Thursday, October 27, 2016

Headlights; From Sorry to Sparkling

OK, I'm pretty sure the sorry state of The Van's headlight lenses are my fault. They're not age-yellowed like the lights were on the 12 year old Ford Focus we used to have, but they are seriously scratched and fogged to the point where I wonder just how much light is actually getting through there and out to the road anymore.

I can't imagine that 5 years of normal wear and tear would account for all this so it must be something I've done.

I do know I didn't take to them with sandpaper, even though that's kind of what it looks like. So maybe I got careless with some Bug-and-Tar remover one day (A product which has long since been removed from my bucket of cleaning stuff because that shit is just too nasty to be good for the paint, the environment, or the user!) or maybe I bullishly drove my way through a sand-storm (You know, being a man and all. . .) instead of taking cover, though you'd think I'd remember something like that. But whatever the cause, I've had enough of looking at the dingy things!!


A quick stop at the computer confirmed that I would NOT be replacing my headlight assemblies!

So I put together my own repair kit from the nooks and crannies of the shop. Starting with 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper over there on the left and working on up through 600, 1500, 3000, and finally 6000. The last two would normally be used on the ground-glass plate of my sharpener for honing chisels, but right now I had a more urgent use for them, even though I wasn't entirely sure I needed to go quite that far with the polishing.

Just in case I was about to well and truly screw everything up, I picked a spot on the side of one of the lenses for a test area. That way if things went horribly wrong the headlight would still be at least as functional as before I started.

Here you can see wear on the lens that almost looks like the orange-peel of a bad paint job.


I taped off an area of this orange-peel and went to work.

A first I made things much worse by wet-sanding (Always with lots of water and strictly by hand at no more than a moderate pace to avoid heating the surface of the plastic to the point of optical distortion.) with the 400 grit until I couldn't see anymore of the orange-peel. But clearly (Get it? Clearly??) this leaves a seriously foggy lens behind.


But some additional wet-sanding with the 600 followed by the 1500 grit already shows significant improvement.

And by the time I worked my way on up through the 6000 grit the lens was looking much better.

The repaired area to the left of the arrow is nice and sharp and clear while the area to the right of the arrow shows what I started with.

Once I knew I could improve the lenses without totally screwing them up, I set myself up with a workspace that included shade, a stool to sit on, and a bucket of water to make sure my sanding was plenty wet. (Hey! I never said this was a high-tech or complicated repair!)

With the area around the headlight taped off I was ready to go. (I briefly explored removing the headlight assembly for this, but only briefly. Way too  much work to get that thing out of there! And even more work to get it back in and aligned properly.)


The damage doesn't show up as well in photos as it did in person, but here you can get a hint of an area of scratched and fogged lens cutting all the way across there between the arrows.


And here's the same lens after I finished with it. (That stuff in the bottom right corner is reflection off the gravel drive, not screwed up lens. One of these days I just might become a halfway decent photographer and avoid things like this. . .)

Since I didn't have any clear-coat for plastic on hand, either from the big-box or one of those fancy restoration kits, (I wonder if the clear-coat in that inexpensive off-the self spray can is any different than what comes in the kits?)  and I'm reading mixed reviews about finishing off the restored lenses with clear-coat anyway, (Although most the bad reviews seem to come from professional lens restorers with a business to protect.) for the time being I did a final polishing of the restored lenses with stuff I did have around.

A cotton buffing ball and a stick of pure carnauba wax, no binders, no solvents, no softening agents. (I normally use it for putting a finish on wood-carvings.) I left the drill on 'screw mode', which is about half the speed of 'drill mode', so as to generate minimal heat while I buffed the wax on.

Carnauba wax is one of the hardest of the natural waxes but the front of The Van is a harsh place to be hanging out, so I'll keep a close eye on how well it stands up and for any sign of the underlying plastic yellowing in case my sanding has removed a magic layer of yellow-be-gone.

The whole project took a little over an hour per lens, some materials I already had laying around, and a bit of elbow grease.  So, relative to buying a set of OEM replacement lenses, (which would probably take me at least 4 hours to install!) I just paid myself about $400 an hour this morning!!

(Again, in reality the driver's side lens is just as clear and sparkly as the other and the blame belongs to the photographer. This time the reflection was off our white car parked to the left (photo right) of The Van.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Product Review: AcuRite Fridge/Freezer Thermometer

I'm a data kind of guy.

I like being able to quantify my world with hard facts, and that includes temperatures, both inside and out.

I mean come-on! If I don't know what the temperature is inside The Van how do I know if I'm really hot or just trying to feel sorry for myself? And without a thermometer outside for verification, my heroic stories of surviving witch's-tit weather could be called into question!

Over the years I've tried many indoor/outdoor thermometer options, but regardless of brand or price, I seem to keep running into the same problems.

First, the inside portion of indoor/outdoor thermometers typically package the readout and the indoor sensor in the same housing. But what if I don't want to sample the indoor temperature from the same place I read it?? With our steel building, in order to receive the signal from the wireless outdoor sensor hanging from a nearby tree, the indoor unit must be placed near the oversize glass door, right on an outside wall that receives direct late-afternoon sun. Yeah, right, it doesn't work all that great.

Second I'm constantly finding that the inside unit has lost communications with the outside unit which requires a reset, often of both units, and usually at the worst possible time.

Well along the way I bought one of these AcuRite Fridge/Freezer wireless thermometers so I could see with a passing glance what the fridge/freezer in The Van was up to, or should I say down to?

It has three parts:

Sensors1 and 2 that go into the fridge and freezer respectively

and the receiver/readout section

As you can see in the photo above, the readout includes a separate min/max function that can be reset with a push of the CLR button. In addition separate alarm points can be set up for both the fridge (sensor 1) and the freezer (sensor 2). The limitation here is that you have to be within earshot of the unit to receive an alarm since, for $25 and no monthly service charge, you're not getting an internet-connected device that will talk to your phone.

