Monday, October 26, 2020

Installation and Review of the Victron Energy SmartSolar Charge Controller

OK, all this battery stuff, these last three posts of buying the LiFePO4 lithium-ion batteriesgetting them set up and my backup charging methods, and finally this post on my primary charging method, really happened six months ago now, but I don't ever want to be that guy that writes a review saying "I just got it and haven't used it yet, but it shipped on time and looks good!".

Don't you just want to just reach through the screen and slap that guy silly for wasting your time with his useless keyboard-diarrhea? I know I do. But I felt like I'd had enough real-world experience with the batteries by now that I might have something useful to say.

So here's the wrap-up of my new battery saga.

Now I have my new, and expensive, LiFePO4 lithium-ion house batteries installed and I'm practically bouncing in my seat with excitement (At least until the credit-card bill shows up. . .) but; My primary charging method is via a solar system, a 10 year old solar system.

Y'all know that I'm a strong believer in solar charging for my style of camping, but being 10 years old  means my Solar Boost 2000E charge controller is old enough that it doesn't have the faintest idea what a lithium-ion battery is.

Now you might think charging a battery is charging a battery so why is that important?

(Originally I got pretty technical from here on out, but then had second thoughts about the readability for all but Electrical Engineering geeks - not to mention the impressive length of the resulting post - so I have attempted to simplify - - as much as I know how anyway - -)

(OK, OK, this is now the second try at simplifying this section - -Y'all are just going to have to live with this one.)

The image above is the charge-voltage profiles for the various 12V lead-acid batteries out there, and the profile of a LiFePO4 is actually very similar.

Other than what might look like minor differences in voltage levels (In the battery world 0.1 volts is actually a big deal.) the major difference between lead-acid and lithium-ion is in the timing of the various stages of charge.

For a lead-acid battery the Bulk Phase, where most of the actual charging occurs for any type of battery, ends when the battery is at about 80% full. (Go any farther than that and the electrolyte starts boiling away at a battery-damaging rate whether you have flooded, sealed, or AGM's.) At that point the charger (a decent charger anyway) holds the voltage steady at a pre-set level and starts the Acceptance, or Absorption Phase, during which the charge current will continue to fall as the battery gets closer to being fully charged (which takes many hours with lead-acids) because the voltage difference is decreasing. Once the charge-current drops to a pre-set level or the charger has been in Absorption Phase for a pre-set maximum time, the charger finally drops the voltage down to the Float level and holds it there to keep the battery topped up.

The LiFePO4 is so efficient at charging that the fast-charging bulk phase doesn't have to end until the battery is over 95% full. It then goes through the absorption phase pretty quickly (either one hour for my 200 amp-hours of battery or until the charge-current drops to less than 1 amp, whichever comes first) before reaching the float phase. But this quick-charging, extended bulk phase/shortened absorption phase only happens if the charger knows it's a lithium-ion and not a lead-acid battery hanging off it.

Even with those limitations, technically I could still use my ignorant, but existing and already paid for, Solar Boost 2000E as long as I promised to NEVER push the equalize button. (the high voltage of equalize is not good for lithium-ions!) With that in mind I opened up the back-side of the Solar Boost to tweak the float voltage from its existing 13.8 (Which is honestly too high for wet-call batteries but is a compromise between battery longevity and speed of daily charging) down to a lithium-friendly 13.55 using the adjustment pot.

And I tried to live with it.

I really did.

But after watching things closely for several charge cycles it was clear that not only was I giving up a significant part of the rapid-charge capability of my LiFePO4's, but also, because of the way the charge profile works on the Solar Boost, it would switch right from bulk to float without pausing at absorption. And that's significant because the absorption phase is where the Battleborn's on-board BMS does it's magic cell-balancing act.

So, as if I wasn't in the financial hole deep enough already, I broke down and spent another $160 for one of these.

There are many solar charge controllers out there that understand lithium-ion batteries. I picked this one because at a 20 amp rating it leaves me enough room to add a portable 100W solar panel to my fixed 180W panel if I decide I want to in the future, and mostly because it is featured as one of the chargers that Battleborn has tested, recommend, and sell themselves. (Because of the shipping issue with Battleborn I bought mine on Amazon)

Of course the new charger does diddly-squat for me until I actually install it, so I ripped out the Solar Boost, and while I was at it, the superfluous panel below it that used to be for the charger/inverter that died years ago finally came out too.

This left me with a couple pretty ugly holes. (Which is why I left that inverter panel in there for so long.) Since the Victron charger is a surface-mount, even if it had been exactly the same size as the Solar Boost, which it isn't, I still couldn't use the hole left behind by the flush-mount Solar Boost,

so I resolved that problem by cannibalizing an old-fashioned document holder. (For you youngsters out there, this is what we used to use back in the dark ages when transcribing paper documents, often hand-written paper documents, to computer or - gasp! - typewritten sheets.) I found this one laying in the metal recycling pile out behind the tractor barn. (Around the homestead it's not junk, it's building supplies and spare parts!)

By cutting out a section of the holder, drilling some holes in the proper places, and painting it, I created the recommended non-flammable surface to mount the Victron on, and sized properly to cover up the Solar Boost hole.

I then modified and painted the faceplate for the old charger/inverter to not only cover up that other ugly hole, but to also act as a cable-way/strain relief

and mounted everything back up.

I'm not sure it's any less ugly than the holes were, but it's functional and mostly dwells behind a closed cabinet door, so I can live with it.

