Tag Archives: Norcold 876EG2

Our Eclipse Trip (Part 2)

(continued from Part 1)

We planned out our meals, assuming that there would be days when it would be too hot to want to cook over the fire, but leaving room for a hot meal too.  My wife had shopped just before we left, and had looked for some steaks to take with us.  The store, however, had some ribs that were on sale (50% off!) so those were what came, along with some hamburgers, luncheon meats, hummus, snacking vegetables, cheeses, frozen pizzas, bagels …  The list went on.

The regular canned & dry goods pantry.

Luckily, our fridge is pretty big, and everything we wanted to take that needed to be kept cold fit.  We also had a bunch of canned goods, soups, beans, tomatoes, spam (of course), herring, you name it.  I usually keep a stock of those on the bus, but we added in some more soups and things.

By 11:00 am, we were all packed up, the house was secure (after being locked and alarmed and then me realizing that ALL my directions were sitting on the kitchen table!) and we started off. It was a pretty nice day, and after a quick weekend trip to Sprague Brook Park the weekend before (as a sort of shakedown trip) I’d filled the tank, so we were all set.

Except that the inverter wasn’t working.

Rolling farmland and countryside as seen from a moving bus …

I didn’t think it was a big deal, and we just kept going.  Along through New York on I-90, the speed limit was 65 mph, which is the top end for the bus, so that was fine.  It was a hot day though, and the temperatures kept creeping up over 200, so I feathered things a little to watch that.

I was also watching the output from the backup camera that I had finally installed.  It does a nice job, the static lines on the screen indicating about 1′, 3′, 5′, and 12′ from the rear bumper.  It also has a large field of view as I mounted it just up above and to the side of the rear door. (It was a little odd at first though, as the 140 degree fish-eye picks up the break and signal lights!)  The screen is nice, because if I turn the power to the camera off with a handy dash switch, it goes to sleep until it gets a signal form the camera.

But I had plenty of time to get used to the camera and watching temperature gauge along in New York. The I-90 through Pennsylvania, though, had sections of the 90 that had a 70 mph limit, which meant that I was holding some of the trucks back (especially on some of the steeper hills where we lost speed).  I really felt badly about that, but we continued on into Ohio.

Which also had 70 mph speed limits.

And the hills got steeper, so our average speed dropped some more.

Many people don’t realize that there’s a major watershed divide in Ohio, and as we headed south from Cleveland, we were heading uphill toward that.  Using a really cool website called www.flattestroute.com, I’ve been to find out the grades of the possible routes that we’ve looked at to travel on.  The route from Buffalo to Cincinnati is interesting as we start out in Buffalo at about 600 feet above sea level, and end up at about 485 feet above sea level at Cincinnati, but hit altitudes of almost 1400 feet along the way.

North of the red line goes to the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River, and south of it ends up in the Mississippi.
Altitude and slope of the route between Buffalo on left) and Cincinnati on right).

Just for interest, the first peak on that altitude graph is just east of Erie, PA (1259′), with the next lowest point being just east of the Pennsylvania/Ohio state line (677′), followed by the low point at the I-90 and I-271 interchange (648′).  The next high point was near Woodmere (1193′), but when we got to where 271 crosses the Cuyahoga Valley National Park it was lower (968′), only to rise again when we got to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River/Mississippi River Watershed boundary, just south of Medina, OH at about 1216 feet.  Then it was down again near Burbank (920′), and finally up to the highest point of our trip near Lexington, at 1391 feet, before our next low point just south of Lou Berlinner Park in Columbus (707′).  Another climb after we were out of the city brought us to the next high point at Exit 58 for Bowersville (1078′), then the next low near Mason, OH (762′), the next high point near Landon (871′), then finally the low of the Ridge Road Exit where we got off for the night (588′).

So, just looking at our starting and finishing altitude for our first day, we went down 12 feet, but if you look at even just the major high and low points along that day’s route, our ups and downs total some 5210 feet of altitude change!

And by the time we hit Jeffersonville, we were near a quarter tank of fuel, and decided to stop at a Love’s for fuel.  As per all of the travel stops that I’ve been to, I expected that the diesel pumps to be set for easier access for large vehicles, and away from the gas pumps.  Accordingly, Love’s has a banks of diesel pumps, and all the trucks are lined up right there, so I pull the bus in.  We wait for 10-15 minutes for the trucks ahead to fill, clean their windshields, and finally move ahead, and try to run our cards in the automated pumps.  Not a single one of them is accepted, they’re all declined.

