Fridge and charger upgrades

I don’t have to look at the calendar to know that time is running out to get my annual Airstream repairs and upgrades done. I lost a lot of time this winter with other projects, plus Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo, and now I can feel the looming deadline of mid-May. That’s when we have to hit the road to go to Alumapalooza, and begin our summer of travel, and so that’s when the Airstream must be in top shape.

Some of the projects just aren’t going to get done this year, but one that could not be passed by is the replacement refrigerator cooling unit. It arrived on time (from the second vendor I chose, one that performed reliably) but then I was too busy to get to installing it until just last weekend.

Replacing the cooling unit isn’t too bad of a job for two people, but doing it solo it would be a giant pain. First, you’ve got to get the entire thing out of the Airstream, and my fridge weighs about 120 pounds, plus it had to be lifted over the countertops. I called on my friend Patrick to come over and help out with the job, which he was kind enough to do. Fortunately, he’s also quite strong, so while it wasn’t a picnic to hoist the refrigerator, it wasn’t too awful either.

I set up a nice little work space in the carport behind the Caravel to do the actual surgery. The “operating table” is a painter’s tarp, so we could lay the patient face down and not scuff the doors. (That’s the new cooling unit in the box.)

New cooling unit and work spaceAlthough the new cooling unit came with directions that did point out a few handy tips, I wouldn’t say it was a slam-dunk sort of job. There are lots of small differences between models, and the directions could only give general advice. A few parts ended up being unneeded on the new unit, such as the Dometic “recall box,” and we had to slightly modify the mount for the burner assembly, and drill a hole for the thermistor wire … and drill a few other holes as well. You definitely need to have a good toolkit to do this one. Moral support from a friend helps, too.

We ended up getting it done in about six hours. I would expect that if I had to do the job again it would take about half as long, now that I know how it goes. Overall, I’m glad to have tried this. The repair shop was going to charge $1,500 for this job, whereas my cost was about $600 plus six hours of labor. So I basically paid myself $150/hour to do it. (Patrick got paid with some of Eleanor’s fresh cannolis.)

In the photo below, you can see the old cooling unit, complete with the yellow stains of refrigerant that leaked out when it died. That residue sticks to the metal and corrodes it. We chucked most of the contaminated metal and cleaned the burner tube.

Refrigerator ready to gut

Re-installing the refrigerator includes four screws on the front, two large screws on the back, an AC plug, two 12v wires, and a gas line. Not too bad after you’ve pried the guts off the fridge and replaced them.

We were careful, so I was pretty confident the refrigerator would work when we finally re-installed it, but still it was nice to stick my hand in the freezer door a couple of hours later and find it already cold.

Alas, it was around that time (long after Patrick had gone home) that I discovered my mistake. During re-assembly we had noticed that the condensate drain was too old to use. It kept breaking apart, so we finally removed it and made a note to get a replacement drain later. This seemed like a fine plan until later that evening when I realized that it is impossible to install a new drain tube while the refrigerator is installed—at least on my particular trailer.

So sometime next week, Eleanor and I will disconnect (four screws, two large screws, AC plug, 12v wires, gas line again) and pull the refrigerator out partially so she can skinny her way into the fridge compartment from the outside and try to attach the new condensate tube. I hope she can do it, otherwise we’ll have to remove the refrigerator entirely.

Xantrex remote panel installed

While the refrigerator was out, I took the opportunity to run a final line for the Xantrex TrueCharge 2 that I had installed the week before. The TrueCharge 2 was my answer to some battery charging issues I’ve encountered, which I’ve discussed in prior blog entries. The Xantrex TrueCharge has an AGM mode, ideal for the giant Lifeline 4D battery we are using. Since it came with a remote panel, I decided to install that on the wall by the refrigerator, since having the fridge out made it easy. The remote panel doesn’t really do anything that I need, or provide much information that I can’t get from the Trimetric right next to it, but it looks cool.

I’ve written a full review on the TrueCharge 2 which will appear in an upcoming issue of Outside Interests. If you are wondering about that, go to the Outside Interests site and subscribe (free). We’ll send you an email when the next issue comes out.  But if you want the bottom line, I like the TrueCharge 2 a lot and would definitely recommend it.