The sensors come with both a shirt-pocket type clip for hanging on the wire shelving or a suction-cup for sticking it to the side of the box. I stick mine in with the suction cups and have never had them come loose on their own.

The receiver section has magnets on the back for hanging right on the fridge door, but since the front of my fridge is not metal I used some of that Combat brand hook & loop stuff to just stick the readout to a wall nearby.

I've been using this thing for about two years now and have never, as in not ever, had either of the sensors quit talking to the receiver, or even ask for new batteries. It just chugs along quietly there in the background, never giving me any crap, always doing what I ask of it.

That impressed me enough that I turned around and bought one more of these for the fridge/freezer in the barn. Because the sustained freezer temperatures of that one are so low (-5F) I did install lithium ion AA batteries in sensor 2 since other types of batteries just can't handle the sustained low temps reliably. Pricey but so far (18 months and counting) I haven't had to replace any batteries at all. (As I stand here typing this the expensive Oregon brand indoor/outdoor thermometer hanging near my computer station is, once again, asking for fresh batteries.)

Then the indoor/outdoor thermometer I was using for monitoring the standalone freezer, also out there in the barn, threw a hissy-fit one too many times and I bought yet another of these AcuRite sets.

I wasn't sure this was going to work out because there is no way to select the frequency used to communicate between the sensors and receiver, and with the fridge and standalone freezer side by side out there in the barn I figured two receivers and four sensors might get themselves all confused.

Well they did. When I put the batteries into the new receiver it picked up the sensors in the fridge and ignored it's own sensors. But then I noticed that the original receiver had no such confusion issues. It continued to display the temps of it's own sensors and ignored the new sensors.

So, on a hunch, I took the new unit, receiver and sensors alike, out into the field, out of range of the existing unit (up to 70 feet according to the paperwork) and re-installed the batteries. Now the new receiver was picking up it's own sensors and when I walked everything back into the barn there was no longer any confusion between the two separate setups, even though they are literally within a few feet of each other.

Apparently the receivers lock on to the sensors and, as long as you don't remove the batteries and start over, they never seem to loose that lock.

Here I literally have two receivers side by side and all four sensors within feet of each other, but everybody is behaving and there is no confusion.

Since there's no fridge in the standalone freezer, I just tossed it's sensor 1 onto a nearby shelf and this got me thinking that maybe one more of these units could be the solution to my indoor/outdoor woes in The Van.

So, once again I bought another one of these AcuRite sets and installed it in The Van as in indoor/outdoor thermometer.

Here you can see one AcuRite receiver (closest to you) mounted near The Van's door and acting as a trouble-free indoor/outdoor thermometer, with a second AcuRite receiver over on a wall near the fridge acting as the fridge/freezer thermometer it was designed for.

I currently have sensor 1 of this latest addition, the sensor I use for the indoor temp, tucked safely into the one and only drawer in The Van, but if I think my toes are cold one winter evening I can always toss it onto the floor beside them to check.

As for sensor 2, the one I'm using as the outdoor part of indoor/outdoor, That was a little more problematic.

In the past I've tried mounting the outside sensor somewhere under The Van where it's shaded but as far from drive-train heat-sources as I can get it, but I've often had communication problems with these because of all the steel between the sensor and the receiver, besides, I'm pretty sure this new sensor, designed to go into the freezer, is not weatherized enough to survive there under The Van when driving through a rainstorm. But I know from experience that though hanging a sensor in the relatively spacious and protected engine compartment works as far as maintaining communications and keeping it sheltered from weather, it may take as much as 12 hours for that huge chunk of of metal sharing the same compartment to cool down enough  to start returning accurate readings.

Then I started casting a speculative eye on the little plastic step I carry in The Van. When deployed it's outside and away from any residual heat created by the drive-train, and the step provides a bit of shelter as well as shade!!

So I grabbed the unsuspecting step, rudely drilled a few holes in it's bottom side for a hard-wearing copper-wire loop, and hung sensor 2 from the loop via its shirt-clip. It's not perfect, Any sun on the step gives me readings about 10 degrees over true ambient, but it's a lot better than waiting 12 hours or so for the engine compartment to cool down.

So far, even though it wasn't really designed for this, the AcuRite has been functioning very well as The Van's indoor/outdoor thermometer.

So lets see now; I have three more of those troublesome indoor/outdoor thermometers, one in the travel trailer, one at my computer station, and the one in the living quarters.

Oh hell! At this rate I should probably just buy stock in AcuRite!!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

It's Either a Huge Sink or a Small Bathtub!

Regular readers may recall that we own a travel-trailer that my Missouri based father-in-law has used for years as a winter home and fish-camp when we park it down on the Gulf Coast for him.

The trailer is only 13 years old, but I wouldn't fault you if you took a look at the sink

and figured it for older. Of course those 50's era faucets RV manufactures seem so fond of don't help either.

In the overall scheme of things this sink might seem like a minor point, but it loomed large in the mind of my FIL, it's deplorable state coming up often in conversation. And he had a point. It was an eyesore.

I disassembled, cleaned, painted and reassembled that trim-piece around the sink a couple of times but the thin, sharp edges just wouldn't hold a decent skin of protective paint so I wasn't going to do that again. Besides that didn't help with the dated faucets and equally dated cream enamel sink-finish.

It took a little hunting to find an affordable sink of the right size in the FIL's requested single-bowl configuration, but eventually we managed. But the fact that here it's propped up in a full-sized recliner shows just how big this dang thing is!! If it was flying it would have to buy two seats!

While the new sink fit into the old sink's cutout from side to side, it is deeper front to back since the faucet shelf is larger. (Have I mentioned how big this sink is?!!) So I taped off the opening, turned the new sink upside down, centered it, then traced around it.

Marking a fresh line a quart inch inside the one I just made, I then got out a saw and modified the opening to fit.

We also bought a new, affordable but more updated, faucet that would require a slightly different plumbing layout, but a little trial and error showed that I would be able to use the existing water-lines with only slight modification.

