Back on the road

After our MOT disappointment we finally managed to get away. We said goodbye to friends in Exmouth (again) and had a night at home in Taunton; using the laundry of Mum and Dad to catch up on about four loads of washing, having a lovely home cooked meal with family and sleeping in a real bed (it felt a bit exposed as we’re now used to sleeping inside a box with no fear of falling out – well except through very unlikely circumstances).
The next morning, fresh and fed, we made our way towards Scotland. This is the next part of our adventure and the rough plan is to work our way through Dumfries and Galloway, then across to Arran and from there to the Kintyre peninsular. Then we’ll see, plans have a habit of changing anyway.
We didn’t know how far we would get. With Paul doing all the driving it was left to him to decide when to stop and how long for. In the end we had a couple of reasonably long stops for food and drink but made it across the border and ended up parked at Glencaple near Dumfries.

Crossing the border – at last

When we got to our destination the rain was hammering down and the views were obscured by low cloud. We could see the signs warning us not to drive off the harbour wall and the other signs warning of quicksand and strong currents – a place fraught with risk!

Bertie resisting the temptation of a swim – taken the following morning in the sunshine

But we could also see half a dozen other motorhomes and a welcoming sign inviting motorhomes to contribute via the honesty box. Something we’ll definitely do as it’s refreshing to find communities that welcome visitors. We had tea and went to bed listening to the rain hammering on the roof. The forecast was for pleasant weather the next day and that was good enough for us.
On the journey we achieved a fuel consumption of 27 miles per gallon which is pretty good for Bertie. I think it’s probably as good as it’s going to get, but we have now started to record our mileage so we’ll be better informed, although possibly in this case ignorance is bliss.

The Money Pit

Bertie has been a bad motorhome, using most of our annual repair budget getting through the MOT. We knew that we had an ABS issue, but a couple of other issues and four hours labour doesn’t make a cheap bill. Bertie passed first time last year so I had high expectations. I am very disappointed.

We also bought two new leisure batteries for Bertie; we knew that our current battery wasn’t always going to be sufficient especially with winter approaching and because we want to spend more time wild camping. Leisure batteries aren’t cheap, but the advice is always to buy matching batteries if you are increasing the number you are using – the same capacity and the same age – otherwise the battery performance is always dragged down to the lower of the two.  

To top it off our water pump decided to bite the dust. We got back to the motorhome on Saturday evening after a day at the rugby (watching the Gareth Steenson 10 year testimonial which was very entertaining) and could hear the pump running – very odd. I went through and checked all of the taps, none of them seemed to be open. In the end we had to turn off the electricity at the control board to stop it. When we checked the water tank it was completely dry, so maybe one of the taps had been open a fraction. When we re-filled and tried to use the taps we weren’t getting any water – the pump was making feeble whirring noises but not sucking. To cut a long story short we ended up replacing our pump, luckily we have OutdoorBits in Exmouth – a good source of parts and advice. We took the slightly more powerful Shurflo pump than our existing one. Not only does this mean we can now get water from the taps, but it also seems to have cured Bertie’s spluttering and spurting issues and made showering dangerously enjoyable (dangerous for our water usage that is). In all it’s been a good outcome for us, but frustrating that we were forced into spending the money rather than choosing to. 

Having the work done also meant we were delayed leaving Exmouth and I started to get a bit ansty; there is a certain feeling of frustration when you make travel plans that are thwarted, I’m sure there must be a specific word for it, if not in English then in another language. We’d had a lovely time being tourists in what we still consider to be our home town, seeing friends and indulging in meals, days out and too much alcohol but we were ready to move on and tackle the next bit of our adventure. 

Where did the Water go?

On our way back from Wales we stopped in at Taunton to see family. We stayed at a different campsite this time – Tanpits Cider Farm – which saw us settled under cider apple trees in the orchard and surrounded by Peacocks, Guinea Fowl and Rabbits. Very pretty and right next to the canal cycle route into town. It was a shame about the amount of building work going on around as Taunton keeps expanding it’s borders, but they didn’t start till 8am so it wasn’t too intrusive.

The evening before we had been camped in the Wye Valley and had showers, did the washing up and all was fine – the following morning I turned on the taps and nothing came out.

