Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A New Project

So if anyone happened to notice I dumped this picture here last month as an unintentionally cryptic way to host a quick image for a forum I'm on.  Based on that and the title one might gather that I've got something big I'm working on. 

So a month later I've let my HOA peek their nosy eyes inside and feel I can finally start working on things.  Here's the beast on the day I got it.  It was located up in Oakland so I rode my BMW up and then drove back with the bike strapped in the back.

Its a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter Crew.  The Crew trim comes with rear windows, a rear bench seat, and a headliner.  I got it used for $36k after having sold my toyhauler and truck.  Yes, its technically my daily driver.  Realistically I ride my BMW more than I drive but as far as the HOA is concerned, this is my daily driver.  So the plan then is to turn it into a camper, but since the HOA won't let me park an RV at my home, doing it in such a way as to be stealthy.  Stealth campervan builds are nothing new, but most folks think of the exterior when they say stealth - the idea being that you can park somewhere to spend the night without trouble from the police.  I want my van to be stealth even if somebody from the HOA manages to get a glance inside.  But all of that extra effort will come later.  For the early stages, a van build will generally follow the same progression.  The one thing I will note is that since I work nights and obviously can't work on the van at my home, most of the pictures will be nighttime shots.   I generally try to follow up later with a daytime pic when I remember to take one.

One of the first things I did was install a MaxxAir fan.  There are really only two brand options for these types of forced ventilation fans with several levels of different features.  For the type that I wanted, both brands essentially have all the same features for roughly the same price ranges with one exception:  One has a rain sensor that will close the vent should the sky start to dump while the MaxxAir has a built in cover and therefore is designed to run even in the rain or while driving.  I've seen how well rain sensors hold up, and who wants to deal with stagnant air just because its been raining for several days.  MaxxAir won this decision easily.  One unexpected benefit of doing the fan first was by cutting a 14" square hole in my roof, all subsequent holes became stress free.

My first "injury" occurred around this time.  I pulled the stock headliner down to add the roof rails and install the fan.  Not sure how or why, but my hands had a bad reaction to the backside of the headliner.  They were very painful and swollen, and eventually the skin peeled off.  My hands were fairly useless for the better part of a week.

Insulation will make or break an overnight experience.  My naked van was hitting 95° inside after an hour of sitting in the SoCal winter sun.  At night it was almost immediately ambient.  Even while driving, with only the vents on the dash there was no way to effectively regulate the temperature inside.  After much research, I opted on going with 3M Thinsulate throughout.  At $650, its the most expensive option, but arguably the best. 

As I was finishing up the insulation, my roof rack was finally ready to be installed.  I opted to go with a cookie-cutter variety since the $700 price was attractive, I wasn't sure where my vent and solar would end up when I ordered it, and honestly I just like the look of 3/4 coverage.  I welded in a cross beam for the solar panels.  Solar panels are a popular target for thieves so I used pop rivets and mounted them in such a way that a would-be thief would need a drill or a cutoff wheel to take them without damage.  It was 10x more work for a bit of peace of mind.


I made all the modifications for the panels but took them off to avoid the added weight and fragility while installing the rack.  Once the rack was up I mounted the solar panels the following day.  I generally won't name brands unless one particularly impresses me and Renogy panels have done that in previous projects.  Their performance in less-than-ideal conditions is quite something and yet they're one of the cheaper panels on the market.  One night on the boat I was looking at the first planets starting to become visible while still making 0.3A with 2x50w Renogy panels.  I had a single 100w panel on my toyhauler as well and I consistently found that if there was enough light to see words on a page, I was making power.  In direct sun, a 100w Renogy panel will top out at about 5.8 amps.  On an overcast day?  About 4 amps.  On a dark and stormy day or while parked in the shade?  About 3 amps.  Most campervan conversions seem to be running around 3-400w and around 400Ah worth of battery storage.  But I've found that most solar installations are piss-poor at best, and much of the potential energy is lost due to some simple design errors.  Based on previous RV experience and the low light performance of these panels, I suspect I should be able to get by with 200w of solar and 210Ah of batteries.  I can always add more.  I tried to mount them so that they weren't terribly obvious from the ground.

Notice that the panels cannot be blocked by shadows of any antennas or other roof denizens.  Because of the way panels work, even a slight shadowing from an antenna can easily reduce your panel output by 25% or more.   I'll touch up on this more and how to maximize your electrical efficiency as I get further along in the build.

Mercedes makes a 4x4 version of this van but at $6,800 option on a new one, and much more than that in the used market due to rarity, I really couldn't justify the cost.  I mean, its still unibody.  Any decent 4wd terrain and you're going to start popping welds so really the 4wd would only be good for mild sand or snow.  Nice?  Sure.  Worth the staggering price difference?  Well, maybe if I get stuck.  Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I wanted some decent lighting in case I need to pick my way through some dicey terrain.  Up front I added a 42" LED light bar.


