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Friday, March 23, 2012

Rock, Bounce and Roll - Suspension Rebuilds

Just Before Purchase
When I first bought my Aero Cruiser I had the "opportunity" to drive it from three hours north of San Francisco to my home base 90 miles north of New York City, about 2,700 miles. Probably due to the excitement of that trip I thought that it handled pretty well. Nope, I was WAY wrong! It's a small miracle I made it back without being catapulted off the road or at least bounced into oncoming traffic at 70 miles per hour.

Original Front Suspension
After much research I decided to renew and upgrade my suspension bits. After all, it was a four-wheel basic design with leaf springs and supplementary air bags in the back and coil springs with a transverse mounted helper spring in the front. All the info I found led me to believe I had what amounted to a Dodge one ton pickup truck in the front and rear. How hard could it be to get parts for THAT? Read on.

Anyone who reads this column knows that Murphy is indeed an optimist, at least in respects to my ongoing projects. When ordering the front suspension parts it seemed there were several models of Dodge pickups that use different suspension parts. Okay. . . which one do I have? My Aero Cruiser sources assured me I had one type, although the photos of my rig were different. I went online and ordered both types, figuring that would be safe. I could always send the wrong ones back. By the way, is anyone in the market for a set of front suspension parts for a Dodge pickup, circa 1990? Yup, still have them. It turns out I have the only Aero Cruiser with the 4,000-pound version of the suspension and it uses totally different parts.

Rear Leaf Spring and Shock
That being sorted out, next up was the rear leaf springs. After looking through the online parts books I couldn't find ANY Dodge parts that would meet the load carrying capacity I needed. You know why? They're NOT Dodge springs! Turns out they are GM springs mounted upside down. Do not ask how long it took me to figure that out! On the up side, the heaviest duty versions were perfect for improving the ride and ride height in the back, and weren't all that expensive. Of course shipping on something that heavy is highway robbery!

Once all the parts arrived, dis-assembly began in earnest. Since this job required some heavy duty and specialty tools, I engaged the assistance of my favorite local shop where the guys are familiar with all sorts of heavy duty tools. They're a great great bunch of guys. I highly recommend them if you are in the area! Honest, too!

Suspension Off, Transverse Helper Sprng On Floor
We began by removing the front wheels and the brake assemblies. Next we tried to remove the upper and lower ball joints and control arms but couldn't do anything until the transverse helper spring was removed! They wouldn't come out. I will not make that mistake again! After everything was cleaned up, all new bushings were installed and the new upper and lower ball joints, control arms, tie rod ends and shocks were fitted and adjusted.

New Leaf  Spring On Top
On to the back. Did I mention these giant leaf springs are HEAVY! It's a good way to lose a toe, not that I know that first hand, but hey. . .

We used multiple jacks to hold the load, as the springs were removed one side at a time. It turned out the bushing on the shackle mounts was slightly different from the originals. Understandably, the design had changed a little after more than 20 years. We had to drill them out to a larger diameter to fit on the mounts. Not too bad as far as random difficulties go. Rear shocks were replaced too. I was amazed that the shocks were all well under $100 each. Thank goodness for the additional small miracle.
New Coil Spring On Left.

Once mounted, the RV was riding two inches higher in the rear. The leaf springs had compressed quite a lot in the intervening years. I was also two inches or so higher in the front, which really helped with wheel well clearance.

The guys rough aligned the RV and I took it home. Now to find an alignment shop that could do a proper alignment. As usual that, sounds easy but isn't. The nearest one was 45 miles away, over the mountain. Thankfully the handling wasn't really all that bad and I could get there without flying off the mountain, down the 1,000 foot drop-offs.

Riding MUCH Higher!
The first alignment didn't work; the numbers I was given were wrong. The second one worked better, but the steering wheel wasn't centered and the coach pulled to the right.

The third time was the charm! With everything setup correctly and a new heavier duty suspension, this thing handles well. Like night and day. Better than when I bought it. Maybe even better than from the factory since I used newer technology with improved parts.

For any older coach that is feeling a bit "saggy" or whose handling isn't up to par, I highly recommend this process. It isn't all that expensive, yet pays big dividends in drive-ability. You may even pick up a bit more load carrying capacity in the bargain!

