Solar–simplified!

The other day I heard about an educational seminar on the topic of solar power for Airstreams and decided to take a look. What I saw horrified me: the presenter turned this simple topic into an engineering class that would intimidate all but the geekiest among us. Imagine densely-packed slides full of numbers and technical terms.

Solar is easy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The sun shines, solar panels convert the sunshine into electricity, and that charges the batteries in your Airstream. That’s it.

The rest is stuff that only a few people really need to know. If you enjoy having all the details and talking about amps and volts (like me, I have to admit) by all means have fun learning everything you can, but I think most Airstreamers just want to get more camping time without having to find a plug or carry a generator.

Let me answer a few commonly asked questions:

“What can I run on solar?”

I often hear comments and questions from people who don’t understand exactly what solar panels are doing for them. At the risk of repeating myself: the solar panels charge the batteries. Solar panels don’t do anything else. So you don’t run anything on solar.

The batteries in your Airstream are actually doing the work of powering things when you’re boondocking. In my book “The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming” I have charts that show exactly what the batteries are powering. (In the 4th edition of the book you’ll find that chart on page 20.) Basically, if it runs on 12 volts, the batteries are powering it.

“Can I use the inverter?”

Sure. The inverter really has nothing to do with solar. It uses the battery’s energy to power the electrical outlets in the trailer. In other words, the inverter makes it possible for you to use things that have plugs, like the TV, DVD player and your laptop, when you’re boondocking—at least until the batteries run down.

Keep in mind that devices that plug in generally consume a lot of energy, so you should use them sparingly when you’re using the inverter. (I’ve done a more detailed blog on inverters which you can read here.)

“What size of solar panel system should I get?”

Unless you’re planning to camp off-grid for long periods of time, you don’t need a particularly large solar array. You can get a lot of benefits from a simple, plug-and-play portable solar setup like this one. You just unfold it, point it at the sun, plug it in, and walk away.

Solar panels are usually rated in terms of watts. The watt rating is really only useful for comparing one system to another since the actual energy generated on a given day varies depending on factors like cloudiness, time of year, and latitude. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with a system of fewer than 120 watts.

“Should I get solar or a generator?”

It depends on how you camp or travel. If you need to run things that consume a lot of power (like an air conditioner, microwave oven, hairdryer, CPAP machine, etc.) when you’re away from hookups, a generator will probably be the best choice.

But if you just want more battery power, solar has big advantages:

  1. Free energy from Mr. Sun
  2. Blissful silence
  3. Extended off-grid camping time
  4. No heavy generator or gasoline cans to carry

If you want more detail on this topic, check out this blog I wrote earlier.

“Should I get portable panels or a rooftop (permanent) installation?”

I wrote a separate blog about this topic, so if this is your question, click here.

“How do I know how much power I have?”

Sometimes people want to know how much power their panels are generating, or exactly how full their batteries are. This is entirely optional, but in this case, I recommend installing an amp-hour meter such as those made by Victron (BM-7xx series), Xantrex (Link series), Bogart Engineering (Tri-Metric), etc. These are much more useful than having a monitor on the solar panels themselves.

If you are less concerned with exact numbers, you can get by just fine with the built-in battery meter that came with your Airstream. It isn’t terribly accurate but it’s close enough for casual use.

To be honest I don’t even look at the numbers anymore. I just plug my solar panels in for the day and as long as we get a few hours of sunshine I know we’re fine for another day at least. (I could explain the math behind this, but I’m trying not to go down the rabbit hole of numbers here.)

“Do I need to upgrade the batteries?”

For most people, no. There are two cases where you should replace the batteries in your Airstream:

  1. They’re worn out and not taking a full charge anymore.
  2. You’re going to install a solar panel system larger than about 200 watts. In this case, you’d find there are a lot of days when the solar panels are producing more power than you can store, which means you’d have a lot of solar capacity that you can’t use. If you’re installing more than 200 watts you’re probably paying a fair amount to install rooftop panels, so you should talk to the RV solar specialist that is doing the work. They can help you match the battery bank to the capacity of your panels.

Bottom line: Solar is easy. Take in the free energy that the sun gives you and go enjoy your day.

 

If you want to check out my pick for a really simple and lightweight solar panel system, look here.

8 tools most Airstreamers should get now

You’ve got a new (or new to you) Airstream—what tools should be first on your list?

I’m going to assume you already have a sewer hose, a hitch, and other obvious things. Let’s talk about the things that you’ll learn you need through experience—without having the painful experiences.

Before I launch into my choices, a few disclaimers:

  1. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There’s probably a hundred more things that I could add. But these are some of the most useful tools and essential upgrades, in my experience.
  2. Not everything on this list is for everyone. Much depends on individual style: minimalist vs. survivalist, glamper or camper, hard-core DIY’er or “I always go to the dealer”. Think about how you travel, where you travel, and what sort of Airstream you have before you rush out to get new gear.

