Solar Charger Upgrade

I really like the little solar charging circuit I built. You can see that blog here. It’s a simple little circuit, by Mike Davis, that turns on a relay switch that kills the solar output to the battery. It works just great, but it needs a little something.


The problem I was having, was that when I wouldn’t use the van for a few days, the battery would charge up and turn off. Then without any drain on the battery, it would never go back into charging mode. So by the time I used the van again, the battery wasn’t low, but it also didn’t have a fresh charge. A good drain on the battery and it would be low, and this usually happens at night when it can’t charge. So what it needed was a way to go into charge mode when it’s nighttime. That way it’s sure to get a charge every day and it will start in the morning.

I figured how hard could that be to add? I just need a photo sensor to signal it to go into charge mode. I looked in my electronic book that I have had since I was a child, that I bought at Radio Shack, and I found a circuit that would work. What a great book, and it’s still in print today. If you want to learn basic electronics, this is the book to buy.

There were actually two circuits in the book that work. The one I liked used a phototransistor and it would have worked, but I got to thinking. Why am I putting a sensor outside to detect the sun when I already have solar panels that are doing the same thing? So duh, I decided to detect if there was an output to the solar panels. Seems easy, but of course, I need to detect on the other side of the diodes, which are on the roof. So I would still need to run another wire outside. I can’t test on this side of the diode because this side is connected to the battery. That’s when I realized I could detect it when it disconnects from the battery, on the relay. I could monitor the normally open side of the relay. If it doesn’t have any voltage to it, that would mean it is either dark, or in charging mode already. Now if I could tell if it’s in charging mode or not, I could know that it was dark outside.

So any way, here is what I did to upgrade my solar charger…

I used a Picaxe 08m2 microprocessor to monitor everything and to turn the charge on. This is one of my favorite chips to play with. You can’t beat these guys for the price. They are not the fastest things in the world, but I’m not building a supercomputer.

Solar Reset 555-charger-circuit

Other than the picaxe chip, I used a few resistors, a potentiometer, and a NPN transistor. Basically you need a really big resistor and/or a potentiometer to protect the chip when detecting the solar panel. A 10k ohms resistor to protect the chip from the input to test for charging. Then the output goes through a 1k resistor to the NPN transistor, which is grounded.

Here is the code I used for the chip…

input C.1
input C.3
low C.2

    sleep 500
    if pinC.1=0 and pinC.3=0 then startCharge
    goto main_loop

    high c.2
    pause 100
    low c.2
    goto main_loop

What it does, is it makes pin one and pin three input pins. It makes pin two go low, or in other words, it has no voltage or a negative voltage.

Then there is my main loop. The first thing it does is sleep. The sleep command shuts down everything except for the timer. This will use less electricity. The number you give it, is how many seconds it will wait times twenty three. Why twenty three? I have no idea. But basically, “sleep 500” makes it sleep for about three hours and nineteen mintues.

Then it checks pin one and three to see if they have either no voltage or a negative voltage. If both of them do, and it has to be both, it will start the charging process. If it’s already in charge mode, or if there is a charge coming from the solar panels, it won’t do anything. So then it “GO TO”s back up to the main loop start.

To start the charging process, it just mimics the pressing of the button. It turns pin two high, giving it a positive charge. That positive charge turns on the NPN transistor. When that gate is open, it drops the line to ground, which is the same thing that happens when you push the button for it to go into charge mode. And just like letting up on your finger from the button, there is a pause of a one hundredth of a second and then it makes pin two go back low. Then it is back to the main loop to sleep and detect again.

It works. I don’t have to worry about my battery not getting a fresh charge. Whenever it gets dark, it will put it in charge mode ready for the morning sun. I like it, but really, I could have just had the chip put it in charge mode every six hours and that would have worked too. But what fun is that?

Reset Charge Reset Charge

The Magic Bus Tour

I have added many little tidbits to the Magic Bus. None of them really worthy of their own blog. I have also repaired a few things, changed things up a little bit, moved things around, and even repainted a few places. So lets look…. Why not just take a tour of the whole van?  Here is the Magic Bus tour.

First, I did add a gas stove to the kitchen. I purchased this guy right here..

TexSport Single Burner Stove

I see one review that says that it is cheaply made. I disagree. It’s simply made, but it’s not cheap. The steel is of heavy gauge and everything works great. I am highly impressed with this stove. Now of course if it clogs up real easy down the road, I might change my mind. As it stands now. It looks to me that it is just fine.

This was one of the first pictures I took of the van. This is what it looks like now.
Bus Inside raw 1 Magic Bus Tour

But stepping out, and coming in the side door…

Magic Bus Tour

Looking from the front to back…

Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour

Looking to the left, you will see the bathroom… complete with shower…

Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour

Moving past, we get to the kitchen section. Still in progress, but there is at least a stove. The water tank is below.
Magic Bus Tour
Looking to the right, you see the workstation and some of the outlets and controls…

Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour

Turning around and looking back to the front…

With the bed area put up… With the bed pulled out…
Magic Bus Tour Magic Bus Tour

There are several more things to be done.

I am going to build a solar water heater and air heater. I am also going to build a vent for the stove, powered by blower. I am still deciding what to do with the rest of the kitchen. Everywhere else, there will be wire frame shelving.

Stay tuned.

Van Dwelling Swamp Cooler, a bust!

The next project for the Magic Bus was to try to cool the thing off in this horrible Texas sun. I opted for a swamp cooler, or an evaporative cooler, or whatever you want to call it. It’s basically a machine that uses the thermal properties of water evaporating to generate cool air for a fan. It works really well in a place that is arid and dry. Which already means it’s not going to work very well here in the lone star state. No one from here ever says, “It’s a dry heat.” No, the saying is always, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” But during August it gets pretty dry. Around 30% humidity.