But since we were going from a double bowl to a single bowl, the same couldn't be said for the drain. Still, using some of what was already there and some parts from my plumbing bin, we managed to get that covered as well.

But before I could take this 'after' photo, (After bedding the sink in plumber's putty, installing all 10 clips to make sure it stays put, and finally running a bead of clear silicon calk around the edge.) there was one more modification I had to make so the top drawer there on the right would go back in it's slot. (Holy crap! this sink is big!!)

The old sink, being specifically designed to drain well even if the RV it's mounted in is not all that level, has more of a compressed funnel shape, with a wide, sweeping radius between rim and bottom and the bottom with a steeper than normal slope down to the drain baskets. Also it wasn't quite as deep as the new sink either.

The new sink has more of a vertical drop from rim to bottom, and the bottom is relatively flat, (Not worried about the new sink draining since the trailer is parked for months at a time and well leveled.) all of which put the front right corner of the new sink squarely in the way of the top drawer.

Since scientists haven't yet figured out how to fit two solids into the same space at the same time, I had to notch the one side of the drawer to make them, sink and drawer, play nice together. (The alternative was to remove the drawer face and permanently mount it over the opening, cutting down to two functional drawers instead of three.)

But all is good. The FIL has been down to visit since the upgrade and he's delighted with the change.

But dang! that's one big sink!! (In case you hadn't figured that out yet.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Full Drawer Access; Finally!

I'm not sure what happened, but I've had all sorts of little mods in mind for The Van and now it seems that I'm finally getting around to them, all at once. (Maybe the wife slipped something into my food! If so the joke is on her since these are all my projects I'm working on!!)

I've removed the TV, jerked the Micro out, modified the bed, and now I've finally done something about that drawer that never opened quite far enough.


The house, which is what we optimistically call our single-room living quarters in the corner of the barn, has loads of drawers, as in 34 of them, all on full extension slides,

So when I go into The Van and open the one and only drawer in there I'm always slamming it up against the end of the cheep slides about 4" before I run out of drawer!!

It's not that there's anything wrong with those inexpensive drawer-slides, they do their job well and without breaking the budget, they just don't do it far enough.


It's actually a simple job to remove the original drawer slides and replace them with proper full-extension slides, but for some reason it took me a little over 5 years to actually get around to it.


But now it's done and I finally have 16" of slide for my 16" deep drawer.

Now, what else have I been procrastinating about???

            Umm, how 'bout - - Oh never mind. . .

                     A snack, a good book and that shady spot are calling me. . .

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bed-Mod; And it's About Time!!

Over the past 11 years I've had two different Sportsmobiles.

The first was this rather chilly looking Ford E350 Poptop version I bought around 2005. (And yes, we can get ice-storms drizzles around here! OK, maybe only once every 5 years or so, but we still get them.)

The second, and current, is this Mercedes Sprinter conversion I bought in 2011 because retirement was about a year away and I wanted to embark on that endeavor with a fresh set of wheels. (The Ford had just shy of 100K miles on it when I sold it.)

Though the outsides are distinctly different the interior layout of both was virtually identical. (The improved handling of Sprinter compared to the Ford more than made up for the higher center of gravity, besides, standing headroom + overhead storage is really nice!!

Which means that in both there is this gaucho down the left side, that also serves as my bed.

The gaucho is designed to pull out so the back-cushion drops down and the whole thing makes a (really snug!) bed for two.

Since I travel alone that's a feature I really don't need (And since I have a wife at home it's a feature I better not need!!)

So for years, as in a decade + 1 worth of years in two different vans, every night I would wrestle the big, awkward, and heavy back-cushion off the gaucho, stand it up vertically, and duck-walk it to the back of the van where it was slightly less, but only slightly less, in the way

so I could get at the bedding, which is rolled up behind the cushion

and unroll it to 'make' my bed for the night.

I have a bottom and top sheet plus a blanket all rolled up as a unit that, with a couple swipes of my hands, can be spread out and ready for my weary ass in seconds.

I also keep a wool blanket, as in genuine, heavy, warm-even-when-wet, dense-enough-to-block-wind, wool blanket, rolled up separately for those chillier nights.

This way the only 'bedding' I have to worry about storing somewhere during the day is the pillow and the sleeping bag that I break out on those really, really chilly nights.

In the morning I reverse the process by rolling up the bedding, hugging the back-cushion to my chest and dragging/duck-walking it back up the aisle before wrestling it back down into position.

Almost since day one I've realized that for the vast majority of time that back-cushion was doing virtually nothing but concealing my rolled bedding, (And getting in the way of post-lunch power naps since, with it on there, the exposed part of bottom cushion is really not wide enough to comfortably lay down on. I know, I've tried many times!) but I didn't do anything about it until recently

when I sealed the cushion up in heavy plastic and relegated it to a lumber-rack in the back corner of the barn. (Just like with the TV and Micro I removed, I'll hang onto it in case I pass the van onto someone else one day.)

Of course if that's all I did then my rolled up bedding would be exposed during the day, so I drug out a remnant of the fabric I used for the window-covers and the stealth-curtain that I hang between the cockpit and the cabin when I don't want to be obvious and use the window-covers, such as when overnighting in truck-stops and other parking lots.

The project was ridiculously simple from that point on. (I had to do some serious hunting to find where I'd stored the left-over fabric and that was probably the hardest part of the project!!)

After running a cast-over stitch down the edges to keep them from fraying, (Just visible at the bottom of the photo) I installed 4 snaps (The cap or female half) evenly spaced along one edge of the fabric,

then propped up the gaucho's really heavy bottom cushion so I could screw the male half of the snaps along the back (bottom) edge of it.

With the fabric draped over the cushion I pulled it down the back and snapped it in place. Now the only time it will move is when I want it to move.

When spread over the cushion with the bedding put in place on top of it, the fabric acts something like a mattress protector

but in the morning when I roll the bedding up into day-time mode, the fabric rolls up with it and protects the bedding from dust and other grunge just like the unwieldy back-cushion used to do.