Xantrex ready to install

The TrueCharge 2, by the way, fits with room to spare in the space of the factory charger. I did a little surgery to remove the heavy metal tray of the old charger, and then just slipped the Xantrex unit in and screwed it down to the floor.

It’s a great unit but I’m not sure if it’s in time to save the battery. The battery doesn’t seem to want to take a full charge anymore, and if it doesn’t start acting normally after a few charge/discharge cycles this summer, I’ll be shopping for a new one. We’ve gotten five years out of it, which is less than I would expect from an AGM even in fairly heavy use, so it’s a little disappointing.. I suspect the chargers we had installed before the Xantrex had something to do with the short life—they weren’t giving the battery a full charge sometimes.

Oh, one other thing: I ordered a set of aluminum Worthington propane tanks, and they finally arrived after months of backorder. They have replaced the original steel tanks that were starting to get rusty.  I like the aluminum tanks even though they cost a lot more, for their lighter weight, and their long lifespan. The propane tank hold-down required some slight modification to accommodate the tanks, but otherwise it was a simple upgrade. The old tanks got sold on Craigslist for $30 each.

With the mandatory repairs out of the way, I can concentrate on the little things and the “nice to have” stuff over the next four weeks. I’d get into some bigger projects, that’s all the time I’ve got to get the Airstream ready for the road. Come mid-May, we are outta here and the Airstream won’t come back home until September, maybe October.  We’ve got some big travel plans this year. You’re invited along, of course.

I got a little heated about a cooling unit

It was well before dawn when I started searching with my laptop on the dinette table. The day before, in the midst of Alumafiesta, the Airstream’s refrigerator had packed up, leaving behind only a trace of greenish-yellow coolant spilled at its base–a sure sign of complete failure. I was in a bind with no refrigeration while running an event with over 100 Airstreams.

There was no hope of fixing the refrigerator during the event, so I moved all my food to a drink cooler located in the main event area, and my frozen stuff went into Brett’s freezer for the duration. But when I woke up early the next morning I resolved that I would buy a replacement cooling unit and learn how to swap it out myself.

The cooling unit is the guts of your refrigerator; basically a sealed unit that includes all the machinery that actually produces coldness. It’s everything except the refrigerator box and the control panel.  After a few minutes of searching, I found several companies that specialized in making or rebuilding cooling units, and one company in particular stood out for its aggressive pricing, by the name of RV Fridge House.

I picked up the phone and called them, and was impressed that on a Saturday morning someone answered, took my order and answered basic questions. Not only that, but for an additional $25 they’d extend their two year warranty to six years.

I bit. When I said I was ready to order, I was switched over to another person who said they didn’t take credit cards, but would do an “e-check.”  An e-check is somewhat like a debit card payment, except that you provide your checking account and bank routing number, and authorize the seller to debit your account for that amount, for one time only. This made me pause, and it should have been a warning sign. Looking back on it now, I should have hung up and thought some more, but I was eager to get this task done so I could move forward with the business of running an event.

The question I should have asked myself was, “Why doesn’t this vendor take credit cards?” In this era, anyone can accept a credit card thanks to services like PayPal, Square, and others. You don’t need to go through the background checks and hoops that were the norm just a decade ago. The fees that a merchant pays to accept an e-check aren’t much different from the fees of credit card processing, so the excuse that “credit card fees are too high” doesn’t hold up.

There’s a very good reason why some vendors don’t take credit cards: they’ve had a terrible history in dealing with customer complaints, and they’ve been effectively blacklisted by the credit card processors.

What happened next followed a pattern that I’ve seen before in businesses that have long experience at scamming customers. I received no receipt, no tracking information, and no followup except for a line on my checking account statement indicating that NuCold Refrigeration Inc debited my account for $524.00.  A week later I called to find out what happened to my cooling unit, and got a very personable and cooperative man who said it had been shipped via FedEx, and that he’d look into it and call back.

You can guess what happened after that if you read up on this business. Their local news station KATV has done two stories on RV Fridge House, one back in October 2, 2013, and a followup on December 14, 2015.  There is a Better Business Bureau alert out about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding advising of “a pattern of complaints concerning non-delivery of products that ordered and paid for. Consumers typically complain that they order and pay for cooling units from the business, but that the units are never delivered or money returned, and that the business will not answer or return phone calls.

How many complaints?  The BBB currently lists over 100.

