Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Modifications: Simple, Cheap, and Light

Most of these modifications are so trivial and obvious that I am almost ashamed to talk about them. On the other hand, that's kind of the goal: to make simple, cheap, and light modifications. So, with my deep apologies, here are just a few of the little improvements we have made on the trailer, in no particular order. I hope that these discussions and pictures serve two purposes: first, perhaps they will give you some useful ideas (that can no doubt be improved upon). Second, if nothing else, they will be good for a laugh. Anyway, here we go:

1. Cargo Netting For Bedding. In the front of the trailer, there used to be a very small bunk bed. We tried using it for storage, but it was too difficult to get access to. So we took it out. Instead, we put in a cargo net that we bought at an auto supply store. The corners are secured by little screw eyes. The front corners are screwed into the wood that used to support the front of the bunk bed. The side corners (toward the back of the trailer) are anchored into the wall brackets that used to support the back of the bunk bed. This is a shot of the left side of the cargo net. Note the stylish bungee cord to close the gap in the cargo net; note also the rope that goes around the perimeter of the cargo net and serves to stretch it out. We used ordinary clothesline rope because it doesn't stretch:

Here is a detail shot of the front corner of the cargo net:

2. Blackout Curtains. On the side windows, we have installed very simple blackout curtains, which fasten to the top of the window frame with self-adhesive Velcro. Obviously, during the day, we take the blackout curtains off and store them in the cargo netting, putting them on at night. The blackout curtains also can help insulate the windows in cold campgrounds:

Here is a detail shot showing the Velcro on the window frame and the matching Velcro on the blackout curtains. The blackout curtains are very primitive -- they're just heavy fabric that we have "outlined" in masking tape. I attached the Velcro to the fabric with heavy thread, used for sailmaking. It sounds flimsy and makeshift, but these things have withstood three years of hard use:

I don't have a shot of my "blackout curtain" that goes over the translucent window in the door frame -- it's just a hefty bag, outlined in duct tape, with zip tie rings in the corners. The rings then go over cup hooks above the door frame. Again, it sounds like a joke, but it works very well and is easy to store.

3. Permanent Power Inverter. When we are "boondocking," we sometimes need 110 V power; for example, we run a 13 Watt compact fluorescent light bulb in a little fixture for nighttime reading. I got tired of having to plug in and remove my little 400 Watt inverter, especially because the 12 V outlet built into the trailer was so flimsy that it would go on the blink whenever I tried to pull the inverter adapter out of the socket. Since we never use the 12 V outlet for anything else, I permanently installed the inverter into the outlet. I then drilled holes into the side of the cabinet and used zip ties to fasten the inverter to the side of the cabinet. It is now very easy to plug 110 V appliances (such as my laptop) into the inverter:

4. Microwave. This was a snap -- I just removed the cabinet door. We shopped for a microwave that fit into that space. There was already a 110 V outlet in the cabinet. I had to wedge the microwave into the cabinet so that it wouldn't fall out in transit:

5. Clothing Hooks. We often travel to destinations that involve wet or snowy weather, such as the mountains. When our clothes get wet, there's no place to hang them because the trailer is so small. So I bought a bunch of hooks at Lowe's or Home Depot for about $.60 each and installed them all around the trailer, just under the ceiling. When we come in from snowshoeing, it looks like a yard sale. But the trick is to make sure that the hooks are completely out of the way -- it is not good to hit your head on them, as I discovered when I put some in the wrong places:

6. Bathroom Door Holder. Even though we try our best to level the trailer (our "level best," I guess), the door to the bathroom sometimes swings closed. But sometimes we want it to stay open for ventilation. So we simply attached a very small bungee cord, permanently, to the top outside portion of the door. The bungee cord then slips over a hook on the wall:

7. Toilet Paper Holder. Because the bathroom is also used as a shower, we can't leave the toilet paper in there permanently. So we have mounted it on a piece of PVC pipe with a very light cord that drapes over the shower faucet. When it's time to take a shower, we can easily remove the toilet paper. The PVC holder is not very elegant; there are two quarter-inch bolts on either end that keep the toilet paper from sliding off. When the toilet paper has to be changed, we just undo the nuts on the bolts by hand. It's very easy. There must be a less clunky way to do this, but I haven't bothered to figure it out. Also, please note the nylon cord that goes around the toilet paper with a clip holding the ends of the cord; that keeps the toilet paper from unraveling during transit:

