Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. -- Carl Sandburg
There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

May 18, 2014

Computers and Comms in 2014

I thought I would do an update on my choices and experiences for computers and connectivity on the road.  Over the last year, I've made a lot of changes in this area.

Last year I did this:

Bought a tablet in January '13
Bought an ultralight laptop computer (Sony SVP132A1CL) in June
Bought a new phone (Nexus 5), unlocked in November
Dumped Sprint and got StraightTalk prepaid cell service in December
Got a Google Voice phone number
Got a 5GB/month cell LTE hotspot on AT&T in January

The tablet was a spectacular failure as it died an ignominious death in less than 6 months.  After the warranty expired, of course. I hate that. While it was working, it was nice for web browsing and was fine for typing emails and messages.  OK for blog updates and managing my photos. Good for games, what few I do. Good for email.  Touch screen is nice. But for serious work like using spreadsheets, the Android versions are just not up to snuff. I still wanted a full computer running Windows or Linux to run serious programs. And a real keyboard and mouse. To me, it was more like a toy. Hence, I didn't replace it with another tablet.

I replaced it with an ultralight 13" laptop running a 256 SSD. Fast, fast boot. Like a tablet. Running Windows 8 with a touch screen. Less than 3 pounds. I decided to get the slightly larger screen instead of the slightly smaller overall form.  I like it.  Better since getting the Windows 8.1 updates and a program called Classic Shell that gives me the Start popup panel. And it hasn't died. The only thing I really miss is a number keypad, which I just got since my old, old one (maybe 15 years old) won't work properly with Windows 8. I get a real computer that can run all my programs fully in a very portable and light package. This fits my needs better than the tablet. I like the touchscreen, it has a long battery life, and runs cooler than older chipsets. I've never been an Apple Fangirl. I look at the specs, the closed company software, the lack of interoperability, and paying more for that, and I go back to open systems every time. Guess it is the old geek in me.

My old cell phone was dropping a lot of calls and since it was more than 2 years old, I decided to replace it. I chose the Nexus 5 shortly after it was released, unlocked, as it was about as good a phone as one could buy and at $350, a decent price. I also looked into going for a prepaid service instead of the major carrier plan. The major carriers wanted a hundred dollars more for the same phone and they would lock it and put a bunch of bloatware on it. Nah. I wondered about the larger size (a 5" screen) but it is very comfortable to use and carry.  I really like this phone after using it for 6 months. It is also a nice Kindle reader with the larger screen.  Sprint has really fallen behind with slow networks and large swaths of the country uncovered. I like the unlocked aspect too. I can take another sim card and be on that in a jiffy and there are no garbage apps or feature lockdowns you pay more for from the subsidized carriers.

After looking at the options and finding on my unlocked new Nexus phone that it got a decent signal from AT&T, I decided to try StraightTalk unlimited plan for $45/month on the AT&T network. They do T-Mobile too but their networks are too small and too tied to major cities and freeways to meet my needs. In the pre-paid world, the phone/text offerings are excellent but the data is more limited. Many limit data to 2g or 3g speeds. StraightTalk gives 2.5 GB/month of LTE data and it is nice and fast. I have to limit my use and make sure I only update programs when I find a wi-fi hotspot to use. I use a program that tracks my data usage so I can manage it.  I like to read the news and interests on a reader, check facebook, read some blogs on the phone and the larger screen makes that nice. The mobile access also is more frugal on bandwidth so it has mostly worked out well. BUT, I just got a text from them telling me that now they give 3GB/month of LTE data. That will make it even easier to fit in the budget. Yay. So far, I'm quite happy with the service. And it saves me $30 a month.

When I went to pre-paid, I also signed up for a Google Voice phone number. I really hope Google doesn't kill this.  Since I have gmail accounts, I could get a number. Not a local number, but long distance doesn't really mean what it used to with nationwide calling available to most people. It allows me to connect all my phone numbers to the Google Voice number so I have a master number. That means I don't have to be tied to the cell phone number and I can answer a phone call on my land line or cell phone as I please.  It is the way phone numbers should be - tied to a person and easily tied to devices at will.

