Wednesday, 24 April 2019

An un-smelly toilet without chemicals

We’ve never liked adding chemical to our toilet cassette, and so we’ve tried a few different things. But finally, we have a system that we think is great.

Last year we installed a toilet ventilation system onto our toilet cassette. It extracts smells from the toilet cassette and pulls them through a filter before releasing the air to the outside world. The system is great, apart from one thing: the filters. We found they were hard to get where we were travelling, expensive, and were synthetic: so, ‘bad’ waste for the environment. Then, we came up with a new filter system. 

First we made a filter container by stapling wire fly-screen, to make a container that fit where the original filter would have been housed. 

 Then we filled it with carbon pellets like used in aquariums. We bought our pellets in a small town pet shop without a lot of choice, there are probably many other carbon pellet options.

Then installed it. 

We’ve been using this system for just over 2 months now and it’s still working fine. When the time comes we will easily dispose of the charcoal pellets and add fresh ones to our basket.  
We don’t expect this method to damage our system in any way, but if you choose to do this please note that you may be voiding any warranty with the product manufacturer and you should make your own assessment as to whether this system might help you. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

When Blu wouldn’t go

We’ve spent a month stuck in my brothers driveway, from mid December to mid January, because Blu wouldn’t start. We finally, happily, left there a couple of days ago. 

When our problem of Blu not starting commences we were actually further out west, but we realised that if we could just get Blu going we’d be able to drive. And so we got a pull start, just 10m, and away we went. 

Toowoomba was the ideal spot to be stuck for this period: Christmas with family and friends, free parking and access to a house, my brother is a wealth of information with a good supply of tools, and whilst much of Australia was suffering a heat wave with temperatures of 40° (Celsius) or more, Toowoomba rarely breached 30°. 

Before I write about the problems of Blu, let me first write just a little about why we were in the vacinity of our Australian ‘homebase’ anyway. (Blu or Blac are home for us, but each has a ‘homebase’ where our families are.)

We’ve been back in Australia a few months. But the Aussie has had some health problems to deal with and we also had some trouble with the installation of a second air conditioner in Blu (to run off solar, while we are parked... maybe I should write a post about that?). 

Without saying too much here Ali had a troublesome ovarian cyst which is now gone and via laparoscopic surgery she’s got a confirmed diagnosis of endometriosis. We are completely happy to talk about this, but let’s get back to mechanics for this post. 

In the time that we’ve been driving Blu (since 2016) she’s never been an easy vehicle to start. Originally H thought it was the battery, and when we installed a lithium starting battery it did improve our starting for a while. Another concern, that we thought might be a contributor was that in the 3 months prior to mid December we had had a regular supply of waste veggie oil from a commercial kitchen and H had been filtering and feeding that to Blu. Not every tank mind you, and always a mix. And just before Blu stopped starting she’d been ‘choking’ and H had done a roadside replacement of the fuel filter. 

So, when Blu stopped starting the first things H looked at were the fuel filter, then he looked for air in the system. But these things weren’t the culprit. Obviously, we hoped for a quick, inexpensive, and easy fix so we started with those things. We adjusted the valve clearances, unfortunately it didn’t fix the problem but Blu’s sure to run better with this done. Was it the engine brake? No. 
Experts from around the world weighed in with their ideas on where we should look, most we’d already done, some we tried but we still weren’t solving our problem. 

We ran injector cleaning fluid through the system but it didn’t change anything. So H took the injectors out and a local diesel workshop installed new nozzles and gave them back looking super shiny. But, it didn’t help. 

Finally, the big job, H removed the injector pump and we took it to the diesel workshop. When the workshop tested our pump the pressure was just 35Mpa, and it should have been about 85! Assessing the damage they called us and offered a cheap fix to get us going but not long term, or a complete job to see Blu going for years to come (well, as far as this part is concerned). We got them to do the complete refurbish, there’s a lot of miles to do in Blu yet. 

Here’s the injector pump when H took it out.

