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!

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

SmartPlug Power Inlet Upgrade

There are some upgrades you do because they solve a problem you already have, and other upgrades you do because you want to avoid a potential problem. The SmartPlug probably falls in the latter camp for most new Airstream owners.

SmartPlug Upgrade

The reason is that the standard electrical inlet on the side of every Airstream is pretty good. Problems like melted plugs, worn-out prongs, corrosion, and loose plug heads generally only crop up after years of use—or under challenging conditions.

But it’s the peak of summer now, and many of us are camping with the air conditioner cranked up all day long. That’s when your power cord and inlet are being strained to their utmost.

When a problem happens and you lose power on a humid day in the 90s, it’s little consolation while you’re sweltering to know that a better replacement can be added…tomorrow. So if you are the type who likes to get ahead of a potential problem, the SmartPlug is for you.

This is basically an industrial-grade replacement to the inlet that came with your Airstream. It has twenty times the electrical contact area, which means it is much less likely to get hot when the electrons are flowing at maximum. That’s its big claim to fame, because heat build-up at the plug and inlet is the cause of melted plugs.

SmartPlug

The larger contact area for the plug means a better electrical connection, and less susceptibility to the effects of corrosion. (If you haven’t inspected and cleaned the plugs on your Airstream’s power inlet and power cord, you should soon. There’s a kit on the Airstream Life Store specifically for this purpose. Corrosion causes problems.)

There are other nice features of the SmartPlug inlet, such a blue LED that shows when there’s power, and a nice self-locking mechanism that secures the plug in place, but our big concern when considering this review was the difficulty of installing it. We figure many Airstreamers won’t want to do the upgrade if they have to pay a technician to install it, so we obtained a SmartPlug to try it out.

The instructions that come with the SmartPlug were obviously written for boaters (this was originally a marine product, which is why weatherproofing is a big selling point too). But the instructions apply equally to an Airstream.

SmartPlug installation

Basically you just remove the four screws holding the inlet in place, pull it out, unscrew the three wire attachments, and then replace with the SmartPlug using the same four screws. There’s no sealant required because it comes with a gasket, and the only tool you need is a screwdriver.

We encountered a problem initially because the original inlet wouldn’t come out. It turned out that during assembly Airstream sealed the backside of it with a huge circle of sealant, which was gluing the inlet into place. We obtained access to the inside by removing some drawers, peeled off the sealant by hand, and from there the installation was easy.

original inlet glued on back
original inlet glued on back

Attaching the wires to the SmartPlug is easy. They are color-coded (black, white, green) so even a non-electrician can connect them correctly. The wires just slip into sleeves are locked into place with an Allen wrench that is supplied with the kit. No wire cutting or stripping is necessary unless the wires are damaged. Our installation was done in about 45 minutes, of which 15 minutes were spent figuring out the mystery of the sealant on the inside.

It’s clear from handling the inlet that it’s a quality product. Even though you’ll never see the interior portion of the inlet once it’s installed, it was obviously designed by someone who wanted it to be functional and look every bit worth the price. The plastic casing on the inside is thick and nicely crafted.

The exterior is pretty snappy too, if you go for the stainless steel model. SmartPlug does offer plastic versions for the white box RV and marine markets, but we’d strongly recommend going for the stainless. It just looks great on your Airstream, and it will probably last much longer.

SmartPlug

Plugging in is a little easier with SmartPlug. You just push the plug straight in, without twisting like the original inlet. When you plug in, two springs catch the plug and lock it into place. The stainless steel outlet cover also snaps down to grab the cord on top. Weather seals ensure that moisture won’t get in, which is important for long term prevention of corrosion.

SmartPlug Packaging

Overall, we like the SmartPlug. The only downside we can see of this upgrade is that it is a little expensive, running around $190 to 250 in the Airstream Life Store, depending on whether you have 30-amp or 50-amp, and whether you choose the factory molded cord or modify your existing cord.

Unquestionably it’s a solid upgrade, so the decision whether to go for it really depends on how much you rely on shore power, and how much you would like to avoid a power problem in the future.

GoPower 120-watt Portable Solar Panel Kit

If you like free, silent, maintenance-free power to extend your camping time away from hookups, adding solar panels to your Airstream is an obvious choice. You’ve got two basic choices: fixed panels on the roof, or portable folding panels that you deploy as needed on the ground.

Fixed panels are convenient and always available without any setup, but they can’t be turned to optimize their angle to the sun (although with some installations you can at least tilt the panels). As a result, they tend to produce less power. Also, the installation cost of fixed panels can be fairly high.

Portable Solar PanelsThe alternative is portable panels. These have to be taken out and placed on the ground, but once you do that you’ve got freedom to place them where the sun is shining (a very handy feature when your Airstream is parked in the shade), and you can angle them for optimal power generation.

There’s no reason not to use both fixed and portable panels. This combination offers the best of both worlds, if you can justify the investment.

