A short history of the sun

Several people wrote to me yesterday to say “thanks” for yesterday’s blog post on solar.   It’s amazing to me how much information there is on the Internet about RV solar power, and yet how little of it is actually useful or even accurate. So I’m going to write a little more about it today.


Wednesday was a less challenging day for solar power than I had expected. By afternoon the skies cleared up and we had good power generation for a few hours.  You really get the bulk of power between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., no matter what time of year or latitude, if you have fixed panels that always face directly upward like we do.  (People with tilting panels have a big advantage, because they can capture light at a more direct angle during the morning and late afternoon. I’d like to install those on the Airstream but so far I haven’t found a practical and cost-effective solution.)

The batteries started the day down 34.7 amp-hours.  I used the laptop for eight hours, and Eleanor used hers for about an hour, plus we recharged phones and camera batteries.  Even with this relatively heavy load, the batteries ended up at -15.4 amp-hours (a net gain of 19.3 amp-hours).  When you figure in the power we used while the sun was shining, we probably generated about 40-50 amp-hours during the day.  Not bad for a half-cloudy day.

I give these statistics as guidelines of how things might work for you, but it’s important to keep that the bottom line of solar use is that every situation is different. The key variables are: sun angles (time of year, latitude, time of day), cloudiness, panel generating capacity, and storage capacity.  A lot of the websites go on and on about wiring losses and other electrical engineering details, but in real life a single leaf on your panel can have a much larger effect on power generation.  Don’t get hung up on whether your wires are big enough if you haven’t first tried cleaning the glass.

Because there are so many variables, it’s impossible to answer the question I get all the time:  “Is my system big enough?”   Big enough for what?  From trip to trip, I never know how much power we are going to generate in advance (I’d be a great weatherman if I could).  The best description I ever heard was that “solar makes your batteries bigger.”   Think about it that way and don’t worry about having unlimited power — even with a generator, it’s an illusion.

I’m just happy that we can camp for long periods without power connections, at least in the summer.  We’ve been here at Horseneck Beach since Saturday.  Just for comparison, if we had the original factory batteries and no solar panels we would have run out of power on Monday.

Now, since I mentioned generators, I feel obliged to explain why people who have generators often are seriously deluded about what’s really happening when they use it to “re-charge” the batteries. It really doesn’t work, at least not with the standard gear that comes with most trailers.

The reason is based on the fact that batteries will only accept re-charge at a certain rate.  As they get more charged, they resist, and so the rate of charge declines.  It doesn’t matter how big your generator is; you could plug that battery into a nuclear power station and it still won’t charge any faster.   A “smarter” charger will do better than the really dumb 2-stage chargers that seem to be installed in most trailers, but only to a point.

For example, your batteries might accept a charging rate of 15 amps (DC) when they are really heavily discharged, and 5 amps when they are 25% discharged, and 1 amp when they are 10% discharged.  If you’ve got an 80 amp-hour battery bank, getting from 90% to 100% charge could take eight hours or more.  That nice quiet 2000-watt generator you use will produce a whopping 150 DC amps at its normal maximum output rate, which is obviously way more than the batteries will accept at any given time.  The rest of the power is wasted, unless you are running the microwave or some other AC appliance while the generator is running.

The other problem is that the factory installed “battery monitors” are almost always cheap-o versions that guess at the batteries’ state of charge by measuring voltage.  This is incredibly inaccurate, especially those lousy units that show the battery condition using Red, Yellow, and Green LEDs.  Would you drive a car with a gas tank gauge that just showed red, yellow, and green?  Even worse, these units will show Yellow when there’s a heavy power demand even if the batteries are full, and they will show Green when the batteries are actually quite discharged but have recently been charged just a little.  Imagine that the car’s gauge went to Yellow every time you pressed the accelerator.

