Saturday, February 23, 2013

Llano Bald Eagles are Fledging

This afternoon, Danielle and I went back to Llano, TX to see the resident bald eagle nest again. She had driven by yesterday evening and seen the eaglets but had not had a good camera with her. The viewing spot is right on the side of Highway 29, east of town.  I am still amazed that this pair of eagles has been nesting so close to the road but it sure is convenient!  We set up a Canon 450D with a 400 mm lens on a tripod to take pictures along with a pair of binoculars for observing. We stayed for about a couple of hours as people came and went.

There were two eaglets at the nest, though at first, we could only see one of them.  It was perched several meters from the nest gazing away from us towards the river, occasionally turning to preening itself.

When a breeze arose, it would stretch its wings and test the lift, hopping around on the branch.  Does not look like it has flown yet but, if not, its getting pretty close to doing so.

We waited about 45 minutes for the return of the parents. The first to return was carrying some nondescript strip of meat in its talons, probably torn from some road-kill. We could see it gliding in from the distance carrying its prize.  The scene reminded me of the eagles carrying Hobbits in Lord of the Rings as I thought "the mama is coming, the mama is coming." I just labelled the first one the mother since I can't tell the sexes apart. The second parent returned about 10 minutes later carrying what I think of as the more "traditional" fish dinner.  Does not look very fresh - the tail fin is rotted off.  Perhaps it was scavenged at the river's edge rather than freshly caught.

Both of the parents and the eaglet in the nest greedily tore into the "surf-n-turf" dinner while the first eaglet remained on its branch apart from the nest, showing no interest in joining its sibling at the dinner table.  It reminded us of a sulking teenager. 

We could not see into the nest to observe whether the eaglet was able to tear off bits of meat itself; presumably it could.  We did see it pulling on a strip of meat that the parent held in its beak, almost like a game of tug-o-war.  That was fun to watch.  

This game seem to extend to the two parents as well, once the eaglet was done eating.

Shortly after settling down, one of the parents flew down to another tree, perhaps readying itself for another round of feed-the-kids.

Bald eagles are a beautiful sight to see, even disregarding their patriotic symbolism.  I am really glad we had the chance to go back while the eaglets were still fledging.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bubble-Tipped Anemone Split Again

One of the green bubble-tipped anemone in my reef tank split today.  This is the third split since I acquired the original specimen a couple of years ago.  The mother was looking a bit wonky shaped yesterday.  When I got home from work, the new daughter anemone had successfully split off and wandered from the back of the tank to this position near the front of the tank as shown in the picture.

This was by far the quickest recovery I have seen.  The previous split took some time to heal and both participants went into hiding.  Hopefully this one will be well behaved and stay put as wandering anemone are not the best thing for the surrounding corals.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Conversion of 30A Trailer Supply

This weekend's modification project on the Jayco Jay Flight 28BHS trailer was to replace the shore power cable with a detachable system based on parts from Marinco as others have done.

Here is the problem. This trailer, unlike our last one, uses this so-called "mouse hole" for the 30A electrical cable used to connected to shore power.  This cable is permanently attached internally and you pull the whole length of the cable out through this hole.  Jayco warns that the cable should not be used partially extended.  Probably because heat is not adequately dissipated.

I really hate this cable system.  When the cable gets muddy, you either have to clean it carefully prior to stowing it or end up pushing mud into the trailer. Worse, when the weather is very cold, the cable gets stiff and is impossible to shove in the hole. I also find it tedious when I need to quickly connect shore power to the trailer at home.

To begin, I removed the three screws from the mouse-hole assembly and pried on it a bit ... it came right out.  There was no lap sealant used here.  Rather, butyl tape was used to water-proof the assembly.  The term "tape" seems like a misnomer to me.  It is more like stringy putty on a roll. The RV service guy recommended that I seal the new receptacle with butyl tape as well.

One of the challenges was the size of the hole shown here.  It is too big for either of the two conversion kits available so I had to fabricate some sort of a plate.

Here is the round version of the 30A receptacle which I used.  Next to it is a thin aluminum adapter plate I made from on-hand scrap - the bottom of an electronics project box.

I made the large hole by drilling a series of small holes along the outline, bashing out the bits between the drill holes with hammer and chisel, and filing the inside smooth.

I next bolted the receptacle onto the adapter plate, using a single thickness of butyl tape to seal it. I cut the existing electrical cable 12 inches from the trailer, and attached the end to the back of the receptacle. No pictures for this part, but pretty much followed the installation instructions I found on-line.