We’ve been testing a 120-watt portable panels system by Go Power. This comes as a kit, including two panels that fold down to 32.5 x 19.9 x 2.8″, which is a reasonable size for tossing in the back seat or cargo area of an SUV, or storing inside the Airstream during travel. We chose this size as the best balance between size, weight, and power output. There are larger 200-watt panels available but they weigh as much as a 2000-watt generator (nearly 50 pounds) and are harder to store.

Smaller panels, in our opinion, are not worth it. For example, an 80-watt panel will keep a pair of Airstream batteries charged when there’s little or no power being used in the trailer, but you’ll probably lose ground quickly on a typical day at the campsite. Just one laptop can consume more power than an 80-watt panel can generate. If you really want to extend your camping time, the 120 watt system is a far better choice, and it weighs only about 35 pounds, so it’s not hard to carry.

The kit from Go Power also includes a padded nylon carry case, a convenient carry handle, a heavy-gauge 15-foot extension cable, a digital solar charge controller (essential) and connections for battery terminals (both ring-type connectors and alligator clips). This is enough to get you started.

Go Power Carrying Case
Go Power Carrying Case

Quality is the major differentiating factor we’ve encountered. All 120-watt solar panels will produce the same power—the difference you’ll notice is in the build quality. Go Power impressed us with quality touches all around. The folding legs are easy to adjust and stay in position without a hassle.  The panels are protected with plastic corners and deep aluminum edges. The carry case (the best protective feature) is really tough. The wires and connectors are rugged, and the digital charge controller leaves the older analog controllers typically found on other brands in the shade.

You might think that these are all features that should be found on any portable solar panel kit, but sadly that’s not the case. We also tested an inexpensive Chinese brand that had plenty of signs of cheap manufacture: metal burrs along the frames of the panels, no carry case, non-adjustable legs, flimsy cable connectors, thin wires, and an extremely basic charge controller that only showed green, red, and yellow lights. Solar panels are a commodity item these days, so when buying a portable kit you definitely get what you pay for. Cheap solar kits have cheap (or no) accessories and poor build quality.

For convenience, Go Power also offers a unique 7-pin plug adapter, which means you can connect the panels directly to the same 7-pin cable you use while towing, and avoid having to run a wire to the battery terminals. A 30-foot extension cable is also available, which gives you much more range to find the ideal sun-gathering spot. You can combine the 15-foot and 30-foot extensions to make a total of 45 feet—enough to reach a sunny spot even in very shaded camping areas.

In real-world testing with a Tri-Metric amp-hour meter, we found the performance of these panels to be exactly as advertised. We used the panels to augment a fixed-panel installation on the Airstream roof, which worked well. In the early morning the angled Go Power portables produced power when the fixed panels were still staring straight up at the sky and waiting for the sun to rise.

Same was true in the late afternoon when we were making dinner—the output of the fixed panels (facing the sky) trickled down to virtually nothing but the Go Power panels were pointed west and still gathering energy. During the middle of the day, the combination of fixed roof panels and portable Go Power panels was frankly awesome.

Available in the Airstream Life Store
Go Power! Solar Panel Kit – Available in the Airstream Life Store

We recommend portable solar panels as a relatively inexpensive way to break into solar. You get immediate usability: no installation and no drilling required. You can expand your system by chaining multiple panels together, so there’s an expansion path if you need it. Even if you decide to add fixed roof panels later, you’ll still be able to use the portables whenever you need an extra boost, making them a safe investment.

The Go Power 120-watt solar panel kit is available in the Airstream Life Store,  along with all accessories. Shipping is free and each kit comes with the exclusive Airstream Life booklet “Tips For Using Solar Power.”

Digital Voltage Monitor

Should you care about the power that comes into your Airstream from the campground?

Absolutely. YES.

Even newer campgrounds can have problems with their electrical power. Outlets may be mis-wired or damaged in a way that can be hazardous to your health—and the health of your Airstream.

Especially on a hot and humid day, when everyone in the campground is running their air conditioner, you’ll need to know that voltage is high enough to avoid burning out your A/C compressor.

The best way to know you’re getting good power is to use a digital AC voltage monitor. Outside Interests recommends one of the best: the Prime Products monitor, available at the Airstream Life Store. It constantly displays voltage so you’ll know if the power is sagging, and it checks for common mis-wiring conditions:

  • Reversed polarity (which can cause a very dangerous “hot skin” condition
  • Open neutral
  • Open ground

Digital Voltage MonitorIt’s simple to use: just plug it into any available outlet in your Airstream while you’re connected an electrical hookup, and observe the lights on the display. You’ll always know at a glance that you’re getting good power.

This voltage monitor is something every Airstream should carry at all times, and is available from the Airstream Life Store. When you order from Airstream Life you’ll also receive Rich Luhr’s short instructional booklet, How To Avoid Electrical Problems At The Campground.