Date Archives July 2018

Coming Full Circle in Alberta

Returning to where we started our van journey in and around Calgary, Alberta.

Alberta is where the van magic started; our van is from here, we renovated it here (in the dead of winter I might add) and we started our 6-month long drive (and counting) from here. As cool as it was coming back into Canada through BC, entering Alberta was a pretty big milestone for us. We’ve done and seen A LOT of stuff since we’ve been away and it’s pretty great to know that we, and Clementine, have made it successfully without being dead broke or, just dead.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Crowsnest Pass
The Rockies never seem to get old. Even though they’re like really, really old.

You’d be hard pressed to find a boring or dull route into Alberta from BC since you’ve got some pretty special mountains to pass through. As mentioned in our last post, we took the Crowsnest Highway the whole way through BC until we reached the crazy gorgeous Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. Crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains surround you as you drive and try to feverishly take it all in since in a matter of minutes, the landscape changes to the good ol’ prairies – yawn. Anyway, not far from the border is the town of Frank, which is a pretty interesting place to stop. Basically, hundreds of years ago, a crazy rockslide completely buried this little town and it was left as a field of rubble. They say there’s gold and all kinds of things under those rocks since the slide destroyed banks and other important buildings but I think the no-digging policy is pretty firm. Bummer.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Frank's Slide
Turtle Mountain: the culprit of the rockslide that buried a town in 1903

After catching up with some friends and family, we made the voyage to middle-of-nowhere-ville, Alberta for a music and van festival. Yes, I said van festival. It’s called Vantopia and is where people from Western Canada and elsewhere bring their crazy souped up vintage vans to hangout and party. I think we could easily say we were some of the only ones that actually live in our van because most of these other ones definitely stay in the garage for most of the year and only come out to be shown off. We’re talking full white polar bear interiors, custom wooden rims and even fully operational bars, all in 70s and 80s vans in the most pristine condition. It was a farmer’s field full of vanners and it was wicked. We set up our matching awnings with our friends’ van and made a giant van complex but were too busy getting wasted to take a photo of it – oops!

Generic Van Life - Alberta Vantopia
One of the only surviving photos (…and it sucks. Sorry.) of when we just arrived and barely anyone was there

We spent the next couple weeks hanging out with family, eating good food and catching up on some repairs and maintenance. We were so stoked to borrow a timing gun from a friend and fix our ongoing engine issue in minutes. We can now go up hills without having to go logging truck pace and all just in time for us to embark on the flattest part of our journey through the prairies– perfect timing! Ha. As great of a time as we had with the humans we hadn’t seen in months, the highlight of our time in Calgary was definitely meeting Justin’s brother’s new puppy, Banjo. This is totally unrelated to anything travel or van related but he’s just too damn cute not to acknowledge. He’s a little border collie and is an absolute wildman. But you can’t stay mad at him because he’s just SO CUTE!! (Photo evidence below)

Generic Van Life - Alberta Banjo
GAHH!!! Don’t you just want to squeeze him?!

Just as we were getting ready to leave Calgary, we noticed that our fridge had decided to stop cooling. We had propane, it was getting a steady flow of power and we always make sure to keep it level so this became a real headache. Long story short, we ended up being able to replace what was causing the problem with a $7 part from an electronics store and were back in business. This was really frustrating and stressful and delayed our departure by a few aggravating days but all in all, we got it sorted and were finally able to buy groceries again, yay! RV fridges are really expensive and finicky so I wrote a very detailed post about what happened to our fridge and how to troubleshoot if you’re experiencing issues with yours. All that and more here.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Upside Down Fridge
Repeatedly turning the fridge upside down was one of the many methods we messed with

With a cold fridge full of overpriced Canadian beer, we were ready to hit the road again and keep truckin’ east. We made a stop not far from the Saskatchewan border in Sunnynook, Alberta at a lovely free campground on a dam reservoir. It was all fine and dandy with the exception of the playground that’s so rusty that it makes horror movie-level sounds as children play on it. Swings that sound like creaky shrieks and children’s laughter just don’t go all that well together when you don’t want to have nightmares. Aside from that, we enjoyed our last peaceful night in Alberta before exploring some new ground (for me) in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Our next commitment is to be in Northern Ontario for the beginning of July so we have about two weeks to drive 19 hours, which is more than manageable and will give us plenty of time to get lost in all those canola fields. Oh yeah, we borrowed a camera from Justin’s mom so we’ll be stepping up our photo game on our blogs and camping directory. Be sure to follow along as we uncover new spots all the time!

