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.