Saturday, August 11, 2012

Superbright LED

I'm in the process of refitting new clearance lights on the Sunrader.  Truth be told I have one installed, but it is about 106F outside right now so I'm using that as an excuse to stay in today.

A couple of questions have come up about the replacement.  It is really fairly simple, but time consuming.  I chose the M8 series from SuperBrightLEDs.  I've used their fixtures in my stop/turn/reverse replacement project and their replacement LED bulbs on the interior.  The M8 sealed units are wider than the original fixtures, but they're brighter, simple to install, and should last a very long time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Some Kind of Vacation

I'm fortunate to have really good friends.  

Some folks are terrific at small talk and cocktails and big noisy parties.  Me, I'm one for a bench on the back patio and a long conversation, or a favorite mexican restaurant with extraordinary agave libations.  My friend Renee and I refer to this as "The Happy Place," and we return just regularly enough to ensure it is well maintained.  But I digress.

Joe and I met a couple of dozen years ago as colleagues on our university newspaper.  I'm sure he thinks that I was drawn to his dry humor and a shared taste in can't-tell-this-one-in-front-of-the-girls humor, but really it was his slammed Chevy S-10 that sealed the deal.  Did I mention he's a writer?  Respect.  We reconnected almost 10 years ago over cycling.  I can't recall, sitting here, what it was exactly but it was probably the first year of the Tour of California bike race.  Regardless, we've watched it together, all over California, ever since.

Like me, Joe is an avid cyclist.  He's a high-cadence guy, I'm a diesel, but we manage.  He hides in my slipstream on the flats, then drops me on the hard climbs.  Relationships are give and take like that.

Joe encouraged me to ride my first century.  A hundo.  Triple digits.  And he had just the plan.  A group of his friends were driving from LA to Portland to ride Reach the Beach.  Long story short, it was a special weekend.  New friends, a revelation on two wheels, sunshine and rolling Oregon green to a big-rock-beach sunset.  I met Helene and Wes, Joe's riding companions in So Cal. By met I mean we spent days together in a Ford 12-passenger van.  Over the next few years, we've gotten together to ride some great routes.  Levi's Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa is a perennial favorite, as is our annual self-guided trip from LA to San Diego (SAG drivers always wanted).  The combination of cycling, long conversations, great scenery and, most importantly, companionship, has made a huge difference in my life.

So in that context, it may actually make sense that Joe and Wes offered to come up for a weekend to help me work on my little Sunrader.  We've used it as a basecamp during the ToC, but it has mostly been my weekend project for mental relaxation.  I have had some amazing gifts in my life, but to have these guys drive most of a day each way just to do some finish carpentry for me...that's right at the top of the all time list.

So what did we work on?

As I've mentioned before, the cabinets in these RVs were designed for the showroom.  Particleboard, glue and staples were the primary building material.  In the 20 years since construction, the laminate facing became as much the primary structure as a decorative finish.  In this Sunrader, the kitchen cabinet was in the worst shape of the lot.  Heat, vibration and time have turned the particleboard into little more than tightly packed powder.  Doors didn't close properly, latches couldn't be secured and the cabinet shimmied and squeaked while underway.

The project is to completely replace the kitchen cabinet.  I have a new sink, a new laminate countertop that I've already fitted, but Joe and Wes came up to help with the tough part -- the real carpentry involved in building a face frame, drawers and bulkheads.

Demolition was a breeze.  What fasteners remained weren't holding tight to much.  Unsurprisingly, many had backed out of their intended anchor points long ago.  The 2x4 support for one side of the cabinet was actually floating free under the sink.  Quality optional?

The first task, per Joe's suggestion, was planning out the rough layout and location of the bulkheads that would support drawers and the countertop.  1/2-inch Birch plywood is the choice: easy to work with, stable and plenty strong.  We opted for a drawer set from Ikea rather than building our own box and drawers, though we'll do that for the more unusually shaped boxes that will go under the sink.

We got the table saw fixed (short delay of game), the bulkheads cut to size and the Ikea drawerset re-configured to fit the space over the wheel hump.  Joe built a really clean face frame for under the stove: poplar, glue and biscuits.  Yes Norm, we wore safety glasses.

We got the first bulkhead, by the entry door, fixed in place with wood screws into the door frame.  To install the next three, a friend who is a boat builder recommends we either fiberglass cleats onto the side wall of the coach and the floor, or use the 3M 5200 adhesive to glue them into place.

