Solar Installation.

Electrical self-sufficiency is basic need/want in the world of van dwelling. A robust electrical system can provide a way to charge devices, light a living space, keep food from spoiling, and more. In a past post, we listed the components we plan on using on our truck and house circuits, so check that out for a breakdown of what we're using. After all those components arrived in the mail, Chels and I got to installing. The big project, as far as installation is concerned, was mounting the photovoltaic cells (PV cells) and the charging devices.

Components (toys) laid out.

Components (toys) laid out.

We knew we wanted the PV cells on the roof rack, and we knew we wanted to be able to access the room beneath the cells, and be able to rotate the cells to take full advantage of the sun when camped for a few days. To achieve this, we needed to tie the PV cells together so they would act as one, and then mount them in such a way that they could rotate on a hinge.

We decided to make a very basic frame from some double sided 1/2 inch U-lay plywood. We could have bought a fancy hinging mount, or spent more money on steel components, but the plywood was free, light, low profile, and did we mention…free! 

Cutting the plywood to size, and losing the centers to drop weight and add access.

Cutting the plywood to size, and losing the centers to drop weight and add access.

We cut the plywood to nearly the exact dimensions of the two 100w PV cells (43" x 47"), leaving a 1/2" between the cells. Then, to reduce weight and allow for us to access the mounting hardware, we cut large rectangles out of the plywood. The PV cells added a lot of rigidity to the whole setup, so we weren't very concerned about cutting wood away from the frame.

It fits!

It fits!

One side of the plywood frame is held to the roof rack by 1" U bolts. These act as a simple hinge, and allow the PV cells to be rotated out of the way. The PV cells are held to the plywood by a handful of M6x30 bolts, washers, and nuts. We dry fitted everything before painting the plywood with leftover spray paint to add some weatherproofing. We also added some drain holes in the 1/2" gap between PV cells.

It hinges! The U-bolt setup is simple, cheap, and cheerful.

It hinges! The U-bolt setup is simple, cheap, and cheerful.

Mounting the panels wasn't terribly difficult, and it was (God willing) a one time event. There isn't a lot of room under the PV cells to move around, so bolting the cells to the plywood was a bit tricky. We don't have a permanent solution for holding the non-hinging side to the roof rack, so for now we've employed a cam strap.

Paint for weatherproofing.

Paint for weatherproofing.

The positive and negative leads are wrapped in a plastic wiring loom and zip tied in place, and then tucked into the bungee straps that hold the cab's canvas top in place. 

My wire face.

My wire face.

The wiring loom containing the PV cells leads running into the spare tire storage.

The wiring loom containing the PV cells leads running into the spare tire storage.

The next day we spent a few hours building a simple plywood shelf/rack for the charging components. The solar charge controller, the NOCO Genius battery charger, and the inverter will all live in what we call the "spare tire storage" to keep wire runs short. When dealing with a PV solar setup, keeping wire runs short will keep charge loss to a minimum.

The panel for the components. All cables and wires will be zip tied in place.

The panel for the components. All cables and wires will be zip tied in place.

In its cubby space where it will eventually be all tied together.

In its cubby space where it will eventually be all tied together.

We're not done yet. We still haven't bought deep cycle batteries, wired anything up, or bought any of the load-side wiring (fuse block, outlets). Once we get the system up and running we'll post a full review.

Out you heater, out! We had to tag team this one. (I'm glad Chels is smaller than me.)

Out you heater, out! We had to tag team this one. (I'm glad Chels is smaller than me.)

We also completed another project that needed doing. The original heater for the box was still mounted in place, taking up valuable storage space in a locked and out-of-the-way compartment. While it probably worked great for the original purposes of the Pinzgauer, we didn't need it. We opened a side hatch on the box, capped the hidden fuel lines, and removed the filter, pump, wiring harness, heater, and exhaust ducting. It took us a while and the heater fought back a little, but we won, and with a minimal amount of damage to the heater. So, if anyone wants a 24V Eberspaecher petroleum fueled heater, let us know!

Paint makes vans go faster.

We had hoped to be able to paint Little Foot while in Salmon and followed quite a few leads to find a place to do it indoors (so we could protect it and heat it to get the paint to cure properly). After some back and forth, we finally thought we had a spot lined up via an old friend of my dad. When the morning came, we loaded up the supplies (including tarps to cover anything nearby since we decided to go the "easy" spray paint route this time around) and headed over to the spot.

