Bringing It All Back Home

Growing up I knew Bob Dylan was an important figure in music. His name was everywhere. I had listened to my older sister's Dylan album, Blonde on Blonde and was captivated by every track (especially Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat).  I listened to that record almost every day for a year.  By the time I discovered Dylan's genius he was already a huge rock star. I had missed much of his earlier work and the controversy surrounding his turn away from folk music and toward rock. Particularly the legend of Dylan Goes Electric
In a nutshell: in the early 1960s Bob Dylan was a folk singer/songwriter often compared to the legendary Woody Guthrie. Dylan had appeared at the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals, in Newport, Rhode Island and had performed traditional, acoustic folk music. He performed songs like  Blowin' In The Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man and others. At the 1965 Newport Festival, on the night of Sunday, July 25 he decided to perform a set with electric instruments.
Dylan, along with music legends Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and others performed a three-song electric set. Then Dylan and the band left the stage to some weak applause but also quite loud booing. Some say the boos were from disappointed folk fans. Others say the boos were aimed at the poor sound quality of the PA system and the short set. Later interviews with those present give a variety of reasons for the booing audience. Dylan thought the boos were aimed at him and his choice to go electric. The controversy was born ... and lives to this day. 

For a sweet taste of the genius of 1965 Bob Dylan pick up his album Bringing It All Back Home. Recorded just five months before the Newport Festival, it's half acoustic and half electric. Rolling Stone calls the album the "cultural equivalent of a nuclear bomb."

Dylan went electric and so did I recently when I installed a complete electrical system in my cargo trailer to camper conversion project.

In my last post, Sisters of the Sun, I was running wires and water lines and getting all the infrastructure in place to have a fully functioning camper. In this post I describe getting everything in place and working. This DOES NOT mean the camper is done. Not by a long shot! There are still many, many details to attend to and many more hours of work to make it final. The present goal is to get it to the point of being a safe and functioning camper that can be taken to the sports car race in Sebring, Florida March 18-21.

Power Center
All campers require an unusual and versatile electrical setup. They need both a 12-volt DC system, similar to what automobiles have, and a 110 volt system, similar to what homes have.  On top of that they need to be able to operate from electric power supplied by a campsite hookup. And when far away from a power source, they need to operate from a gasoline driven electrical generator or from battery power alone.  My camper's power system can operate in all these ways and I have built in the ability to operate from solar power in the future by adding solar panels.  I house all the components of my power center under this crude but effective love seat.
Click on photo for a larger version

I have two 12-volt deep cycle marine batteries wired in parallel. That doubles my amp hours to 200. The batteries feed into a 5000 watt heavy duty 12-volt DC to 110 volt AC power inverter. The 12-volt DC system is protected by a marine fuse panel on the left and the and the 110 AC system is protected by circuit breakers in that grey box on the right.  I'm using a "Battery Tender Jr." to keep the batteries charged.

Switches and Battery Monitor
I could have looked up all the formulas and performed all the calculations to plan the loads and power requirements of my electrical system. Did I do that? No, of course I didn't because I'm an idiot. From the wire gauge to the inverter to the fuses and breakers I simply guessed at what was required and over compensated by getting the biggest and best of everything. I'm confident it will not only be adequate but will be able to grow over time as needs change and power requirements increase.  Here's my switching system and battery monitor. When the switch is to the left you are running from shore power or generator. Switch to the right and you are running from batteries and the inverter. Center is off.  The gauge in the center tells me how many volts the batteries have, current draw in amps and remaining amps expressed as a percentage. The small button on the right turns on the inverter.

Water Tank

In my two previous posts, you've seen my 21 gallon fresh water tank installation and under bed storage. After mounting the water tank, running the wires, and doing the electrical system I thought it would be a good idea to take the camper out and drive it around. Just to see if I would spring any water leaks or short circuit any wires.   I took the camper out one Saturday morning and did a 50 mile trip. Up and down hills, over some bumps, starting and stopping.  Before the trip I was fairly confident but it was good to confirm my systems survived without a problem.

