Monday, December 3, 2012

Time to fix the stereo

Greetings gentle readers. It's been some time. And that means we've been out enjoying Kurt, instead of spending quite so much time fixing him. And that's a good thing. Here's our Thanksgiving:

All the same, there's still a long list of things to fix. One is the stereo. Once, when I was driving to work on a rainy fall day, the stereo quit. The head unit still had power, but nothing from the speakers. Nada, kaput. This  meant a short somewhere in the speaker wires.

I started with the wiring with the head unit. Here's how it looked when I started:

Again, those blasted twist connectors everywhere. I counted nine of the damned things. When I tugged on the speaker wire in the driver-side door, the driver door speakers dropped sound completely, even though I'd redone their wiring too. (No pix of that job, sorry. I need to do the passenger door too, and I'll show you what a mess it was.) So, I decided to solder all of these, instead of leaving all these twist connectors in place.

Preparing to tin two wires, prior to splicing them:

And the head unit wiring, upon completion:

I could probably tidy more, e.g. replacing those crimp-on splices with soldered ones, and zip-tying the wires a bit more, but I'll take it. And tugging on the door wires no longer leads to fade-outs.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Domestic tranquility

This past week, I made some adjustments to Kurt to keep the missus happy.

First, a table lift extension. $2 in parts, half an hour in labor. Kurt's table in normal travel position:

Again, in new lifted position:

The missus showing how easy it is to access the cabinets with the table lifted.

Item #2 is a fix to one of the Previous Owner's modifications to Kurt. He installed two additional pumps besides the stock sink pump: one, to add a shower head in the back of the van. Cute idea, and he plumbed it relatively well, sealing the additional tubing and wiring with silicon. Trouble is, it isn't working. He says it did, but who knows how recently. He also added a hand-held, battery operated pump. Something like a powered squirt gun. To install this, he simply drilled a hole in the top of the water tank. You can see the hole in this photo, the dark hole near the hose intakes:

The trouble is filling the water tank. The PO used to fill the tank by opening the screw-top lid and feeding a hose through the window, because he never had the key to the fill hose door. I replaced the stock Delta Industries hookup boxes with ones from GoWesty, partly because I like the idea of a quick connect on the hose. The way this is supposed to work is, once the tank fills, water will flow out the point of lowest pressure, which should be the vent hose, aka outside the van.
But with this open hole in the top of the tank, water just flows all over the top of the tank, running all over the floor of the van and who knows what else on its way out. (Yes, I found this out the hard way.) So I needed to stop up that hole.
My buddy Steve suggested a genius modification: plastic welding. I cut a plug out of an old "soft" Nalgene bottle I had lying around, and blasted it and the tank with a heat gun until the plug sucked itself into place and formed a weld. Here's how it looks now:

Problem solved.

One final mod: the missus and I sleep in the top bunk and leave our toddler in a tent in the bottom. But at 6' tall, I press up against the bottom of the tent, and after just a few uses, I poked a hole in it, too. So again I leaned on my buddy Steve, to build a pillow board to slot in the hole beyond where the bed folds out. I bought a piece of 2' x 4' 3/4" plywood, and cut out a width of about 11 1/2" to fit the space. We glued a piece of 2" high-density foam onto it, and upholstered it with a staple gun. Here it is installed:

It stores in the spot below the bed underneath the pop top, and lets me lie flat without Bogarting the missus's space anymore.

Tips for upholstering:
This is a two-person job. Spray glue helps keep the foam in place, but be careful it isn't keeping you from pulling the fabric tight as you're stapling it. Start in the middle rather than at the corners, as the folds you make in the corners will pull in any remaining slack. If you start at the corners, you'll have unwanted slack in the middle you'll never be able to get rid of.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Redoing the dash wiring

When I got the van, the prior owner told me the dash lights didn't work. I asked if whether they'd faded out or died suddenly, and he said they'd just died suddenly. So I figured there was a fuse that was blown, and the Bentley manual told me there was a fuse involved in the dash lights. But I sure couldn't find it. It wasn't mentioned in the fuse panel's list of fuses, either. So for one of my projects, I decided to replace the lamps in the dash with LEDs. This was unlikely to help, but I figured it couldn't hurt. Replacing them required pulling out the instrument cluster, which is actually pretty straightforward. When it was off, I spotted a fuse hiding on top of the fuse block that isn't mentioned in the cover. I replaced this, and all of a sudden, most of my dash lights were working. Success!

