Xantrex inverter update

Last January we installed a “whole house” inverter by Xantrex, and it really changed the way we live when we are boondocking. The inverter, a very full-featured 2,000 watt “pure sine” model, is so powerful that it can run our microwave oven, or a toaster or other typical appliance. Most of the time we use it to watch movies on the big screen during dark lonely nights out in the southwester desert somewhere.

(I’ve been reminded by an eagle-eyed reader that this Xantrex Freedom HFS is actually a combination inverter/converter.  That means it also charges the batteries of the Airstream when we are plugged in.  But for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to just call it an “inverter” since that’s the function I’m talking about.)

There have been two problems with it, however.  Both of them are the result of how the inverter was installed, rather than the device itself.  The installer decided that rather than putting in an electrical subpanel (I’ll explain in a moment) he would wire the inverter directly to the main electrical bus. This saved him some work but it gave us a headache.

If that’s gibberish to you, let me make it simple.  His way of wiring meant that every AC appliance in the Airstream is connected to the inverter—including the air conditioner and refrigerator.  That’s not great because it means that when we are plugged in to power at a campground with the air conditioner running, and there’s a momentary power loss (or someone unplugs our trailer, which happened this summer), the inverter automatically will try to power everything by itself—which it can’t do.

So instead it goes into overload and shuts off AC power, with an alarm shrieking until someone comes along and resets it. Even if the air conditioner is off and the inverter doesn’t overload we’ll still have a problem because the inverter will provide AC power to the refrigerator.  That means instead of switching automatically to propane, the refrigerator will drain the trailer batteries instead, in just a matter of a few hours.

I realized this not long after the inverter was installed, and worked around the problem all summer by manually shutting down the inverter entirely whenever we were plugged into shore power.  But it was a nuisance, and sometimes I forgot, with predictable consequences.

The bigger problem became apparent in May when we tried to plug into a regular household 15-amp power outlet while “driveway camping” at someone’s house. The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) in the household outlet tripped instantly. Most outdoor outlets have GFCI built in these days, and so we were unable to get power from the house.

It turns out that the fix for all these issues is to wire the inverter up properly, which I guess should be no surprise.  Xantrex has issued a technical bulletin to explain why our wiring scheme trips GFCIs, and how to do it correctly. It took me quite a while to find the Xantrex bulletin so I’m posting it here for anyone who also has a similar set of problems.

The solution is to install a second electrical breaker panel (called a “subpanel”) to which you wire all the AC-powered devices that the inverter should power. In our case this includes the wall outlets, microwave, and TV.  Things that the inverter should not power, like air conditioner, refrigerator, or electric water heater, stay wired into the main panel.  Then you connect the inverter AC input to the main panel on a separate circuit breaker and connect the inverter AC output to the subpanel.

With this arrangement, everything gets juice when the Airstream is connected to shore power, either from the main panel or the subpanel.  The transfer switch built into the inverter simply passes the AC power it receives through to the subpanel.  When the shore power is removed, the main panel has no power so the air con and fridge don’t run, but the inverter will turn on automatically and supply the subpanel using battery power.  For a bit more detail on this, click here.

Not only does this prevent the problem of the inverter accidentally powering things it shouldn’t, but this arrangement also fixes the electrical quirk that causes GFCI outlets to trip when you plug the trailer into them.

I haven’t gotten around to this project yet but I will later in January.  Once I have the parts in hand it should be a fairly easy fix, since there’s plenty of room in the compartment when I have to work (near the existing breaker panel) and there’s no need to run additional wires.  I’ll document it with photos at that time.  Meanwhile, if anyone else has already done this upgrade I’d be interested to hear from you.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.

Alumafandango and beyond

Alumafandango is done, and it was a big success.  I don’t think we’ve ever had an event quite like this.  Taking over the entire 100-site campground really made a difference to everyone.


The attendees liked it because everyone was part of the Airstream community, and the campground was filled with shining aluminum travel trailers.  I liked it for those reasons too, and because it made for easy photo-ops at every turn.


alumafandango-eleanor-sushi-demoThe campground management liked it because, as they said, ours was the nicest (and neatest) group that had ever visited the park.

It was just plain cool to have nothing but Airstreams (and Airstreamers) gathered for six nights/five days in this beautiful place up in California’s historic gold country.

The program was a hit too.  We did daily workshops on things like battery maintenance, propane systems, PEX plumbing, and tire changing—and all of them were very well attended.  (We’ll do even more workshops at the next Alumapalooza in Ohio.)  Eleanor did popular sushi-making demonstration, with hands-on workshop.

antsy-mcclain-alumafandango-2016We had several other speakers, pool parties, cookouts, and two nights of entertainment including an evening parking lot performance by Antsy McClain.

(Antsy had no problem doing a show under the stars on asphalt. He said, “Waylon Jennings told me, ‘You’ve never done your last gig on a flatbed truck or at a VFW dinner’.”) Antsy always puts on a terrific performance, and we love having him at our events.

Of course we’re beat after running the event (with Brett), so when everyone else was going home happy and relaxed we just wanted to lie down for a while.