It is amazing watching Joe and Wes work.  The fabric of friendship is a powerful thing, bringing different perspectives to the table in highly constructive (oops) ways.  Joe is the carpenter, but Wes is a problem solver.  Joe knows the how and why of a face frame.  Wes pays attention to the last 7 details I'd consistently overlook.  One of the best parts of this experience, for me, was getting that sense of cohesion and combined achievement.

Next up is designing the second face frame and the under-sink drawers.  I also need to be careful because I have a strong itch to tear into the other side of the interior and start reconfiguring the closet and inverter panel.  One step at a time, one step at a time.

And hopefully Wes and Joe need another vacation sometime soon.  And yes, we did get in a good bike ride up to the dam too...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Top

I'll start this by saying there wasn't really anything
wrong with the original fiberglass countertop. It was in good condition, easy to clean and not altogether unappealing. That being said, it lacked a lot in the structural department.

Apparently the construction method favored by Gardner Pacific, the long since defunct maker of the Sunrader, involved almost as much silicone adhesive as it did staples. The substance is indeed tenacious, but once it loses its grip it is completely useless. And in this case, the countertop had long since broken free of its original silicone attachment to the cabinetry. In addition, the builders used a number of plywood braces on the underside of the counter to make up for its rather limited stiffness. Around the stove in particular, strips of plywood acted as braces and provided purchase to the wood screws that held the stove in place.

During a previous removal of the stove I'd used some gorilla glue to reattach said braces, but it was only a temporary fix if that.

The bigger issue of the 'floating countertop' was really the lack of structural strength (integrity, really) of the cabinet itself. There really isn't much more to it than a particle board face frame and a few bits of 2x4 lumber to hold it up. Weight saving and cheap. And without the shear strength (no, not sheer strength) of the fiberglass counter to keep it square, the cabinet does an awkward version of the hula on the highway. Cue squeaky clattery noises. Ack.

Removing the counter is relatively easy. The stove comes out with just a few wood screws, the sink is held in by wing-nut tensioned clips, and the plumbing is all very straightforward. The only tricky bits are cutting (breaking) the fiberglass where it encircles the drain vent AND separating the support for the drawers from the underside of the counter. I used impatience whenever the utility blade couldn't quite make it through the luan. I know there are better techniques.

All the screws that had originally held the counter to the exterior wall had come loose, so it only took a little bit of coaxing for the last bit of silicone to release.

Fortunately, my source for custom counters came through in just a few days. With a little trimming using a router, the new top went in easily. I installed some 2x4 supports along the front of the cabinets (vertically) to provide some much needed rigidity and to provide a cleat for some wood screws up into the counter. The difference in structural strength for the cabinet is dramatic.

I got a new matching sink at the H-Depot and cutout the space for the stove after half a dozen more careful than usual measurements from the original counter. For the most part, everything went in quickly and easily. Next up is plumbing. I haven't worked with Pex before, but it looks simple enough.


2012 - The New List

I'm not quite sure whether it was the discovery of BBC's Top Gear on Netflix or just the call of an old friend in the driveway as I walk back and forth to work on a winter morning, but I've been back to thinking about new projects for the little Sunrader.

First up, the counters are getting replaced, along with the sink and a few other bits that go with them. I had considered completely redoing the kitchen cabinet section, but I've thought the better of it for now (I am no cabinet maker). Lucky for me, Beth's dad manufactures laminate countertop, so I have a great resource for a little bit of custom work!

Next, I'm replacing all the clearance/marker lights with new LED units sourced from I've had good luck with their products on the tail lights already. The clearance lights are still original on the rig. They have held up admirably, which is to say that they all work. Mostly. With a few taps and fiddles now and again to work a clean spot back onto the contacts. I've already removed one of the red lights along the rear roofline and it literally crumbled in my hands as I tried to get the silicone around it to release. Time for an update, indeed.

I've discovered that I may actually like fiddling with the Sunrader as much, or even more than I like heading off on a camping trip. Nothing like a good bit of tinkering to clear the head, and nothing like signs of progress to warm the heart.

Also on the list for 2012 will be new curtains, new locks on the exterior compartment doors, finishing out the interior lighting, a new powered HD antenna...hmmm that's enough for now I reckon.

Must check the tyre pressures before the Stig takes a practice lap. Ta for now.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cool it and Backup!

Back to the original subject.

With Spring busting out early this year, I'm coming to terms with the possibilities (and limits) for 2011 improvement projects on the Sunrader. At the top of the agenda is a replacement cooling unit for the Dometic 2401 fridge that expired down in Big Sur last fall. That means a trip up to Sacramento and a visit to RV Doctor George. While I could probably figure out how to replace the cooling system myself, I've read enough stories online about the challenges of fitting them properly that I'd rather leave it up to someone with experience.