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Peaceful prairie camping in Sunnynook, Alberta

Following the Crowsnest through Interior BC

Snaking around hairpin turns in Osoyoos before venturing into the mountains on the Crowsnest Highway through Castlegar, Creston and Fernie, British Columbia. 

The time had come for us to veer away from the gorgeous Pacific coast that we had spent the last two months conquering and head into the interior, bidding farewell to the ocean for a while until we reach the Atlantic. From Princeton, we started on the Crowsnest Highway, which we’d be taking the whole way through to Alberta. Most people opt for the other route through Golden, BC to Banff, AB but that’s precisely why we didn’t – it gets crazy packed with tourists all summer and luckily, we’ve both done it before. The Crowsnest Highway is also incredibly beautiful and far less busy, which is great for us since Clemmie doesn’t exactly love going up hills. Anyway, we settled into another camping spot along the Similkameen River not far from Hedley and took cover as massive swarms of baby mosquitoes tried to gobble us up. I didn’t mind having to stay inside because after spending a week in the city, I got sick. Interestingly enough, neither of us have been sick at all since we’ve hit the road (even in the winter) and have been spending so much time outside but after a week of close quarters with lots of humans, it got me good.     

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Similkameen River
It’s hard to find bad views in the mountains. This was our spot on the Similkameen River, between Hedley and Keremeos.

We carried on into picturesque wine country where it was 30°C/86°F and everything was in full bloom. If you’ve never been to Osoyoos before, do yourself a favour and go. It’s a magical valley within the Okanagan area that seems like it could be the setting of a Disney movie with lush greenery amongst a background of snow-capped mountains. There’s a killer lookout point as you leave town that gives a view of the whole valley and the switchbacks you just drove up to get there. This led us toward Anarchist Mountain (great name), where we camped a night at yet another one of BC’s awesome recreation areas called Jolly Creek. We had our share of struggles in the winter when it was so cold that we’d wake up with frost on our phone screens and our dish soap would be frozen but now that summer was coming into full swing, a whole new set of challenges were arising. We’ve got a small fan but with no airflow, it kinda just pushes the warm air around. The only cure for that is to sit outside in the heat and remember the times we nearly froze when running out of propane in the middle of the night in -30° and stop complaining.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Osoyoos
Could Osoyoos get any prettier?

The van didn’t want to start up the next morning which further solidified our inkling that the ignition timing was out of sync and the drive through the mountains would be a slow crawl until we could fix it in Calgary. With most of our day spent fiddling with spark plugs, we made a brief stop in Grand Forks before hunkering down for the night at a spot called Mud Lake. Because of the elevation, there was still snow on the ground even though it was over 30°C/86°F and sunny; for the first time ever, we had a snowball fight in shorts and sandals and it was something out of every Canadian child’s dreams.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Mud Lake
Sunshine and snow at Mud Lake

The next morning had me waking up dead sick but luckily we were on our way to Creston where we’d be visiting some family for some much-needed TLC and home cookin’. We stopped in Castlegar to trade in my oregano oil for extra strength Buckley’s before making the trek through the Kootenays via Salmo Pass. This was really hard on Clementine because it was the longest and probably the tallest mountain we’d climbed so far. Alongside the logging trucks, we slowly creeped up to the snowy summit where we had to stop for roadwork. Turns out there was a massive mud slide just a week prior where a couple from Saskatchewan got pushed off the cliff and had to find their way out of the mud and get airlifted out…YIKES. Anyway, we eventually made it to Creston (mud-free) where we spent a few days relaxing and chowing down on lots of fresh, local asparagus (asparagus tourism, anyone?).