A competitor notes that they have operated under the names RV Cool Fridge, Freez-It, and RVIceBox, and warns in no uncertain terms that they aren’t the only ones in the industry who follow the pattern of promising cooling units and not delivering.

I’ve seen businesses like this before. The lead operator, who I think I was dealing with on the phone, is usually smooth and convincing. At first I bought his line about FedEx “losing” my cooling unit, and even felt sympathetic as he explained how much the loss of that newly-rebuilt unit would hurt his business. He politely and calmly promised that as soon as they could rebuild another one, they’d ship it to me, even going to the extent of “checking records” to see how many rebuildable units they had in stock while I waited on the phone.

When I called back on other days to follow up—since the promised callbacks never happened—he mentioned how it was an inconvenient time to talk because (a) they were on their way to a parent-teacher conference; (b) he was driving to another location and was 100 miles away from the office; (c) the staff were busy unloading a truck and so he couldn’t get an answer right away. It’s much more convincing to go into unnecessary details when you’re weaving a story.

And he was still polite, thanking me for my patience, and saying “Have a blessed day.” (Using religious or patriotic phrases is also a good way to build trust with some folks, although personally I always get a little more suspicious when people do that in a customer service situation.)

When I had to leave for Alumaflamingo in mid-February, I thought I had this worked out. I was still drinking RV Fridge House’s Kool-Aid. I was told that my second cooling unit was ready for shipment. (The one FedEx “lost” never materialized for some reason, but I did hear about how “this has never happened before,” and “they don’t even have it in their system, so they are going to have to do a search,” and “I don’t know how it happened—it’s a big box.”)

Since I wasn’t going to be home for a week, we arranged that the “second” cooling unit would be shipped on February 27, so that it would be here waiting for me when I got back. Of course it wasn’t, and after two weeks, four more follow-up calls, and four more failures to call back, RV Fridge House aka NuCold Refrigeration Inc simply stopped answering my calls. (Caller ID is very handy for people who want to duck a customer.)

And there’s the pattern. Essentially, people like this are running out the clock.  They’re dragging it out until you give up, and then they’ve got your money. You can ask for a refund, but it’s hard to do that when they don’t answer your calls anymore.

Many of the reports I read online (after I realized what was happening) revealed that many people think an e-check is money forever lost; that it can’t be reversed. They think that their only recourse is to complain to the BBB, the Arkansas Attorney General, or the business itself.  When nothing happens, they bitterly give up and figure that money is gone.

The good news is that you actually can reverse an e-check, just like the way you can dispute a credit card charge. E-checks are governed by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act of 1978 and the rules are documented in “Regulation E” (which is a dense pile of financial babble that I actually took the time to download and read), and in that regulation is the provision that e-checks can be disputed and reversed if you notify your bank within 60 days of the bank statement that shows the transaction.

Best of all, it’s basically “no questions asked.” You don’t have to prove anything, just affirm that you are disputing the charge. It’s fraud if it was a transfer “initiated by a person other than the consumer without authority to initiate the transfer and from which the consumer receives no benefit.” I’m no lawyer, but to me, if you didn’t get your promised refrigerator cooling unit from someone like NuCold Refrigeration Inc, and you didn’t get your money back, that meets the definition of “without authority” and  receiving “no benefit.” They were authorized to make the transfer on the contingency that they’d deliver a product in a timely fashion. E-checks are not a license to steal.

The bank is required to investigate within 10 business days (essentially to confirm that the charge occurred), and return your money within 1 day of completing their investigation. The vendor cannot charge your account again without your express approval.

So you’re not getting away with my $524, RV Fridge House.

If you got ripped off in the last 60 days for a cooling unit that was never delivered, call your bank now and get your money back.

And I hope more people complain about NuCold aka RV Fridge House aka Tate Welding aka Freez-It aka RV Cool Fridge aka RVIceBox to the Better Business Bureau in Arkansas, the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, and in online forums.  Bringing bad actors into the spotlight of public opinion is the best way we have to identify them and warn other people.

Of course, after all this I still needed a replacement cooling unit for my Dometic refrigerator.  This time I searched more carefully, and checked references online, and looked for the little indicators that suggest a shady operator. For example, the legitimate operations don’t hide their names and addresses—they’re proud to say who they are and help their customers. If you have a problem or a warranty claim, you’re going to want to know how to reach the people in charge, and you can’t do that effectively if you only have a URL and a toll-free phone number.  I was surprised to find that several companies in this industry obscure their contact information. I won’t buy from them.