Here is the assembled adapter plate.  I used 3 layers of butyl tape in the recessed areas and 1 layer for the rest. The main problem I ran into was that the thick particle board you can see just behind the aluminum siding in the second image did not extend very far around the hole.  Only the two upper-right screws in image actually hit wood.  I have since added a extra screw in the middle of the adapter plate, just under the lid.

This image shows the new locking and weather-sealed plug attached to the original cable. There is a lot of butyl tape visible under the plate.  I think I will add a bead of silicone caulk around the plate as well in order to protect the butyl from damage.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Trailer Rear-Bunk Makeover

We decided to re-work the rear bunk area of our Jayco Jay Flight 28BHS to make it more convenient for our use (two adults, two sleeping areas).  Danielle suspected we would need to change this area before we bought the trailer.  After our first camping trip, I was sure of it.

This stock image we found on the web shows configuration prior to the remodel. Ours was identical except for the color of the curtain and mattress, which was even uglier than the one shown.  From our point of view, there are a number of problems with the configuration:

As we don't need the upper bunk for sleeping, we used it as a big storage shelf. There is actually much more room than we need even excluding the back corner which we cannot reach without standing on the bed, which is pretty awkward.

The bottom bunk is a full-size bed, but with a notch taken out of it.  This makes it difficult to replace with a more comfortable mattress, and it means that no standard sheets will fit , though a minor inconvenience because we normally use sleeping bags.

The biggest problem is that the head-space in the bottom bunk is very limited for an adult.  It's easy to bang one's elbow or head on the upper bunk when turning over.  There is no room to sit up and read, either.  In addition, unlike the front sleeping area, there is no place to use as a nightstand (except for reaching up to place things on the upper bunk, which is not very practical).

At first, we thought that the shirt wardrobe was a nice feature, providing additional storage in the unit.  However, we found that we could barely reach the bottom shelf and could only reach the top shelf when standing on the bed, rendering it pretty useless.  It ended up as just one more thing to bang one's head on.

A less obvious problem with this configuration relates to access to the bathroom, which is tight. Since the bathroom door opens up right against the bunk, there is no place to step out of the way when someone needs to get past.

To address these complaints, our plan was to make the following changes:
  • convert the top bunk to a narrower shelf, raising it up higher as well
  • convert the lower bunk to a standard twin bed
  • use the extra space for a nightstand
  • recover extra floor space in the bathroom area

The first step was to remove the shirt wardrobe. This is not a pre-assembled cabinet unit.  Rather, the top, back, and right sides are actually the walls of the trailer, not separate cabinet walls.

It was pretty simple to take apart.  From inside, we removed several dozen screws.  The tricky part was discovering that some of the screws can only be accessed after prying off the false bottom of the cabinet, as shown in this picture.

We removed everything, keeping the laminated plywood and the door for possible future projects which might require matching material.

The next step in the demolition was to remove the padded rail from the top bunk.  The trick here was to pry off the three fabric "buttons" to reveal the screws which fasten the rail to the bunk.  These were really long screws; a power screwdriver was handy here!  Without the cabinet in place, the rail was not long enough to span the length of what will become a shelf so we were not be able to reuse it.

Next, we tackled the bunk itself.   The first step was to carefully slit the caulk bead on the under side of the bunk as shown in the inset picture.

Once this was done, we were able to pry off the decorative plywood covering the under side of the bunk by starting at the front edge. We got this panel out without damaging it or the wall. An annoying bead of caulk was left.  I have not found a product that will loosen it without damaging the finish on the wall.  I am still trying to think of a creative way of covering it up.

Once the panel was down, the screws which fasten the bunk to the walls were revealed (see main picture) and easily removed. At this point, the bunk was free and we took it out and put it aside.

The next job was to tackle the bottom bunk.  Here is the demolition partly in progress.  We removed the hinged plywood deck to expose the framing, such as it is.  The notched front edge of the bunk turned out to be a free-standing partition screwed into the floor, also easily removed. The partition stub still remaining in the lower-right of the picture is integrated to a long 2x2 attached to the wall and which supports the plywood deck.  We removed this as well with a bit more effort.

The bit of framing around the water low-point drain in the top-right corner is part of a barrier that I created to help prevent shifting cargo from hitting the plumbing.

There is not much other framing supporting the deck.  The one "joist" shown was not even screwed into anything.  The plywood itself is a very thin and, disconcertingly, bows considerably when walked on.  All these short cuts were intended to  reduce weight, no doubt, but it seems that Jayco never seriously considered how adults might use this space.

