Putting My RV Build on Sprinter-Source.com

I’ve started my Sprinter conversion thread on Sprinter-Source.com. I’m turning my empty cargo van into an off-grid urban stealth camper and mobile office. The first post has nearly all my hardware20170412_170137.jpg listed and why I chose it.

This forum has a huge number of detailed build threads for various Sprinter RV conversions, and has been enormously helpful in making decisions so far. My goal is to provide enough detail on my conversion that someone else could duplicate any part of it with minimal technical skill.

I’ll be making my detailed posts there as I go, and then cross posting a link and a summary here to my blog and to FaceBorg, just like I’m doing now. My current goal is to get my solar panels mounted before Memorial Day when I’ll be going to Burning Flipside. I finally managed to find the slide brackets necessary to attach something to the rails on the roof, which was shocking hard to discover. I got eight of these to bolt on the panels, which are already mounted in pairs on aluminum rails.

I’m excited to see this project coming together!


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There’s a Parrot on Your Head

Despite threats of rain and due to peer pressure from several friends, I took a small part in the yearly bacchanalia of Eeyore’s Birthday Party this Saturday afternoon. It’s a yearly fundraiser for local charities in Pease Park smack in the middle of town.

Nothing says “Austin” quite like the sea of costumed, pot-smoking hippies and their accompanying armada of dogs, children, and random musical instruments.

20170429_150245.jpgWe ended up getting ironically delayed by a group of People’s Climate March & Rally protesters due to a wrong turn. They were marching away from Eeyore’s at the time, but most of them probably had either come from there, went there afterward, or both.



We took the shuttle bus to avoid the nightmare of trying to park nearby. We only had to wait about 15 minutes to get on the bus, which was a fun mobile party.







Can you find the woman with a live parrot on her head in the in the funnel cake line? There are many casual old friend I often see only once a year at the event. This time around my peer group nev20170429_161028.jpger quite made a nest, so Lee and I ended up rotating through for most of the event. Thanks to Lee, Allen, and Andi for convincing me to go and helping me get there. I almost stayed in bed after I saw the weather forecast! As it turned out, there was no rain until after the event was over, and while it was a big muggy, it was actually one the coolest Eeyore’s I’ve ever attended.






Although it’s a target rich environment, I generally don’t take many pictures there myself. Other have done a fabulous job on that front.

Eeyore's Birthday Party
Photo by Steve Hopson

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Five Days of Mindful Agony


This time my only injury was some mat burn on my left instep. I must be improving! Every year my body awareness, mindfulness, martial skill, and gratitude for this tribe increases.

For many Springs we’ve had one of the larger informal gatherings of jujutsu practitioners in my system in the shadow of Mount Shasta. The venue is like a zen temple made by a millionaire half way up a mountain. It’s always a transformative experience, designed to totally overwhelm the mind that’s so detrimental to so much of our consciousness. The sheer amount of distilled skill, body knowledge, martial prowess, and grain alcohol staggers the imagination, particularly when experienced at the same time. There is also a cat with a stubby tail.


The Austin dojo usually fields three or four to this event. Dire predictions about the consequences of me being the only representative from Austin went unheeded, so this year I climbed the mountain alone. The only benefit was a smaller overall attendance, leading to more personal attention and an easier time collecting all the Pokemon. We had as many instructors as not, a teacher-to-student ratio rarely seen in the martial arts. And it always leads to the same dynamic. Teacher A teaches you something. You then switch to Teacher B, who tells you something subtly different. I’ve learned that saying “but Teacher A just said this other thing!” doesn’t work. You stay present with the teacher in front of you, and chamber the other teacher’s technique for future exploration.