8. Soap Dish. I think we found this soap dish at a garage sale. I used zip ties to fasten it to the vertical vent pipe that comes up in back of the toilet. We use it to hold shampoo and conditioner. Also, especially when boondocking, we use diluted Castille soap by Dr. Bronner's in a squeeze bottle instead of ordinary bar soap. It rinses off with less water. So the squeeze bottle of soap is also kept in the soap dish. By putting the soap dish at the back of the shower compartment, it doesn't get in the way, and space is very precious in our tiny shower stall:

9. Paper Towel Holder. We use a fair number of paper towels when camping, but there was no good place to mount a paper towel holder. I discovered that we could mount one vertically on top of a cabinet. I removed one end of the plastic paper towel holder (which we got at the 99 cent store). On the other end at the bottom, I put a dowel so that the paper towel roll could sit upright. There is just enough friction so that the paper towels don't unravel in transit:

10. Portable Picnic Table. Often, especially when we are boondocking in remote locations, there is no outside picnic table. Sometimes, we want to eat outside, and sometimes we need an outside table for arranging our gear (such as in preparation for a hike or a bike ride). The solution was to create a folding picnic table out of very light plywood. Each "leaf" is about 1' x 4', and they are joined by a piano hinge. The whole thing stores under our kitchen table against the side of the bench, secured by the inevitable bungee cord:

In order to assemble the table, I have two pieces of very light aluminum channel that go over the ends of the unfolded table, which keeps it from folding up. I then have four legs of very light 2X2 pine with "hanger bolts" screwed into the top of the legs. The top end of the hanger bolts go up through the corners of the table, and I secure the legs to the table with wing nuts. Again, not terribly elegant, not terribly massive, but very easy to set up.

11. Shelving. This is probably the most useful single modification we have made. The trailer comes with a surprising amount of storage, but the shelves were spaced in a strange way. Although the shelves were only about a foot deep, there was perhaps 18 inches between each shelf. Therefore, it was difficult to stack the clothing on the shelves and to keep it organized. So I installed very thin plywood dividers, as you can see in this picture:

As a result, we have more storage for clothing, toiletries, books, canned goods, etc., than we can use. It is such a pleasure to go on a long vacation and not have to pack and unpack and not have to scrabble through a suitcase looking for a certain garment. Everything is within easy reach, and it is a snap to keep everything well-organized.

12. Awning Wand. This is certainly very obvious, but I put a cup hook next to the door frame so that the awning wand would have a home. This wand is about 3 feet long and would otherwise be very awkward to store. I also installed a fairly strong magnet next to the door frame toward the bottom of the wand (not shown in the picture), so that the wand does not swing back and forth during transit:

13. Door Cushion. This is only necessary if you are a tall person. I am, and I got sick of hitting my head against the top of the doorframe. So using double-sided carpet tape, I glued a cushion to the top of the doorframe. The door still closes properly. I still hit my head occasionally, but it doesn't hurt so much:

14. Front Window Blackout Panels. The front window of the trailer is protected by a "rock guard" panel that drops down during transit (and at night, to darken the room). But the panel isn't really opaque, so the sunrise would wake us up. I have tried a variety of "blackout" solutions -- first, I tried draping a piece of opaque plastic over the front of the trailer. That worked pretty well, except in high winds, and it was also a hassle to go outside the trailer at night to install the plastic sheeting. And because the window slants inward, we weren't able to secure really good blackout curtains to the window frame (unlike the side window blackout curtains, discussed earlier).

Our current solution is to use these 2' x 2' foam rubber panels, which we slip inside the curtain rods (which hold the panels in place). We bought these panels at Costco, originally intending to use them for floor insulation in cold campgrounds when snow camping. But they didn't work out for that purpose, so we tried them on the front window. They work really well. When we aren't using them, we store them in the cargo net above the kitchen table:

15. Battery Switch. When we bought the trailer, the battery was located inside the trailer toward the rear. That was not great, for three different reasons: (1) the battery can sometimes give off harmful gases; (2) the battery adds weight to the rear (and not to the tongue), which can sometimes cause sway; and (3) the battery takes up valuable storage space. So, as you'll see below, I moved the battery to the tongue. But there are times when I want to be able to disconnect the battery without having to go outside and take the battery connector off the terminal. So I installed this switch, which I bought at an auto supply store. The hardest part was finding a place to mount the switch; I had to build a little platform out of wood for the switch:

16. Tongue Mount for Batteries. I moved the battery to the tongue (in order to increase tongue weight); at the same time, I decided to go with two batteries. Currently, I am using two marine deep cycle group 27 batteries, each with 110 amp hours. Each battery can last us about four or five days of boondocking, with careful use. I don't have them hooked up in parallel. I just use one at a time. When the first battery drops to 12.1 V, I switch them. Not very high-tech, but it works just fine. And for whatever it's worth, I decided not to hook them up in parallel because if one battery goes bad, it doesn't draw down the other one.