Swamp coolers were common, at one time, in Texas before air conditioners were affordable. My parents can remember having them. I can remember my grand parents having one. Then again, it’s hotter now, no matter what people say. The community where they used to live is no longer there, and is nothing but a bunch of dried up land. I’ve been there. I’ve seen where there USED to be a creek that they swam in. Any way… Here is how I built mine.

It ended up being a box made from plexiglass that was covered in foam board, for insulation. The box comes apart into two piece. The main piece is the part that holds the water. Which is why it was made from plexiglass and not wood. It’s basically a box with the top and the front half missing. I added some extra angled panels on the back side for the “swamp” section, and there is a lip part way around the inside of the box, but I’ll get to that.

On the back side, three holes were cut into the panels and covered with loofah sponges. That’s right, a loofah, or luffa. Both are acceptable. Originally they used swamp moss, which is where the name “swamp cooler” came from. Now days, it’s either aspen, cardboard, or synthetic fabric. I discovered that a loofah cut open works the same. It’s porous, it holds water, and it doesn’t turn to mush when it gets wet. They are hard to break down.

Swamp Cooler

I used a small sub-pump to circulate the water and get the loofahs wet. That took some working. It was either squirting the water vigorously, or it was barely trickling down and getting anything wet. When I finally thought I got it, I realized it was pouring out the holes in the back. I finally got it though. That little pump works really well. It’s rated at a half of a watt.

The lip in the box has foam insulation on it. That is because the other part of the box sets on it. The other part is pretty much a whole other box that fits into the main one. The other box is the fan box, and that box has the lid built into it. The fan box has a tube added to it, so that when it’s all together, you can use the tube to fill the other box with water. The water box has a drain tube as well.

Swamp Cooler

The fan I used is the Attwood four inch blower. This bad boy right here, and it is a bad boy. It moves a lot of air. It was the perfect fan for the job. It has one of those vortex type fan blades on it and it spins really fast. It had no problem sucking air through the loofah sponges. It says that it uses three amps, but I don’t know. It may be more. Twelve volts though, and if it is three amps, that’s thirty six watts, plus the half watt of the pump.

After I got everything working, I first tried it out at night. I ran the system for several hours. The air coming out of it was sixty two degrees. It felt very cold to the skin. The outside temperature was ninety one. Yes, ninety freaking one at night, but it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and that’s what I was getting. The van temperature was reading around seventy two, but it felt like it was about seventy eight, maybe eighty. Not too bad. It’s better than the temperature outside. I ran it for several more hours and it did wear down the battery, but not too bad. Down to right at twelve volts. Normal for the battery is about 12.5 volts.

Swamp Cooler

The next day I made some adjustments and I put a wooden face plate on it. I hooked it back up, filled it with water, and tested it under the mighty Texas sun. By this time, the battery was technically charged. It was reading over twelve volts, but the solar charging unit never got it up to fourteen volts, which is needed to be “fully” charged. I ran the cooler all day long and the charger was never able to get it up to the needed fourteen volts. It was only partly sunny, but it could have peak charged the battery pretty easily without the unit running.

I was getting the same temperature as before, sixty two degrees. The air coming out was plenty cool. The outside temperature got up to ninety seven, and even hotter in the direct sun, which the van was in. Any other time, the van would become an oven and could easily get to the outside temperature, or even more. With the swamp cooler going, I was able to get it to about eighty five. Unfortunately, since it was humid, you could easily add at least five degrees to it. So it felt at least ninety. Not a temperature that you could live with. Not with the humidity.

Next, I added some ice to the unit. That dropped the air coming out of it down into the fifties, which dropped the temperature in the van down to eighty one degrees. Better, but still humid, not comfortable, and  my battery was still never able to reach a peak charge.

Swamp Cooler

So it ran and it ran, all day long, and kept the van, “cooler”. The sun set, and I let it continue to run for several more hours. I went out to check on it, and it will still about the same. The temperature in the van had dropped down into the seventies, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt humid and hot.

No matter how I opened the other windows up or closed them. It was stuffy, and it had also ran down my battery. When I checked the battery, it was below twelve volts. Way below. When I turned the unit off, the voltage did come back up closer to twelve, but it was still pretty low. There was plenty of juice left for emergencies, but it needed charging. There was no way around it. That was the straw that broke the camels back.

For it to work, I would need  another battery to run the unit at night. Which would mean I would need some more solar panels to charge it during the day. That adds weight, which means more gas, which means more money. At that point, I might as well spend the money for an AC electrical hook up and use a real air conditioner. Which is what it all boils down to. My swamp cooler can only be used for a short period of time. Maybe during the heat of the day, at the most, on milder days.

Which means my choices for cooling the Magic Bus is either using a real air conditioner and an AC hook up. Or, to use it’s ability to move, and drive it up north where it’s not so damn hot. Next year, I am probably going to be choosing option “B”. As for now, I need to get to work on a way to heat the thing for winter. Which seems easier… and I have a plan.

Pipe Dreams – The van dwelling water system.

It’s been a long time coming.

First, it was just getting a water pump. I ordered one from Amazon, it supposedly shipped from China, but it never arrived. They claimed to ship another one, but they could never show proof they sent either. So I made them give me my money back. Total rip offs. I wasted over a month on that ordeal, and I guarantee they never shipped anything.

