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Sunday, October 25, 2015

More Knowledge Project

With the largest battery we could find to fit under the hood installed, we now have the responsibility to manage that power to maximize the life of the battery. This means not drawing the battery down to more than 50%. With a 125 amp hour battery, we have 62 amp hours of usable capacity. 

The monitor included in the van is used for all of the systems; water tanks, propane and battery power. The readings are simple lights at Full, 2/3 and 1/3 which really isn't sufficient to know your usable capacity.

We installed a Balmar Smartgauge based on reviews at several cruising web sites.  We first heard about it from Ben Ellison who runs, devoted to marine electronics, some of which have crossover usage in RV's. We ordered our Smartgauge from Compass Marine after finding RC Collin's detailed review of battery monitors to be very helpful.

Another option would have been to install an amp hour meter, like the Trimetric by Bogart Engineering.

The thing that swung us to the Smartgauge is that it gets more accurate over time, while amp hour meters get less accurate.  Either would be far preferable to the existing idiot lights.

Our new set-up is the Smartgauge along with a remote pendant that shows the status of the Intellipower 7200 converter (battery charger) that was installed by Pleasure-way. The Smartgauge is displaying that we are at 77% of capacity.  Set-up was simple with a couple of button pushes to program our battery type as 1 of 7 types.  Note that Lithium Ion batteries are not supported.

The remote pendant is an inexpensive addition. It comes with a telephone style cord that plugs directly into the converter and sticky tape for installation. One LED indicates the charge mode based on how it is flashing. A single button allows for manually changing between modes.

The Smartgauge uses two sense wires that are attached to the battery. We chose to install the readout near the back of the van, so ran wires from under the hood to the couch near the rear. The details follow for anyone interested.

The positive wire should be fused, so we mounted the included fuse block at the front of the engine compartment. One hole, a bolt, and a locknut were used to mount the plate.

The fuse block then simply snaps onto the plate. Ring  and spade terminals are included, so we crimped one at each end of a length of red 14 gauge wire between the battery and the fuse block. To make the connections a little more robust, we added heat shrink tubing over the crimped connections.

Next we attached a spade connector to a 50' spool of red 14 gauge wire that will run from the fuse block (+) to the Smartgauge. Likewise, we crimped a ring connector to a 50' spool of black wire that will run directly from the battery (-) to the Smartgauge. 

The connected (-) sense wire is shown above. Our Lifeline battery has a convenient bolt on the top of the battery post that fits the larger of the two ring terminals included with the Smartgauge.

There is a pass-thru in the firewall right above the battery. We pushed the wires through here and retrieved them inside the van, just outboard of the steering wheel. From here they go down the driver side step to head toward the bathroom.

We removed  the carpet and then the three screws from the battery access floor edging.

This reveals more screws that hold the step cover.

The hardest part of the project was removing the plugs covering three screws in the step cover.

Note that the covers are diagonal plugs. We used a small screwdriver to pull them out.

Here is the underside of the step cover.

We ran the wires just under the door gasket so they shouldn't be damaged by any weight on the step.

The wires can then be passed into the bathroom. We removed the small shelf that covers the wire and plumbing access by removing the two screws in the metal rack.  We found that one of the screws wasn't threaded into the wood, so that will be another small project upon reassembly. We will also need to re-caulk the seems prior to using it for a shower.

Here is a view into the chase. There was just enough room for me to get my hands in there to pull wires.

The next compartment is where the hot water heater sits. Four screws allow access to this area.

From here wires run under the heater fan duct into the wheel well area. A metal tape was used to pull through this small opening.

The wheel well area is accessed under the settee cushion. Wires are pulled through and out towards the couch along the same route as the couch motor wires. The power converter is the silver box with fins. This is where the pendant is attached using the included phone style cord.

This is a close view of where the wires pass through from the water heater compartment.

Finally, we installed the Smartgauge and pendant on a board between the couch and the settee. This may not be the permanent placement. We didn't want to make any visible modifications to the  beautiful woodwork, so opted to use L brackets under this shelf.  We left the wires long enough to mount it elsewhere in the future.

And now for the rest of the story... For those of you who made it this far, we found a frog skeleton in the fuse compartment under the drivers seat.  Don't know when or where this poor little frog was trapped in there, but we hope it was before we owned the van!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

More Power Project

The ability to camp overnight without needing to plug into the grid is something that would be helpful, especially when transiting to a destination.  The van has a single house battery that hasn't really held much of a charge since we bought it used. Our project is two-fold:

1) Replace the existing battery with one that has greater capacity and fits in the existing battery space.

We had good experiences with Lifeline AGM batteries in the sailing version of Intuition, so we ordered the largest battery that we think will fit in the space.  It is a GPL-31XT and boosts our capacity from 100 to 125 amp hours. AGM's also have low self-discharge rates and are generally accept a higher current charge than traditional flooded cell batteries.