Try it sometime.  Use your batteries for a day or two, until they show Yellow constantly.  Then plug in for 30 minutes, unplug, and watch as (miraculously!) the monitor reports Green or “100%”.  Don’t believe it.  That’s what is sometimes called a “surface charge.” It’s a symptom of the battery monitor being fooled because it measures voltage.  The voltage pops up for a short time after charging, but it won’t last.  To get an accurate view of battery charge using voltage, you need to let the batteries “rest” (no drain, no charge) for at least an hour.  That almost never happens in a camping situation.

So here’s the scenario I see all too often:  After a day of camping, the owners decide it’s time to charge up the batteries.  They fire up the generator, plug in, and let it run for an hour or two.  The voltage-based battery monitor says all is well, so they turn off the generator and go to bed secure in the knowledge that they are “all charged up!” Except they really aren’t.

In two hours, the best that generator is can do is pump in maybe 10 amp-hours, if the batteries were moderately discharged to start.  Rather than being “100%” the reality is that if they started at 70%, they might now be at 85%.  So the next morning, the campers wake up and use a little power for the water pump, and by 10 a.m. they are amazed to see that they are back in the Yellow zone.  What happened?

So they plug in the generator again, and this time they run it for three hours, getting up to 88% charge.  At this point the batteries are really resisting further charge, so only about 1 or 2 amps of the 150 amps that generator can produce is actually getting into the batteries.   The next day, same problem — the battery monitor says they are still stuck in the Yellow zone.

Solar has a huge advantage here.  A steady all-day charge will get your batteries up to 100%. It’s like the turtle and the hare.  With batteries, slow and steady wins the race. If you have both a generator and solar panels, use the generator only when the batteries are heavily discharged (for an hour or so in the morning, for example) to get the bulk charge done quickly, and then let solar finish the job over the course of the day.

If you only have solar, keep in mind that during the morning and mid-day, moderately or heavily discharged batteries will probably accept every amp the panels can generate.  Then the charging rate naturally slows down.  In our case, by mid-afternoon the batteries are usually in the 90-100% range, and the charging rate has slowed to perhaps 1 amp.  If the panels are still generating 5 amps, we have surplus power, and so that’s the time of day we plug in all of our rechargeable accessories like phones, cameras, Kindle, laptops, etc.  This strategy takes maximum advantage of the power being generated.

Another good time to use a generator is when power demand is high.  It’s much easier to avoid using battery power (by being plugged into the generator) than to try to recharge battery power later.  So if you have small batteries, use the generator in the evening when you are making dinner, and any power consumed will be supplied by the generator.

Good kite flying weather

The wind is back at Horseneck Beach campground.  The reservation website did warn that “sites can be breezy.”  People who come here regularly seem to be prepared for it, as I see a lot of kites and streamers attached to poles.  The big round rocks from the beach make handy weights to keep your belongings from blowing away, too.

horseneck-beach-emma-kite.jpgSo we broke out the kite that we’ve owned for many years and hardly ever flown.   Eleanor admits to being a hopeless kite pilot, and Emma has surprisingly little knowledge of kites, so there was some initial confusion, but eventually up it went, and it flew very well … until the inevitable crashes in the wild rose bushes. The kite survived to fly another day.

We didn’t do much else.  In the morning, we cleaned up the Airstream and relocated it to another campsite. (We’ve booked two more days here, but that meant we had to switch sites.)  I was tied to the computer the rest of the day, editing articles for the upcoming Winter 2010 and Spring 2011 issues.  Still, working near the beach on a beautiful sunny day gives the opportunity for very pleasant breaks, walking along the seashore or just enjoying the sun and salty breeze blowing through the trailer.

We had thought that in the evening we might hit one of the local restaurants for another seafood dinner, but of course being post-Labor Day, all of the tourism-related businesses are closing or reducing hours.  We settled for some interesting takeout from the local grocery and a movie at home.  It has gotten very quiet here, and that’s nice.

Solar report:  Since not much is happening, I’ve got an opportunity to talk a little more about solar.  Forgive me if this topic bores you, but I get a lot of inquiries from blog readers, so I know there is a need for real-world information.  Yesterday was full sun again, and with our 230 watt panel array, at this time of year (when the sun angle is still fairly high), we really can’t store all the power we generate.