That’s alright though. I found one on ebay that was cheaper, and it was already in the country. Unfortunately, by the time I got the pump, I was pretty broke. So I didn’t get to do much work on the water system because I needed to buy plumbing parts. But that finally worked itself out. Here is the pump I used. Runs off of 12 volts at 3.5 volts for a total of 42 watts. I added a backwards diode across the leads to keep it from messing up the solar charging circuit.


shower7 shower6

I decided to go with vinyl tubing for the most part. For one thing, I had to buy a whole roll, so I might as well use as much as I could. I used it to span any distance. It was also easier to make corners. I didn’t like any of the valves for the vinyl hoses, so I went with a PVC half inch ball valve. That also meant more hardware to transition from vinyl to the PVC pipe. I did want to make my own shower head anyway. I wanted it as flat as I could get it, to save head room. So the sink and shower nozzles are half inch PVC pipe with ball valves. I used contrasting copper flanges to mount the plumbing. To give it that mad scientist, slash, mobile meth lab look.

Sink shower3 shower4 shower1

I reused the switch that came with the fan for the pump. This is all in the kitchen section. I also added in an extra valve for future projects. At some point I want to build a solar water heater, and this source will feed it. The water will drain back to into the tank and circulate. When the kitchen gets a stove. I will also be able to use this system to heat water on the stove and let it drain back into the tank. If I let the system run for a bit until the water is heated, I will then be able to take a hot shower.

shower5I also added a few new things as well. I replaced the fan. The one I had was old and it just got to be too noisey. It was vibrating and clanging and about to drive me nuts. I ended up ordering one from the Walmart website and went and picked it up. It literally took less than six hours to get it. I guess they have trucks moving all the time. I ordered it early in the morning, and it was there later on in the day. Pretty crazy. Any way, installing this fan is what made me realize that they needed a backwards diode to keep it from messing up the charging circuit. I don’t really know if the pump needs one, but it can’t hurt, and I added one.

I also added 12 volt plug outlets. I bought that device on ebay for less than $4, and that included shipping. It’s pretty cheaply made, but it will work good enough for the amount of use I am going to give it. It has a USB outlet as well, but so does the AC inverter next to it.

outlet fan switchDiode

Well that’s a wrap for this blog, but you want to see the shower in action don’t you. Well, as of right now, I don’t have a shower curtain. The water splashes everywhere, but here it goes.

Brake Booster and the Locked Up Brakes

This blog is a little different. Usually I am talking about building something for the Magic Bus. This time, it’s about repairing. Normally I wouldn’t blog about this, because I repair all the time. This one is different though. This was something that was new for me and something I found to be new to a lot of people online. Many forums have people asking for the answer I am about to give, and instead of answering them all, they will hopefully find this. So if you changed your brake booster and your brakes are locked up, here is why. Unfortunately you are going to have to read my story first.

It all started when my brakes started getting a smooshy feeling. I first thought I needed to bleed the brakes. That is why I tried to get the right rear tire off. Well, it didn’t want to come off. I got all of the lug nuts off except for one. That one was rusted solid, fused to the rim, and now rounded over. I heated, I used rust removers, WD40, other lubricants, and a rounded head socket on an impact wrench. Nothing. Even after I grinded the nut practically in half, it still wouldn’t budge. So I ended up just grinding the whole thing off. I figured I would just replace the lug itself. That’s when I discovered that the drum was rusted on as well. Ugh!

While all that was going on, in the hot Texas sun, the brakes got worse and it was obvious that is wasn’t just some brakes than needed to be bled. No, this was much more. So I looked around and followed the mechanics of the brakes. I noticed something I had never seen before. A big cylinder box that was inline with the foot pedal and the master cylinder. After some research, I discovered this thing was called a “Brake Booster”.

Brake Booster

Basically, the rod continues from the pedal to the master cylinder through this thing. Connected to the rod, inside the cylinder, is a diaphragm. On one side of the diaphragm, the chamber is connected to the vacuum system of the engine. So when you push in on the pedal, it opens a valve to let air in on the opposite side, which allows the vacuum to pull in and help you push on the brakes. That is what it does, it boosts your foot pushing on the pedal so that it’s not as hard. If you want to know more, this will tell you, but you should get the jist.

I found that you can get the booster and master cylinder as a set for only ten more dollars than just the booster by itself. So I went with the combo. Might as well get a new master cylinder while I am at. So I pulled the old set right off there. Not a problem. The bolts were rusty, but they hadn’t fused. Nothing like that lug nut and drum that I was working on at the same time. Not to mention that I had checked other tires and found three more lug nuts that don’t want to come off.

Brake Booster

I had to bleed the master cylinder, so I put the two pieces on separately. I first put the booster on. Now I noticed that the rod on the new one was a little longer, but no big deal. I got it on there. I then hooked up the bleeding tubes to the master cylinder and got all the air bubbles out. I had never done that before, but it was quite simple. It took some effort to push the piston in, but it wasn’t that hard. I then put the master cylinder on. Not a problem at all. I even tested out the brakes a little. They were tight. You barely touch them and the brakes were activated. I drove back in forth in the driveway a little. Seemed fine, even though it felt like it would take some time getting used to.

Brake Booster

Time to take a drive and really test the new brakes out. I set off down the road, passed a stop light, got onto the highway, and then it happened. The Magic Bus started to slow down and it was getting hard to make it move. The brakes were locking up and I barely made the exit and to the excess road. I had read the link above and knew how the booster worked and I had a feeling the problem was that the rod was too long. I had pushed the rod in to get it to fit right, and that was opening the valve on the booster, which was activating the brakes. So I figured if I just slacked off the booster I can at least get it home. That is when I realized that I didn’t bring my tools. That meant that I had to walk back. I had to walk back midday in the hot Texas summer sun. It sucked.

After making the walk, drenching myself in water, and laying under a fan with the air conditioner turned down low, I grabbed another car and drove to the van with my tools. I loosened the bolts on the booster and just let the booster hang loose in there. It worked enough, enough to get home, but now I am one person with two vehicles. So yes, I did what you have thought about before, I leapfrogged them back home. I drove the van a little ways towards home and stopped. I then walked back to the other car and drove it a little farther past the van. Then I walked back to the van and drove it a little past the car. Then I did that all one more time and I made it home with both vehicles. I did it all in the hot Texas sun. It sucked!