We decided not to worry about it until we reached Taunton where we could take a look at what was going on. We checked the pump – all running fine, we checked our water levels – also fine. We looked at the emergency drain valve (this is the valve that empties the boiler if the temperature drops below about 4 degrees to stop damage caused by freezing) – also fine.

When we looked under the van we could see that each time we turned the taps on the water was coming out of the boiler, so there was obviously something wrong in that area. Cue despondency; replacing a boiler is not cheap. But with a bit of help from the internet (there are some great Motorhome forums online and on facebook) we finally found that it was escaping through the venting hose and that there was a valve that was probably at fault.

Truma confirmed that this was probably the case (their customer services were excellent, getting back to us swiftly) and supplied the part number. A quick phone call to Apple Camper who had the part in stock – and sent a picture just to confirm that it was definitely the part we needed – for £9.99, 15 minutes (or probably less) for Paul to remove and refit the part, and all was well. Disaster averted thanks to the power of the internet and some excellent service.

For posterity the boiler is a Truma 3402 combi boiler and the part number is 34150-01.  Paul still doesn’t believe that the part is really a valve – when you look through it, it just looks like a t-piece – but that’s a whole different conversation.

The offending part – the replacement was red but otherwise identical

 

Bald Rubber

One of the things we had to do while in Anglesey was replace our front tyres.

Paul had noticed that Bertie wasn’t driving quite as responsively as previously (if you can ever describe a motorhome as responsive) and when he took a look at the tyres we realised why. The tracking must have been out (in fact we discovered later that it was so badly out that it went off the scale) and the tyres we starting to become bald on the inside edges.

We had a little look at our options, and our research showed us that there were as many different opinions on the right tyres for Motorhomes as there were (often self-styled) experts. At least we knew we would be agreeing with someone, no matter what decision we made.

The key questions were; should we buy specialist motorhome tyres, should we buy Mud and Snow (M+S) tyres and should we buy premium tyres.

Specialist motorhome tyres are made with stronger sidewalls, the idea being that they are better (will prevent the sidewalls cracking) for heavy vehicles that spend a lot of time stationary. This is all very well for people who use their motorhome a few times a year and leave it stationary in storage for the majority of time, potentially less important for us as we will be moving frequently.

Mud and Snow tyres are usually ‘all season’ tyres intended for those mushy surfaces where it is difficult to get traction. They are not winter tyres. In some countries they are required over certain periods of time or in certain conditions, but these requirements would not impact our plans for the next twelve months. 

And as you might expect there are varying opinions about the need to spend money on a ‘quality’ tyre, with many people swearing by some of the cheaper manufacturers and other people only going for the named brands.    

In the end we opted to buy Michelin Agilis Motorhome tyres – so answered yes to all of the questions. With so many differing opinions, and little expertise ourselves, we had to rely on reviews and feedback. Michelin Agilis tyres had good reviews from both trade press and the general public and the only poor reviews we found were in relation to the cost rather than the performance, so we ended up spending the extra money on them. 

Of course if we were spending money on decent quality tyres then we needed to sort out our tracking/wheel alignment. This was harder work that we’d envisaged.

The best price we could find for our tyres was through Black Circles, so we ordered them to be delivered to ATS in Llangefni. However, despite asking in advance, ATS couldn’t do our tracking. So they fitted them and we then had to find someone else to sort out the tracking for us. It took driving around a few garages to eventually find somewhere willing and able to sort it out; it felt like some garages just couldn’t be bothered with anything out of the ordinary. In the end we found A&R tyres in Gaerwen, and wished we had gone to them in the first place, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. It had been a frustrating experience but at least it ended well.

 

   

A little bit about electricity

During our time in Betws y Coed, sitting under tree cover and in rain for a couple of days, our solar panels failed to charge the Leisure battery. This is the first time it has happened as usually the panels are charging our battery even on overcast days.

When we were researching our solar panels we did a bit of investigation to determine how many/what size of panel we would need. This meant dredging up some of my GCSE physics, with that equation Watts = Volts x Amps 

The aim is to keep our batteries topped up through various means, preferably our solar panels as – once paid for and installed – it’s ‘free’. Fully draining a battery is not good for it, and any other way of topping up the battery has a unit cost. 