The one thing missing from this ingenious solution (OK, OK, so ingenious might be a little strong to describe this Well Duhhh! project.) is that sometimes, like maybe whne grabbing a leisurely lunch while on the road or when stealth-camping and I can't spin the passenger seat around on its swivel mount to turn it into my BacaLounger, I do actually sit on the gaucho.

But without the back cushion there, even when using my pillow in its place, the bottom cushion is just too wide for  comfortable sitting.

But the fix is simple! I have a 'headboard' that fits into a channel on the head of the gaucho and rests against the back of the driver's seat (Which is slid all the way forward) to keep my pillow from sliding out from under my tender little head and into the abyss below when sleeping.

Turns out that propping that headboard on the gaucho cushion and leaning the pillow against it creates just as functional and comfortable a seat as the back-cushion used to.

Now I'm no longer wrestling with that back-cushion twice a day, (It was a little like dancing with a very reluctant cousin. Don't ask how I know that!!) cussing it when trying to take a quick nap or tripping over it when trying to get something from the back of The Van.

Not having it's bulk lurking there also has the added benefit of making the interior feel a little more open.

Now what am I going to do about that crappy window valence I've been staring at for years?!!!!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Power Management While Camping

According to the numbers, one of my more popular posts was/is Showering While Camping.

This post is along similar how-to lines but focused on how I manage my electrical power needs in The Van. Only time will tell if it will be equally popular.

If you were an outsider looking in, be they in massive motor coaches with umbilicals as large as the wrists of the old men driving them or tenters hopelessly tangled in their web of orange and yellow extension cords, next to ice and beer you might get the impression that electric power is the most critical camping necessity.

Years ago the National Park service tried to limit generator use in the no-hookups Rio Grande Village campground of Big Bend NP and it created a huge protest that got plenty of press in the travel magazines of the day. The proposed generator hours were the middle of the afternoon and one of the most common complaints wasn't, as you might expect, 'we're out enjoying the park in the middle of the afternoon and not around to start and attend to our generators', but rather 'we need our generators to brew the morning coffee'!! (Studies show that all addicts, heroin, nicotine, caffeine, food, alcohol and even holy rollers, share the same type of brain activity and chemistry both when jonesing and in the bliss of getting their fix.)

The Park Service was simply trying to provide a more enjoyable experience for those visitors that came for (Gasp!!) a little peace and quiet in this remote National Park, but, as is often the case, the panicked, therefor loud, power junky minority rode roughshod over the quiet majority and generator hours actually ended up being extended rather than reduced. (And now, decades later, they're still 8AM to 8 PM !!!).

If you've ever been subjected to the Rio Grande Village campground's sudden cacophony of whining starters and roaring generators at 8 AM on the dot, (Though there's often one wise ass that jumps the gun and then the rest of the generator crowd quickly piles on like it's a rugby maul!) you'll understand why, even though in my opinion this would otherwise be the best of the three organized campgrounds in the park, I recommend the no-generators-allowed-at-any-time Cottonwood campground at the other end of the park, some 55 miles away.

While the generator crowd represent one end of the electrical power spectrum, at the other end you'll find the campfires-and-kerosene-lanterns crowd, with not even a single AA in their kit.

I'm probably closer to that end of the spectrum than the other, but I'm certainly far from being a rewilder looking to go back to the ways of my 6 times great grandparents! I do have my electrical needs desires, (Face it, if it's not shelter, water or food it's not technically a need.)  modest as they may be.

In fact my needs (Dang it!) desires, are modest enough that during a multi-week trip this summer 100% of my 12V power needs were met by the 180 watt solar panel on the roof of The Van.

But this was a mostly mid-western summer trip with The Van's on-board solar exposed to decent sun most days. Power management isn't always as simple as checking the monitor a few times a day just to make sure everything is working properly. Sometimes my power management requires a more active role.

110 Volt (Shore Power) management

Before I go into more detail in regards to the 12 volt system, I want to get the 110 volt system out of the way first.

The way The Van is set up there's only one thing I can only do with 120 volt power and that's run the air-conditioner. Frankly something I would really like to be able to do without anyway!

Given half a chance I would rip that 100 pound AC unit off the roof and replace it with a 10 pound Maxxfan Deluxe powered roof vent, but given the realities of inhabiting a steel box that thermodynamicly bears an uncanny resemblance to an oven, and having family in the Midwest (Visiting them means summer trips at low elevations with high temps and higher humidity.) that's not likely to happen.

Because I have no generator, (Check near the end of this post for some thoughts on why.) my only option for running the AC is campsites, or driveways, with electrical hookups.

But when I am tethered to the power grid I'm certainly not above taking advantage of it for operating an electric tea kettle for water heating, charging camera and GPS batteries, and sometimes even switching the fridge over to 120 Volt operation if I want to conserve battery power.

I do most of my 110 volt system management from the breaker panel. I say most because the TrippLite inverter/charger is hardwired to the shore-power (Relying on an internal breaker for protection.) so that has to be managed separately which I'll get to in a moment.

When not tethered to shore-power all the breakers are turned off.

This does two things. It's one more safeguard against arcing in case I've forgotten to turn off the breaker in the campground electrical box when I plug or unplug the umbilical. And it ensures that I will actively manage the 110 volt power rather than just plug-and-forget.

And I've never been a big fan of plug-and-forget.

The crew I handed over one of the 10 million dollar data centers to when I retired practiced the plug-and-forget school of management once my nagging ass was gone and about 3 years later it exploded, (Literally, as in the arc-flash event, which briefly produced a plasma-cloud in excess of 20,000 degrees F, blew 2 truck-sized industrial roll-up doors right off the back of the building!) causing over 3 million dollars in damage and about 50 million dollars of lost or delayed revenue. Not a good risk-reward outcome! It's only luck that the event happened when no one was in the area to be injured or killed.

But, back to the subject at hand:

Once I've got the umbilical hooked up and the breaker in the post turned on, I step into The Van and turn the main breaker on. Then I'll briefly turn on the GFI breaker, just long enough to check the circuit tester plugged into one of the outlets wired to this breaker.