About ten or twelve years ago we removed all the wall-to-wall carpet from our house. I installed tile in every room. I kept the carpet and over the years it's come in handy whenever we have needed utility carpet that can be used and discarded when it gets soiled or ruined.  I used the last of it under the bed and on the camper floor. It's not permanent but it adds an element of comfort instead of having just bare floors. I plan on getting wood plank floors in the future but this old carpet will do for now!
It will play a movie
Having an installed radio was always a "priority two" item on my punch list. I could have settled for just bringing a portable radio. Eventually I'll install a really good sound system. If you know me, you know why. I came across this unit on Amazon for $45 dollars. It had some great reviews. The price was right and it's not going to be permanent. Even if it lasts a year at that price I couldn't go wrong. It's actually quite amazing. It's got a good FM tuner and Bluetooth capability. You can plug a USB drive, AUX cable or mini-SD card into it. You can view photos on it and it will even play movies!  It came with a backup camera. I'll eventually install the camera outside so you can see who's at the front door without opening the door.  There's no CD or DVD player and the video quality isn't 4K but what the hell do you want for $45? If you're camping on a rainy day and you're stuck inside you can keep yourself somewhat entertained. I added two speakers from an old home theater system and we're ready to jam.

I've shown my toilet installation before. I added a curtain to the door opening for privacy. Also installed a TP roll holder and a towel rack. Until I can build some shelving, I added the cargo net out of the trunk of my old Mercury for storage.

You have to go all the way back to my first post, The Birth of a Project, to understand one one of the main motivations for building this camper. My old popup camper had really horrible beds. Me and my old bones demand really comfortable beds. And now with my new camper, that's a reality.  Charlotte's sister, bless her, was giving away an old foam mattress, a Leesa king mattress. If you cut it in two it's the perfect size to make two twin XL's -- 39 inches by 80 inches. They're the perfect fit for my bunks.

There's just a few weeks to go before we take the camper to Sebring for the 12-hour race.  I'm super excited.  Converting this cargo trailer to a camper has been so much fun and I have learned so much. I've got to admit there were times I wish I had just bought an RV and saved myself the hassle.  Is it perfect? No. Is it done? No.  I have plans for shelving in the bathroom. Shelving over the sink. A door to the bathroom. Solar power, air conditioning, flooring, a shower and much more.

I don't know when my next post will be. I don't have any firm plans after the race. I've gotten behind on fence repair and a lot of other projects here at the farm so maybe it will be a while before I get back to the camper project.  But I now have a great, new recreational vehicle and I can say I made it myself.  You don't know what you are capable of until you try.  Keep trying to do new things because you can accomplish great things!

Additional Pictures:


Sisters of the Sun

Once in a while a song comes along that sounds more profound then perhaps it actually is. For me it's the way the lyrics have almost religious connotations. Or maybe it's the way the lyrics and melody flow together and stir up profound emotions. Bob Dylan songs do it for some people. I always thought Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was so profound until years later I read the lyrics. Still a good song but the lyrics don't revel any greater truths.
The sun sets on another successful installation day.

Let's go back to July 1972 for the release of Jackson Browne's debut album, Saturate Before Using.  His single from that album, "Rock Me On The Water" has always seemed like an important, like important to mankind, type of song.

These lyrics have even more meaning given the many crises facing the world today:
Oh people, look around you
The signs are everywhere
You've left it for somebody other than you
To be the one to care
You're lost inside your houses
There's no time to find you now
Your walls are burning and your towers are turning
I'm going to leave you here and try to get down to the sea somehow
In "Rock Me On The Water", Browne sings about the healing properties of water.  Water is necessary to life that's why I installed a 21 gallon fresh water tank, a sink and toilet in my new camper.

In my previous post, What a Difference a Week Makes, I had installed a front and back wall and roughed in the toilet and bed. I learned the water tank wouldn't fit underneath as I had originally planned so it had to go under the bed.  During this phase, I got sidetracked from my plumbing work to deal with water in a different way, a diabolical rainwater leak!

Since getting the trailer in June there have been no water leaks. So, it was puzzling to come out one morning in November after a nighttime rain storm to find water on the floor, just inside the door.  I really hate water leaks in homes, cars, campers, or anywhere.  They are difficult to troubleshoot and difficult to repair. Water is hard to tame. Many times it's present where you don't want it and missing where you'd like it to be.

