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.

Xantrex Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger

If you’re the type who likes (or aspires) to camp in remote sites far from electrical hookups, you’ve probably already put a few upgrades in your Airstream. The standard pair of batteries installed in an Airstream is fine for a night or two without campground power, but after that most people start looking at a generator or solar panels, and larger batteries to extend their camping time.

Serious boondockers sometimes take it step further, with an inverter to run a few 120-volt AC appliances like the TV or microwave.

Inverters explained

An inverter, for those who aren’t sure, is simply a device that turns the battery power (12 volt DC) into the type of power you’d get from a plug in your home (120 volt AC). It’s the exact opposite of what the built-in converter in your Airstream does when plugged into campground power.

Inverter pros and cons

A few Airstreams are factory-equipped with inverters, but even those aren’t usually capable of powering every outlet in the Airstream. They’re usually limited to a few outlets and produce a maximum of 1000 watts, which won’t run your microwave oven.

Worse, instead of producing nice clean smooth electrical current, most inverters on the market produce a sort of choppy electricity (called “Modified Sine Wave”). This is OK for most uses, but it makes some devices hum and buzz. Flat-panel TVs, computer power adapters, printers, and microwave ovens in particular don’t like it.

Cost factor

Xantrex Inverter Installed

Until recently, a “Pure Sine Wave” inverter that produced utility-grade power was a pretty expensive item. A 2000 or 3000-watt inverter could easily cost $2,000 ore more, plus installation. This is the major reason most inverter designs went the cheaper and less compatible route.

These days Pure Sine inverters have become much less expensive. Leading this trend, Xantrex recently introduced their new Freedom HFS Inverter/Charger specifically for the RV market. We got one and installed it in an Airstream for evaluation.

The Xantrex Freedom HFS

…comes in two specs: 1000 watt and 2000 watt. Because our goal was to provide “whole house” power (meaning powering every outlet and every appliance except the air conditioner) we opted for the 2000 watt model.

Installation is straightforward. Because the Xantrex Freedom HFS is also a power converter/charger, it replaces the existing converter/charger in the Airstream. That makes wiring fairly simple. Two 30-amp AC cables go to the inverter (campground power in, and inverter power out), and two heavy gauge DC wires connect to the battery (positive and negative).

A networking cable plugs into the inverter and runs to the remote control panel, which you can mount anywhere inside the Airstream. Those five connections (two AC, two DC, one remote) are all that are required.

Inverter installation

Because a big inverter like this can draw a lot of power, it must be located as close as possible to the batteries. That minimizes electrical “line loss” through the wires to the batteries, so the inverter can run most efficiently. In some Airstream floorplans this means stringing a cable from the new inverter location to the existing electrical circuit breaker panel.

Xantrex Inverter

Keep in mind that the Xantrex Freedom HFS can be mounted on a wall inside a cabinet if needed, and that’s often the best way to preserve storage space for other items. The unit does have a cooling fan that often runs when it is heavily charging the batteries or supplying AC power to a large appliance (like a microwave oven) so if you mount it under the bed be prepared to hear some “white noise” once in a while. The rest of the time, it’s silent.

The possible need to run wiring through the Airstream, and the requirement for heavy gauge cables to the batteries means that professional installation is a good idea for most people. A proper installation is crucial for efficiency and safety, so don’t cut corners here. Our installation took five man hours at a professional shop.

Batteries

The factory-installed set of two Group 27 batteries is really not enough for a big inverter like the 2000-watt Xantrex. If you want to go with a whole-house inverter, budget for a much larger battery bank at the same time. You’ll also want an amp-hour meter (like the Xantrex LinkLite or LinkPro) if you don’t already have one. A large inverter can drain the batteries pretty quickly, so accurate metering of battery capacity is important.

Performance

We were very impressed with the performance of the Xantrex Freedom HFS in our on-the-road tests. Not only did it seamlessly switch from campground power to battery power as needed (so quickly that no appliance lost power) but it consistently provided between 119 and 121 volts. That’s far more reliable voltage than the power we see at most campgrounds.

Both the 1000 watt and 2000 watt models of the Xantrex Freedom HFS are also 55-amp three-stage DC chargers, which means they’ll charge your batteries as well or better than whatever charger you currently have. Battery overcharging is not a worry, thanks to what Xantrex calls “Smart Battery Management” and built-in charge settings for standard “wet cell” batteries, AGM batteries, and a fixed voltage setting for new lithium batteries.

