Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Jim enjoys being home

Since we arrived back in England last year, we've covered a couple of thousand miles in Jim. Over the course of our trip through America and Mexico we got an average fuel economy of 9.96 miles per UK gallon (8.29 mpg US, 28.35 l/100km), but Jim seems to have rewarded us for bringing him home by giving us some his best fuel mileage to date. Much of the driving has been at 55 mph on the motorway, but the journeys have taken us through the rolling UK countryside and occasionally up some steep grades on A and B roads in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Since coming back to the UK,we have average 11.40 mpg UK (9.50 mpg US, 24.77 l/100km), still not great, but closer to what I expected when I bought Jim back in 2007.

To thank him for his kindness, we took Jim to the Adventure Overland Show in Stratford Upon Avon, to hang out with other trucks and make some friends.

The weather was perfect and the show was great fun. We got to meet a lot of interesting people, check out some awesome vehicles, and listen to talks from people who'd done many of the things I'd like to accomplish before I shuffle off this earth. Even Boris had a good time, meeting other well travelled dogs, and walking along the nearby Stratford Greenway walk. I'd heard mixed reviews about the show from previous years, but I'm glad we went along, not least as we had the chance to bump into a fantastic couple that we first met in Guanajato whilst they were travelling south in their Wesfalia Sprinter.

Whilst in the area, we also took the opportunity to visit Stratford Upon Avon itself. A picture perfect quintessentially English town.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Jim gets some exercise in Cornwall and Dartmoor

For the last nine months Jim has been acting as little more than a glorified spare room. He’s proved useful on multiple occasions, but you don’t need 230 horsepower in a garden guest room, and so both he and I have been a little frustrated. Thankfully I had a couple of opportunities to give him some exercise recently.

The first jaunt was a trip down the M3 to Winchester for a last minute trip to the Boomtown Fair music festival. I was working at the festival and consequently was allocated a space in the crew camping field. Most of the crew had been on the site for several days, if not weeks, and so when I arrived on the day the festival started, there were few spaces left in the field. This normally would not have been a problem, but the last remaining spaces were at the top of the field, which required me to navigate a steep slope that had been left muddy and slick after a day of heavy rain. I should have known I’d have problems, as before I’d locked the rear diff, I’d been sliding around the muddy access track down to the security gate the moment I’d left the tarmac.

On the first attempt to ascend the slope, I crawled up with the rear diff locked and made it less than half way up before motion stopped and the tyres began to chew up the field. I then tried a second time with a short run up, and made significantly more progress. On the third attempt I thought that I’d made it to the top, and slowed down to look about for a space, when I tried to pull forward I realised that my jubilation had been premature as my wheels span uselessly in the mud again. I was reversing back down the slope for a fourth attempt, when Jim began to slide sideways off the path, into a pristine VW camper parked adjacently. I managed to bring him under control but it was at this point that I realised that hooning an 18 tonne truck around a muddy field surrounded by drunk revellers and expensive motorhomes was potentially perilous, and looked for an alternative space to park where I wouldn't block access.

My options were limited as I couldn’t drive more than 10m forwards or backwards before hitting a slope and losing traction. There was one lane with space at the end but the slope was even steeper than that I’d got stuck on. Thankfully this path still had grass on it as it hadn’t been chewed up by spinning wheels, and so it provided sufficient traction to allow me to make it safely to the top without ruining anyone's pride and joy. The main issue with the spot I’d made it to, was that it would mean being parked at an absurd angle for the next few days.

I’ve parked Jim at some wild angles before, but this was certainly the most extreme. The shower tray overflowed before the water reached the plug hole, the kettle slid off the hob and needed to be held in position, and I woke up each morning pressed into the wall of the bedroom. Nevertheless I slept well and enjoyed the comfort of a good bed, and a hot shower and cooked breakfast each morning. By the time I came to leave the festival, the site had dried out, and Jim drove out of the field without hesitation.

The next week, Jim, got a second outing, this time all the way down to Looe in Cornwall. If I’d had more than four days off work, I would have preferred to have taken the A303 to Exeter; partly because it shares its name with the classic Roland synth that spawned acid techno, and partly because it takes you through some beautiful parts of the country. Instead, we took the boring trudge of the M4 and M5, passing such national treasures as Reading and Swindon. The drive was straightforward and reasonably fast, although it’s these long motorway jaunts which make me wonder whether something faster and more efficient than an 18 tonner might be more sensible.