Here’s the injector pump when H took it out. 

H asked if the veggie oil might have caused the problem and was told an emphatic “no, not on this old one”.  So, that’s nice to know. 

It was the Christmas - New Year period so we had to wait because in Australia most industrial businesses close at that time, many for a few weeks, so even if the workshop we dealt with was open to do work they had to wait for parts. 

The whole job took a lot of time, and we are very pleased that H could do what he could do. Getting the injectors fixed (4) cost about $550, and the pump about $2800.  (Australian dollars). Blu is a 1995 Mercedes-Benz 812 (known also as a Vario) with a 1992 364A engine. 

The refurbished injector pump ready to be reinstalled.

The refurbished injector pump ready to be reinstalled. (It’s so clean!)

But Blu goes now! The look on H’s face when she went was one of absolute relief and happiness! Mine probably was too.  And, not only does she start, but she goes so well. We can overtake other vehicles on an uphill! We are hoping that time will prove better fuel economy for us as well. 

Now we have set off to explore more of Australia. We don’t have an itinerary, just vague plans. At the moment, it’s a generally southerly direction. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

The slow grind of gearbox trouble

Ever since we set out on this trip we’ve had some trouble with Blac’s gearbox. First it was just difficult to change gears, but eventually we had this list of troubles:
  • Noise in 5th gear. 
  • Getting stuck in 2nd and also in reverse.
  • Play in the output shaft, 
  • Oil leak and 
  • Last oil change (gearbox) revealed silver speckles (7000km ago)
Initially to fix this H looked at replacing the gearbox with a second hand one. Parts for Blac (a Mercedes Benz G-Wagon) aren’t cheap. A new box could be sourced for about €3500. H started looking and asking and used ones were offered to us for €700-1000. 

But, this gearbox was already a used replacement of the original. H had replaced it 30,000 kilometres ago, and it started troubling us 10,0000 kilometres ago. So, we decided that used gearboxes are too much of an unknown. 

This left 2 choices: new or reconditioned. I always want to save money so I was pushing for the reconditioned option, which we were told should cost in the vacinity of €1500 (a price can’t be firmly quoted until the gearbox has been opened to inspect what’s needed). 

Finally we decided on getting a reconditioning done, which meant we had better find a place and get it done. We figured it should take 3-10 days depending on parts availability. H would need to remove the gearbox and hand it to them, and Blac would have to stay wherever it was. We’d like to stay in Blac too, as this is our home and anyplace else is an extra hassle and expense. 

We know that country places suit us better. So, we sought a gearbox specialist who wasn’t in a city. Freight, phones, and internet make these businesses able to source whatever is needed while they have less overheads. Rural industrial businesses are also more likely to have more space, and we were hoping we could remove the gearbox right there and camp onsite. 

Lucky for us we found Neil Engineering in Glengarnock. Stuart and Andrew are super friendly, know gearboxes, and had a yard more than big enough for us to camp in (not the most picturesque or quietest of camps though). 

Unluckily for us, amongst the parts needed 5th gear wasn’t available. I mean, eventually we could get one as Mercedes Benz will make such parts on demand, but we couldn’t find one sitting on a shelf somewhere. 

That was until the Neil brothers looked in their storage container and found they had a whole used G-wagen gearbox sitting there. In fact, turns out it had been sitting there about 25 years and long been forgotten. 

Finger crossed as it was opened, it was discovered that it was in much better condition than ours and 5th gear was fine. It however couldn’t be swapped into Blac as the bell housing had the starter on the opposite side to ours. But parts we needed were usable. 

Parts and special oil did have to be bought in, some from Germany,  so the job did end up taking a while to complete. Added to this, when we paid our bill and left it wasn’t quite right so we brought it back to them after driving 30km. The guys were good though about rectifying the problem. These things happen, they had made an error but it wasn’t a big problem. They could fix it and it’s this and the attitude that matters. 

