January 15 marks seven months full-timing in Serenity. Here are a few pictures from the journey so far.
Time flies when you pare your life down to the bare essentials and focus on only one or two things, doesn't it?
Let's get caught up first:
The April Shakedown Cruise was a smashing success. I boondocked outside of Albuquerque, found myself in the middle of a world-class web of mountain biking trails, and met a few locals as well as old friends. After two weeks of that I boondocked outside Santa Fe, climbed and rode for a couple weeks, and then made my way back to California (with a quick stopover in Red Rocks for some multipitch climbing fun).
May and June was an intense period of trailer construction. I dropped almost everything from my life except work and trailer construction. Summer was upon me, and I didn't want to spend it in construction mode. My triage list evolved on a daily basis - that is, the list of things I 'had' to finish before I left, and the things that would be 'nice to have' finished. Mostly items moved from the latter list to the former.
On June 18, I declared mission accomplished, attempted to clean up all the various messes I'd left in the shop, and drove north. My friends Ashley and Dave live on a ranch south of Santa Rosa in their beautifully converted shipping container and invited me to stay with them for a bit. Two weeks of waking up in the middle of grape vines, going on motorhome/deck cruises around the ranch, and getting needed work done on my truck was exactly what I needed.
The entire week of July 4 I was up in the Sierras with a crew of 20+, climbing almost every day on world-class granite.
But this blog is about Serenity, not me. Where am I at with that?
My top of list pain point currently is storage. Beyond the usual categories of stuff (clothes, books, food, kitchen gear), I have three piles of stuff I'm struggling with: climbing stuff, biking stuff, and backpacking stuff. I have more stuff than storage space at the moment, so I'm doing a dance where I shuffle my stuff from the bed to the toilet cabinet and back.
On Saturday March 31, I got everything stuffed into Serenity, hitched her up, and pulled out onto the highway.
I've been on the family land since December working hard to get Serenity road-worthy. Living with one's parents for a few months as a 31 year old was an amazing opportunity that not many people get in today's world, and has been a special time for me... but it is not an emotionally straightforward thing to do. As Ram Dass said, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a weekend with your family." (And I don't think I'm enlightened.)
It felt a bit like going off to college for the first time, as I tucked two tins of mom's cookies into my kitchen crate and assured them that yes, I knew how to find water on the road and had a solid plan all figured out for how to shower semi-regularly.
Part of the why of this whole endeavor is to seek out, play with, and expand the edges of my comfort zone in multiple dimensions. The simplest way to tell if you are close to your comfort zone, of course, is to pay attention to fear clutching at your gut. If you aren't afraid, you aren't close to your edge.
As I pulled out onto the highway, I was surprised to notice myself in the neighborhood of my edge. I was afraid that I'd done my weight calcs wrong and I was actually pulling a 6000lb Death Machine. I was afraid an electrical connection would overheat and Serenity would burn up in a ball of flame behind me. I was afraid I'd hate trailer life and had made a huge mistake. I was afraid my super solid shower plan would fall through and I'd be a smelly mess the rest of my life.
I put on Amon Amarth, because nothing bolsters your courage like those guys. The fear eased as the miles rolled by. That process, of embracing your fear, dancing with it, moving with it, and then feeling it melt into the fabric of your life, is the process of comfort zone expansion. This is what I'm here for.
The process is, then:
- Pick something kind of nuts to do.
- Feel the fear clutching at your gut as you are about to do it. It's not a bad thing, don't try to avoid it or clamp it down - just notice it and let it wash over you. The more you resist and reject the fear, the worse it becomes.
- Do the thing.
- Repeat steps 1-3 as frequently as possible until you die.
After three days of driving through the back highways of the Southwest I arrived in Albuquerque. First stop: Prismatic Coffee, the best damn beans I've found anywhere.
Then I bounced my way up a jeep road into the National Forest, found a perfect little spot nestled on the north ridge overlooking a canyon, and settled down into my new home for two weeks.
The last week of March was a full week for me. I really wanted to hit the road for NM by the weekend, and I really wanted my electrical system to be energized by then. No electricity, no laptop, no ability to work from the road, no lights... that would be rough.
On the evening of Wednesday, March 28, I finishing sticking all the right wires into the right boxes, double and triple checked for correct polarity, flipped the switch... and just about wept from joy.