I also decided I would only work with a company that accepted credit card payments. I’m not afraid of e-checks now, but I prefer the consumer protections that come with credit cards.

After ordering, I expected (and got) a receipt within 24 hours, documenting my purchase and projected delivery date. The receipt also showed the names of the people I’m working with and their email addresses.

This week I expect to get a tracking number for the shipment.  If I don’t, I’ll follow up and demand one—and if I don’t get it promptly I’ll start a dispute via my credit card issuer so that I won’t be liable for the bill until the company resolves the problem.

The new cooling unit is going to cost me about $100 more than the one I was promised from Fridge House. But this time, I think I’ll actually get it. Once I do, and I’m satisfied, I’ll post the name of the company I bought it from here.

Postscript:  A few days after initiating a chargeback, I received a message from Jerry Collins of Fridge House, saying that my cooling unit was on the way, complete with a FedEx tracking number.  Too late.  Since I didn’t trust the vendor, already had a chargeback in process, and had already ordered a cooling unit from another vendor, I simply refused the shipment when it arrived.

Oh no, it’s the UPS truck again

I have spent several hours this week stripping the old “Tour of America” graphics off our Airstream. This is something I really should have done long ago, perhaps even in 2008 when we officially ended our full-time travels and settled into a house without wheels, but for sentimental and laziness reasons I kept putting the job off.

We loved the graphics.  They made our Airstream unique and a reminder of the 1,000 happy days we spent traveling America.  People would ask us where we got them, or if they indicated that our trailer was a rental (apparently confusing Airstream and U-Haul).  Many others would say nothing but take pictures when they spotted it.  Emma confessed that while attending rallies as a small child she would use the decals as a way to find her home among dozens of other Airstreams.

The graphics were custom-designed by Brad Cornelius for us when we launched in 2005, and at the time I expected they would be on the Airstream for less than a year.  The people who applied them assumed the same, and so I have nobody to blame but myself for the fact that ten years later the decals had fused to the Airstream’s clearcoat in a very stubborn way. The final impetus to remove them came last year, when the two decals that faced south began to crack and peel off like a bad sunburn.

I knew that getting them off would be a problem, because I had removed the largest decal back in 2010 and it took several days.  Back then I was going the chemical approach, using all kinds of nasty carcinogenic goop, none of which worked particularly well.  I tried a heat gun and plastic scrapers and all sorts of things, but it was still a huge hassle—and in the process I managed to scrape off the Airstream’s clear coat in two places.

This time I tried a 3M Adhesive Eraser Wheel, and it was a huge difference.  It’s basically a polyurethane grinding wheel that you put on a drill.  The wheel cost me $32.99 locally, which turned out to be money well spent.  The wheel strips off the vinyl and the underlying adhesive without damaging the clear coat at all. You can see how this works in my short YouTube video.  Then I followed up with a few applications of Goo Gone to clear up the remainder.

Unfortunately, you can also see how the graphic in the video demo is leaving behind a “ghost” image of itself.  That particular bit of vinyl was facing southwest while the Airstream was in storage, and it got the most sun damage. The vinyl actually embedded into the clear coat and caused permanent damage.  If I had removed it a couple of years ago it would have been fine—I just waited too long.

Oh well.  Now that I’ve got the entire graphic off and cleaned up the surface, it actually looks kind of cool.  From some angles it’s like a silver image cast into the aluminum.  I may eventually have that panel stripped and re-coated by P&S Trailers the next time we are passing through Ohio, or maybe we’ll just design a new vinyl graphic to cover up that spot.  One other graphic also left a mark. The others (which were in shade during storage) came off cleanly.

It’s hardly “stealth” with  AIRSTREAMLIFE.COM still emblazoned on either side and the rear, but the Airstream is much more subtle now. I think we’ll operate like this for a while, until we decide what personalization we might like next.

