Mar 2015

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 20 Comments

Keeping Nacho Alive


Lately we’ve been almost altogether absent from all forms of online activity; Facebook left unattended, blog without update. I imagine the world has pretty much forgotten that we exist. So what’s the deal? Retraction from society? Playing the hermit? Having so much fun that there’s no time to stop and post a selfie to Instagram? Impossible! We don’t even have Instagram! Truth is the tell-worthy tales are piling up but I’m systematically suppressing them in order to stay focused; we hope to release our next book at the Overland Expo, and so every spare moment that I’m not working or eating or sleeping or giving Sheena a back rub, I’ve been writing new content for our book. Eye on the prize!

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?

The Cabinets

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.

The Solar Electric System

This one will be easy to write. The solar electric system worked perfectly the entire time, and nothing ever went wrong with it. Part of the reason was that we had the best energy supplier in the area. 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!

capadoccia haircut

The Hot Water Generator

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.

Hot shower in 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.

The Water Purification System

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.

Indian water pits

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.

fixing nacho in thailand with papaya

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  1. Thanks for the followup, especially on the mad scientist alterations. I was one of the folks nerding out over the pre-trip preparations and watching all the various fixes over the course of the trip. As an owner of a Subaru-propelled Westy with a few miles under the wheels myself, nothing seemed out of line for a trip of that magnitude over those roads.

    Comment by Keith Tanner on March 2, 2015 at 7:36 pm

  2. EW

    And they said the cabinets would NEVER survive and that we were crazy, crazy smart I guess.

    Comment by EW on March 2, 2015 at 9:42 pm

  3. Gary Peebles

    Brad and Sheena- Our experience with Paco our 88 Westy to Ushuaia and back was also terrific. Our most memorable moments were when we broke down. It was great to be helped by total and selfless strangers. I read your first book and can’t wait to see whats up next.
    Happy trails,
    Gary Peebles

    Comment by Gary Peebles on March 2, 2015 at 9:51 pm

  4. Looking forward to the new book. I need my regular Nacho fix. Have you considered doing it again, maybe west to east this time? I’d enjoy that.

    On the graying hair issue, I am a firm believer in gaining perspective which will all you to realize that its “better gray than gone”.

    Be well.

    Comment by Keith on March 2, 2015 at 9:56 pm

  5. Bill & Jan Long

    We sure hope to meet you and Sheena at the Overland Expo. We have been avid followers of your adventures since you started.

    Comment by Bill & Jan Long on March 2, 2015 at 10:54 pm

  6. EW, we’re just a couple of dummies ;) Now time for you to get a Westy so we can see if the design still works…

    Comment by Brad on March 2, 2015 at 10:56 pm

  7. I’m a little late to the party Brad, but I’m no less enthusiastic to hear of your’s and Sheena’s epic adventure! I just found your blog on what appeared to be your homecoming.

    My family and I are planning an around the US jaunt this summer in our Westie, before we embark on an oversea adventure next year. And hearing that you DROVE THE GLOBE, gives me total confidence when those VW haters come out of the woodwork to tell us we’ll never make it past the state line. Well done! Your blog is an incredible resource for those of us just starting out–thank you!

    Anxiously awaiting your book! What an adventure. Welcome home!

    Comment by Tiffiney Lozano on March 3, 2015 at 6:54 pm

  8. Ragnar Doerwald

    Thanks for the detailed maintenance record. It would be nice to see a list of your on board tools and instruments.

    Comment by Ragnar Doerwald on March 3, 2015 at 10:46 pm

  9. Tiffiney, if you approach it with the right attitude and expectations (it’s not a race!) then I have no doubt you’ll have a great trip. Bring a Bentley manual just in case and forget the naysayers, because they’ll be naysaying from their cramped cubicles while you’re living your dream!

    Comment by Brad on March 4, 2015 at 12:31 am

  10. David

    Brad and Sheena,

    Well first of all welcome home! It must be strange being back.

    We are prepping our Westy for the Americas trip to the southern tip from UT, and have been following your advise. We are nearly complete on custom cabinets and are getting ready for the solar installation. I have a quick question for you on the solar. It worked flawlessly and that is great news as we are following your lead on the build.

    The question is this. You had your solar panel mounted in a perm position on the roof rack. This seems like it would be rather hot always having to park Nacho in the direct sun. What did you think of this? Would you build your mounting system so you could slide the panel off and put it in the sun, while you were in the shade? We purchased the same panel you have just up a bit to 140 watts instead of 135. They are pretty big and not the lightest thing to move around. Another thought I was pondering was having a second set of panels when stopped that could be connected to the leads, and then placed in the sun. Con of this is storage of these additional panels, and disconnecting your leads.

    Good luck on your book! Really enjoyed the first one.

    Comment by David on March 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm

  11. Mom

    Ewan McGregar’s highly publicized trip around the globe focused on the BMW motorcycles. I love that you saw Nacho as family, and the focus was the experience and meeting people. But I am grateful for the fact that his trip was one of the things that inspired you to follow your own dreams! And as your mom, I know you well enough that you and Sheena have only just begun.

