At their simplest, camper trailers are basic constructions. It’s only when we add long lists of high tech features – diesel heaters for water and air, multitudes of light and power outlets, independent suspensions and so on – that they become complex.
Realistically, campers are one of the most fiddled with items you can own. They’re a home handyman’s honey hole. We tinker with them because we can. And for many of us they are an introduction to a whole range of D.I.Y. projects and techniques.
We can become familiar with 12-volt electronics without the concerns of frying ourselves while mucking around with 240 volts. We learn how to drill holes, use a pop rivet gun, make use of socket sets and screwdrivers, apply a soldiering iron, wield a grease gun, and plan a project; and in the process we improve our camping experience.
Along the way we come up against a whole plethora of little tools and techniques – some better than others.
Apply them correctly and they make a day’s work in the garage a more profitable venture. Use them incorrectly and they bite us on the backside, usually at the most inconvenient time, while cruising the motorway at speed, navigating an awkward track through the bush, or in the midst of an otherwise relaxing camp.
So, here’s a bunch of little tips to apply around your camper, with the sort of tools and applications we are all likely to use at some time or another.
1. CABLE TIES
Cable (or zip) ties are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, if you ask me. If I could have made only one contribution to the advancement of mankind it would have been this useful, practical, simple and cheap wonder tool. But, to paraphrase the old ad, cable ties ain’t cable ties.
The common nylon cable ties come in varying grades. White ties offer little resistance to UV rays and will fairly rapidly become brittle and break in exposed environments. Black ties are more durable and offer much better resistance.
For use beneath a camper where flying rocks and other damaging materials may be common, use a stainless steel cable tie. When finished adjusting the length of your bundled cable tie, trim the end with a sharp knife or sidecutters, cutting across parallel and as close to the head of the tie as possible, to avoid leaving a sharp point for unwary hands.
2. ADHESIVE MOUNTS
Camper trailers cop their fair share of self-adhesive items over the years; among them, are mounting pads for cable ties and similar. These are handy where we want to run or mount wires or cables but don’t want to or can’t drill a hole or use an edge clip. The substrates to which they will attach can include glass, metals (including painted, varnished or powder-coated surfaces) and plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene.
These attach using pressure sensitive adhesives (PSAs), of which there are two basic types: acrylic-based and synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber (or butyl) has excellent initial tack, allowing almost immediate use. Acrylate generally has less initial tack, but generates a higher permanent pull-off force after they have completely bonded – usually after a number of hours, maybe even up to a day.
For best strength the surface must be dry, free from dust, oil and other impurities. The surface to be glued should be cleaned using a clean cloth with isopropanol and water (50/50). After cleaning allow the surface to air-dry. Peel off the protective backing and ensure the adhesive area is not touched. Press down firmly on the base of the pad or hook with a thumb and finger(s) for up to a minute to ensure the best bond.
If your bundled cables/wires are heavy you can aid the adhesive pad by adding a screw or bolt through the centre before attaching the cable tie and wires.
If you are still concerned about the weight on an adhesive support you may be able to solve it with push mount cable ties. These have a barbed boss under the head of the tie which can push through a hole and anchor the tie to a surface via the barbed extension. These aren’t really suitable to any area exposed to dust or water but can be great for wiring on internal surfaces.
3. INSULATING TAPE
Vinyl insulating tape is one of the handiest items in your 12-volt electrical kit, and there are some tricks to getting the best out of it. Firstly, don’t buy your tape from a discount store. Insulating tape, even the most expensive, has a shelf life of about five years and you want to be buying from an outlet that sells a lot of it to be sure you’re getting tape that’s in prime condition. If the tape is thick and stiff throw it away. If the adhesive is losing or has lost its tackiness, throw it away.
As you apply the tape pull it tight to give a slight stretch to allow it to better grip the surface, but at the end cut the tape off with a knife or scissors and allow the stretch on the end to ease out of the tape before pressing it down firmly so the end doesn’t lift off. A good wrap for a cable is two layers of half wraps; in other words, the overlap on each wrap is about half the width of the tape.
Heatshrink is great for insulating, bundling, weatherproofing and protecting wiring and joins. When cutting to length remember that it will shrink (usually between 5 and 7 per cent) in length when heated. Avoid sharp points in solder as these can create holes in the heatshrink, as it contracts over the point. To assist the heatshrink to slide over the job you can apply a small coat of silicone lubricant. Avoid overheating as you can char the heatshrink such that it loses its adhesive qualities, as well as becoming brittle and quickly failing.
To prevent the heatshrink from activating if it can’t be slid far enough away from the soldering job, try clamping the wire below the heatshrink with a pair of needle-nose pliers to absorb some of the excess heat, pre-tin the wires to reduce dwell time in the soldering process, employ a larger size heatshrink than you might normally use, or place a piece of wet paper towel or rag over the heat shrink to absorb heat.
5. EMERGENCY FUSES
If you are away from resources and suddenly blow a fuse which you can’t immediately replace, you can make one in an emergency from standard three-core 240 volt flex.
Correctly fitted fuses prevent burning and fires in automotive and other electrical systems. A blown fuse should always be replaced with one of similar or smaller value to prevent burning and possible complete system failure. A single strand from a 24/0.15 or 32/0.15 standard (7.5 amp or 10 amp) 240 volt flex cable would effectively replace a 7 or 8 amp fuse when fitted correctly into any circuit utilising less than 250 volts. Two strands could be used to substitute a 18 amp fuse, or three strands for a 21 amp fuse, etc.
Such a replacement fuse should be considered strictly an emergency measure. It would not blow rapidly as would a correctly sourced fuse-wire, which is designed to blow quickly when its rating is exceeded. While genuine fuse wire is available from most electrical outlets, this fix will work – in an emergency – and it would be vastly better than the often substituted piece of aluminum foil, piece of scrap wire, or nail.
6. CRIMPING KIT
Crimping was developed as a way to get around the more time-consuming process of soldering, though the latter generally gives a better job. Crimping is a quick and easy way to attach terminals to wires, but a good result depends on a few things.
Firstly do not use pliers or cheap crimpers to crimp a wire or fitting. Use a quality crimper which will not release the job until sufficient force has been applied, to achieve a good contact without damaging the terminal or the wires. When done, visually inspect the job to ensure bare strands of conductor are just visible on the exit side of the terminal sleeve and that no insulation is caught inside the end of the terminal. Also ensure no bare conductors are visible on the sleeve entry side.
Finally, give the terminal a good tug with your hand to ensure it’s securely fastened to the wire. If it won’t survive this it’s not going to last long anyway, and it will be a poor electrical contact that will probably run hot or fail to deliver all the current you need. If the terminal has no supplied insulation collar, add some using heat shrink, to shield as much of the terminal as possible.
By the way, do not buy your terminals based on price. Buy quality from better known brands, as they will crimp more accurately. The insulation will last longer and they will be less likely to fail if subject to vibration.