The design and installation of the PV system was a big deal for me. I grew up off grid, so I was familiar with the concept in general, but I'm a mechanical engineer and anything electrical is far from my sphere of competence. Framing the bed, walls, and the kitchen counter was great to get done, but that's the sort of thing I've known how to do since junior high.
I'm fortunate that my father is a) an electrical engineer who spent decades designing industrial robots, and b) the designer/installer of our family's off-grid PV system, and I was able to benefit from his expert review and recommendations.
Details for the nerds:
- Two 250w solar panels, wired in series to give me about 70v when the sun is strong
- A SolarEpic MPPT Solar Charger
- A Kisae 1000w PSW Inverter/Charger
- Four 90Ah 12v AGM batteries in parallel for 360Ah total at 12v
- Shore power hookup if needed for battery charging, but I anticipate rarely needing it
I went on a short trip March 2 - 11, up to Bishop and Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierras of California.
March 3-4 I took an ice climbing course with my buddy Ryan. We boondocked in the Volcanic Tablelands just outside Bishop, and commuted up to June Lake for the Ice Climbing course. Due to the weather, we only got 3 climbs in each, on Saturday, as the conditions were too treacherous otherwise.
Ryan went back down to Ridgecrest on Sunday, and I stayed on in Bishop. I worked from a cafe, and from the rear balcony, Mon-Wed.
Then my friends from the Bay Nico and Kyle arrived and we climbed Owens River Gorge. Friday we caravaned down to the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, and climbed and rode bikes Friday - Saturday.
Serenity was in 'metal tent' mode; that is, none of her furniture was built and no systems were working. No electricity, no water, no ventilation, just a big empty box.
She did great.
Some lessons learned:
- The insulation worked well. With 2 people in 0* sleeping bags, we slept fine and she didn't freeze even with nightly temps down to the low 20s.
- That said, on Monday early morning, when it was just me, and the outside temp got to 16F, my water bottle started to freeze. This won't be an issue once I get more thermal mass, can warm up my water tanks, can cook inside, and can safely run a propane heater.
- Cooking outside at 0430 when it's 20F and windy is definitely not fun. Getting propane plumbed up inside (and proper ventilation) is a top priority.
- Three climbing dudes in one small metal box without proper ventilation smell something fierce. It took a week for the musk to air out after my trip.
- The 'compost' toilet works great. No smells as long as you use enough coconut coir, and as mentioned I had no ventilation for it whatsoever. (I'm going to add a vent fan for it anyway, but it's nice to know it's not strictly necessary). Also, there's nothing quite like setting it outside in a spot with a nice view.
My bed has to do a lot.
For starters, it has to be a bed. Also a bench. And my office. And the electrical system cabinet. And storage for stuff.
After endless Sketchup iterations, I finally said "screw it" and started banging sticks together. I got this far before deciding I needed to head back into Sketchup before continuing.
Things are starting to get exciting around here. I got the floor completed yesterday.
It's beetle-killed pine, harvested in the mountains near Santa Fe NM. (Hey, it was local when I bought it...)
Using real wood in a trailer conversion is very rarely done, for a number of excellent reasons. It's heavy. It expands and contracts with the weather. If it gets wet, it can hold the moisture and rot. There are probably other great reasons not to use it.
But I just couldn't bring myself to use vinyl or so-called "engineered hardwood". Those products look awesome and function great. But I'd know they're fake. So, real wood it is, with all the attendant risks. It's funny where we decide to draw the line, but we all draw it somewhere.
A thing happened after I got the last boards in place. The trailer went from being "the trailer" to being "Serenity", my Serenity, my home. The floor apparently added just enough character to her that I hit the tipping point and am now fully emotionally attached to this small metal box.
I've taken another pass at the internal layout. Here it is:
The two water tanks are 14ga Stainless Steel "fusti" tanks, of the sort used by winemakers. I got the idea from some vandweller website. I really like the idea of having my water sit in SS not plastic, since I'm going to be drinking this water 365 days a year more or less.
Also, I can somewhat easily take them out, put them in my truck, and drive off to get water, without having to move my whole trailer if I don't want. (Yes, 14ga of water is heavy, about 120 pounds. Plan A is fill up without having to move them manually, but I'm a strong enough lad so as an occasional plan B, moving them myself is fine.)
I feel like it takes most people on the internet a weekend, maybe two, to finish their trailer insulation.
It's taken me... 4 months or so? Granted, insulation is near and dear to my heart and I consciously and happily went overboard on it, but I'm glad to be done with it.
