When you do (and don’t) need portable solar panels

Solar power is one of the most confusing topics for RV travelers in general, and it really shouldn’t be. It’s simple technology that adds free power to your Airstream’s batteries and it just works. For most people, it’s the obvious choice for extending their off-grid camping time.

The big advantage of using solar power is that once you install the hardware, there’s no ongoing cost or maintenance. When the sun shines, power flows into the batteries. You don’t have to flick a switch or remember to do anything.  The system turns on automatically when the sun comes up, and it goes off when the sun goes down or the batteries are full.

Since solar is also silent, it’s great if you like to camp in quiet settings and don’t want to hear a generator running for hours.  And it does a better job of charging batteries than a generator.

If you’re thinking solar is for you, your next choice is whether to install fixed solar panels on the roof or get portable solar panels that you can deploy on the ground. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each:

FIXED (ROOFTOP) SOLAR

  • Complex and expensive installation, usually done professionally
  • Holes drilled in your Airstream
  • Bigger theoretical capacity usually compared to portable panels (200-400 watts depending on rooftop area)
  • Permanently set up
  • Power collection happens anytime, even when towing or in storage
  • Won’t collect power if the trailer is parked in shade
  • Panels can’t be oriented to the sun

portable solar panels deployed in front of Airstream

PORTABLE SOLAR

  • No installation required, just plug and play.
  • No holes drilled in the Airstream
  • Typically less capacity than rooftop solar (120-200 watts)
  • Some setup required (a couple of minutes)
  • Can’t leave it set up while in storage or when towing
  • Can collect power when the Airstream is in shade
  • Panels can be easily oriented to the sun to optimize effectiveness

(Sometimes people ask if they can have both rooftop solar and portable solar. With our system, yes you can, and both the rooftop and portable panels will contribute power to the batteries when the batteries need a lot of charge and the sun is shining.)

When people install rooftop solar on an Airstream they usually go big, putting up as many panels as will fit on the roof. This helps compensate for the fact that the panels are fixed in position (facing straight up) and can’t point at the sun when it is rising or setting. But in this case you’re paying for a fairly expensive solar array that isn’t producing as well as it could.

That’s exactly why our Portable Solar Kit can perform as well as a much bigger rooftop system. The lightweight panels can be pointed directly at the sun no matter where it is—down low on the horizon, or hidden behind trees—because you can tilt, orient, and move the panels to be where the sun is.

In addition, our Portable Solar Kit uses a very high quality Merlin panel that has thousands of “interconnects” in each panel, many more than traditional panels. That means the panels are less affected by a bit of shading, say, from a leaf. The net result of this and the ability to move the panels to point at the sun means the 160-watt Portable Solar Kit can yield as much power as a significantly larger rooftop array.

Bottom line

If you don’t want to have to deploy a portable array each time you need it, or you need your solar panels to be producing all the time, rooftop solar may be for you. If you want the maximum power for your buck, maximum flexibility, and only need solar occasionally, portable solar will probably work better and save you money.

How to replace a fuse in your Airstream

It’s so easy you’ll be wishing that fuses would blow just so you can show off your mad fuse-replacing skills.

All you need is a replacement fuse of the same amp rating, and a little plastic fuse-pulling tool. You’ll find both of these things in Airstream Life’s Maintenance Essentials Kit.

The process is shown in the 1-minute video below:

If a fuse blows shortly after replacing it, you’ve probably got a short circuit somewhere. Stop and check with an RV technician. Don’t replace the fuse with a differently-rated one!

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.