Be sure to sign up for the weekly RV Travel Newsletter, published continuously every Saturday since 2001. Click here.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Convert Fluorescent Lights To LED Dual Use

A while back I converted my RVs lighting to use the much lower power consuming LED bulbs. It's easy to swap out a bulb with an LED designed as a direct replacement. Many people wrote me and asked what I did to add LEDs to my existing fluorescent fixtures. This conversion will let you use either the original fluorescent bulbs, the LED strips, both or neither (Off!) When I did the conversion, as usual, many photos were taken. I had a combination of recessed lights and larger flat mounted ones. These tips should be usable for many types of  fixtures. So, here's how to convert your fluorescent fixtures to LED Dual Lights.

First off, you need to decide what color temperature you'd like. Fluorescent bulbs cast a greenish (4300K) light. Not all that flattering. Believe me...I see myself in the vanity mirror in the morning and anything I can do to make it more pleasant is a great boon! You could use Daylight, bluish (~5600K) versions or go with the Warm White (~3200K) style. I prefer these as it most closely replicates regular incandescent bulbs.

Next buy some LED "strips." These are available all over the internet. I bought a 5M (~16 feet) roll of Warm White 5050 SMD strips. These would give me about the same light output as a fluorescent bulb of the same length.

I also purchased a bunch of same size, same style rocker switches to match the ones already installed by the factory in the stock light fixtures. I used simple "on/off" versions, but I could have saved some work cutting and fitting the switches in by replacing the existing switch with a 3 way version but these switches were much harder to find and were more expensive.

You'll need some 20-22 AWG stranded wire, I used black and red to keep the connections more obvious. A 25 watt (or so) soldering iron, some solder (DUH.), a few 1/4" female spade connectors and some heat shrink tubing in the right size. Too big won't shrink enough, obviously. Too small and when you are forcing it on the crimped blade connectors will pull off. Yes...I did this. Twice.

Make the Strips a Bit Longer Than the Bulbs
Begin by measuring the length of the strips you will need for each fixture. I made them a bit longer than the bulbs. Once you've done that, look at the strip closely. You'll see a copper set of "pads" every few inches, this is the ONLY place it is safe to cut. Check your measurements and cut. Then, if your strip is of the waterproof style, take a razor blade and gently cut off the waterproof coating over the copper pads. Put these aside. Now we'll move on to the fixture for a bit.

Two Switches, One for Fluorescent One for LED
First make sure the power is off! Second, remove the lens. Remove the bulbs. Then unscrew the fixture from the ceiling or wall or wherever. This is usually just four Phillips head screws under the lens.

Carefully remove the fixture and let it dangle on the wires. Now, wouldn't it be much easier to cut the wires to the ceiling then replace them later? Sure, but why do things the easy way? At this point we can cut the rectangular hole for the switch. There are a few ways to do this, but the plastic is quite soft and it's simple to drill a few pilot holes and then use a file to get the correct size and shape. I located it opposite the existing switch so it looks factory installed. Then I cut a hole in the plastic "wall" next to the switch to run the positive wires.

See the Hole, + and - Leads?
Next, remove the cover over the electronics and wiring. This is usually the center between the bulbs on a twin bulb fixture. If you gently press inward, toward the middle, the center should come out of the tabs holding it down on one side. Repeat for the other side. It should now be free from the fixture. Put it aside. You'll see the ballast electronics (this it what lights the bulbs by converting the 12V from you system to the HIGH voltage needed to start and run the fluorescents) Be careful, you could get a nasty shock if you forgot to turn off the power or disconnect the wires! Also located here are the main Power and Ground wires that come into the fixture from the coach. We will be tapping into the ground wire here. The power will come from the hot side of the main switch.