I looked all around and there was nothing that could be adjusted on anything. There was no screw to turn, no nut to move, no different hole for things to go in, no anything. The only thing to do was to move the whole system back a little. The only way to do that is to shim it out. So I got some washers, and a stack of four did the trick. That bumped it out enough so that the valve wasn’t being opened on the brake booster. Because that was what is happening, and if you are reading this because you have the same problem, then you need to check to make sure the booster isn’t being pushed in. The difference between four washers, about three eighths of inch, was all it took to open that valve and activate the booster. And if there is no way to adjust it, just bump that sucker out. Works perfect now.

Brake Booster

Now back to the lug nuts and that brake drum. Well, I got the drum off and replaced the grinded down lug. I am currently still working on getting the three other rusted lug nuts off. I’m not grinding this time. Nope, just rust dissolving lubricant and an impact wrench every day until they come off. There it is ladies and gentlemen, the Magic Bus and me, Randi Rain. Pretty damn funny huh?

Building a composting toilet – a real shitty story

When I first had the idea of building the Magic Bus, I had plans to basically build it just like a mini-RV. Equipped with a clean water tank, a gray water tank, and a black water tank. Well, two things changed that. The main thing that changed the plans was the fact that all that water was just going to add weight and use up more gasoline. The worst thing about the Magic Bus, is the gas mileage that it gets, which is not very good. As for gas mileage, it’s exactly like an RV.

Studying others who have built van dwellings, I knew there was a chemical toilet out there. I never liked that idea. I am actually not that sure, but I am pretty sure that chemical toilets are nothing different than those blue portapotties, and those things are disgusting. That’s when I discovered composting toilets, which sounded a lot better than a turd floating in some blue liquid. So I did some research and I liked it. It sounded like a much better idea than having three different tanks on board. The clean water tank was a given, and that’s fine, but I don’t see why the majority of gray water can’t just go on the ground, unless I am in a preserve or something. As for no black water tank, that sounded great, as I wasn’t thrilled to have to clean it out. Then I found the following video on youTube. This convinced me that composting was the way to go, and it didn’t seem to hard to build one of these things. A lot easier than solar panels.

Those toilets are like a thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money for a vented bucket and a funnel to a bottle. So I decided to make my own. First thing was to build a box to house house everything. I did the same thing I did for every other wooden structure. I ripped down white pine, and I notched, rabbeted, dadoed, whatever you want to call it, all the joints together. Then I put some thin plywood on the sides that weren’t up against a wall already. Then I painted it with more Rustoleum paint.

I thought and thought on how to make the door for it. Hinges? No, there had to be a better way. I decided to use three latches that locked the door in place. I made them out of some pieces of plywood, a dowel rod, and a block of wood. I angled the locking blocks of wood so that it will pull the door tight. Then it was just about adding some closed cell foam rubber stripping to make it airtight. Worked like a charm.

Then I just made a toilet seat out of some three quarter plywood, mounted it on the box, then used a router to cut a hole in the box flush with the toilet seat. Then I added a plywood lid, with more foam rubber stripping, and hinged it to the box. Then it was more paint to seal it up, to make it airtight, to make it waterproof, as this is in the shower. Which it also makes a great seat for the shower, or something to prop my leg on for shaving. It has many uses other than something to crap in.

I found a cheap replacement vacuum cleaner hose on Amazon to use for ventilation. There was already a hole in the wheel well of the van, where the previous owner installed a sink. When I got the van, along with the wood inside, there was a wooden box that had a metal bowl in it, and PVC pipes running to the hole in the wheel well. I got rid of all that first thing, and now I am using the existing hole as my ventilation. I cut the vacuum cleaner hose down to size. I cut a hole in the box, then I siliconed the piece of hose to the hole in the box and to the hole in the wheel well. That is, after I put a piece of mesh on the end to keep bugs and critters out. I will probably eventually add an exhaust fan to it, but more on that later. With the rest of the vacuum cleaner hose, I just use it to make eerie music by spinning it around real fast.

At this point, it was time to start working on the actual toilet functions. The part for the peat moss and where the poo goes, is nothing more than a five gallon paint bucket. As for the pee, well I couldn’t find a funnel that I actually liked, so I built a trough. Out of plexiglass, I built a box with an angled bottom. The bottom of the box angles both ways to a single corner. The trough also has flanges that hold it in place in the toilet box, with an arm that can be moved to lock it in place. The same with the bucket. Both are just wedged in there with a lever lock on them. Both can be removed and cleaned. I had to cut away some of the bucket to fit the trough in there, but that has caused no problems. The bucket is still very sturdy. The trough has a tube coming off of it to a one liter Coke bottle. The lid of the bottle has some tiny vent holes so the pee can get in, and the air can get out. The bottle is just velcroed to the bucket. I went as simple as I could.

All in all it came out pretty good, but as of writing this, I have no idea how well it works. I have not crapped in it yet. I have not pissed in it yet. I haven’t even bought any peat moss yet. That means that how well it works will be another blog. Come back then to know if I decided to add a vent fan to the whole thing, and if there were any other changes. I promise no pictures for that blog.

Composting Toilet Composting Toilet Composting Toilet
Composting Toilet Composting Toilet Composting Toilet

More Power – Solar Energy

I have never said that I know anything about solar energy. I am just someone that knows about electronics. This is my first attempt at solar energy. I am learning, and I am starting to figure it out, but I had a problem. My solar panels, the ones I had made, put out a total of 15 volts at 8 amps at max. The solar panel I purchased put out 20 volts at 1.5 amps. This poses a problem that I did not foresee. Different voltages was a problem.