More power = more appliances

What can you run with a 2000-watt inverter? Any low-wattage appliance is simple of course, like battery chargers. The Xantrex Freedom HFS inverter had no trouble with a stick blender, toaster, vacuum, computer charger or TV. Amazingly, it will also run a hair dryer, vacuum cleaner, most microwave ovens, toaster or coffee maker—but keep in mind you should only run these high wattage appliances one at a time, and not for very long.

In general, if the appliance pulls 1,500 watts or less, it will probably be fine with the 2,000 watt inverter (allowing some leeway for surges and line loss). However, be wary of microwave oven wattage ratings. Those ratings are often “output” power (meaning cooking power) and the microwave may pull many more watts from the battery. In testing we observed a “1,000 watt” microwave draw 1,800 watts while in operation.

What about AC?

And while it might seem obvious to some, we should mention this: No, you can’t run the air conditioner through an inverter. It draws too much power. If your installer hasn’t rewired the air conditioner through a separate sub-panel to isolate it from the inverter, you’ll have to remember not to turn it on while you’re using the inverter.

Inverters and the fridge

Likewise, be sure to set your refrigerator to the “GAS” setting while you’re using the inverter, otherwise the fridge will stay in AC power mode and chew up the batteries quickly. Inverters draw a small amount of power even when they aren’t actively powering an appliance, so tap the green power button on the Xantrex remote panel whenever you don’t need it.

As you can see, there’s a small learning curve associated with having always-available AC power. But we found that after only a week or having it, we were hooked on the convenience of being able to run the coffeemaker and reheat a leftover in the microwave even while camped far off in remote places.

The Xantrex Freedom HFS 2055 is available online for about $800-900.

—By Rich Luhr

YETI Cooler: Product Review

The YETI: not the furry kind, the cool kind.

Normally a YETI is hard to find, but not if you are looking for a way to keep cold stuff cold, or warm stuff warm.

There are many YETI products: coolers, can cozies, and thermal insulated mugs. They have figured out how to capture the cold in many different shapes and sizes. For this review we are going to take a look at the YETI soft side cooler bag, called the Hopper.

YETI Cooler
The Hopper

The first thing I noticed was the zipper, technical termed “Hydrolock”. Straight line, across the top, no corners to navigate like with other soft sided coolers.

YETI cooler zipper
Hydrolock zipper

And then there is the fact that the zipper is airtight and waterproof. That’s right, put a bag of ice and drinks in it and toss it in the backseat or on the couch. It does not matter if it shifts, or slides, it will not leave a wet spot behind. You can seal the cooler and sit on it, it feels like a thick beach ball, and it will not deflate.

The Hopper comes with two heavy duty straps, and a dedicated adjustable shoulder strap, making it easy to shoulder carry from the store to the car, or the RV/car to the picnic table.

YETI Cooler strap
Shoulder strap

There is also a additional waterproof pouch called the Sidekick you can get to store all those sensitive electronics for the day out on the water, or hiking in the rain. It holds a couple of cell phones and a point and shoot camera with ease, and can be quickly detached should you want to leave the cooler and take the electronics with you.

The Hopper comes in two sizes, a 30-quart size and a 20-quart size. My 30-quart lives in the car; no flimsy store-provided cooler bags for me! My cold stuff stays cold all the way home, no matter how hot the car is. It is perfect for that quick outing with friends, a small bag of ice, and a six pack of cold beverages or two. It will even hold wine bottles standing up. Ice and drinks will stay cold for the whole day, so you can focus on the fun—not another ice run.

The bag is coated inside and out with a thick layer of waterproofing material that they call Dryhide. It can take a beating and not tear or rip.

YETI Cooler Dryhide
Dryhide

There are a couple of minor negatives as I use the Hopper. One is that the exterior texture can be abrasive on skin when you are carrying it over long distances, and the zipper can feel like it is trying to bite your arm when reaching in if you are not careful. Both are easy to remedy, but you need to be thinking as you use it.

While the YETI Hopper is not the cheapest soft sided cooler around, it does come with a 3-year manufacturer warranty. Find out more at the YETI website.

-By Brett Greiveldinger

Questions, or product suggestions? Write to brett@randbevents.com