The A38 from Exeter going west was easy going, and it wasn't until we turned off onto the smaller roads to Looe that things started to get interesting. I take a kind of morbid pleasure in taking a totally unsuited vehicle to places I really shouldn't, and I can’t deny the enjoyment I got from crawling along the steep and narrow Cornish back roads at 20mph, with a tail of frustrated tourist behind me. There were a couple of grades that had us down to second gear, and there was more than one occasion where I saw a look of undisguised fear on the face of a driver having flown around a corner to be confronted by Jim. The weather had got progressively worse as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at West Wayland Caravan Park we were firmly inside a cloud.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Why you should always listen to your own advice...

It's been a while since a spent any time using Jim, or doing any work on him but with two trips planned I decided to tick a couple of items off of the list of repairs and modifications I'd accumulated whilst travelling around America and Mexico. Almost all of the items on the list are either permanent fixes to small field repairs, or modifications which would make things work better, but one of the items needed proper attention before it caused further damage.

I mentioned in this blog whilst converting Jim into a motorhome, that I was trying as far as possible to avoid using fixtures and fittings from caravan and motorhome suppliers, partly because they tend to be fugly (technical term), and partly because they have the resilience of a chocolate tea pot. In general I managed to stick to this ambition, and I largely used parts from marine and industrial suppliers. In the bathroom however, I broke my pledge, and bought a series of matching plastic pieces that combine to make a reasonably attractive moulded bathroom suite. To replicate the appearance and functionality of these items in something tougher like fibreglass would have taken me a significant chunk of time, and so I took the lazy option. Below is a photo taken whilst I was installing the items in May 2012.

Thetford C400 toilet and matching bathroom fittings in Jim the overland motorhome

As soon as I picked up the shower tray component of this suite, I knew the decision would bite me on the arse, but I thought that a hefty amount of plywood and sikaflex reinforcement would be enough to prevent it from falling apart. I bonded a sheet of plywood across the bottom of the tray, and supported all four edges with a plywood upstand. In hindsight I completely underestimated the utter uselessness of the original product. I hate calling anyone out without giving them a chance to defend themselves but in this case the shower tray that I bought from CAK Tanks to match the C400 type Thetford cassette toilet was so appallingly low quality that I feel compelled to advise others to either not waste their time, or to simply use it as a mould to make a better version out of fibreglass.

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

Even supported completely by a sheet of plywood, the base of the shower tray developed a series of cracks all over within a few months of use. It’s difficult to comprehend how this is even possible but I suppose that the tiny amount of flexibility in the adhesive used to bond the plywood to the shower tray was enough to allow the tray to flex and crack. The cracks started off as ugly, but not intrinsically problematic, but after a year of full-time living in the truck, I could see beads of dirty water squeezing out of the cracks as I stepped on the tray. In addition, the radiused corners of the tray, which I had presumed would be safe as one doesn’t stand on them, also started to crack. Without intervention, I would have had water ending up in places where it shouldn’t, potentially rusting the floor, rotting the plywood furniture and causing corrosion in wiring.

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

Crack in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray

I must acknowledge the awesome abilities of the CT1 adhesive that I used as a temporary repair to the tray whilst we were travelling. It is described as a hybrid polymer adhesive sealant, and it worked remarkably well to seal all of the damage and prevent water leaking into the area under the tray. When I first used it, I expected it peel off, as the cracks flexed. But it stuck the tray far better than the Sikaflex I used to bond the reinforcement pieces, and remained flexible enough to absorb the significant movement in the cracks around the edge of the tray. Unfortunately as well as it worked to prevent leaks, it made the shower tray look shabby, and ultimately I couldn’t live with the shame of such a visible bodge.