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Salmo Pass
No shortage of bad views on the Kootenay Pass from Salmo to Creston

With some rest and lots of cold medicine, I was feeling alive again and ready to keep truckin’. We made a stop in Cranbrook to get some groceries and got caught in a vicious mountain thunderstorm that actually made the power go out at Walmart. You know it’s intense when even Walmart is down. Once it passed and order was restored in the universe, we made our way toward Fernie for our last couple nights in British Columbia. By this time, we’d been on the road for six months and had barely seen any wildlife aside from the usual suspects of deer and possums. Not far out of Cranbrook near Joffre, we had our first bear sighting. Unfortunately, it was dead on the side of the road with its tongue hanging out and was not at all pleasant to look at…neither was the smashed up car that hit it. We passed the scene of the crime and spent the night at Wapiti Lake where we camped lakeside to the soundtrack of elk mating calls. When we were exploring the forest a bit, we found a bag of deer legs dumped on the ground. This was pretty weird and creepy so we retreated back to the van and tried not to let our minds wander.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Wapiti Lake
When a lovely lakeside camping spot turns into…
Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Wapiti Lake Deer Legs
A creepy deer massacre!!

Fernie is a wicked little mountain town not far from the Alberta border. It’s a hotspot in the winter for skiing and snowboarding but is equally beautiful in the summer where sidewalk patios give way to a view of the snowy Lizard Range Mountains. The Three Sisters are a heavily photographed mountain chain that you can see clearly, right from downtown. After putting in some work hours at a café, we grabbed some Fernie brews and headed up Mount Hosmer where we’d spend our last night in BC. Hartley Lake is a small emerald green lake nestled among the mountain tops that made for an awesome camping spot. You really can’t beat mountain-fed lakes and the peacefulness that surrounds them. We spotted two beavers swimming around but when we walked around to get a closer look, the one we gathered was the male protecting the pregnant female started jumping out of the water to make some major splashes to scare us off. Ok beaver, it worked. We’ll keep to our side and you can keep to yours.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Hartley Lake
Beautiful Hartley Lake on Mt. Hosmer, about 20 minutes away from Fernie

After a quiet night’s rest, we gathered our things to make our way toward Calgary, where we started our journey six months ago. Of course, Clementine didn’t want to go home and decided yet again, she didn’t want to start. She eventually got going after the usual fiddling so we were anxious to get to Calgary to catch up on the overdue repairs and tuning. Returning to Alberta was coming full circle from where we bought and renovated the van and it felt great to know we’ve made it such a long way. We’re stoked to keep heading east through Canada and check out tons of cool spots along the way. Keep checking our camping directory as we add new spots all the time!

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Sparwood Truck
Bonus! Check out “The World’s Largest Truck” in Sparwood on your way out of BC. It’s definitely not small…

RV Fridge Troubleshooting

Bottom line: life sucks when you don’t have a fridge. They’re far from a status symbol but are incredibly valuable and we all know that RV fridges are painfully expensive to replace. Here are some tips and tests to go through before hitting the service centre if your fridge is on the fritz.

Don’t you just love when you buy groceries and then they all spoil because your fridge decided to stop working? It’s my favourite. Not. We recently experienced a long drawn-out fridge repair that was super stressful and held us back from travelling until we got it sorted. After tons of manual-reading and YouTube-watching, we tried about every different test we could find to try and isolate our issue. We have a Dometic fridge (RM 2351) and the manual makes troubleshooting quite simple: if your fridge stops cooling, take it to a service centre immediately. How helpful… With the wealth of information available on the internet these days, it’s worth at least giving it a shot before taking it to a professional. Save yourself some cash and maybe even learn something new.

Full disclosure, we are by no means technicians; we’re just a couple of folks that did a ton of research, spoke to experienced professionals and fixed our $1200 fridge for $7. Also note that this list only applies to absorption fridges. Do yourself a favour and watch a short video to understand how these things work so you can better understand where your issue might lie.   

