Posts in Renovation

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.

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This metal box on the right covers the burner jet. Remove the screw and take off the cover to observe the flame.
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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.

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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.

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Our control board
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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+.

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Turn off your propane
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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
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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.

 

Levelling Up in Florida

While taking a mini vacation from driving in Largo, Florida, we invested in some serious upgrades for Clementine: a new starter and a full solar system. We also hit up Siesta Key and drank from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Will confirm the effectiveness in 10 years time.

Our mission now was to reach Largo, just a short drive from St. Petersburg, to recharge a bit at Justin’s parents’ snowbird condo. One thing we’ve learned along the way is that we seem to get along quite well with retired people – they’re finally doing what they want to do after years of slaving away at work and we’re also doing what we want to do, just without being retired. Now that we had reached the Gulf side of Florida, we had some time to kill one afternoon and decided to see what Siesta Key was all about. A word to the wise, don’t bother going at mid-day and expect to find a parking spot. In true Florida February fashion, the place was PACKED. I still have to keep reminding myself that this is high season here – actually, the congested roads and closed off parking lots do a pretty good job at it. We’ve got snowbirds, vacationing families and partying spring breakers all being sucked in by the Florida sunshine’s magnetism. Us included, of course.

Generic Van Life - Florida Siesta Key
I want a boat!!

Anyway, after observing “America’s #1 Beach” from the windows of the van, we stopped alongside a drawbridge to make some lunch and enjoy the seaside views. In this case, that meant big yachts and even bigger mansions. This side of town was a little calmer and was lined with happy families spending the afternoon collecting cast nets full of fish. There’s a park area on either side of the bridge and I’ve heard of people boondocking on the western side in Nora Patterson Park – a good spot to keep in mind if you’re ever in the Sarasota area. When we were ready to go, surprise surprise, the van wouldn’t start. We did our tried and true “wait it out” method and she still wasn’t turning over, even a half hour later. As always, we met lots of friendly people while waiting who helped distract us and offered tips for places to check out all over the country. There definitely is a silver lining to our constant starting struggles since whenever we’re in a parking lot with the hood up, some wonderful humans come by to try and help or just chat. We’ve been blown away by the responsiveness and hospitality of some of the folks we’ve met and for that, will be forever grateful. In this case, we were exceptionally grateful when Clementine finally fired up about an hour later.

Generic Van Life - Florida Sarasota
Here’s the little park area on Bay Island in Sarasota, minutes from Siesta Key

We spent the night at the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve and finally enjoyed some quiet, secluded “wild camping” in Florida. Similar to the DuPuis WMA we visited a couple weeks prior, you can make a free reservation on the Florida Water Management website and small campers like ours can use the equestrian designated campsites or any other non-backcountry primitive camping zones for up to 7 days. We stayed at the Ashley campground on Green Swamp’s West Tract mainly because it was one of the only ones not full or not closed for a hunt. Even though these WMAs are similar to BLMs, they require a lot more planning which makes me miss the west coast. In any case, this is a great spot with picnic tables, fire rings and even orange trees scattered around. Sadly all of the edible looking oranges were out of reach but I’m sure they’d be tasty if you had a ladder. And good enough balance that you wouldn’t fall off of it with the gazillion bugs flying around.

Generic Van Life - Florida Green Swamp WMA
Finally some wild camping in Florida! With only two other campers there, Green Swamp was quiet and secluded (and riddled with mosquitoes)

Arriving at the condo meant having air conditioning, wifi & TV and showering every day just because we could. As much as we love our little home on wheels, we can’t deny that the modern conveniences of a house are quite nice. We also realize that we’ve come to appreciate these little things a lot more – before, we thought it was just “normal” to have a flushing toilet and running water, pft what snobs! Because we’d be staying in one spot for two weeks, we were able to save on all of our expenses that weren’t food so we thought it would be a good time to take the plunge and invest in a solar system. We already had a deep cycle marine battery that our DC appliances ran off of (fridge, lights, etc.) that was just getting its charge from the alternator as we drove. The battery is old and has been drained many times (which is a no-no for AGM and other lead-acid batteries) so we really wanted to make sure it could keep a charge when we weren’t driving until we can afford to buy a new one. I’m going to make an in-depth post about our solar setup soon so stay tuned for that. We did a lot of research before committing to anything because it is a little pricey but according to our calculations, we’ll break even in 6 weeks since we won’t have to stay at RV Parks anymore for shore power while we’re working. That was our ultimate goal so we’re super pumped to start saving money and are eager to share some awesome products we found and hopefully make the solar installation a little less intimidating.