I first wired the panels up parallel. That added the amperage together. So I was getting quite of bit of amps, but the voltage drops to the lowest voltage, which was 15 volts at best. This didn’t seem to charge very fast and didn’t seem any better than what I had. So I decided to wire it up in a series. Technically, it should add the voltage up, but the amperage should be the lowest of the panels. It should have, but there was an anomaly. I have no idea what was going on. You shouldn’t be able to push 8 amps through a 1.5 amp hole, but I was. When I put it in a series, it started charging a lot better too. Way better than before. If you went by my meter, and multiplied the voltage and the amperage, I was getting over 300 watts, and I know that can’t be right. They aren’t even rated to make that much. Even though it was working better, I still felt like I wasn’t getting as much out of the solar panels that I could.

I decided to use the broken solar cells I had left over and make two small panels, and I figured out how to make the frame better. This time I ripped down strips of wood three quarters square and built a very simple frame, but with lapped joints. I then used some of the super lightweight corrugated plastic board to skin it. I then did the same thing as before and trimmed it out with corner molding. Then like my last update, I poured expanding plastic foam in the frame. This is the way to do it. Extremely light and rigid. As for the soldering of the solar cells…. yeah.. still a pain in the ass.

Solar Panel Solar Panel Solar Panel Solar Panel Solar Panel

I wired the new panels in a series with the other panels that I built, which maxed out the voltage at 20 volts. That is now the same as the other solar panel that I bought. I then wired the other solar panel parallel with mine. Now I was getting close to 20 volts and almost 10 amps. This made a huge difference. I now know that my charging controller I built works like a charm, because since I hooked it up to my new solar array, it charges the battery in nothing flat. I turned on the fan, all the lights, and I plugged my computer in to the AC inverter, which uses a lot of power, and I watched. Even with all of that usage of power, there was still a trickle of power going into the battery. I say that’s good enough for now.

I can’t complain. I built a solar array that works, out of a bunch of broken solar cells. If I can do this, just think what someone that knows what they are doing can do. Solar energy is no pipe dream.

The video below first shows the voltage of the electricity coming out of the solar panels. Then when the button is pushed, the voltage shows the battery being charged until it cuts off, and returns to just the voltage of the panels.

 Solar Array Solar Array

It’s Alive! Electricity off the grid!

It’s been a struggle, building electricity off the grid, but I finally got power to the Magic Bus. For the full effect, we must go back to the solar panels.

As I had them laying out in the sun, testing them for their power, I noticed how hot they were getting. That’s when I had the idea that I should have had a long time ago. I blame the trying times that I am currently experiencing on not thinking of it until now. Things could be better… but I digress. Here is the “slap your forehead moment”.

I do foam work for a living. Now granted, most of the time it’s foamed rubber, but I do have foam plastic. Matter of fact, I have had some that is just going bad because I rarely use it. The actual product is this, Foam-it 5. I had the idea that I could use it as insulation on the underside section of my solar panels, and since it’s foam, it wouldn’t add very much weight. That’s when I realized, duh, that would also fix the problem I had with the plastic board warping in the sun. So if and when I make another solar panel, I will use thin wood frame, corrugated plastic board, and fill the frame with plastic foam. And yes, it does help with keeping the heat off the roof of the van.

I also broke down and bought a solar panel. I found a 30 watt panel for $70 on Amazon. I bought it at the same time as I bought the battery, which was also from Amazon. Both of them had free shipping, so I went for it. I got a 35 amp hour deep cycle battery, Chrome brand, for $75. My purchased solar panel was very different than the ones I built. Mine max out at 15 volts at 8 amps. Where this panel is like 21 volts at 1.5 amps. I decided to wire them up, each with their own diode, coming in parallel to the battery. I’m hoping this will give me enough of a voltage, over 14 volts as I hear, to peak charge my battery. And get me enough amps to recharge rather quickly. Only time will tell if I did it efficiently.

To install the solar panels on the roof, I decided to embed bolts into the roof for general mounting purposes. Since I was already using the expanding foam, I went ahead and used it here as well. I decided on carriage bolts for the smooth head, as I didn’t want to make it look as though it could be turned. I drilled holes in the roof that fit the bolt. On the roof side, up top, I drilled out the hole bigger to a half of an inch. Inside the fiberglass shell of the van, there is a plastic foam already in there. So I scooped it out around the inside of the holes. I then taped the bolts sticking up through the roof and poured the expanding foam-it 5 into the holes and let it go off. I used tape to protect the threads of the bolts. The roof had a thin layer of dirt on it that was enough to keep it from sticking. The excess just popped off.

Solar Panels Mounting Solar Panels Mounting Roof Solar Panels Roof Solar Panels

Once the foam went off, those bolts were in there, and still are. They are also water tight, I did add some silicone to the opening just in case, but it is insulated back the way it was before I installed them. I then used them to bolt down pieces of aluminum angle brackets. Then I just used long wood screws and screwed the aluminum brackets to the solar panels. Then it was just soldering the panels together and running the wire through the roof. There, I just used silicone, I didn’t bother using foam to fill the small hole for the wire.

So from there, the solar panel wire comes into the van and goes towards my voltage regulator, which you can see here. I changed the LEDs that I used on the circuit, and I just so happened to have found an old car battery tester while cleaning out an old garage. A little pocket size tester that says “overcharged”, “normal”, “alternator”, and “low battery”. Now the the alternator LED has so far done nothing, but the rest of the LEDs are important. So I added that little jewel to the mix. Then after fishing from storage an old project box that I had, and a repaint job, it is now my battery charger controller unit connecting my battery to my solar panels.