For straight Internet connectivity, I got the LTE hotspot from AT&T. Sprint is too slow these days and Verizon is stinky (ier ? than other carriers) plus coverage is dicey at my house.  The device works well and LTE is very fast.  5 GB should be ok for my needs as I don't stream video. BUT, in February, during a storm, I had a runaway data issue doing nothing that could account for the dump (5GB inside of 2 hours). Appeals to AT&T netted nothing but denials and excuses. March worked fine and I used about 3.5 of legitimate data. I throttled the data setting on the device to no LTE, just 4G which is still mostly fast enough.  Then in April, during another storm, I got the message that I had used 3.5GB of data suddenly and it was on my account. But this time, the device itself did not ever see that data as it said it had received less than a half GB.  I skimped carefully the rest of the month and when I got the bill, it said I used .8 GB the whole month. Nice going AT&T.  Now I see why there is so much hate for AT&T.  Now, I try not to use the hotspot during storms because it looks like AT&T's computers have issues and I end up paying the price for them. So this gets a so so rating. If it was reliable and didn't cheat me half the time, I'd be a lot happier with it.

I would get broadband on cable or something but that isn't an option for where my house is located (like for half of the country) and I'm just outside a rather major metropolitan area. The broadband options aren't great in this country. And with the imminent death of net neutrality, it won't get better.

I've thought about going the Millicom route but their prices jumped a lot thanks to Verizon and the Verizon network isn't a good choice for my house location. Maybe after I get free of the house ...

LiFePO4 Batteries - First Camping Use at SprinterFest

SprinterFest Boondocking

I spent the first weekend in May boondocking at the SprinterFest on my new LiFePO4s. My batteries easily lasted the 3 days running my marine fridge and the usual few minutes of furnace in the morning, water pump, etc. The fridge ran almost constantly but I'm not sure why - it may still have issues of its own. I love having double the amp hours (AH) I had with the AGMs. I had used about 

I drove up Thursday night as I had arranged to have my serpentine belt replaced at 8am in the morning at the Sun Motor Cars shop who were also hosting the SprinterFest. It was 8 years old and I've been told that a broken one does a whole lot of expensive damage to Sprinters beyond stranding me on the road. 

One of the downsides to owning a Sprinter is that widespread competent mechanics are not available. The Sun shop has a very good reputation and a very nice Sprinter-specific facility. While I might have been able to replace the belt myself, I didn't want to risk not getting it back on right and the access is tight.  While there, I had them do an oil job too.  They very nicely let me have the dog in the waiting area where she got behave and stay calm training and lots of free pets. They have free wi-fi also which was nice.

When I got my van back, they had done a decent wash on it too, gratis. It looked great. Later at the SprinterFest, the mechanics said the one who did my work was surprised by finding the cats inside. I told the front guy there would be 2 cats in there so the mechanic wouldn't be surprised but he didn't relay the message. They told me the mechanic took a selfie with my cats. Cute.

Before I took the van to the shop, I let the dog have some exercise in a deep grassy area by the back lot. She went behind a bush and disappeared. I called and called to no avail. Getting worried, I hopped into the van and went up the road about a quarter mile where I saw some men at a big truck type facility in the parking lot. I pulled in and asked if they had seen a big yellow dog and there she was. They had grabbed her since she came running up to them to greet them and appeared on her own. Whew, but really! She hadn't gone off like that at the previous 2 Sprinterfests. One guy said he tried calling the numbers on her tag but it wasn't in service. Yikes! I forgot to change her tags when I changed cell phone numbers. He said she would have stayed with him all day if necessary. As soon as I got the van back from the shop, I drove up to the nearest PetSmart and made new tags with the new numbers along with a new tag for the cat.

After we were done, I settled into the back lot of Sun where they have us camp out for Sprinterfest. I had some volunteer work to do with my computer anyway so I completed that. No one else showed up until after 6:30pm.  A few vans arrived and one of them wasn't staying for the SprinterFest but was filled with dog crates and dogs. They have a business of transporting dogs. They built a bed way up high in the van over the crates because they wanted to maximize the number of dogs they could transport at once. A few of us went to dinner together. We have a very nice camaraderie developed over the 3 years I've come to the SprinterFests.

For the day of the SprinterFest, Saturday, I counted 38 Sprinters and there were a few people in other cars as well.