Here is the new framing.  I used lightweight 2x3 pine studs I had on hand to replace the board along the bathroom wall and to create a pair of free-standing "walls."  These walls frame in a corner leaving more interior floor space than the previous diagonal wall.  This does reduce some of the cargo space, but the added maneuvering room this creates in the bathroom area more than compensates for the lost storage.

I did indulge in a heavier grade of plywood for the deck by using 5/8" material.  This gives a much more solid surface to build on at the expense of about 10 extra pounds.

This picture shows the new decking in place.  This is one single piece screwed into the framing.  I dispensed with the hinged assembly which previously allowed one to access the cargo space from inside the trailer.  I found this access cumbersome and, frankly, unnecessary given the new, super large cargo door used for 2013 models which provides ample room to access the full cargo area from the outside.  This new door, which you can see in the earlier pictures is a real winner. Thanks, Jayco!

The upper bunk has now been turned into a heavy-duty shelf.  I took the previous bunk which was 30" wide and sliced both it and the decorative under panel in half, lengthwise, and reassembled the pieces to create a 15" wide shelf of the same construction.  I put one half of the decorative panel under the shelf and one on the top.  I remounted this about 6" higher than the original bunk bed (I couldn't go higher because of the placement of the upper window.) I then trimmed with stained quarter-round molding, top and bottom.  This gave a very finished appearance with no exposed rough plywood and no fabric to get dirty from the junk stored up there.

This next picture shows the replacement rail for the upper shelf.  Rather than the padded fabric used originally, I created at solid wood version from a 1x4 board of red oak, stained with Minwax English Chestnut stain and coated with satin polyurethane.  This color seemed to give a good match to the existing wood laminate.

This picture also shows where I installed a new 12V DC plug in the wall to power a fan, charge a phone, etc.  It was a simple matter to drill through that interior wall into the cabinet over the dining table and tie into the existing circuit which supplies the CD player.

The last step was to cover the new partition walls with 1/8" birch plywood and to create a removable nightstand. The latter was constructed as an upside-down box from 3/4" plywood panels, also in birch. These were joined together with glue and biscuits. Simple corner molding, stain, and polyurethane complete the nightstand. I would have preferred to build something similar to the laminate-top nightstands in the front sleeping area but decided to skip on the hassle of trying to acquire matching laminate.

It was important that the nightstand remain removable because it blocks the existing access panel used to repair the shower faucet plumbing.

The remaining sleeping space just fits a twin mattress, in this case a Sultan FlorvĂ„g foam mattress from IKEA which is thin, firm and inexpensive.  I learned that XL sleeping bags fit twin-sized beds. This particular model, with flannel lining, is from L.L. Bean and fits nicely in the space.

One remaining enhancement that I am likely to add is to install another 12V DC plug over the nightstand, tapping into the circuit in the light fixture shown on the wall and running the wires down under the bunk.

This picture shows the completed project.

Copper Walls in Trailer Kitchen

We knew that there were various aesthetic improvements we wanted to make our new Jayco Jay Flight 28BHS trailer, as well as functional improvements. The first of these, for various reasons, was the kitchen backsplash. Danielle had disliked the "brickwork" contact paper backsplash used in the 2012 model year since she first saw it.  I was not quite as fussed about it but would have preferred a plain wall.  She hoped that they would change it for the the 2013 model year, but when ours arrived, the kitchen looked very much like this stock photo, showing the original decor of a unit with a "Driftwood" interior like ours.

Stock photo, driftwood interior The "brick" backsplash above the kitchen counter here is a strip of contact paper that goes all the way around the kitchen. It goes under the window frame and corner bead molding in the kitchen.  If you're thinking about doing a similar project, be warned that Jayco used permanent contact paper, so it is very difficult to remove and leaves a stubborn, sticky residue behind.  After escalating up through progressively more potent chemicals, we only succeeded in damaging the decorative finish on the wall.

Danielle's original idea was to remove the contact paper and replace it with another contact paper or, as I suggested, to leave the wall undecorated. Once we realized the amount of sticky residue left behind from removing the old paper, we decided to pursue a more complete renovation using Fasade thermoplastic panels, available at both Home Depot and Lowe's. We tested various colors and patterns, and decided on one called "Rings" in an Antique Bronze finish. This choice surprised us a bit, since the cabinet fittings are all pewter-finish, but we both liked the warmth of the bronze finish and the geometric design. The panels were in stock at our local store, which was a major bonus.