Unless I'm actually using one of the outlets, once I'm sure everything is wired up properly I turn this breaker right back off. (Nothing is ever likely to happen with a properly installed and protected circuit, but I guarantee nothing will ever happen when there's no power on that circuit!)

Since I've probably tethered myself to shore-power because I need the AC unit, I'll then turn on that breaker and use the AC's control panel to start the unit.

The other breaker is wired to a single outlet where the microwave used to be plugged into before I got rid of it and the fridge is still plugged into. The only time I turn this breaker on is when I want the fridge running off of 110 volts rather than 12 volts.

OK, some of you might have noticed that charging house batteries wasn't mentioned in my list of things-to-do when on shore-power. When the inverter portion of my really expensive 2000 watt Tripp-Lite inverter/charger failed awhile back, (out of warranty of course) it didn't affect the charger portion, so I can still use the charger when hooked up to shore-power, but I usually don't.

The internal control board of the TrippLite, that ribbed box tucked down there among the battery boxes and all those wires,  continuously draws about 0.2 amps of battery power whether I'm using the TrippLite or not. So I leave it turned off so it draws nothing from the battery at all. And because it's hardwired to the shore-power circuit the only way to turn it on and off is by lifting the heavy gaucho cushion and blindly reaching down into the depths below, depths where both high voltage shore-power and, even scarier, high current DC power lurk, for a tiny little micro-switch tucked under a protective cover, so I have to really need some extra battery charging before I bother.

(Here I have the heavy gaucho cushion removed completely for another project, but normally I don't have near as easy access as this. . .)

A big part of power management is taking care of your equipment, and to help with one part of that I have a set of carabiners, one small, one large, hooked together. They've actually been with me for 30 years and 4 different rigs now.

When the shore-power cord is rolled up and stored in the rear-door pocket, the set is clipped around the cord using the small carabiner.

And when the shore-power cord is plugged in, the set  is clipped onto the steering wheel using the large carabiner

That way I'm not likely to try and drive off with the umbilical still hooked up and end up making a real mess of things, something I've managed to avoid so far but seen done more than once.

12 Volt Power Management

I'm not going to get too much into battery maintenance, solar systems and determining actual 12 volt power needs here, there's plenty of in depth information on those subjects readily available elsewhere, what I will do is talk about how I manage my 12 volt power needs.


I was going to start this section by saying that you can't manage a system without data about that system, but that's not quite true.

A surprising number of people seem to subscribe to the head-in-the-sand school of management. I know they're out there because I've seen them in action, both in the business world as well as RVing.

They guess they can get two or three days out of their battery because they heard that's what a friend of a friend's neighbor can do. (And everybody knows we never exaggerate!) They suppose, since this is the second day, that they can make it one more night. But the only time they know anything for sure is when the lights go out and the TV stops working.

Me?  I'm more of a data kind of guy. I've got a meter on our water well and record the readings once a month into a spreadsheet. I carefully track and record the National Weather Service compliant rain-gauge mounted on a post outside the barn. I add extra monitoring to my vehicles so I can see actual coolant and exhaust temperatures as well as turbo pressure and engine load. And I have monitoring on my Solar as well as Battery systems in The Van.

Now technically a battery's state of charge is determined by it's voltage (Using a hygrometer went out with the advent of 'sealed' batteries.) and if this were practical then monitoring would be pretty inexpensive, just plug in one of those cheap digital volt meters, memorize the voltage to state-of-charge chart, and you're done. But since the only way to get an accurate voltage reading off a battery is to let it rest, with no inputs or outputs, for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before taking the reading, that's just not very practical.

A more realistic, though admittedly more expensive, way is to use a monitor that continuously tracks amps going both in and out of the battery and gives you the number of cumulative amp-hours* that have been taken from the battery at any given time.

* 1 amp-hour = 1 amp for one hour. i.e. if my overhead light draws 2 amps and I leave it on for 2 hours that's 4 amp-hours. 

If I have a 200 amp-hour battery and my monitor says I've used up 40 amp-hours then I know I have 60 amp-hours left that I can still use.

Nope. That's not bad math, it's real world. Anytime you deplete a deep-cycle battery more than 50% of it's rated capacity (About 12.18 volts for you voltage junkies.) you use up one of it's limited number of lives. There are probably some exotic batteries out there that don't follow this rule, but I'm not an exotic kind of guy, so in my world, that 200 amp-hour rated battery bank in The Van gives me 100 amp-hours to play with.

Since I'm not a fan of any sort of artificial light shining in my eyes in the dark of the night I've mounted my monitoring panels inside an overhead cabinet. Right at eye level, easy to access, but shut away when I'm not actually looking at them.

I tend to leave my Xantrex battery monitor set on the real-time amps readout so I can see at a glance what's happening right this moment. (Currently showing 0.4 amps of incoming current. If I was drawing that 0.4 amps from the battery there would be a minus sign on the left.)

But a quick push of either of the buttons with arrows on them lets me cycle through other readings, such as voltage, estimated time left on the battery, estimated percentage of charge, and, as shown here, the all important amp-hours drawn out of the battery.

At the time I took this photo the battery was fully charged  with all 100 amp-hours of usable capacity available to me.

With the inverter part of the Tripp-Lite fried, it's control panel, bottom left three photos ago, is even more useless now than it was with it's high-medium-low LED's, which are pretty much crap no matter who's monitoring panel they're on, but I certainly rely on the Blue Sky Solar Boost panel to keep me informed on how things are going up there on the roof.

Right now, which happens to be in the afternoon with the battery fully charged, it's telling me that I'm getting 0.9 amps from the solar panel. The battery is taking 0.4 of that for a trickle-charge, the monitors themselves are taking their usual 0.1 and the final 0.4 amps is being used by the small inverter I have plugged in to charge my GPS batteries.

So, two different monitoring panels showing me what's going on with different parts of my 12 volt system, both pretty straightforward and simple, but all the information I need for intelligent management.