Be Seeing You...Down the Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Am I Full or Empty? RV Monitor Panel and Sensor Updates

My Monitor Panel
The woes of RV monitor panels. Why can't we get a retrofit-able panel to match the size and shape of the original? Most panels from the '80s through the mid '90s are around the same size, maybe even earlier. Then there are the ones mounted in the stove/cooktop vent hood.

It seems simple to me that a company would want to manufacture something newer and better with the ability to use better sensors that would fit in the same space. As everyone knows, these things fail A LOT.

Wouldn't it make sense for some enterprising company to create a retrofit kit that would fit in the existing opening?? With generator switch/hour meters, water pump switch, water heater switch, etc. as well?

We have MUCH better sensor technology now that give much more accurate readings, but you have to add it someplace else???? Seems silly to me. I'd like to use the original space provided to mount a new monitor panel, that would allow me to access the new technology sensors.

My Panel "Guts" At Least It Has LEDs!
It certainly isn't related to the size of the electronics. The new stuff would likely take up far less space than the original. Simpler/less wiring too!

In my RV, I have already replaced a burned out one once, and that was really difficult to find!

I've tried to contact the various manufacturers, but they don't respond. I will keep trying as I believe there is a market for this product. I see many retrofits available now, that use the newer sensor technologies, but they are designed to be installed in another location. Either surface mounted or by cutting out a section of wall (or other "convenient surface") Personally, I don't like cutting into my RV unless I absolutely have to. Yes, I've done it...sometimes even successfully...but I didn't enjoy it!

Let's take a look at some of the newer technology sensors available now:

Capacitance Sensor
First is the Capacitance type. It uses the electrical capacitance of the liquid in the tank, measured through the tank wall, to determine the level. It is accurate to within two percent and the system that uses it will display a numerical percent of the tanks level, either full or empty. The main issue I have with this system is the display is an L.E.D. Like the old fashioned versions you need to push a button to display the level of each tank separately. At least my old one let me see all the levels simultaneously, although with a LOT less accuracy tan two percent.

They are INCREDIBLY easy to install as long as your tanks are no more than 24 inches high. You simply clean the side of your tank VERY WELL, then remove the backing of the self adhesive sensor and stick it on.

For tanks taller than 12 inches then you'd use two, one on top of the other. They can be cut to the correct size if your tank is shorter than 12 inches. Done. Well, almost. I would probably figure out some way of covering the exposed sensor back, maybe a piece of EPDM tape or spread some silicone over it. Seems to me the harsh outdoor environment mixed with road crud would do them in after a while. Unless, unlike me, you have tanks INSIDE of a bay or somehow sealed from the elements.

To wire these to the display is VERY easy. only two wires need to be run back to the display for ALL of your sensors. There is also a brand that uses a different type of capacitance sensor, but can be retrofitted using the original "through tank" sensor locations/holes. It is limited to the "Empty 1/4 1/2 3/4 Full" display, similar to the old monitor panels. In my world I like a bit more information than that, though it would be far more accurate at those tank levels and not susceptible to the "crud" fouling that plagues the original "through-tank" sensors.

Pressure Transducer Sensor
The next new technology sensor is a bit different. It uses a pressure transducer to measure the tank level. Once installed, you fill the tanks to the level you want reported as EMPTY then press a button. Then you fill the tanks to the level you want reported as FULL and press a button. The system can now display the tank levels based upon the pressure of the liquid on the transducer.

The installation is straightforward, but requires a hole at the base of the tank for the sensor. Not my favorite method, especially if I can get away with NO holes! Less chance of stuff leaking out. The display for this system will display from EMPTY to FULL in 1/8 increments. Not really all that better than the original, but likely more accurate! It's wiring is pretty straight forward, and uses telephone jack style connectors.

My personal preference in a system would be to utilize the strip style capacitance sensors, made more weather resistant, with an L.C.D. display that reads out percentages AND a bar graph for each tank. It should include LP, black, grey and fresh water as well as housing switches to turn on the water pump, water heater and start/stop the generator.