Before I was able to put in the second layer of insulation I had to run all the wires that needed to go through the ceiling. Mostly lights, bathroom fan, an AC line, and the main cabin fan.
Then I laid 1" polyiso in between the furring strips, cutting out holes for the recessed lights.
I found some 1/2" styrofoam insulation (no, I don't like stryofoam, but nothing else I found worked and I like freezing my ass off less) and stuffed it up in the forward compound curve area and top sides.
Next I screwed 3/32" paneling to the furring strips, again cutting out for the lights and fans.
It feels really good to have this work done, and it's starting to halfway look like a habitable box.
Next step: the pine floor.
Done for now, at least.
I also finished the first layer of ceiling insulation and installed the furring strips for the second, "almost-continuous" layer of insulation.
I've been focused on insulating the trailer and the end is in sight.
As I'm planning on mostly boondocking in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, I've got to make this thing habitable in extremes of heat and cold with no option for plugging in to grid electricity. That means no A/C and no traditional RV gas heater.
So I need to insulate it well. In a perfect world, my body heat will be enough to keep it survivable through a cold night. What do I mean by survivable? If I can keep the interior air temperature above freezing on a 0*F night, I'll be happy.
My strategy for summer is to have fans, excellent roof insulation, a good outside shade hang-out area, and the ability to simply weigh anchor and move to higher elevations if it gets too unbearable. I'll consider small, portable swamp coolers, but most of the ones I've seen seem pretty poorly made. (It's important to note that I'm planning on being in warm humid climates approximately never. The design decisions I'm making are very much driven by an arid-only assumption.)
The first and most important thing to understand about insulating structures is that heat likes to cheat. If you stuff the cavities with insulation but your outside surface is aluminum and you have metal studs, the heat is basically going to ignore your cavity insulation and go straight through your studs. This is called "thermal bridging".
In September, in Santa Fe, I had just put up wall cavity insulation. The metal stud was literally too hot to touch. In order for this trailer to be remotely habitable in warm and sunny weather, it needs to somehow insulate these thermal bridges. So in the walls and ceiling, I will have two layers of insulation: cavity insulation, and a mostly continuous layer of insulation that covers the studs and ribs.
For the floor insulation, it's a little trickier. I don't want to add continuous insulation below the floor joists, because I want to maintain my ground clearance. And I don't want to put continuous insulation above the subfloor, because then I won't be able to stand up straight inside. If I had a taller trailer I would definitely do indoor continuous insulation... but if I had a taller trailer, I'd get worse gas mileage and have more wall area to transfer heat, so my thermal performance might even be worse. It's all a trade-off.
I decided to do 2" cavity insulation and then use pipe insulation to cover the joists. This will help mitigate thermal bridging in the floor.
I used polyiso insulation because that's what my local hardware store has. In retrospect, the foil is very thin and clearly won't hold up to thrown rocks as well as XPS. Once the foil is damaged, the exposed polyiso will be vulnerable to moisture and just powderizing and sort of falling apart.
If I had it to do over again, I'd use XPS because it just seems tougher for this use. That said, I don't expect this to be a significant issue. I'm not concerned about moisture damage because I'm almost always going to be in arid regions -- even if it does get wet during a storm, it'll dry out almost immediately. And as for the rocks tearing the insulation up, I'll just keep a roll of foil or duct tape handy and inspect it often. If it gets real bad, I'll protect the insulation with some other membrane, but I suspect I won't need to.
To secure the insulation, I dropped bolts from the subfloor above and snugged it with a metal strap.
A possible bonus of underbelly insulation is that it might improve the areodynamics of the trailer, and thus improve my gas mileage. Every little bit helps.
When I can't work on the trailer physically, I try to plan ahead by working on it virtually. Here are a few recent renderings, representing working through ideas for the finishes for the trailer.
So Greece was nice.
I'm now back in Walkers Pass on the family land, picking up the threads of trailer construction that I had left off at the end of September.
The first few days back at work mostly consisted of me leaning against a wall, staring at the ceiling, attempting to figure out what parts I need that I don't have and in which order to do everything.
My first priority is to get the insulation complete (winter is coming, y'know). In order to do that, I need to get all of my roof penetrations sorted - solar panel wiring, skylights, and vents. In order to do that, I need to decide where all of my interior walls are going to be. And on and on.
Finally I said "screw it!" and did the only logical thing - I cut two holes in the roof.
These will feed the solar panel wires and roof-mounted light circuit.