Take some wire (I used BLACK for negative) and measure how long it needs to be to get from each side of the strip to the center of the fixture where we will tap into the negative wire that's already there. Cut them. Now do the same for the positive (RED) wires. I went from each strip through a hole I drilled and connected it to the switch for the LEDs

LED Strips with Soldered Wire Leads Attached
Now go back to the strips you cut earlier. Set up your soldering iron. Make sure you have some thin solder, if you don't, or think you do, you will end up driving back to the store to buy some. (I wish you could see me shaking my head. Yes, sometimes I forget stuff.) While the soldering iron is heating up, tape the strips to your work surface so they don't move. You will be melting a tiny pool of solder onto the copper pads marked POSITIVE (+) and NEGATIVE(-) though it could say GROUND or simply "G". Heat the pads with the soldering iron and put a small bit of solder on each pad. Next, take the 2 positive (RED) wires and the 2 negative (BLACK) that you have already cut and strip one end of each about 1/8" and the other end about 1/2". Now, heat each end in turn with the soldering iron and melt a bit of solder on each wire end.

[**TIP - When the wire is hot enough and the solder touches it, it will get "sucked" up into the wire like magic.]

Now heat up both the strip's pad and the short wire end. When they are hot enough they will join and be permanently attached. Make sure the solder melts thoroughly on both or the joint will be weak. When I did the first fixture I tried to do this while it was hanging and it was impossible to get the soldering done properly. Put a piece of heat shrink tubing over each assembly and shrink to fit.

Back Together
Now remove the paper cover from the sticky back of a strip and affix it to the inside of the fixture. Mine had natural bevels where they fit perfectly. Press the switch into the hole you made. Route the positive wires through the hole you drilled slide on a piece of heat shrink tubing and crimp a 1/4" female blade connector on to both positive wires (one connector two wires!) shrink to fit then slip the female spade onto the normally off side of the switch.

Now find the ground wire in the center of the fixture (or from the coach) and tap into it. You could use various crimp on connectors or simply scrape off some of the insulation and twist the negative wires to the existing ground wire. Since they are already covered in solder, you can just heat it up until a solid connection made and cover with tape. Once done, tuck all the wires into the center and replace the center cover. Lastly, measure another piece of positive (RED) wire from the other spade connector on the new switch to the positive wire from the coach. I tapped into it at the hot side of the existing switch. Cut and crimp on a 1/4" female spade. Slide on a piece of heat shrink tubing and shrink to fit. Run the wire along-side the fixture and up to the power source. It's a good idea to use a piece of tape on the side of the fixture to stop the wire from "flopping" around. It will make it easier to re-install the light!

Ta Da!
Now put the whole thing back in the ceiling. make sure both sides clear any material in the roof and screw the fixture in. Replace the fluorescent bulbs. With the cover off, turn on the fluorescents with the old switch. Did they work? Excellent! Turn them off. Now for the moment of truth. Turn on the new switch. The LED strips should light up. If they did...congratulations. If not, figure out where you went wrong. Good places to look are solder joints and positive/negative wires being backwards. Of course, you could test the LED strips with the fixture dangling and maybe save yourself some extra work having to remove it again, but do it your way....

Finished Fixture With Lens In Place
All in all, I am very happy with the conversion. Same amount of light. Much "warmer" and inviting than fluorescents AND I look better in the mirror. Hey, every little bit helps!

The cost to do this was minimal. Figure less than $20 per fixture. The LED's will last far longer than the fluorescent bulbs, use less power and look better. AND if you use this install method you get to keep the use of the fluorescent bulbs.

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

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Weird Table Extension Fix...and Other Ramblings

Retracted Table
Somewhere along the line a previous owner spent a lot of money (or time, if they built it themselves) to fashion an extending table for the primary dining area. When I am traveling alone, I really do not need to extend the existing table out to double its size, but with another passenger or two it's a great feature.

The last time I was out with Passenger Pete, we made a huge Mexican recipe feast with flour and corn tortillas, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, my homemade guacamole, from scratch Carne Asada steak and all the extras. Of course my favorite Extra Sharp White cheddar was featured! You know, I really shouldn't describe food in these articles because now I'm really hungry!
Window Sash Lock (Removed)
We decided it would be easier to assemble the food if we extended the table. Sure Thing! I rotated the window sash lock and slid the main portion of the table out, pulled out the leaf and tried to set it in. Tried. What I didn't notice, or realize, was that the sash lock was mounted to the back edge of the table. There was no way that the leaf would sit in that space.

