October 5, 2006—Skylark is a wonderful rig—practically factory-new, and better than Gertie in so many ways! So you might be surprised to hear that the six weeks since I got this coach have been spent in a whirlwind of upgrades. Major upgrades. Expensive upgrades. By the time I was done, I had spent most of the ten thousand dollars I got for Gertie.
Where on earth did all that money go? Well, believe it or not, most of it went into bringing Skylark up to Gertie's standard. You see, Gertie had a massively upgraded electrical system: 589W of solar panels, four AGM house batteries, a 2,000W "whole-house" inverter with built-in 3-stage charger, a computerized XBM battery monitor...plus a larger stove and other niceties that don't come on a stock Lazy Daze.
And from my point of view, Skylark had a few omissions: for example, it had electric steps—to me, a useless frill—but no vent covers, so every time it rained I had to run around shutting everything. It had both a TV antenna and a satellite TV dish, but only two small 85W solar panels. It had insulated holding tanks, but its 400W inverter powered just one outlet. And so on. Some of these were Lazy Daze's standard equipment, and some were simply evidence that Mike, the original owner, had different priorities than I do.
So I set about tailoring the rig to my needs...and I was in a hurry, because I wanted it livable in time for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, when I'd be having my old friend Gretchen as a house guest. Here's a brief idea of what I did in the first few weeks I owned Skylark. I started with this list of urgent tasks, roughly in order of priority:
- Add covers on all three vents
- Remove street-side couch and replace with desk, file cabinet and office chair
- Add 500W of solar panels
- Replace old, inefficient RV-30 solar charge controller with heavy-duty power-boosting HPV-30
- Add PROsine 2.0 2,000W whole-house inverter/three-stage charger
- Add Xantrex XBM battery monitor
- Add SurgeGuard whole-house surge and over/undervoltage protector
- Add backup video camera and monitor
- Replace stove with larger Magic Chef stove like Gertie's
- Add at least one catalytic heater
- Do something to cover up hideous upholstery fabrics
- Remove 13" TV/VCR cabinet and replace with shelves
- Replace noisy bathroom exhaust fan with Fan-Tastic fan
- Remove all valances, so they won't block the view
Some of these items, like the vent covers, I could take care of myself; most would be done by my favorite RV techs, Mike and Lisa Sylvester, in a marathon five-day session; and the stove and cat heater would be installed by Camping World.
I started with the desk, because that was what was going to make this rig mine—perfectly suited to my needs. Erik helped me remove the couch and build the desk while we were camped together at Vista Linda; then after he left I finished the desktop (maple-veneer plywood) and added the final touches.
Ripping out the built-in couch was surprisingly easy. It was just a matter of removing nuts, bolts and screws. I saved all the hardware, as well as much of the usable lumber from the couch itself. If you look closely at the above montage, you'll notice that the woodgrain panel mounted on the wall in the first picture—whose original purpose was to hold the seatback at a comfortable angle—wound up being reused as an under-desk shelf. All my electrical outlet strips, USB hubs and the rat's nest of cables needed by my computer setup live down there, out of the way but accessible. So does my sewing machine, as you can see.
The two-drawer Hon file cabinet on the right was a real find: although lightweight, it has full-suspension drawers instead of the usual flimsy metal slides. Best of all, it only cost $65! It supports the right end of the desktop, which is secured elsewhere by strips of wood (salvaged from the couch, of course) screwed to the studs in the LD's wall. Here's what the desk looked like when I got it done.
See that mesh-backed chair? That was another find. I had originally planned to buy an Aeron chair. I'd had one of them in my New Jersey apartment, and it was the most comfortable office chair I'd ever owned. But Aeron chairs are incredibly expensive ($899 list), so until I could find a good deal on one, I thought I'd get by with an inexpensive chair from Target. To my surprise, I found that I was quite comfortable in this $39.99 cheapie. Oh, it isn't quite as good as an Aeron—but it's plenty good enough, it weighs about half as much...and it cost $860 less!
I can't say enough good things about this desk; it's everything I had always dreamed of. Six feet wide with a two foot drop-leaf extension, it holds my computer, scanner, printer and other peripherals with plenty of room to spare for papers and whatnot. I looked at a lot of desks and work areas in RVs before designing mine, but most were too small for my purposes. Compared with working on Gertie's small dinette table while sitting on her couch, this one is like night and day.
Mind you, I still have a full-sized couch on the other side of the room, which makes up into a near-full-sized bed. Most RVs have way too much seating for a solo fulltimer, and this midbath was no exception: as built, it had two couches and two dinette seats, for a total of ten (!) seating positions. Ten seats and no desk...when will RV makers get wise? It was an easy decision to sacrifice one couch for this wonderful desk; I can still seat seven people, which is far more than I'll ever need.