Battery Charging Monitor Deep Cycle Battery

Once there was renewable power, I ran wire the perimeter of the van with electricity. I then pulled off and installed a switch to power one of the strips of white LEDs. I installed another switch for the other LED strip. I installed a switch for my fan, and last but not least, I installed my 300 watt inverter that gives me two 120 AC outlets, and two USB charging outlets. I have the most part of the wiring hidden, but when all the wiring is complete, the wires will need to be addressed.

I have a water pump coming for the sink and shower, but before that, something else will be finished. It’s about half way done right now. I am just waiting on some parts and a final put together. I won’t tell you what it is, but let me just say, it will be real shitty.

Inside Electricity Inside Electricity Inside Electricity Inside Electricity Inside Electricity

Solar Panels

My next step in getting some electricity going in the Magic Bus, was to build some solar panels. I purchased some solar cells from ebay. These were six inch square solar cells. I got them for about $1.70 a piece. There was ten of them. Then I purchased some used ones that were removed from other panels. I got forty of those, but only about thirty were usable. It ended up being close to the same price as the new ones, but these did come with all of the metal tabbing I was going to need, and they do work.

If you have never touched one of these solar cells, well let me tell you, they are brittle. Now I don’t mean you just have to be gentle with them, no I mean you have to treat them like they are a rare find from some ancient archaeological dig or you will break them. If you dissolved a whole bunch of sugar in water until it was nice and thick, and then poured it out about a sixteenth of an inch thick, and then let it dry out and harden. It would be about the same. They are that brittle. They break just by looking at them wrong, and you have to solder a big wire on these things. Matter of fact, you have to solder several big wires on them. Each cell has to have two pieces of tabbing on them and they have to connect to the next one in a series. So technically, each cell gets soldered four times. These thin brittle pieces of sugar glass have to be soldered four times! Not only that!! You will need at least a sixty watt soldering iron to get them hot enough for the solder to stick. In other words, this part sucked even for me, and I can solder like a robot.

Each cell has to be soldered on each side, twice. At times I found it very hard to get the solder to stick to the cells. Rosin helped for the most part, but at times I couldn’t even get it to stick with that. I don’t know what it was. I am sure I was using the wrong type of solder, but I was using the solder that I had. It worked good enough, but I broke several of the cells. Several.

I won’t go into how to solder them all together. There are plenty of instructions online. Basically the bottom side of the solar cell is positive, and the top side is negative. You want to wire them up in a series so that the voltage increases. I ended up with thirty cells. Two sets of fifteen. Each cell puts out four watts at the max. Which is in the form of a  half of a volt, at eight amps. Wired in a series, thirty cells would give me fifteen volts at eight amps. When I put mine out in the hot Texas sun, I got close to that, but not quite that much. At top, I was getting about fourteen volts and the amps were about seven and a half.  Well, close enough, considering the outcome… keep reading.

So these fragile cells, that are all soldered together, have to be put on top of a van and not break. Not an easy task, especially when you are trying to keep the weight to a minimum to save on gas. I could easily get a big thick piece of  plywood or something to put them on, but that’s too much weight. So I decided to build it frame style. I ripped down some white pine, three quarters by three quarters, and built a frame structure where I notched each joint. This worked really well. It did not flex hardly at all. When I have to rebuild these, and I will, I will be doing the same thing. Although, I might go even smaller, but with more sticks.

On the first frame I made, I used a corrugated plastic to skin it. It is basically cardboard, but made out of plastic. It was stiff. It was super lightweight. It looked perfect. So I glued and stapled the plastic onto the frame. At this point it was very light and looked perfect, but it was not to be. Little did I know that it was going to warp in the hot sun, but I am skipping ahead. I then used three quarter inch corner molding to frame the frame. It being corner molding, it gave me more meat to attach it with, because this is what the plexiglass piece sits on.

On top of the plastic sheet, I laid down a layer of foam sheeting that is used under hardwood floors, using spray glue. First, I cut holes where the center of the solar cells would lie, in the foam sheet. I then took thick silicone and filled the holes. Then I laid the soldered cells down. The cells were attached to the panel by a single blob of silicone in the center of each cell. All while sitting on a foam layer that is sitting on a framed out piece of plastic, attached to a wooden frame. It came out decent. After painting with oil based enamel, I then screwed the plexiglass down on the corner molding and it was done. This seemed perfect. Not too heavy at all. So I decided to give her a test.

As I said, I wasn’t getting the maximum from the cells, but it wasn’t too bad. I walked away, and I left it out in the sun. I came back later to test it again, and the electrons were still flowing strong. The only thing, the corrugated plastic had started to bow up in between each grid piece of the wooden frame. The plexiglass started warping too, but I didn’t really care about that. I was more worried about the bowing that was flexing those fragile solar cells. Two of the cells did crack and break, but oddly enough they are still working. So I decided that I will just leave it like it is and when it stops working, I’ll build another one.

The second panel I built the same way except I used masonite instead of the plastic. It doesn’t warp or bow in the sun, but it’s also not as lightweight as the plastic. I really like the idea of the plastic. I am thinking it would be better to build a more elaborate wooden frame system and still use the plastic. If the grid was smaller, I don’t think the plastic could bow as much. I am thinking half inch by half inch wooden sticks, interlocked with notches, should do the trick. Then the plastic. Then the foam. That will be the next way I would do it.

But you know what… That was such a pain in the ass… I might just buy them already made.

Solar Panel Solar Panel Solar Panel
Solar Panel Solar Panel Solar Panel

The Paint Job – Outside

Well, it’s been awhile since I updated this blog. I haven’t given up on the Magic Bus. Nope, not yet. The reasons are several fold. For one, life has not been helpful at all. It has tried everything it could to make it hard on me. Money, health, family, it never ends around me.