I dried it up. Luckily there was little damage to the floor. I suspected the leak was coming from a seam in the exterior aluminum skin where one section laps over the next.  I got the hose and squirted that seam. That was where the leak was coming from. To try and seal it I used silicone caulk, the same stuff I used for the windows, on the inside wall. After letting it dry overnight I hit it with the hose again. Damn. Still leaking.

Let this be a lesson to all you folks who think you can solve water leaks with half-measures. Yes, you've got to go all the way. I took all the screws out of the seam on the exterior and slipped a Popsicle stick between the two aluminum layers. That gave me just enough room to stick the nose of my caulk tube between the layers and like a madman I pumped that gap full like it was a jelly doughnut. I put the screws back in and coated the outside of the seam with silicone. Then I gooped the inside wall with that stuff from top to bottom. I let it dry for 24 hours. The repair is ugly as sin but it doesn't leak anymore. Form follows function, bitches.
As always, click any photo for an easier-to-see version

The back wall was nice and cozy but I missed the sunlight I got with the back door down.  It was isolating. I thought it would be best to have a small window that would let light in and allow a person to pass a beer or other needed item between the main cabin and the back porch. Even the cheapest home window was $100. I found a 14" wide by 21" high window designed for sheds or playhouses for $37.  It fits well, it's well built and was easy to install. Problem solved!

As I talked about in my post, Camper or Trailer, I'm a little uptight when it comes to cutting holes in the trailer that go all the way through from outside to inside because every hole is a potential water leak. I'm slowly learning to overcome my fears. I needed a way to get fresh water from the outside to the water tank inside. I punched a hole through the left side in the rear storage area; installed a new gravity fill water inlet and ran the pipe through the back wall and hooked it up to the water tank.

I ran clear 1/2 inch hose from the tank, through the floor, under the trailer and along the frame. Then I punched it back up through the floor near the sink area. That's where I mounted my water pump. After the pump I have a splitter that takes one water hose to the sink and another through the front wall to the toilet.

I'm going to borrow a term used in boat building and refer to my kitchen area as a galley, although it's not much more them a large cabinet that houses my sink, refrigerator, microwave with countertop space for a small, 2-burner propane stove. I framed in my galley which is 60" long by 22" wide. I used some plywood leftover from the bed area of the popup for the countertop. I covered that with leftover Formica from our kitchen remodel.  I'm using a 7 gallon water container to catch the grey water from the sink. It's held in by a bungee cord and can be removed and emptied by hand.  The office-sized refrigerator was also scavenged from the popup. The guy I bought the popup from said it was brand new and it looks it. There's space on the left for an under-counter microwave, perhaps mounted on a sliding shelf.

Getting electricity from the galley to the power center (one side of the camper to the other) looked to be a real challenge.  It's next to impossible to route the wires over the ceiling. I needed to get wires for my 12 volt water pump, two 110 leads and a fat, 30 amp shore power cable from on side to the other. The best, quickest, path was to go under the floor. I used a 1.5 inch electrical conduit and two 90 degree elbows.  My anxiety level cranked up to 11 again when I installed an exterior 30 amp shore power receptacle. 

My original plan was to house all my electrical system components under the couch. I'm calling that the power center.  The available space tuned out to be much smaller then I had hoped for. It's more the size of a loveseat rather then a couch.  The main loveseat/power center tuned out to be about 25 inches wide by 54 inches long. Still large enough to house all the components - 110 breaker box, 12 volt fuse panel, 2-100 amp hour deep cycle AGM batteries and a 12 volt to 110 volt inverter.

I've come a long way toward having fully functioning power and water systems.  In my next dispatch I'll install the critical electrical components and start testing the systems.  I mean, when you have fully functioning water and power it's not just a trailer.  After that you gotta call it a camper, right?

NEXT POST: Bringing It All Back Home

Enjoy Linda Ronstadt's version of Rock Me On The Water, of course.