Not that there isn’t continual comparison, improvement, and debate about the best way to do things and why. Frequently this happens after the formal classes are over and the alcohol has begun to flow. But in the moment, each teacher has a unique perspective, frequently based on twenty, thirty, or more years of experience that’s really worth fully embodying for the short time they’re in front of you. It’s then up to you, as the seeker, to suss out what marrow there is to be teethed from each experience and which method works for you right now, while realizing that some of the knowledge will only be clear later at some higher level of sensitivity and awareness, and some is already happening without conscious effort.

This instructor magic lasts for a short period of time, and it is critically important not only to take notes, but to embody the knowledge with willing victims as soon as possible afterward to get it out of your mind and into your body. My Austin brethren who though to escape the agony of the training will soon discover they have merely postponed it.

Major takeaways this year included just how much throwing strength away is fundamental to this system. When the founder says “no strength” he means “no strength.” Every motion should be feel completely natural for both the attacker and the defender. The attacker should feel confident at every moment that he has you and that proceeding with the attack will lead to victory. Instead, if the defender has the body skills, sensitivity, and relaxation, the attacker throws, pins, or off-balances themselves by continuing the attack. There is never a moment of doubt, a feeling of being “done to” on the attacker’s part. At most the defender is hijacking the attacker’s intention, but it much more an act of will or mind than a physical response.

One place this became very clear was the second-degree black belt material I’m working on now. It’s finally starting to sink in for me, and the biggest thing I noticed was that it’s nearly 100% setup. If my posture is correct and my subtle response to the incoming attack is sensitive enough, the attacker begins to collapse long before I “apply” the technique, and the speed of that collapse is directly proportional to the power of their attack. Excessive movement or the need to add energy to the system on my part simply means I missed my window and now have to compensate. Both should be practices mindfully, i.e. what’s the ideal application, and what do I do if I miss it?

Another clarity was the degree to which similar techniques at higher belt levels can be seen as a progression of backups in case the first technique fails. I perceived some conflicting information here from different instructors. Some said “do the first degree technique fully first, then apply the second degree technique to already destroyed posture.” Others said “I learn more if I do the second-degree technique to someone with full posture, so don’t go too far with the first-degree technique first.” It’s up to me to make sense of all this, which is a constant challenge.

Finally, the feeling of tribal acceptance with a group of like-minded weirdos is one of the best features of the event. Late into the last night we launched in a four hour alcohol-enhanced group singing extravaganza MCed by a local nurse of shocking Bardic talent. I was able to dredge up long-dormant spontaneous harmonizing and word-following skilz I haven’t fielded since my six years of choir in high school. I was one of the people amazed at how well I could do all this for songs I barely knew or had never heard before.

Profound thanks to everyone who participated in this and previous years! It will remain one of my two non-negotiable trips each cycle of the sun.

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Sometimes It Doesn’t Work

It’s totally ok to fail. That’s how creativity works. You try and fail a few times, then succeed. Sometimes in between there is meditation or thinkage. Sometimes there is booze.

My super low-flow sink has really exceeded expectations overall. It is quiet, easy to use, provides water for dish and hand washing multiple times per day, and makes 3 gallons of water last literally for weeks. The only problem? The water jug has to be on its side with the hole at the bottom for it to work. If any of the four or five fixtures where the plumbing comes out leaked, I’d have quite a flood on my hands!20170418_150226.jpg

I though I’d use the model of a hand soap dispenser, with some kind of straw that goes down into the jug from above, allowing it to be upright, solving the problem. Here’s what I tried.

This is where I started. There is a section of transparent hose connecting the 12VDC windshield washer pump to a brass fixture that screws into the normal hole on a Reliant 5 gallon jug cap. This is what it looks like hooked up.


The fat hose looks just about big enough to plug the hole by itself, so why not completely remove the adapter and just run the hose all the way to the pump, like this?



It wasn’t perfectly air tight, but probably mosquito tight, and it eliminates a lot of the extra hardware and makes an already frugal design even cheaper. However, it doesn’t work. Why? The hose going down is *way* bigger than the hose going up, and this pump is designed to be installed at the very bottom of the washer reservoir in a car, just like I had it to start. Not only is it not strong enough to pull the water up through this huge hose, but it will also burn out very fast if it doesn’t have water flowing through it to cool it down. More than a couple seconds of air and it’s toast!