I go through a minor panic, and my wife runs in to find out if there’s something wrong with the card reader.  And she has to wait on line for several minutes to find out that ALL of the pumps in those banks only take corporate cards, not regular credit cards.  If we want to use a regular card, we have to go to the one pump mixed in with the gas pumps that dispenses diesel. Which I was able to do.  And finally we got filled up and were back on the road.

Anyhow, we have friends who live not far from the Ridge Road exit in Cincinnati, so we got to drive down some lovely quiet little streets to get to theirs. We had talked about parking in front of their house on their dead-end street, but there were too many cars, and the exhaust pipe of the bus scraped about half-way up the slope of the entrance to their driveway, so backing in there didn’t work either.  So it was a multi-point turn (made much easier by the back-up camera) to turn around head the bus back out on their small street where we parked in the lot of a small apartment building at the end of the street that was in renovations (and our friends knew the manager who said it was okay).

We were treated to a great meal and a tour of their house (all the cabinets were hand-made by our friend Jeff, and they’ve stripped and refinished all the original woodwork, so it was great).  The rain which had been forecast for our trip had been spotty as we got close to Cincinnati, but really let loose once we stopped.  But at that point, it didn’t really matter, we were tired and ready to sleep.

But …

Without the inverter running (and since I don’t have the LP plumbed for the fridge yet), our fridge was a big cooler.  We had some worries, but there wasn’t much we could do right then, so we just left the doors closed.

The first day of the trip was done, and tomorrow would be a Kentucky day …

(continued in Part 3)




The Norcold Refrigerator 876EG2 *or* Electrics (Part III)

After getting the AC breaker box and converter installed and working, I set about getting our fridge in place and powered.  The 4-4 1/2 cubic foot fridge that we salvaged from our friends’ trailer was what we wanted in terms of a small three-way unit, but unfortunately, it didn’t work.  First, the controller card wasn’t responding, and even though the ammonia system was sealed and I could force the AC heating element to fire up and run, the fridge just wouldn’t cool.

Now, if you’re only used to our modern, AC, compressor refrigeration systems, the ammonia-based systems of a heat-powered system may seem odd. But they are super-quiet (aside from the occasional gurgle) and great for boondocking.

Here’s a nice introductory video on non-mechanical refrigeration systems:

If watching the video is too long for you, essentially the three-way (two electric heating elements or the LP gas heater) system works non-mechanically (no compressor to force-chill the liquid/gas coolant) to cool the interior of the freezer and fridge through heating ammonia to a gas, then taking advantage of the fact that it will condense back to a liquid and the chilled liquid ammonia will become the cooling factor for the freezer and the fridge.   Ammonia boils (and thus condenses back to liquid) at -28°F, which is more than enough to keep things freezing in the freezer.

Think of the ice machine in The Mosquito Coast

Now, in getting a second-hand non-mechanical fridge system, there are some trouble-shooting things you need to do, unless the owner you’re getting it from can demonstrate that it definitively works.  One is to tip it on it’s back for several hours, then raise it up slowly.  This is done as an attempt to insure that all the liquids are back down in the reservoir so that the ammonia can be boiled off, and thus cool the interior of the fridge/freezer.  The other is to bypass the thermostat’s circuit board and put a heat source (like the electric heater that is installed on the unit or an LP source, like a low flame propane torch) to see if the ammonia will boil out and chill the system.

The most important part of the system is the cooling system, and many old fridges can be rehabbed by purchasing a new cooling system (most for around couple hundred dollars).  After I tested the salvaged unit for a couple of days and found no temperature change in the interior at all, I considered this, and started in to do my research, finding out that the shipping charges for these rebuilt/recharged systems can be costly.

It turned out that for us that a (relatively) local seller on Craigslist was selling a 6 cu ft Norcold Refrigerator (model 876 EG2) for about what it would cost for us to get the rehabbed cooling unit for the smaller salvaged unit.  And, the seller had it running and cooling when I came to pick it up, so I knew that it was good.  (He was also the one that threw the converter in for a song.)  This was a good deal, as a comparable new unit like one of these is much more expensive:  

Norcold Inc. Refrigerators N641.3 3 Way 2 Door Refrigerator (Automotive)

List Price: $1,230.89 USD
New From: $1,230.89 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock


Norcold NXA641.3R RV Gas Absorption Refrigerator

New From: $1,395.00 USD In Stock
Used from: $1,992.20 USD In Stock

The Freezer ...
The Freezer …

The 876 model is a two-door unit, which was a change from the salvaged one, which had a small metal enclosure for the freezer that helped to cool the rest of the fridge.