Well, we gave up on using the leaf, but I got to thinking about a new design that would still prevent the table from sliding out while underway, but allow the leaf to work its magic at rest.

First, I looked into replacing the drawer runners under the table with locking versions. These are available in many lengths and styles, but none of them would fit under my table and still retract fully into the base without some major wood renovations. Not something I wanted to tackle.

Table Leaf In Storage Position
Based on the existing design I figured I could use some other type of latch to secure the table. Trouble was, what kind? I looked in the big box home stores and various hardware outlets with no real success.  Then a few weeks ago I was in a small hardware store in an even smaller town and they had a single brass slider latch that looked like it would be perfect. A bit pricey, but well worth the cost IF it would work!

It would get mounted to the back of the table base where half of the old sash lock was and I would chisel out a slot for the sliding latch on the underside of the table. It came with a striker, so I would screw that to the underside as well.

Yacht Style Sliding Latch
As usual, something had to go wrong. This time it was the simple fact that there is not enough room to get a drill between the window and the table base to bore pilot holes for the screws. I could have bought a 90 degree attachment (which I do want!) but it's not a cheap nor easy fix. Instead I got an extra pair of hands (Passenger Pete's) and started the screws manually. Not as much fun, but it worked. I used a bit of wood glue under the sliding latch, just to add some extra strength. Now to measure twice..OK four times...and mount the striker plate. This HAD to be in the right spot or it wouldn't work at all. It had to be tight enough to hold the table firmly, but loose enough to be usable as a latch. I screwed the plate to the underside of the table and used a small drill bit to take out as much material (to the correct depth) as I could before using a small screwdriver to "pick" out the rest. I tested several times as I removed material to get a tight fit. I was afraid I was going to punch a hole through the tabletop, but that was just normal paranoia.
Extended Table

After some tense moments, me not the project, everything was done and ready for use. We'll see if the latch's two small screws will hold up under the strain of driving. If not I will have to drill some additional holes, or use larger screws. Now to plan a large meal to test my new and improved table!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Electric Dreams or Adding A 12 Volt Socket By the Bed

It began as a simple enough idea, put a 12 volt socket near my bed so I could charge my phone overnight or in the morning. Yeah, simple.

On the surface, installing a 12 volt outlet is easy. find a spot, make a hole (make sure you can get to the back of the space where the hole is. Run some wires...and Voila! power for the asking. Yup, that would work for other folks. No problems. For me, as usual...nothing is easy. Odd, since I'm a pretty good "karma" should be pretty good. Perhaps a previous life??? Naaaahhhh!

Looking Into The Access Panel Opening
OK so here we go. Near the head of my bed in the RV is a magazine rack. It's really good at smacking me in the head at night. I figured it should be a cinch to remove and cover the 4 small screw holes thus fixing my cranial problems (no, not THOSE problems....if you have a couch and a LOT of time...maybe).

So I removed the screws pulled off the rack and BEHOLD there was another reason for it being there. It covers the access to the shower plumbing! OK, I'll admit that it was a good idea to have access to this. I'm sure it will eventually leak and need fixing.

I knew I was essentially stuck with the magazine rack now. I could have just covered the hole with a piece of something, though it would never match and I really didn't want a mirror next to my head. Especially given that I would have to see myself early in the morning, waking up. NOT a good thing, trust me. Truth be told, I've been using the magazine rack as a spot to store my cell phone...tablet, etc. overnight. I figured it would be nice to be able to plug them in to charge as well. The nearest 12 Volt outlet was under the vanity sink on the facing. I was plugging in there, but the cord runs across the bathroom door. Not much fun for middle of the night bathroom visits!
Vanity 12 Volt Socket
Nice Hole!
I took the, now removed, magazine rack outside and drilled a hole that was almost the diameter of the inner section of the 12 Volt socket. It was an odd size, and all I had was 3/4" or 1". Then filed the hole to fit the socket snugly -- all done outside to keep the bits of wood and sawdust inside to a minimum.