Cracks in CAK Tanks Thetford C400 type shower tray repaired using CT1

The way in which I constructed the bathroom in Jim would make it a massive ball ache to remove and replace the shower tray, and whilst I acknowledge that this may be in my future, I decided to first try and repair/rebuild the shower tray in-situ. The easiest way that I could think to repair the damage, was to fibreglass over the existing shower, effectively building a new tray inside the old one. The only snag in this plan was finding a way to get the new tray to bond effectively to the old one. Having a fair amount of epoxy resin left in the shed, I decided to use this for the fibrglassing, but I knew from experience that there are many plastics that epoxy does not effectively adhere to. My first step was to try to find out which plastic the tray was made from.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Blog Update!

I've recently been busy uploading some photos.

You can find a load of photos I took when converting Jim in the 'Converting Jim' tab...

And you can find an even larger load of photo's of our recent trip in the 'North and Central America' tab.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dometic HB2500 Air Conditioner

When I converted Jim I installed a floor mounted air conditioner in the form of a Dometic HB2500. The air conditioner runs from a 240 volt AC mains supply, and so we did not get a huge number of opportunities to run it on our trip around North and Central America last year, despite temperatures getting up to 44 degrees centigrade. I originally thought that I could run the air conditioner from a 120v mains supply, by powering the air conditioner from the batteries through our 24v to 240v inverter, and putting the charge back into the batteries from our universal input battery charger. The reason that we ended up not running the air conditioner in this way often, was that the combined heat output from running the inverter and battery charger, pretty much negated any cooling effect from the small 8,500 BTU air conditioner. Both the battery charger and inverter are located inside the living accommodation; in hindsight this was a mistake and it would have been more sensible to locate them in a locker thermally isolated form the inside of the truck body.

The only occasions that we ran the air conditioner, were either when we were desperate enough to use the generator, or when we had a 50a power supply available. A lot of small commercial electrical installs in North America have single split-phase 240v supply, with 120v from either live to the neutral, but 240v between the lives. The big 50a sockets are the only commonly found supplies that offer both lives, and these allowed us to plug the truck into a 240v 60hz supply through a cable which swapped one of the live legs to the neutral leg of the 32a ceeform input socket on Jim. The air conditioner ran fine from these supplies and on a handful of occasions we had a chance to escape the heat in this way.

This sporadic and scant use of the air conditioner changed when we returned to the UK. The HB2500 has the capacity to generate a hot air supply by reversing the refrigerant cycle, and so we used the electrical supply we ran from the house to save some diesel and give the Eberspacher air heater a rest. The noise from the blower is too obtrusive to run all night, but we have found the unit useful for keeping us warm during the day. It is not a particularly effective heater, partly because the air outlets are all mounted at ceiling level, but it is powerful enough to keep the truck comfortably warm when the temperatures outside are around freezing. Being mounted at floor level, and now being run for around 14 hours a day, the air inlet regularly sucks in enough dog hair and dust to block the filter, and so every 2 weeks or so I have to take the filter out and clean it.

Dometic HB2500 floor mounted air conditioner, fitted in Jim the overland motorhome truck

Unfortunately over the recent cold snap the unit has started cutting out periodically. The display shows a flashing orange light, and the unit will stop blowing for a few minutes before restarting again. To see if I could diagnose the problem, I decided to take the unit apart. Access to the air conditioner is fairly simple, I just had to remove the bottom drawer and undo the 10 screws holding the cover panels on, and on taking the polystyrene cover off I could immediately see the problem. The condensating coil was frozen solid. This happens occasionally on air conditioners working hard in extremely humid conditions, but it has never been an issue on our HB2500 before.

The insides of a Dometic HB2500 air conditioner

The frozen condensating coil of a Dometic HB2500 air conditioner

Unfortunately I can see now why air conditioners do not make effective heaters. Any ice generated during in operation in hot conditions is likely to thaw and melt off fairly quickly, but when operating as a heater in below freezing conditions, the incoming air blown over the evaporating and condensating coils is too cold to allow the ice to melt. Being mounted inside the truck, I can turn the unit off and allow it to slowly thaw out, but a roof mounted air conditioner sitting in the cold air would never have the chance to thaw until the outside temperature rises. A heater that stops working in below freezing conditions is a bit of a liability, and so I would not recommend that anyone relies on the HB2500 for heating their vehicle.

One good thing to come out of taking the unit apart, was the chance to remove two spider nests before they hatched millions of arachnids into our home. I sincerely hope that the spiders were harmless domestic critters, but there is every likelihood that they hitched a lift from Mexico or America and may have been less friendly than the spiders that I'm used to.