Fiddling with the graphics is a prelude to much bigger things.  For weeks I have been amassing equipment for a minor renovation and upgrade inside the Airstream.  Since I’ve got to head to Florida soon for Alumaflamingo, I might start the project in the next few days but won’t finish until probably late March.  The list includes:

  • replacement of the refrigerator cooling unit, with a rebuilt one
  • replacement of the Intellipower charger with a Xantrex that can handle our AGM batteries
  • replacement of the kitchen countertop
  • installation of a water filtration system including two cartridge filters and UV sterilization
  • installation of a NuTone food center
  • various other small tweaks

It’s a lot of stuff, but it looks like we will continue to use our Airstream heavily for many more years, so I’m glad to make the investment. If you’re interested in upgrade stuff, stay tuned. Every time the UPS truck pulls up at my door, another project will begin …

Caution: low hanging valves

Yesterday we wrapped up Alumafiesta in Tucson, and so now we’re in the “recovery” phase, just trying to get back in sync with life and unwind after a hectic week. For me, it’s time to get a few Airstream projects done.

In the first week of January I decided to do something I’ve never done before: take a friend out in the Airstream for a week-long trip, instead of my family. It might seem odd that I’ve never done that, but those of you who own travel trailers or motorhomes can testify that they become very personal. I always associate our Airstream with our family. I rarely even take the Airstream out alone.

But my buddy Nick was a pretty safe bet. He’s low-maintenance, easy-going, and a decent cook. We work on our old Mercedes cars together on weekends, and have spent many a Saturday morning digging around the junkyard, so we’ve bonded over greasy parts and underneath diesel engines. At one point Nick mentioned that he and his wife would like to own a small travel trailer someday, so I figured he was ready to get introduced to the world of Airstream.

IMG_4487We took the Airstream out to the southern California desert, where we met up with a bunch of other desert rats/technomads, went hiking, and ate apple pie from Julian. Then we hopped over to Quartzsite to see the spectacle of cheapskate boondockers and endless flea markets, and we wrapped up the trip with a hike up Picacho Peak in Picacho AZ. It was all brilliant except that the Airstream kept giving us little problems, signs of advancing age and frequent hard use.

IMG_4516

I already wrote about the battery charging issue, and that will get addressed later this month when the new charger comes in. During the California trip, I found a few other glitches, most of which I fixed on the spot.  One interesting problem was the sudden failure of the P/T valve on the water heater.  This valve is supposed to relieve excess pressure in the water heater (it’s a safety device) but mine decided after ten years it was done holding back, and so it began to gush water.  One trip to the local hardware store later, Nick and I had it swapped out for a new one.

All of the repairs were small stuff like that, hardly worth breaking out the tool kit for, until the aluminum bracket that holds up the dump valves broke loose.

Even this wasn’t a major problem.  The bracket is riveted into the belly pan, which is thin aluminum, and the rivets had finally torn out after 100,000+ miles of bumping along North American roadways. The dump valves hung a little lower than usual, but everything still worked.  My only concern was that eventually, without the bracket, the connections on the plastic pipes might eventually start to leak.

Normally I’d fix this with bigger rivets—which I carry around at all times, as well as a rivet tool—but in this case there wasn’t enough intact metal in the belly pan left to make a bond I could trust.  It needed a reinforcing sheet of aluminum.  I browsed around the junk piles at Quartzsite and found an expired California license plate that was the perfect size to serve as a reinforcing plate.

I was feeling rather resourceful until it became obvious that the entire dump valve assembly would have to be removed in order to get in there with the drill and rivet tool to rig up my field repair.  This was more of a job than I wanted to do in a Quartzsite campground (we had opted for full hookups rather than boondocking again), and it seemed like an opportunity to order a new set of dump valves to swap in at the same time.  So after getting home, I placed an order for the new valve set and went off to Alumafiesta for a week.

Alas, the day before Alumafiesta I heard a strange hissing noise from the refrigerator, one I’ve never heard before.  The refrigerator used in RVs is normally silent. There wasn’t any obvious ammonia smell (a definite indicator of a major failure), nor any sign of coolant leakage, and the fridge was still working so there wasn’t anything I could so at that point.  A few days later, the fridge stopped cooling and a tell-tale puddle of greenish-yellow coolant oozed out.  RIP refrigerator #2.  It lasted just six and a half years, one of the 900,000+ victims of Dometic’s unfortunate refrigerator manufacturing fiasco from June 1, 2003 to September 30, 2006.

The immediate solution was to find another refrigerator to store my food for a few days until the event was over.  The long-term solution was to order a new cooling unit for the refrigerator.  The cooling unit is the guts of the fridge, and it’s entirely replaceable.  We could get a new refrigerator, but we really like the Dometic NDR-1062 that we have, and it has been discontinued.  It’s the only model we’ve found that yields 10 cubic feet in the space of a typical 8-cubic foot refrigerator box.

The dealer quote was $1,560 to replace the cooling unit.  I ordered a new cooling unit for $524, to be delivered by truck freight to my door with a 6-year warranty, and I will replace it myself sometime next week. I’ve never done this job before, but it doesn’t look terribly difficult, and I’ve got friends who can help. As a few people have said to me, “If you can do your own work on that old diesel Mercedes, you can do this.”

Meanwhile today, I got under the Airstream and swapped out that dump valve set, and riveted that bracket up. It was a good warm-up for the work yet to come this month.

At times it seems like I’m constantly working on one Airstream or another. This can be frustrating at times because there are other things in life. On the other hand, each repair is an opportunity to get to know the Airstream better, learn new skills, and improve things beyond the original factory spec. There’s something very satisfying in doing it yourself.  And I can assure you that those dump valves will never drop low again, thanks to ten huge rivets and a California license plate.

How my Airstream lost its mojo in the carport

Next week I’m going to camp in the desert in California, and so I’m getting the Safari ready now. I’ve learned that anytime the Airstream has been sitting for a while, it’s best to start checking all the systems at least two weeks in advance.  That way the little problems that sometimes crop up during storage can be resolved without a last-minute panic.

I figured I’d find something that needing doing, but was completely surprised by what turned up.  The Tri-Metric battery monitor was reporting the batteries were at 73%. Since the Airstream has been continuously plugged into power since late August, this was clearly suspicious. The batteries should have been at 100%.

The Tri-Metric 2020 (by Bogart Engineering) is one of several amp-hour meters you can install in place of the existing battery monitor that came with your travel trailer. I recommend this upgrade to everyone, for reasons I’ve outlined previously. It’s about $200 plus installation, and well worth it for anyone who ever camps off-grid, has solar panels, or just wants to know what’s really going on with their batteries.

The Tri-Metric is highly accurate. It “counts” every bit of power (in amps) that goes in or out of the batteries, so when it reports 73% charge, it’s pretty darned close, like within 1-2%. We’ve had that Tri-Metric running in the Airstream for nine years and it has always been reliable.

So the first thing I checked was that the Airstream was in fact receiving power.  That was simply a matter of looking at another meter in my case, but if you didn’t have one, turning on an AC-powered appliance would verify power as well. Just plug in a lamp or something.

The second thing I checked was that the power converter/charger was doing its job.  You might recall that earlier this year I switched from the factory-installed converter/charger to an Intellipower 9260 with Charge Wizard. This was in order to get better battery charging when we were plugged in. The factory put in a 2-stage charger, and the Intellipower has three stages, plus somewhat more “brain” so it doesn’t overcharge the battery, and the option of manual overrides using the Charge Wizard.

The Tri-Metric answered this question too. It was showing that the batteries had a tiny rate of discharge, about -0.05 amps. Turning on additional DC power consumers (lights, fans, water pump) revealed that the rate of discharge never changed.  That’s because the Intellipower was doing at least part of its job, stepping up the power input as needed to compensate for DC power draws. If the Intellipower wasn’t working at all, the Tri-Metric would have shown a dramatic increase of discharge.

Now, to understand what’s coming next, you need know something about the way batteries charge. A fully charged “12 volt” battery really runs about 12.7 volts.  (This varies by the type of battery chemistry used, but here I’m referring to the typical “wet cell” lead-acid batteries that come with your Airstream.)

Think of volts as electrical pressure. In order to get 12.7 volts into the battery, you have to “push” power into the battery a little harder than 12.7 volts. The harder you push, the faster the power goes in.  But there’s a limit to how hard you can safely push, so for this typical sort of battery the manufacturers usually recommend about 13.6 volt for a normal charge. When the battery is really empty you can push a little harder (meaning more volts), and when it is nearly full you have to back off and push more gently (less volts).

The Intellipower, like many other RV converter/chargers, has pre-set levels at which it charges the batteries. If the battery is full or nearly full, it charges at “storage mode” rate of 13.2 volts.  This keeps the battery topped off, compensating for a little “self-discharge” that naturally occurs with lead-acid batteries.