Battery Charging


I've got three different ways to charge the house batteries and I'll take them each in turn.


In my case the vast majority of the battery charge comes from the solar system. Assuming depleted batteries ready to take on a bulk-charge and/or significant 12 volt power consumption, I can get nearly 10 amps out of my 180 watt solar system under ideal conditions, or 7 to 8 amps under real-world conditions.

But it's important to know that the closer a battery (Or battery bank) is to full charge, the less charge current it will accept. As my batteries get to the 80 to 90% charged state they will only accept somewhere between 4 and 2 amps of charge-current respectively, regardless of how bright the sun is shining on my solar panel. (and I'll come back to this near the end of the post when I'm talking about using 12 volt power)

I'll typically start getting a decent output (enough to run the fridge plus extra for battery charging) from the solar system around mid-morning and that lasts until late afternoon. (For practical reasons my panel sits horizontal and can not be angled for optimum reception.) Since I'll generally eat through only 20 to 35 amp-hours of battery capacity in the dark(ish) hours between late afternoon and mid morning, most of it for running the fridge, (Hot weather = more fridge run-time, cooler weather = less run-time.) it often doesn't take all day for the solar system to top up the batteries.

Even under less than ideal conditions, such as light cloud cover, I can still get 2 - 4 amps out of the solar system which might not get the batteries fully charged during the day but will give me a boost and usually let me make it through to sunnier times.

But a shaded panel, be it trees or heavy clouds, will be lucky to kick out one amp, so once in a while solar alone just isn't enough.

Shore-power charger

I've already explained why I rarely use this, in my case the Tripp-Lite inverter/charger, but it's there if I need it and I'm hooked up to shore-power. But if I'm hooked up to shore power I'm more likely to just switch my fridge, the largest single 12 volt consumer I have by far, over to 110 volt operation and limp on by with whatever the solar panels can supply me with for everything else.

While on the subject of shore-power charger, as Americans we tend to think bigger is better, but that's not always as true as we'd like to believe, and RV house battery charging is definitely one of those areas.

My Tripp-Lite is rated for up to 40 amps of charge current, which means some pretty hefty, and expensive, components inside there, but the only time I could ever get close to that kind of current for a sustained period is if the batteries were well depleted and cool. (warm batteries = high resistance = less current ) More typically I'll see 25 - 30 amps or so of bulk-charge current for a while, but that soon drops as I get into the absorption phase of charging, then trickles off to near nothing during the float-charge phase. (If you want to know more about the different charging phases than the abbreviated explanation I have in this post, there's plenty of info out there on the web.)

On top of that, RV's are not golf carts that need to have a quick, hard charge slammed into them between rounds. If I'm going to be plugged into shore power at all it will be for no less than overnight, so I can get by with a modest, and much more cost effective, charge rate. Which is why, when I get around to removing that defective Tripp-Lite I will be replacing it with a much lighter, much less expensive, 10 amp smart charger like this instead.

Suckling at the teat of the shore-power outlet for a single 12 hour overnight stop would give the modest 10 amp charger plenty of time to take me from even heavily depleted to decently charged. (But not fully charged! See the next section for why.) Since this level of battery depletion is a rare condition for me, maybe half a dozen times in 30 years, 10 amps of charger will do me just fine. 

Charging from the Engine Alternator

On most of today's RVs charging the house batteries from the engine is an automatic function through a solid-state battery isolator. But like many people that have worked in the world of computers and automation, I don't really trust 'automatic' things all that much, so when my isolator started acting up I replaced it with a manual switch.

This means that the only time the engine alternator charges the house batteries is when I want it to, which is not very often.

When I'm on the road, as in actually driving, the solar panel is mostly out from under trees and producing a decent charge anyway. And I trust the solar charge controller a lot more than I do the regulator on the engine alternator, which, when you think about it, is tuned for charging a starting battery and not a deep cycle battery. On top of that, for the general safety of all the electronics on-board the modern vehicle, alternator regulators are often set for about 13.8 volts max, which is just not high enough for a decent deep-cycle battery charge, especially when you account  for that sneaky little, but often ignored, fact that every solid-state device, including that isolator, creates some small voltage drop when current flows through it, reducing that 13.8 volts by at least another few tenths, at worst up to 0.7 volts. That might not sound like much but in the world of batteries, a small change in voltage has a big effect! (The difference between 50% discharged, 12.18 volts, and fully charged, 12.63 volts, is less than half a volt!)

One place where the engine alternator can be useful is when I'm dry-camped for more than two or three days in a solar-challenged location. Then I might start the engine, take the little plastic key for the manual switch from it's storage space, and use it to connect the house batteries to the engine alternator. But even then I'll only use the alternator for charging under certain circumstances.

  • Only where generator use is allowed (Idling engines are considered generators in this context.)
  • Only at times that will be least disruptive to those around me, usually mid-day, or if someone else in the area is running an even louder generator.
  • And only when the battery can take a bulk charge.
This above-looking-down photo shows my manual disconnect switch mounted on the back of the driver's seat pedestal and here the plastic key has been used to close it and connect the house batteries to the engine alternator. The long yellow cord attached to the key and looped over the passenger seat arm-rest is to make sure I don't forget that I have the switch closed.
The bulk charge thing is important. (Note, all the following also applies when charging from a generator.) Charging off an idling engine is expensive and gets even more expensive if it's not being done efficiently. Even at idle speeds the engine alternator can put out a surprising amount of current, but the closer the house battery is to charged, the less charging current it will accept and any left over alternator capacity is just wasted.

A battery able to accept a bulk charge, just plain brute amps (But as a rule, never more amps than about 25% of the rated capacity of the battery or you risk cooking it!) at the max voltage the regulator will allow,  will make most efficient use of the idling engine (or running generator.)

For that reason I don't resort to this charging method until my battery is down by 70 to 80 amp-hours. At that point, with about an hour's worth of idling I can stuff a good 30 amp-hours of juice back into the battery, all of it at the most efficient bulk-charge rate.