Our leisure battery is a 95 AH (Amp Hour) 12 volt supply. So. as an example,  a 120W appliance would  use 10 amps per hour and drain the battery in 9.5 hours. Assuming everything works efficiently – which, of course, it never does.

When looking at our solar panel requirements we had to ascertain which things use electricity. This includes obvious electrical stuff, and some things we had thought of as gas appliances. We’d be interested to see if anyone can spot anything we’ve missed:

Water Pump: Used for showering and washing and making drinks (unlike some people we do drink the water from our fresh water tank – we have had a look inside, seen the bits that float around in it, and decided it’s not going to hurt us. Because we full time it’s always being emptied and replenished so stays fresher), it’s on for less than half an hour per day.  

Fridge: Although our leisure battery isn’t used for the actual cooling operation, it is used for the ignition and evaporator.

Lights: All our lights have been replaced with LEDs which typically are 3 watts or less. In the summer we don’t have the lights on much, but we’ll use them more with the longer nights of winter. 

Phone chargers: We don’t tend to charge our phones directly from the leisure battery. This is because typically we want to charge our phones overnight while we are sleeping (the rest of the time we are glued to them of course, like any modern person). So instead we charge a power bank during the day and use it to charge our phones overnight.  

Tablet, Laptop and Kindle chargers: These aren’t used every day. The laptop is particularly power hungry at 65 watts, but the tablet and kindle are both about 10 watts.

Boiler: Gas is used to heat the water, but electricity is required for ignition and the control for dumping water when the weather is cold (this stops the tank from splitting due to icing up). 

Radio: We use a battery operated radio so that we can take it outside with us and listen without blasting everyone in a campsite with our music choices. Currently we don’t use rechargeable batteries, but I plan to change this.

Toilet: Strange as it may seem, our toilet does use a small electricity supply. This controls the indicator that tells us when the cassette is nearly full.  

We think that, taking into account inefficiencies and other electrical use (for example the USB adaptors that fit into out 12v sockets all have LEDs which consume electricity), we will use approx. 200 watt hours of power per day.  This should equate to about 16 Amp Hours from the battery (200 watts divided by 12 volts).

We have 200 Watts of solar panels on the roof. These will also have their inefficiencies. They will not be directly angled towards the sun as they are installed flat on the motorhome roof. And of course we never see perfectly blue sky. The maximum Amp hours we have seen from our solar panels so far is 7, but it has to be said that we would never be in the motorhome at midday on a lovely summers day. 13 Amp hours is reportedly the best we would get at peak efficiency (200 Watts, for a 12 volt battery, at 80% efficiency i.e. 200/12 * 0.8).

With our observations so far, a good summers day would give us maybe 60 Amp Hours of charge, far in excess of our usage. But a bad day may give us less than 10 Amp hours, which would see our batteries start to empty pretty quickly. An average day will probably be around 20 Amp Hours per day from our solar panels. So on average we should break even. Of course that would be fine if we had a battery of infinite capacity, but we don’t. So if we have a run of bad days our battery will be depleted and that is not good for it, or for our gadget usage.  

Of course we have ways of mitigating the bad days. We could drive a long distance – charging our leisure battery through the alternator but using (and paying for) diesel in the process or we could pay for electric hook up, and charge our leisure battery through a mains supply – almost certainly we will use one or both of these options at times. We could get more solar panels, or we could buy a generator (and the diesel to power it) – but these options feel impractical or unreasonable, we don’t have the room for more solar panels on the roof and a generator is expensive and heavy. On top of these options we could also buy additional batteries so that we have more Amp hours use before we drain them – something we probably will do so that we can last longer before resorting to one of the other methods. We need to give all of these options some thought and do some cost benefit analysis. We’ll let you know what we decided. Until then we’re hoping that we have sunny days, and we’re making sure we don’t park under trees on the bad days.

 

Shell Island

It’s been a week since we were in Shell Island, but we’ve had limited 3G/4G signal so it’s been difficult to post. This was also the last day of the mini heatwave, so if – as it is for us – the weather is currently drizzly and cold, hopefully this post will remind you that sometimes the sun did shine in June.