Meanwhile back inside, the insulation was up and I ran all of the electrical.  Its not super obvious in the picture since everything was tucked up out of the way using those sticky back zip tie mounts.


I added swivel adapters to the front seats thus allowing them to rotate and face the rear.  I also tied the vehicle alternator into the house battery bank via an isolator.  If you aren't familiar, an isolator is simply a high amp relay that you tie in to a circuit that is only on when the ignition is on.  What's a relay?  Its a switch.  So instead of a switch on the wall that you have to remember to turn on and off (which I'll also have), a relay flips the switch anytime 12v is applied to one side of it, in this case whenever the key is on.  The load is small enough that you can easily tie it in to any circuit that isn't terribly sensitive, like the stock radio.  Therefore when the key is on, all of your batteries are charging together.  When the key is off, you cannot drain your starting battery as it is electrically isolated from the house bank.  All of my camper electrical loads will only go to my house batteries and the only tie the house batteries have to the starting battery is via the isolator located under the driver's seat.  With a bit of jiggery-pokery, this essentially gives me two separate but equally usable battery sets.  I can't run down the starting battery no matter what I do in the back, and if/when my starting battery starts to take a dive, I can give it a boost from the house batteries, at least enough to start the engine and go get a replacement.

The following day 1/3 of my wiring fell down, thus making it much more obvious in photos.  By the day after, about an hour's worth of measuring for the ceiling lights was lost when the rest of the wiring fell to the floor.  Oh well.  But I did get some wood for paneling the interior.


Rather than use the stock headliner which is kinda ugly, wastes quite a bit of space, and gives me a gnarly rash, I paneled the interior using 1/8" ply on the roof.  The walls will likely get 1/4".  Its not a huge gain over the stock headliner, but in a space this small, an inch can make all the difference.  It seems like 90% of campervan conversions on YouTube are finished wood.  As nice as it looks, it really made me want to go a different route.  Therefore all of it will be covered so precise cuts aren't needed.


The stock dome light just stuck into a recess in the headliner so I replaced it with a couple LED strips.  Its a bit 'Death Star' but out of direct view so minimal glare.  Red light doesn't ruin your night vision so its useful for my astrophotography hobby.  I'll have warm white LED's for the living space but I'll also have red lights throughout the van on a separate circuit for those times that I need to keep my night vision or not piss off a bunch of grumpy astronomers.

Thankfully its not too ridiculous from the outside.

This was my first time doing any sort of upholstery so I started covering the least visible and potentially most challenging area above the driver and passenger seats first.  This area will be storage and potentially a bed for the kid for the next year or so.  Either way it will be largely out of sight.  It went okay but I definitely learned quite a few lessons and hope the rest goes better.  I'm using speaker carpet for the ceiling and although I'd like to use it for the walls as well, I have two labs that would quickly coat the walls in hair.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A few passes with a can of spraypaint

     Measuring and maths!  I've been reading a lot the past few days learning sidecar mechanics so I can hopefully get this thing bolted up safely.  The GS is going to be a bit of a pain since it lacks a lower frame.  So today I wheeled everything out and placed it close to where the math says it needs to be.  I took a few pictures since everyone that's seen the last one has commented negatively about that horrible shark graphic.  Yes, its gone.  Back in the garage I started cutting tubing for the subframe.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Not Dead, New Project

     Well I'm still alive and still riding.  I just haven't felt like posting recently because its mostly just been solo trips.  I go. I see.  I go home.  Mostly I don't even bring the camera.

     A few years ago I decided that it would be really neat to have a sidecar.  It would be nice to have the option of taking the family around with me and let's face it, they just look cool!  So today I picked up a used Dnepr sidecar.  Its ugly as hell but that's easy enough to fix.  We'll see how this goes...

Monday, December 15, 2014

I Concede

Adventure bikes.  Ok, they have their merits...

So maybe my Moab trip made me realize that trucking a pure dirtbike a couple thousand miles just to ride trails a sportbike could do wasn't the most fun option.  Sure I did hard stuff in Moab, but I had the most fun on the easy trails.  So queue the BMW (and excuse my recent discovery/interest in HDR photography):

She's a bit rough around the edges but solid where it counts.  Here's the specs:

2009 BMW F800GS
35k miles
Mirage 2 Fairing
Caribou Panniers
Rekluse Clutch
Few other bits of kit...

Stay tuned...
Death Valley?   Soon.
Baja?  A bit later...

Added a few bits:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ever Heard of a CEO Doing This?

How's this for amazing customer service?

