Off Grid Upgrade

Some time ago we decided that we needed some upgrades to our van, because we intend to go to the continent in the New Year for three months. This means that we need to convert to refillable gas from Calor and we also wanted to get a solar panel so that we had less need of electric hook-up.

Our garage was also packed with two bikes and all of our chattels and yet we still wanted to put in a barbecue, outside table and some chairs, which were never going to fit. Therefore to free up some room in the garage we decided to put a bike rack on the back of Cosy.

There were also some minor issues with the van that needed attending to, the biggest of which was the alarm that should go off when we drive away with the step still down. All of this was a lot of work so the van was duly booked in to Elite Motorhomes for two days on 30th November and the 1st December. During this time they let us have a loan car and also sleep in the van on the forecourt, which saved us a bit of cash – which is just as well since all this work was quite an expense.

We had the following carried out on our van:

  • Gaslow conversion: we had a system fitted with two 11kg cylinders, with automatic switching between the cylinders and an external filler. This will give us ~44 litres of gas.
  • 150W solar panel: with an MPPT controller this charges both the habitation batteries and the van battery. You can see this fits very neatly in the centre of the roof, so should not generate any extra drag.
  • Bike rack: this is Thule bike rack for two bikes, although we plan to keep Lisa’s bike in the garage, just putting my bike on the rack.

All the work was carried out as expected and on time and budget. The items which needed fixing got fixed. The thing that always surprises me is that having all this equipment fitted nobody from the dealership wants to spend any time with you explaining what has been fitted and how it works. I had to ask how to refill the Gaslow system. Doing a proper job of handover takes very little time compared to the work carried out and makes customers come back to you.

The van was washed and looked new, won’t last long.

How wide are we?

From the Peak District we headed down South, we had to pick up Lisa’s youngest daughter Izzy from Heathrow. It took us a lot of research to decide how to do this – there was no way we could get into the pick-up areas as these are now in the multi-storey car parks. The drop-off areas, which we could get the motorhome into, don’t allow dropping off AND they have started issuing big fines based on ANPR – so that was out too.  We asked Izzy to catch the underground and travel a couple of stops to Hounslow West as this station has a good sized car park, and as Izzy was arriving at 8pm I figured it would not be too busy. Although the car park is used for a market on Sunday’s it was not listed as having height barriers. Getting in was not difficult having used Google streetview to scope out the entry and there was plenty of space, so we parked up taking up three bays as usual.

With perfect timing Izzy arrived as soon as we parked up, we brought her on board, switched drivers and then headed for the exit. I had never figured that the exit would be the problem! The car park was divided into two section and to get to the exit we had to go through a width restriction which we could just about manage (the restriction had no markings, they were just two steel girders). It took some doing, much to the amusement of the local taxi drivers – who gave no assistance – but we managed to get through  SLOWLY. Our mirrors stick out, but the steel girders were quite low and didn’t reach the height of the mirrors. We headed to the exit only to find that the exit itself was also width restricted – again no markings. The girders reached higher this time, over and above the mirrors, I tried to retract the mirrors – but they are fixed. Lisa was already out and attempting to guide me through.

I edged forward inch by inch, had to reverse a couple of times to get my position right. We had about an inch either side of the girders, unfortunatley they had decided to mount a sign on the girder, at the height of the mirror, which reduced the width further still. With a queue building behind us of weary workers wanting to get home, I used brute force and used the mirror to push the sign out of the way and we were through finally and out onto the road able to head back. The sign sprang back so no damage was done and the mirror came away unscathed too.

Lessons learnt? Check the exit of car parks as well as the entrance, find out if the mirrors can be retracted, does the width of our vehicle include the mirrors?

We stopped in Ibstone for the night less than five miles from the house we left in September, it was a cold and clear night and we had a wonderful viewing of a barn owl.


Reflections on our first six weeks

We are now into day 40 of our 365 day sabbatical and it feels like it has not really started yet. Whilst we have been to some wonderful places, Norfolk and Suffolk particularly stand out, we have also spent a lot of time visiting family and friends. We really need to have a longer period of time “doing” a particular location without continually having other things get in the way. However it looks like that isn’t going to happen until the New Year.

Falling into a nomadic lifestyle in a motorhome has been easy for all three of us. We have not argued and have quickly adopted to living in a smaller space, squeezing past each other, going to bed at different times and so forth. Archie really enjoys smelling out every new place he goes to and having new experiences, he even found his inner puppy when he visited the beach. My internal clock has now reset itself from a 6am start to 7:30am, which I’m happy about, I love getting up at this time and watching the sunrise, or the mist, birds or really anything developing at this time of the day. Typically we don’t have anything to rush for so we can take our time, which in a motorhome is a requirement, you can’t do anything too quickly.