Here's a hastily-assembled panorama showing what the rear area now looks like:
And here's the floorplan after adding the desk:
Oops! That drawing shows a pantry closet that I haven't built yet. But I will!
While I was working on the couch, I was also doing things like installing three vent covers on the roof, removing the TV antenna to make room for more solar panels...plus adding little touches like Chapstick holders in handy places, coat-hooks, and a doodad made from bent coat hanger wire that lets me open the screen door without having to move the sliding panel out of the way first. (If you have one of these doors—and most RVs do—you know what I mean.) Here's a picture with the wire highlighted in red so you can see it better. It was just twenty minutes' work with pliers and a coat hanger, but it's a big improvement in convenience. (I got the idea from a more professional-looking door-opener gadget that I saw on another rig.)
Next I moved to a commercial campground in Rio Rancho, NM for phase two: Mike Sylvester's electrical upgrades. I had scheduled this with him and Lisa a month in advance, knowing that they were going to be in the Albuquerque area for the annual balloon fiesta. Mike and Lisa work as a smoothly functioning team, so you get twice as much for your money. Their work is good, and besides, they are the nicest folks in the world, a real pleasure to be around. I always get an education when Mike works on my coach.
Mike and Lisa worked their tails off for five days, installing solar panels, inverter, surge protector, battery monitor and so on. I ended up with an electrical system even better than Gertie's (which was already better than nine out of ten RVs on the road), with one exception: I still have the original pair of flooded-cell batteries (225 amp-hours), instead of Gertie's four maintenance-free AGM batteries, which have nearly twice the capacity. The only thing holding me back is that I haven't had this rig weighed yet, so I don't know whether I can afford two more 70-pound batteries.
I do love my five new 100W, 44-cell solar panels! Together with the HPV-30 controller (rated at 600W max), they put out significantly more power than Gertie's solar setup. And unlike Gertie's, these panels can be tilted to take maximum advantage of the winter sun.
Notice the stub of the TV antenna in that photo. I have no fondness for TV, so I did as I'd done on Gertie: took off the antenna to make room for another solar panel. I gave the clunky 13" TV/VCR to Gertie's new owner, and then spent several arduous hours removing the oddly-angled cabinet Lazy Daze had built to house it.
This was by far the hardest job of the past month! That cabinet was held together by more screws than you can possibly imagine...plus glue...plus staples...and many of the screws were driven from the outside, or from above the ceiling, so they had to be either ripped through the wall, or cut off with a Dremel tool. I worked at the cabinet with a saber saw, a hacksaw, my Dremel tool...but in the end, I had to beat on it with a sledgehammer until I reduced it to small enough splinters that I could remove most of them. It took me another hour or two to cover up the scars. The effort required to remove it gave me a good idea of the effort that goes into making Lazy Dazes so sturdy.
Here's what it looked like when I got done. You'll notice that I used a piece of paneling that I'd salvaged when I removed the couch to cover up most of the scars on the ceiling. The ceiling-mounted aiming knob for the former TV-satellite dish has been replaced by the smoke detector, and the TV signal-strength plate has been replaced by a blank outlet cover plate. I also had to make an end cap for the cabinet seen to the left of the photo, since the TV cabinet was the only thing closing off that end. I used oak-veneer 1/2" plywood, and finished the edges with iron-on oak veneer edging from Home Depot. (The white gadget on the right wall is my weather radio.)
A couple of days at the Albuquerque Camping World got me a new white Magic Chef stove just like Gertie's, with an oven nearly twice the size of the one in the Atwood stove that LD (like most other RV makers) installs. Here's a photo of the two stoves side by side in the store, so you can see what I'm talking about:
The space above the wire rack is all you get to work with, and in the Atwood stove that's a scant five inches. The new stove gives me nine inches—almost twice as much. Of course, a lot of RVers don't use the oven. Heck, some newer RVs don't even have an oven. But I love to bake, so I'm glad Lazy Daze still puts one in. And for baking, a bigger oven is not a bad thing. (Friends have told me that even with a smaller oven, a pizza stone can help.)
As you can see, the new stove is four inches higher than the old one, so it sticks up above the counter. That doesn't bother me; I'm used to it from Gertie. I like the white color, which lightens up the kitchen a bit. Now if I could just get a white stove hood and microwave oven! Oh, well. (You can see the 3,000 BTU catalytic heater just below the stove.)
With the major upgrades out of the way (and my wallet a lot thinner), I was finally ready to head for the balloon fiesta, where I could relax and have some fun with my friends.