Welcome to the blog of "The Belgian and the Aussie". We're Overlanders: ie we live a traveling lifestyle in a motorhome. With experience in South & North America, Europe, and Africa we'd like you to know how it's possible.
I've been slack when it comes to writing, especially when it comes to writing about our travels. So here's what we did in February.
This year it has been our intention to start traveling around Australia, but so far we've had commitments in Southeast Queensland to keep returning to, and so we've gone on excursions of less than a month, each time returning for whatever commitment we needed to go back for.
Our February trip saw us travel North to 1770 (yes that's a town) with our main goal to see the baby turtles hatch from their nests and head out to sea. This seasonal event happens for a few months every year and can be easily witnessed (bookings essential) at Bargara. It was a marvellous experience, the region is best known for loggerhead hatchlings, but we witnessed the hatching of Flatbacked turtles which are endemic to Australia.
A little flatback turtle
In this trip we also made a day trip to see the Great Barrier Reef at Lady Musgrave island, taking a boat from Bundaberg. That was a good trip, but although the Reef snorkelling was wonderful I most enjoyed the walking tour in the island where we learned about trees that kill birds for food. I'm not going to explain this, you should do the tour.
At 1770 we did a LARC tour. That's a pink amphibious vehicle, traveling on land and water. We enjoyed it so much that when we're next in 1770 we hope to do their full day tour.
We had fun on the LARC tour
There's also a nice Paperbark forest walk, at Agnes Waters (near 1770).
After removing the fixed and small hopper windows from the bus we installed 4 awning windows and one sliding window in Blu. Aside from these there's single pane glass right around the front of the bus and in the door. The awning windows and the sliding window are all from Dometic, although the sliding windows aren't commonly sold in Australia so we bought them all from the Reimo distributor in Brisbane. They're European windows, double pane acrylic with built in insects screens and blinds, and, surprisingly, we found them less expensive to buy here than in Europe.
If you read some forum posts you'll find many an Aussies fighting with their Dometic windows. It's the built in screens/blinds that they seem to fight with. And, although I still think they are possibly the best RV windows on the market, I admit that they aren't without fault. We've installed ours with the blind rolling up from the bottom and the screen rolling down from the the top. We prefer it this way, but some people install them the other way around; I expect it's just because they're used to blinds coming from the top. At any rate, I recon the built in, roller, blinds and screens are a smart idea.
The problems with the screens are many, but I have some solutions too:
1) they're white. Australian houses are commonly screened with black/ dark grey/ charcoal screens on windows and doors: they are easier to see through and it they absorb some light. We're living with the white screens, but one day we'll replace them (we can disassemble them and do this ourselves). .
2) in a strong wind they will bellow out, the blinds will too. It a strong wind you can't use them!
3) the screen and blind snap together (great), but it is difficult to line them up to snap them both in at the same time and not get a gap at one end. My solution? Put the blind all the way up, then attach the screen with hands at either end of the blind (don't bother pushing at the clips), then use the middle release to slide the blind and screen to the desired position.
4) little insects come through the screen. But, a screen with smaller holes would allow less air movement and bellow out more. Solution? We got some mosquito chasing gizmos that plug into a USB port (they take pads) and I'm trialling treating the screens (every 6 months, I think) with permethrin (that's what mozzie nets for sleeping under are treated with).
5) insects get caught and squished it the rolled up blind/screen. Solution? A bit of extra cleaning (sorry!), unfortunately they'll stain sometimes (another negative on white screens). If the insects get between the screen and the fixed part of the sliding window and get squished there you won't be able to get at them the clean then off. Yuck!
In this photo, with a piece magnified (one of 5 swish marks from a predecessor), you can see a moth at the top that we'll have to chase off before we close the screen, which might mean going outside with a broom. If we don't chase it it'll get squished like its predecessor and leave a trail of squish marks at the same point on the roll, each roll, as the predecessor did. Sometimes when closing up at night you just don't see them.
