Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Re-Powering The Van

Disclaimer!!  I have never claimed to be an expert so this is not a how-to but rather a how-I-did-it.

Looking down into the electrical compartment under the gaucho. The cushion and house batteries have been removed for now.

OK, so yeah, this is probably not the kind of re-power all you gear-heads were thinking about, but The Van, and I, feel a lot better now that I’ve pulled the $650 Tripp-Lite Inverter/Charger, that silver ribbed box in the lower left, with its 2000 Watts of inverter power and 50 amps of charge current

and replaced it with this $150, 15 amp  IOTA Converter with IQ4 charge controller.

Some of y'all are going to shake your heads and wonder just what this fool is thinking, going backwards like that! And that's understandable.

But think of it in terms of a couple owning a 5-bedroom/5 ½ bath house that they only use a fraction of; oh, and by the way, the furnace needs replacing. Now think of them selling that house and replacing it with a 1 bedroom/1 bath + den bungalow that they use every room of.  Setting aside all that ‘Great American Dream’ crap that Madison Avenue has indoctrinated us with since birth, is that really going backwards, or is it intelligent asset and resource management??

OK, regardless of what you think about that scenario, before I get to the nuts and bolts of actually making the equipment switch let me run down my reasoning here. It might not change your opinion of how many marbles my jar still holds, but then again, who knows. . .

True, by giving up the Tripp-Lite inverter I no longer have access to 120V power when not hooked up to shore-power; but then again I hardly ever used the inverter anyway. In fact the inverter had far more time on it from the 15 minute monthly test/exercise it got than it ever had for real. Oh, and by the way, (See how I cleverly repeated that phrase from a couple paragra - - Oh never mind. . .) during one of those monthly tests I discovered that the inverter had failed. (Which is exactly why I’m a stickler about regular tests of things not often used. Find out before you need it!) This failure was disappointing given how few hours the inverter had been run in its 4 years of active life (Yep, a year out of warranty!) but since I didn’t use it anyway, no big deal; except that I began to suspect that the dead inverter was bleeding off a few of my incoming shore-power volts. (I won’t get into the guts of how inverters like this work other than to point out that shore-power has to be processed by the inverter before it’s passed on to the rest of the electrical system and I’m not sure all of it was being passed on.)

True, by replacing a 50 amp charger (The charger portion of the Tripp-Lite continued to work after the inverter failed.) with a puny 15 amp charger it’s going to take a bit longer to recover from a deep, or even moderate, discharge state; but, with 180 watts of solar on the roof and modest usage I don’t get into a deep-discharge situation very often, and even so, whenever I plug into shore-power it’s going to be at least 12 hours before I unplug again, so what’s the rush? In fact, fast charges put more wear and tear on batteries than modest charges, yet even with the Tripp-Lite set to low-charge-current mode in an attempt to mitigate this fast-charge stress, it still output nearly 30 amps.

True, even throttled back to low-charge mode the Tripp-Lite could easily support almost 30 amps of prolonged 12V load; but my peak 12V load is more like 10 amps, and then only when I’m trying to get it up there by running the fridge, the fantastic vent fan on high, the overhead recessed lights (So bright I call them landing lights) charging up my laptop and plugging in the 100W inverter to charge some dead double-A’s, all at the same time. The 15 amp IOTA can handle the 10 amp load just fine.

As you can see in the photo above, which I didn’t think to take until after I ripped the face off the Tripp-Lite, and I’ll get to why in a moment, there is a big size difference between the Tripp-Lite and the comparatively puny IOTA. Since, for obvious reasons, I will not be using the recovered space there in what amounts to an electrical compartment for extra storage, the size difference is not a big gain for me, but the Tripp-Lite has one big-ass transformer and equally big bits and pieces which makes it tip the scales at over 40 pounds. The IOTA doesn’t quite get the needle up to 5 pound mark, saving me 35 pounds! Since, collectively, the cabinet doors weigh in at a hair over 35 pounds it’s like I’m carrying them around for free now! (And I get one heck of a lot more use out of the cabinet doors than I did the Tripp-Lite.)

The IOTA is actually a converter, designed to take 120V AC power and deliver 12V DC power, with this model up to 15 amps of it. Hand in hand with the IOTA is the IQ4 Smart Charging module. Without this module the IOTA outputs a steady 13.6 volts which is great for a converter but sucks as a battery charger. With the IQ4 module added the IOTA is turned into a proper 3 stage battery charger (The 4th stage of IQ4 is sort of a mini-equalize which pulses on for a short period after a prolonged float mode.)

I nearly screwed up when ordering my IOTA. I knew I wanted the IQ4 module but without paying enough attention to the details when I was surf-shopping for the best combination of price and shipping costs of the moment, I actually had an IOTA without IQ4 in my cart at one point. . . Not a fatal mistake since IOTA offers an external IQ4 module to upgrade your unit, but still. . .

Now on to the actual demolition/installation.

The first step, in order to prevent any electrical accidents detrimental to my health, was to disconnect shore-power, the solar panel, (This explains why that is so easy to do on The Van) and the batteries.  In this case, since I will be replacing the batteries anyway I just went ahead and removed them altogether. (No need to worry about dropping a tool across the terminals when there’s no terminals there to drop a tool across!)

The IOTA is pretty dang simple. Connect positive and negative wires out to the batteries, ground the IOTA box to The Van’s chassis, and plug the thing in. Done.

Ripping the Tripp-Lite out – well, that complicated things a little.

If I just disconnect the wires, in itself not terribly easy when it means horsing a 40 pound chunk of steel around in a tight space to get at the various connections, then I’ll never get shore-power into The Van’s distribution center because I have one wire coming from the shore-power plug, the upper Black/White/Green set, and a separate wire that goes on to the distribution panel, the lower Green/Black/White set.

Without the Tripp-Lite in between I need to splice those two sets of wires together because the alternative is getting at the backside of the shore-power connection itself to re-do the wiring and eliminate that first wire altogether, but that means pulling out a wall, which means pulling out the gaucho and fridge cabinet, which means pulling the overhead cabinet too. Yeah, not going to happen!

The simplest way to make the splice would be to install an electrical junction box with proper cable clamps attached, all necessary to satisfy code requirements, (And you do not want to screw around with electrical stuff and cheat on code because it will either burn your place down or kill you; sometimes both!) then splice the wires together inside the enclosure with red wire-nuts.

But these wires are stranded. Solid wire is what you usually find inside the walls of homes and it goes under outlet screws and into wire-nuts very well, but stranded wire bends much easier around tight curves which is a decided advantage when running wire in a small, tight space like The Van.

Technically I can use the wire-nuts to join stranded wire, but in my experience I not only need expensive nuts, (Not all wire-nuts are made equal so beware!) but I also have to make the join perfectly, and even then, even with the nuts taped over and back onto the wire itself in a clockwise direction (When looking down at the narrow end of the nut.) with slightly stretched electrical tape to reduce the chance of vibration and/or the natural heating-cooling cycle from loosening the nut, I’ve still come back later and found stranded wire-nut joins loose enough that I could pull one of the wires right out of the splice by hand.

So I’m standing there wondering what to do next when my eye falls on the splice-block there in the Tripp-Lite, that white, vaguely ladder-looking thing and I think ‘perfect’, This type of splice-block will grip stranded wire without loosening up over time and has plenty of contact area to pass  30 amps of power without heating up. (Heat represents lost voltage.)

Only thing is, I find out I have to get to the back side of the Tripp-Lite front panel to remove the bolts holding the splice-block in place. That took a while but I was not going to be deterred by a big chunk of inoperative metal!

By the time I finally had the block in hand the Tripp-Lite was a little worse for wear. . .

It took a lot less time to grab an electrical enclosure and a couple cable-clamps from my junk box, cut the splice-block down to the three positions I need, mount it inside the box and splice the two cables together.

As per electrical code, this splice is not only protected inside a securely mounted enclosure, but there is access to the enclosure for future inspection/service of the splice. (I have a reminder in The Van’s log-book to check the splice after a couple hundred miles of driving just to make sure.) By the way, though it’s commonly done, hiding wire junctions like this behind drywall, siding, or anything else that impedes access to it is a BIG no-no and if you ever catch your electrician/contractor/builder doing that: 1) wonder what else he/she has cheated and skimped on:  2) fire him/her on the spot and find someone else that will do the job right.

Although code requires it anyway, because this junction box is electrically isolated, sitting there on the wood floor like that with no other electrical path to ground, it’s especially important to make sure that short little ground jumper is in place. That ensures that if the incoming black wire, the hot wire, does ever get loose and touch the box itself the 30 amp breaker will trip before I can reach down there and grab a live box!! Likewise, the presence of this little jumper means if the white wire, the neutral, gets loose it will trip the GFCI.