Salmon, ID, refuses to not be pretty.

Salmon, ID, refuses to not be pretty.

Plan A foiled. On to plan B.

Plan A foiled. On to plan B.

Unfortunately for us, the garage bay (that happened to be on the lot of a government agency) was for use by employees only. But because God was watching out for us, one of the other gentlemen at the lot offered us the use of his personal garage, just up the road. He mentioned it was outfitted with a paint booth, and we couldn't say yes fast enough!

The owner of the workshop mentioned we'd have to move a project out of the way. He didn't mention it was a home-built, 5.7L Corvette-powered hotrod!

The owner of the workshop mentioned we'd have to move a project out of the way. He didn't mention it was a home-built, 5.7L Corvette-powered hotrod!

Think short thoughts! We barely fit. You can see the exhaust fan on the left side of the garage door.

Think short thoughts! We barely fit. You can see the exhaust fan on the left side of the garage door.

We pulled the wood stove's draft cap off the chimney, slid Little foot into the garage, dropped the paint booth's walls. and got to work on prep. The most important part of any paint project is preparation. Between cleaning, sanding, and taping, the preparation should take at least 1/2 the time allotted for the project. 

Tape tape tape.

Tape tape tape.

After everything was taped, we coated Little Foot with automotive primer. A solid coat of primer should keep the original paint from seeping through, as well as allow for strong adhesion of the new paint.

We turned Little Foot into the Tin Man!

We turned Little Foot into the Tin Man!

After priming we started in on the top coat. We had wanted something simple, so we chose an aluminum gloss paint, thinking it would be a muted silver. We were WAY off! The paint was darn close to a mirror finish. We had turned our matte green steed into the Tin Man, and we were worried. Little Foot looked comical, and not the good kind of comical. In an effort to tone down the silver, we decided to quickly add original, olive drab racing stripes. For what may be the first time in automotive history, racing stripes were added to a vehicle to make it look less ridiculous. 

I'm just posing. Chelsea did all the geometry work on the stripes. I think they look great!

I'm just posing. Chelsea did all the geometry work on the stripes. I think they look great!

Clear coat misery.

Clear coat misery.

After finishing the racing stripes we decided to clear coat Little Foot to add some protection to the paint. About half a can in, Chelsea noticed that the clear coat was causing the aluminum paint to run. It looked terrible! After inspecting the warning labels on the clear coat, we read "DO NOT USE ON ALUMINUM FINISHES." Oops. Luckily, we realized that we weren't suppose to use the clear coat on aluminum finishes because it reduces the reflective qualities of the paint, effectively removing the sheen. This was an enormous blessing to us, because it muted the super shiny paint job, and left us with a gentle silver finish. Perfect! All our mistakes turned into one decent, cheap paint job.

So now Little Foot looks a lot faster, and a lot less like an army van, which was exactly why we painted him in the first place. We really didn't want to travel over any borders looking like a lost band of paramilitary soldiers. We may get robbed as tourists, but at least we won't be posing as something we're not.

Solar decisions.

We were never totally sold on doing solar power right away, but after a few days in Salmon ID, we made the decision to move forward with the project now, not knowing when we'd get another chance to be in one place and have a spot to work on the vehicle for longer than a few days. The truck batteries and alternator run on a 24v system, but after some thinking and some great advice from the forum folks at real4x4forums.com, we chose to run a 12v system for the house. This will let us run a greater selection of domestic US 12v accessories, as well as use a larger amp hour (versus larger volt) battery bay.

The Pinzgauer alternator is strongly built but not terribly large. It pushes around 35 amps at 28 volts when its running well, and it charges a dual battery bank that allows for a 24v starter to turn over the engine. Our battery bank is going to run a 24v Samlex America 300 Watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter. The inverter isn't as big as it could be, but we like the brand and the build quality. The very traveled van dweller Glen of tosimplify.net uses his to power a mobile saxophone recording studio (but his inverter is WAY bigger!!!! Buy the right sized inverter!).

The inverter transforms 24v of DC current to 110v of AC current to power what is probably the coolest piece of hardware we bought this week, a NOCO Genius GENM2 8 Amp 2-Bank Waterproof Smart On-Board Battery Charger. The NOCO charger will keep a 12v bank of batteries (probably around 2x100ah) topped up while the engine is turning. The battery charger can be ran by shore power, if need be, but won't be the only, or even the major source of house charging capacity.