    Comment by Mom on March 8, 2015 at 6:01 pm

  12. David,
    Parking in the sun wasn’t a problem. It usually stayed pretty cool inside of Nacho with the tent windows unzipped, and we had a 10’x8′ awning that we could sit under as well for shade. There were some places where parking in the shade would have been preferable, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind as having been a big problem. You could have solar panels that you walk out into the sun and run a wire back to the van, but besides the annoyance of storing them, I would also be worried about someone making off with them. You could chain them to a tree, but then they would be in the shade anyway.

    The one place you’ll have issues with solar, regardless, will be the Central American jungles. Lots of times you’ll be stuck under jungle canopies for extended periods and won’t have any option for sun no matter what you do. In those cases you can charge with you alternator while driving and watch your consumption.

    If you’re in a Westy, the modules on the roof are the way to go, in my opinion. When the top is popped up, the panels will be angled into the sun at a pretty optimal angle (park facing North when in the northern hemisphere, and park facing South in the southern hemisphere). I wouldn’t bother with the slide-out mount unless you’re jonesing for a project to do, as it seems that it would be hard to plan a way to keep it sunny while you’re shaded under a moving sun.

    Sounds like lots of fun anyway. Enjoy!

    Comment by Brad on March 8, 2015 at 7:14 pm

  13. David


    Well I figured I would consult the expert because the thought of it was seeming like quiet an endeavor, not to mention the idea of having them stolen wasn’t registering. That is wisdom of someone who has driven the road. The idea is officially scrapped. Well, that saved me a lot of headaches so thanks for that, you talked me off the ledge.

    I didn’t realize you had wired your deep cycle battery so that it could also be charged off the alternator. I was noodling what the best way to deal with no sun situations for extended days. So the alternator plan will be perfect. I am looking at going with 12v 153ah Deep Cycle Sun Xtender so it will handle a few rainy days.

    Thanks Brad, was getting ready to mount the Yakima rack on our Westy yesterday and held off due to I wasn’t quite positive on the approach. BTW, I am with you the cabinets fabrication, as I read about the hours you spent on them. We are about 6 months into a build with ours and they are taking shape. Was kind of hoping to have them buttoned up for the Overland Expo but not sure if I will have things ready to go by then. We might just have to come without the Westy as I it would be great to rub shoulders with the veterans.

    When you get tired of the wet cloudy north, you can move to UT with lots of sun and amazing country.

    Thanks again for the advice!

    Comment by David on March 9, 2015 at 12:45 am

  14. David,

    Sounds like a plan. A note on wiring up the auxiliary battery to the alternator: You can simply wire it to the house battery (negative to ground, positive to positive), and then put a battery separator switch on the line that connects them. This way you can disconnect them while at rest, and then connect them when the van is running. Also works as a self-jumping system. For example, if you leave your headlights on all night and wake up to a dead battery, you just switch the battery connector and jump start off of your auxiliary battery without even leaving your seat. I have my battery separator switch next to my foot, so even Sheena doesn’t know when I’ve mistakenly run down our starter battery like a rookie!

    Comment by Brad on March 9, 2015 at 12:59 am

  15. william

    very interesting to hear how the systems worked out. your design was great. how about your navigation and telecom systems. what did you use and how did it fare? you two will be a hit at overland expo!

    Comment by william on March 24, 2015 at 1:12 am

  16. Hi William. Here’s a list of our telecom/navigation stuff:

    Central America: No maps of any kind (asked directions only): Ineffective.
    South America: Garmin Nuvi 50 with OpenStreetmaps: Pretty good, depends on country for maps.
    Asia, onward: Garmin Nuvi 3597LMTHD with mostly factory maps, some OSM: Fantastic!

    SPOT GPS Messenger (Mexico through Laos): TERRIBLE!
    (read here for details: http://www.drivenachodrive.com/2013/08/the-international-incident/)

    Nothing. On occasion we bought SIM cards for a crappy flip phone, but only for 5% of trip. Basically useless. Preferred not having a phone.

    There you have it. See you at Overland Expo!

    Comment by Brad on March 26, 2015 at 12:21 am

  17. Rex Cowan

    First ran across you folks while reading the Bumfuzzle web-site and have purchased your book. May I assume your new book is a continuation of the old? Incidentally, if you are a fan of the old Twilight Zone TV series (a bit before your time I am sure), it is not a good thing to stop reading (or writing?) a book before its natural ending: the characters, in effect, go into suspended animation in a parallel world. The two of you, for example are now in suspension somewhere in Thailand (as I remember). Hope to see your parallel selves move on from their sometime soon.

    Comment by Rex Cowan on March 26, 2015 at 9:35 pm

  18. It’s lonely out here in parallel-Malaysia, Rex, but soon we will release our second book and return safely home. I’m working on it as we speak, and you can expect it in mid-May.

    Regards! (This message will disappear at midnight when it is eaten by langoliers…or is that the wrong outdated parallel-universe reference?)

    Comment by Brad on March 26, 2015 at 9:49 pm

  19. ernesto

    Gracias informacion muy valiosa, los detalles de mantenimiento, un aplauso para Nacho.

    Comment by ernesto on March 31, 2015 at 5:59 am

  20. mistee

    yes but how many flush outs between continents?

    Comment by mistee on May 9, 2015 at 7:33 am

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