Sink with panel Each of the panels had to be cut and fitted to the wall, as they were about 1/2 inch too tall for the space, even here behind the sink. We removed as much of the original trim between the counter and wall as possible.  It is not a silicone sealant but a vinyl trim piece stapled to the back edge of the countertop.  We couldn't get enough of it out for the panel to slide neatly behind it, so cutting was required.

To avoid having an edge of the thermoplastic panel exposed anywhere, we decided to continue the paneling all the way to the edge of the wall past the kitchen counter and to add partial pieces in a strip to take it to the ceiling and floor, both on the bedroom door side and on the side next to the couch. We finished it with oak molding where it met the counter and cabinets, and with a heavier strip of oak to make the "door frame" more structural-looking. Next to the couch, the paneling ends behind the slide-out. The oak moldings were finished with a Minwax English Chestnut stain and a satin polyurethane. I nailed them in with 1" finish nails using an air-powered nail gun.

Window and stove wall with panel Cutting the panels for this side of the kitchen was more challenging. Fortunately, since we started with a partial panel in the corner, the window spanned two panels, as did the electrical box, which made the cutting much easier. Planning is important in a project like this, but here we just got lucky!

It takes fairly heavy kitchen shears to cut the thermoplastic (the instructions recommend tin snips, but ours are too bulky to get a nice cut). Even so, Danielle reported that her hand was very sore before she finished with the cutting.

We removed the window valance, miniblind, and window frame so that the panel could be installed beneath them, then replaced them when we were done. I am not sure anything but caulk holds the window in place once the inner trim piece is removed, so we were careful not to push on the window!

It was interesting to see the detail of how the valance was assembled and mounted. The valance is a simple box of thin wood, covered with fabric, padded in front and on the sides. The fabric is folded tightly back over the top (using hospital corners), and stapled to the inside of the box. There is a sort of "L"-bracket inside the valance, which mounts the valance to the wall.  We might consider covering with a different material in the future since the charcoal grey fabric is the one item that does not complement the bronze panels.

This picture also shows the placement of the remote display for the charge controller we installed as part of our earlier solar project.

Around the range hood was the trickiest area to cut. In our unit, the hood is mounted tightly to the wall, so the panel couldn't slide behind it. The exact contour of the cabinet and range hood had to be traced and cut out of the plastic. The plastic is fairly thick and three-dimensional: the rings are raised, making it difficult to cut straight lines, so intricate cuts are very tricky. This photo actually shows a "reject piece," where Danielle couldn't get a close enough cut and decided that she needed to start over.

A matching strip of Antique Bronze contact paper, also available at Home Depot (intended for covering switch plates), was installed behind the panels, hiding the seam where the panel did not perfectly meet the edge of the cabinet and range hood.

Stove and range hood with panel The panels were installed using Loctite construction adhesive, as recommended by Fasade. We had to go with the adhesive because we knew from experience with our prior trailer that double-stick tape dies in the 100-plus degree temperatures of a Texas summer. We hope that the adhesive will hold up, especially here behind the stove. The manufacturer states "Even though these panels are “Class A” fire retardant, they can be deformed with excessive heat. Never expose to heat over 140°F. Keep toaster ovens, cooking ranges, etc. 2-3 inches away from the backsplash panel’s surface."

The finished effect is excellent. It is hard to see the seam where the panel meets the edge of the range hood without crawling in close or look at. Similarly, the seams between the thermoplastic panels are not obvious, though this pattern makes it harder to hide them completely than it might have been using a pattern with rectangular features.

Detail of under-cabinet trim One minor frustration in this project was the fact that the cabinets weren't mounted perfectly, so the corner cabinet starts almost a quarter-inch lower on the wall than the cabinet above the sink does. This prevented us from using a single strip of molding under the cabinet along the wall. To avoid an ugly seam where the two cabinets met, we decided to add a small strip of oak with a roundover to the front edge of the cabinet, continuing the strip back to the wall on the corner cabinet. This also hides the ugly light fixture above the sink to some extent, though we may replace it someday anyway.

Dragonfly hooks While shopping for this project, Danielle found these "dragonfly" hooks at Lowe's. They look pretty nice here, even paired with the antique bronze of the backsplash. We'll use them to hold dog leashes, as they are mounted on the cabinet directly in front of the door of the unit.

As usual with our projects, we had a bit of "scope creep" on this one, and an aesthetic annoyance turned into a major "glamping." However, we're pleased with the final effect. All told, we used 10 panels at $22 each, plus the cost of glue and moldings.