Interestingly, many of the cooling units themselves are re-manufactured by the Amish, providing a sort of ambiguous sense of craftsmanship and quality. I'm just thankful they continue to work on these older units. A replacement refrigerator would be about the same cost as the installed cooling unit, but newer refrigerators in this size range are two-way (120v/gas) rather than the three-way (120v/12v/gas) of the old Dometic. So, even though the unit has a little age to it, it will retain some more flexibility with the new cooler.

Tail Lights

Since we originally drove the Sunrader home about a year ago, the tail lights have been an ongoing issue. They've been dim and flaky, and even with some sanding and resurfacing of the contacts and cleaning all the lenses, they're still sub-optimal. Did i mention that they aren't anything close to watertight?

The lights on the Sunrader are the old Reflect-O-Lite 1400 triples. While pervasive, I don't think they ever qualified as state of the art. More like state of the cheap. Single bulbs are dedicated to stop, turn and reverse and the reflectors are just aluminum sheet, which also provides the conductive mounts for the bulbs. The aluminum looks nice and shiny in this picture, but in reality it has a thick layer of oxidation.

I've thought about carefully taking the whole thing apart, carefully polishing all the metal, etc. And there are new lenses available in a few dark corners of the Web. Even still, the tail lights would still have that lazy incandescent tempo of an old beater on I-5. Maybe I over state it a little, but after all I'm building a case for a project. So.

I'm thinking it is time for a bit of fabrication and customization. I just ordered three-each of the amber, red and white versions of this tail lamp from the Superbright Leds online store. At 5.3"/3.4" they are slightly smaller than each of the lamps in the 1400s, which should work just right. I will probably have to replace the flasher unit on the Toyota with a solid state version, since the LEDs consume much less power than the old bulbs, but I think that is pretty much plug-and-play (assuming I can find one).

The new LED lights fit into place with rubber grommets, so I think they'll look sharp and a little more contemporary than the old units, without being ridiculously out of place.

Once the lights arrive, the plan is to head over to our local TAP Plastic's outlet. I'm thinking some Ivory acrylic will do the trick, cut to the original outline of the 1400s to fit the opening and with laser cut-outs for each of the new lights. Not cheap -- the new lights were about 150 bucks all-in and the custom cut acrylic won't be free either -- but the new tail lights should shine nice and bright as we go down the road.

And give me an excuse to change out all the clearance lights too. Gotta have a project in the wings.

Friday, February 11, 2011

You Are My Sunshine

Yesterday our youngest, Callie, joined her classmates for a field trip to a local assisted living center. The kids had spent class time this week preparing some songs, as well as Valentines to bring along for the residents. Callie's maestra, Mrs. Carnahan, is one of those rare teachers that goes beyond the classroom to make a lasting imprint on her students, instilling them both with a love of learning and, today, a love of giving back.

This was the first trip the kids have made to the center, and they filed in dutifully as First-Graders will, their willingness to stay in line overcoming the tinges of fear that come with strange places and new faces. Their first performance was for the main community of residents, many of whom were running behind (Yoga class apparently ran long) so they got a bit of a late start.

The kids handed out the Valentines and sang their songs, to the delight of the audience. Callie's class is conducted entirely in Spanish, so their two songs were Cuatro Vezes al Dia and You Are My Sunshine. They were, put simply, a hit.

It turns out, in fact, that this is the first time a group of youngsters has visited the assisted living center. So this was a real treat for the group, as beyond the occasional grandchild there just aren't too many kids coming to visit.

The class then walked over to the "memory ward," where folks who are struggling with Alzheimer's get special care and attention to ease some of the big challenges that come with fading memory. For the kids, it was clear that the feeling in the room was that much more intense, as the outward signs of decline were vivid and the engagement from the prospective audience remote.

And perhaps that's why First-Graders are uniquely equipped to bring smiles to people who need them the most.

One resident, concerned and disoriented at the influx of children, protested to a caretaker that someone should call the police. Another sat quietly on the couch in the lounge area, her head leaning forward in a pink hat, stoically staring into her lap as the kids came in. And she stayed almost motionless as they lined up and began the program.

Happily, some of the residents from the prior performance had enjoyed it so much they made a point of coming along and filling out the room, adding some now familiar faces to the mix.

The children continued into another round of songs, belting them out with just a little more confidence given their experience down the hall.