What a Difference a Week Makes

In October 1974 The Rolling Stones released their 14th American studio album, "It's Only Rock and Roll". The album blended rock-blues with elements of reggae and funk.  Five years later I installed one of the first auto-reversing cassette players in my car. I listened to It's Only Rock and Roll without ejecting and turning over the cassette. One of the songs I was listening to on an endless loop was a slow, dreamy song that was somewhat out of character for the rough and tumble, early-1970's Stones: Time Waits for No One.

Yes, star crossed in pleasure the stream flows on by
Yes, as we're sated in leisure, we watch it fly ...
Drink in your summer, gather your corn
The dreams of the night time will vanish by dawn 

My neighbors stopped by to check on my progress.
Looking back at all the camper work I DIDN'T accomplish during my week off work, I'm painfully reminded that time waits for no one.

In my last post, Trailer or Camper,  I was doing a celebration dance because I achieved a significant milestone by installing all the windows.  After installing all the windows I put all the plywood back up on the interior walls and moved on to the next phase.

Prior to installing the windows I had built a couple of walls but had not installed them.  One wall to separate the front "V-nose" section from the main cabin and the other to wall off a 2 foot area in the back.  The front area houses the toilet and a closet. The back is both for storage and to protect the occupants from the highly-loaded spring that makes the back door easy to open and close.
All in all it's just a back wall.
That coiled spring holds a lot of energy and if it breaks someone could be seriously hurt by flying metal debris. I built the walls at the shop and brought them in the trailer through the back door.  On my first attempt the walls were too wide and had to be disassembled and narrowed about a half inch. 

You might remember from my earlier post, One Thing Leads To Another, I was having trouble finding a place to put the toilet that would be clear of the boxed-steel frame.  The toilet requires 11 inches of clearance on all sides. I didn't have any of the interior walls in so it was difficult to get an exact measurement. Once I got the plywood back up and the front wall in, I was fairly certain of the
NONONO. Don't. It's not hooked up yet.
placement. I did a lot of looking underneath, then looking inside. Like 50 times.

The toilet mounting hardware is about 6 inches around and is made of black ABS plastic. You cut a 4 inch hole in the floor and screw it down. The item that connects to the sewer hose is also ABS. So you need a piece of PVC to join those two together.  A special type of  ABS to PVC transition cement is required to join ABS to PVC. And Holy Toledo. My toilet fits perfectly.

My old pop-up had a 17 gallon fresh water tank I thought I could use in the new trailer.  I removed it and found it was strangely shaped. It was custom-made for the shape of the pop-up. Flat and wide with a small area that went over the axle. It wouldn't be a good fit for the new camper. I bought a new 21
Bed frame, water tank, back wall
gallon tank and had planned on mounting it underneath the floor in front of the axle.

When I tried to place it, it was too big to fit without notching out one of the floor braces. I did not want to compromise the structure of the floor so I found a place inside, under the bed to put it.

I found an hour to also install a couple of smaller features. A folding handrail next to the entrance and an exterior AC outlet.

Now, I'm rushing to get all the infrastructure in and working. Fresh water tank. Plumbing, sink and toilet. Power inverter, batteries, 110V and 12V outlets and lights.

The folding handrail is a nice touch.
NEXT POST: Sisters Of The Sun


Trailer or Camper

Almost 54 years ago, on January 22, 1966 the British rock group The Hollies had their first American top 40 hit. "Look Through Any Window" peaked at number 32 on Billboard magazine's top 100 list. The song featured Tony Hick's finger-picking 12 string guitar, Bobby Elliot's driving drumbeat, and the Hollies signature three-part vocal harmonies.

Don't listen too closely to the lyrics or you'll realize the song is encouraging a light-hearted but creepy voyeurism. I've installed all the windows in my trailer-to-camper conversion project. Don't expect to look through them and see "the little ladies in their gowns" as the curtains will be drawn.

In my last post, One Thing Leads to Another, I described the dilemma of requiring one part to be done before another could be started.  Now it seems like everything is moving at a much faster pace and the project is tumbling forward.  Which is good because I only have roughly 12 more weekends before this camper has to be ready for our trip to the Sebring 12-hour race.