We started Tuesday morning with a 36.0 amp-hour deficit, which is fairly normal as a result of using lights, water pump, and laptop the night before.  During Tuesday I was on the laptop for at least six hours, consuming about 9-10 amp-hours in total, and Eleanor used probably another 3-4 amp-hours charging her laptop.  Still our batteries were at 99% by 5 p.m., indicating that we generated more than 50 amp-hours during the day.

That’s all well and good while the sun shines, but the other half of a solar charging system is storage.  You’ve got to have battery capacity that is matched to your power needs and the capacity of your panels.  Long-time blog readers know that since January 2010 we have used a single Lifeline GPL-4D, which has a rated capacity of 210 amp-hours.  Today (Wednesday), we will see that half of the system put to the test.  The forecast is for gloomy skies and rain — in fact, it just started to rain as I am typing this.  Under the rain cloud, our power generation has been cut from 8-9 amps when sunny to a miniscule 0.8 -2.1 amps (depending on the thickness of cloud).  Essentially, at this moment we are generating only enough power to make up for the parasitic drain that is inherent in all modern RVs.  So, under those circumstances our power supply would be entirely reliant on the battery.

We started today with a deficit of 34.7 amp-hours. If we generate no power today, I would expect the battery to be drained by a further 20-30 amp-hours by 5 p.m., just as a result of my laptop use and normal parasitic drain. (Parasitic drain comes from the circuit boards and always-on electronic modules in the stereo, refrigerator, thermostat, propane leak detector, etc., and totals about 0.5 amps per hour.)  Tonight, we will use another 25-35 amp-hours, which means we could end up tomorrow morning with a deficit of 80-100 amp-hours.

Ideally you never want to discharge the battery by more than 50%, which means that at 110 amp-hours we need to either find some sunshine, or plug in to power.  If we are not cognizant of our power budget today, and the weather continues as it is, we’ll be up against that limit tomorrow.

Now, there are three practical responses to this.  (1) We could add more battery capacity.  A second Lifeline GPL-4D battery would double our capacity, but at the cost of about $500-600 and 135 pounds of added weight.   Also, given the rating of our solar panels, we would be hard pressed to recharge a deficit of 110 amp-hours under typical conditions.  Certainly we’d never be able to do it in a single day.  So our batteries and panels would not be well matched, although that’s not a big problem.

(2) We can plan ahead.  For example, we know that tomorrow we are pulling out of the campground and relocating.  There’s a very good chance that we will get at least partial sunshine while we are towing, which will yield power for the batteries.  (The tow vehicle does not add a significant amount of power to the batteries while towing, by the way — that’s sort of an urban myth.)  Or, if we know we are going somewhere that we can plug in, we don’t need to worry about reaching our power limit tonight.

(3) We can cut our power usage.  I could relocate to a coffee shop somewhere and use their power for my laptop.  I could take the afternoon off.  We could use only the LED lights in the trailer tonight.  We could use the campground showers to avoid using the power-hungry water pump in the trailer.  I find that a lot of people hate conserving because it makes them feel deprived, but we don’t mind so much.  If I’m “forced” to quit work early, I can live with that.

But I probably won’t get that excuse.  That’s because, in the real world, the weather changes.  It probably won’t stay cloudy all day.  Even as I’ve been typing this, the rain has stopped and some breaks have appeared in the skies.  Right now we are generating 6-8 amps, which is a very healthy rate for recharging the Lifeline. Despite fluctuations, we should generate at least enough power today to offset my laptop use.

It’s important to consider this, because people who don’t like solar power tend to invent worst-case scenarios to “prove” that it is impractical, and those scenarios often include cloudy skies.  That’s like proving generators don’t work when the gas tank is empty.  Especially in the northeast and northwest, it is quite possible to have extended cloudy periods that make solar impractical, but even in those cases it is useful.   The point is not to have unlimited power capacity.  For us, solar is a tool to enable us to camp peacefully while silent, maintenance-free power streams into our batteries automatically and extends our time in a great spot like this one.


