What’s wrong with campground power?

If you take one message away from this posting, it should be this: Don’t trust campground power.

I’ve camped at literally hundreds of campground across North America, and I’ve frequently been amazed how often the electrical service is poor or even dangerous. The most frequent problem is low voltage, where the normal 120 volt or 240 volt service sags because everyone is using their air conditioner at the same time.

The electrical devices in your Airstream are designed for normal voltage plus or minus 10 percent. That means anywhere from 108 volts to 132 volts is tolerated by the refrigerator, air conditioner, microwave, and power converter. (The power converter changes the 120 volt AC power into 12 volt DC power to charge the battery and support all the other 12 volt accessories like furnace, water pump and lights, so it’s particularly important that it is happy.)

But in reality, a hot day in a campground can mean brief “brown outs” where the power dips below 105 volts—and that is bad news indeed. If your air conditioner tries to start up under those conditions it will probably burn out, and that’s a $1000+ replacement. (Plus you’ll have to suffer in the heat until you can get a repair!)

We have a Digital Voltage Meter in the Airstream Life Store, and I recommend that everyone carry one at a minimum so you can test the power before you plug in your Airstream. It checks the voltage and the wiring to make sure you aren’t plugging into bad power. It’s cheap insurance and will protect you from things like mis-wired outlets, bad grounds, and incorrect polarity.

But the limitation of a meter is that it can’t help you if there’s a power surge or dip when you’re not watching. The best solution is  a smart Electrical Management System (EMS). Like the Voltage Meter, the EMS checks the wiring before allowing power to flow to your Airstream. Then it continuously monitors for dangerous conditions like high or low voltage.

An EMS like that will shut off the power instantly (in milliseconds) if something bad is happening, and then turn the power back on when conditions are safe again. It’s a brilliant solution.

Take a few tips next time you go camping:  When you get to your campsite, inspect the power pedestal before you plug in. Look for cracked or broken outlets, wasp nests (I’ve been stung more than once when opening a pedestal cover), or looseness. If the outlet seems questionable, don’t plug in without first using a Digital Voltage Meter or EMS.  You should see about 120 volts, and there should be no indications of mis-wiring.

If the voltage is below 115, be wary. That means the wiring you share with many other campers is already a little stressed, and it’s likely to go lower once you plug in. If you need to use an extension cord, that’s another concern because longer cord runs mean lower voltage. And don’t ever try to run the air conditioner while the Airstream is connected to a 15-amp household plug. It might work for a while but sooner or later the voltage will drop or one of the plugs may melt.

If the campground power voltage is a little low to start and you know the weather is going to get hot later you can probably expect that the voltage will continue to drop, perhaps to dangerous levels. This is the ideal situation to be using a good EMS, because it takes only a few seconds of low power to cause expensive problems in the Airstream. It’s much better to have the power cut off automatically by the EMS (and later restored automatically) than to blow up your AC appliances. The same is true of voltage spikes.

There are a couple of brands of EMS units on the market today. Most outlets sell a Surge Guard unit but I’m not a big fan of that one. Reliability seems to be an issue and the overall quality is (in my opinion) lower. For a decade now I’ve been using Progressive EMS units and they’ve been great, so that’s the only brand we carry in the Airstream Life Store.

Progressive also stands behind their product. I had one fail because I left it out in a Florida rainstorm with the plugs facing up, and they filled with water. Progressive honored the lifetime warranty anyway and replaced it for free. The current models come with a nice rain shield now, so even that problem is unlikely to occur.

Whatever solution you choose (Digital Volt Meter, Electrical Management System), be sure to pay attention to the power everywhere you plug in, including when you’re “driveway camping” at home or a friend’s house. A few seconds of attention can save you an expensive repair later!

What’s boondocking and what do I need to do it?

Every modern Airstream is pretty well set up for living off the grid, for a day or two. But if you want to get away from crowded campgrounds and park somewhere without hookups for more than a weekend—in other words, boondocking—you’ll want to start upgrading your Airstream and your camping practices a bit.

There are three major limitations to your boondocking experience: water, power and propane. (Other considerations are things like food and sewer capacity, but you’ll probably run out of water or power first.)