I just ordered a Kuberg Cross a few weeks ago for the wife to ride around on.  Took a few weeks to make it over on the boat and clear customs (most of these bikes are sold before they even make it on the boat).  Anyway it arrived so I assembled, charged, and did a quick test with it on the stand to see that the tire spun when throttle was applied.  I loaded it up and we went on a 4 day trip to the desert.  2 minutes into her 1st ride on it my wife says its acting funny and keeps limiting her speed to about 5mph.  I check it out and reset the speed to the maximum and she gets back on.  Few minutes later she comes pushing it back to camp.  Won't run and some brief diagnostics tell me its either a faulty throttle or bad speed controller - neither of which I can do anything about out there.  So we park it the rest of the trip.

I went ahead and shot off an email to Kelly Knipe, the US distributor explaining the problem.  He replies back within the hour and says that I may have gotten one of the old relays by mistake and he's sending me the upgraded one today.  We got home a few days later and the new relay still wouldn't work.  I had a few emails with Kelly and we confirmed that it was the speed controller.  He told me he was working with Kuberg in Czech to figure out the fastest way to get me a replacement.  A few days later I got an email asking if I could meet him at a local hotel that weekend to swap controllers - apparently they have had a few controllers over the last several months that went dead and wanted to get some back to the shop for examination. 

A few days later I met with Kelly and surprise, surprise:  CEO Michal Kubanek.  Apparently he'd decided it would be easiest to just fly over to California with replacements and swap them out there.  So for the next 30 minutes Kelly and Michal pulled the entire electrical assembly out of my wife's bike and replaced it with a new one.  Despite knowing it was a faulty speed controller causing the issue, they wanted to ensure there wasn't a contributing factor from some other part of the system - plus have the full assembly for testing back at the shop.  Apparently at least one other customer in the area was getting a new electrical system as well so that explained the trip.

Anyway just wanted to post because I've never seen customer service like this.  Bike is working great and is a whole heap of fun!

Apologies for the awful and backlit cell phone pic (especially to Michal and Kelly).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Kuberg LiPo Install - The Easiest Mod Ever Done

     Sorta stuck on kid's bikes at the moment.  Apologies.  As I mentioned in my review of the Start, I was going to swap the stock lead acid batteries for LiPo's.  Did it, and spent a whopping 30 minutes doing the conversion.

     I got the idea from the Oset owners over on TrialsCentral so I owe them all the trial and error.  I ordered two 5000mAh batteries for about 20% more range than the stock ones.  My Start had 8Ah SLA batteries even though the Kuberg website says that the Start comes with 9Ah.  Oh well no matter.  Anyway the Kuberg already uses XT-60 connectors so all I had to do was solder XT-60's to the batteries toss them into some LiPo charge bags and drop em in.

     LiPo's are a bit more maintenance than SLA's and require special chargers so don't undertake this if lack of maintenance is your favorite aspect about an e-bike.  They don't last as many years, require special chargers, and they can catch fire if used improperly - mostly just during charging but it is possible to start a fire if the battery is shorted or damaged.  I spent just under $200 including chargers and a power supply to run them and ordered everything from Hobby King.

You'll need:
Tool kit that came with the Start
2x XT-60 female leads
XT-60 Parallel connector
2x Zippy 5000mAh 6S LiPo batteries
2x LiPo safe small charging bags
2x battery monitors (optional, but a good idea to prevent excessive discharging of the batteries)
2x XK balancing lead extensions for monitors
Misc solder and heat shrink supplies

     Remove the seat and plastics and the upper bolt to the rear shock.  Prop the bike up on a stand and let the swingarm drop to the floor.  Disconnect the battery leads, release the battery strap, and slide the batteries out the back where the shock used to be.  Pop the new batteries in their bags and slide them in.  Use the battery strap to hold them in place.  Plug the batteries into the parallel connector.  Plug the speed controller into the parallel connector.  Connect the battery monitors to the balancing leads (if you bought monitors).  Bolt everything back up.

     For now I just shoved the monitors in the back next to the bags.  I'll mount them more permanently if needed but they're rather handy there - just a bit ugly with all the wires from the balancing leads exposed.

     With a slightly higher voltage the bike is a tiny bit quicker, although with my kid still on speed setting 2 its maybe 1/3 mph so hardly noticeable.  With the larger 5000mAh batteries I gained 20% more range, but didn't save as much weight as I could have - only 7.7 lbs including wiring, bags, and monitors.  But still, that's a nearly 18% reduction in weight over stock.  That would be the same as shaving 45.5 lbs off my KTM for $200 so that's extremely significant!  Aside from that the bike performs the same as before so nothing really to report.

     I bought 2 chargers and a power supply big enough to run both so that I could charge both packs simultaneously.  Charge time is about an hour although I could have reduced this to 30 minutes if I'd opted for a larger power supply.