But alas, I’ve come back to talk about our problems. Not the problems we’re having now (cat won’t eat, parking issues, graying hair) but the problems we had then, on our long drive. The reasons for airing out this dirty laundry are twofold: on one hand, I get a lot of email asking about how Nacho’s “custom engineered systems” held up throughout our trip; and on the other, you may have noticed that I dwelled a lot on our mechanical woes throughout the trip, so I’m going to lay it all on the line. What does it take to keep an old VW van alive on an around the world drive? It’s time to put it all on the table and see what it looks like. Poke it. Smell it.
First, the systems.
Before we started our trip we completely gutted poor Nacho, and then rebuilt him from the shell up—not the mechanical bits to such an extent as the bits relating to livability. I documented those “engineery” projects on Nacho’s project page. In all there were a ton of little projects, but four really substantial ones: the cabinets, the solar electric system, the hot water generation system, and the onboard water purification system. They were all well conceived, but how did they work over the course of two and a half years of driving around the world?
Our cabinets seemed well-liked, as evidenced by the myriad emails I received by people wanting copies of the CAD files that I used to create them (sorry, people), and the number of times that this picture appeared on Pinterest:
In the end, the cabinets held up almost perfectly. We overbuilt the hell out of them, using press-fit tabs, Gorilla glue, and pocket screws to hold them together. I also designed them in three main units so that Nacho’s frame could flex without straining the cabinets. By the end, they never so much as creaked or popped, and the drawers only opened once unintentionally—in Mexico while speeding around a sharp corner while concurrently smashing into an unpainted, oversized speed bump. After about two years one tab finally separated from its pocket where I had stored my heavy tool bag above the rear bed. I discovered after the fact that only one screw and one glued tab were holding all of my tools up over all of those miles and bumps.
This one will be easy to write. The solar electric system worked perfectly the entire time, and nothing ever went wrong with it. We had a 135W solar module going through a 15A MPPT charge controller to a 104 A-h deep cycle battery (for you nerds out there), and it kept our beer cold, our lights on, the blended margaritas flowing, and Sheena’s miniature hair dryer pumping out the BTUs. A carbon-neutral haircut in Cappadocia, Turkey? Yes please!
This was really fun to design and make, and the heat exchanger worked great for the entire trip. We would fill the hot tank with 15 gallons of (cold) water and then drive, and within a short while we had 15 gallons of 165 degree water ready for showering–after mixing with some cold water using the shower controls, of course, so as not to become burn victims.
We could heat 15 gallons of cold water at 2 degrees per minute, and we would turn it off at 165 degrees so as not to melt the tubing. We found that we could wait up to four hours after a drive to take a shower and still maintain water hot enough for a melty-hot shower. Alternatively, and something we did almost as often, was to use the on-demand feature, which allowed us to idle Nacho’s engine and heat up the water on its way to the shower. At full blast it was warm enough, but by reducing the flow we could turn it into a dangerous burn hazard. Ooh yeah!
Here’s a picture of Sheena taking a hot shower at the Valle de la Luna in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The only problem with the hot water arose after installing the Subaru engine in Thailand. Turns out the Subaru runs much cooler than the Wasserboxer, so we could only get our hot water up to 135 degrees. I believe this is due to a different plumbing direction on the new engine, but I haven’t taken the time to go in and investigate. One of these days.
This one didn’t fare quite as well, although it wasn’t so much to do with the design as my inventory of critical spares.
The system was perfect until we got to Costa Rica, at which time I needed to replace the small filter. Unfortunately, replacement filters were unavailable there, so I just took that filter out. It was only a macro filter anyway, and I still had a microfilter and a UV light. System slightly less pimp.
Next, and I can’t remember where, our safety shut-off solenoid switch (which was supposed to cut our water supply in the event of UV failure) started closing when the light hadn’t failed. I decided that it was because of inconsistent current when our house battery was low in its cycle, which the solenoid didn’t like. My solution was to remove it altogether, and we relied instead on an LED light that I installed on the cabinet face to tell us if the light was functioning. System furthermore slightly less pimp.
Next, I needed to replace the micro filter, and wouldn’t you know it, they were unavailable outside the USA (even though it was from 3M). Clearly spare parts availability didn’t factor into my planning! To get around this I removed that filter and installed an activated carbon filter on the faucet itself, and bought 2 years’ worth of replacement cartridges. Ha! Try to stop me now! (System, again, slightly less pimp.)
When we got to Laos, one day I turned on the water and smoke started coming out from under the floor. We opened up the floor and realized that the UV light controller had melted. To fix this, we’d need a new ballast and controller unit. I found the distributor near Bangkok and tried to order one. Unfortunately it was going to be around $300, and we wouldn’t have gotten it in time anyway. At this point we had no choice but to rely solely on our activated carbon filter. That might have been good enough for most waterborne goo, but just to be on the safe side we began adding the appropriate amount of liquid bleach to our water tanks for water purification. Totally acceptable by W.H.O. standards, but definitely not as engineering-cool (a.k.a. “pimp”) as the original system.
We even survived India with the bleach and filter system, but it was made very tricky on account of liquid bleach not being available there, and thus having to rely on non-dissolvable bleaching powder and rough guestimation of dosage. This slapstick method still didn’t deter us from filling our tanks from dubious Indian water pits. Neither of us ever got sick from the water, so I guess it must have worked.
Lastly, I’ll present you our maintenance log. All of it. If you didn’t notice from our last blog, I’m a meticulous records keeper. And so, every time we (or someone else) worked on (or maliciously molested) Nacho, I wrote it down.
But before I put this out there, a word in defense of Nacho and our choices. Some non-believers out there went so far as to kick us while we were down, suggesting—in the throes of transmission failure or other strandedness—that we should scrap Nacho and buy a Toyota, or some such nonsense. I always kicked myself when people made these suggestions, because it told me that I hadn’t done a good enough job conveying the spirit and purpose of this trip in the first place.
We didn’t set out to drive around the world. We set out to drive around the world in a VW van.
There’s a difference! If the point was to complete a feat of line connecting, we could have done it in any number of easier ways. But to drive a VW van is to have an experience bigger than a road trip. Nacho became a part of the family, and keeping him going was just as important as keeping Sheena going. Well, fine, maybe not quite, but you understand. Furthermore, everywhere we went there was a VW community there with their arms out, waiting for us to arrive. It’s a tight knit global community, and it made the experience 100% better than if we’d driven anything else.
So as you read through all…these…lines of maintenance, you should be picturing me eating papaya while replacing Nacho’s voltage regulator on a mountainside in Thailand, or bullshitting in Spanish under my van with a Colombian farmer, or throwing back a beer with a Turkish friend with grease on our hands—a man who we only met in the first place on account of us driving a VW van.
Many of our best experiences were a direct result of what most people call “misfortune.” What a terrible malapropism that is.