The best and least-expensive way to extend your boondocking time is to learn how to conserve.  Learn the “navy shower” technique, do less dishwashing or learn to wash very efficiently or use paper plates, replace all lights with LEDs (if they aren’t already), set the furnace temperature lower and sleep with an extra blanket or dog, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

When using the 12 volt batteries you won’t be able to run the air conditioner or microwave, so the remaining big energy consumers are the furnace, water pump, and laptops. Airstream batteries are typically sized with just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend (if you aren’t running the furnace a lot) because most people don’t use the trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.

Once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. So power conservation is important.

To reduce the drain caused by laptops, try using a tablet or your phone instead. An iPad requires about 10-20% of the power of a laptop and can charge quickly from a cigarette lighter plug, instead of requiring an inefficient inverter.  (You can pick up USB cigarette lighter adapters easily if you have an older trailer without USB outlets.) Shorter showers and limited dish washing will also cut power consumption by the water pump.

Carrying a portable solar panel can be very helpful if you like to camp where trees shade the Airstream.  With a solar panel kit and an extension cable you can put the panels in a spot where the sun hits them. Solar isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s silent, free to operate, eco-friendly, and you don’t have to carry gas. With summertime sun, a pair of solar panels can extend your boondocking time by days.

If you find the two batteries supplied with the Airstream aren’t enough, consider going to larger batteries. This will require some custom work, but you’ll get a lot of value out of it.

 

In hot weather, try to spend the day out of the Airstream.  This cuts down the length of time you’ll need the vent fans.  Each vent fan consumes about 2 DC amps, which means three of them running for six hours = 36 amp-hours.  That’s a lot of juice, which is put to better use after sunset when the temperatures start to drop.

In the winter, furnace use is the problem. The furnace eats a lot of power (7-10 amps when running) and it’s fairly wasteful of propane too. A catalytic heater is helpful, since it doesn’t use electricity at all, and is much more efficient at turning propane into heat.

Propane isn’t much of a limitation in the summertime, since a pair of 30-lb. tanks will run the refrigerator and water heater for weeks. But in late fall and winter you’ll want to travel with both propane cylinders as full as possible. You can easily find yourself spending an unexpected night along the road with only your propane supply to keep you warm. With freezing nights a tank of propane can be used up in just a few days.

If you are going to be off grid for a while, get a portable tank to carry fresh water. Serious boondockers will find a place in town or nearby to refill their jerry can or water bottles, and bring a little fresh water back to camp after every excursion. Mark the tank “FRESH WATER ONLY”.

After a few days of boondocking it’s nice to hit a full hookup campground for a night just to get everything back in ship-shape.  The Airstream will inevitably be full of dirt and gravel tracked in from the campsite, and you might be a bit less fresh than you’d like to be (due to careful conservation of water). Plus there may be various electronic devices that you postponed charging, or the laundry basket might be full, and it will probably be time to get some groceries and dump the tanks if there wasn’t a place to do it before.

We find that having a “recovery” day in a full hookup campground is something we enjoy, with long showers and a chance to get everything ship-shape before heading out for more adventure (or home).

Cooking without gas (or charcoal!)

I like trying new things as we travel in our Airstream. Last week, at Alumapalooza, I saw an earnest Welsh man named Davey Jones (really) demonstrating something I’ve never seen before: a solar cooker that actually makes sense.

I have seen solar ovens before. Back in 2005 at the Florida State Rally I spotted someone cooking with a giant solar oven (pictured at right) but I was unimpressed. Although the oven had room for a large pot, it was far too big to be practical for our style of travel. When deployed, it looked like an NASA probe bound for Jupiter. I dismissed it as an interesting but quirky niche item for extremists.

Thirteen years later, I’m not so quick to dismiss the power of the sun. After all my fixed base home and my Airstream are powered by solar panels, and I love them. At home the sun provides 110% of our annual power needs, and solar panels can keep us unplugged for weeks during the summer in our Airstream.

Davey was showing off the new GoSun line of solar cookers at Alumapalooza. (They’re called “cookers” because they can be stove, oven, broiler, steamer, or water-heater depending on how you use them.) Even in hazy Ohio sunlight he was baking up cinnamon rolls and frying bacon all day long. I’m not sure if I was more impressed at the cooking or the cleverness of his olfactory marketing.

The secret of the GoSun cookers is the vacuum tube at the center. It’s basically a Thermos bottle with one-way mirrored glass. Sunlight goes in, converts to infrared as it passes through the glass, and the heat is trapped by the vacuum bottle. This is a quantum leap from the big wood box of 13 years ago.