Everybody seems to have a name for their van. It has taken us quite some time to come up with a name for ours though. But after much thinking and sleeping we have decided to call ours Cosi Van Tutte or Cosi for short. It was a joint effort with Lisa adding the pun on Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Cosi has behaved well, although there have been a few niggles, some of which have already been sorted by the dealer, some still need to be rectified, the biggest problems have been the fridge not firing on gas and the poor design of the drawers on their runners. We also decided at the beginning not to overload Cosi with extras, since we didn’t know what we would really need and how we would use the van. But we now have in mind exactly what extra things we need: a solar panel, LPG conversion for the gas and a bike rack.

Having only one bike though, has been a drawback. The garage is ready to take Lisa’s e-bike but that does not arrive until the beginning of November, it means that we need to take Cosi to places we could have cycled to instead. So I’m really looking forward to Lisa having her bike.

Staying one or two days in each place is taking a toll on Lisa after six weeks, her head is in a spin, particularly as we have not been on a “road trip” but rather point to point, so we have planned a couple of places where we will stay for a whole week.

Caravan and Camping Club (CCC) and Caravan and Motorhome Club (CMC) sites are excellent, Certificated Locations, on the other hand are variable, there is a certain standard required, but that isn’t very high. Also they could be anywhere, like next to a railway line, or a nuclear power station. They are frequently on working farms so machinery noise can be a problem. Our suggestion is to read the reviews before you book and don’t go anywhere less than 4 stars.

Independent sites should be better than they are, but we have found these very poor, those that have static caravans should be avoided like the plague, they really don’t seem to care about tourers, understandably as they make more money from static caravans.

We have been tracking our finances very carefully, having set out with a definite budget, and we want to make sure we don’t blow it! Overall we are not too far off what we calculated, however there are things that we didn’t allow for like presents and, stupidly, paying for trips and attractions so the budget will need a little re-work. I’m planning a finances section for the website once we have some more data.

All in all the first six weeks have not disappointed and we are really looking forward to a longer road trip and wild camping.

Little niggles

The manual for our van has arrived! For some reason when we picked up the motorhome from Elite, the Carthago manual was not present and as we were inundated with manuals, we initially missed this important manual.  We were however, given manuals for the fridge, the toilet, the lights, the pump, the heating, the Fiat chassis, engine, etc. The Carthago manual itself is ok, the translation (from German) is not as bad as some I’ve seen, but nowhere near as good as a car manual. It’s also not as useful as I’d expected – but I have learned that you should “grease the blinds” with silicon lubricant!

The motorhome continues to have niggles, the latest two are the step-out warning and dashboard retractor has stopped working and the fridge does not light on gas. The step warning is important to ensure that it’s not left out when you move off. The fridge worked on gas initially but has now stopped working and is a problem when we are not on electric hookup because it quickly gets too warm.

The fridge fitted to our van is a 4 way Dometic fridge/freezer. It works on Gas, 230v, 12v – that is only three but the 12v is either battery or solar. The fridge is microprocessor controlled, as with most things these days (although it’s not yet connected to the interweb)! In automatic mode the fridge works out the best power to use, so the order is electric hookup (EHU), van battery (only when the engine is running) and finally gas.

On automatic, with EHU

This means that gas is used as a last resort as this is the most expensive. You might be wondering how a fridge, which needs to be cold, can work on a gas flame – this is because fridges in motorhomes are absorption fridges which work on a heat process rather than your normal compression fridge you have at home. Because there is no compressor, the fridge runs silently – well almost – when it turns to gas there is a distinct clicking as the piezo electric igniter lights the flame – and here is our current problem we have lost that click when the fridge switches to gas. So no cooling, we have run through the checklist as described in manual, and there appears to be nothing wrong, so it must be a fault. This demonstrates the problem with microprocessor controlled devices, when they go wrong there is typically no way to manually operate them.

Time to go back to the dealer and get it fixed. We don’t have solar yet, but the fridge manual seems to suggest that when we do it will run on solar power first – which would be great – something to look forward to.


Motorhome pickup

Today we picked up our motorhome from Elite Motorhomes in Banbury. We arrived in a hire car bursting at the seams with bedding, food, clothes,  and other paraphenalia. Mike, who sold us the motorhome, completed the handover, and fixed two very minor faults immediately. Being motorhome newbies there was an enormous amount to take in, even though the handover took 3.5 hours. For me being a yacht sailor, I was already used to a lot of the way the systems worked, however, we ended up with an enormous crate of paperwork!  Reading through it later we found we had no “manual” for the motorhome as a homogenous unit, only diverse manuals for the motor / chassis – Fiat, and the various fitted items like the fridge, alarm, etc. There is however no manual which tells you how you empty grey water, for instance – is this normal?

When we left the Elite I drove “the bus” and Lisa drove ahead of me in the hire car heading for the camp site some 7 miles away, unfortunately Lisa was tired and she turn off at the wrong exit on the first roundabout – and I followed – as this was my first serious drive in the tank, I decided to wait for a roundabout to do a U-turn. This entailed an 8 mile diversion, but eventually we got to the campsite and the liner was baptised with rain showers, before the sun came out.

Archie settled down in the bus as if he was made for it, already making it his home. Being so small he does have trouble getting in and out, something we will have to address.

Now we are all very tired and about to retire to our island bed for the very first night……