One guy that has come for the 3 that I have has an interesting saga. He's a youngish (30s) guy with tech skills. The first year, he showed up with an old T1N dual wheel cargo van with little improvement to it and was rough camping inside the tin tent. He had been having mechanical problems but had dreams of living in the van to cut costs and renting his house for income. He planned a do it himself buildout. The 2nd year, he showed up in a Sprinter box van that he planned on building out and living in. It had the advantage of square walls and quite a bit more space than the van interior and ran reliably.  This year, he was back in the old dually van with a new engine in it. He had done a lot more work on it with insulation, a killer stereo system and the electrics needed for it, a marine fridge, and a couple of cabinets.  He found the box truck was too big to navigate narrow city streets and thus wasn't going to cut it for his needs so he went back to his original plan in the cargo van. He plans on mainly city living and his personal cleanliness needs will be met with gyms. Toilet and cooking facilities will be in the van along with only interior water tanks/piping so he can use it in winter. He has rented out most of his house but wants to get out of it completely so he can charge more for rent. It is a viable plan for simple, inexpensive living as long as the cold winters here will work for him. It is a lesson in how a too big vehicle can make it harder, not easier. He's got an idea for making the bed self-leveling that will be interesting to see when done.

A few of us stayed over Saturday night for the circle-the-vans after pizza party. It was marred by showers but still fun. In the morning, we had breakfast together before heading back home Sunday afternoon. I was letting my dog run around in her favorite meet and greet mode. I got distracted for a few minutes Sunday morning and she disappeared again. When I got my phone again, there was a message that they had my dog about a mile away (glad I got the new tags!) because she had run across the road behind Sun to greet a man and he grabbed her to protect her from the road traffic. Before, she had stopped at the road considering it a forbidden barrier. Damn dog is now an adult (4 years old) but clearly, I am going to have to put her on the rope because the old no no's are not keeping her in safe bounds. Thankfully, I got her back but the training I've been doing to stop her from initiating greeting humans is not fully working and now former barriers don't work.






The LiFePO4s:

Some things are quite different with the LiFePO4s. With my 15 amp circuit at my house, it takes 2 cycles to fully charge them as my new charger shuts off after 16 hours and it needs longer than that to charge from a deficit of some 150AH out of my 200AH capacity. I haven't had it on a 30 amp circuit yet. To start charging, I have to disconnect the shore power, then connect again for the charger to start again. No float. 

The 3 days boondocking used about 160 AH but half of that was with the fridge on the manual setting which was using 5 amps. When I set it to the normal/auto, it dropped to 3 amps. The fridge froze the freezer plate on battery power because it sees the higher voltage and thinks it is on shore power.  Getting the more efficient computer version might not have been the best idea with the LiFePO4s because of this. The regular thermostat governed variety probably would have been better.

I had a trickle charger that shunted a few amps to the engine battery to top it off when I was on shore power but the higher voltage from the LiFePO4s made it think it was on shore power and sipped power from the batteries. So that is disconnected now.

My engine alternator charged them nicely while driving but just like on shore power, the BMS shut off the charging when they were full. No floating. Short driving periods resulted in some charging each time but it wasn't long enuf to fill the batteries.

My trimetric battery monitor shows the AH used after being off charging but while charging, it reverses and shows far fewer AH without me resetting it. That is, I use 150AH but when the batteries are full after a charge, it shows 4AH an hour or so after it is done. I guess it is measuring the deficit from full. I never saw that with the AGMs.

When the batteries are full, the charger gets shut off and won't start again no matter how long or how much juice is used unless it gets disconnected from shore power and then reconnected so I have to pay more attention to the charge levels when plugged in. The no float aspect means I can't just let it sit plugged in for long periods with no attention.


It will be interesting to see how these do with solar but I'm not there yet.

The Bed – Redux


Former Use:
My van has the old style benches that form a really big bed in the back like a set of legos. There are 8 cushions that fit over the benches and on top of two 3’ long particle board slabs that sit on the ledges affixed to the sides of benches. There is only me and 2 cats that sleep on the bed. The dog gets the floor on rugs. I refuse to struggle for space with a 60# dog.

I slept crosswise across the back of the van for a couple of years which worked ok but my feet can't stretch out unless I sleep catty-corner. Last year, I tried making my bed lengthwise on the passenger side with one 3’ slab in the middle section at the head of the bed. That worked reasonably well but I would like more room for my feet and legs at the end. At least they can stretch out in the full 6’ length (I'm 5'7"). I found that it was better to fold the length of memory foam topper one third down at the top to make the head a bit elevated. I have to have my head raised above my feet to let my sinuses drain because of my allergies.

