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).

Tips on full-time use in the winter

Since it’s winter, it seems like a good time to answer questions about storage.  A reader recently asked about keeping his Airstream hooked up all the time, since he uses it all winter in the Pacific Northwest. He commented:

I built an RV pad on my property with 50amp, water and sewer hookups. I use a thermostatically controlled water hose to avoid that freezing. Trailer is always plugged in with full time heat and dehumidifier running. I do not disconnect the battery, and I use the trailer daily, like a full-timer.

“I do not winterize, but I do not store water in the tanks with the exception of the black which includes a 12v heater i keep on sub freezing days.

“Question is, am I doing this wrong? Are my water lines OK being that the trailer is always heated and on city water hook ups with the heated hose? Should I disconnect my battery via the storage kill switch when hooked up all winter?”

No worries, you’re doing everything right—and you’re lucky to be able to keep your Airstream stored at home with hookups!  Since you live in a mild climate and keep the trailer warm, there’s really no risk of the plumbing freezing and there’s no need to winterize.  The heated water hose you are using will prevent that from freezing up, too.

You definitely should not disconnect the battery if you are using the trailer. The battery provides a valuable function in the 12 volt system and the converter/charger is designed to be connected to a battery when the trailer is plugged in, even if you aren’t actually relying on the battery for power.

Turning on the “kill switch” (battery disconnect) won’t help preserve the battery—quite the opposite, actually. Disconnecting the battery means it won’t get any power from the converter and will slowly self-discharge. The disconnect switch is intended for storage situations when shore power isn’t available to keep the battery charged.

Sometimes people are concerned about the electrolyte (acid) in the battery “boiling off” as a result of a single-stage battery charger being plugged in constantly. The simple fix for this concern is to check the level of electrolyte in the battery every month or two and top it up with distilled water as needed. Take care when doing it, as you don’t want to splash acid on anything, including your skin, and always have some baking soda/water mixture on hand to neutralize a spill.

One thing to be cautious about on a freezing day: don’t try to operate the dump valves if they might be frozen.  You can tear the rubber seals, which will cause the valves to leak forever after.  (In this case, you’d need to replace the valves—a slightly unpleasant task.) It’s best to just wait for warmer temperatures before operating the dump valves.  In a pinch, you could use a hair dryer to warm them up.

You’re smart to run a dehumidifier.  In humid climates like the Pacific NW and the Gulf States it’s important to let the humidity out by opening the windows or running a dehumidifier. Long-term, excessive humidity will damage lots of things in the Airstream and leave unsightly stains on the curtains and walls.

Even in the drier northern states humidity can be a problem in the winter because people tend to keep the windows tightly shut to retain the heat.  Unfortunately humidity from people, animals, cooking, and washing builds up, so if you don’t have a dehumidifier it’s a good practice to keep a window and a roof vent cracked slightly.

Why is there a “Zamp only” plug on your Airstream?

Does your Airstream have one of these?

Ever wonder why the factory installed solar port says “Only use Zamp”?  Well, it’s not because other solar panels won’t work.

This is an industry standard (SAE) port with a big label to scare you into using Zamp brand solar panels.  In fact, any solar panels will work with this port, since it’s just a way to connect to the trailer’s 12 volt wiring.

Now, I like Zamp’s portable solar panels just fine, but they are among the most expensive in the industry.  I think you should be able to consider other portable solar panels, such as the Go Power solar kit we recommend, if you want.

All you need is a simple adapter, which is included in our kit, or which you can buy separately. And then, voila! You’ve got solar. It will work just fine.

By the way, if you don’t have this port, we have another adapter that goes right into the 7-way cord found on every Airstream.

We’ve made an exact-fit replacement label, which more accurately describes this solar port. Starting in November 2017 we’ll include it with every adapter and solar kit we sell.  Truth in labeling!

 

 

Watch the voltage!

James H. sent us this excellent question: “The voltage in our current campground is running 107 to 100 volts with my 5 year old Dometic air conditioner running. How low can the voltage go before I risk overheating the compressor?”

Most AC-powered appliances are capable of handling +/- 10% voltage without damage, which means from 108 volts to 132 volts. But, below 108 you’re playing a risky game.

Dometic warns that attempting to start the air conditioner at 103.5 volts or less will result in serious damage to the compressor.

Digital Voltage MeterIn practice, even when the campground voltage is running 108 volts, things can get dicey. That’s because the voltage will fluctuate and could dip much lower when the compressor starts up. One trick you might try is to plug into the 50-amp plug (using an adapter) if the campground power pedestal has both 30- and 50-amp outlets. Sometimes that circuit will have better voltage than the 30-amp one.

Low voltage is a common problem in campgrounds—and that’s why every Airstreamer should have a digital voltage monitor on board.

Airstream AC Interior