That means that with the GoSun cookers you don’t need a huge reflector area to make a lot of heat. The reflectors on the GoSun cookers is tiny compared to the giant Sun Oven pictured above, and yet the inside of the vacuum tube can get to 550 F. (Most of the time it runs 200-360 F.) The amazing thing is that you can grab the outside of the glass tube with your hands and it won’t even be hot. So you can’t burn yourself on it.

The smallest model, the GoSun “Go” (pictured below) is so portable it fits easily in a daypack, and weighs just 2 pounds. It’s perfect for meals for one person, or two people depending on what you cook. The next size up, the GoSun “Sport” (pictured above) is still very packable, and can make enough hot food for 3-4 people.

We got the “Go” model to try it out before adding it to the Airstream Life Store (as I do with every product we carry), and tried it out in a friend’s driveway a few days later. I decided to bake some apples for my first trial, and sweeten them with cinnamon, xylitol, and nutmeg.

Whatever you cook has to fit into the cylindrical cooking tray. In the case of my apples, that meant peeling them and cutting into chunks. Then I just put the apples into the tray, slid it into the cooker, and placed it in the sun.

The cleverness of the GoSun design started to become apparent when I did this. The hardshell case of the “Go” model is zippered, so deploying it is simply a matter of unzipping. A brace holds the two sides of the case open and the reflectors are built right in. There’s even a little dial attached to the tube to make it easy to locate the optimal angle to the sun, and an adjustable folding stand attached to the case props the whole thing up.

Once you slide the food tray in and point it at the sun, your work is done. After a few minutes in full sun the interior will be hot enough to start cooking. Steam begins to waft out of the end of the vacuum tube. You can take a peek at progress by sliding the food tray out for a moment.

My big mistake was not believing what I saw. I really couldn’t believe that the apples were cooking, so I left it in the sun for much longer than necessary, and when I finally removed them they were basically applesauce. Delicious applesauce, sure, but not quite what I had planned for. Fortunately, I had prepared three apples and could only fit 1.5 apples worth in the first batch, so did a second batch and cut my cooking time in half.

Those apples came out perfectly, softened but still firm. I mixed the chunks with the applesauce from the first batch and had a really great dessert for the next two days. (It would have been perfect on ice cream but I ate it all straight.)

Now, you may be thinking “I already have a stove and oven in my Airstream, so why do I need this?”  I thought the same thing at first. Then I realized, a big part of the joy of travel and camping is cooking outdoors for family and friends. Lots of people carry charcoal or propane grills. Others carry Dutch Ovens. You don’t need them but it’s so much more fun to prepare a meal slowly, outdoors, and while you’re waiting for that delicious slow food you can enjoy talking with your friends.

I particularly like that the GoSun cookers come with little silicone baking trays so that you can make cupcakes and such (I used them for the apples, too), and can be configured to make hot drinks. This gives them a lot of versatility. They’re also easy to clean; you just slide out the stainless steel tray and wash it. GoSun includes a bottle brush to clean inside of the vacuum tube if it gets a little food stuck to it, but most of the time that’s not necessary. So cleanup and packing took me about two minutes.

The only limitation I spotted with the “Go” model is that the food capacity is pretty small, best for one person or a small side dish (or a topping like I made). I think we’ll upgrade to the “Sport” model for future cookouts, and that way we can make things for all three of us. If you get the Sport, be sure to get the “Pro Pack” so that you have all the accessories you need including a case.

If you have one of these, please put in a comment below to tell me your favorite thing you’ve made in it. I’m looking forward to further experiments with our portable solar cooker, and your ideas would be welcome!

GoSun cookers in the Airstream Life Store with free shipping

Keeping your data safe while you travel

We spend about five to six months a year traveling in our Airstream, which means the laptop computers come along and backing up data on the road is part of our routine. If we didn’t back up data periodically, we could lose a lot of important business information and priceless photos from our travels. But securing our data is not as simple as it might seem.

There are handy online services that will automatically back up your data, and that’s convenient. For an RV traveler, however, these services can suck up all the data on your cell phone plan if you’re using a cellular hotspot to connect to the Internet. So we rely on portable USB hard drives for our backups—the “old fashioned” manual method.

These portable hard drives are pretty cheap and easy. Easy to use (I like Carbon Copy Cloner, but Apple’s Time Machine and many other good software packages are out there), and easy to store in a plastic tub between backups. If you have a small amount of data to back up, you can even use a big USB flash drive.