Because this is such a small trailer, there wasn't a lot of room on the tongue for extra hardware. Accordingly, I mounted two steel channel bars across the tongue, behind the propane tank, and bolted them into the "A frame" portion of the trailer frame. In order to do that, I had to drill small holes into the frame and then "tap" those holes so that they would accept a quarter inch bolt. I suppose I could have drilled all the way through and used a really long bolt with nuts on the other side, but tapping serves the same function.

If you want to "tap" into metal, you need patience and a good set of drill bits and a drill motor that has a variable speed. Don't drill fast. Slow is better. Then, when you've got the hole to about 15/64ths (just under a quarter inch), you use a "tap and die" set, available at any decent hardware store, to cut the screw threads into the whole. Most quarter inch bolts are "1/4 x 20" pitch, not 1/4 by 24, so be careful when you choose your tap.

After installing the cross-bars, I bought big plastic battery boxes from an auto parts store to fit my group 27 batteries. I then bolted through the boxes, through the bars, and into the frame members. When I put the batteries into the boxes and hit the road, I always lock the boxes with bicycle cable locks, so that the batteries don't get stolen. Obviously, a really determined criminal would be able to cut the cable locks, but they say that locks are designed "to keep honest people honest."

Here is a side view of the boxes with the bars:

And here is a view looking down into a box; you can see the bolt heads in the four corners:

17. Propane Gauge. This was a very easy modification: I went to a hardware store and bought the gauge. But this really makes life easier -- I can tell how much propane I've got, without having to take the tank off and weigh it. (This is a 4.7 gallon tank; when full, it weighs 36 pounds; each gallon weighs 4 pounds.) The gauge is not infallible; it varies with ambient temperature and pressure. But it's much better than nothing. I also wrapped the gauge in heavy clear plastic and secured the plastic with zip ties, in an effort to keep the gauge from deteriorating in wet weather. (I don't know whether the plastic wrap was strictly necessary.) Anyway, here is the gauge:

18. Magnet for Coupling Bolt. The ball coupling of the very front of the trailer requires a cross-bolt that goes through a hole above the ball, to keep the coupling from coming undone in transit. But I kept losing the bolt. So I tethered it to the side of the coupling with a little rope. To keep it from dangling annoyingly when we are unhitched, I put a powerful magnet just behind the ball coupling. (This magnet came from a broken stereo speaker -- they are really powerful magnets and they're often easily available, since people are always throwing away broken speakers.) The magnet holds the bolt:

19. "Lifter" for Wheel Jack. This little modification gave us an extra inch and a half of ground clearance when towing over obstacles (such as steep driveways). An inch and a half doesn't sound like much, but when you've got a total of 9 inches of clearance, that's an improvement of more than 10%. The problem was that when we had taken off the front wheel, and we were towing, the bottom of the wheel jack would sometimes hit the pavement. Even at slow speeds, I damaged the wheel jack a couple of times, and it was very difficult to repair.

So here is what I did: I took three pieces of stout inch and a half steel channel bar and formed a triangle with them. I undid the wheel jack and re-bolted the jack with the mounting plate above the channel bars, using them as spacers. That lifted the entire wheel jack assembly up. As an added bonus, it is now much easier to get the front wheel on and off the jack when we are parked on uneven ground.

The trick is to use really beefy components -- I used half-inch bolts -- that is the thickness, not the length. I have had absolutely no trouble with the front wheel after this modification:

20. Screen for Fridge Vent. We usually tow with the fridge on its "propane" setting, since it seems to work much better on propane than it does on electricity. Plus, I'd rather use the electricity from the tow vehicle to recharge the battery than to power the fridge. But in very windy conditions (especially with a crosswind), the pilot light for the fridge sometimes blows out. I have tried many different solutions; nothing seems to work. But someone on recommended that I put ordinary window screen inside the fridge vent to baffle the wind. I recently installed the screen with zip ties; the installation was easy, and we will see if this solution really works. Here is a shot of the vent:

And here is a detail shot showing the zip ties. I drilled through the plastic slats of the vent in order to accommodate the zip ties:

I used screening for another modification (not pictured): on the inside of the vent hood, to keep insects out. It really works!

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