There are a lot of types of separation, and as I’ve discovered, parting is “sweet sorrow” only sometimes.  We are gearing up to depart Vermont, where the Airstream and our daughter have been parked all summer long.  That means the usual five-day process of catching up on everything before we head out.

It’s not that re-packing the Airstream is all that hard.  In fact, it’s quite easy.  What makes the job hard is re-organizing, cleaning, culling, and making decisions.  Imagine that every six months you took everything out of your house, decided what to donate or toss, and then put it all back.  Don’t forget every scrap of clothing you have, and add in a growing 10-year-old with a wardrobe, and you’ll start to get the picture.  We’ve got t-shirts and plastic forks left over from Alumapalooza, dust from Ohio, spider webs from Vermont, and receipts from the NY State Thruway. You can ignore this gradual accumulation of junk in your house because it’s so much bigger, but in 240 square feet any bad habits of housekeeping quickly catch up with you.

Then there’s the detritus of three months of courtesy parking.  Emma’s stuff is spread all over an acre of property. The solar panels are covered in tree mulch and bird droppings.  There are the unfinished projects to sort out, shopping to do, tires to re-inflate, things that need lubrication and things that need cleaning. And while we are doing this, there are the friends who want “one last visit” before we go, who we sometimes (regretfully) have to say “Sorry” to because we need every spare moment to get all of our projects done.

One project in particular that is vexing me (I’ve never spoken of myself as being vexed before but that’s how it feels) is removal of the old Tour of America decals.  Officially the Tour of America ended in October 2008 when we ceased full-time travel, but we left the decals in place (a) because we like them; (b) it looked like a difficult and uncertain job to remove them.  Indeed it has been.


I decided to start with the most obviously out-of-date decal, the big purple Tour of America sign on the curbside.  There were several questions:  How do you get it off?  Will it leave behind a shadow from differential sun fading?  Will it damage the clearcoat?  I did some online research but couldn’t find anyone who had removed decals from an Airstream before, so I took my best shot at it.

It turns out that the vinyl peels up rather slowly and with considerable effort, if you use hair dryer to heat it up as you go.  There was no damage to the clearcoat, and no fading or shadowing.  But the decal left behind a nice sticky layer of adhesive that resisted most chemical attacks.  I had to be careful when experimenting, as some chemicals might also remove the clearcoat.  Goo-Gone was anemic, as was mineral spirits. The chemical M.E.K. did a pretty good job but the fumes were amazingly horrible.  Goof-Off worked just as well and was less difficult to be around. Even the best treatments took 4-5 passes to completely remove the adhesive with a plastic scraper.

At this point about 80% of the adhesive is removed.  I’ve been at it for about an hour or two each day for three days — about as long as I can stand the fumes.  Separating adhesive from clearcoated aluminum is a job I can live without.  When time comes to remove the other decals, I may take it to a automotive vinyl graphics shop and pay to have professionals with respirators and bunny suits do it.  But now that I’ve started this one, I have to finish it before we head out.  Otherwise, our trailer side will effectively be a 4×5 foot piece of flypaper.

We don’t plan for the trailer to go naked, however.  What will go on the trailer instead?   That’s a difficult question to answer.  Right now Brad, Eleanor, and I are kicking around various designs and ideas.  Here’s one that I really like, but which we won’t be using (mostly because I need to promote magazines, not this blog).


No matter what we ultimately choose, I think you will still be able to easily identify us as we roll by.  But it will be a few weeks before the final decision is made.  We will have to live with whatever we choose, for quite a while.  And I don’t want to have to remove decals again for a long time. It’s one form of separation that has no sweetness associated with it at all.

Denver to Denver

Ah, summer travel.  Even though Eleanor and I grew up in the northeast, we have to readjust every time we go north in the summer.  It is (as always) sticky humid, which makes a mild 82 degree heat seem excruciating.  The front of the Mercedes and the dome of the Airstream are disgustingly decorated with squashed bugs and bird droppings from our 900 mile trek over the weekend.  We are all feeling a bit car-burned from having traveled so much recently.  All of these things tell me that we need to stop and get acclimated for couple of days.

