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!

 

 

Air conditioner “soft start” devices

Reader Cheryl V. has an interesting question:

“Have you heard of a device that helps start your AC slowly so that a 13500 [BTU] can run on a Honda 2000 generator?” she asks. “I forgot to ask about it at Alumapalooza.”

Now that summer is in full swing, temperatures are high both inside and outside our Airstreams and AC maintenance and operational practices are top of mind. Experts at Outside Interests have pondered Cheryl’s question, and think she’s asking about a “soft start” capacitor, like the Dometic SmartStart II.

It doesn’t actually “start the AC slowly”, but acts like a boost battery to take some of the initial load off the power source (usually a generator) when the air conditioner compressor starts up.

The short answer to the question? It’s not a good idea to try to run your air conditioner on a single Honda 2000 generator, even with this device.

Your RV air conditioner pulls a great deal of power when it ramps up upon starting, and can easily overload the typical 2000 watt RV generator—resulting in the generator shutting down or possible damage to the air conditioner.

A start capacitor stores power to help with this initial load, but it’s not able to make miracles happen. Even with a start capacitor, a 2000-watt generator is not a good match for the typical Dometic air conditioner installed on an Airstream. Dometic recommends at least a 3500-watt generator. Many Airstreamers have success with 3000-watt generators, or two 2000-watt generator running in parallel.

You might have read online that some folks allow their ACs to run from a 2000-watt generator, but please be careful. This goes into the same category as running the air conditioner on a 15-amp plug. It will work…until it doesn’t. And a burned-out air conditioner is an expensive repair. Look carefully at all recommendations, guidlines and warnings printed in the documents supplied with any product of this kind.

Hope that helps, Cheryl. Keep cool! Check out this other Outside Interests article about air conditioning for more information.

 

Conserving Power While Boondocking, Part 2

Following up on our previous post about Conserving Power While Boondocking — another major way to extend your power supply is to understand where the power goes.

The built-in battery monitor won’t help with that. You will need to install an accurate amp-hour or watt-hour meter that measures the amount of power being consumed in real time.

A good amp-hour meter with a digital readout (made by Xantrex, Bogart Engineering, and other companies) requires some installation and money, but for those who frequently camp without hookups it’s well worth the investment.

With a real monitor you can see what each light and appliance is consuming, and identify the big users so that you can avoid them or upgrade them. Right off the bat you’ll see that your RV furnace is a huge consumer of electrical power, so you might want to consider an extra blanket on the bed or even a catalytic heater (which uses no electricity). Incandescent lights (on older Airstreams) are also big consumers, so if you don’t have LED you should seriously consider upgrading the most-used interior bulbs or entire fixtures.

boondocking

Studying power requires you to understand just a little bit about how electrical power is measured. The amp-hour meter will measure the 12 volt DC power coming off the batteries (or going back in when charging) using amps. Constantly drawing one amp from the batteries for an hour will total one “amp-hour.” The meter will keep track of amps going in and out at any given time, and also keep a total of the amp-hours used since the battery was last fully charged.

(If you want to think of the power in terms of watts instead, just multiple the amps by 12. But for the purposes of this discussion we’ll stick with amps.)

A typical Airstream trailer comes with a pair of Group 27 batteries (that’s a physical size, not power capacity). They might each be rated at 85 amp-hours capacity for a total of 170 amp-hours. But because you should only discharge them to half of their total capacity (for longest life), your net capacity from two batteries is really just 85 amp-hours.

The furnace pulls about 7-10 amps while running, depending on model, which adds up to a lot of power when you consider how long it runs on a cold night. It’s one of the biggest DC power consumers in the trailer. That’s why setting the thermostat lower on a cold night will help a lot.

Just two nights of furnace can easily drain the usable capacity of the standard pair of batteries in an Airstream trailer. By monitoring the electrical “cost” of running the furnace with the amp-hour meter, you’ll understand what’s happening before the power goes completely flat.

boondocking

Why do trailer batteries go flat even when you’re not using anything? An amp-hour meter can help you understand “parasitic” loads on the batteries. Several devices draw small amounts of power even when they are not in active use, and that’s what we call a parasitic load. This includes the circuit board in the refrigerator, the propane leak detector, the stereo, the circuit board in the water heater, etc. All of those little parasites add up, and it’s not uncommon for them to total an amp or so of constant draw.

A one-amp parasitic draw means all of your useful power will be gone in about 85 hours—just three and a half days—even if you aren’t using anything else in the trailer at all! This is why Airstream provides a STORE/USE switch to cut power to most systems when the trailer isn’t being actively used.

With the amp-hour meter you’ll be able to see the exact parasitic draw and get an idea of how it combines with your routine power usage while you’re camping. Soon you’ll understand why there are so many posts in online forums from new owners asking why their battery was dead after just one night of running the furnace.

boondocking

If you frequently run out of power when boondocking and you don’t want to spend the big bucks to get a generator or solar panels, the easiest and cheapest option is simply add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank.