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Workin hard or hardly workin?

Our other order of business was finally getting our starting issue sorted out once and for all. We’ve had several people look at it and they all stand perplexed stating that there is nothing wrong. As we suspected, it would be a bit of (expensive) trial and error replacing things one at a time and hoping that we fixed it. We had already replaced the battery, the alternator and a few other potential culprits but it seemed to be happening more than ever. We found a great shop in Pinellas Park and decided to replace the starter. After removing the centre console covering the engine in the cab area, he also said we needed a tune-up ASAP. Turns out that our spark plugs were originals (from 1984…) and he was more shocked that we were ever able to get it started than he was by our original issue. It’s possible that the new spark plugs might have done the trick but we figured we might as well just do the starter too to hopefully prevent it from happening again. Little by little, Clemmie’s getting a lot of shiny new parts under her hood! We are so pleased with how quickly she fires up now and feel pretty confident that we can start to be normal people who can turn their car off multiple times a day. Before, we would strategically plan errands to avoid turning the van off in fear that it wouldn’t start – this upgrade should definitely help with our fuel costs.

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If it wasn’t so loud and unsafe, I think it would be pretty badass to leave the cover off

Relaxing and getting a chance to spend time with family was great BUT we were anxious to hit the road again. As lovely of a view as we had, having a cool new one every morning is unquestionably better. We boogied back northeast, boondocked a night in Orlando and decided to visit America’s oldest city, St. Augustine. Following Ponce de Léon’s quest, we were in search of the mythical – or not so mythical – Fountain of Youth. I think our journey was a little easier with all the road signs and all, but that’s neither here nor there. They’ve basically turned this zone where the longest continuously inhabited settlement is into an archaeological park centred around a stream of magnesium-heavy water that claims some Tuck Everlasting-like effects. Truthfully, it tasted the way my water bottle does when it’s been sitting too long but who am I to judge. Around the rest of the park, there are blacksmiths clankin’ away, presentations on weaponry & canons and peacocks showing off how beautiful they are. Not sure if it was period consistent but we also had a bite at the BBQ joint at the end of the park and it was way tastier than we would have expected.

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Cheers to probably aging normally!

From there we cruised through Jacksonville Beach and are finally back to crossing state lines and checking out some new scenery. Next stop, Georgia!

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On the rooooad again 🎶

Getting Ready for Van Life – The Renovation

Van Life Chronicles: An in-depth recount of painting, flooring and all the fixin’s

As with any renovation – be it on wheels or fixed into the ground – good bones are crucial. We already loved the layout and how much storage we had, we just didn’t love the dark wood…and the brown and orange striped cushions…and the floral linoleum floor…and the 30 year old green carpet trim…and the fact that we discovered that it used to be brown. Luckily these were all aesthetic things that we were excited to clean up and modernize to prep for van life.

Generic Van Life - Before
At one point this was the height of style.

We started off by staring the green carpet right in the eye. This unfortunate design choice made by the conversion company in the early 80s went almost entirely around the perimeter of the inside of the van to conceal where the high top meets the original van roof. Thankfully, the carpet was attached to pieces of wood that we were able to paint and use a base for our narrow shelf that now wraps the whole living space. We picked up some MDF baseboards at Home Depot and attached them to the outside of the wood, creating a 2” gap from the wall and enough of a lip that things don’t go flying off of it while driving. It’s just the right amount of space to keep our Bluetooth speaker, some extra notebooks and a deck of cards close by. Originally, we had a bunk above the table/bed area but it was missing a piece so it’d only be useful for a small child with a death wish. Removing the front piece that slid out freed up the back ledge for becoming a great extra storage space for our bedding and linens. Finding a place to stow away a duvet when you want to sit at the table can be a pain (oh, van life!), so this worked out really well. We also doubled up on the wood base above the cooking area and used a wooden dowel and some plumbing fixtures to create our spice rack. It’s super handy for storing dishwashing supplies, spices (shocking!) and whatever else will hang on an s-hook.

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Always a pleasant surprise when you take a look at the carpet behind the wood and it’s a different colour. Then it disintegrates in your hand.
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Hey, that’s not a spice jar. It fits water bottles too?! How versatile!

