Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wind turbines -- are they really noisy?

For the boondocking RVer, one of the biggest concerns is getting enough electrical power. We've been using solar and wind power for years, and while there's plenty said and written about solar, wind power is still a pretty big mystery to most.

One of the questions we run across, "Isn't wind power noisy?" That's a pretty subjective question. We can certainly tell you that wind power is generally quieter than running a generator. And depending on how you mount your wind turbine, it can be practically whisper quiet. Here's a video we shot along a windy stretch of the Columbia River. We have the camera about 30 feet (or less) from the turbine. Outside, you'll notice the sound is fairly quiet. Inside, with our turbine mounted on the RV itself, you'll hear a kind of moaning sound. We find it to be rather soothing.

If the wind gets really strong, say in the mid to upper 30 mile per hour range, it is definitely louder. At 40 it howls -- and at 42, the blades on our turbine twist, feathering off the wind, and immediately stopping the rig. And when the batteries are fully charged, our unit shuts down -- the blades continue to spin, but the system is freewheeling and very quiet.

It's something that takes a little getting used to. But we find the "noise" is something we can get along fine with -- particularly on days when the sun leaves us in the lurch and the solar panels not producing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Near disaster -- from an uncommon cause. Could you be next?

A small plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park, placed by the Bostonian Society, commemorates the "Boston Molasses Flood." It reads: "On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood."

While that disaster was spectacular, the other day we narrowly avoided a disaster of our own – from a directly related cause. The molasses tank, which may have contained up to 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, is said to have given way due to metal fatigue. We had a tank of our own, "jump overboard" and drag along California Highway 99, held in place by a rubber gas line. Metal fatigue caused a weld in our LP cylinder support system to give way, tossing the full cylinder onto the pavement, where it dragged along at 50 miles an hour, merrily shedding steel where it grated the pavement. Had we not heard a "ding, ding, ding" noise and stopped, we probably wouldn't be here to tell the tale. LP gas and sparks aren't a good mix.

Metal fatigue, simply stated, is a weakening of metal by repeatedly applied loads. In our case, a half-inch metal rod had been welded onto the bottom support platform of our LP cylinder carrier. That threaded rod was home to a clamp that when secured to the top of the cylinders, kept them in place. But bouncing down the road repeatedly stressed the weld where the rod came in contact with the platform. The potholes and pavement irregularities of the highway near Fresno were enough to fatigue the weld to the giveaway point, and the rest is history that could have been much worse than a three-hour delay and repair effort.

We've had other experience with metal fatigue in our RV career – and you may have as well. If you have a travel trailer or fifth wheel, you've got several spring shackles, a critical component in your RV's suspension system. In fact, any rig with a leaf spring has spring shackles. Repeatedly jostled and strained by bouncing down the road, spring shackles can give way, with consequences ranging from minor to catastrophic.

Metal fatigue isn't limited to support systems and LP platforms. Ever had a window crank break off? Yeah, maybe they are "cheap junk" but it's just another example of fatigue. In that case, it's largely a nuisance. But for areas where limb or life is involved, the matter is far greater than just a nuisance. It simply underscores the point of regularly inspecting your RV, or having it done. An annual look-see of all suspension system parts is a good idea. If you don't know what you're looking for, hire it done. Would we have thought to look at the propane support platform. Never. But maybe if we'd crawled under the rig with an eye toward "what could be out of order" we might have spotted the problem before it nearly got away from us. Crawling around under the rig would also give a chance to inspecting the welds on the trailer frame. Happily, its a rare day when you hear of something like a frame coming apart, but hey, for my peace of mind, it's worth a few hours of inspection.

photos: R & T De Maris

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First time RV buyer?

If you're shopping for your first RV, here's a little advice from industry insider. Don't pretend to know something that you don't know. Why would a prospective RV buyer become a "pretender"? It may be they're afraid that if they present themselves as a "newbie," that unscrupulous salesmen will take advantage of them. But you can turn the tables and sniff out the bad guys, because just like any other industry, there are bad sellers, and there are good ones. If you do pretend, be prepared to be detected – and probably taken advantage of.

A little bit of knowledge can help you. Before you hit the RV sales lots, learn a little something before you go. For example, if you're out shopping for a motorhome, take the time to do a little bit of research and learn the differences of gasoline versus diesel motorhomes. When you get to the dealership, ask your salesman the question you've already researched. Based on what he or she tells you, you'll know whether to walk away or not. Looking for a towable unit? Ask what your truck (or SUV) can pull. If you're told, "It'll pull anything I can sell you," run, don't walk.

Our insider tells us that when it comes to being a new RVer, you'll probably be best treated at a small dealership – and don't be afraid to 'fess up that you are new. The little guy is far more likely to take the time to truly help you make the right choice – he needs your business, and figures if he treats you right the first time, you'll more likely come back for your next rig, too.

Don't get worried if you ask a question and the sales person can't immediately answer it. The RV industry is changing, and the faster new products and new technologies come out, the faster sales folk have to run to keep up. They may honestly have to "look it up." Better they take the time to research the answer than to shoot off the top of their heads with something that could turn out to be flat wrong. On the other hand, if they can't answer much of any question without researching that may indicate you have a greenhorn salesman, and as a newbie RVer, that's not somebody you need. Find another dealership.

What should you do if your sales rep starts to put the pressure on? A good salesman isn't going to push you into a sale you're not ready for. Don't panic, don't get mad. Just walk out. Whatever happens, don't be pressured into making a deal or forking over any money until you're firmly comfortable with what you're getting. Ask to take the sales contract with you, and get help looking it over. An experienced RVer, your attorney, or a banker – or all of the above, may be the right folks to have eyeball your paperwork before you sign.

photo: vagawi on

Thursday, July 23, 2015

RV Solar: Making Power Away From the Grid

Welcome to the first issue of I Can RV! If you're looking for helpful information about boondocking (RVing away from utilities), RV product reviews, information for folks new to RVing, and great places to travel with your RV, you've come to the right place.

To get things rolling for our premier edition, we're combining a couple of categories: Boondocking and New RVer information – in a post relative to solar power. It's a "101" topic, geared for those who don't know much about solar power. Stick around – we'll bring up more advanced topics as the issues go by. And if you have questions, comments, or requests for future information, please drop us a line – use the "Contact Us" button on the right sidebar.

For those who haven't experienced boondocking, a question often pops up: "Where do you get the stuff you need to make your trip fun, and not a bunch of misery sitting around a candle every night when the sun goes down?" For the boondocker, electricity has to come from somewhere. For some, a mechanical fossil fuel-fired generator is the answer. Others find solar or even wind power a happier alternative. Solar and wind power are quiet and the "fuel" costs are free.

In general, solar panels and wind generators produce low voltage direct current (DC) that charges your RV batteries. The batteries store the power up for use when needed--even when the solar panels or wind generators aren't producing power. What about "shore power" devices like microwave ovens, computers, or televisions? Most of these can be operated from stored battery power through the use of an inverter, which changes DC battery power into alternating current (AC) power that's palatable to your shore power equipment.

So, will these "alternative" electrical sources, wind or solar, work for you? In most cases, yes. It really comes down to how much power you use. What's true for one "RV family" probably won't hold true for the next. Space doesn't allow us to go into detail on how to calculate how much power your own lifestyle uses, so we'll need to use a few generalities. In a future post, we'll show you to calculate your own needs.

How Much Power?

All of us need electricity to operate our lighting system, maybe running a couple of lights for four hours a day. It's nice to keep the dishes clean, and take an occasional shower, so electricity will be required for the RV water pump. Let's say that water pump will run a total of 45 minutes a day. Most of us will want to watch a little TV--maybe three hours a day. If you're boondocking in cooler weather, you'll wind up running the furnace fan to take the chill off--let's say just two hours a day. The power these devices consume is measured in "amps," and adding the factor of "how long" they're used equates to a figure called "amp hours."

Using "typical" consumption figures for these devices in our hypothetical example, our generalized RVer will use about 43-amp hours of electricity per day. How many solar panels, or how big a wind generator? Whoa, pardner! First let's talk about where you're going to put that electricity.

A common misconception is that your lights, pumps, TVs, computers, etc., all draw their needs directly from solar panels or wind generators. But the sun doesn't shine at night--when you need those lights, and sometimes the wind doesn't blow. And even with the sun shining brightly, the panels may not be producing enough power to meet a peak of power consumption. Enter your electrical "bank account."

RV Batteries: Your Power "Bank Account"

RV batteries are like a "savings account," for electrical power. With them you can save up the power your solar panels produce, and are critical for wind generator folks who probably produce far more power on a windy day than they can consume. Specially designed "deep cycle" batteries are made for "house" use, that is, they can store and provide power for powering lights, pumps, etc. These batteries customarily produce low amounts of current over a long time. If you're a "motorhomer," you'll also have one or more "starting, lighting, ignition" (SLI) batteries which are designed simply to start up and operate your motorhome engine and associated "running" operations.

When choosing batteries for your RV, never try to make an SLI battery do the job of a house battery--it won't live long enough to tell the tale. Deep cycle batteries for house use are built differently, designed to be deeply discharged and recharged many, many times. SLI batteries produce a lot of current real fast--needed for starting up an engine--and then need to be quickly recharged.

Here's the first place you need to know how much power you actually use. A properly designed electrical system for boondocking has the right amount of battery capacity to provide your electrical needs for at least two days, while only discharging the batteries to half of their capacity. Why so? Well, you may run into a situation where the sun doesn't shine for a day, and you'll need that extra reserve to keep you going. And the other part of the equation? If a house battery is often discharged to less than half its capacity, its longevity will quickly be reduced. Deep cycle batteries can be expensive, so you want to keep them happy and healthy.

So let's take our hypothetical example, where our RVer uses 43 amp-hours of electricity per day. When he "shops" for RV batteries, he'll need to have a battery bank with a minimum capacity of 172 amp hours. How so? Double the use, 43 times 2 equals 86, and then never allow the batteries to be discharged to less than half their capacity, so double that again, 86 times 2 equals 172 amp hours of storage capacity. Since it's a rare day when you'll find a single deep-cycle battery that will have this kind of capacity, you'll need to get more than one battery and wire them properly to get the desired amount of capacity. Let's say our friend finds 12 volt batteries with a capacity of 80 amp-hours. He'd need three of them to meet the needs--and he'd have some extra capacity left over, as his "bank" would provide 240 amp-hours capacity.

Now that we know what our "bank account" looks like in terms of capacity, let's talk about how to put "money in the bank."

Solar: The Primary RV Alternative

Most boondockers start out with solar panels as their primary "alternative energy" source. How much solar power do you need? Figure for every amp-hour of battery capacity, you'll need a ½ a watt of solar panel power. So in our hypothetical example, our RVer could really get away with 120 watts of solar power for his battery bank, provided he boondocks where there's good solar exposure. What is good exposure? Solar panels need to "see" full sun. Add even a bit of a shadow across their surface, or a tiny bit of cloudiness, and energy production drops off significantly. When we consider panel production, we assume six good hours of sunshine a day. If you boondock in cloudy areas, you'll need more solar panel muscle. Figure ¾ of a watt per amp-hour of battery capacity.

Mind you, you'll wind up buying more than just solar panels. Solar panels, left to themselves, can overcharge (read "cook") your batteries. And at night, left to themselves, panels can likewise discharge your batteries. What's needed is a electronic "middle man" who controls the flow of electricity. When the batteries are full, the flow of current is cut off. At night, power is not allowed back up to the panels. That "middle man" is a solar regulator, which acts as a kind of automatic switch.

Where does that leave you in terms of dollars and cents? You can buy all the individual components needed, or some outfits will sell you a complete package. A glance at a popular Internet retailer shows a package, including 200 watts of solar panels, mounting brackets (that allow for easy roof placement of the panel), and a regulator for $324. Add a few bucks for wiring, and you've got your stuff. Of course, if you don't feel comfortable installing a system, you'd have to add installation charges.

But what if your power needs are greater than our hypothetical example? Or what if your needs changed, and you need more power? The beauty of solar power is that it can be expanded with relative ease. Another panel can be mounted on the roof and wired into the existing system without much effort. If our RVer found he needed another 100 watts of power, he could find a suitable panel to add into the system for around $130. Mind you, these are new equipment prices. If you frequent heavily traveled RV hot spots like Quartzsite, Arizona, you'll find solar dealers often have used equipment for less money. Since solar panels don't "wear out," a used panel is not like buying a used car--they're far more dependable.

We hope you've found this information useful. We'll be back with more RV information in our next post. And pardon our housekeeping, we're still adjusting the site -- so that promised "Contact Us" button has eluded us. Meantime, give us a shout at ICanRV at gmail dot com.

photos: R&T De Maris

Updated 7/23/2015 0943 Mountain (AZ) to include new product links.