Alumafandango 2016 marks the 20th event I’ve run with Brett.  We started doing this eight years ago with Vintage Trailer Jam 2008, and since then we’ve done two VTJs, seven Paloozas, four Fandangos, three Fiestas, two Flamingos, and two Palm Springs Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows. (Plus, I’ve done two Tucson Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows by myself.)  It has been a heck of an adventure … and we hope to keep it going for quite a while longer!

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-emmaIt’s hard to drive through the northwest corner of California and not stop to see the Pacific Coast Redwood trees.  I mean, it’s possible to avoid them by sticking resolutely to Interstate 5, or perhaps driving Route 101 with blinders on, but for us the temptation to take a detour to Avenue Of The Giants is overwhelming.

So we don’t fight the call of the majestic trees. We exit the 101 and meander down the winding road that brings us eventually to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we camp for a couple of days.  It’s rejuvenating to unhitch and explore one of the redwood groves on foot.  There’s a certain peacefulness that comes from being among the great old trees and the mossy ground, deep in the shaded glens.

We’ve seen the Pacific Coast Redwoods (and their relatives, the Giant Sequoias) before but they never fail to impress. Each time we visit the forest we learn something small that makes the experience unique, so it’s not the “same old trees” every time.  Wandering a grove without any goal in mind, just letting inspiration flow, is the key.

Since on this trip we were heading toward Alumafandango, I suppose it was also inevitable that a phone call come in to interrupt our moment.  In this case it was an anxious tour leader wanting to get reassurance from Eleanor.

Wisely, she decided to complete the call before we started our walk, so that she’d be clear of business things while in the redwood grove. That’s a lesson I had to learn early on in our travels as well.  Mental compartmentalization is crucial if you want to work and play on the road. You don’t ever want to embark on a hike or any relaxation until you’ve cleared your head of the cares of the working day, otherwise they will haunt your experience and taint the happy memories you’re working to build.


These were our last two nights before landing in Jackson CA for pre-event prep, so I particularly valued them.  Once we hit the event site, it’s always go-go-go, and we’ll have 12 nights sitting in the same spot. The redwoods were an ideal spot to mentally escape the concerns ahead, and get ourselves psyched to work hard for an extended period.

Old fashioned movie night

We were towing the Airstream on Rt 101 through Coos Bay OR, when the we spotted something we don’t see much anymore: a downtown single-screen movie theater.

I love those old theaters. They remind me of days past when as a poor student I would go see a cheap matinee for a dollar or two on a hot afternoon, and sit in the coolness of a vast (mostly empty) theater on a worn velvet seat, and marvel at the elaborate Art Deco decorations surrounding me.

I especially like the balconies for what they symbolize.  To me they speak of a different age, when one title playing at the theater was all we needed to have an excuse to go out for the evening.  We could have little care for what was playing—it would still beat whatever was on TV that night.  These days most old movie theaters with balconies have been converted into second-story mini-theaters, if they still exist at all. The bulk of them are gone forever, victims of the suburban multiplex cinema.


In Coos Bay we spotted the Egyptian Theater, and even though it was daytime as we drove by, it was the tall neon sign that caught my attention first. Fantastic design and theme, the type you rarely see these days in a world of corporately-divined “theme” restaurants and entertainment.  I’m a fan of old neon too, so an elaborate sign like this one always draws me in.

Amazingly, the Egyptian is still operating and nearly intact inside, with even the balcony lately released from mini-theater bondage.  The theater was only showing movies on weekends, so we were lucky to find that on the day we arrived a 7:00 pm showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was scheduled.  We had to go back and see it.


Emma, being 16, had not seen nor heard of Psycho, and Eleanor and I hadn’t seen it in many years.  I couldn’t imagine a better way to have the experience of seeing this classic 1960 movie than in the type of theater it was originally shown.


egyptian-theater-coos-bay-1So we dropped the Airstream at Bullards Beach State Park (20 minutes south), then turned around to walk the historic lower harbor of Coos Bay and then into the Egyptian.  I was immediately a fan. How can you not be, when there’s interior decor like King Tut flanking the stairs to the balcony?

Inside it was everything I had hoped for:  stained glass “EXIT” signs, dim and dramatic interior, all sorts of structurally unnecessary but fantastically moody interior design elements and even a “mighty” Wurlitzer Orchestra Theater Organ hidden behind a grand facade high above … but sadly, very few people.

In one sense I like having the place empty and serene, with just a dozen or so avid vintage-movie lovers enjoying glorious black-and-white on the big screen.  Emma was certainly entranced.  Watching the drama of Psycho unfold slowly, and Anthony Perkins’ wonderfully understated portrayal of Norman Bates in a real theater is much more immersive an experience than on your home TV, no matter how big your screen is.

But I was sorry to see how few other people were there with us.  I worry about the few old-time theaters like the Egyptian that still survive.  The Egyptian is a remarkable example of the Egyptian style of theater that was popularized back in the 1920s, and lives now by the grace of donors and members of the Egyptian Theater Preservation Association. This place is a treasure—a museum of movie history, in a way—that you can still use the way it was nearly a hundred years ago.

In case you are worried about Emma, she had a great time.  The slow burn of Psycho (which I regard as near the peak of Hitchcock’s art) grabbed her like no YouTube video or manga comic ever could; a good broadening experience for a young writer/artist.  Popcorn, a classic b/w movie, a great theater, and nice people. It was a night to remember.  I hope someday we can go back.