Finally, if you are installing a double pane window and it has a small hole be sure to put a grommet in the hole (or tape it). Our sliding window has 2 holes in each panel but came to us with one grommet missing. A fly crawled in, couldn't find its way out again, and now we have a dead fly in there forever more! So, that hole is taped now.
We have a wonderful system for getting hot water in Blu. In summary it's a hot water tank with a heat exchanger. We also had the same type of system in Blac (different make) since early 2015 when we replaced our expensive and not so reliable (but common RV choice) diesel heater.
The system, now used in yachts and RVs, was originally built for canal boats in Europe.
In summary a 'heat exchanger hot water system' is a hot water tank (ours stores 22 litres) connected to the vehicles cooling system which takes coolant via a hose to the tank which heats the water in the tank. The water will reach whatever temperature the engine reaches, so after 15 minutes of regular driving you might expect 80°C water.
Of course, one rarely wants 80°C water (I'll boil filtered water for my tea, thanks), so it gets mixed with cold water for most uses and so 22 litres of extremely hot water is more than enough. When the 2 of us shower we use about 8 litres of mixed water. (We have a very nice water saving shower head).
Having this additional coolant in circulation also assists the vehicles cooling abilities, which might be handy if we struggle with hot days or steep hills.
Unfortunately, our Australian heat exchanger tank isn't as well insulated as our European one, so although it's very effective in heating water, it doesn't stay hot. With the unit in Blac we could still have very hot showers the morning after stopping overnight, but with this unit in Blu the water is just comfortably warm by morning.
And if we don't drive? Well our heat exchanger systems (both in Blu & Blac) each have an electric element inside the tank as well. So, being that we have an abundance of solar power and battery power storage we can plug the system in. By doing this we will get water at about 40°C (it can be set between 40° & 80°C, we don't want to drain our battery unnessarily).
Despite costing about a third we have found the heat exchanger systems to be much more efficient and reliable than the diesel system we had originally in Blac.
Our house is off-grid! By this I mean that since we started travelling in Blu we haven't had to plug it into a main power supply (although we can). Our solar panels and battery have so far proven to be enough! Despite having electric machines for coffee, laundry, and vacuuming.
As I have mentioned previously, we put as many solar panels on the roof as we could fit. That happened to be 13 flexible 100 watt monocrystalline panels. We chose flexible panels because they're light and don't involve glass, and they happen to come as monocrystalline panels.
This 1300 watts of solar panels harvests energy and, via two 50 Amp controllers, delivers it for storage to a big 600 amp hours lithium battery. Then, for 240v household energy, some of the power goes through a 'Pure sine wave charger inverter' (which can also charge power to our battery from a mains power source), other power is consumed as 12v/USB..
The battery was custom made for us in China and it seems to be holding up well.
For me, buying the battery from China was especially scary! It was a large sum of money that we sent to China.... and there were times that I wondered if we'd ever get our battery. The Chinese company were actually very good to deal with and did provide us great service, specifically talking to us about our needs and available space and building a battery to suit.
It's a heavy battery! It's in its own metal box with BMS (battery management system) and weighs about 110kg.
Installing the battery with a Dingo mini digger with forks.
Once it was all set-up it wasn't without problems. The first problem we discovered was that one of the charge controllers was failing. They are from Victron Energy and you can buy a cable to connect the controllers to your computer (or an alternative sends info to a smart phone) and from there you can conveniently look at what's going on. Having discovered that one wasn't working we were able to return it for warranty.
But, we still had another problem. Our 'starter' (engine) battery swelled. The first we knew of it was a terrible sulphuric type smell, and at first we simply thought that the seaside village we were visiting stunk! But it turned out it was our battery. We thought the problem was caused by the faulty controller, which we'd sent away for warranty (and so were then operating on only 6 or 7 panels), so when we replaced the lead acid battery we didn't expect anymore problems.
But, just days before we received our replacement controller, as we drove down the road we heard an incredible BANG! We were still driving (diesel) so we pulled over to discover our new Lead Acid battery had completely exploded. We were very lucky, we were out of town when it happened and no passing property, people or ourselves were injured. Also lucky that on our bus this battery lives in a compartment under the bus, below where the driver sits (so not in the engine compartment where it would have done more damage).
