the bottom of the closet next to the porta-potty. I have since decided to move all those (except the batteries) to the left wall of the rear storage compartment where the power cord will be. Now all of the distribution will be in one place. This opens up more battery space in the closet, and after doing more calculating, it looks like we will be installing three 225 amp/hour AGM batteries in that space. That should keep the compressor refrigerator running for well more than a full day, depending on how often it runs. Our little 20-inch square apartment size refrigerator draws 1.25 amps, but we plan on getting a taller, 34-inch tall unit with a decent freezer box in it before we leave here. I assume it will draw more current, but how much more still remains to be seen.

And of course, I will have a charger, so that when we are plugged in we can put power back into the batteries.  I will also set up an automatic relay, so that when we plug into shore power, it will automatically take the appliances off the inverter and power them from the power cord. I will buy a power monitor panel like they use for solar charging, so that I can see exactly what's happening at all times.

For the first few months out, we will probably be using our membership resorts and other places that will have at least power available, so a night or two of boondocking in between shouldn't be a problem. But eventually, we want to add solar panels for longer boondocking. I figure that since that will save us in camping fees, the cost of it will be more than justified. Also, we won't be staying anywhere very long, so the van will charge up all the batteries while we're on the move, and we should be fine. Since this trailer is already 14 years old, I hate to add too much permanently-mounted stuff to it other than what is necessary, like the Fantastic Fans, so we will probably opt for portable solar panels when the time comes. We'll see.

So those are most of the latest changes. If you download the floor plan, you'll be able to see what we are doing. If you don't have a spreadsheet program on your computer yet, you should have, they can do a lot of stuff, including drawing. I use OpenOffice, which is free and compatible with Microsoft Office. You can download it for free at OpenOffice.org.

And if you want to learn how to use spreadsheet programs, or even about computers in general, you can take free online courses in almost anything you can think of at http://gfclearnfree.org. That's a special division of Goodwill Industries. All lessons are laid out in short chapters featuring text and video, with a short questionnaire at the end of each chapter, just for your own review.

As always, comments are welcome.

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