Compared to my 25 amp Solar Boost which uses the faceplate as a heatsink, the heatsink on this 20 amp Victron is delightfully robust, but one thing I'm not a real fan of is the wire-connection system it uses.

For one thing, getting a 12 gauge stranded wire into the tiny connector is not a problem if done very carefully to avoid stray "whiskers", but trying to stuff a more robust 10 gauge wire in there, especially with the connectors spaced so close together, is quite a challenge. At the rated output of 20 amps any more than 8 feet of 12 gauge would result in a greater than 2% voltage drop, something I'd rather avoid. (Since I usually see a maximum of 10 amps running through the wire between the Victron and the batteries I can live with the 7 feet of 12 gauge wire that's already installed in behind The Van's walls.)

But the other thing about this type of connector is that they have what I think of as a "soft" connection. That little screw up there on top that is used to pull the wire-clamp closed is - well - little, which makes it difficult to get a good torque on it, and without a good torque the connection is adequate but not what I would call robust.

This is especially true if all you have that's small enough to fit in that tiny hole and reach the slotted clamp-screw is a skinny little jeweler's screwdriver.

So it was a no brainer to sacrifice a "spare" screwdriver to the grinder

and create something small enough to to just barely fit into the hole and big enough that I can at least put a decent torque onto the screw with it.

Because I feel like this kind of connector is vulnerable to vibration as well as expansion/contraction, the modified screwdriver has been permanently added to The Van's tool kit so I can periodically check that the connections stay tight. (Edit June 20: Today is the equinox which means battery checking day and I got an additional quarter-turn out of each of these connections when I tested them.)

OK, the sharp-eyed out there may have noticed that in addition to the solar in and battery out connectors, this model of Victron also has a load out set of connectors.

I could supply The Van's 12V load (Up to a 20 amp max) right from the Victron through these connectors and then, through the VictronConnect app which I'll get to next, I could see the real-time current draw/input on my batteries.

If I didn't already have access to this information, along with much more, through my LinkPRO battery monitor, this feature would be useful, but would require rewiring The Van's 12V system, so no thanks. . .

Unlike the Solar Boost, there are no old-school configuration switches nor a display-panel on the Victron charger, so in the place of those old standbys I had to download the VictronConnect app.  (I'm being drug into the future bit by bit!)

The connection between the Victron and the VectronConnect app lurking there on my phone is via bluetooth. The initial configuration of this was no big deal but connecting up each time I want to check the status of the system is a bit of a pain.

First, since I'm a bit of a freak about security and never leave bluetooth active unless I'm actually using it, I have to turn the phone's bluetooth on then close its connection-request screen before launching VictronConnect. Then, for some unfathomable reason, (after all bluetooth is a short-range device) VictronConnect will not actually see the Victron SmartSolar unless my phone's location feature is also on, which, of course, I always have turned off. So that's one more step (Which I usually forget until I get the error message and have to close the app down and start all over) to making the connection.

After getting my phone to talk to the Victron I was then able to go into the setup menu in the VictronConnect and follow the programming instructions posted by Battleborn to configure this charger for my batteries using the "user-defined" slot in the Victron's battery library.

The Victron comes pre-loaded with different charge profiles for different battery types in its library, and this includes one for LiFePO4 batteries, but the values there differ slightly from the ones recommended by Battleborn and after spending all that money on their batteries I'm sticking with the Battleborn recommendations!

Here I am verifying that the battery voltage displayed by the Victron, which is 7 feet of 12 gauge wire away, matches readings taken right at the batteries with my trusty meter.

OK, I guess I have to concede that there just might be some advantages to dragging myself, kicking and screaming, into the technical world by adding yet another app to my phone.

By moving a switch on the front-panel on the original Solar Boost I could see the battery voltage, (Which actually read 0.15V lower than readings taken directly from the battery) the solar panel input current, or the output charging current. (But only one at a time.)

Through the virtual front panel of the VictronConnect on my phone, in the status tab I can see those things as well as the wattage being delivered by the panel, (I took this photo less than an hour after sunrise on a cloudy day so I thought 23 watts was pretty good!) the amount of current being delivered, and the charge state. (Though I can also see the charge state on the LED's on the Victron itself.)

Here I'm in landscape mode of the history tab and can see the last 30 days of history at once.

But there's also more.

Such as here on the history tab where I can see the charging history for the last 30 days. Up through June 5th I had the empty fridge running just to put a load on the system while The Van was in forced coronatine. Then I turned the fridge off and the rest of the history shows the system dealing with just the parasitic loads lurking in The Van, including the just under 0.1 amp-hour that the Victron sucks down to keep itself operating even when there is no solar input.

Here I'm in portrait mode of the history tab and have to swipe side to side to see more than a few days of history at at time, but the trade-off is that in this mode I can also see more data for each day

 By tapping on one of those daily graph-bars, in either portrait or landscape mode, I can expand it for more detail.

Note that the vertical axis of the history graph is watt-hours and not time. This means that comparing the heights of the bars from day-to-day is looking at watt-hour performance and has nothing to do with time, which can only be ascertained by expanding each day and reading the text in the bar. This was a little confusing at first and it would have been nice if I could toggle between watt-hours and time.

 The data below the graph (In portrait mode) gives me even more information about my system.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my 10 year old 180W solar panel, which is mounted flat to The Van's roof and not tilted for optimum performance, is capable, in the right circumstances, of producing a peak of 200 watts of power. I've heard of people over-sizing their solar systems by as much as 30% to compensate for the expected drop in output as the panels age, so I would say I'm doing pretty good here!

I took this screen-shot during float-stage so there's not really much happening here.

The trends tab lets me watch two values of my own choosing (Solar volts, current, or watts, as well as Battery volts or current, and if I was using the load output, the load current.) on a realtime graph.

The default is Battery Current on the left and Battery Voltage on the right. This can be changed for each side with the pull-down menu. Unfortunately the app doesn't remember your choices and you have to reset them back to what you want every time you open VictronConnect.

And speaking of opening VictronConnect, there is no buffering of any of these "trend" values in the Victron so I can only see as far back in time as the app has been connected for this particular session. Interesting information but I'm not sure how valuable that really is since I have to stand within blue-tooth range with the app open and displaying for the graph to update. As soon as I step out of range, switch to a different app, time-out the display, or close the display to set the phone down for a minute, the session is gone and I have to start all over again.

To be honest this makes the trends tab seem a little gimmicky. It would be more useful if the data for all the potential values was buffered up inside the Victron SmartSolar and I could reach back at least 24 hours to see just what's been going on.

Oh, and remember somewhere way back in this long-winded post when I said the Victron has front-panel LED's?

These let me know what stage the charge controller is in without the hassle of connecting up the app, which is handy because face it, once the novelty wears off, dragging the phone out of my pocket, logging in, turning on blue-tooth, turning on location, opening the app, and finally tapping on the connection, gets old fast.

But, handy or not, see where the Bulk indicator is a blue LED? You know, the worst color ever for natural sleep?

Well when there is no sun - you know, like at night when I'm trying to sleep - and the Victron is not in any charging mode at all, this LED blinks - constantly - as the controller searches for those solar amps.

And I'm here to tell you that in the dark, in the tight spaces of The Van, that damn LED is BRIGHT! That's right, capital bright.

So I have resorted to a little chunk of black electrical tape, though with the LED bulging out from the case like that it doesn't fit all that well, and when I get over being lazy I'll have to look for some more permanent solution that isn't really permanent, since those LED's are also where I read any error codes so I need to be able to see them.

But, despite all the bells and whistles, the important thing with a charger is does it charge the battery? Does the Victron Energy SmartSolar Charge Controller do the job while treating my very expensive LiFeP04 batteries well?

Oh yeah. It does.

The first day I got the new charger hooked up it was already about 1600, well past prime solar hours, and though it was bright, there were high thin clouds filtering the sun to the point of no cast shadows. Even with those limitations, before the sun set the Victron had managed to pull 240Wh's out of the sky and stuff it into my highly efficient LI batteries, during which I saw the charge current hovering between 6 and 8 amps between the hours of 1600 and 1700, which are the kind of numbers I got out of the Solar Boost with cloudless sky - middle of the day conditions when it was hooked up to the lead-acids.

I think I'm going to be happy with this new battery and charger setup, if The Van ever gets out of coronatine that is.

(Now what do I do with a perfectly serviceable Solar Boost 2000E that has no home?)

Update October 20:

Since installing my new batteries and solar charger, in addition to "driveway simulations", I have managed to sneak in a couple of multi-day socially distanced excursions, including one in triple-digit heat which taxed the hell out of the batteries as they tried to keep up with the constantly-running fridge. 

Spending the money for this lithium-ion system hurt, but like child-birth (or so I've been told any way) the pain soon fades into the distant corners of memory and so far I've been happy with the performance of my new system and have no regrets making the LI plunge.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Setup and Charging of My New LiFePO4 Batteries.

Once my new "drop-in" lithium-ion batteries were dropped in, hooked up,

and buttoned down, there was still some work to do before I could call this project finished. - More work than I thought as it turned out.

Of course, the new LiFeP04 batteries have a different profile, electrical and performance wise, than the lead-acids I had in there before, so the next step in the installation of them was to go into my Xantrex LinkPRO battery monitor and re-program it with the new profile.

This involved changing some of both the Battery and System Properties as well as a number of alarm set points to reflect the characteristics of the new batteries.

Three of these settings, the float voltage, float current, and auto-sync time, work together to perform an auto-sync on the monitoring system. This is just a fancy way of saying that when all three of those parameters are met the monitor resets itself to 100% full and 0-Ah drained. This helps offset internal losses and inaccuracies of the sensors in recording the drain and charge of the batteries.

In reality this only worked about 10% of the time with my lead-acid batteries, but that was way more than the 0% of the time that I'm getting out of it with the LiFeP04 batteries. I've spent way too much time trying to manipulate these three settings to trick it into auto-syncing, but with no luck.

With these new batteries I find that the LinkPRO is off by about 1.5 to 2 amp hours every charge/discharge cycle, and always on the discharge side, so after about a week a full charge on the batteries shows as being about 10 to 15 amp-hours low.  Fortunately I can easily perform a manual sync on the meter, so if it gets far enough out of sync to bother me I just wait until later in the day when the batteries have charged up and gone to float and then perform the manual sync.

The final step here in the LinkPRO was to perform a Battery Status Reset which zeros out the history so I can start tracking the performance of the new batteries long term.

Despite how it looks, that's Marine Vinyl flooring and not carpet.

I have three separate ways of charging my house batteries. (Redundancy is King!)

In addition to the primary charging method, the solar system which I will address in it's own separate post, I have two other ways to charge my batteries, even though I rarely use them.

One is my little 15 amp Iota that I can use when plugged into shore power - if I also plug in the Iota to The Van's 120V system as well that is.

The IOTA is equipped with the internal IQ/4 smart-charge module for lead-acids that makes it a four-stage charger. The four stages are bulk (14.8 which is fine), absorption (14.2 which is a little low), float (13.6 which is spot on), and equalize (15.5 No Way!).

Iota does have 9 different plug-and-play smart-charge modules that change the charging profile of their units, including one for LiFePO4 batteries. Unfortunately they are external modules only and are not compatible with my internal IQ/4 equipped charger.

But as long as I don't screw up and let this charger sit in float for 7 uninterrupted days, which is what it takes to trigger the equalize function, it will treat my lithium's just fine for occasional use.

Since I very rarely plug The Van into shore power, and even more rarely also plug the IOTA in and use it, and never leave it plugged in for more than a day, I see no need to pay the money to swap it out for a LiFePO4 savey, charger at this point.

My third charging method is through a 300 amp disconnect switch (This $10 switch takes the place of the $100 automatic isolator that failed 5 years ago.) By inserting the "key" and twisting it I can connect The Van's alternator directly to the house batteries. (Or the house batteries to the chassis battery if I need to self-jump, like when this happened.)  No muss, no fuss.

Supposedly, with only 200 Ah of lithium battery installed I don't really need one of those fancy automatic isolators that alternates 15 minutes of connect time with 20 minutes of disconnect time to prevent overheating the alternator because of how efficient the LiFeP04s are at accepting charge-current. But to be honest, until I actually see it work (On someone else's rig!) I'm not completely convinced that my 200 Ah's of battery won't overwhelm The Van's alternator.

I certainly don't want to risk damaging my alternator, but because of the cost and hassle of installing one of those fancy isolators, plus a second, dedicated, manual disconnect because I also certainly don't want that automatic isolator operating all the time because engine alternators are great for running your headlights and charging starting batteries, but, beyond giving them a good healthy bulk charge, pretty much suck when it comes to charging deep-cycle batteries. For now, if and when I need it, I'll set the timer on my phone and manually control the duty-cycle with the key, which I can reach while driving, until I see how things work out.

If, and that's a capital If in my case, I was contemplating using the engine alternator as a primary charging source for my LiFePO4's I would use something like this DC to DC charger rather than relying on an alternator's internal regulator. (But don't just run out and buy this on my say-so. I have done absolutely no research on it!) This is a typical 3-stage charger just like my little Iota, the only difference being that instead of 115V input power this uses 12V input power off the alternator to produce a managed three-stage charge on the output side.

Next post: Solar charging and an unanticipated adjustment to my system.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Making the LiFePO4 Plunge

Though The Van's house batteries are still serviceable, and I say that with air-quotes, lately the voltage drops off quickly once the sun goes down so if I don't have sun every day I am getting close to having a power shortage because as voltage drops amps climb to compensate which makes the voltage drop faster which - - well, you get the idea.

The drop-off in power isn't surprising since this set of batteries is 3 years old, about the life expectancy of flooded wet-cell lead-acid deep-cycle batteries that, according to my Xantrex battery monitor, I've drawn about 11,000 Ah out of during their lifetime.

For about $300 I could replace them with a new set of the same battery. When new this gives me about 100 Ah of usable power between charges  (Draw any more than 100 Ah out of the 200 Ah of lead-acid battery and I greatly reduce their life.) which has proven to be sufficient, if not plentiful - most of the time anyway. 

But like most boondockers there are times when I could use more, like when parked in the almost perfect campsite. Almost perfect because it lacks some decent hours of direct sun for recharging those batteries. So I have been eyeing the more expensive Lithium Ion technology for a while now, and this time, without overthinking it too much, I closed my eyes, held my nose, 

and jumped in with both feet.

Well, not quite.  There was a lot of research and hemming and hawing and backing and forthing involved before I spent $1898 dollars on a pair of replacement batteries, because I don't care how you crunch the numbers, $1900 verses $300 is a damn big plunge! (And now my dream of an electric bike will just have to remain a dream a while longer!)

But here's the basic pro-con number-crunching I did:

The old standard lead-acids cost about $1 per lifetime usable Ah per year ($300/100 usable Ah/3 years usable life)

The lithium ion batteries cost about $0.95 per lifetime usable Ah per year ($1900/200 usable Ah/10 years usable life)

So purely on a cost - performance basis the price is, for all practical purposes, a wash. It's just a matter of spreading the payment out over time or eating it all at once.

But several other factors tipped the scales towards lithium for me.

  • With my fridge running (By far, my largest power load) and keeping GPS, camera, laptop, phone, and DVD player charged, along with a little bit of LED lighting, 100 Ah means that I have about three sunless days of battery capacity before I need to find some way to charge them back up. Batteries using the LiFePO4 chemistry (Lithium iron phosphate) can be drawn down to nearly 0% (Less than 11 volts) without damaging them or shortening their life (As long as they are charged right back up. Leave them discharged for too long - weeks or months - and they are toast.) so a pair of drop-in replacements at a combined 200 Ah would extend my deep-in-the-shadows-of-the-trees "hang time" in Forest Service and National Park campgrounds to 5 or 6 days without having to charge.
  • And when it is time to charge them lithium ion's charge fast! In fact, because less-than-fully-charged lithium ion's will suck every amp available out of an alternator, for those with more than 200 Ah of battery it is recommended that they install a special battery isolator that will let the alternator current through for 15 minutes then block it for 20 minutes before starting the cycle over again. This gives the alternator time to cool down in between bouts of full-bore output.
  • Because of the chemistry I could theoretically charge 200 Ah of lithium battery at a rate of 100 amps, as opposed to a max of 50 amps for the same capacity of lead acid. On top of that, and far more relevant for my setup, lithium ions will take that full charge rate right up to nearly fully charged while the charge rate for lead-acids drops off sharply above a charge of 80%, making them take a lonnng time to get through that gap between 80% and fully charged, during which they are just throwing away potential charging current from the solar panel. This means that lithium ions are much more efficient at taking advantage of every little bit of power coming off the solar panel, and since, even in the shadow of trees, I can get a couple-three amps out of the panel for a few hours the lithium ions have the potential to extend my shaded-campsite hang-time significantly better than the lead-acids.
  • Oh, and I also can't discount the coolness factor!

Of lessor interest, but still note-worthy:

  • The wet-cell lead-acid batteries require me to check the water level every quarter. This is not a huge task, taking maybe a half-hour and a pint or so of distilled water, but the lithium ion's have no water to lose and are virtually maintenance-free. (I'll still be opening up the battery boxes on the solstices to check the cable-to-terminal connections for cleanliness and tightness.)
  • The lead-acid batteries weigh in at a combined 108 lbs, or about a pound per usable amp-hour. The lithium ions weigh in at a combined 60 pounds, or about a third of a pound per usable amp-hour. Which means, not only have I doubled my usable amp-hours but now I can also carry 40 lbs of emergency potatoes (or maybe chocolate, or Poptarts, or - - -) without impacting my fuel mileage!

So why did I go with Battle Born batteries other than them having the right chemistry? (Not all lithium batteries are created equal so the particular chemistry is important.)  Well the free Ground Shipping didn't hurt, (more on that saga in a moment) but that wasn't all. Not that other companies don't produce a good product, but the Battle Born batteries checked a lot of boxes for me.

  • Right chemistry. Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries are more environmentally friendly, or at least less environmentally impactive, than other lithium chemistry's. They are safer in that getting the active components of the cells to burn or explode is pretty much impossible. (As with all batteries, the case and ancillary electronics might be combustible under the right circumstances) Best power density and environmental tolerance of all current lithium chemistry's. 
  • They are drop-in replacements. Lithium ion batteries don't need ventilation, don't need to be mounted upright, and can be packaged into non-standard shapes, but I didn't want to mess around with changing out the existing battery boxes, re-engineering hold-downs, and re-routing wiring, so why not just take advantage of the drop-ins?
  • They have full on-board BMS (Battery Management System). Which means, not only does each battery have internal protection against high/low voltage (>14.7/<11), high/low temps (>135/<25 [can take current out below the low temp but no charging]), high current (>100 for more than 30 seconds, >200 for more than 5 seconds [Withdrawing up to 100 amps right through to full dis-charge is allowed] ), but it also has on-board cell balancing that kicks in during the final stage of charging to ensure each cell is topped up to full potential. Some batteries have none of this and rely on external systems and some have the protection only without the cell balancing, which should technically be called BPS (Battery Protection System) but marketing departments are often fast-n-loose with their terms and sometimes label this a BMS as well. (Check the specs carefully!)
  • Battle Born has a reputation for good support (more personal experience on that during the shipping saga below)
  • Their batteries are manufactured in the US.
  • They offer free ground shipping!

So I pushed through the temporary panic of spending that kind of money, and made my purchase.

Which triggered the shipping saga. . . 

The one unfortunate thing about this deal was that Battle Born ship their product via FedEx Ground. 

UPS will deliver to our property with no problem, but FedEx is married to the USPS and since the USPS will not deliver here to our property, FedEx can't figure out how to either.

None of the in-store FedEx shipping locations around us would accept the shipment, (Did I mention that despite the safe chemistry the batteries are still classified as hazardous materials?) so I did what I thought was the logical thing

by getting on the official FedEx Shipping Center Locator web site and putting in my location. Originally there was a ton of places listed around me, but then I pulled down the "more" menu and clicked on Dangerous Goods Shipping.

That cleared out the map considerably, eliminating all but actual FedEx locations, and I selected the closest of the remaining sites (by the way, I didn't use our real location to set up this screen-grab) and plugged that address into the Ship To info on my order, cringed when my wallet squealed as I clicked that final "submit order" button, then sat back and waited.

Within moments I had an e-mail from Battle Born confirming my order, and an hour later another one confirming acceptance of my payment. The next day, sooner than I expected actually, I got a Battle Born message saying my order had shipped and giving me the tracking number.

For the next 4 days I hovered over the laptop watching my batteries make their way by truck across the country and when they arrived at the shipping center (At least that's what the tracking said.) we drove 65 miles one way to go pick them up.

Only they weren't there.

If you look back there at the official FedEx Shipping Center Locator page, nowhere on there does it say anything about Express or Ground, just FedEx. Well it turns out that all the Shipping Centers showing on that map are in fact FedEx Express and though if you walk in the door with a box of grenades in your hand they will accept your hazardous shipment from you and then send it on its way via FedEx Ground, they will not accept incoming shipments of any kind from FedEx Ground.

Well that kinda sucked!

With directions from the clerk at the shipping center we drove across town to the actual, and unlisted, FedEx Ground facility to see if we could sort this out, but it is gated off and closed to the public. Sitting in the employee parking lot and looking at a locked security gate I got on the FedEx phone system and tried to redirect the shipment to another address. After a couple tries I managed to negotiate that labyrinth (Which at one point had me shouting "REPRESENTATIVE" repeatedly into my phone, and I hate shouting.) all the way to the desk that could redirect my batteries, only to find out that only the shipper could do the redirect. As the lowly recipient I'm not allowed.

So I called Battle Born, was answered right away by a real person even though it was not quite office hours in Reno Nevada yet, and, rather than going through the hassle of working through the FedEx system to redirect the shipment, the woman at Battle Born told me she would just let those original batteries be returned to them, which is the default action when a FedEx Shipping Center refuses a FedEx Ground delivery, and, if I would give her a different address, she would send out a couple more batteries today. No fuss, no muss. (Although FedEx managed to rip the bar-code off one of the returning batteries as they were passing through their North Salt Lake City location and there was a few moments of confusion when one of the errant batteries arrived back at Battle Born a few hours before the other.)

This time I had given my 78 year old neighbor's address and within hours had a new tracking number to watch.

When I saw that the second set of batteries had reached the final FedEx location and went "out for delivery" at 0739 I set my timer (It takes a minimum of two hours to get to our place from that FedEx location, and that's without any stops.) and at 0930 parked The Van out in front of the neighbor's gate and settled in.

Oh, and I mean literally settled in. It had started raining around 0230. Not hard but it hadn't let up since. It's a dang good thing I have aggressive tires on the rear of The Van because I left a couple new ruts alongside the road up by his gate! When I got back down the hill to our place later I had mud from tread to lug-nuts. (I left the mud there for nearly two weeks before washing The Van because - well, you know - it's manly - - -)

Around 1330 a Budget Rent-a-Van with two guys wearing FedEx shirts coasted by on our narrow county road, turned around at the bottom of the hill, eased back on up, and I finally had my batteries in hand.

This was actually earlier than I expected so that was nice. (We once had a UPS shipment go "out for delivery" at 0600 one morning and the truck didn't actually show up until 0200 the next morning.)

The batteries were very well packed. It would take some massively severe damage to the packaging to get through and damage the battery inside.

The double-walled boxes went into our cardboard recycling and there are disposal/recycling instructions printed on the custom-molded foam inserts. As instructed, I stripped the plastic off and it will be recycled with our other thin plastic. The foam innards are apparently biodegradable, over time, and and in the meantime will compress to 18% of their original volume. Yeah, right! Maybe if I had a hydraulic crusher on the property! I'm afraid those went, at full volume, to the solid waste transfer site.

You would think for something that costs this much the graphics might be a little more eye-catching, or at least have a few more colors beyond grey and blue, but I paid for function not looks. Lipstick on a pig and all that.

At 30 lbs apiece these batteries are much lighter than their lead-acid counterparts so I can understand not incorporating a lift-handle onto them, (If you really want to you can buy a lift-strap from Battle Born that uses the terminal bolt-holes.) but 30 lbs is still half a feed-sack so I fashioned a temporary lift handle out of 1100 para-cord (I ran out of 550) using the strap-hangers molded into the battery case to lower them into the battery boxes.

A little smear of my GB Ox-Guard to ensure a good connection and cut down on oxidation at the connection points, and I bolted the original cables onto the new batteries.


Now I was ready to bolt the box-lids back on.

Well, almost ready.

More on setting up my equipment for, and charging the new lithium batteries coming up.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Tale of Two Paintings

The year was 1953.

In June Everest had finally been successfully climbed.

And more importantly, to me anyway, in September my parents got married.

There's an interesting family story about the run-up to that wedding which includes some intrigue, maybe a bit of deception, and certainly some secrecy, but like I said, that's a family story so I won't be repeating it here.

What is relevant to this post is that this year (2020) Dad has been gone for 10 years and when I was sitting at the table in mid August going through our stack of virgin greeting cards to "take care" of family events for the next few months, (Under the careful eye of The Wife, which is the only way to guarantee such familial obligations actually get taken care of. Not that I'm the only one at blame here though. Most years it was receiving a card from my Aunt that reminded the two of us of our own anniversary. Now that my Aunt is gone - well - now we don't remember at all most years.) it occurred to me that I wanted to do something a little more personal for this particular wedding anniversary than a greeting-card picked off a retail shelf months ago and stuck in a folder titled "cards for future events". (where, in our humid climate, the envelope flaps stick and have to be steamed back open again, but that too is another story I won't be repeating here - unless I already did?)

So right then and there - OK, OK, in reality it wasn't until after I ate lunch first, but in my defense, we only eat the one meal per day and I didn't want to miss that! - I started digging through old files until I found the photo above.

This was taken on the beach near Pensacola Florida in March of 2001.

I hadn't seen this photo in - well - forever, but it was pretty much as I remembered it.

Even better actually.

Most photos, at least most of mine, are not even photo-ready, let alone painting ready. Even the best of them usually need some content "editing", along with quite a bit of compositional adjustment, to turn them into a halfway decent painting. But the content of this one was exactly what I was looking for and the composition was also surprisingly close to being "right".

The single-point perspective of the waves and dunes, which force the eye towards the vanishing point - the target out there on the horizon - which, even without adjusting the height of the horizon, pulls the eye right to the main center of interest, the figure's heads and from there down the diagonals of the arms, which, other than the perspective lines, are the only diagonals in the image so they are highly noticeable, to their entwined hands.

We're off to a great start!

Yeah - if only it was that easy - - -

Because, as tempting as it was to use this near-perfect photo as-is in a painting, as I was doing a practice study to work out some things, (I may play at being an artist but at heart I'm still an engineer and scientist and tend to work things out carefully, usually too carefully for good art.) I had to remind myself that this was supposed to be a painting and if I copied the photo in nearly every detail I might as well just print the dang thing out on glossy paper and send that instead.

So I went back to basics.

After all, the critical part of this (imagined) painting was the two figures so why clutter things up with extraneous detail?

The main point for this wedding anniversary commemorative was to depict the pair of them in a form recognizable to the remaining member, my Mom, in a pose that embodies what I see as their essence as a couple.

Not only did they spend countless hours literally walking hand-in-hand on beaches, and trails, and campground loops, and neighborhood streets, but they also figuratively walked hand-in-hand for the majority of their lives as together they navigated friendship, marriage, parenthood, teenagers, and aging.

So after a number, a whole lot-a-number, of sketches, (Some of you might know that I'm not much of a people person and that shows up in my drawing as well.  Landscapes, animals, buildings - I can handle all that passably well, but throw in people and I suck!) I finally came up with one I could live with, which I then transferred to what I, optimistically and incorrectly as it turned out, hoped was the final sheet of watercolor paper.

OK, OK, first I transferred my drawing onto tracing paper and from there onto the watercolor paper with a light-table, but I have a good excuse for cheating like this!

First off you might be wondering why I put myself through the pain of creating a separate drawing in the first place instead of just taking a tracing right from the photo. Well copying figures directly from photos is a bad idea, a really bad idea, especially if they are of people you later have to sit across from at family get-togethers. Our brain knows the shape of a person, so "sees" where the edges of torsos, arms, legs, heads curve away into the 3D space, but in the process of converting a 3D subject into a 2D image, film or digital, no matter how good the lens, the camera doesn't do a good job of capturing that curving-away-into-3D-space phenomenon, instead it flattens things, and in the process spreads that waistline out, fattens arms and legs and heads. None of which is good for familial relationships. That "the camera adds X pounds" saying, while trite, is true!

Secondly, once I had a sketch I could live with, transferring it onto tracing paper and then copying that onto the final paper kept me from screwing up good, and expensive, paper with erasure marks while trying to re-do the sketch directly on that paper all over again from scratch!

Besides - you know that saying "you learn most from your mistakes"? Well in that case you'd think I would be a friggin' genius by now!! But that's not the case so there was a better than even chance that I would have to start over again before I finished this project.

And sure enough, once I got the brushes out I completely screwed the pooch on the first attempt,  so that tracing came in handy when I had to start all over again.

The scariest part of most paintings is laying down the first brush strokes (The second scariest is laying down the last strokes because I'm positive I'm going to ruin all the work I've already done!)

In this case, even though I had edited out all the extraneous detail of the original photo I didn't want to just leave my figures hanging out there space, so I intended to add just a hint of some abstract shapes there behind them to inject some spacial context and additional depth into the scene.

There are many artists that can do incredible abstract backgrounds like this completely free-hand by cutting in around the main subject using large, expressive hake brushes without making it look labored and stilted, I know because I've watched dozens of their demos - but I'm not one of those artists. So, even though it's a pain, I completely masked out the main subject so I could flow my background brushstrokes more freely right over top.

In order to keep the background fresh and - well - backgroundy, I stuck to using washes of just unadulterated cobalt blue and burnt sienna (The burnt sienna shows up in this photo a little redder and less earthy than it actually is.) with the only mixing being what happened right on the paper.

I also took this opportunity to lay down the shadow under the subjects without having to worry about cutting it in around their feet later. For that I used the same cobalt blue mixed with just a hint of burnt sienna to grey it down a little. 

After hours of futzing around (Not really because futzing with watercolor is a sure way to make it muddy and dull and create unwanted blooms and back-runs - but it was hours of careful, hold-my-breath-for-every-stroke, brushwork.) I was ready to call it good enough. 

The next step was to "crop" the painting down by removing what I considered excess paper from all four sides - after the fact of course! After all, why make things easier on myself? I could have done this with a straight-edge and blade, but decided that, should Mom want to stick it on the fridge with a jokey/cute/inspirational magnet, (After all, I'm her kid, so she almost has to!) deckled edges would be more interesting that knife-cut.

Hand-molded paper comes naturally deckled, but getting a deckled look on fresh edges requires tearing the paper, and I'll admit that tearing at my freshly minted painting was a bit scary.

The trick is to fold the paper where you want the edge to end up, burnish the fold well, then fold it back the other way and burnish again, then STOP!  Any more folding and burnishing will create too clean a tear. And since I was foolishly doing this on a completed painting, I made sure I had very clean hands! Not always a given with me.

In the photo above it kinda looks like I'm tearing the paper up against that straight-edge, but again, that creates too clean an edge. What I'm really doing is using the ruler to hold the paper down with one hand while I pull the strip of excess paper straight away from the painting, very carefully, tearing it 1/8th of an inch at a time, with the other. This is quite a workout for the fingers since we're talking about 140 pound, 100% cotton paper.

We all know what happens when paper gets wet, even heavy paper such as this, so the final step with many watercolors is to dampen the back-side of the paper then firmly press it flat while it slowly dries. This allows the fibers to relax and removes most of the buckling so the paper lays relatively flat again.

Since this step is necessary for most every watercolor painting I do you'd think I would have some fancy contraption for this, but no. I just grab whatever is at hand and hope for the best.

Sorry for the smear down there to the right of Mom's feet. I forgot and signed the painting before I photographed it. Can't go spreading the family name all over the interweb! So I blurred it out.

What I was going for was something that Mom, and maybe a few others, would recognize as her and Dad together in an oft-repeated, contemplative and peaceful moment.

So did it work?

Frankly I don't know. I'm too invested in it to see it objectively anymore.

But I'm also too invested not to send it. So off it goes anyway.

And I haven't forgotten that the title of this post does allude to two paintings.

To shake off the tight, eye-crossing, stress of the first painting I treated myself to something much looser for the second.

Same theme. Same exaggerated single-point perspective, but this time, since they didn't have to be recognizable, after I completed the rest of the painting I was able to slap in the figures with a few therapeutic brushstrokes. No painstaking drawing, no tracing, no fussing.


Monday, October 12, 2020

Am I Really Doing What You Think I Said I Was??

I talk a lot on these pages about hiking, but language is a funny thing.

The spoken word is nothing more than a jumble of random sounds, very much like the vocalizations of a baby, the only difference being that a group of humans have agreed to string these sounds into repeatable patterns and assign these various combinations to particular concepts or meanings.

There is logic to a few of these sound/concept matchups, such as "plop" or "smack". But most have an obscure, largely unknown, and frankly pretty tenuous link between the sound and the concept. For instance the English word "husband" can be traced back to a mashup of the Norse words hus (house) and bandia (dweller) which is fairly straightforward, but try to track the logic behind calling a shelter hus, and someone who lives in a particular place bandia and things start to get pretty random.

But that isn't important. As long as a large enough group can come to an agreement on what sounds link to which concepts, no matter how random those links, all is well.

Or is it?

When I say "I'm hiking" - am I really?

Short answer: - sorta.

Not so short answer: - maybe, but probably not in the way many of you think.

Really long answer:

Language is all about communication, and in that sense, in order to successfully get your point across in one piece and the way you intended it, each and every word needs to be precisely matched by both parties, the speaker and the listener, to a previously agreed upon concept.

Yet already there's a problem with that, and it really starts with me being imprecise. 

When I'm referring to my work-out laps on the property I usually say "I'm hiking the property" and when I'm out on some wilderness trail I also say "I'm hiking",  but those are two very different activities.

Now, to make it even worse, let's throw you, the listener, into the mix.

When you hear someone say "hiking" you immediately have an image in your head of what "hiking" entails and additional clarification is rarely needed.

Or is it??

Your personal image of hiking comes from your own experience and exposure, which may or may not match the image in my head. (And we've already seen that the image in my head shifts around as much as a kid on a hard church-pew listening to a looonng sermon accusing him of all sorts of horrible sins.)

To take an extreme example of personal perspective, there is a segment of hikers out there that call themselves through-hikers, and the focus of their "hiking" is on getting from here to there, on "bagging" trails. To push this even farther, the Colorado Trail is 486 miles long and currently - well, always - the race is on among a subset of the through-hiker community to beat the FKT. (Fastest Known Time)

There are three versions of the FKT that apply to any major trail. Supported, where you have friends and family meet you at agreed-upon spots at agreed-upon times to resupply. Self supported where you cache supplies along the route yourself before setting out. And the big kahuna, unsupported, where you set out with everything you're going to need, supplies and food, on your back and do the trail end to end with no assistance.

Today the unsupported FKT to beat for the Colorado Trail is 9d, 12h, 32m.

Yep, think about that! Allowing for nine 8 hour stops to sleep, and no other breaks during the day, that works out to "hiking" non-stop for 16 hours a day for nine successive days, then wrapping up with an "easy" 12 hour day, for an average of 51 miles per day, or a sustained ambulatory rate of 3.1 miles per hour, which just so happens to be the recommended target rate for your daily 40 minute aerobic walk.

Oh, and this is not walking quarter-mile laps on the high school track! This trail crosses two major mountain ranges so there is a lot of serious up and downing along the way!

For the rest of us mere mortals, when publishing estimated hike-times for various trails the National Park system uses 1.5 MPH as an average hiking speed.

Me? Well I'm doing good to cover 10 miles in a 10 hour day!

But if I was moving any faster I may not have spotted those hawks sunning themselves way up the side of that ridge on a frosty morning.

If I wasn't poking along I would probably have missed the tiny speck of movement that was a couple Aoudads negotiating the cliffs up there across the canyon.

If I had been actually "hiking" I may have missed the momentary drama high over my head of the "trumpet" portion of a trumpet vine flower  being discarded to blow away on the wind because it's associated bud had already been pollinated


while her sister bud still awaits her deflowering.

So maybe I should be using some other word to explain what I'm doing out there on the trail?

John Muir actually disliked hearing people say they were "hiking" because in his mind  it indicated the activity of getting-from-here-to-there, (And rightfully so since "hike" appears to be derived from "hyke" which was defined in an 1809 English dictionary to mean "to walk vigorously". And to support that vigorousness, going further back in English times, "hyke" shows up in The Noble Art of Venerie, or Hunting published in 1611 where it is described as a word of encouragement given by the huntsman to spur the hounds on.) and Muir felt our natural places deserved better than as just a place to get through.

His preferred term, a preference he shared with Henry Thoreau and John Burroughs, two more bearded naturalists, was saunter, which I suppose is a perfectly good word, if only it weren't for it's French origins. (A personal tick of mine, cringing at all things French, including language, that comes from spending the last 5 years of my career working closely with them.)

There's a few other possibilities, like meander and lollygag, but these words are subject to the same personal interpretation as hike. Not to mention the potential negative connotations. (The senile old man meanders. The clueless old fool lollygags.)

So I guess I will stick with telling you I'm hiking and just live with the fact that I'm probably not actually doing what you think I said I was doing.