Here's what our exploded battery looked like!
We isolated the problem (to avoid a potential fire hazard), and with the help of a passing motorist (to get us started again) we were able to drive to a place where we could buy and install another battery, and get our electric system checked over by an auto-electrician. We were also lucky that the parts shop we stopped at was privately owned and had a large yard behind the shop where H was able to do the battery replacement, we were permitted to stay the night, and the auto-electrician could visit to check things over. (We didn't even want to start the engine until we'd had a qualified opinion).
So, what was the problem? Well, H, having installed lead acid batteries in motorhomes before, installed it as he would have with those: with the Lead acid system and the lithium system interconnected. But, apparently this is a no-no. So now they are insolated. To charge the lithium battery our option is solar or mains power, and the alternator charges the Lead acid battery.
Throughout all the setup and troubles we were greatly assisted by a friend, Roy, in Germany. His advice, on email, was exceptional (he's somewhat an expert in the matter www.infinitefingers.com. ).
Since replacing that battery, disconnecting the systems, and installing the replacement controller we've been operating without problems. As I write this it is almost 5pm on a particularly hot Aussie summer day. I've made 4 cups of coffee in a Philips Senseo machine, done 3 loads of washing, vacuumed the floor, had the fans running all day, the fridge has been working hard, and we've been parked in the shade since 11am. Our lithium battery screen (handy) says it's at 88.8% SOC (State of Charge). We reckon that's pretty good.
This is the screen for the battery. We had to put a strip of Velcro on the top to attach a cover at night when it attracts insects.
Here's some specifics:
The 600 amp hours lithium battery is from 'PL Energy Group'.
Our 50 amp charge controllers are from Victron Energy. 'BlueSolar charge controller MPPT100/50'
Our 'Pure Sine Wave Charger Inverter' is from "Cosuper".
Special thanks to Roy (www.infinitefingers.com.)(as mentioned above) and to the old Dutch guy 'Theo' with the parts shop in Bendigo. No point mentioning names, he's sold the shop and retiring.
Our bus didn't come with air conditioning. It had roof hatches, which we left as they were, and small sliding windows above the big fixed windows, all of which we removed.
And being that this RV would be for travels in Australia we really needed to get some air-conditioning in.
H had dedicated, early in the project, the whole roof area to solar panels so we couldn't install a system on the roof, nor did we want to. Aside from that being a space compromise, it would be exposed, add wind resistance, would possibly shade the solar panels and possibly get knocked under a tree. What we wanted was a system to work from within the engine compartment. And at first this proved very difficult.
The local air-conditioning business simply told us it was too difficult, they couldn't do it, it'd be too expensive, and honestly they didn't seem to want to think about it. We walked away from there still determined to do it but wondering where we'd get help from.
We looked at truck sleeper cabs systems and had some good advice there that the 'ice-pack' system wasn't right for us but they nudged us in the right direction.
Slowly we were starting to piece together a solution. Then I went out for coffee with an old friend. She casually said 'hey, you know my husband is doing air-conditioning now?' He's primarily a farmer so I hadn't known. It was soon arranged that he'd come for a look at our project. We were in luck because he's a man that happily takes on odd projects. He (N) doesn't promote his work because he still farms and gets enough work to keep going with.
The biggest challenge was to find space on the engine to install the compressor, but H & N did. And then we had to get pulleys made to take the drive power from the engine to the compressor of the air conditioner. After that it was a simple installation of the evaporator, hoses and wiring.
Our installed air-conditioner is an after-market under dash mount style (although we installed it at the inner ceiling). The biggest we could have is for a vehicle no larger than a van so it's very useful that we have a dividing door in the bus to separate the bedroom off. Thereby, we only aircondition the front part of our home.
Our air-conditioner only works when we are driving (have the engine running). Additional to this we have a 12 volt ceiling mounted RV/yacht fan in the bedroom, and, because we've got so much power from the solar and those 12v fans are so expensive we also have a cheap 240v box fan that we use in the main living area. We mostly put it onto of the fridge, held but movable with good magnets.