And as they sang, it became clear that other voices in the room had joined in.

One of those voices, hidden beneath a pink hat and rounded shoulders, rang out clear as a bell.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Big Sur - Kirk Creek

At last.

After a year of using the Sunrader for point-to-point-to-point trips, we finally had the opportunity this week to give it a thorough wringing out with a three night stay at Kirk Creek, south of Big Sur on Highway 1.

Kirk Creek is listed in Sunset Magazine's top campgrounds in California, and it is by all accounts a spectacular location. The camp is set on a bluff to the west of Highway 1, with a full 180 degree view of the Pacific. The sites are mostly large with good fire rings, pedestal bbqs and picnic tables. Parking is on hardpack gravel, which is fine even on a rainy day as there is crabgrass everywhere and good drainage. Fortunately for us, the folks looking after Kirk Creek are helpful and flexible too. More on that in a bit.

Indy, our two-year-old Chocolate Lab, loved the chance to ride with a view out the front window.

We arrived late on Monday afternoon in light rain. The last 40 miles of the trip are on the coast road, which is quite windy and therefore a bit of a Dramamine proving-ground for the kids in the back. That said, all were in good spirits as we pulled in to site 17. Of all the sites, it seemed to have the steepest slope, which isn't comfortable for sleeping and can potentially wreck the refrigerator. We did our best to level the rig, and put together some franks and beans for dinner. Yep, campin'. The campground host suggested we could move in the morning, as some of the first-come-first-served sites would open up and we'd find a flat spot to settle in.

Mr. Clean Pays a Visit
I should have turned off the fridge, but instead we took Indy for a walk. When we got back, the smell of ammonia inside the Sunrader was mild. In a moment it was overwhelming. Even with all the windows open and the overhead fan full bore, there was no way to clear it out. The fridge was dead. These units use a combination of hydrogen and ammonia to cool, which means they can run on propane or electricity and operate silently. The downside is that they must be level, or the boiler can run dry and crack. I'm pretty sure that's what happened.

Anyhow, the sky had cleared up a little so we decided to sleep under the sky for the night. I rolled out the awning and put all the cushions out on a tarp -- hoping the rain had passed.

Of course, it hadn't.

At about 2:30 am, the rain started drizzling on the awning overhead and I tried to stay sleeping, hoping it would just pass on by. After all, we were right on the coast. What's a little mist? But what's the fun in that? Naw, it went from misting to dibble-dopping to pelting, and I started imagining all the nice new cushions from inside the Sunrader sopping up the Kirk Creek mud around the edges of the tarp.

So all six groggy campers (including Indy) mustered and recombobulated into the rig. Callie, in her inimitable way, managed to get in without ever disgorging herself from her sleeping bag. Fortunately, by this time, the overwhelming ammonia smell had completely dissipated and we all managed to stay dry and warm for the night.

The next morning, the campground folks helped us out and we got ourselves a nice flat site right on the edge of the bluff. Even if we'd killed the fridge, at least we'd be sleeping flat. It was a drizzly, wet day and the whole place was reminiscent of Scotland, with lots of low growing bush and groundcover and the omnipresent smell of damp. Thank goodness we weren't in a tent.

Kirk Creek
We took a quick hike down the Kirk Creek trail to the ocean. While the bluff is mostly a sheer drop to the ocean, the creek has cut a gently sloping canyon which makes for a beautiful walk through some redwoods down to the surf. There isn't any beach to speak of, just big gnarled rocks at the base of the cliffs. It is beautiful even in its bleakness.

The sun came out for our final full day, and we took a longer hike up the trail on the east side of the highway, which winds up into the Ventana Wilderness section of the Los Padres National Forest. This area, just south of Big Sur, is known for its diverse plant and animal populations, with coastal, savanna, and forest environments all tightly intersecting. Big Sur, so far as I know, may be one of the few -- if only -- places where you could see a mountain lion eating a sea lion.

We hiked up through lots of chaparral on wide open hillsides, then had lunch as the trail turned into a small valley packed with tall coast redwoods. The trail goes back up, far into the wilderness and certainly warrants another trip for a longer hike or backpacking expedition.

Our last dinner at Kirk Creek was bbq next to the campfire. Even though it was beyond cold, the big fire kept us outside under the stars long enough to roast marshmallows and make S'mores. And the sunset over the pacific, with the clear winter sky framed by a distant marine layer, striped the sky with orange and gold. It made it hard to think about packing up the next morning to head home for Thanksgiving... Here are a few more shots from the trip.