After that though I'm getting close to the the absorption portion of the charging cycle where the regulator/charge controller lowers the voltage to limit the number of amps going into the battery so it doesn't cook. So now that whole charging efficiency curve starts deteriorating fast! Besides, after an hour of monitoring the idling engine and the battery every 10 minutes or so to make sure nothing is going wrong I'm pretty much over this game anyway.

If I have to, I can run the engine for another hour the next day, but then again, by then the sun might be out.

Charging chart for my 200 amp-hour rated battery bank:

Amp-hours used Level of Charge Charge type (Speed)

0 100% Trickle/Float (Almost stopped)
20 90% Trickle/Float (Almost stopped)
40 80% Absorption (Getting slower)
80 60% Bulk (Fast)
100 50% Bulk (Fast)

One final note on charging from the engine alternator. If I'm hitting the road with a heavily depleted battery I might connect the house batteries to the engine alternator for an hour or two as I'm driving just to give the solar system a head start on recovering a full charge, but no more than that since, as I said before, the voltage I'm getting off the engine alternator is just not adequate to properly charge deep cycle batteries.

Using my 12 volt power

    Of course there would be no need for managing my 12 volt power if I wasn't using it.

    Now somewhere inside my twisted little brain lurks a need for maintaining a reserve (Spare parts on the shelf, money in the bank, water in the tank and power in the battery) that borders on pathological, but I have managed to overcome this challenge, to a degree, and I do consume power.

    My largest power consumer is the fridge.

    A Norcold 3.7 cf. compressor fridge that runs on either 110 volts or 12 volts.

    As I've explained previously, most of the time the fridge is running off of 12 volt power and it draws around 3 to 3.4 amps, depending on whether the thermostatically controlled muffin fan that assists with airflow over the condenser coils when things heat up has kicked on or not.

    If it ran continuously my fridge would consume 75% of my usable battery capacity in 24 hours, but of course it doesn't run continuously, it cycles on and off.

    How much depends on several factors.

    No solar input and only the fridge running
    One being the weather. The hotter it is the more the fridge runs. There's not much, short of moving to a different climate, that I can do about this, but fortunately no matter what the climate, things usually cool down a little at night. This is helpful because the fridge doesn't have to work quite as hard during those hours when I have no incoming solar to offset its power consumption.

    Another major factor in how much the fridge runs is the boob holding the door open.

    Being a front-opening fridge, all the cold air just falls right out of this son of a bit  this male puppy every time you give it half a chance!

    I can do a couple things about this.

    First, and most effective, I keep most of my food-stuffs in the fridge, whether they need it or not. (Am I the only one who refrigerates a can of beans, teabags and boxes of cereal??)

    Compared to a residential fridge this one is pretty small, but the more stuff I keep in it (Up to the point of reasonable organization and room left over for convective airflow to keep everything inside uniformly cool.) the less air there is to fall out when the door is open, and conversely, the less room-temp air that has to be cooled back down again once the boob on the outside shuts the damn door!

    A chilled can of beans might gain a fraction of a degree while the door is open, but the air rushing in to replace all the cold air that fell out could be 20 or more degrees warmer, all of which has to then be cooled back down again. (Another trick along these lines from back in my grandparent's day is to take up the empty air space in the the fridge with something dense and 'chill-able' like a bundle of newspapers, but my fridge is too small to have that kind of space left over on a regular basis.)

    Second, I can shut the damn door!!!

    When I was growing up it didn't matter whether it was the ice-chilled cooler at the campsite or the fridge at home, my parents where always - well, let's say quick - to remind us to keep the door shut, and I can still hear their voices today. (My wife is much more leisurely about fridge door hang time and when she's getting things out for dinner at the house I'll sometimes catch myself muttering shut the door, shut the door, SHUT THE DOOR, under my breath.

    The Van's fridge is small and I pretty much know where everything is inside there, so when prepping for a meal I'll pause for a moment and make a mental list of what I need from the fridge, then I'll snatch the door open, grab everything I need and quick-like, shut the door again. OK, maybe not quite as extreme as that sounded, but you get the idea.

    Once the cold stuff is on the counter, it stays on the counter for the time it takes me to finish with all the cold stuff I have out, which is as quickly as I can so things have the least amount of time to warm up, then I reverse the snatch-n-grab procedure to get it all back into the fridge with a single door opening.

     It may be a bit obsessive, but there are a few other things I do in an attempt to keep the fridge power consumption as low as much as possible.

    These small fridge/freezers are never going to match the freezer temperatures of residential fridges (We run our freezers at the house in the -5 F range.) so I don't even try. Instead I have remote-read thermometers in both the fridge and freezer sections (More expensive than the cheep dial thermometer but I don't need to open the door to read them!) and my goal is to keep the freezer no colder than the high 20's, which keeps the fridge section in the high 30's - low 40's area. (No separate temperature controls on these small single-door fridges.) Colder than that isn't gaining me anything except increased power consumption and frozen lettuce, neither of which is very palatable!

    I also try, whenever possible, to restock the fridge with pre-chilled items. Drinks from the cooler rather than from the shelf and frozen veggies rather than canned.

    Of course it's difficult to find pre-chilled potatoes or cookies, or lots of other things I like to eat, so whenever possible I do my grocery restocking first thing in the morning so the fridge has all day to run on surplus solar power while it's catching up. This minimizes it's impact on the battery.

    Besides, it usually takes the mom's with little kids a while to get everything in gear after the older ones head off to school, so shopping early means I can be in and out before they show up to clog the aisles. -- I swear I just don't understand why it's so difficult to grasp the concept of parking the cart out of the way rather than just abandoning it right in the middle of the aisle so no one can get by (As a male shopping alone you do NOT EVER want to move someone else's cart out of the way when it has a child in it!!!!) while they leisurely contemplate the question of name-brand or house-brand as if they were the only person in the world!!!!!!

    Anyway. . .