I can re-use the old mechanic HOBBS meter (hour counter for the generator) if there was a way to have the cutout done easily. Otherwise, put one in at the manufacturer! It should be available configured for some of the more common sized locations that were in general use. It shouldn't use much/any power. I would be okay with having to press a button to see all the bar graphs and perhaps a button for each numeric percentage display. This CANNOT be that tough to do! There must be a larger consumer market for something along these lines.

If you are interested in seeing someone make this, let me know! I can badger the manufacturers into coming up with a solution! I don't give up easily.

Be Seeing You... Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Friday, March 9, 2012

TV on the Monitor? More Entertainment for the Buck

My RV originally came with a 13 inch CRT TV installed above the dash in a very nice full-width fiberglass enclosure with cabinets on either side. It was wired to a single speaker from the in-dash stereo and had various entertainment sources connected. There was a VHS VCR, a DirecTV Satellite receiver and the good old analog TV antenna. I guess this was okay for the time (Early '90s) but I wanted more! I'll admit it, I like watching TV out in the woods. Communing with nature through the glass while eating microwave popcorn and watching a movie. Yay!

After some serious measuring, I found that the most I could do, while being able to keep the screen within the old enclosure, was to use a 19" LCD computer monitor. It would do everything the TV would do, while being lighter, less power hungry and have the ability to support VGA and digital signals. I was stuck with 4:3 since a 16:9 version is too wide at the 19" (or so) size and the original TV was the old style "square" cutout.. Ah well, I would have to learn to LIKE letter-boxed content!

Finding a brand of computer monitor, and a model, that would max out the physical space was NOT easy. I settled on an ACER 19" LCD, 1280 x 1024 resolution. Now all I had to do was figure out how to connect all the video and computer sources to the monitor. I found several companies that manufactured a box that would take various video inputs -- RF (old style cable TV "F" connector), composite, component, S-video, and VGA -- and send them out through a standard computer style VGA connector to the monitor. I can choose the resolution displayed and a few other options from a nifty on-screen display. It would also run off either 120V with a wall transformer or directly from a 12V source, so it seemed like a good choice.

I would run the audio from this converter box into the front input of an in-dash car stereo unit, since the speakers are all wired to it already and the sound is quite good. Eventually, I will re-wire it permanently behind the dash.

With all the video and audio feeds worked out, now was the time to work on the actual physical modifications needed to put in the new monitor in place of the old 13" TV. After removing the trim surrounding the TV and removing the screwed in hold downs I could disconnect most of the wiring to the TV. It seems that someone actually hard wired the TV speaker into the right front car stereo speaker! OK that got clipped. Once removed, I had a large space going all the way to the front of the RV with various wires running back and forth.

On either side of my RV's TV there are storage cabinets above the driver's and passenger side seats. They are used to house the entertainment systems' components. On the left is the DVD player and the satellite receiver (I also have a 400watt pure sine wave inverter in there for backup) on the right is the VHS(!) VCR, the VGA converter box, the original antenna/TV selection box and the digital TV receiver. All of this had to be rewired to make it all work.

The enclosure needed to be modified, meaning out came the saws, Dremel, sanders, grinders, small explosive devices and bandages. Did I mention it's all fiberglass with a bit of wood. Working with a sander or Dremel and fiberglass is not fun. The dust is nasty, gets everywhere even if you cover everything with a sheet and sticks to every surface including you. Oh, and it's bad to breathe it in as it does not so nice things to your lungs. Ah well, you gotta do what you gotta do!

Once we "relieved" the material around the new LCD monitor so it would fit we had to figure out how to get it to STAY in that space. Remember the old 13" TV was much deeper than this new one. First we tried a triangular base, screwed into the wooden platform it was sitting on. That didn't work well at all. Eventually, after much trial and many more errors, I stumbled upon an idea to simply screw "tabs" to the sides of the enclosure so when the surround trim is screwed down it holds everything in place. Worked like a charm.