Carpet surprise #2 arose when we removed the Berber carpet to reveal mint-condition but not quite our style, brown floral linoleum flooring. We had already planned to put down laminate but this discovery really solidified our decision. We opted for a self-adhesive vinyl flooring that was stylish and stupid easy to install. It’s nice and light, easy to cut and cheap (with less than 100 sq. ft. of walking space, we only needed to buy two boxes). We added some additional adhesive in high-traffic areas for extra security and considering our entire renovation was done below 0°C, it’s stuck on there very well. 10/10 would recommend this type of flooring.

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Lookin’ like a luxurious overpriced condo already.

And that brings us to paint. Although it was probably the biggest transformation, it was also the biggest headache. Actually, it’s still an ongoing headache.

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Dat paint is FROZE!

We used latex paint because there’d be no chance of oil paint drying in our not-so-warm (bitter cold) temperatures. Small anecdote to illustrate the coldness: our paint FROZE in its bucket, rendering it unusable. It also became normal to have to thaw our paintbrushes out before getting started – something all painters face, right?

Anyway, the coverage seemed fine until it started chipping like a mother***** with minimal contact from shoes, tools and even fingernails. The fresh white paint also began to reveal oily stains on the fridge and doors. Even with multiple thick coats, there was no hiding them. We’ve decided that we will re-paint the cupboards and doors with oil when we get somewhere warmer. We are greatly looking forward to repainting pretty much everything (sense my sarcasm). Alas, the biggest pitfall of the latex paint was its complete surrender to water. It would be a lie to say we were ignorant to the nature of their relationship, but we thought it would be ok anyway. Long story short, we bought a spray topcoat to create a more durable surface for the two countertops to spare us from the tears that ensue when you do the dishes and your countertop peels off – and then more of it peels off from the tear residue. We originally thought we were cool and were gonna do a faux-stone (read: fancy!) effect on the countertops and table but that didn’t pan out so well. It’s hard to find the words to describe how garbage it looked but let’s just say that that spray can should have just stayed at the store.

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Quilted vinyl ceilings are so hot right now.

Our final painting adventure was the most beautiful transformation of all. We always knew that the quilted vinyl ceiling was a tad dingy, but as we began whitening the cupboards and doors, the ceiling and walls became increasingly…yellow. Spray painting was our ticket. With a couple coats on the ceiling and fiberglass walls, it looked so much brighter and cleaner. The fumes were pretty intense but they say the spiritual discovery is worth it. Wait what?

With all the major stuff out of the way, it was looking like a new van! We put up an adhesive subway tile backsplash, added some new shelves into the cupboards and put down new rubber mat flooring in the cab area. The rubber was sold by the foot and cost us 15 bucks so that was the clear choice over custom mats that go for $100+. We are cheap bastards after all. Speaking of being economical, we gave our fridge a quick facelift by removing the wooden face panel and replacing it with some shiny silver gift-wrap from the dollar store behind a frosted plastic sheet. It’s no stainless steel but it’s clean and adds a little twinkle to our otherwise white kitchen.

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It was a tough decision if we should just leave the fridge with its natural tin foil face…not. Not quite the stainless steel-look we were going for.

We decided to preserve the upholstery on the driver and passenger seat because the cushions are comfy and it reminds us of the previous colour scheme of our beautiful 80s rig. This upholstery didn’t stand the test of time on our bed cushions, however. Not to say that they were in bad shape, they just weren’t ideal for Clementine’s new getup.

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Let’s see a 6″4′ human lay comfortably across a Sprinter! Ha!

I sewed up some new cushion covers from different types of denim and a denim-esque duvet cover I found at a thrift store. It just wouldn’t be possible to get that amount of fabric for that price had I bought it by the metre. We ordered a gel memory foam mattress topper on Amazon and put it on top of the existing cushions for a thicker and more comfortable booty-support system and snooze station. Can confirm that memory foam produces an A+ sleep. I also sewed up all of our curtains from different types of heavy denim to help keep in heat and block out as much light as possible when they’re closed – magnets and Velcro help to keep them firmly in place. I cut straps from suede and used snaps to roll the curtains up when they’re in open mode. The window on the high top is the only one I opted to dress with a traditional curtain using sash wire. For this I used 12oz. Japanese selvedge denim that a friend brought back from Asia. The selvedge makes a beautiful and strong edge along the bottom. I could speak ad nauseam about these curtains and denim in general, but I’ll save it for another blog post.

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Soak in that selvedge.

All in all, we’re super stoked about how everything turned out and are excited to share it with you! Feel free to ask us any questions in the comments or shoot us an email on the Contact page. Let us know if you want to learn more about any aspect of the reno or van life and we’d be happy to do a little write-up on it.

Here’s a gallery of additional photos for your viewing pleasure: