The last electrical upgrade?

Perhaps this is the ultimate and final power system upgrade  on our Airstream. I certainly hope so.

Over the years we’ve installed solar panels, bigger batteries, an amp-hour meter, an upgraded (Intellipower) power converter-charger (which we replaced with a Xantrex converter-charger), even bigger batteries, and finally a fancy Xantrex converter-charger-inverter.  It has been a great learning process and I really like how the capabilities of our Airstream have been enhanced, but … please … let this be the last electrical upgrade we do on this trailer.

We discovered an issue with the Xantrex converter-charger-inverter installation that I’ve already described in a prior post, and I’ve been preparing for the last month or so to deal with it. In short the device wasn’t wired optimally, and the result was that we could not plug the Airstream into any common household GFCI outlet without tripping it. That limited where we could “driveway camp” as we traveled last summer, so it has been a priority to get it corrected this winter.

Long ago when I installed the Intellipower charger, I removed the lower (converter/charger) section of the original Parallax 7155 power converter-charger and left the AC and DC distribution panels. We’ve continued using those original distribution panels, since there wasn’t any reason to mess with them—until now.

Airstream power distribution panel-3

Our goal here was to install a new AC distribution panel. That’s because it needed to be split into two: a Main panel for the air conditioner and refrigerator, and a Subpanel for the inverter-supplied circuits. Although that isn’t terribly complicated in theory, it triggered an avalanche of other tasks.

It started with the panel itself. The only product I could find to fit the bill was the Progressive Dynamics PD55B003 AC panel, and since it didn’t come with DC distribution built-in, I also had to order the companion PD6000 DC panel.

That meant we’d be ripping out every AC and DC connection in the panels and re-wiring them all.  And since the new panels are physically larger than the original, we needed to cut new holes in the fascia below the refrigerator.  And that meant the propane leak detector had to be relocated.  The avalanche had begun.

My buddy Nate and I spent a couple of hours analyzing what needed to be done.  In the process we realized that we’d have to run a new electric line to the refrigerator because Airstream originally had it sharing a circuit with all the other GFCI protected outlets in the bathroom and kitchen. (I wanted the fridge on a separate circuit so it can’t accidentally be run from the inverter, which would deplete our batteries very quickly.)

We also realized we’d need a completely new fascia built to mount the new AC & DC panels and the relocated propane leak detector. I could have made it myself but it was much easier to hire a local guy who made a beautiful and precisely-cut fascia from 3/8″ black walnut for $60. So Nate drew up a very precise drawing to show exactly what we’d need.

Power panel fascia diagramAirstream power distribution panel-2

Suddenly this little re-wiring project was looking a bit more daunting. We ended up with this shopping list: three new circuit breakers, an AC panel, a DC panel, assorted clamp connectors, 5 feet of Romex, GFCI outlet & box, black screws, plus the custom-made walnut fascia. The hardware was easy to get. The woodworking, on the other hand, caused a three week delay.

Over this past weekend we finally got started. Like many other “three hour” jobs, the various complications and surprises blew our estimate away.  Saturday’s work alone stretched into six hours as a result of minor complications and “might as well” items.

A few examples:

  • I found a section of floor covering that needed replacing while we had everything out;
  • We discovered small extrusions on the AC panel that required us to trim the opening in the wood fascia a little wider;
  • Nate spent some time cleaning up and labeling the mess of wiring under the refrigerator;
  • We had to remove the inverter to identify the input and output wire colors, since the previous tech didn’t label them and they were hidden from view.

There were several other small issues of the same variety, which inevitably result from “working behind” someone else who didn’t take time and care to do things as nicely as we’d like. This is why I prefer to do my own work (or with a good partner like Nate). If we ever have to get into this system again, we’ll find all the wires bundled, labeled, and secured.

Airstream power distribution panel-4

In the end, the job we that thought would take three hours stretched over three days, with a total of about 12 hours of time invested including runs to the hardware store. To be fair, the wiring part of the job did take less than three hours—it’s all the other “little things” that sucked up the rest of the time.

Airstream custom power panelAirstream power distribution panels done

I’m glad we did this.  Not only did we get the whole-house inverter finally set up the way I wanted it, but we fixed a bunch of small secondary problems and ended up making the interior look nicer too.  The new walnut fascia and the black plastic distribution panels are a big improvement over the way things looked before. We even managed to shave a few pounds off; those original distribution panels were framed in steel and they weighed a surprising amount.


One final important note

The final challenge was a GFCI circuit breaker that we re-used from the original installation.  It was fine right until we pressed the GFCI “TEST” button. Then it buzzed for a couple of seconds and fried itself. GFCIs have a definite lifespan, and this one was 12 years old and had not been tested recently. If we’d had an electrical fault in the trailer, this GFCI would not have protected us.

So learn from my bad example and go press the TEST button on each of your GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers today.  (The RV must be connected to shore power to do this test, so if yours is in storage, make a note to do the test before your first trip of the season.)

When you press the TEST button, the breaker or outlet should trip off instantly with an audible snap, cutting off the power. Then you can press the RESET button to restore power. If either the TEST or RESET buttons doesn’t work, you’re missing a crucial piece of electrical protection that could save your life someday.  Time to get a new GFCI.