As you can imagine, paying $4000 for a water tight trailer and then using a saber saw to cut big holes in the walls can cause a person to stop and think.  But I forged ahead with courage.

When I was a wee-lad of 19 I had a job at an automotive accessories store. I installed car stereos, speakers, alarms, amplifiers and much more.  One of the items I learned to install was sunroofs. These were cheap windows that popped-up to allow air in or you could remove the glass altogether. So the concept of cutting a big hole in metal was not completely foreign to me.

At this point there's no turning back.
As usual, click on the pictures for a larger version.

These windows required the removal of a couple of the steel ribs in the walls. My first instinct was to weld in some steel to restore the structural integrity. I decided it would be easier and just as strong to use a half-inch thick piece of plywood in the window opening. It would take up the gap between the inner and outer walls. The plywood would provide enough support, especially when the inner walls were reinstalled.

Inside looking out
It's hard to see but I cut the steel beams to create tabs. I peened the tabs back over the plywood and screwed them down to help restore some of the structural integrity to the wall.

I cut a small channel in the wood to allow that wire to go past the window without pinching it. The 36" X 24" windows didn't require butyl rubber sealant. They came with a rubber seal already in place around the window perimeter. I did follow up with a bead of silicone around the outside to be sure no water leaks will occur.

I installed a 12" X 12" window in the door.   99% of camping situations are very safe. But it just seems like a good idea to be able to see who is outside the door before opening it. The door window went in so easy.  It only took about 40 minutes from start to finish.
Looking very camper-like.
On the left side I wanted a smaller window over the sink. It's nice to be able to look outside while working in the kitchen.

The windows with the trim rings and interior walls installed.
I was pretty uptight about making a mistake. I went very slow and, surprisingly, I didn't make any mistakes on any of the windows. All the windows slide open and have screens.

So now is it a camper or a trailer? I've been having an internal debate about when to declare this project has crossed over from cargo trailer to camper.  At first I thought when the windows are installed the trailer will become a camper. Now I'm not so sure. Right now it's not really fit to camp in. Oh sure, you could throw a sleeping bag and a container of water in it and take it to the woods.   But that's not in the spirit of creating a comfortable home on wheels.

So, I'm moving the goal posts. For the time being, it's still just a trailer with windows. I'm not formally calling it a camper until the infrastructure (the plumbing and electrical systems) and the bed is installed. Until it can be taken out and camped in, it's not a camper.  Informally, I'll start referring to it less as a trailer and more as a camper.

So I've scheduled a week off work and plan on devoting the entire week to trailer work. I've got to get my plumbing and electrical in and to do that I've got to install the walls, bed, galley and loveseat.

NEXT POST: What a Difference a Week Makes


One Thing Leads to Another

From England, The Fixx and their song One Thing Leads to Another reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in November of 1983. Who remembers Reach the Beach? For this camper build, it's probably more accurate to say one thing depends on another.

It's been more then 2 months since my last update on the cargo trailer-to-camper conversion.  Summer work puts a pinch on project-time fun. Here in sunny Florida, daily monsoon-like rains and nearly 14 hours of sunlight every day means the grass is growing 24-7. I'm mowing acres of grass every weekend ... all weekend. Respite comes at the end of September when the reduced sunlight cues the grass to slow down and then stop growing for the year.

In my last post I was astounded at the gaps where the floor is supposed to meet the walls.

To fix that I moved the existing flooring over and used some old OSB to fill the gaps. I caulked every gap I could and used spray foam insulation to fill the larger gaps.  Rather then entertain you with my witty narrative, I'll just show some pictures of my recent progress. As always, clicky on the image to see a larger version.

Running both the 110v and 12v wiring. This reminds me of my old car stereo days.
I'm used to doing this with wood studs in a home, not a metal structure.
I hope this is enough. It's going to be difficult to add a circuit after the walls go up.

I'm using some 3/4 inch coated Styrofoam. Looking back to front.
Insulation looking front to back.
I ran 12v for my ceiling lights but haven't insulated yet.
I'm struggling with finding a location for the toilet that is clear of the boxed steel floor supports.