    I recently did a 'driveway test' of the fridge under less than ideal conditions. It was one of those last-gasp-of-summer days, (The thermometer inside the van topped out at 98F) The Van was sitting under an oak tree which shades the solar panel through the mid-part of the day, it was partly cloudy, and the fridge was empty except for three liters of warm water.

    When I turned the fridge on it, and the water in it, was at 85F so it took continuous running for a good part of the day to get the air and water chilled down to about 40 F.

    I started with a fully charged battery and the next day, 24 hours after I turned the fridge on, with the freezer at 27 degrees and the fridge at 39, the battery was down about 40 amp-hours.

    This was pretty much a worst-case scenario and as I said before, it's more common for the battery to be down by only 20 - 35 amp-hours come morning, but clearly the fridge is the significant consumer on my 12 volt system.


    Next in the hierarchy of power consumers is the vent fan.

    Mine has three different speeds that range from annoying to holy-crap-that-plane-is-going-to-land-on-the-roof!

    No solar input and only the vent fan running

    At low speed, the only speed I use, the fan draws a little less than 2 amps. Fortunately the prime time for fan use is usually during daylight hours so I can run it pretty much penalty free off of surplus solar. ( Don't worry I'll get to what I mean by surplus solar in a minute.)

    If I do need to run it outside of daylight hours it will typically be for a few hours when trying to settle in for the evening, so the power cost might be around 4 to 6 amp-hours at most.

    Next on my descending list of power consumers is my laptop. I use it some evenings to watch a DVD from my collection and the internal battery will last 1.5 to 2 hours for this, after that I need to plug it in (I use a 12 volt charger) and when I do it draws about 2 amps. So let's call that 4 amp-hours on a bad night.

    All the lights in The Van are LED. The two work lights over the counter and the two reading lights, chair and head of bed, all draw 0.2 amps each. Like keeping the fridge door shut, I'm also a stickler about turning off lights so only have one of these on at a time. This means that during a long winter evening I'll use about 1.2 amp-hours for lighting.

    Now I do have eight recessed LED lights in the ceiling, all operated from a single switch, and these things are landing-lights bright! And to be this bright they suck down a cumulative 2 amps, but since I only flick them on long enough to find something in the otherwise light-less rear of The Van, typically less than a minute a night, I don't count them against my stored power. The same for the 12 volt demand pump which also runs for less than a minute a night.

    Inverter, charging a camera battery.
    The only other frequent 12 volt load I have is my little 100 watt inverter which I use to charge camera and GPS batteries. Now when I plug this thing in, even without a load on it, a motor starts spinning, a loud motor, and my initial thought was crap that thing is sucking some heavy juice! But in reality, with no load the inverter only sucks down 0.2 amps, despite all the racket, and with a load, a dead camera battery for instance, the total draw is 0.4 amps.

    If I ran this all night it would, 1) drive me nuts with that spinning motor whine, 2) potentially suck down nearly 7 amp-hours.

    But I usually don't use it at night. I have 4 sets of GPS batteries and 3 camera batteries so it would have to be one heck of a day for me to use those up and need to get at least some recharged before I set out again in the morning.

    Instead I reserve use of this inverter for when I have surplus solar power available. (It's not actually free as some call it but that's a whole 'nother post from my other, now inactive, blog.)

    OK, I've mentioned it several times now, but just what the heck do I mean by surplus solar? Well I'm talking about how solar systems actually work.

    Remember this photo from earlier in this post?  This is where the battery is fully charged and taking 0.4 amps, the monitors are taking 0.1 amps and the remaining 0.4 amps is being used by the inverter charging GPS batteries and so I'm getting slightly less than 1 amp out of the solar system.

    Well this photo was taken a few seconds later, after I turned on the fridge, the vent fan on high, and all the lights.

    All the sudden I'm getting 8 amps from the same solar system under the same sun conditions.


    No, just physical science.

    And this is what I call surplus solar.

    It's a sunny day and just because the present load isn't using very much power (First photo) doesn't mean it isn't lurking there in the background.

    This is why I don't worry much about running the vent fan for hours in the hottest part of the day. This is why I do my small-battery, laptop and phone charging during daylight hours. And this is why running the fridge during the day usually doesn't count against my house batteries.

    I'm tapping into a power surplus that I would not otherwise be using for anything else, a surplus that would otherwise just be lost to me. You've heard of buy-back programs where electric companies buy the excess from house-mounted solar systems? Well I think of this as the RV version of the buy-back program. Power in my pocket!

    Wrapping it up: Finally! (said with a breathy, exasperated sigh)

    Clearly I rely most on my 12 volt system when on the road and  there are some modifications I could make to it that would give me more 'hang' time.

    It might seem like the obvious mod would be to add more battery capacity and if I frequently found myself running up against this limit I would consider doing just that. It's not that I never run up against the 100 amp-hour limit of my current batteries, but that is a rare occurrence so the cost, space-requirements and weight of additional batteries just don't make sense. (I know it's almost anti-American, but bigger isn't always better!!)

    I could increase my solar capacity. After all, even though over time that single 180 watt panel produces more power than I use, sometimes it does fall short of what I need in the short term. My charge controller is rated for up to 25 amps and adding another 100 watts of panel would still keep me well below that limit. There's no more room on The Van's roof so a portable panel would be the solution here, especially since I might be able to get a portable panel into full sun when The Van's fixed panel is shaded, one of my major 'short term' issues. So next time I have an extra couple hundred bucks laying around I just might think about it. But no rush since I can clearly get by on my existing systems.

    So that's my power management strategy.

    It might seem complicated, after all, it took a fairly long, wordy post to describe it, but in practice none of the individual steps in my power management strategy are complicated or take more than a few seconds at a time, and to be honest, I often don't really think about it since it's just second nature.
    To quote someone famous, 'freedom isn't free'; but if the cost of having power when I need it, where I need it, is a little deliberate management and a few moments of my time, it's well worth it.
    This exact strategy won't work for everybody, but with a little understanding of the underlying concepts, it could be tweaked to fit most any reasonable power needs.