Shell Island is a sandy promontory on the coast west of Snowdonia and is reached by a causeway across tidal marshes. The causeway is closed for certain high tides but luckily for us the high tide was early in the morning so we didn’t have any hold ups. The campsite here covers a large area and is very busy and popular even in low season. It offers reasonable value pitches without any electric hook-ups but with a good selection of facilities on site, including very good showers, happy days.

We used the last of the hot weather to wash some clothes and get them dried. Paul sorted out a few odd jobs on the van. One of the jobs was to try and sort out the fridge, as we’d reported before it hadn’t been working consistently when on electric hook up. Paul had noticed some poor and unnecessary connections when he’d been doing some poking around in the van and he wanted to sort them out. Happy to report that since then the fridge and the electrical system in general have been much better behaved. 

One thing that I wanted to do while the weather was so warm was have a swim in the sea, so we walked down to the beach. The beach around Shell Island is extensive but quite rocky in places so there are a couple of main swimming areas (the pitches with easy access to these areas tend to be the busiest). The tide was coming in and the water was pleasantly warm where it was washing over the hot sand, it felt very Mediterranean. Swimming might be a bit of an overstatement, but I bobbed around in the waves for half an hour or so.

Overnight the temperature started dropping and a breeze started up, for which we were quite thankful. The next morning was bright and cheerful and much more suited to us.

For some reason we didn’t take any pictures while were here, so here is a picture of our fridge.

 

Cooking on Gas

We left the Pembrokeshire coast looking for something a bit different to do while the rain continued to fall on us.

We drove to our next wild camping spot a bit further inland, using winding roads that followed the course of the Teifi river. The river was running high, brown and churning from all of the recent wet weather. Near to Cenarth we found a forestry commission spot up a steep track in the woods and made ourselves as level as possible so that we could get set up and then pop out for a bike ride.

But our plans had to change when we found our gas supplies were running low. Possibly this was a blessing as the afternoon showers ended up merging into each other and it would have been a bit damp.

The motorhome has two main sources of power, the 12volt electrical supply and propane/butane gas. The gas supply provides us with hot water, heating, hob and oven and (possibly surprisingly) it also powers the fridge freezer – the 12volt electrical supply just isn’t powerful enough unless the engine is running.

We obviously want the fridge freezer to run all of the time, otherwise we could be in a food poisoning inducing situation with our food freezing and then defrosting; the fridge freezer in the motorhome is designed to ensure that this doesn’t happen and will (with occasional encouragement) switch between power sources. When we are travelling our fridge is powered via the starter battery, when we stop the engine it should automatically switch over to gas and if we are on electric hook up it should use the 230volt electricity supply as a priority. This means that we have power to the fridge all of the time – until we run out of gas.

We had noticed that the fridge’s automatic switch between power supplies was being a bit temperamental. It would sometimes need a bit of help (turning off and on again – the standard IT practice for any equipment that doesn’t work) to switch to gas after the engine had been running. Also it had not been switching onto the 230volt supply when we were on hookup and again needed some encouragement – this time by turning off the gas supply to force it to consider other options.

Because of the latter we had used more gas than expected. And because the gauges that come as standard on gas bottles are notoriously unreliable we weren’t really sure how much gas we had used. When we reached our parking spot the fridge was refusing to work on gas, we could hear the constant ticking of the ignition, but the little red LED kept flashing. So that was it, we decided to go and top up the gas.

We have opted for a refillable gas system in our van, which Paul has installed, with two 11kg bottles that should hold about 40 litres of LPG. We went for GAS IT, one of a few popular providers of cylinders, tanks and other fittings. This replaced the standard set up of CALOR gas bottles which have to be exchanged at a supplier. Installation was relatively straightforward with the main issue being working out how to fit the bottles and connecting pipes into the small space without any kinks. We now have an external fill point (much easier than opening the hatch each time) from which we can fill both bottles.

The idea of a refillable system is to save money, allow us to carry more gas, and (when abroad) to more conveniently top up as CALOR is not often found overseas and foreign exchangeable gas bottles need different fittings.

