Tuesday, March 27, 2012

LA bound

We are parked at the truck and RV lot for the Mad Greek and Big Boy restaurants in Baker, California (map). We've been here before, and I wrote more about the lot and the adjacent restaurants back then. It was still pretty early when we arrived, just past 3, but I did not want to start barreling down the freeway until we heard more from our broker about whether we could get aboard some boats this week.

Our broker is on the east coast, and an early riser, so the email came in at 3:35am this morning, our time. It's a go for at least two of the three boats, and by 9:30 or so we had a tentative plan to be in Dana Point tomorrow to see a Nordhavn 46 there. That's a good four hours from here, or more depending on LA traffic, so we will get rolling here right after lunch. We need to make a couple stops on the way, including the hardware store and either Walmart or a large grocery store.

We've gotten quite a few comments on my last couple of posts. Good friend, reader, and fellow Death Valley enthusiast Robert sent this link to a photograph of the American Borate trailer park, where we spent Sunday night, back when it was in operation -- thanks, Robert. And two readers asked me to share more about the rear camera replacement project, so I will take a few minutes to do that.

For starters, I should note that there was a rear view camera installed on Odyssey when we bought it. Being from circa 1990 or so, the camera itself was fairly large, most likely a tube unit, and it was black and white. A 4x3 ratio black and white CRT monitor was installed in the dash, taking up a lot of space. I don't have a photo of the dash unit, but this is what the camera and enclosure looked like on the back.

They even used it as a focal point for some design elements in the paint scheme, giving it a sort of eye-in-the-sky look. It barely worked when we got it -- the picture was very faded and you could hardly make anything out, with several "burn-ins" in the tube, likely due to reflected sunlight from objects below, such as vehicle windshields. We knew when we bought the bus that the rear camera system would need to be replaced.

Fast forward to 2003, when we are in the middle of the re-conversion project. The CRT monitor is long gone, and armed with the dimensions of the resulting hole in the dash, I surf the 'net for replacement systems. I ultimately settle for a complete setup on eBay for $425, which includes a 7", 16x9 color LCD screen, and a "night vision" color camera with infrared illuminators to each side. The monitor has two separate video inputs, and can be set for normal or mirror-image viewing, and the camera can also be set for normal or mirror-image.

The camera was nominally weatherproof, and came with a bracket to simply be bolted to the outside of the coach. Nevertheless, we wanted the protection and sleeker look of a glassed-in "pod" so we purchased the pod from R&M Fiberglass, and Infinity glassed it in to the rear cap, which needed to be repaired anyway from where the old camera and its integral hood had been removed. The R&M pod was also designed back in the 90s when cameras were much larger, and so has a large round indentation for the camera, about 5" in diameter, flanked by two rectangular areas for auxilliary backup lights.

Infinity had to carefully make a custom cutout in this pod for the weird, mostly oval shape of our surface-mount camera and fabricate a bracket for the mount inside the pod. They thoroughly sealed around the camera in this tight-fitting cutout, and all has worked well for over seven years. We used the old CRT mounting hole for the somewhat smaller LCD screen, which left enough room for out VMS engine monitor box above it.

While $425 might sound like a lot of money for a small LCD monitor and color video camera by today's standards, back in 2003 that was really, really cheap, and the quality of these items was just what I expected -- they worked fine, but the instructions were a bad translation from some Chinese dialect and they did not have the highest quality feel. So I am more surprised that we got seven trouble-free years from them than I am that the camera finally started to give up the ghost.

The camera was working intermittently at the end, and I suspect that removing it, blasting it out with canned air, and maybe hitting all the connectors and some of the circuit board with contact cleaner might have gotten us another few years. But that would mean cutting through the (now painted-over) sealant, which has been blissfully leak-free, and then opening up the theoretically waterproof camera itself. With reasonably good color video cameras today in the $25 range, that made little sense.

Instead I went back to eBay and purchased a new camera. This one is really meant for cars, but is fully waterproof. It provides a mirror image, which was fine with me since our display can be set either way. I purchased it for 99 cents, plus $12.99 shipping and handling from China, so the whole thing cost me less than 14 bucks. It even came with a hole saw of the correct diameter (8.5mm) to mount the camera, which is basically a snap-in model. It did not have IR illuminators, but we did not need them and I could have bought a model with them for a few dollars more, which would also need a bit more mounting real estate.

After drilling the mounting hole above the old camera and threading the cable through, I put some silicone sealant around the lip and pressed the camera into place. I had tested it first with our living room TV to determine which point of the round enclosure was "up" and to make sure all was working. After the physical installation, I simply connected the video output to the existing cable in the pod that had fed the old camera. I wired the power cord to the 12V supply terminals already installed in the pod, which are hot when the ignition is on. I left the old camera's power connected, too, so that the IR illuminators will still be working.

You can see the new camera's image in the dash photo. What look like red, orange, and green ladder rungs at the bottom of the screen are actually superimposed on the image by the camera itself, which surprised me because the eBay listing said nothing about those. It is intended to give you a sense of distance; I have not yet measured where each of the lines falls but the red line is more or less right at the edge of the bumper, which is handy. the new camera is a bit wider angle than the old one, so I can see a bit more it in, including more of the bumper. With the wide angle comes a bit of a "fish-eye" distortion, so straight lines near the edges have a bit of a curve to them.

For a total investment of $14 we could afford to take a chance on an unknown camera. If the last setup is any indication, we should get another seven years from it. For anyone just starting such a project, complete rear-view video systems including an LCD monitor similar to ours can now be had for $100-$150. Monitors come as small as 3" and as large as you want, with 5" probably being the most common size.

In just a few minutes we will head out onto I-15. Tonight we will be somewhere in the LA basin, possibly even all the way to Dana Point, where there is a nice, if pricey, state park campground.

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