At the same time it’s an opportunity to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer than ordinary “wet cell” batteries. Going back to the electric car analogy, more battery power is like going from a Nissan Leaf (with an 80 mile range) to a Tesla Model S (230 mile range). Suddenly your “range anxiety” is greatly reduced and you can actually go places.

The larger battery option is less costly than a “quiet” generator or solar setup, with the advantage of always working regardless of sunshine or fuel supply. For most people, more battery capacity and better conservation are enough to get a few extra days of boondocking.

Knowledge is power, and in this case more power is mostly a matter of more knowledge. You’ve got options to explore. If you find yourself addicted to the off-the-grid lifestyle, congratulations! It means you’re enjoying your Airstream, and that’s a good thing.

Conserving Power While Boondocking

One of the most concerns of RV travelers who have begun to stray from established campsites has to do with energy usage. They’re always worried about running out of battery power, a version of the “range anxiety” that owners of electric cars often have.

That’s a legitimate concern, because 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. If it happens to you, you won’t forget it.

It’s a pretty traumatic experience to have the entire trailer—your home and security—go dead.

The battery life problem is two-fold. First, many owners really have no idea of how much power they are using at any given time (the built-in battery monitor is pretty inaccurate). Second, the batteries typically have just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend if you aren’t running the furnace a lot.

Airstream provides those batteries because most people don’t use their trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.  Yes, despite all the discussions about “boondocking” you may have seen online, and all the blogs written by hard-core off-the-grid travelers, the reality is that most travel trailers go straight to a campground and get plugged in. Problem solved.

Boondocking Anza Borrego

 

 

Boondockers require more. After a while, a minority of owners start to pine for something more in their travel experience, and that inevitably leads them to the need for more power, more efficiency, and a better understanding of what’s going on.

Learn how to cut back on power; that’s the first and best way to get more boondocking time out of your batteries. Cutting back on use of electrical power gets into the same skills that boondockers need for water and propane conservation. You can do simple things like taking shorter showers (the water pump is a big energy consumer) and doing less dishwashing, switching to LED bulbs if your trailer didn’t come with them, setting the furnace temperature lower, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

There are other ways to conserve as well. If you have an inverter, use it minimally because it’s a fairly inefficient way to power your devices like laptops. The inverter turns 12 volt DC power into 120 volt AC power, which then gets turned back into DC power by the “power brick” attached to your laptop. In each step, some energy is wasted—and even when there’s nothing attached to the inverter it is constantly consuming a small amount of power. Switch it off when you’re not using it.

More efficient devices are needed for boondocking. A laptop can pull 60-100 watts, which is a lot when you’re running on battery. Using a tablet instead of a laptop cuts that power requirement to 10 watts or less, and it can recharge off a USB outlet, which means you can skip the inverter — or recharge in the car while you’re driving.

In hot weather, bail out of the trailer by late morning when things warm up, and try to stay out as late as possible. This cuts down the length of time you’ll need the vent fans, saving about 24 watts per fan used. That power is put to better use after sunset when the temperatures start to drop.

Sometimes it’s easiest to relocate your power consumption to another place. In other words, if you’ve got to log some laptop time, consider relocating to a coffee shop and using their power (and wifi). Consider trying the campground showers to cut use of the power-hungry water pump in the trailer. Instead of running the inverter to watch a movie in the trailer, consider going into the local town to see what’s playing.

A lot of people hate conserving because it makes them feel deprived, but if you take a different perspective you may not mind so much. You may find that the steps you take to conserve open the door to opportunities for new experiences.

Battery Storage

Reader Jim L. wants to know:

“How is it best to handle batteries on the winter? Do I take them out? Store in my cold garage? Do I put a charge on them all winter to keep from freezing? Do I add water in the winter when they are not used? Do I store them on wood rather than concrete? HELP!! Before cold winter comes to Tennessee.”

Thanks for asking, Jim. It’s that time of year for many Airstreamers to think about winter storage. From your question, we’ll assume you don’t have an electrical outlet near where you keep your Airstream during the cold months.

In this case the best approach is to remove the batteries from the trailer and store them somewhere that you can keep them plugged into a device designed specifically to maintain batteries. We’re not talking about a typical battery charger here, but a dedicated battery maintainer. You can keep the batteries hooked up to a charge maintainer all winter without fear of overcharging. They are easily found in auto parts stores or online.

battery

You should add distilled water to the batteries anytime they need it (after first disconnecting the charge maintainer). The water will mix with the electrolyte in the batteries and won’t freeze as long as the battery is kept charged.

The stories you may have heard about storing batteries on wood instead of concrete are old myths based on batteries made in the olden days. You can read much more about winterization, batteries, and proper maintenance procedures in The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance.

battery-cover