We have traveled from Denver, Colorado to Denver, Iowa for a few days of courtesy parking.  This visit has been a long time coming.  Paul and Marcia, our hosts, first wrote to us in November 2006.  Paul intrigued me with his offer of an 18-hole disc golf course, but we never seemed to be coming through Iowa during our full-timing years.  Last year we passed right by on our way to Wisconsin but we were in too much of a hurry stop.  But finally everything came together and I wrote to Paul again to ask if his three year-old offer of courtesy parking was still good.


It was, so we detoured about 50 miles off our route and plunked the Airstream into a bucolic country setting at Paul and Marcia’s house.  What a terrific spot!  We are parked on concrete, with an electric hookup and water nearby, next to their 1966 Globetrotter and their 1984 Sovereign, with beautiful shady trees all around and just a few steps from the first tee of the disc golf course.

denver-ia-airstream.jpgAfter getting the Airstream established, a round of golf was the obvious first order of business.  Eleanor, Emma, and I had never tried disc golf (a.k.a. frisbee golf) but I knew we’d all like it.  The course is 18 holes, all par 3, with numerous tricky obstacles (trees) and uphill/downhill shots.  Paul of course came in well under par, I came in second (I think I was four under par), and Eleanor and Emma did pretty well too.  Marcia drove the golf cart and “caddied.”  It was great fun, so we’ll play another round on Tuesday, I’m sure.

For today, however, we’ve all got to get down to business.  Paul and Marcia have gone off to work and left me with access to the house and a tray of frosted brownies.  It’s nice and cool in the lower level of the house, even though it doesn’t have air conditioning, so I’m happy here.  I’ve got my laptop and office gear all set up on the kitchen table.  That tray of brownies is really horrible temptation, however.

denver-ia-courtesy-parking2.jpgEleanor and Emma have elected to stay in the Airstream and do some homeschooling.  Even though we probably have sufficient voltage to run the Airstream’s air conditioner, Eleanor wants to just make do with fans today.  She thinks a little suffering in the humidity will get her ready for a summer in Vermont.

Being out here in the rural country has given me a chance to break out some of the more esoteric mobile technology that I use.  Cellular service is pretty weak here, which means I can’t reliably make calls and my Internet is also marginal.  My first corrective measure was to take my Cradlepoint cellular router out of the Airstream and plug it in in the upper level of the barn just behind the Airstream.  That got it out of the aluminum shell and up at a higher elevation.  The device indicated three bars of signal when I moved it, compared to 1.5 bars of signal inside the trailer, but the service was still sporadic.

My next step would normally be to use my Linksys WRE54G wireless LAN repeater to pick up the house’s wifi and direct it into the Airstream.  Unfortunately the house’s wifi was password-protected, and the Linksys can’t repeat a password-protected signal.  So I moved into the house’s kitchen (with permission), and am using our host’s wifi for the day.  This sort of situation is exactly why I keep most of my “office” small enough to fit in a backpack.  I often have to relocate to be able to work effectively.  Having a single backpack makes it easy to grab and go, whether it’s to a kitchen table, a borrowed office, or a booth at Panera Bread.

The other technology challenge of the day was to be able to make phone calls.  This is where I got to break out a rarely-used piece of gear, the Verizon Network Extender.  I plugged it into the house’s DSL connection, and within a few minutes, it connected and created a cellular phone “picocell.”  Now my Verizon phone works anywhere near the house.  Instead of connecting to a cellular tower far away, my phone is connecting to the Verizon Network Extender, which is sending the call over the Internet via the house’s DSL.

This is going to be a busy week.  Not only am I nearing deadline for articles for the Fall 2010 Airstream Life, but Alumapalooza is next week, and we’ve still got several hundred miles and two different business stops between here and Jackson Center, OH.  The real challenge is Alumapalooza, because there will undoubtedly be some last-minute signups and both Brett and I will be on the road.  If either of us answers the phone later this week, it will be while driving on some Interstate highway, and emails won’t be responded to until late at night.  But the blog must go on …

Colorado Springs, CO

We were lucky — the weather driving up I-25 from Las Vegas, NM to Colorado Springs, CO was nowhere near as bad as I had feared.  A few sprinkles to wash the Arizona dust off the car, and gray scudded skies were the worst of it.  Even in the Raton pass the wind was not bad at all, which made the trip only mildly uninteresting, which is better than extremely interesting when you’re talking about weather.