The other reason is that I have been working on more than one project on the Magic Bus. I have been painting, but I have also been building solar panels. I will be posting a blog on that soon, and that will be a good one. It hasn’t been easy.

As for this post, it’s about painting a van… So how did I do it? Ha!

The van was not a pretty sight when I bought it. Quite frankly, if  I drank paint and urinated it onto the van, it would look better than it was. In other words, anything would be an improvement. Because of this, I decided to just brush and roll paint onto the thing. Not just any paint though, I wanted it to be durable. So I decided to use Rustoleum oil base enamel. It’s made to be strong and lasting. The problem was that it only came in a few different colors. None of them were ones that I wanted. My only option was to tint some white paint.

My first thought was to buy some tints and tint my own, but I bought it at Home Depot, and like they have tints. I would have to go to a real paint store to get something like that. Not to mention I need oil based tints. I asked the young girl working there, who knew nothing, if they have oil based paint they can tint with their machine, and she said they did. Behr paint makes oil based paints that can be tinted, but Behr is not Rustoleum. So with a little talking, I talked the girl into tinting the Rustoleum with the Behr pigments.

I picked out a color I liked, she did her scanning, and the machine started tinting. Now I don’t know if the paint that is made to tint with the machine has less in it, maybe. The machine had lasers pointing into the can, so I don’t know if the machine turns off automatically based on the readings from the lasers. What I do know, is that the machine did not turn off. The girl had to manually stop the process. She stopped it right when the paint bucket was completely full, and I mean completely. She was going to try to dump some out, but I stopped her. I knew that was going to end up a big mess, so I helped her scoop some out with a cup.

After we got it down so that the lid could be put it on, she popped it into the shaker and shook it. When it came out, it was not completely mixed. So she put it in again. After the second time, the paint was pretty much mixed and I got my color.

I then taped off everything I needed to protect with painters tape. I then used a brush to cut in every tight spot. After that, I used a roller and I rolled the paint on. It took several coats in some spots, but mostly just two coats. A gallon of paint was easily enough to do the whole van. In the hot Texas sun, it didn’t take long for it to dry as well.

I used just plain white on the top shell. The white will bounce off the light and protect it longer and will help keep the heat out. I am totally satisfied with the paint job. Like I said, anything was an improvement. At least now it doesn’t look like a total heap. I could actually use some fine sandpaper and smooth it down. Then I could polish it with standard car wax to look just like a professional job. I probably won’t, but I could.

Magic Bus Paint Job Magic Bus Paint Job Magic Bus Paint Job

Battery Charger Controller

The next step in the construction of the Magic Bus, is getting some electricity going. Too many things are dictated by the need of electron flow. So it’s time to start. I figure the best thing to do, is to break up the blogs. This will be a little more technical than the other construction.

I am going to need a battery, a way to charge it, and something to control the charging of the battery. You can find systems that do this pretty cheaply on ebay, but you can get it a little more cheap if you do it yourself. I bought some solar cells on ebay. I got ten 4 watt solar cells for $17.84, and that is with shipping. That’s 40 watts for under twenty bucks. I will need more, but it’s a start, and for the price, I am happy. I haven’t got the battery yet, but I have built the battery charger controlling circuit. This is how I did it.

Don’t click on this link yet, but I first found this webpage where a guy tells how he built a controller. I started getting everything together to build his plan, and then I kept reading. If you read all the way down, you will find out that he ditched all that created a better one here. That link is really the only link you need to look at. If you want to know the history of how he came to make the controllers, then you can go ahead and click the first link. The second link is what I am going to show how I did it. First I would like to thank Mike Davis for his wonderful work. Who ever he is. Seems like a smashing man.

Here is a list of the items you will need, and a link to what I used from Radio Shack…

5 Volt Voltage Regulator
555 Timer
Push Buttons
10k Multi-turn Potentiometer, you need two.

Those are the main components, but you will need some resistors and capacitors.

Here are the resistors, you will need package of 1k ohm, 330 ohm, and 100 ohm. You will need this capacitor, the other capacitor called for a 0.33uf Capacitor, but my local store didn’t have one. So I used this capacitor and it works great with no problems. You will also need some LEDs, a green and a yellow. It also calls for an automotive relay, but I used a heavy duty relay that I already had. I had to change the schematics a little since my relay is rated for 6 volts. Here is what I did. The red is what I got rid of, and the green is what I added.


I followed those schematics, and followed the instructions from Mike, and I made a battery charger controller in a couple of hours. It works great. After calibrating it, putting under 12 volts on the battery terminals causes the green LED to light up but the relay doesn’t trigger. Put over 12 volts on the terminals, and the the yellow LED will light and the relay triggers. When I get the battery hooked up to it with the solar cells, the relay will stay off when the battery needs to charge, but as soon as it is charged, it triggers the relay and kills the power charging the battery. Here is mine. Maybe not the prettiest of all my circuits, but it works and it’s pretty simple. I even built my own heatsink from some aluminum. The voltage regulator needs it.

charger controller

Moving In Stereo

I pulled my stereo and speakers out of my old car. It’s a few years old, but there is nothing wrong with it. Both the stereo and the speakers are Pioneer, and I paid good money for them. This stereo is a replacement of a stereo that was stolen out of my car. After getting a stereo stolen, I bought a nicer one that has the removable faceplate. Now the magic bus is moving in stereo.

The very first person who bought this van, back in 1977, didn’t splurge for the radio package. There was never an eight track tape player installed. The spot that would have a radio was the original blank panel. I am the first person to install a stereo in this van. Pretty crazy to think about it. A stereo finally gets installed in this thing only after thirty eight years.

