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Old 02-07-2019, 11:49 AM   #1
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I'm not building a bus, I'm creating a new life!

Hi everyone! Looking forward to the collective knowledge and experience of this community as I embark on this project.

A bus build is something I've been interested in for years but have never had the financial security to do it in the manner I know it needs to be done. I was recently laid-off and received a significant severance (relative to being able to build this project the way I want to) and am now full steam ahead on this. This won't be a weekender or a semi-annual vacationer ... it's not a phase until something new comes along. Living off-grid, with mobility, while minimizing consumer and currency practices is the life I need and don't plan on coming back to the alternative. Related to that, I'm not concerned nearly as much about how the bus looks (inside and out) as I am with how it functions and how much it costs. So I'll be using reclaimed and scavenged materials as much as possible to focus my resources on the things that will keep me alive.

The use-case factors I'm solving for in this build are:
1. Reducing my need to make/use currency. I am dedicated to investing the money up front in quality, sustainable systems that allow me to use permaculture practices, conservation, and renewables to survive on my own with support from barter (mainly food). The only time I want to have to "work" is when money is absolutely necessary (fuel, maintenance, repairs ... though I will have an emergency fund if absolutely necessary).
2. Capabilities to live in most climates and geographies in North America from Mexico to NE Canada ... from the Everglades to Alaska. Redundancies in systems
3. The ability to boondock for extended periods.
4. Allow for 1 human and one dog to survive while living life without clocks, calendars, or masters.

The short bus appealed to me for several reasons: mobility/maneuverability, lower build materials cost, smaller footprint, etc ... I'd like a reliable diesel powertrain- recommendations appreciated! I think I read that a 6.9 should work well for this application as I won't ever be towing anything ...?

I want to attempt to sole source power from the sun, with redundant systems to support the reduced solar hours I will encounter. I know this is going to be expensive (I'm estimating at least half of my total budget, if not more).

Shower: Primarily using any free showers available on my journey but for self-reliant systems I will be installing a low-tech solar water heater on the roof (most likely 4" black PVC) that I will be able to gravity feed for showers outside the bus (when appropriate haha). When it's cold or I can't get naked outside ... washcloth.

Toilet: Primary is to use any toilet available to me outside the bus as well as standard backpacking practices while boondocking. I'm going to build my own composting toilet with agitation mechanism and urine diversion with fans hooked up to the 12V system to keep any smells up above the bus

Water: Gravity-fed freshwater tank and grey-water tank (size recommendations welcome!). City-water bypass with water pressure regulator to protect plumbing. 12V water pump into a 2 stage filter (also pre-filter before the pump). 4 gallon point-of-use water heater for sink faucet (1500W). I'll probably plan on leaving it off most of the time and just turn it on to take care of all my hot water needs at once in the evening and then turn it off again. I'm also considering a reverse osmosis system for drinking water to use when I'm boondocking (river-water, rain water). Lastly, an exterior spigot (pressurized by pump) for dog washing and such.

Cooking: Considering a single induction burner if I can get the power. Otherwise I'll have a portable propane camp-stove and wood-stove when its cold. I will also carry a solar oven of some sort with me to use when I can. I'm plant based so my main cooking appliance is a rice cooker which has at least a dozen uses and is pretty efficient- plant-based also means if I don't have power to cook I can still eat and wont get sick.

Refrigeration: dual zone 40-60qt portable cooler running off 12V system. Augmented by snow and ice when available to reduce load.

Climate: Insulating my bus will be a VERY DELIBERATE and PLANNED (and expensive) step in this process. I understand the thermodynamics of a bus and where heat loss/gain occurs so I'll tackle those issues. Primary heat when needed will be a small wood-stove with a cook surface- will also carry a small 110V heater to plug into the AC system. Wood stove will only be used while stationary. No Air conditioning. I think I can fit some strategic ducting and well placed fans to circulate the air as needed (good for all seasons). And if it gets too hot, I just won't visit the desert in the summer! Heavy, insulated, interior window treatments for any windows I have left.

Roof: I'm going to build a raised rack for the panels that will allow me to fit my kayak in between the rack and the roof along with a few other items if necessary. It's only going to be strong enough to support the panels- not a deck. I think this should help keep cool air around the panels to increase efficiency (maybe i'm being overly optimistic).

Electric: Haven't finished my load calcs yet as I'm still researching appliances and components but I'm currently thinking around 1000W on top (3 residential panels). These will come into an MPPT controller into a Li-ion battery bank (200-400 ah). I know thats a significant budgetary range but I'm also trying to extend the lifecylce of the batteries. I've read that treating them like lead-acid and only doing 50% discharge will significantly extend the life of these batteries. Anyone have any knowledge on this? I'll have a 12V DC system as well as an inverter to run AC (mainly for kitchen). Shore power will come into a surge protector and then into the panel. I'd like the shore power to feed my AC and DC systems as well as a charger to help the panels top of the batteries. Basically anytime I can pull electricity from the grid, I want to preserve the life of the batteries and top them off. I don't want to run the alternator to the batteries as it will reduce gas mileage.

Propane: I was originally looking into installing all dual-fuel (elec/LP) appliances to have that redundancy but it doesn't seem like I can make it work. I also like the idea of minimizing another fuel I'll have to use money to pay for. I've instead opted to limit my propane use to cooking only.

I'll be constructing any storage and cabinetry i need to fit around these systems. I'll sleep in a hammock that is raised and removable as well as have a blowup mattress to sleep on outside when the climate permits.

This is now my full-time job (along with closing out my old life). My plan is to purchase a bus in the next month or two and move to the build site and build over the summer. Plan on being complete late summer/early fall. I have significant background in most of the skills necessary to do this myself so that is very realistic.

I'm very appreciate of any tips, recommendations, comments, critiques and discourse as I continue to put all of this on paper in the next couple of months and look forward to sharing my build as it progresses.

Thanks!
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Old 02-07-2019, 02:17 PM   #2
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Location: Greenwood, Indiana
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First off - congrats! You're able to embark on something I'd like my whole family to do.


Next, your gravity-fed water system may be too top-heavy. You really don't want to put that much weight that high off the ground. You can do that when your parked, but moving around and having that water sloshing about is a recipe for disaster.



Also, I don't think you really want to run a 110V electric heater off of solar. The inefficiency is second only to the power draw of A/C on solar. So, maybe a Webasto-style coolant heater that uses Diesel fuel to warm the engine would be useful here. I'm going to plumb in one on my bus, and then be able to divert the coolant to hydronic heating + fan-driven heater core(s) (see SomeWhereInUSA's build - specifically his three heat loops - for the original idea). Webasto also sells diesel-fired heaters that directly heat the air - basically a diesel-fired "furnace". However, if you are going to carry propane anyway, you might as well use it for heat as well.


Lithium-Ion batteries are obviously different than lead-acid, so please don't apply lead-acid handling techniques to them (i.e. keep them fully charged, don't discharge them below 50%). Li-Ions are actually happiest between 20% and 80% state-of-charge. Below 20% and above 80% is where they get stressed (basically, keep them between 3.1V and 4.1V per cell).


Other than that - welcome aboard!!
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Old 02-07-2019, 03:19 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by MarkyDee View Post
Next, your gravity-fed water system may be too top-heavy. You really don't want to put that much weight that high off the ground.
Agreed. I also want a basic system for water so plan to use a manual foot pump for water. Whale Marine - Products I had the Whale Babyfoot on a boat and didn't care for it (too stiff). I've used the Gusher and it works great so am planning on one. The electric pump we had in a camper caused us to us to waste water. With a manual pump, you only get as much water as needed.
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Old 02-07-2019, 03:29 PM   #4
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Thanks MarkyDee.

Apologies for how I phrased some of that. The only water that will be up on the roof will be the 4" PVC at length (12-16'?). That should only be 6-10 gallons and won't be more than 100 pounds max (probably closer to 75 pounds I think)- I can't see that being an issue, right? My fresh and grey water tanks will sit at low points inside, insulated from the elements-gravity fed just meant no pumps needed to fill them.

Are you referencing the water heater or the heater I identified for climate? The one for climate will be last resort (very cold nights). I'm not planning on doing large amounts of driving at any given time- idea is to meander around slowly and without plan or purpose in between living sites. I wouldn't think I would drive more than 2-3 hours at a time so I'd be able to heat the bus with the wood-stove before I moved out, put the fire out and then let the insulation work with some augmentation from engine heat.

As for hot water, I don't use much- no showers (off the water heater) so it would really only be to clean my dishes in the evening. Do you think the 1500W, 4 gallon heater is still too much draw? I'll have the wood-stove if I run out of battery in a storm or some similar situation.

I'm really trying to avoid using petroleum products and by-products if possible- they just become a recurring cost. The propane stove is a redundant feature. Most cooking would be done in rice cooker, solar oven, induction top or wood stove/camp fire. I'd like to only think about filling a 5 gallon tank once a year or so and not have to worry about running propane lines.

Thanks again!
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Old 02-07-2019, 05:10 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
Thanks MarkyDee.
You're welcome! I've learned a lot from everyone here. Just want to give back....


Quote:
Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
Apologies for how I phrased some of that. The only water that will be up on the roof will be the 4" PVC at length (12-16'?). That should only be 6-10 gallons and won't be more than 100 pounds max (probably closer to 75 pounds I think)- I can't see that being an issue, right? My fresh and grey water tanks will sit at low points inside, insulated from the elements-gravity fed just meant no pumps needed to fill them.
Ah, ok. I was having flashbacks to a bus I saw that had huge tanks on the roof and was cringing.... ;)


Quote:
Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
Are you referencing the water heater or the heater I identified for climate? The one for climate will be last resort (very cold nights). I'm not planning on doing large amounts of driving at any given time- idea is to meander around slowly and without plan or purpose in between living sites. I wouldn't think I would drive more than 2-3 hours at a time so I'd be able to heat the bus with the wood-stove before I moved out, put the fire out and then let the insulation work with some augmentation from engine heat.
I was referencing climate, but the hot water is an issue as well. Any heating with a resistance element from electricity is very inefficient - period. I'd sooner put thermal tubes on the roof than heat with resistance elements.
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Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
As for hot water, I don't use much- no showers (off the water heater) so it would really only be to clean my dishes in the evening. Do you think the 1500W, 4 gallon heater is still too much draw? I'll have the wood-stove if I run out of battery in a storm or some similar situation.
Well, lets see ... 1500W will draw approximately 125 Amps from a 12V source. If you are using a 200Ah battery, that battery will be 50% exhausted in less than an hour.

To raise one gallon of water one degree F takes 8.33 BTUs.

Assuming 100% efficiency, that 4 gallons will take 33.32 BTUs to raise it 1 degree F.


1kW of electricity has 3412 BTUs.


A 200Ah battery has 2.4kWh of energy. Assuming a draw-out of 1hour (i.e. the battery is dead in one hour), that battery will deliver 2.4kW, giving us 8189 BTUs. That means that you can heat your water tank up 246 degrees F before your battery is dead. Factor in inefficiencies and you'll be lucky to get 150-200 degrees of heating before your battery is dead (oh, and if your water hits 212F, its starts to boil, taking energy that would otherwise go to heating).

Now, consider the BTU content of 1 pound of propane: 21800 BTUs. 1 Gallon of propane: 91000 BTUs. 1 Gallon of #1 Diesel: 136000 BTUs. Compare that to a 200Ah battery: 8200 BTUs.

So, to answer your question, yes, you will find it very hard to live with just a 200Ah battery if you are trying to heat with it for any significant amount of time (whether it is your food, water, or yourself). If you are in a "significant weather event" such as a blizzard, you could find yourself in a life-threatening situation rather quickly without a reliable source of heat. I want at least two for redundancy. Three is even better if you are going to be trusting your equipment with your life.

That's why I really like SomewhereInUSA's three-loop system. It gives a large amount of redundancy, allows for directing the heat where you need it, and it uses the various forms of energy in the modes that they are good at (propane/diesel for heat, electricity for pushing that heat around). If you can figure out how to add a water jacket to your wood stove, you could add that to the loops.

Quote:
Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
I'm really trying to avoid using petroleum products and by-products if possible- they just become a recurring cost. The propane stove is a redundant feature. Most cooking would be done in rice cooker, solar oven, induction top or wood stove/camp fire. I'd like to only think about filling a 5 gallon tank once a year or so and not have to worry about running propane lines.

Oh, I understand, but electricity will only go so far. Batteries are the most inefficient way of storing energy, period, full stop. If you want heat, electricity into a resistance element is not the optimum way to do it (no matter what it is you are trying to heat). We have a lot of electric-powered gadgets because electricity is plentiful in a sticks-and-bricks. Electricity is not plentiful in a disconnected, mobile environment like a skoolie. In a mobile environment, petroleum products make lots of sense because they are much more energy-dense. Unless, that is, you desire a return to a pre-modern skillset. If so, you have more constitution than I do (at least at this point in my life).

Quote:
Originally Posted by dog_and_ape View Post
Thanks again!
I wish you good fortune! I hope I've helped at least a little. The real take-away here is that batteries are absolutely terrible in terms of how much energy you can carry for the mass/weight of the batteries. Petroleum products and even wood has better energy-density than batteries. The real balance would be to use the different forms of energy for what they are good at. Wood and Petroleum are great for heat and motive power. Electricity is great at little gadgets to gently push the other forms of energy around (unless you're tied to the grid...). Even with new battery chemistries that "calculus" isn't going to change for some time yet.
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