THE BASICS

Before getting into the more technical stuff, check the basics. Absorption fridges rely on gravity to function properly so make sure your fridge is always level. Unscrew the back panel on your fridge’s vent outside of your van/RV, remove the control board cover and check your fuses (side note: apparently it’s quite common for wasps and other insects to build nests in these vents, especially if you’re stationary, so be careful when removing the vent). Ours has two glass fuses, a 3A and a 5A, so be sure to inspect both. Next, check to make sure that your 120v outlet works: when plugged into shore power, plug something else into it (i.e. a string of lights, a cell phone charger, etc.) or get your multimeter and check for a current. Lastly, make sure you have propane and that it is in fact, on. If you’ve solved your problem by this point then rejoice, because your RV fridge troubleshooting days are behind you and you can move on to cool, refrigerated happiness. Also, remember that these things take a while to cool – 6 hours is the recommended time by Dometic to test the temperature. As the technician told us, every time you open the door to the fridge, you lose 1-2 hours of cooling.

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Here’s the back view of our fridge so you can familiarize yourself with where the main elements you’ll be testing are

CULPRIT: LP GAS

First, bypass the LP system by putting your fridge on auto while hooked up to shore/AC power and see if it works.

Test the propane by removing the fridge’s vent cover while the fridge is off. Remove the metal cover under the flue tube. Make sure that your fridge is on gas mode, not auto, and have someone turn it on while you listen for the sound of the propane igniting. Once it lights, observe the flame – it should be a nice clean blue flame. If it’s not, there could be an air bubble in your line so bleed the line (turn propane off and light stove until the flame goes out and there’s no more propane in the line before turning the propane back on) and try it again. Next, clean your flue and flue baffle. These are very funny names for very important elements. The flue is essentially the chimney of your fridge and the flue baffle is a twisted metal piece that sits inside the flue tube. These should be cleaned periodically; buildup and dust can affect the performance of your fridge. Also, please don’t be daft and test for propane with an open flame – you’re just asking for it.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Flame Cover
This metal box on the right covers the burner jet. Remove the screw and take off the cover to observe the flame.
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Flue Cover Close
Remove the flue’s cap and pull out the flue baffle. Clean both the baffle and the flue tube with a wire brush and/or compressed air.
Here’s a crappy picture of a flue baffle because we didn’t take a picture of ours…oops!

CULPRIT: ELECTRIC ELEMENT

First, bypass the 120v system by putting your fridge on gas while disconnected from shore power so it will only use propane and 12v DC power and see if it works.

With the fridge off, switch back to auto and make sure that you’re connected to shore/AC power. Turn it back on and check if the boiler gets warm. If it doesn’t, you may need to replace your electric element or always run on gas mode.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Boiler
Carefully check that the boiler is warm/hot to the touch

CULPRIT: CONTROL BOARD

Turn your fridge and propane off and disconnect from 12v and 120v power. To test if your control board is shot, which is very common and super easy to replace, you’re going to need to bypass it. Find an appliance you have lying around that no longer works (or get something from the dollar store) because you’re going to need to steal the plug from it. Cut the wire on your dud appliance (leave a foot or two in length) and locate the wires that power the electric heating element, which run from the boiler into the control board. Unplug them from the control board and you’re going to need to hardwire them to the loaner plug that you cut off from your spare appliance. Polarity does not matter so you don’t need to worry about which wires are positive or negative. With your fridge now having a direct plug that doesn’t require the control board or fuses, plug it into your 120v outlet while connected to shore power. Alternatively, you can plug it directly into the shore power source. If it gets cold after a few hours then you’ll need to replace your control board. In theory, if your control board is broken then your fridge should be frozen if you leave it overnight. These run about $100 but are as simple to replace as unplugging your current wires and reconnecting them to the new board. Here’s a link to a video to watch it being done.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Control Board
Our control board
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Electric Element Wires
Trace your wires from the electric element to the control board, unplug them and hardwire them to your spare plug.

CULPRIT: COOLING UNIT

First, check to see if there’s any crusty yellow liquid inside or anywhere on the back of your fridge. It’s possible that ammonia is leaking and therefore, the cooling unit can’t operate properly and needs to be replaced.