One of the nuisances with this design is the 3’ particle board slabs are cheesy and heavy and awkward to store and handle. Aside from that, I really like the benches because of their versatility. I got the idea to make lighter and smaller racks to lay across the aisle for the center cushions to lay on. After putting up knotty pine wainscot in my house powder room, I had a big pile of 19” long slats leftover.

The Make:

I thought that the 20.5” span would be sufficient for them to hold my weight if there were a lot of them even tho they are only 1/4” thick. I got some 1/2” x 1.5” boards and cut them into 18” lengths. That makes the rack match the 3/4” thickness of the particle board slabs. 4 of the wainscot slats fit with a little over an inch in between them. I split a couple of them finding a screw that would go in without splitting the pine. A pan-head metal screw worked because it doesn't flare at the top. Two screws in each side of each slat secured it well. I tested the first rack and it was solid. So much lighter than the particle board! That makes my bed 42” wide. A 2’ wide bed is very cramped, especially to sleep on my side, but 42” is comfortable.

I made 2 more of the racks, then sanded them well enuf to prevent splinters and put varnish on them. They aren't going to be visible when in use, so all I need is just to protect the wood from moisture.

The next thing to solve is the rails on which the racks lie on each of the benches. Currently, they are wood rails screwed into the benches. I want to have the cushion and rack on the galley end of the bed easily removable and stowed handy so I can use that end as a desk and sitting area. I figured out that a U shaped aluminum rail would be strong enough for the weight and allow me to slide the end rack under the other racks to the back of the van. Right at hand when I need it, out of the way when I don’t. When I looked for the rail, the U shaped ones were too small for my purpose. I need it to be an inch between the bars for the racks to slide in. I settled on getting 2 L rails to form the U.

I took a metal file and filed the ends to round them so I don’t slice a finger on them. Cleaned them off and spray painted them with the copper and bronze metal paint so they would match the galley back splash and be inconspicuous, at least compared to the bright silver of the aluminum. I finished that up with a coating of varnish so they will stand up to the use of sliding the racks on them. Once dried and cured, I just drilled holes in them and using flat head screws, affixed them in the same spot as the old wood rails.

The final problem is how to support the last rack to hold the cushion. Because I built a drawer for my desk instead of the bench, I can’t have a support rail on that last 2’. I got some furring strips I have laying about and cut them long enough to fit into the end of the new rails. A 1/4” slat holds the end firmly into the slot. I then cut a leg for the galley end for a firm support and another for the other side. The slat fits well on the support rails and they are easily moved for during the day. That way, my desk area is open for daytime and the bed is a little wider for night.
Bed slats in place

Cushions in place for bed

Seat with bedding rolled back and wedge cushion for back


In Use:

I spent 3 nights with the new bed arrangement and it was very comfortable. Easy to take down the last rack and fold back the covers for a seat and easy to put back in place for night.  The extra room at the foot made for a much more comfortable sleep and the cats weren't right on top of me like they were last year. I think this one is a win.  The only thing that would be better is if the cushions had a couple inches of memory foam right in them instead of me putting a pad on top as the foam they are made of is hard. Wonder how expensive it would be to get a 4" thick half sturdy foam, half memory foam pieces to replace?

A bonus I found is that the single rack makes for a nice lap desk for my computer. The molded surface holds a pencil nicely and the computer has plenty of air circulation.  My attempt at remaking my swivel table failed miserably so I resorted to the rack as a desk. Multi-use and light weight for the win!

I get a bed always at the ready and I still have a seat and desk for daytime. I don't want the bother of having to make up my bed each night but I need to have a workspace as well. This gives me the dual purpose of the tiny space with very little bother. If I am really exhausted, I can still take a nap without the foot width-extension in place. The seat raised to the same height as the bed gives me extra storage space and it is comfortable as I fit under the overhead cabinets and my feet can rest on the drawer on the opposite side. Plus, I can put the rack on it for extra room when working in the galley.

I built an opening on the bench extension for a drawer at some point. Turned out the evil extra cat preferred to hop into that and camp out under the bench as a good hidey hole - revealed only by his tell tale red leash. With my on-going litter box issues, I decided the litter box would best be placed at the back of the aisle. During the short trip, my old girl used it (yay!!). The extra cat, Syl, used the kennel box a couple of times. Previously, my old girl used the kennel box and was afraid of getting trapped in the under bench box. Go figure.
These 2 hate each other in real life. But in the van, it is different.