Except I wasn't done yet. When we took Kurt out for his second trip last weekend, I was futzing with the heater and the dash lights flickered off. And, about a month after we got the van, I'd been trying to figure out an unrelated problem when I spotted loose wires hiding behind the ventilation controls. Here's what the wiring looked like behind that. Note there are three dangling, stripped wires in view, and a fourth out of view.

Two of these are ground, so not dangerous, but silly. The last, the blue/grey wire with electrical tape covering it, is switched with the dash lights. When the dash lights are on, this showed +9V. The end was stripped, so turning on the dash lights could mean a short, followed by a blown fuse. And see the silly twist connectors? The van's full of these wherever the prior owner did work. I don't like 'em because of their tendency to fail with time, at least if they move around.

Another thing that was bugging me was the cigarette lighter. It was dangling half out of the dash, and didn't work. Here's what the wiring looked like when I tugged at it:

I swear I didn't enhance the ugliness for effect, this is just how it looked. Yep, two more twist connectors, and a cut wire whose use I didn't immediately guess. The brown (ground) wire coming out of the twist connector was disconnected. One side of the red (12V) wires went to the glove box light, and the other side was the source. Or, it should have been. But according to the ohm meter, it and the ground were one and the same. Glad it wasn't working! At least the prior owner did one thing right:

He had an inline fuse in the source. Good thing! I wonder how many of these he blew trying to figure out his short? (Again, I note the repeated use of twist connectors.)

So I rewired the source for the stereo and the cigarette lighter, and replaced the lighter. The new lighter came with a light that switched on with the dash lights. Ah hah! Here's the reason for the cut blue/grey wire both in the old lighter and hidden behind the ventilation controls. Here's my new cigarette lighter and glove box light wiring, before I mounted them into the dash, with apologies for the terrible exposure:

I kept an inline fuse, because the source circuit for the cigarette lighter is shared with the stereo, and with luck causing a short across the 12V receptacle would blow this fuse before damaging the stereo. (It has its own fuse, too, but I decided to play it extra safe here.) I went with a blade fuse just because I happened to have extras of those. I used a tap splice to provide 12V to the glove box light, figuring it'd serve as a canary to tell me if the fuse was blown.

Finally, here's the dash all put back together:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Taming electrical beasties, part 2

So last time, I mentioned that the previous owner wasn't the only one capable of electrical incompetence. Here's what I did. I'd been hoping to take Kurt up for his second trip Labor Day weekend, and I was racing to finish up the electrical rework before then. That included pulling the old battery, which had gotten drained, in one insomniac session. I also installed a toggle switch from GoWesty. This handy little switch allows me to have the radio either powered on only when the key is in the ignition, or all the time. Finally, I dropped in the new battery.

We packed up the van the Saturday before Labor Day, and made plans to leave early the following morning. I also checked out the sink, and it wasn't working very well, even though the new battery was working fine. So I pulled the faucet off to check out the connection. The contacts looked corroded, but there was no obvious fault. When I tried to put it back together, I broke the crimp-on connector. This was about 8pm on Saturday night, and we were leaving the next morning. Good job, dude: from a flaky sink, I now had a broken one.

Still, we went ahead with our plans, and got rolling about 3 Sunday morning. As we were rolling out, I heard some quiet little popping noises underneath me. Uh-oh. They only happened when I passed a bump in the road or when I was turning, but I noticed that they were accompanied with a flicker of my battery light. Ok, definitely electrical. Time to abort the trip.