The Fridge area ...
The Fridge area …

The two door unit makes for a much more energy efficient and manageable freezer and fridge in terms of temperature.  You don’t get ice in the fridge area and the freezer stays really cold.

However, the 876 is taller and slightly deeper than the salvaged unit, which threw a bit of a wrench into my plans.  As you might remember from my floorplan, FloorPlans2 there was a covered window behind the fridge, as the fridge needed air space for the cooling vents, and for the heat and exhaust to be vented  outside in order to function.  One of the major reasons why absorption refrigerators don’t work has to do with insufficient ventilation and blockages in the heating system.

With the smaller, salvaged fridge, I had expected to cut vents into the skinned window and not have to cut the roof, even with the fridge sitting up over the wheelwell (I had expected to use the seat-rail as a support).  However, with the much larger 876, I would have to cut off the seat-rail, and rebuild the wheelwell cover in order to lower the fridge as much as possible, and then cut a vent hole in the roof.  I had also planned to cut vent holes in the floor to gain air flow and O2 for the LP burner, but with the depth and base construction of the 876, I wasn’t able to do that, so I would have to also cut into more of the skin of the bus in order to get good air flow (and I was nervous about both of these cuts, since I hadn’t done anything to the exterior up to this point!).

Now, I knew that the fridge cooled nicely on 12 VDC, and wanted to verify that it would run well on AC, and was upset when I plugged it in and got no response! But that was because the thermostat circuitry is all 12 VDC, and must have power to run so the AC can kick on the heating element.  Once that was rectified, I confirmed that the fridge would automatically switch from a DC source to an AC source (and back) when the AC was available for the heating element.  This is kind of a big deal as the electric heating elements are not as efficient as the LP burner, and when available, shore power is your friend for cooling.  The DC power is important for while you’re driving (and perhaps for regular running when all the solar panels get installed), and the LP is good for extended boondocking.

The gas line to the burner had corroded/worn to the point that it had holes and broke upon finger pressure.
The gas line to the burner had corroded/worn to the point that it had holes and broke upon finger pressure.

But before I could check and see if the LP worked, I had to replace the gas line from the solenoid and, as it turned out in dis-assembly and cleaning, a new burner.  The new burner was easily available 

Norcold 621957 Burner and Orifice (Automotive)

List Price: $32.29 USD
New From: $30.84 USD In Stock
Used from: $49.89 USD In Stock

(though it used to cost less than it does now!) and needed a new compression fitting at the end of the tubing.

The new, steel LP line for the burner on the fridge.
The new, steel LP line for the burner on the fridge.

Luckily, I had bought a really nice set of tools for flaring compression fittings to redo the brake lines in my wife’s Daewoo, and it turned out that the gas line was a 5/16″ line that I had a bunch of, so I cut and formed up a new line that sealed up nice and tight, and all worked well.

Oak facing on the fridge (and freezer) doors.
Oak facing on the fridge (and freezer) doors.

Unfortunately, as the 876 had been pulled from an RV that had been sitting unused, it was from a unit that had been built in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and had this horrible beige padded covering that stuck out and made the fridge even that much bigger.  I had examined the doors and found that the hinges could not only be moved to the right side (from the left where they had been), but also that with the removal of one of the edges the padded facing could be easily removed and replaced with some stained oak plywood, which fit a lot better with our overall look.

I trimmed the existing wheelwell covering and removed the pieces that held it up.  Some 2×3’s built up a new floor for the fridge and then I could measure for the area that it would need for the air venting intake and then the hot air exhaust.  These presented some problem as the opening I wanted to cut would have gone right through one of the rub-rails.  I wanted to preserve these as much as possible so that the bus would keep as much of it’s structural integrity as possible.

The air intake vents cut around/between the rub rails.
The air intake vents cut around/between the rub rails.

To deal with this, I cut the skin between the rub rails to get the opening necessary for the air flow.  This was reckoned from the venting salvaged from the old trailer.  I ended up cutting down the locking casing for the smaller area so that I could get in and clean out the burner, then cut the vents so that the upper area could be screwed in place and sealed.  This makes it removable if necessary, but not with the ease of access of the lower area, yet also keeps the rub-rails intact.

The roof, cut and welded to make a vent opening that would not let in rain.
The roof, cut and welded to make a vent opening that would not let in rain.