Unfortunately, on a subsequent reinstallation of the gearbox H managed to damage the bell housing, by kind of shearing off the thread. It was buggered. But we had a spare: in Belgium, on the gearbox that this one had replaced 30,000 kilometres ago. With help from H’s brother and a neighbour we had DHL pick it up on Saturday morning and we had it by Monday morning. And it was good to see it opened by Stuart and Andrew and see what condition it was in. 

Finally, it’s all back together and we are driving down the road after 3 weeks of lingering around Ayrshire! (Although we did leave for a few days in the middle while extra parts cane in). 

The final price? Well we’re so glad we didn’t spend €700-1000 on a used gearbox because we just got a reconditioned gearbox for £850 (€960). Plus we spent at extra €255 with DHL, but that shouldn’t have been part of the story. Even with the DHL bill it’s cost us less than our original budget of €1500. 

We’ve learnt lots about gearboxes too: and 30,000 km ago we shouldn’t have replaced that one with a used one, we should have gotten the one we had reconditioned. 

The brothers at Neil Engineering have told us our reconditioned gearbox should last the life of Blac.... but they couldn’t possibly imagine how much more we want to do in Blac. 

The reconditioned Gearbox ready to go back into Blac.

The reconditioned Gearbox ready to go back into Blac. 

Inside a gearbox this is what a gear looks like.

Inside a gearbox this is what a gear looks like. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Overlanding Portugal

A few days ago we left Portugal after a lovely, but wet, 3 weeks there. We’d started on the Southern Spanish-Portuguese border and intended to travel all the way North, but we didn’t make it quite that far, instead we turned east along the beautiful Douro River and headed back to Spain. 

Our time was running out and when I checked the weather forecast it was obvious that staying longer in North Portugal would mean looking at more rain. It has rained for a lot of our stay in Portugal. 

Despite the rain, we’ve both enjoyed Portugal and intend to come back, one day (years from now). It has beautiful buildings, amazing tiles on buildings, spectacular beaches, great history, scrumptious food and the people are worth seeing and meeting too. 

My favourite part of travels is always the ‘human element’. We found the people of Portugal to be friendly (if approached). Often we noted some basics in life there: women doing laundry by hand in public purpose built facilities, and hanging the clothes on rudimentarily constructed clothes lines; people traveling by horse and cart; hardware shops selling new kerosene lamps and fuel burning cooking stoves. (These are just a few exceptional things we saw, for the most part people seem to live as you might expect in a European country: washing by machine, travel by car or public transport, cooking and lighting via wiring and plumbing to appliances.)
Clothes lines next to the public laundry facility. I didn’t photograph the women doing their laundry by hand.
Clothes lines next to the public laundry facility. I didn’t photograph the women doing their laundry by hand. 

Eating out or having a coffee out in Portugal can be very affordable. A shot of espresso: €0.65, a ‘menu of the day’ meal of 3 courses with wine €7.50; coffee with a famous Portuguese custard tartlet €1. So, we made sure we tried a few specialities while we were in Portugal. 

Our favourite eats were: the spiced bbq’d chicken we had at a Sunday market - olives, bread, whole chook, salad, wine for me and beer for H, total cost €11;  The delicious octopus meals we had in Algarve (not so cheap, but worth it); the delicious Portuguese custard tarts, which we ate again and again across Portugal, and often trying a different type of cake or tartlet. Oh, and let’s not forget the cafe overlooking the ocean in a tiny coastal town where we had 2 coffees (for H), tea (for me) and a big slice of cake still warm from the oven all for €2.90!

In Portugal it’s also really nice to shop at the local market: there are permanent fresh produce and fish markets in many towns. 

The Portuguese also have great festivals. We accidentally arrived in Alcoutim during their ‘Festival of Contraband’ and it certainly was a lively and fun festival, but I guess any festival with wine sold for €0.50 per serve is going to be lively! And we went to Sao Brás de Alportel’s Easter Sunday procession of flower torches. For that they decorated 1km of streets with flowers laid in patterns on the bitumen and then the men, carrying torches made of flowers, walked through them in a religious procession. It was such an effort by people to stage this fantastic event. 
Volunteers laying down the flowers in São Bras de Alportel.