Financially this option works for our long term touring situation where we are often wild camping and so using gas rather than electric. We should be able to go to any Autogas pump and fill up at about 57p a litre (current UK prices). A normal 6kg CALOR bottle should hold about 11.5 litres of gas which would cost  £6.56 at the pump, yet 6kg CALOR bottles are about £23 to exchange. With our initial outlay of £320, we should see payback after about 200 litres of gas, or 300 litres assuming we switched to the more economic 13kg CALOR bottles. If we carry on using gas the rate we have been then we’ll be breaking even before a year is up – we’re keeping track and will let you know.

So off we went to find a filling station with LPG, but of course it’s not found everywhere. After a failed attempt at a Texaco garage we were directed to the town of Llandysul where we found a gas supplier hidden behind a fruit and veg warehouse. The myLPG.eu app comes in useful, but seemingly isn’t always up to date.  

When we’d finally managed to fill up (including a lesson on resetting the pump from a very helpful chap at West Wales Gas) we returned to our parking spot. This wasn’t the best place we have stayed. There was a couple who went for a walk and then got up to something very steam inducing in their car, and a lad who obviously felt we had taken up his donut-ing arena and was reduced to a few handbrake turns and some very loud revving before he got bored and left us to a bit of peace and quiet for the rest of the evening. 

Enjoying some peace and quiet?

We made our way down from the Brecons to spend a couple of nights in a campsite, we had a few sweaty garments to wash and a few tweaks to make to Bertie so access to a washing machine and mains electricity were going to be useful.

The north side of the Beacons is definitely more bucolic than the south, with whitewashed houses, farms and winding lanes – amazing how the landscape can change.

We stayed in a camping and caravanning club site – expensive and I’m not convinced that membership has been worth it. But hey ho, we’ve been members since summer last year and every now and again we get a discount on something.

Paul fitted some additional 12volt sockets in Bertie. We have a few 12v sockets already, but they are European style sockets and we only have USB adaptors for them. Some of the appliances we’re running on 12volts (ie the laptop) have chargers that need a British (cigarette lighter) style socket. So Paul picked up a couple from Halfords, cut a few holes in Bertie and set it all up. I’m glad he feels confident doing this type of thing as the thought of operating on Bertie makes me quite nervous. The addition of these sockets will allow us to be more independent and require a hook up less often, which will be good for the budget.

Paul fitting an extra 12volt socket

We had been warned that the campsite was very ‘away from it all’ so we knew there wasn’t going to be any phone reception or 3G/4G signal. We didn’t think it would be a big deal. However we realised that we do like a bit of background music, and there was no radio reception. Never mind, we thought we had some tunes on our phones – but actually we didn’t. Owing to previously having a phone with very little memory I’d tidied up my music, this meant I had a very small and odd selection of music available to me – none of which were appealing to Paul apart from David Bowie’s greatest hits, which we became very well acquainted with. We’ll be better prepared next time!.

We did manage one good long bike ride from the campsite up (and up, and up, and down a bit, and then up again…you get the picture) to Llyn Brianne, a large reservoir spreading across a number of flooded valleys. The long slog was worth it though when we spotted Red Kites flying over the lake and forest. We also found one spot where we could get some signal and stood by the side of the road doing a spot of admin – may have looked a bit odd to passing traffic, if there was any.

View over Llyn Brianne

Home Turf

Our first week of being on the road was, well… not really on the road. We travelled all of two miles to find ourselves on Prattshayes campsite in Exmouth. The campsite was very quite so they let us park two vehicles as well as the Motorhome and didn’t object to a lot of DIY-ing while we were on site.

Bertie in splendid isolation at Prattshayes.

We had a few things we needed to achieve in the first week:

  • Bertie got a thorough wash, we borrowed a friend’s drive (thanks Tam) so that we had access to warm water. Bertie is now looking a lot brighter.
  • We wanted to install the Solar Panels and Refillable Gas cylinders. Solar Panels were done (we’ll do a separate post about that) but we didn’t have all the parts for the gas, so that was left to a later date.
  • We had a new Fiamma awning to replace the one that had decided to get stuck half extended when we were in France last year.
Installing the new Fiamma awning.

We also spent a considerable amount of time moving stuff around inside Bertie trying to set up the optimum configuration for us and slim down our contents. This included Paul having to choose the tools he wanted to bring along, I hope he chose wisely!

Although it was quite a busy week for us, we both felt much more relaxed as we were focussing on activities that were useful for our adventures.