 I thought I was being smart and proactive!

The outer sleeve of the socket screws onto the inner sleeve and clamps down on the wood surrounding the hole. I screwed it down and realized the wood veneer used as the back of the magazine rack was far too thin to allow the socket to be tightened properly. I resorted to using a couple of large o-rings to bridge the gap. This works OK, for now, but I will likely cut a small block of wood and bore a whole for the inner socket at a later date. I can also screw this to the frame of the magazine rack so it will have more strength to resist plugging and unplugging chargers without cracking or breaking.

Back Of The Magazine Rack
I placed the rack back against the hole. Sort of. Seems that the cold water pipe to the back of the shower valve was blocking the socket. Oh good. I managed to move the old grey piping over a few inches toward the hot water pipe and taped them together; after it was all fitted I would have used a couple of zip ties to secure everything. That's when I realized the 4 screws on the magazine rack wouldn't line up! What was really happening was the access hole is MUCH smaller then the outside edges of the magazine rack. I had to cut a slot on the bottom left side to accommodate the 12 volt socket. At least I could release the water pipes! I didn't like that they would be under additional stress anyway.

Cutting the thin veneer paneling made a huge mess of wood chips and sawdust that, of course, was now all over the bed. Figures. At least it fit in properly now. Now to wire it all up and test.

Uncovered Wiring
Luckily there were already 12 Volt wires I could access through this opening. They're used for the wall sconce by the bed and the sealed light in the shower wall itself. I don't like to cut wires that are working so I shaved off the insulation on one side of each wire, made sure I knew which was positive and which was negative, then tapped into it with a "T."

I soldered them...did I mention I use heat shrink Yes. I forgot to put that on the first wire and had to take the joint apart to slide it on, then re-solder. I have this 7 "P" rule. Proper, Prior, Planning, Prevents, Piss, Poor, Performance. I try to follow that, most of the time I am successful. The second wire joint worked out much easier. Make sure that the fuse to the existing wires will handle the additional load and the wires are sized to carry the load you will be drawing from the socket. Mine was OK.

Badly Photographed Finished Product
Once replaced and screwed all together I plugged in a few chargers to make sure everything was working. It worked! Looked OK too.

For an easy project, it wasn't so easy. Not because the steps are complicated, just that you never know what problems will come up and have to be solved to reach the finish line.

Now for a good night sleep. I'll have to watch my head, but at least I have power and an unobstructed path to the bathroom!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Updating & Installing a Fancy New Energy Monitor

We can all agree that it is vitally important to monitor how much power you are using when not connected to shore power or running the generator. It's never fun to run out!  Since RV's have limited space, there is a maximum amount of battery storage that can be carried. Sometimes due to weight, but mostly physical size issues. When I added Solar Power to the mix I wanted to know how much I was using AND putting back each day.

When I bought my RV had an existing Energy Storage Monitoring system, it was a decent working system, but had some problems. Mainly the display was the size of a pocket calculator and the backlighting was so dim you couldn't tell whether it was on or off. It would either tell you what the volts of your battery bank were OR the amount of amps going in or out. You could also toggle a switch to let you know what it believed you had used from the bank (or put back in) But only one at a time. I wanted to be able to read the status of the battery bank at a glance. All the info on one screen AND one I could read from a distance, in the dark.

Most battery monitoring systems sense how much power you are using by running all your loads through a device called a SHUNT These take the large amperages you draw for running your lights, inverters, water pumps, etc. and turn it into a tiny amount of current called a millivolt. This can then be read and displayed by a gauge or computerized battery monitoring system. It sees millivolts, you see amps on the screen. if you didn't use a shunt and hooked the monitor up would be bad. Melting stuff bad. A long time ago, a friend told me all electronics contain "magic smoke" if it gets released the component will not work anymore.

A Variety Of Battery Monitors
I started looking at all the commonly available battery and energy monitoring systems. First off, if you wanted a lot of features and a nifty display, it looked like the costs was VERY high. Around $800.00 plus the cost of the SHUNT which would be around $80. I was becoming afraid that I would have to "bite the bullet" and cough up around $1,000.00 to accomplish my goal. I could have gone the other way and used a much less expensive system, but it really would not have solved the problems I had.