I pulled the panel off. I marked off the dimensions of the stereo. I then took my rotary tool and rough cut it out. To smooth it and get it to the final dimension, I just used a razor knife. A perfect fit. I slid the stereo into the slot and folded down some flaps that are on the stereo. It’s now secure. The plastic on the panel was still in good shape. There shouldn’t be a problem.

As I pulled the panel off the front dashboard, I am treated by the old electrical work inside. There are actually sockets in there that you can put light bulbs in to light up random items. There is actually a light for the old cigarette lighter. It shines through a small hole. The ignition key has a hole that a light can shine through as well. All of these bulbs were out and were probably the original bulbs. By George, the glove box light bulb still works though. I may put bulbs back in them. It would be interesting to see what 1977 high tech looks like again.

Inside I found a dash light socket that was just floating around in there. I couldn’t see where it went and there was no bulb. I decided to use this line as the power to the stereo. There was also a hot wire going to the glove box light that wasn’t connected to the ignition. I spliced into that line for the memory line on the stereo. Then I just grounded it to the body. That took care of the wiring. Now just to run the wires to the speakers.

Finding a spot for the speakers wasn’t easy. I could easily put them on the wooden wall behind the cab. I could do it on either side. If I did it on the driving side, that would mean I have the speakers blaring in my ear while I drive. I would also be subjected to more of one speaker than the other too. It would also not be good while listening to music while in the living quarters. So that was a no go. If I put them on the other side, it works for one, but the other is where the couch is and where I lean up against. So it couldn’t go there either.

The speakers also had to go in a space that wouldn’t be used for anything else. I decided to go on the back of one of the wooden walls, but I put it down low. I decided to put the other on the wall right above the workspace counter top. Nothing will be mounted in these spots. They are separated for stereo effect. It fills the magic bus with sound and can be enjoyed while driving in the cab as well. They are also in good spots to open the doors up and be able to hear it outside as well.

The speakers had to be protected, so it was back to work. I took some white pine, ripped it down, and cut a rabbet in them. Then I cut angles and made a square shape. I wanted to use this wire mesh I had, but it was a little too narrow. So I put a center beam down the covers. I painted the covers with some orange spray paint I had. I like color, but it was still too bright for me, so I added some light brown spray on top of it. It muted the color a little and makes it look used, and used in a cartoonish type of way. Which is what I like. I painted the mesh pieces yellow, and I glued them on the rabbet lip, and then glued some black felt on top. Then I just screwed them over the speakers.

Magic Bus Stereo

Magic Bus Speaker

Magic Bus Speaker

LED lights and no more painting

First off, as you can see in the pictures I got some lights going on. LED lights. I found some inexpensive LED strands on ebay. I wasn’t sure about them, but I am actually impressed. They are super bright and much cheaper than the place I was getting them.

They are waterproof and self sticking. Of course, self sticking never works. Like I said before. When it comes to adhesion, when you stick it down it doesn’t want to stay stuck, that is unless you put it in the wrong place. If you need to pull it up and move it, well then it’s stuck down for life. If you get it stuck where you want it, it starts peeling away like the S.S. Minnow on Gilligan’s Island and his special glue. I will have to figure out a more permanent way to stick them, but for now they will work.

I also don’t have my power supply yet, so I am going off the van battery. Luckily, LEDS don’t use very much volts. So I am not running my battery down. That is, as long as I don’t leave them on all night and never start the engine. That’s not happening.

These LED strands are made to take 12 volts, which is what most car batteries are. The LEDs are in a group of threes. Which means, every third LED you can cut the strand. Then you just cut away the weather proofing and solder leads onto the two copper spots. Very easy to do.

As you can see, I also finished painting the bathroom. It’s no longer raw wood. I painted it lavender. Why that color? Because that is the color you get when you mix all the leftover enamel paint that I had. Since there will be water, I couldn’t use a water based paint. So I gathered all of my Rustoleum paint that I had, and I mixed it all together. Out came lavender, which is better than puke green or baby poop brown. No complaints here.

LED lights 1 LED lights 2 LED lights 3
LED lights 4 LED lights 5 LED lights 6

Video Tour

On a spring day, I sit in the magic bus taking in the first rain since the van became the magic bus. No leaks, that’s a good thing. The sound is fulfilling. It’s peaceful. The only problem, is there is not much I can do. That’s why I pulled out my iphone and decided to shoot a little video tour.

Some things to note. The sleeping quarters are above the cab. The panel that slides out makes into the bed. There is no mattress there just yet, but there will be when it’s time. The shower hasn’t been painted yet. I will need to paint it with enamel paint, and I just haven’t been in the mood to do it yet. The cab still needs to be finished out as well. It needs work.

The video tour starts off in the cab. You can see it needs work. We then turn to face the inside. As we get up, we turn around and see the sleeping area. From there we walk through. Seeing the couch, the work area, the kitchen, and the unfinished shower. You can see the sky light and take special note of the curtains.

Bus Outside raw


Paint can change the look of a room, but that’s understandable. Curtains, or drapes, can also change the look as well. It’s such a little thing, but it makes a huge difference. It really does make it feel more at home.

Just like the paint, I have a bunch of fabric around too. Most of it was dark colors, which I didn’t want. The sun shining in will heat it up too much. Plus, I like the color. So I found some green fabric and yellow fabric with lady bugs on it. PERFECT!! Yellow bathroom stall, purple cabinets, and lady bug drapes.

I also had some black felt. So I made drapes with  one side the green fabric, and the other side the lady bugs. Sandwiched between them is the black felt. Inside will keep the sun off the blackness, but the blackness inside will keep the sun out. It will also keep the lights from inside shining out at night. It’s privacy all around now. It’s starting to get really comfy.

Bus Curtains 2 Bus Curtains 1 Bus Curtains 3 Bus Curtains 4 Bus Curtains 5