1. A tire changing kit

Your Airstream trailer did not come with a full set of tools needed to change a tire. (This is baffling to me. You get a spare tire, but no way to put it on.)

If you’re thinking that the tools that came with your truck will help, think again. The lug nut wrench probably won’t fit and the other tools won’t be much help when you need to change a tire on your Airstream. You need a dedicated Airstream tire changing kit.

Everybody should know how to change their own tires and carry the tools, even if you don’t actually plan to do it yourself. You may be physically unable to, but if you have the knowledge and you have the tools with you, then at least somebody else can change the tire.

The alternative is calling for roadside assistance, which might seem to be a great solution, but you’ll be sitting by the side of the road for hours, often in a place you do not want to be. Waiting to have someone come to change a tire for you is like waiting for somebody to come dress you in the morning. If you can do it yourself it is so much faster!

It’s not hard to change a tire. You can see the process in the video below, or read about it my book “The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance”—and we also include instructions in the Tire Changing Kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store.

We offer a Tire Changing Kit because it’s convenient to have one kit with all the tools in a single carry bag, but if you want to put together your own kit I’ll be just as happy.

The basics are a torque wrench (essential for correctly tightening the lug nuts when you put the wheel back on); a breaker bar (used for removing the wheel); an extension, and a correctly-sized socket. We also include a safety vest for roadside visibility, a pencil gauge to check the air pressure, and a six page instruction manual that explains exactly how to change a tire.

Tip: If you choose to buy all the parts separately, make sure you don’t skimp on the torque wrench. Cheap torque wrenches are not worth the money.

2. A cordless drill

It’s amazing how often I use my cordless drill for things other than drilling holes. On a trailer without powered stabilizer jacks, you can use a cordless drill with a socket adapter like this one, so you don’t have to kneel on your hands and knees in the mud to put your stabilizers up and down.

If you have a Hensley Arrow hitch, an 18 volt cordless drill makes quick work of tightening the strut jacks, and it’s also essential for the Hensley Hitch Helper (aka BAL Tongue Twister) if you have one of those.

I also find myself using the cordless drill to fix things around the Airstream. For example, on a recent trip the bathroom door’s hinge started to pull out of the door frame. With my cordless drill I was able to quickly drill a hole and install an additional screw to secure the hinge again—problem permanently solved in just a few minutes. Without it our trip would have been marred by a bathroom door that wouldn’t close until we got home.

3. A tool bag, with a few choice tools

I’m a big believer that it always pays to have dedicated tools for the Airstream. Not only does it save time, it ensures you always have the right tools in the Airstream on every trip. Don’t borrow tools from the garage for each trip, because you might forget them.

So start with a little tool box or (my preference) a tool bag. Make sure it will fit easily into the exterior storage compartments. Outfit it with the little tools you need most often during a trip, and the little parts that often need replacing.

Start with a few Philips screwdrivers. You can practically disassemble the complete interior of an Airstream with a single Philips screwdriver. You’ll find yourself tightening screws from time to time—they do occasionally work loose during trips. Some blue Loc-Tite will help keep screws from coming loose again or, to fix holes that have gotten too big to hold a screw you can carry a few match sticks and white glue.

Consider adding some of the following: adjustable wrench, pliers, a small “tackle box” for small parts like screws, spare fuses & fuse puller tool, teflon plumbing tape, silicone spray or Boeshield T-9, a few spare aluminum pop rivets in the correct sizes, a good quality rivet tool, sets of screw bits and drill bits for the cordless drill, utility scissors, a small microfiber towel, and some Parbond. Many of these items are in our Maintenance Essentials Kit.

I also like to have a headlamp so I can fix or examine things at night without having to hold a flashlight. A pair of disposable latex gloves can be nice for dirty jobs.

If you might get into little fixes or modifications to the 12 volt wiring system, then I’d add: electrical tape, butt splices, crimping tool, wire stripping tool, and a voltmeter.

If you have a Hensley hitch, I’d recommend a set of Allen wrenches and a grease gun (but you’ll want to keep that in the bumper compartment because it’s big and greasy).

4. A voltage monitor or (preferably) Electrical Management System

A plug-in voltmeter is really simple, and it will do a couple of very handy things. You just plug it into any outlet in your Airstream when you’re plugged into shore power, and it will tell you the voltage that you’ve got available—which is super important. It also verifies that there’s correct wiring at the campsite. It’s quite possible that the electrical pedestal at your campsite has a wiring problem, and that can actually be hazardous to your health.

There’s a reason we need to worry about the voltage coming into our trailers. We know that it’s supposed to be 120 volts, but rarely is it actually exactly 120 volts. Your appliances are going to be fine plus or minus ten percent, so from 108 to 132 volts. Exceed that, and you’re at risk of destroying certain appliances or even starting a fire.

Low voltage is by far the most common problem. An RV air conditioner typically can accept as little as 105 volts, but when you fire it up the compressor in it draws more power momentarily. So even though your voltage meter might shows 108 or 110 volts, you should keep an eye on it as the air conditioner starts up. If the voltage suddenly drops down below 105 for more than a few seconds, it is likely to burn out the motor in your air conditioner and you’ll be facing a big bill to replace the entire unit.

By the way, this can be a risk even if you’re in a fancy campground with shiny new wiring—especially on hot humid days when everybody’s pushing their AC to the max. Low voltage can still be a problem.

The best solution to this problem is an Electrical Management System (EMS, pictured at right). These devices check and monitor the power like a voltmeter but they also take action when something is wrong. If your EMS detects a problem, it will instantly cut the power to save your Airstream or appliances from damage—and it will automatically re-connect when it’s safe.

5. A rivet tool

A rivet tool is a surprisingly easy thing to learn how to use. Basically you just stick a rivet in the hole, hold it tight against the surface, pop the handle of the tool a few times, and the stem of the rivet breaks off when you’re done. It’s as easy as a screwdriver.

Don’t believe me? Check out this short video where Tothie demonstrates it.

Do you really need to travel with a rivet tool? Yes! Those little rivets on the inside of your Airstream break occasionally, especially after traveling a rough road, and there’s no need to haul your Airstream to a dealership just for that simple little repair. Just break out your handy tool and spare rivets, and you can fix the problem in seconds.

Also, someday you’ll lose a belly pan rivet, which is a more pressing problem. It happens because corrosion occurs where the aluminum belly pan and steel frame meet. The result can be a belly pan dragging on the road. If you have a rivet tool, a cordless drill, and the right sized aluminum pop rivets you can be back on the road in minutes.

It’s a no-brainer. There are 4,000-5,000 rivets in the average Airstream. You should be able to replace one of them.

6. MegaHitch lock

Storage facilities are not safe. I hear reports regularly from people who have lost their Airstreams out of supposedly secure RV storage equipped with video cameras. Once, some Airstream friends of mine found out that someone had broken into their stored trailer and thousands of dollars worth of their tools inside were all gone. Management didn’t even know—and it turned out that the videocameras were fakes.

Cheap hitch locks provide zero security. If you spend less than $100 on a lock I guarantee a thief could break it or bypass it within thirty seconds. Thieves can’t break a MegaHitch Coupler Vault PRO.

It’s not cheap, and it is heavy. But it works. If you’re keeping a $40,000-$150,000 Airstream on a storage lot, $200 is not a lot of extra money. You might also check with your insurance company. If you have proof that your trailer was locked with one of these, they may waive the deductible if it does get stolen.

7. Tire pressure monitor

A flat tire can do lot more damage to your trailer than you might think. It doesn’t just go flub-flub-flub as you come to a stop. Often you’ll have no idea that you’ve had a flat because it’s way back there on the trailer as it starts to shred. It rips up your Airstream, destroys the wheel, creates a hazard on the road, and it leaves you with a thousand dollars of damage that could’ve been prevented.

The TST tire pressure monitoring system is also not cheap, but it’s the best. I use it on every tow and it has saved my Airstream more than once.

8. A good water hose

Ultimate water hose from Airstream Life StoreYou can get drinking water hoses everywhere, and they’re usually pretty cheap—about $30. But the ones the RV industry pushes are really pretty bad. They kink, they have thin fittings that bend and leak after a year or so, and they fail regularly. Don’t even think of letting it freeze or get run over by a truck while it’s pressurized; the hose will burst. For these reasons, many people end up buying a new hose every year or so, which is not a good deal in the long run.

I could go on all day about how lame the typical “white hose” is, but instead I’ll just say this: get an Ultimate Water Hose. After years of replacing cheesy Wal-Mart and Camping World hoses, I finally decided to develop a far better one. We guarantee it for 5 years against any type of failure no matter what you do to it (other than cutting it with a knife).

Yes, it costs double what a cheap hose costs. But you won’t need to replace it for a very long time. Mine has been in heavy use since 2017 and I expect to keep using it for many years. If you want to read more about why you should ditch the ordinary water hose, read this blog entry.

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. The answer is generally “We don’t recommend it” unless the system is designed that way from the outset. If purchased separately, each system will come with different panels and charge controllers. The panels need to be matched (all the same) and two charge controllers will confuse each other, so if you’ve already got rooftop solar, you will not get the best results by trying to augment it with a portable solar kit.

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.

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).

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!