Charging the batteries

Be warned, this post is a bit heavy on technical issues and one image.

Life in a trailer, especially boondocking, requires monitoring your battery capacity and usage. The first thing I did to help this when we had our ’92 25′ was get some Sears AGM batteries. This gave me a larger capacity and less worry about them. Changing both trailers to LED lighting helped a lot more. We purchased a couple of generators to help with charging when we needed it and ostensibly run the air conditioners with two of them running. I also purchased a set of portable solar panels. I had all the pieces lined up for extended battery usage, except one. Solar on the trailer.

This was accomplished early this year, shortly before we started our fulltiming/CalExit. In our travels since May (2017) the solar panels have performed fantastically! But events during our travels have made me rethink my charging methodology.

Before solar, there were two methods of charging. When we were hooked into shore power, the converter/charger will charge the batteries and provide 12v DC power. When towing, the tow vehicle will provide a small amount of charge through the 7pin umbilical cord. I remember my father hooking up our station wagon to the trailer and letting it idle for extended periods to give the trailer a charge while boondocking. I have not tried this method.

The converter/charger that came with the trailer was a single-stage charger, meaning it was either charging or not. On or off. This can wreak havoc with your batteries, especially if you leave it plugged in while ‘stored’, as we did. I replaced the converter/charger with a multi-stage version. This flavor will do a heavy, high amperage charge until the batteries reach a certain voltage. The next stage is a consistent, lower amperage charge until a different voltage setpoint is reached. The final stage is a trickle charge just to keep a preset voltage level.

The one issue/problem when adding a solar system, and its inherent charge controller, is to ensure that the two charging ‘brains’ don’t conflict with each other. Luckily the solar charge controller is adjustable in what voltage it shuts off at. This way I was able to research the voltage level for the shore power converter/charger and adjust the solar charge controller to just below that voltage. That way, if we were on shore power the 110V converter/charger would do its’ high amperage charge and get it to a voltage higher than the solar chargers threshold and the solar charging would be negated.

What change have I made in charging the batteries? Let’s lay a bit more groundwork first.

I no longer have 2 generators, I never did use 2 to run the air conditioner which made the 2nd one expendable. After our 4+ months on the road I never used our portable solar panels, therefore they are for sale (contact me for more info). We are now down to shore power charging, solar charging and generator charge (which is essentially shore power charging since the generator creates 110V AC).

The months on the road brought up some odd issues that have steered me to my new path. We had problems with our refrigerator when we started that were hard to diagnose and explain. It was not working when we left and started working mysteriously after we were in Arizona for a few days. It got weird again in Texas. When talking to the repair shop they mentioned that irregular 12V power has been seen to cause problems with refrigerator circuit boards. I changed the shore power cables and it started working just fine, making me think it was the cables, but maybe it wasn’t?

We did great on power for about another month until we were in Williamsburg VA. The spot for the trailer there was very shady and I noticed that the battery was down to about 82% capacity and the shore power was charging it slowly, if at all. I immediately thought it was the shore power converter/charger and ordered a replacement. Once it was swapped out, charging was back to normal.

That got me to thinking that maybe our refrigerator problems earlier were symptomatic of a failing converter/charger. I am now fairly convinced that is true as the refrigerator has not exhibited any type of issues, even when the internal fins were coated with ice due to humidity.

When we were in New York and taking advantage of some courtesy parking, we had some issues with the 15amp shore power that was provided. The electrical management system that I installed, before we left,¬†would disconnect our power and reconnect continuously. It made the power connection unusable so we relied upon the solar to take care of the batteries. This allowed me to notice another aspect of the shore power converter/charger. When it is in its’ first stage of charging it uses a LOT of amps! I saw about 18 amps at one time! That was overloading our 15amp connection.

My next thinking was if I could turn off the shore power converter/charger, I could then control when I used it and turn it off when we are on 15amp. One option is to turn off the breaker but that would also make the inverter inoperative. I didn’t want that. I made my own solution. I got some parts at Lowes and created a device that the converter/charger plugs into and then it plugs into the wall. It contains a switch that I can easily turn on and off.

This relates to an ability for me to disable the shore power converter/charger when on a minimal power connection and allow the solar panels to exclusively charge the batteries.

The empirical proof is in. For the last three weeks, we have been on 15amp power, with the shore power converter/charger turned off, and we have full battery power going into each evening. I feel it is a great success.

Escaping the Eclipse

In keeping with our bad timing theme, we were leaving the South Dakota Black Hills and trying to get to the Oregon coast, then down the coast to South San Francisco. This requires us to pass through Wyoming and Idaho before Oregon. I knew the eclipse was coming, we purchased glasses somewhere in Texas in case we were near, and I knew that our path was going to take us REALLY close to it. I had also heard horror stories about crowds, traffic, lack of supplies, etc. along the eclipse path! I was determined to get to the coast before it happened!