Bench Top

I also built a top for the bench across from my bed to better utilize the space. Instead of taking up 4” of vertical space with the cushions that I’m not using, I used the same wainscot panel boards to make a large shelf in 2 pieces so I can access underneath half of it at a time. For this purpose, I snugged the boards together using their tongue and groves to fit them together and tied them all together with a 1/4” slat underneath and the #4 screws. I sized and positioned the slat to fit just inside the bench edges so it will hold the shelf in place. And another shelf to sit on top of the kennel I carry for the cats. Might as well. I like being able to put scraps to good use.



Across a fairly small distance, less that 2’, the ¼” thick panel boards are plenty strong. Not for sitting on, but plenty strong for the things I need to put there. The decorative shape is actually rather handy in the van as it can hold small things in place on uneven ground. The knotty pine is pretty when varnished.

On our little trip, I put a towel on the top on the kennel and it quickly became a favorite cat perch. Nothing like being up high for a cat.

Carpeting

Oh, how I hate carpeting. Carpeting is the worst idea in an RV. I guess there is some sound deadening from it but it is hard to clean and quickly gets nasty. An uncleanable surface is a bad idea, especially one that is subject to the law of gravity. My carpet had gotten quite dirty, even in the under-bench areas. I used mostly Citrusolve to clean it as that also does a decent job of deodorizing it. It looks better except for the areas that got bleached. At some point, I want to take it out and put in a cleanable surface, but that point is not now.

I got some carpet protector lengths of plastic with spikes in it to grip the carpet to line the aisle and keep it cleaner. I got 2 more 6’ lengths and lined the under-bench storage areas. It took some cutting to fit it around the wheel hubs and when I need to get to the battery boxes, I’ll have to lift it but it should keep things a bit cleaner there now.

April 22, 2014

Reinstall Refrigerator

The outside air for refrigerator ventilation I rigged up really didn't work well due to the very hot summers we have. The fridge is made to use air under 110F. I sealed up the lower vent and insulated the upper vent cavity and put a piece of  vinyl flashing around it.  I used the good aluminum duct tape to secure the insulation better and decided the refrigerator doesn't need extra insulation on the top if I'm using the inside air for ventilation. The current configuration forms a seal at the top of the refrigerator fan on the back and that brings the air under the refrigerator, up the back, thru the fan and over the compressor and out the top.

Open Cavity - I Get Busy

With the refrigerator out of the van and the cavity open, I had easy access to the electric cavity from above by taking out the cavity floor.
Cabinets
In the meantime, I decided I was tired of clocking my head on the cabinet handles that stick out and got new ones to replace them. I found some very pretty ones that are a bail type (like on furniture) that also only drop down 1”. The hard part was finding ones with the screws 3 3/4” apart as most handles are 3”. The new ones stick out just 1/2” and are quite a bit prettier than the plain C ones that came with it. I also found ring handles for the lower cabinets and drawers that go well with the handles. Then I needed to do something about the other hole. I found 1” back plates that I can screw in after I paint the head to match. After I got the new handles, I decided that I would like the bail handles on the bath door better than the smaller rings, so I ordered a few more. It changes the character of van decor, and once again, I notice how much the cabinets need to be refinished. (Bonus! I can get the refrigerator thru the aisle now without taking off the cabinet doors thanks to the non-protruding new pulls.)

April 21, 2014

LiFePO4 Batteries - First Experience

3/21/14

The batteries were left with the van sitting and not doing anything after the batteries were installed. I pulled the fuse on the CO and LP monitors because they are not working and beeping. After about 2.5 weeks, the battery monitor said they were at 12.5V and the next morning, they had shut down entirely. The Battery Management System (BMS) is supposed to do that with a bit of battery left. The volt meter showed zero volts, which it should in a shut down situation.

March 13, 2014

LiFePO4 Batteries


I decided to go ahead with replacing my very dead Group 31 AGM batteries with LiFePO4 batteries of the same size. I contacted Smartbattery.com and they were very responsive to all my questions. They weren't the very cheapest I found on the Internet but they seemed to be one of the few who have a clear business and support their product. After a couple of days, I got handed off to their distributor in North Carolina who was also very responsive to all my questions and who went the extra mile in finding the correct answer for me and my specific set up. When I ordered them, I called the guy and gave him my credit card number on a Friday afternoon. I told him I didn’t need instant service and could wait until Monday. He had a different person call me for the details and I got the call back by 4pm which was too late for them to go out that day. But they went out on Monday and I got them via UPS on the following Wednesday. Very fast delivery.