For the top, I, with no small amount of trepidation, cut into the roof.  Three cuts allowed the roof to spring up above the reinforcing plates inside, and two triangular metal pieces for the sides created a nice opening for the heat to exit the bus and create a nice draft to pull cool air over the cooling fins of the fridge.  It has window screen over it to keep insects out, and will (eventually) get a nice sheet metal cover to keep the rain out.

The access hatch for getting to the airflow area at the back of the fridge and the roof vent.
The access hatch for getting to the airflow area at the back of the fridge and the roof vent.

Inside, the air was channeled to the outside by some wooden ducting, sealed with weatherstripping and screwed in place.  The actual flue from the LP burner would run up against the metal, keeping the burning hazard at a minimum, and allowing for plenty of air movement.

Wires were run for the DC and AC power sources and the fridge now runs like a top, even bringing some pop-ice sticks to a frozen state within a few hours.

Design time …

In order to get to doing anything with a bus that isn’t being a bus, you have to remove the seats.  And this is critical not just for floor-plan stuff, but for insurance and registration, unless you’re a commercial business and you don’t mind paying the rates for commercial insurance (Yikes!).  Now, you remember all those seats, right?

Oh, wait, that’s them …

Now, the seats are in with 5/16″ bolts of varying lengths through the floor and then 9/16″ bolts into the seat-rail along the edge of the wall, and, had one a team of people, and if the bolts weren’t very rusty, one could use a ratchet and/or a couple of wrenches and remove the bolts, and then the seats, and all would be wonderful.

But I live in the real world, and the bus was used by the Whitesboro High School (near Syracuse) and being that Syracuse was known as the ‘Salt City’ (due to the salt from the evaporation of shallow seas that covered the area in the Devonian), the bottom of the bus was covered in a light layer of salt, and the bolts were heavily corroded.

Here was the introduction of power-tools to the game.  First, I had a Makita impact hammer with a chisel blade that does wonderfully on concrete, but did basically nothing the the rusted-on bolts.  I had hoped to use it as the force is a shearing force, and would leave the flanges of the bus feet intact.  I ended up using a Makita 4″ angle grinder to take off the heads of the bolts.  A tip that I got from the Skoolie board stated that an easy way to deal with bolt heads was to cut down vertically through them and then horizontally slice to the cut.  It worked nicely, produced a whole lot of smoke, sparks, and burned rubber smell (more on that later), and the seats came out really nicely. When I had the seats all loose from the floor, I picked out three that were the ones I was planning on keeping for re-installation.

Once a bus has the seats out, it’s a big empty space.

This is really funky, it’s kinda like one big empty room, yeah!
  But it really is true, there is a lot of space.  And it gets loud with the echos.  But you can really see the blank canvas with all the seats removed.
No, really … It’s a lot of space … for a vehicle.

In fact, disregarding the wheelwells over the back, you can imagine it as basically a big rectangle 90″ wide, 26′ 8″ long (to the back of the driver’s chair), and just over 6′ high.  That’s around 200 square feet of floor space.  The wrinkles, of course are the wheelwells, roof hatches, and the exit doors.  Now, many people close up the side emergency doors (if their bus has one), but we wanted to keep ours, so we had to design around it.

There were some design constraints and advice that I gleaned from other Skoolie builds, things like you don’t really want to put your bathroom (and grey and black water tanks) behind the rear axle, due to the bouncing.  Propane tanks should go ahead of the rear axle, due to safety factors in collisions.  Re-using  the frames of the existing bus seats gives DOT rated safety harness points.  There was one seat we removed (just by the side emergency exit door) that had four feet, while all the others had two feet on one side, and were meant to attach the other side to the seat-rail.

So we ended up with these preliminary plans:

With a fold-out master bed and an added rear observation deck.
With a fixed master bed on the port side …
  Our designs went back and forth over those factors and our space, doorway, hatch, and undercarriage limitations and we ended up with this as our final plan:
The annotated final design. (New emergency exit window locations in red)
  This new design makes the shower a ‘walk-through’ to get to the side door, and doesn’t indicate the angling of upper areas of the walls (in green) to leave the roof hatches.  The two seats facing each other behind the driver are connected to the side chair rail, while the one that runs along the starboard wall is the one that had four feet.  It allows for a 24″ hallway from front to back and for full measure twin-bed bunks, rather than the extra slim/short RV bunks.
  Now, this isn’t perfect, but it set up the base of what we wanted.  It doesn’t show the locations of any of the water/propane/air tanks, and the fridge size is a bit smaller than what we actually got because of the extra tubing/heat vents on the back.  But it gives an idea of what we’re aiming for in the finished product.