The house batteries will primarily be charged by 2x100 watts of RENOGY® monocrystalline solar panels. The solar power will run through a handful of 12 gauge cables and then through a mid-range RENOGY® ViewStar 20 Amp Negative grounded PWM Charge Controller with LCD Display. This will provide the majority of the power coming into the house battery bank, and we will (hopefully) be able to cheaply build a tilting panel mount to maximize solar power when we park correctly in multi day damp spots.

More to come later. We'll show you the a basic wiring diagram, some mounting solutions, and hopefully give a shakedown report in the coming weeks!

Shakedown drive and Layover day!

Polebridge Test Drive

With the windows and stove installed, and most of our gear packed away, we were in need of a test drive. We'd slept in Little Foot in the campground at work for a few weeks, but we hadn't driven anywhere and then lived out of the rig. A test or "shakedown" drive is a very important baby step on the way to on-road living.

Our friend Dre invited us to celebrate her birthday in a little town called Polebridge on the very northwest corner of Glacier National Park. The town is accessible only by improved dirt road, it borders the pristine North Fork of the Flathead River. The local mercantile has killer baked goods (if you visit, forego the overrated huckleberry bearclaws and get the poppyseed and chocolate pastry…or just get both!). Dirt roads, no crowds, and baked confections? We're in.

Just a little Austrian/Swiss military surplus van finding his way through the foliage!

Just a little Austrian/Swiss military surplus van finding his way through the foliage!

The drive went well, albeit slowly. The road was at times so rough that we were slightly fearful of rattling the contents of the box apart as we bumped across washboard sections with an unavoidable minefield of potholes. Amazingly, nothing of the sorts happened. The fridge walked it's way to a different spot about an inch out of place (which was easily remedied with another strap) and we lost the hitch pin to the pintle hitch on the back. Luckily, Chelsea's photos and videos provided evidence of when and where we lost the hitch pin, narrowing our search from 20 miles to ~6. We found it the next day driving back by looking HARD.

Posing.

Posing.

We got up to Polebridge early with the intentions of going on a walk, so after touching base with our friend Dre, we headed up to Bowman lake to get some fresh air and enjoy being out and about for the first time in a while.

It was a gorgeous fall day and the short few mile walk couldn't have been better.

It was a gorgeous fall day and the short few mile walk couldn't have been better.

After our walk, we headed back to Polebridge to find a free camp spot on National Forest land… one of our favorite traveling past times.

Free camping at the river launch.

Free camping at the river launch.

Getting the fire started for the cookout.

Getting the fire started for the cookout.

Dre and Caleb organized a superb campfire potluck, with dishes coming out all night, all cooked over coals. Brats, lamb, asparagus, root vegetables, shallots, and more.

Dre and Caleb organized a superb campfire potluck, with dishes coming out all night, all cooked over coals. Brats, lamb, asparagus, root vegetables, shallots, and more.

The test drive was great. As we said before, the dirt road out to Polebridge was moderate washboard, had a few sections of potholes, and gave us a good idea of how the stiff off-road suspension handles rough road driving (It doesn't do well going fast). On the road to Bowman lake we had a chance to climb some minor hills. I stalled out once, and subsequently got to practice a moderate hill start maneuver, using granny-1st gear, and shifting the Hi-Low transmission on the fly. I even put it in granny-1st in low gear, and it was awesome! Little Foot crawls in this configuration at only a few miles an hour at 1/2 throttle.

Layover Day

We've driven around the country a few times in both the Campbulance and Stubbs the bus. Before each trip, we promised to take it easy and enjoy days off while driving, and inevitably we don't make that happen. Inevitably we blast past stuff we want to stop and take a look at, only to keep a self-imposed and often arbitrary time-line. I think, in a way, this is a coping mechanism. Perhaps by rushing ourselves, we feel less like homeless vagabonds, and more like the rushed masses of modern, socially acceptable civilization. The drive to stay in line with the norm is strong.

Rocketing  along the Swan-Seeley highway with some evidence of controlled burns around us. The silhouette of the portal axels is profound.

Rocketing along the Swan-Seeley highway with some evidence of controlled burns around us. The silhouette of the portal axels is profound.