Remember how I yanked the battery out during one insomniac night? Well, I had to unmount a solenoid that's part of the aux battery charging circuit to get the battery out. A screw got away from me then, and I forgot about it. So the alternator side of the solenoid was rotating, and making contact with that loose screw, causing a near short.

So, electrical incompetence isn't limited to the prior owner: I broke the sink, and had a very dangerous potential short, due to my own incompetence.

On the plus side, this gave me time to fix the sink before our next trip.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Taming electrical beasties, part 1

The first step in fixing the battery drain is to build a schematic. To do that, I first had to open things up and take a peek.

I wish I had taken a picture of the battery compartment when I first got the van, just to document what I had to contend with. The battery terminals had stripped wire wrapped around them, with several different hot leads leading away. The insulation was a little bit of electrical tape on the lid of the battery box. So the first thing I did was put crimp-on connectors on all of these wires, so I could be sure that the connections were good, and put a proper insulator on the hot leads from the battery.

The next step was to wander around the van with an ohmmeter and a piece of paper, to try to get some idea. The previous owner had noticed the drain, and he'd placed a large switch next to the door post to disconnect a circuit he'd installed in the back. I don't think it addressed the issue, and it looked ugly. So my buddy Josh and I traced the circuit from the switch, and produced the following map:

I don't expect anyone to read that. It just highlights that the wiring was a mess. There are several electrical sins being committed:

  1. Several unrelated items are on the same circuit, all fed with a single 14AWG hot wire.
  2. There are several places in which the circuit "branches." When I was first doing residential electrical work, when we had a hot wire one place and needed to fan it out to several things, it was considered OK, but iffy, to install a "pigtail," a short loop of wire in one twist connector to bring hot to another twist connector right next to it. Taking a single hot line several different directions, in several different places along the same circuit, was never OK.
  3. There's an unfused light coming directly off the battery. It might be unlikely to short, but it's still a fire hazard.

To address the issues, I ran separate hot wires for the things I thought belonged together: the Propex heater has its own, the lights and 12V adapter share one, and the shower pump has its own. (The shower pump probably doesn't need an entire circuit of its own, but water and electricity make me nervous, so I wanted this on a pretty small fuse.) I also put in a new fuse block, to make measuring the current draw from each of the circuits easier. Here's what the aux battery box looks like now:

Of course, none of this actually got to the real problems. I'll talk about how the Prior Owner didn't have a monopoly on incompetence when I finish up with this spot of electrical rework.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Maiden voyage

We took Kurt up to the Sonoma coast right after getting it. Everything as expected the first day, though there was some rattling underneath the car on the drive up. We celebrated the voyage with some pie and whipped cream.

The second day, the sink didn't work. Was this due to the aux battery getting drained?

On the drive home, we could only maintain freeway speed on perfectly flat roads. Going over the bridge was more like driving a 1960 VW Bus, standing on the accelerator going 35 mph. I took it to a VW mechanic Monday morning. Nice thing about driving a freeway-illegal van during rush hour: no one can notice my top speed isn't much above 35 mph. The mechanic called me up two hours later to tell my it was just my catalytic converter. It was plugged up and choking off the engine. In a sense, this was a relief: a straightforward repair should lead to a driveable van, leaving me with the problems I already knew about.

Of course, I should be so lucky. An old van brings a lot of hidden little issues, and I got neck deep in them pretty quickly.

What's in a name

So, I got my wife a Vanagon. A 1990 Westy, specifically. I told her once we got it that the first things we'd do would be to name it, and to get a blog for it, since that's what all Westy owners do, apparently.

So, the name. My buddy Josh suggested it. Naming the van after Jack Kerouac wouldn't have been appropriate, I suppose, because it hasn't been on the road that much since we got it.

Condition to start: fair. Amateur paint job, geegaws glued all over the dash, power mirrors don't work, dash lights don't work, auxiliary battery drains, suspension does the wave.