But what if the input hose were smaller, just like the output hose? The suction might be good enough20170418_144647.jpg20170418_145832.jpg then. I used some sandpaper and a drill to make this wine cork into an adapter for the smaller hose, which you can’t see sticking out the bottom of the cork into the jug. At first, it didn’t work, but when I primed it by filling the smaller tube with water, it did work! At least briefly. However, once I stopped pumping, the water drained back out of the tube, and the pump once again wasn’t strong enough to pull it up. Drat!

So, at the end of the day, I’m back where I started. One simple solution might be to put both the clean and dirty water jugs into a larger tub that can hold the water if it leaks. This is made harder by the fact that, at least with my current setup, they’re not the same height at all. I could also use a  more powerful pump, or  a submersible pump. Both would be more expensive, but might also be more quiet.  For now the old design works.

In the meantime, meditation, thinkage, and booze.



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Attracting Kids to the Van with Ice Cream

This past weekend I continued profiling my appliances by using child labor. My partner’s kids wanted to hang out with me more, so I looked for some structured activity to hide behind. Making ice cream inside the crazy electrical maze of my van seemed like a perfect idea! I scored this sweet Delongi ice cream maker at Goodwill for $30 and it works perfectly.

They requested raspberry, so I bought some fresh ones and some preserves. I was on a tight deadline, so we had to do things like strain the cooked berries through a tea ball since I had forgotten my fine mesh strainer. I explained to them how the electrical system in the van worked and had her daughter record the numbers, seen here.


I was surprised the machine didn’t take more power — only 12.3 A cooling and stirring, and a total of 7.16 Ah to transform luke-warm batter into ready-to-eat soft serve.

I used about half the container of preserves and one 4 oz container of fresh raspberries. I reduced the amount of sugar from 1/2 to 3/8 cup.

The result was delicious!

I’d love to try out similar recipes with fresh West Coast fruit in Portland this summer. The ability to spontaneously create custom ice cream will be a great way to get into people’s driveways!

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Riding Herd on Electrons

One important question when running an RV from batteries is “how much power do I have left?” For this I use an RV power monitor. Another is “how can I run my 120V household stuff in my van?” The answer to this is a device called an inverter, which converts 12 VDC to 120VAC. I’ll cover those below.


The Bogart Engineering TriMetric TM2030RV meter answers the first question a lot more accurately than simply looking at the voltage. It actually measures every amp that flows into and out of the batteries then tells you “you have 75% capacity left.” It’s the shockingly ugly and outdated-looking beige box with the red display violating my zafu with its presence.

It has a big resistor called a shunt that you hook up to the negative terminal of your battery pack. That’s the copper colored thing hanging unsafely from the side of the battery box. The shunt has a *very* small but also very precise resistance. By measuring the voltage change from one side to another, the meter can tell exactly how much power is flowing, and in which direction. It will also remind you to overcharge your batteries on a schedule, etc.

The first thing I’m doing with it is measuring the power profile of all my appliances, like my monitor, coffer maker, water heater, etc., when they are running through my inverter.

My inverter is a Xantrex ProWatt 2000. I recently took it completely apart thinking it was broken when, instead, I just hadn’t held the power button on long enough! I did this because I’m sometimes a complete idiot. The Xantrex is the large black box on the right with the orange meter sitting on top of it.

It can run 1800 watts of 120V appliances all day long, and can handle short bursts up to 3000 watts. It is a true sine wave inverter, which means it behaves the same way that wall power does and works will any device. Modified sine wave inverters are cheaper, but don’t work with everything. As it happens, I also have a Xantrex 1000 watt modified inverter from a previous project I’ll probably carry as a backup.