Volunteers laying down the flowers in São Bras de Alportel. 

The procession of the flower torches in São Bras de Alportel.

The procession of the flower torches in São Bras de Alportel. 

We saw some stunning coastal scenery from long beaches to rocky headlands. A brief break in the wet weather allowed us to stand in front of the old fort at Nazaré and excitedly watch the massive waves and a Jetski tow a surfer out to surf them (they are said to be the biggest surf waves in the world). 

Inland we saw the forests of cork trees with their bark removed, and many plantations of olives, and citrus, and, of course, grapes in the Douro valley. 

We saw grand castles and palaces, and impressive buildings of religion, as well as admiring the ‘average’ houses adorned in fantastic tiles and the striped houses of Costa Nova. 
Striped houses in Costa Nova. The effect in town was sometimes by tiles, sometimes paint.

Striped houses in Costa Nova. The effect in town was sometimes by tiles, sometimes paint. 

Despite our dislike of cities we enjoyed both Lisbon and Porto, rode old trams in each, cycled the river of each, and in Lisbon we  were gobsmacked by the Jeronimo Monastery and from a Regua-Porto river cruise we were struck by the beauty of the Douro Valley. 

In an artesan’s shop in Nazaré the owner described to me, with passion, the various types of Fado music after I returned to tell him how much I liked the music in his store. And on our final evening in Porto we saw 5 different and wonderful Fado singers acompany the Fado string instrument musicians at a local bar (with local, not tourist, prices). 

Fado in a local bar in Porto. The singers name was Patricia and she was one of 5 talented singers who accompanied the wonderful musicians.

Fado in a local bar in Porto. The singer’s name was Patricia and she was one of 5 talented singers who accompanied the wonderful musicians. 

So, yes, we liked Portugal a lot. And we really do intend to go back one day. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Pesky insects inside the RV

Insects can be quite a bother when you’re living in a motorhome or any type of RV. We’re living in confined spaces and we need open windows to take in the best of the local environment, as most of us don’t have the luxury of air-conditioning while we are parked. 

We have wonderful windows in Blu with built in insect screens. I say wonderful as I think the concept is quite fantastic, but it has its faults which you can often see discussed on RV online forums. The screens are on rollers from one side and the blinds are on a roller from the opposite side and the 2 meet in the middle, it takes up minimal space and the idea is really quite clever. 

Blac has pleated screens and blinds on the roof hatches which are pretty cool too. But I’m going to talk about how we’ve dealt with insects in Blu, as Australia is the country to really test the insect proofing of any system.

So, the screens in Blu do keep most insects out. But still, due to the attraction of light or us insects will still come to the screens. Tiny insects will come through the screen and the occasional larger insect will crawl around the side of the screen where it’s not fixed (it can’t be fixed since it’s a roller system). 

Our solution for the attraction of the lights is to cover some of the LED lights with yellow cellophane. Then, in the evenings where insects are problematic we’ll only turn on these lights. This system has worked really well for us. But, if you intend to do this then do be careful as cellophane on a hot light would potentially be a fire hazard. In our case it’s been fine. 

Then there’s the attraction of human blood. It seems that I’m particularly attractive to midgies (sand flies). They hardly bother H but given the chance they’ll feast on me while I sleep and I won’t know it’s happening until I wake up in the morning. 

Our solution to this has been to spray the insect screens with Permethrin. It’s the same stuff as is sprayed on mosquito nets, hikers clothing, and dogs (for fleas). It works but insects that land on it are indiscriminately killed (which seems a terrible thing to do) and then the land on the bottom roller (for our rolling blind) and get squished in its action. Also, the screens, with Permethrin, do seem to get dirty really quickly. 

So, that’s our 2 solutions for keeping insects out. You might also be able to install yellow lights directly. If it is your lighting that’s attracting the insects then having yellow lights instead can really improve things for you.