The old TV surround was obviously NOT going to fit the new LCD TV as the cutouts were completely different. We TRIED to modify the existing one, and ended up destroying it completely. After another trip to a home store to buy a sheet of thin/strong wood veneer and drawing (and redrawing) a template about 20 times the first cut was made. Then, back to the home store for another piece since the cut was on the wrong side and everything would have been reversed. Yes, Murphy IS an optimist! Okay, with the surround cut and painted to match the old one, it was assembly time. All the wires had to be snaked and bound...well at least made a bit neater. You know, toward the end of the project things tend to get lost in the shuffle. Besides, I'll go back in after it's done and make it all neat....right?

Mount everything up, tighten all the screws put the screw caps back on, step back, admire the look of the project, then realize you haven't connected the VGA cable to the back of the monitor! Oh yes, not a happy camper was I. Reverse the above, connect the wayward cable and move forward again.

It works! It's over!! Yay!!!

Now I have all this storage behind the new LCD monitor, wonder what I can use that for......oh, and how about adding HDMI capability? Next time!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Friday, March 2, 2012

Electrical Surges, Spikes and Brownouts: What to do?

Typical RV Park Power Post
It's a sad fact of RV life that electrical power where we camp isn't always the (mostly) clean power we get from the good old electrical outlet at home or the office. There are gremlins in those sockets just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting RV'er who doesn't take some basic precautions. Yes, I'll admit, I'm a bit paranoid when it comes to shorting out, blowing up or otherwise melting my wiring. I don't see that as a BAD thing!

First off, before you plug in to any outlet, you should at least plug in a basic polarity and ground tester. They are available at pretty much every home warehouse and hardware store for around 5-7 dollars. It's just a simple grounded plug with a few lights on it to tell you if the outlet is wired correctly. If it isn't, there could be serious trouble. Especially if it's wet!

Next is the surge protector and/or electrical system protectors. There are many versions from several companies that mostly boil down to additional features after you get past the 30 AMP or 50 AMP selection. There are portable versions that simply plug into the end of your shore power cord and then into the socket. There are hard wired ones that usually get wired into the other end of the shore power cord. I like the hard wired ones since they are much less likely to "walk away." that doesn't mean you can't figure out a way to use a portable version inside your RV...

Now on to various features. Here you can have a lot of variety. Let's start with the type of fault display. Some have none, which I wouldn't touch with an insulated 10 foot pole. Most of the basic types have one or more color coded L.E.D's that tell you the status of your connection. The typical mis-wiring faults are there and sometimes under or over voltage as well. Then you can get versions that have a built in digital display that will let you know the actual voltage you are receiving. Some of the more advanced units, usually the hard wired kind, have a remote display that you can mount somewhere to check the voltage easily. This is often an extra-cost option.

Things to worry about when dealing with campground or RV park power:

High Voltage
Low Voltage
Voltage Surges
Reverse Polarity
Open Neutral
Open Ground
AC Frequency too High or Low
Accidentally plugging into 240V !

Not that we don't have enough to worry about already! Any of these conditions can really ruin your day and some can be downright dangerous! Some kind of power protection is a lower cost investment in your own safety and the protection of the expensive stuff plugged into the AC side of your RV.

Your air conditioner is particularly sensitive to AC problems, especially when the power shuts off and then comes back on abruptly. The motor that runs your compressor (and the compressor itself) do not like quick shut downs and restarts. (This is due to head pressure which we'll talk about that in an article about RV A/C) Many of the products available will delay the re-application of power for a set (or variable) time so you don't hurt anything expensive. As a side, not many automatic transfer switches have a time delay built into them as well. It wouldn't hurt a bit to have double protection, kind of a "belt & suspenders" attitude.

The most expensive power protection systems have the ability to boost low voltage from the socket. These units tend to be large and quite heavy, but will save your bacon when on a hot day everyone is using their air conditioners and the parks voltage drops very low. The power protection system will disconnect power when this happens, but the voltage booster will keep the voltage stable, allowing you to continue enjoying the cool air.

I believe that the best power protection system you have is your own brain! If you check for problems before you hook up your expensive RV electrical system to an unknown source you'll avoid most problems. I do believe that a power protection device, either portable or hard wired, is extra insurance for someone else's mistakes and is a solid investment. Electrical repairs can be costly and often difficult since RV wiring can be hard to get to in the first place. Why not protect yourself from misery?

Be Seeing You......Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"