At this point I closed up the enclosure, plugged back into shore-power and verified that all my 120V stuff was working.

The next challenge in installing the IOTA is, once again, the fault of the Tripp-Lite.

Because the Tripp-Lite can output 50 amps of 12V the leads connecting it to the batteries are hefty to say the least! Even if I cut the crimped-on eyelets off these cables there is still far too much wire to fit into the terminals on the IOTA.

My solution, which I didn’t think to photograph until after the fact, was to crimp some large eyelets onto lengths of appropriately colored #10 wire and bolt the eyelets together, red to red and black to black, creating short pigtails that then fit into the IOTA’s terminals.

I wrapped the exposed eyelet – bolt combination with two layers of 600 volt electrician’s tape and one layer of black duct-tape. First a layer of electrical tape to insulate the area, then a layer of duct-tape to provide mechanical protection (Duct-tape stands up to abrasion and blows (From dropped tools, etc.) better than electrical tape.) then a final layer of electrical tape to add even more insulation but more importantly to catch and contain any loose edges and streamline the joint so nothing snags on it.

It looks really strange to have a small wire like that going into such a fat wire, but electrically it works. The IOTA will output 15 amps max yet the 4 inches of #10 wire, the small stuff, will safely carry up to three times that for a prolonged period. (The longer the length the less current a given wire size can carry, conversely, the shorter it is the more current it can safely handle.) The 36 inch long fat wires were sized properly for the Tripp-Lite which means they are much bigger than needed for the 15 amps from the IOTA, but electrical current only cares about too little wire, never too much, so they will do the job just fine and this way I didn’t have to tear into mostly hidden wiring harnesses to replace them.

There are two other things of note in the photo above.

One is the white chassis ground wire that is run back and connected directly to the metal of The Van itself. Again if anything ever goes wrong this wire provides a clear and concise path to ground which will trip any protective breakers or blow any fuses before I can kill myself by grabbing something live.

The second thing is that both the black and red feeds have been secured in place with cable-clamps, most easily seen on the red wire as a black band at the left edge of the photo. This keeps them from moving and chaffing while The Van is moving and chaffing. It also means that if I inadvertently snag one of these wires while messing around inside the compartment, the clamp will help prevent me jerking anything out of its terminal, and since that red wire is connected directly to the hot side of 200 amp-hours of battery, if it got loose that could be a problem! Those cable-clamps are a few pennies each and take about 5 seconds to install so there’s no excuse!

The final step in installing the IOTA is to plug it in.

Once plugged in it’s on and the only way to turn it off is to unplug it. Since I only have shore-power available for significantly less than 50% of the time I’m camping, and I actually use the charger even less than that, leaving it turned off most of the time and relying on the solar system to keep things topped up, I wanted an easy way to start and stop the IOTA and I wanted to do that without cutting the power cord since that voids the warranty.

I could have added a switched outlet facing the inside of the compartment and left the IOTA plugged into it, turning it on and off with the switch, but it just seemed simpler to utilize the outlet already mounted right there and simply plug the IOTA in when I want it running and unplug it when I don’t.

So I drilled a hole through the face of the gaucho sized to be a friction fit for the back-side of the IOTA’s plug, then cut a slot into that hole from the nearby vent opening (This vents the electrical compartment and based on previous experience I went with an oversize vent for the area when building The Van.)

Now all I had to do was use the slot to slip the IOTA’s power cord into the hole then mount the vent cover to trap it there, and cover up the unsightly slot.

Now when I want the IOTA running all I have to do is pull the cord out a little and plug it in, then reverse the procedure to turn it back off. All without having to raise the heavy gaucho cushion with one hand while fishing around inside a dark compartment filled with electrical stuff with the other like I had to do to turn the Tripp-Lite on and off.

It might look like this is all sticking out too far and likely to get snagged when I’m moving around in The Van, but what you don’t see here is the gaucho cushion, which I removed to make access to the electrical compartment easier. When reinstalled it will extend over the face of the gaucho by a good 4 inches and the outlet and power cord will be tucked neatly underneath it.

The moment of truth was to plug the IOTA in and close the 12V disconnect switch, that black rectangularish thing under the outlet. All my 12 volt stuff came back to life and the voltage was a steady 13.6 volts since the IOTA was operating in converter mode because there were no house batteries installed at the moment.

More about the battery issue later but for now it’s time to put the tools away and clean up the mess.


  1. The converter in the Castle is also turned on and off by plugging and unplugging it from the 120 volt circuit. It was set up that way from the factory.