Here’s an example of what ammonia leakage looks like (not our fridge)

Next, since you’ve been such a good reader and attentively watched the video on how absorption fridges work, you know that the cooling unit is powered by a series of chemical state changes and the only way these state changes can occur is if the tubes are clear for the ammonia to flow through. It’s possible that there is a blockage, which is either past the point of no return or can be “burped” by turning the fridge upside down. Sounds odd but this is an old school trick that can work shockingly well and costs no money – AKA the perfect solution. You’ll need to make sure your propane and AC/DC power is off and then disconnect your fridge completely. Take a photo of the back of the fridge first so you can see where all your connections go and then label and take photos of each piece as you unhook them so you can easily hook them back up in reverse order. Remove the fridge from its housing inside of your RV and carefully turn it on its side and then on its head and listen for the sounds of liquids flowing. I’ve read a lot of mixed information about how long you should leave it upside down and there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer so we rotated it 2-3 times consecutively and then left it upside down (and level) for about 3 hours. We could hear the liquids moving through the tubes as we turned it so we knew that was a good sign. After 3 hours, turn it right side up and leave it to sit overnight before turning it on. It’s important to leave it turned off and sitting upright for longer than 3 hours to let everything settle again. Carefully hook everything back up, turn on your power and propane and turn the fridge on. Test the temperature in 6 hours. Cooling units can be replaced at home but are a little messier than upgrading other elements. If you can find a replacement at a decent price then go for it but be aware that these are usually $500+.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Propane Gauge
Turn off your propane
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Bleed Propane Lines
Bleed your propane line with your stove
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Disconnect your control board
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Disconnect your gas line and cap it (electrical tape is fine)
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Snip any zip ties that may be holding things in place
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Unscrew the frame of the fridge (ours has 4 screws)
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Unscrew and disconnect eyebrow control board
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Remove door
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Carefully slide ‘er out
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After placing it on the floor, turn it on its side…
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And flip it while listening for the sounds of liquid trickling. Repeat this multiple times and leave it upside down on a level surface. After a few hours, turn it right side up and leave it overnight before attempting to turn it back on again.

CULPRIT: THERMISTOR

Most RV fridges are equipped with a clip on the back fins that allows you to control the temperature slightly. The sensor inside that thermostat is called a thermistor. In a nutshell, as the temperature drops, the thermistor increases resistance and sends more ohms through to the control board. Once it reaches a certain temperature (usually about 1°C/34°F), it’ll reach an ohm rating (usually between 7-10k Ω for Dometic fridges) that sends a signal for the fridge to turn off. It won’t come back on until the temperature rises to a point where the ohm rating is below the shut-off level and requires cooling again. Anyway, if the thermistor is broken then either A) your fridge will cool slightly then stop because it thinks it’s cold, or B) your fridge will always be frozen because it thinks it’s warm. To test your thermistor, unhook it from the control board (follow the wire coming out of the back of your fridge beside the drainage tube) and turn your fridge on. Within 6 hours, it should be cold and if left overnight, it should technically be frozen, depending on what your ambient temperature is. You can replace the thermistor by buying the kit from Dometic, buying a temperature control dial with a built-in thermistor or buying a generic thermistor from an electronics store and connecting the wires to those of your broken thermistor in order to reuse the plug specific to your control board. This ended up being our culprit, so we bought an epoxy coated thermistor that came with a tiny resistor and wired that into our existing plug. You must make sure that it is an NTC thermistor (negative temperature coefficient) so that the resistance increases as the temperature drops. The ohm rating is key here, ours is 10k Ω, which is a pretty standard one.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor Plug
The bottom clip on the left hand side with a brown and blue wire running to it is our thermistor plug
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor Back
Feed the new thermistor through the hole in the back of the fridge near the drainage tube
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-New Thermistor
Feed it through to the inside of the fridge
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Slide the new thermistor into your old clip
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor
Clip it back on to the cooling fin that it was attached to before. The higher on the fin, the colder it’ll tell your fridge to be.

All in all, RV fridges can be pretty intimidating but are really not as scary as you may think. It’s worth taking some time to troubleshoot on your own before taking it in for repair or replacing it altogether. Just make sure to be careful when dealing with all electric and gas connections and to give your fridge enough time to cool down. They are said to take 12 hours to fully reach temperature but factors like the outside temperature and humidity can slow this down and leave your fridge working overtime. The ambient temperature in an RV parked in the desert is going to have a huge effect on the performance of the fridge in comparison to a fridge sitting in a 10°C/50°F room. Be patient, be careful and keep that fridge level!

Missing something? If you have any additional tips/tricks, feel free to let us know and we’ll add them in.