2) Add a monitor so we have a better idea of how much capacity is available. See the next post for detailed info on that project.

Battery Installation

Parts Used
12" Battery Hold Down Bolts (J hooks)
Universal Cross-bat Battery Hold down
2 Wood Blocks
Original Equipment House Battery
The 100 amp hour sealed lead acid Johnson Controls house battery is located under the hood. The starting battery (identical to the house battery) is located under the driver's feet.

Battery Tray sans Battery

The new battery is different enough that it won't slip right in without a few changes. The Lifeline is a group 31 battery, so is physically larger than the original battery. The method of securing the two batteries is also different. The original is held near its base by a foot that slips into a slot in the battery.  The Lifeline has no slot, so needs to be secured by a battery hold-down clamp. We purchased a set of 12 inch long Hold-down Bolts and a Universal Crossbar Battery Hold-down. These were SuperStart branded at O'Reilly Auto Parts. The hold-down crossbar didn't quite seat on the battery top correctly, so we added two scrap blocks of wood that slid into the center handle spots on the Lifeline. With these in place the hold-down clamp seats perfectly and applies pressure evenly across the battery. The last step in preparation was to cut the wire ties holding the harness that passes through the firewall. The gives the wires a little more flexibility. 

Beth & I were wimpy and called on our good friend Pat Gaglione to help us place the 74 pound battery.  Rather than just help, he wheeled out his tools, pulled the old battery out and hefted the new one in. It is a tight fit to squeeze the additional 2 inches of height underneath the wire harnesses passing through the firewall.  Thanks to his finesse developed over years of restoring cars as a hobby, the battery slid right in.   I really appreciate this great guy.  

We did notice that the battery terminals are reversed from those on the original battery and switched the connections when hooking them back up. The ground (-) cable was just long enough to reach. The positive cable has plenty of length and was no problem.

Wire ties still needed to be attached to clean things up in the photo below, but it should give a general idea of how the new battery fits.  There is nothing we did that can't be undone to restore the original battery. We are excited to have more power.  The next post will have info on how we installed the Smartgauge monitor.

New Battery as Installed

Original Equipment Starting Battery (not replaced)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Camping Near UNC Asheville

A glimpse of the Foothills Before the Rain
We’re relaxing after a quick trip to Asheville, NC. We were up in the mountains to tour the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA). They have a Mechatronics major that interests Noah.  It is a combination of Electrical, Mechanical, and Computer engineering. We were going to drive up and stay in a hotel near the campus, but changed plans when we started pricing hotel rooms, like $425/night at a Hampton Inn!  The leaves have started to change color and that is peak season for hotels in the mountains. 

The Good Side
Another Perspective
Unique Pop-up Trailer

The River Runs through the Campground
The van came in handy as we found a campground twenty minutes from the school. The KOA East was on a small pond surrounded by hills. Our spot was on the edge of the pond with a variety of camp sites. It reminded me of how important product photography can be.  You can see from the two photos that the site had beautiful views in one direction, and a view of the neighboring trailer park and fence in the other.  We simply chose to draw the curtains across the windshield and enjoy the view of the lake!

Noah looked at the weather forecast and decided to sleep on the floor of the van instead of setting up his tent. It was a good choice as the rain started shortly after dark on Friday and didn’t stop until early Sunday morning. We didn’t see any of the mountains on our visit. It really is a beautiful area.

One of Noah’s good friends from the robotics team is a freshman at UNCA and we met her for lunch. She likes the setting and small class sizes. There are no graduate programs, so all the classes are actually taught by professors. The program is a joint one with NC State in Raleigh and you get a degree from both institutions. The downside is that some of the courses are taught via teleconference. There are 3,700 students at UNCA which is significantly less than the 34,000 at NC State!  Noah is still leaning toward NC State, but is seriously considering UNCA after visiting the campus, despite all the rain.  

After touring the campus, we looked for a place to eat in downtown Asheville. We circled a couple of times and could not find a place to park. We should have planned ahead and scouted a parking area. Beth pulled out google maps and found places out by a mall with plenty of parking. After lunch at an unremarkable Carrabba's Grill, we headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the Folk Art Center where there is plenty of parking for any kind of vehicle.  Folks were making brooms and demonstrating weaving in front of the permanent gallery and gift shop. There is no fee, though you may be hard pressed to leave without purchasing some of the beautiful craft items.

Upon returning to the campsite in the rain, we didn't even bother going outside. A while later, there was someone knocking on the door. We wondered what would bring someone over in the dark on a rainy evening. Turns out it was a neighbor doing a good deed and informing me that I wasn't bright enough to turn my headlights off!  One more thing for the checklist.

Noah worked on honing his college essays Saturday night while drying out in the van.  The early application deadline is this Thursday and he plans to get them done so he can know before the end of January if he has been accepted to NC State and/or UNC Asheville.  

Sunday morning we drove out of the clouds and had an easy 4 hour trip home.

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