But imagine that one day your Airstream is in an accident, and as a result both the laptop and the backup drive are destroyed. You’re still out of luck. For that reason, I keep a second backup drive at home, locked in a safe, and I make a point of backing up all three laptops to it before we depart on a long trip. Having the second backup physically distant from the Airstream means it’s very unlikely we’ll lose all our data after a catastrophe.

The other major risk is losing your laptop, tablet, or phone. These days those devices have considerable potential to ruin your life. Forget about “identity theft”—think about the damage someone could do just with access to your devices. People often don’t appreciate the tremendous amount of personal data that can be obtained just from access to their email. And once a hacker has access to email, it’s usually not long before they’ve engineered access to social media accounts, shopping accounts, credit cards, and more.

To protect against this risk, always protect all of your devices with a password. There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling when you think about all the private information on your device—emails, passwords, social media accounts—after it’s gone. The simple 4-digit default passwords offered on phones and tablets are at least better than nothing, but the best passwords are long. That old advice about having an upper case letter, a lower case letter, a symbol, a number, and at least 8 characters is somewhat outdated and tends to result in passwords like “4GflzbY#” that humans can’t easily remember, so try a “pass phrase” instead, like “I love 3 turtles”. That will stop the casual attacker and you probably won’t forget it.

If you do have trouble remembering passwords, or you have too many of them (like all of us), try a password manager. This software, available from several sources, allows you to store all your passwords in a single place, protected by encryption and a master password. It’s much more secure than writing your passwords on a piece of paper and sticking it in a drawer or taping it to the computer screen like I’ve seen several people do. Personally, with all the web-based services I use, I couldn’t function without a password manager.

For computers, always encrypt the entire hard drive. This feature is built into all Apple devices but you have to activate it on a laptop (look for FileVault settings). Whole disk encryption is available for Windows computers too, and well worth the peace of mind if your laptop ever takes a walk. These days it doesn’t slow down your computer to encrypt the hard drive, so there’s really no reason not to use it. Make sure the backups are encrypted too!

“Find my phone” services are another great tool for travelers. If you drop your phone, this may be your only chance at getting it back. Again, Apple has built it in (“Find My iPhone”) but it has to be activated using your Apple ID. We’ve used this feature more than once to recover lost phones.

Finally, if you do business while you travel, get a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It’s a service that encrypts all of your web traffic and routes it through proxy servers.  This has two impacts: (1) It anonymizes your location (which may not be something you care about); (2) It makes it impossible for other people to snoop on your Internet activity. Although much of Internet traffic is encrypted anyway (like websites with the prefix “https://”), there are still too many times where your information is transmitted “in the clear”. A hacker in a campground can “sniff” the shared wifi and pick up information that can then be used to hack into your accounts.

With a VPN, the hackers are locked out. A good VPN costs $35-80 per year. Don’t be tempted by free VPNs, since they sometimes make money selling customer information.

Got a tip for personal data security? Put in a comment below!

Hot weather travel tips

Maybe it’s because I’m in Arizona right now and the temperatures are already hitting the nineties every day, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about summer travel. For the most part it’s fun to plan where we will go and think about the great things we’ll see, but for us, traveling in the summer is a necessity in order to escape the unrelenting southern Arizona heat.

With an Airstream it’s usually easy to get out of the heat—after all, we have wheels—but there are times when it’s inescapable for a few days, like when we are crossing the Great Plains states on our way to Alumapalooza in late May. Many times we’ve been crossing Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri and we’ve been nearly steamed to death in what the meteorologists call “oppressive humidity.”

So even if you plan to drive away from the heat, you need strategies ready in case the heat follows you. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years:

First off, if you have delicate pets or humans traveling with you, don’t mess around: get a campground with 30-amp or 50-amp power and plug in. This may necessitate a change in plans and you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but the blessing of cool air blowing in from the A/C will make it all worthwhile.

I find that a lot people are surprised to discover the limitations of a single air conditioner on a 30-amp plug. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with dual air conditioners (and a 50-amp plug) you can deal with just about any level of heat. But a single A/C definitely has limits. The A/C will generally cool the incoming air by about 20 degrees, but that doesn’t mean your trailer will be 20 degrees cooler if it’s sitting in the sun. In our 30-footer, for example, a sunny 100-degree day means we’ll experience indoor temperatures in the low 80s, at least until the sun goes down.

So it’s useful to park in shaded campsites, preferably not in asphalt parking lots (green surroundings = cooler air), and be realistic in your expectations. If the trailer is over 100 degrees inside when you arrive, it’s going to take a while before the air conditioner can remove all the latent heat that is stored in every object in the interior.

To cope, try to spend the few couple of hours somewhere else (like a restaurant or visitor center) while the air conditioner does its job. Don’t even dream of using the stove or oven—the burners can output much more heat than the air conditioner can remove. If you have a microwave use it instead, or go out for dinner, or cook outside, or eat a cold dinner.

The keys to surviving a night in the heat are water and electricity:

Water, because you need to stay hydrated and a quick cool shower once or twice a day will go a long way toward keeping your body comfortable. In desert boondocking situations you can even soak towels and place them strategically around the trailer for evaporative cooling. We bring a few gallons of extra drinking water when we’re heading into a boondocking site in the summer.

Electricity, because you’ll use a lot more battery power than usual with the vent fans running constantly. A single Fantastic Vent (the kind installed as original equipment in Airstreams including motorhomes) might draw about an amp of power, which isn’t much for short durations. But with two of those fans running around the clock for a weekend, you’re looking at something in the region of 90 amp-hours, which is going to overwhelm the typical 2-battery setup in an Airstream trailer. You’ll need solar panels or a generator, and/or a much larger set of batteries.

 

The Zip Dee awning that came with your Airstream trailer (or the equivalent awning on a Nest, Basecamp, or Interstate) can make a big difference if it’s on the south or west side when you park. Definitely deploy the awning as much as you can to shade that side of the rig.

A Zip Dee Solar Shade is a huge help too, when the sun is beating down on that side of the trailer, especially when the entry door is facing west.  The Solar Shade broadens the shady patch in the afternoon, when it really matters, and gives you a nice outdoor space that you otherwise wouldn’t enjoy on a hot day.

In an Interstate motorhome, you may find that the Mercedes dashboard air conditioning isn’t quite enough when traveling on the highway on a 100+ degree day, especially for any back-seat passengers. Sometimes you need to fire up the onboard generator so that you can run the roof air conditioner as you go. It might seem weird but it’s OK to do this.

When you’re parked, you will probably discover that you don’t need to turn on the water heater. Often the fresh water hose lying in the sun, combined with warm water in the tank, will be plenty warm for showers. But there’s a downside to this: not all water hoses are rated for “hot water” use. Cheap-o hoses made of PVC or other plastics may leach chemicals when laying in the sun all day filled with hot water. That’s why we switched to drinking water hoses that are rated for hot water use.

Keep an eye on your refrigerator as well. Often, RV refrigerators don’t have great ventilation and so heat can build up in the refrigerator compartment (the space behind the refrigerator). When the air temperature around the refrigerator’s cooling fins approaches 100 degrees—which is very common in the enclosed compartment, even when the outside temp is much lower— the result is warm food in the refrigerator.

To combat this, keep the fridge door closed, and if you need to get something be sure to get it quickly. It’s not like your home refrigerator that has a big compressor and can recover its coolness in a few minutes. Each time you open that door it can take hours to recover fully on a hot day.

Also get a wireless temperature monitor so you can check the interior temp without opening the door. You can get two of them and monitor the freezer as well, but I’ll tell you right now that if the fridge starts to climb above 50 degrees, whatever is on the door of the freezer will probably start to defrost. (Pack your ice cream and seafood in the back.) These wireless monitors are available from many sources and they’re not expensive.

If you camp in hot weather a lot, with or without air conditioning, consider having a set of electric fans installed in the chimney of the refrigerator compartment. These things are amazingly effective at moving the hot air out of the fridge compartment to help the refrigerator cool down. We switch our fans on every day that the outside temperature is above 85 degrees. Some Airstreams come with those fans, but most don’t, and I think they’re a must for serious summer travelers. We’re going to work on a kit for the Airstream Life Store later specifically to solve this problem.

Finally, as you travel on hot days you need to be extra aware of the condition of your tires. They are much more susceptible to problems and wear on hot days. When the air is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the highway surface can easily be 120+, and the air inside the tires will often exceed 140 degrees at highway speeds. That’s brutal on tires and it shortens their life.

This is just one of several reasons I strongly recommend a good tire pressure/temperature monitoring system. Blowouts and other failures are far more likely on hot days, and you want to know right away if something goes wrong before it does additional damage. If you don’t have a tire pressure monitoring system you should make a habit of visually inspecting all the tires at every stop, and checking air pressure frequently.