A spiders nest that was found when dismantling our air conditioner

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Short Trip Down to Dorset

Since arriving back in the UK, both Naomi and me are back at work and so the travelling has all but finished for now. Thankfully over the Christmas break we had the chance to briefly get back on the road again, and we headed down to beautiful Dorset to spend some time with my family.

We spent three days parked at the top of the East Cliff along the Bournemouth seafront, ignoring the no trucks rule and avoiding getting a parking ticket. We enjoyed several sunrise and sunset walks on the beach, and spent a glorious day walking around Hengistbury Head.

Bournemouth Sea Front at Sunrise

Hengistbury Head on a beautifully sunny day in December

Boris the Golden Retriever at Hengistbury Head on a beautifully sunny day in December

Christchurch from Hengistbury Head, Dorset

The Isle of Wight viewed from Hengistbury Head, Dorset

Boscombe Pier at sunset

Dogs playing at sunset on Bournemouth beach

Bournemouth Beach at sunset

On the day that we left to return to London, we avoided a short section of the A31, and instead drove up a beautiful but unnamed road that runs past Lin Wood in the new forest. We took the time to go for a walk through the beautiful scrub and wooded landscape, spotting some magnificent stags on the way.

Jim the Mercedes 1823 Overland motorhome truck parked in the New Forest

Horses in the scrub of Lin Wood in the New Forest

A magnificent stag in the New Forest

The New Forest in Hampshire

How Much 316 Days of Travel Cost us, and Why we Should all Travel Through Nebraska More.

With me, Naomi, Boris and Jim safely back in the country, life has returned to some kind of normality and routine for us, albeit not exactly the same kind we left behind twelve months ago. Despite having only finished working on the truck about a week before we put it on the boat bound for America, and having only done a half day of shakedown testing, most elements of the conversion worked out well. In fact life in Jim has been comfortable enough for us that we decided to continue living in him whilst back in London. It gives us the chance to continue to rent our house out, and save a little of the money that we overspent on the trip.

Despite this decision, there are plenty of things on Jim which broke on the trip, did not work out as we intended, or could be improved through modification. None of the issues require urgent attention, but attending to some of them gradually after we have moved back into the house, will help to keep me busy and poor over the next few years. I’ll update this blog whenever I do any work on the truck, but certainly the posts will be less frequent than they have been over the last couple of years.

When we were preparing for the trip around America and Mexico, I found a huge wealth of information on the internet to help in planning. For visa and border issues, there is almost nothing that can't be found with a search through the Horizons Unlimited HUBB forum. For information on converting a vehicle into a motorhome, almost everything worth knowing is hidden in the Self Build Motor Caravan Club (SBMCC) forum. For anything more specific to extended autonomous travel, I looked at the Yachting and Boating World forums, and for anything related to travel off tarmac I used the Expedition Portal forum. I am sure if you look hard enough on the internet, it is possible to find anything you want, but in the time I had dedicated to planning, I found very little regarding the costs associated with extended overland travel. 

On many of the blogs I read, I came across useful information, but rarely was it conglomerated onto a single page or post. Below is a summary of the main costs related to our trip; clearly the cost of relocating a vehicle, two people and a dog across the Atlantic comprised a huge proportion of our expenditure. The costs of living on the road was far lower than I expected, and in hindsight we would have got better value out of the relocation costs if we'd spent longer on the road. Unfortunately with the route we took, this was impossible due to the 12 month limit on keeping a temporarily imported vehicle in the US.

I apologize for the lack of exciting photos in this blog post.

Trip Summary
The duration was 316 days, from December 15th 2013 to October 28th 2014

The total distance driven was a little short of 17,000 miles, of which approximately 10,700 miles was in America, 6,000 miles was in Mexico, and 300 miles was in Canada.

The route driven was pretty much as shown below.

Cost Summary
The total spend during our trip was approximately £31,200, broken down approximately as shown below.
  • Flights - £5,870
  • Shipping - £6,540
  • Truck insurance - £2,110
  • Truck repairs - £2,740
  • Diesel - £4,860
  • Living costs - £9,080
Below are  further details on some of the larger costs.