How much can I run? Well, an old-skool 30-watt bulb uses 30 watts. My tea water heater pulls about 900 watts when it’s heating, nearly half my capacity! But after it’s done it only pulls about 5 watts to keep the water hot. Effectively I can probably run one larger load and a few smaller ones, or two larger loads briefly. Running something through an inverter is much less efficient than running it directly from 12V DC, so it’s best to get appliances that are set up that way, like Norcold 12V DC fridges. The inverter itself uses a small amount of power when turned on even if nothing is plugged into it, so it’s best to turn it off when not in use.

So between those two things I know 1) How much power do I have left, and where is it going and 2) how do I plug in my 120V appliances?

Next I’ll cover my vast array of charging devices, including solar, alternator, and 120V.

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Converting Lead Into Tea – Battery Pack Alchemy!

I’m transforming Junior, my Sprinter van, into an urban stealth camper and mobile office so I can live and work off grid anywhere.


Junior has now successfully boiled water with his fully-wired battery pack! I can now use my tea water heater, coffee maker, computer and monitor, and other 120V appliances inside the van.


This was my working sketch when I was only using two batteries:


Now that the batteries are wired, it’s time to test each of those items to see how much power they use. I tried using two of the four batteries first, but the voltage sagged so much it set off the piercing low voltage alarm on my inverter! Ouch!


Once I have all that data, I can make a finished wiring diagram I’ll finally be able to order the wire I need to finish the job. RV power systems are way more complicated than 120V home wiring, so every detail has to be known in advance to get it right.

Technical Minutia:

I’m using four Interstate GC2-RD 6V 208 Ah (at 20A) flooded golf cart batteries for my pack. Each pair is in parallel, giving me two 416 aH 6V sub-units. Those two pairs are wired together in serial, giving me a total of 416 Ah at 12V. Deep cycle batteries last a lot longer if they’re only discharged half way, so I have an effective usable capacity of 208 Ah before I have to recharge. I chose these batteries because they provide a lot of punch for a relatively low cost. Flooded batteries have to be vented, topped off, and overcharged periodically, but provide the best balance of cost and performance. Many RV users choose AGM (sealed) batteries instead because they are maintenance-free and don’t have to be vented as much, but they cost nearly twice as much for the same performance. Lithium Ion are the best for all features, but cost more up front and require special hardware. If I really love RV living full time, I’ll look into LiION again when these batteries die in 5 or more years.

Because I won’t have enough data to order any of my final, expensive welding cable wires until *after* I test all my appliances, I chose to make a temporary wiring harness for my pack using 2 gauge cable and lugs purchased at Home Depot. This wire is too small for my final result, but is good enough for testing. At this point it looks like I’ll probably be using 00 cable for my battery interconnects and the run from the alternator (which can provide 180A!) to the pack. I’m using this ampacity chart recommended by my friend Chris, who is a professional gas-to-electric car converter and has years of experience in vehicular power applications. It tells me how many amps a given thickness of cable can carry without overheating.

For a final design, I need to know how much power each item either takes out or puts into the batteries and when. I need to know both the maximum power it takes, and how much it takes over time. For instance, the Zojirushi water heater pulls 74A when initially heating cold water for about 20 minutes, then pulls about 0.4A afterward to keep it hot. The system has to be able to handle the maximum power draw of all systems I might use at the same time, have enough battery capacity to run them all for a few days if there’s no sunlight, and also be able to keep up with all the things that run all the time like the fridge, the water heater, the fan, etc.

To keep track of power flow into and out of the batteries, I’m using a TriMetric TM2030RV meter. To get 120VAC from 12VDC, I’m using a Xantex ProWatt 2000 inverter. For charging I have four 100 watt solar panels and a MPPT charger, a Mercedes-stock alternator relay to charge from the vehicle’s engine, and I just bought a Dewalt 12V 30 amp charger to charge from 120V. I will cover those items next.

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