We had a long day of driving, with Rusty tailing Little Foot down the Swan-Seeley high way, through Missoula, and out to Hamilton. Chels found a beautiful free campsite at the Blodgett Creek campground in the Bitterroot National Forest. As dusk was fading into darkness, we were commiserating over the radio about not making it to the site in time sunset, when Chels said, "Why not take a layover day?" Why not indeed?

Loulou and I getting used to home on the road.

Loulou and I getting used to home on the road.

Layover days are definitely as important as test drives and shakedown trips; they are the whole reason we travel! The Bitterroot NF is amazing, and this little Blodgett Creek Campground is the best. The camp host mentioned that the area earned the nickname "Little Yosemite of Montana," and while he wasn't far off. The creek valley we hiked on our layover day bore many similarities to Yosemtie, albeit on a much smaller scale.

A big shout-out to Chris the camp host for recommending the hike.

A big shout-out to Chris the camp host for recommending the hike.

A great hike at a great time of year.

A great hike at a great time of year.

Our turn around point was Upper Falls.

Our turn around point was Upper Falls.

The Layover day was perfect, and got us ready to head out the next day for what would HOPEFULLY be out last day of driving separately for a while. Rusty the Samurai and a lot of our stuff is being stored in Salmon, ID as we travel, and from there on out we should be each other's copilots in Little Foot, the terrestrial spaceship of our dreams!

Let there be light (and heat)!

We've fallen behind on blog posts yet again, but of course, you've probably all come to expect that. Our last week and a half in West Glacier was a scramble to finish the projects we wanted to get done on Little Foot, transition our extra belongings into storage in Idaho and wrap up our life there in an effort to prepare to hit the road.

Installing our wood stove was a priority, as it's fairly useless if we can't make a fire in it. Luckily, the box came with two vents in the roof, one of which was conveniently located directly above where the stove would sit, allowing us to run the pipe through it. It was too large for the stove pipe and the deck fitting we already had for it, so there were some alterations and patches that had to be made to accommodate it correctly.

The stove assembled with a piece of galvanized steel beside it that would make the vent hole the correct size.

The stove assembled with a piece of galvanized steel beside it that would make the vent hole the correct size.

One of the other biggest (and scariest) projects that we'd been avoided was installing two windows in the side of Little Foot. Our friend (and resident company mechanic) Bill had procured a perfectly sized window from a dumpster a while back. He didn't have a use for it, but couldn't stand to see a perfectly good window go to waste, so when we told him we were on the hunt for a window he handed it over with pride.

The windows were a necessity for us, as the box only has one small one into the cab (only large enough for Loulou our cat to get through) and the two rear ones in the doors that don't open. We wanted more light and more importantly, ventilation.

There was a lot of hemming and hawing initially, wondering if the window was too big, but once we convinced ourselves that any compromising of the box's structure and strength was a problem we'd created in our head, we decided to go for it.

We taped a giant trash bag around the space for the window to contain the mess as we sawed into the side of the box. It worked extremely well.

We taped a giant trash bag around the space for the window to contain the mess as we sawed into the side of the box. It worked extremely well.

The first cut is always the scariest.

The first cut is always the scariest.

Our favorite thing about the big window is that it came with textured privacy glass, so other than light and shapes, it's impossible to see into the vehicle. In this photo you can also see a small metal heat shield that we wrapped around the base of the bed for when we lower it when the stove is on or still hot after a recent fire.

Our favorite thing about the big window is that it came with textured privacy glass, so other than light and shapes, it's impossible to see into the vehicle. In this photo you can also see a small metal heat shield that we wrapped around the base of the bed for when we lower it when the stove is on or still hot after a recent fire.

The window Bill gave us fit the spot we had for it perfectly. It also reminded us of a smaller version of it that we'd found in the back warehouse of a local RV repair place down in Kalispell. We made a trip back down and grabbed the forgotten and dusty window to install in the side door.

It's amazing the difference a little light can make.

It's amazing the difference a little light can make.

The windows were attached to the box using a handful of screws. A weather-proof seal was created by backing the exterior trim with putty tape before attaching the window frame to the box. After the frame was screwed in, we added liberal amounts of silicon caulk around the edges. So far, watertight! (On the bigger window, we even went so far as to get a length of rv rain gutter to install above it and avoid whatever extra runoff onto the seal we could. The window on the side door is already protected by the rain gutter for the door that was already on the vehicle.)