I am really enjoying the rear-view camera we installed on the Airstream.  I leave it on most of the time we are towing, and it acts basically to replace the rear-view mirror. The wide angle lens is ideal for backing up because I can see things to the sides and above the trailer (like tree branches that might scratch the top) but the corollary is that it is not so good for seeing vehicles at a distance as they approach on the highway.  No matter — it is still great to have early warning as vehicles approach to pass, or when somebody is tailgating.  It’s also great that I can now back up short distances (like at a gas station) with positive assurance that nobody is standing behind the trailer in the blind spot.  We don’t have a blind spot anymore.

I’ve found, however, that there is no substitute for Eleanor standing beside the trailer to guide me in when backing into a campsite.   The fish-eye perspective of the camera makes judging distances almost impossible.  I tried it here at Cheyenne Mountain State Park yesterday and it was clearly not going to work.   So we’ll continue to back into tight spots the way we always have, using hand signals.


Last year I blogged about Cheyenne Mountain State Park, saying that it was a great addition to the Colorado State Parks system, and clearly many people agree.  We had to book our weekend reservation weeks in advance, and even then we could not get a contiguous 3-day stay.  So today we had to hitch up and move to a new site for our next two nights.  It’s still worth it.  Like some other Colorado State Parks, the campsites are primo: landscaped and manicured sites with pink concrete pads, full hookups, beautifully laid out, hiking trails everywhere, and almost every site has a view. Plus a good laundry, store, an awesome visitor center, picnic areas, etc.  I should stop talking about it or the next time we won’t get in here at all…

It’s particularly ironic to be enjoying the great state parks of New Mexico and Colorado when the goofball politicians back in Arizona are busy devastating the state park system there.  If you want to camp in Arizona, be aware that the state park you planned to visit may be shuttered or operating on a limited schedule this year.  Other states are enjoying record attendance in their parks (SD) (NC) (VA) (FL) (MO) and can clearly see the economic benefits of state parks, but some of Arizona’s state legislators have seen an opportunity to raid a fund and cut a budget item.  Which will be the most sustainable long-term choice for the state’s economy?

Well, we’re spending our money in Colorado now, and thanks to this state park in Colorado Springs we will stay for three nights when otherwise we would probably have stayed only one or two.  If we hadn’t made reservations up in Denver for Monday, I would be booking a fourth night, because I’ve since found more things to do here.   State parks are a long-term investment in a state’s future economy and quality of life.

Today we had planned as a free day, but the weather was not great for outdoor stuff, since it is cool and thunderstorms have been popping up.  That’s when the errand list comes out.  There’s always something that needs doing, whether it’s a little shopping or a bit of maintenance on the trailer.  Since we just got started, I had only two items on the trailer list.  The strut jacks on the Hensley hitch have been binding lately, and that’s a problem solved with a few shots of silicone spray.   As we pulled into Colorado Springs, I also noticed the distinct squeaking that tells me the hitch ball needs lubricating.  With a Hensley, that’s a job most easily done while the car is still connected.  I’ll do that on Monday when we get to our next stop, and maybe shoot a little video to show you how we do it.

When we were full-timing we were often asked how we decided where to go.  There’s a long answer to that, which involves juggling a bunch of priorities, but part of the answer is that we try to get ideas from people we meet. That’s what happened today, when we met up with blog readers Al and Jo.  They told us about the work they do with Canine Companions for Independence, training puppies to become service dogs. We learned that these service dogs go through a lengthy training before they can become service dogs, and when they are done they actually have a graduation ceremony.  So attending one of the ceremonies got added to our list of “interesting things to see” and we might even get to see one this November.