But first, we thought we would head to one of our favorite places, the Grand Tetons. This required traversing the state of Wyoming from east to west and some of the dryest parts of Wyoming also! Our first stop was Douglas, WY where the city allows RV’ers to stay overnight in their park (thanks, Drivin and Vibin!). They also have free hot showers in the restrooms there. They also had a dump station that was ‘closed’ due to the State Fair going on across the street. I think I could have used it if I wanted. It was an OK place to park, it was on gravel, next to a fenced off central grassy location. It was, however, on the North Fork of the Platte River and you can get a great view of it by moving your chairs a bit:

The next day was another haul of just driving, with a WalMart shopping stop thrown in. Roxie also got to get an iced tea from Sonic as we had not seen a Sonic for a LONG time. We hauled off to Lander, WY. A drive through some very desolate locations but here, again, the city had a park for RV’s and tents. There were a LOT of people there. We found a spot next to the creek that we could hear all night.

The city here DID have an operational dump and water fill that we availed ourselves of. Then we started the trek to the Tetons.

We headed north and climbed quite a bit. We knew that many boondockers have certain spots that are in the National Forest but have a great view of the Tetons. We headed to one site. When we got there we dropped the trailer in a parking spot at the bottom of the hill, I took the truck up the hill to assess the road and see if there was space. The first location had very little space where I saw 1 Airstream and 1 Argosy. I drove on up further and really found no better locations. I came back and the Argosy was gone! It appears they found a different space where they could run their generator and let their goat have more freedom. Great! A spot for us!

I went back down the hill and started hooking up. At that time another Airstream showed up and it looked familiar but by that time we were ready to go and we stopped to talk. It was the family from “Less Junk, More Journey” on Youtube. They were heading up there also. I told them that we were going to get one spot but there may be more. We headed up the hill and got the spot. They came up later and grabbed one by some other motorhomes, they later moved back closer to the Airstreams. The other Airstream was “Aluminum Dreams“.

This was the view from our front door and a shot that Roxie took a bit down the road:

We also ‘enjoyed’ our first hail storm in the Airstream!

The next day we drove around, took pictures, had some Thai in Jackson, filled up on diesel.

We drove back to the trailer in a downpour and decided to head on that evening, keeping in line with escaping the eclipse. Most others on the hill were waiting there specifically FOR the eclipse. We said our goodbyes and got back on the road. Leaving Jackson we headed up the Teton pass! This grade can reach 10% in places. We were doing it in the cool of the early evening but it was still major! I was able to do about 40mph up the hill, except on the 20mph corners. My engine temperature climbed to about 215 but the fan kicked in and cooled it right down. The transmission peaked at 235 degrees but no higher. The truck did admirably up the hill and the engine braking kept to slow on the downhill. We made it to Idaho Falls and stayed at the Cabela’s there.

We had previously called Cabela’s and received clearance to stay one night. When we go there there were temporary signs at each exit saying No Overnight Parking. We called again and were told those are there to keep the eclipse crowd away and one night is good.

The next morning during prep to leave I found a broken screw on the trailer step. It made the step unusable as one side of it was not securely latched. Idaho as a state does have an Airstream dealer, 300 miles away just past Boise. I called them and they had one screw left. I asked them to hold it and we headed further west. This time it was on I84 and fighting a headwind all the way. We got there just after 5 so I could not get the part that night, we used a combination of the step Roxie uses to get in the truck and an old ice chest to get in and out of the trailer. The nice thing is that Airstream NW of Idaho has 6 overnight spots that have full hookups for its’ customers to use.

The next morning I got the part and fixed the step. We also got to thinking. We could just stay here for the eclipse and stop running! After all, it was free, they would be closed Sunday and Monday, we could get some laundry done, see a movie and my sister and brother-in-law happened to be 15 miles away for the eclipse! We are done running!

My sister told us that about 12 of them were having a fish fry at the KOA and we should come visit and eat. We took our steaks, as I don’t eat fish, and pulled out our Weber from the truck and did our steak as they did their fish. It was a nice evening:

Monday was eclipse day. Most people were trying to get into the zone of totality. We were in a 99.7% coverage zone. To avoid all the traffic I opted that we stay where we were at. We should have gone to totality. It was interesting to watch where we were but I was unable to get any good pictures, even with solar glasses taped to my iPhone and GoPro. So you will have to settle for these:

The next one is in 2024 and we will make sure we are in the totality this time!

Tuesday came and it was time to head on. I felt pretty good about this as we were now headed into locations where people were vacating now!