When I say one thing depends on another, this is what I mean.
  • To install the windows I have to put the plywood back on the walls.
  • To put the plywood back up I have to run my 110, 12v wiring and install the insulation.
  • To run the wiring I had to decide where the power center -- batteries, inverter and breaker boxes would go.
  • To decide where the power center would be and run my wires I had to plan my electrical system. 
  • To know the exact placement of the windows I had to rough frame in the back wall and the bed.
  • Before putting up the back wall I had to frame in the front wall and the toilet/closet.
My first thoughts were that I'd work this conversion from back to front but it's turned out to be front to back. What I have now is a number of sections in the beginning stage and nothing complete.

I have 2- 24" X 36" windows to go on each side of the main living area. I have one 24" X 16" window to go above the galley and one 12" X 12" to go in the door. I created a window template and have marked to install my two largest windows.  Now I must screw on some bravery, get out the jigsaw, and cut huge holes in the side of my beautiful trailer.

I said that I'm calling it a trailer until the windows are in. After that, it becomes a camper.  Don't miss my next dispatch when we learn if it's a dream or a dud.

NEXT POST: Camper or Trailer 


Begin at the Beginning

Prior to getting the trailer, I had sketched out some rough floor plans using a computer graphics program.  So I had some vague notions about what I wanted and how to arrange it.

These didn't come with numbers
As soon as I could, I got into the trailer with a tape measure and a roll of blue painter's tape and started laying out the floor plan. I knew I wanted the bathroom in the front where the V-nose is.  And I knew I wanted some storage at the tail by the ramp door.  Everything else would go in between (somehow). I thought if I started at the back and worked my way forward, I would know how much room was left over at the front for the bathroom. I was going to start by installing the windows.

One of the wonderful things about a project like this is you never know what is around the next corner or where the journey will take you.

During my first weekend of work it became clear that a lot of other tasks will have to come before the windows. Some of the tasks will have to occur, not in steps, but simultaneously. I started by removing the interior walls. Here's where I was actually thankful they didn't do as complete of a job as possible.

First came the trim. 1/4 inch plywood strips about 5 inches wide and a few feet long.  Stapled in with 1 inch staples. Not easy to remove without damage. I used a putty knife to get behind it and gently pry it off. Then came the wall panels.  

The "Bones" of the trailer
They used 1/4 inch plywood. The goal was to remove the panels as gently as possible and reuse it. The factory used a few regular Phillips screws. But around the edges they used a strange 1 1/2 inch screw-shank nail that had a Phillips head. Oh, no. It's not a screw. Don't even try to remove it with a screwdriver. They shoot these through the plywood and into the steel wall beams. They must use a special gun and put them in to stay forever. With much care, a variety of tools and gentle prying along with some targeted violent action I got all the inside walls off with minimal damage to the wood.

You might remember in a previous post how I praised the manufacturer for doing such a good job.  Yeah, forget that.

The floors are 3/4 inch plywood. Very sturdy and installed with plenty of  (regular Phillips) screws. They failed to run the plywood all the way to each wall which left a gap on one side. The gap is artfully hidden when the walls are installed. It's a gap that lets you see the road below!  Now, I understand these trailers are built for landscapers and for moving cargo. But that huge gap is sure to eventually let water get inside the trailer. No matter what you use your
I see London, I see France...
trailer for, that poor attention to detail should cause alarm.

The best solution I could come up with was to remove the floor panels, notch them out to allow for the wall beams and move them over. That exposed a 2 1/2 inch gap on one side that I'll patch with additional OSB I already have. In a few places the outer aluminum skin is not fully against the wall beams which leaves a 1/4 inch gap. I'll be getting one of those cans of spray foam insulation to fully seal the inside from the outside. 

Up next:
Complete floor repair
Spray foam all cracks
Install both 110 and 12 volt electrical wiring

With the walls off I painted the exposed steel wall studs. I used up 4 cans of half-full spray paint I had laying around.  Glad I save all that old stuff!  I did order windows but those are a weekend or two away from installation.

Feels good to be underway. Cheers!

NEXT POST: One Thing Leads to Another