Oh well, back to the internet!

After much exploration I found a product built in the U.K. (and sold here under a different name) that sure looked like it was the right tool for the job. Big backlit display, all the info on one screen....looked to good to be true. I sent some email to the company in England and waited. And waited some more. Then sent another e-mail and waited. And waited. No reply. I managed to track down the U.S. distributor of the product and left a few messages. No reply. Why does it seem that manufacturers and vendors seem to NOT want to sell any merchandise? We are willing customers.....shouldn't they WANT to sell to us?  I gave the distributor one final call...behold, someone answered. We chatted about the product. They had a new version that would read 200+amps, which was exactly what I needed for my RV. The biggest possible power draw for me is my 1,800 watt inverter which could draw 150+ amps. That left me a bit of safety overhead. The entire kit for this monitoring system came in around $200 including the shunt! Needless to say, I bought one right then and there. There were some problems with delivery to the distributor from the manufacturer in England, but it arrived in a few weeks.

New 200 Amp Included Shunt

The install wasn't terrible. I removed the older, much larger shunt. (a 400 amp one) and managed to put the newer one in its place. There was some fiddling with heavy gauge wires and the inevitable dropping of screws in impossible to reach places. (Thanks to Passenger Pete for the retrieval!) All in all, it wasn't bad. If you don't have a shunt already in place, it may be a bit tougher since ALL negative load cables to the battery must feed through the shunt to get accurate totals for the monitor.

Next was the installation of the display unit. I thought I had measured it perfectly. Nope. One day, I will get through an entire project without so much as a single "gotcha!" Wasn't going to be today. Seems that the old flush mount panel was an 1/8" larger than the new surface mount display. Bleh. I'm good, but not good enough to UNCUT an original hole in my dash. Ultimately, I used some leftover self sticking, closed cell foam to fill the gap until I can find a nicer trim solution. I am also not crazy about the fact it sticks out from the dash about 1 1/2". I'll learn to live with it!

Finally, we were ready to wire it all together. I re-used the 4 conductor wire that was part of the original energy monitor system. Due to thick headed-ness I wired a couple of the conductors backward and wasn't getting a reading and blew the 5 amp fuse. Once I figured out why the display wasn't displaying (no power, duh.) I swapped the wires and had an operational system.

New Battery Monitor Display (Backlight On)
Looks nice in the dark. AND I can read it from my bed. That was a bonus! Now I have to figure out how to turn on the backlight remotely....ah well, I'll put that on my list.

After figuring out how to calibrate the new system, it seems to be giving precise readings. I'll be testing it in the real world in the coming weeks to see if it's as accurate as advertised.

Be Seeing You.... Down the Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Water is Evil. How to Find and Fix RV Vent Leaks - Part.2

Well, Passenger Pete and I tackled the repair of the leaking roof vents recently. Mostly it went well. Of course there were the unavoidable....(Well, OK they could have been avoided if I hadn't been so eager to get the job done before it rained!) issues.

Scraping Begins
First, we began by scraping the existing caulk so it was mostly flat and removing the goop from all the screw heads. It is CRITICAL you get all the silicone (new and old) removed. The tape will NOT stick to silicone and you will not get a watertight seal!

Next, I removed the screws from one side at a time to check for damage and how tight they were. For some of them I placed a dab of wood putty in the hole (below the plastic) before replacing the screw. I figured the tape would hold everything together, but why take chances!

Bad Crack Number #1
Some of the cracks in the caulk had been sealed (by me) with the same paralastic adhesive we used to adhere the Solar Panels to the roof in a previous project. No silicone in that stuff, so it was okay. There were some places that the cracks were VERY bad, you could see into the roof structure if you squinted enough.