If the battery is somewhat discharged, the Intellipower steps up to 13.6 volts.  This is the “normal mode” of charging.

If the battery is really discharged and needs a bulk charge quickly, the Intellipower goes for broke and pushes hard at 14.4 volts. It will only do this for a little while before returning to the normal mode of 13.6 volts.

Those are the “three stages” that I was referring to earlier, and it works just great for conventional batteries.

With the trailer plugged in, the Tri-Metric was telling me that the battery voltage was steady at 13.2 volts.  That’s not the actual voltage of the battery, because it was receiving some input from the Intellipower. To get the true voltage, I disconnected the AC power and waited for the battery to have a chance to “settle”.

Ideally I should have let it settle for 24 hours with no charge or discharge (e.g., disconnected), and then measured at 77 degrees, but I was impatient and didn’t want to disconnect the battery at that time, plus it was cold outside. So I waited six hours with a very small load on the battery (from the refrigerator’s circuit board and a few other small “parasitic” drains), and checked the voltage again.  It was 12.7 volts, which in a conventional battery would indicate that it was about full.

If this had been the end of the story I would have concluded that the Tri-Metric had somehow lost calibration and wasn’t counting the amps correctly. But that just didn’t sit well with me.  The Tri-Metric seemed to be acting normally.  After six hours of the trailer being unplugged, the Tri-Metric was reporting a 70% charge, which seemed about right. Something else had to be wrong … but what?

The answer surprised me.  Long ago we replaced the original Airstream batteries with an Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) battery. These are sold under various brand names, such as Optima. Ours happens to be a Lifeline 4D model. I looked up the charging requirements for this battery and discovered that it has entirely different voltage requirements, as follows:

Absorption Charge voltages (“normal mode”): 14.2- 14.6
Float Charge voltages (“storage mode”) 13.1 – 13.4

Although the Intellipower charger was supplying power to the battery, it just wasn’t enough. When the battery wanted 14.2 to 14.6 volts, the charger gave it 13.6 volts. Sitting in storage, the charger gave it only 13.2 volts, which was fine for a while, but not enough to maintain the AGM’s rated “full” level of 12.9 volts. The battery gradually lost power.

The upshot for you is that there’s a dirty little secret about most power converters: they aren’t optimized for charging AGMs, at least not the Lifeline ones.  In our case, the Intellipower documentation doesn’t address this, and factory voltage output settings can’t be changed. I checked a few other popular brands and found they are exactly the same. Only a few brands, like Xantrex, have the built-in capability to push the correct voltages needed for AGM batteries. If you have switched to AGMs and haven’t upgraded your converter/charger to the right brand, your battery is going to have reduced capacity as well.

The really peculiar thing about this is that it took eight months for my problem to crop up.  Why didn’t I notice a charging problem before?

Because we have solar panels, and a separate solar charge controller (a Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e). The Blue Sky charger can be programmed to output a range of voltage, so you can optimize it for your batteries. The factory default on that device is 14.0 volts (compared to 13.6 volts on the Intellipower), and that makes a huge difference. So when we were parked outside, our batteries were getting their last 27% of capacity courtesy of the sun and the Blue Sky—and I didn’t realize it until now.

At home, our Airstream lives under a carport, so the solar panels don’t produce any power. And, in colder temperatures, it takes a little more power to charge the batteries—about 0.5 volts more. (This is just a weird battery chemistry thing.) So after four months of sitting in the carport with slowly declining temperatures and inadequate voltage from the Intellipower, the battery slowly lost power and the solar panels weren’t there to save the day.

It’s possible the battery still is underperforming. I’m going to test it this next week when I take the trailer out of the carport and go camping for a week.  If I’m right, a full charge should be possible in the sunshine, and then I can “equalize” the battery using the solar charge controller (which goes to 15.2 volts in equalization mode), and exercise it through a few charge/discharge cycles.

I may also adjust the BlueSky charger for slightly more output voltage. I’ll have to do that after the battery has reached full charge. It may already be at an optimal setting, but since I don’t know, it will be a good exercise to check it once we have full sun.

If the battery is fine and it comes to a full charge next week using solar power, I’ll have to start looking for a better converter/charger. It’s a bummer to have to replace that unit again, but with the right unit in place the battery should charge faster when plugged into AC power—and most importantly maintain its state of charge all winter long.