Since I was on the roof, I ripped out the old static vent and replaced with a fantastic fan.
I'm also insulating the ceiling cavities.
Okay, that about gets us caught up to the present moment.
I'm writing this right now instead of working on the trailer because I went out this afternoon to do more insulation, cut my last piece of insulation incorrectly, twice, and then the wind blew my ladder over and smashed the windshield on my truck. Okay universe, I get it, today is not a work day.
This week we drove from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Walkers Pass, California. We overnighted in Flagstaff.
We were driving into a ripping headwind the entire way. On flat road, I could get the truck up to 65 or 70mph, but any slight hills + headwind meant I was doing good to maintain 55. This isn't very safe on I-40 with the semis blowing past us, so I looked for the first opportunity to get onto back roads.
At Gallup we got off I-40 and drove through some of the most beautiful desert I've ever been in. We spent the night in Flagstaff, and got back on I-40 as far as Needles. I knew that the freeway had some major hill climbs from there, and the wind had picked up again, so we ditched onto a big detour through the southern Mojave desert.
Finally we made it to Walkers Pass without incident.
The trailer will stay here while we're in Greece for the next two months, and when we return I'll finish it here.
All 500w of solar panels are now securely bolted to the roof.
A bonus of the panels is that they shade the roof and really cut down on the amount of heat the insulation will have to protect the cabin from.
I got the first 250 watt solar panel mounted on the roof today.
No rocket science going on here, just screw the ladder racks on...
And bolt the panels to the ladder racks with some mounting brackets from Renogy.
One more to go in the front.
So in my last post, I put electric brakes on my trailer (along with the new axle). Those won't do much good unless I have some way of telling them to brake when I want them to while I'm driving. Hence, I installed a brake controller in my truck over the past two days.
2000 Tacomas didn't come with a factory tow package, so I had to dig around under the dash to get all the right wires to the controller and to the plug in the back.
While I was at it, got all the wiring in place for the trailer-mounted backup cam, with a switch in the dash so I can manually switch between the truck and the trailer backup cam.
I also got fed up with all the slapdash chassis grounds I had going on at the rear of my truck, so I ran a 10awg wire directly from my battery to a marine-grade bus bar, and grounded everything to that. My cam no longer flickers when I have turn indicators on.
I tested the brakes today and they seem to be doing a fine job of stopping the trailer. Probably a bit more tweaking I need to do but for now, I feel good that my trailer isn't going to push my little truck through an intersection.
Now for something completely different: swapping the axle and adding electric brakes.
The original axle was a "drop" axle, meaning the spindles (the bit the wheels bolt on to) are about 4" higher than the axle beam. This is a good thing for normal cargo trailers because it's easier to get heavy stuff into a lower trailer.
I, however, plan on taking this thing on rough off-pavement roads, and don't like the idea of scraping my back end on rocks every time I take a little dip. So I bought a straight axle, as well as some brakes, and swapped them out yesterday.
The inner walls are complete.
It is noticeably less hot inside, although still not comfortable since the ceiling is still exposed sheet metal and too hot to touch when in direct sun. There are a few steps in between now and ceiling insulation, though, so I'll have to wait to see just how much heat gain my insulation scheme will cut.
It is thunder and lightning-ing out, so I'm taking the time to catch up on the build log.
Two weeks ago I insulated the wall cavities and put the original plywood back on.
Now, as any decent mechanical engineer will be able to tell you, those metal studs conduct a lot of heat through the walls. I put my hand on the horizontal metal ribs in the nose of the trailer when the sun was shining directly on it, and it was so hot I couldn't hold my hand there for longer than five seconds.
This means that cavity insulation by itself does precious little to actually insulate a metal-framed structure. Letting heat in is bad enough: the real terror is the condensation issues you can get inside your wall assembly when it's cold out (think mold, rot, rust, etc).
Long story short, the walls are only half done. I'm adding another layer of continuous insulation to the inner walls.
The somewhat odd placement of the panel is to reduce visible seams - the bottom seam will be covered by a bench, and the left-most seam will be covered by a shelf.
Most trailer builders would probably recommend furring strips to affix the panel to the wall, to make the surface very smooth. This is good advice, but those furring strips are just heat fins to me, so I'm giving this route a try. The panel/insulation sandwich is screwed into the 1/2" original plywood with decking screws every 6" on 16" center, it feels very firm, and the surface is actually rather consistently flat.
The rest of the wall insulation should go up quickly, and then it's on to other exciting things.