We made sure that those were as flat as we could make them with a scraper and a razor blade. You know me, always paranoid and a bit of a perfectionist! Better safe than sorry when it comes to roof leaks in your RV. Water will destroy so many things if left unattended. I'm still thinking about adding some expanding foam to the sections of the roof that allowed the water to seep from the crack all the way out to the edges of the interior.

A reader recommended a product that would prevent additional damage to the wood that had already gotten wet. That's probably a good idea as well.

My roof is fiberglass, so I used soap and water to do the basic cleaning of the areas that the tape would be applied to. After that a scrub down with isopropyl alcohol to prep the surface. If there was any oxidation, we made sure it was all removed with those cleaning steps.

Now the sticky part. I had a 50 foot roll of 4" wide tape to work with. It came wrapped in shrink plastic. Once removed, there were waxed(?) plastic disks on either side of the roll. These are important! I read a forum message someplace that someone had permanently affixed the entire roll flat on their roof! I really didn't want that to happen! I tried to make sure the roll was put CAREFULLY back on the disk or stood up vertically in a safe spot. yes, there were some tense moments....but no disasters. This time!

First Cut piece of Tape
By partially unrolling the tape upside down, we were able to measure and cut each piece. I used an inexpensive pair of "miracle scissors" like the ones Paramedics use for bandages. They work GREAT. You know, you can even cut pennies in half with them, but you shouldn't because the Federal Government frowns on that sort of thing.

Once measured and cut, we flipped the tape over and took a look. So far so good! You have to be careful of the edge of the tape as the sticky stuff is squeezed between two pieces of plastic and has oozed out a bit making the whole edge sticky. Believe me, it WILL stick to almost anything and the gooey residue is hard to remove. Mark where you want the tape to be, we used blue painters tape.

One Side Done!
The trick to removing the backing on the tape is to hold it in both hands, between thumb and forefinger and vigorously "waggle" it back and forth. This releases the backing at the top edge and makes it easy to remove. ONLY remove a couple of inches!!!! This stuff will stick to almost anything, especially itself! Better to have only a couple of inches to work with. Flip the tape, sticky side down (DUH!) then affix it next to the previously set tape marks. Pull the plastic backing slowly back toward the other end while gently pressing the tape to the surface. Make sure you have the inside edge lined up against the vent. I hate crooked seams! Rub the tape down so it forms over and around all the bumps and imperfections underneath it. You can use a small wallpaper roller if you like. Try and eliminate as much of the air bubbles and creases that you can for a smooth professional appearance.

Three Sides Done
Repeat for the other three sides. I left the side with the hinge for last as it was going to require trimming the tape the long way. At each side we went back over the previous ones to further smooth out the bumps and make sure it was tacked down all the way around. Especially at the seams where the tape overlaps. You can choose which order to do these, since you may want a different pattern for the overlaps.

The Hinge
And now for the hinge side. As you can see by the photo, this one was pretty gunked up and needed some special attention. After it was cleaned and prepped, it didn't look all that much better! One of the nice things about a 4" piece of tape is that it will cover a lot of visual evils! One of the roof vents only had to be trimmed along one edge (near the solar panel), but the other had to have 1"+ removed to make it fit. This wasn't super hard to do, but my ability to cut a straight line isn't so great to start with. I'll spare you the photo of that crooked mess!

Finally, the first vent was completed. there was some residue from where the glue bled out of the seams. I will have to figure out how to remove it...mainly because it looks bad. The other vent had much more trimming to do, but since we'd already done one it took about the same amount of time. We also did the flanges on my slowly dying shower skylight. this was a much bigger job and every side had its problems. I am pretty sure no one else will have those sorts of odd Aero Cruiser issues. if you do, let me know I've already suffered through THAT fix.

One Of The Round Roof Vents
All that's left were the round vents for the bath, stove, water heater, tanks, etc. Those are all round. I've managed to get one of them done. It looks OK, not great, but OK. I left the bonding tape square around the outside edge since I couldn't manage a true round cut. Ah well...better it works well than looks good!  At some point I will figure out how to remove the tape residue.....

I'm going to practice my scissor work before the other ones get done get tackled. Besides, they're not leaking....YET!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

See Part 1: Click Here!