Hi-Tech to Low-Tech and Back Again

We set out to leave on our Oregon trip with our new hi-tech equipped Airstream. Solar-check, LED lights-check, 2000w pure-sine inverter-check. All systems go! Or so I thought.

When hooking up the Airstream with my electric jack, the jack failed to raise completely. It groaned by blowing it’s 20 amp fuse! Keep in mind the family is in the house ready-to-go. They are just waiting for me to pull my hi-tech trailer in front of the house so they can start loading.

I popped the top of the electric jack loose and used the manual crank to raise it. It was tough and reached a point that I couldn’t raise it any longer. Great! Now what? Stupid electric jack!! Then it dawned on me, laying on the ground was the manual jack I had removed to go with the hi-tech electric one. Just a mere three bolts later, we were back on the road. Cranking away – me just a little more cranky.


Our first stop was just a couple hours from home up the California coast. It was the perfect place for the overnight we needed. Didn’t need to unhook at all. They had full hookup and the price was right at $15 with our Passport America membership. It’s called Sleepy Hollow RV Park, located just north of Willits, CA.

We enjoy full hookups because of our use of electric heat and hot showers for the four of us. This requires a sewer connection. However, I do have my new 400w solar system that I wanted to test. So I left my converter/charger turned off and invented a new kind of camping. I call it “Simulated Boondocking”.

20140714-072824-26904449.jpgCan’t even see the solar in this photo!

We simulated a Boondocking experience by using our 12v battery system to run our LED lights, running the fridge and water heater control boards, powering our LP and CO detectors, running the stereo, our Fantastic Vent, and of course, our WiFi Ranger.

The first day the solar had charged up our batteries to 100% by the time we stopped about 6pm. We didn’t limit the use if any the devices I mentioned. We used our LED lights without restriction. I realize that many of our lights are also 110v, but we used most of the 12v lights as well. We ran the 12v Fantastic Vent all night, as well as my new LED night lights, which were a big hit.

By morning, around 6:30 am, our Tri-Metric measured our reserve at 80% battery. After the morning rituals, we drove away around 10am with 75% battery. I noted that in the early morning shade among the trees, the solar started bringing in 1 amp.



The drive up north 101 was pretty overcast and often foggy. It is a pretty drive and wasn’t difficult for our 51-foot truck/trailer combo. Even with the overcast and fog we were charging. After an hour drive to fuel up, I checked and found the solar was bringing in 14.7 amps to our 200 a/hr battery bank which brought us to 80%.

Lunch was upon us in no time. Just a three hour jaunt from our morning departure. As we pulled into a rest stop, I realized the kids would want to have mac and cheese. Especially after I had been bragging about the pure sine inverter running the microwave. Me and my big mouth. I’m certain the microwave would only work with fully charged batteries since it draws 150 amps to heat up cheesy noodles. What level would the batteries be at now after Simulated Boondocking and driving three hours in coastal overcast? Was dad going to be a hero, or a big zero?!

I checked the battery status when we parked and was pleased to find them fully charged already! As we drove the solar powered our fridge’s DC control board requirements, detectors, and wifi ranger, as well as topping off our batteries to a microwave-ready 100%. What’s nice about a 400w solar system is that in the sunlight, you can use up to 20 amps of electric without touching your battery reserve. It’s neat to be using electric and still see a positive number on the tri-metric.

It took a total of 7.5 minutes to heat up two kids mac and cheese in the microwave. That may not sound like much, but that is 7.5 minutes of a 150a draw! This with only two batteries. For a 2000w inverter, you really should have four batteries for enough reserve.

Actually it was sunny enough, only 136 amps came from the batteries and the balance from the solar. Another solar benefit. Solar is like an active power buddy stepping in when needed without having to ask! Thanks buddy.

We are on our third day of Simulated Boondocking. Solar has done a great job for us. For example, we stopped at a wild life zoo and had our trailer in the parking lot. I was able leave the Fantastic Vent running the whole time without worry. Of course you should be able to do that anyway, but somehow it seems different when you are using zero battery power to do it.

We were also able to use the microwave again off the battery/solar system to heat up some leftovers for lunch. No problem. From the looks of things so far, it looks like as long as there is sun light, I can go on indefinitely without plugging in to charge the batteries. Of course, there’s not always going to be sunlight. There will be rainy and cloudy days.

I’m only simulating Boondocking. Chances are we’d use more power if really Boondocking. Having said that, I don’t think it would take much effort to stay within our power budget. If we needed more, an extra battery or two would easily settle it for sure.

So far, just like in the Lego Movie, “Everything is Awesome!” Hey, I got kids, cut me some slack!

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LED Night Lights

Always room for more LEDS!

I mounted my solar controller in the street side closet to be closer to the batteries.  The only problem is the LCD on the display is not backlit.  Every time I wanted to read it I had to use my phone as a flashlight.  I decided to mount a small LED light above it.


Mini LED License Plate Light

I searched out some cheap surface mount lights and found these mini LED License Plate lights (Amazon Link).  I actually picked them up cheaper at a local auto parts store.

These have two bright LED chips.  Almost too bright.  The chips are on one side of the board in the plastic housing.  To reduce the light, I aimed the light up into the cover, which made the light the perfect brightness for what I was looking for.

I mounted one in the closet above the solar controller and it turned out great.

LED light above panel.

LED light above panel.


I decided to add two more for night lights in the trailer.  I put one under the street side bed where the kick plate is located and another at the end of the kitchen counter.

Nightlight under bed

Nightlight under bed

Nightlight at the end of the counter.

Nightlight at the end of the counter.

A couple of switches in the closet finish off the installation.  One is for the panel light, and the other for the night lights.  I left room for another switch or two.  Ya never know….

LED light switches

LED light switches

Fun little addition to the lighting in the Ambassador.  The best part is the lights only draw .1amp each!  Won’t be a problem running them all night to keep the boogie man away!






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Ambassador LED Retrofit

As I moved to solar, I started thinking about how to conserve energy.  After all, you only get free power during the day, at night you need to watch your P’s and Q’s.

It turns out one of the largest loads are my incandescent lights.  My Ambassador is an International model, so each fixture has a 12vdc bulb as well  as a 110vac bulb.  This is great, because when I was at a hookup I’d run the 110vac bulbs to keep my converter fan from going into overdrive when I had all of my 12vdc lights on.

Well, I started looking into it further and found that many of my 12vdc lights were 50w, and drew a staggering 4.1amps each!  Multiply this by eight lights and you have some serious power.  No wonder my converter fan went nuts!  Running these lights at night, when you need them, will undo a lot of work the solar did during the day putting power into my battery bank.  So the obvious answer is LED.

Uh, problem.  My 1960 fixtures use standard light bulbs with an E26 screw base.  I could not find these in LED for 12v.  Luckily I happened upon Steve at M4LED.com.


Steve’s business is retrofitting LED lights for RV’s.  He took my particular issue as a challenge.  After I sent him some design requests and fixture photos, Steve had designed and manufactured a direct replacement bulb in a matter of a few weeks!  Steve went one step further and designed a 110VAC matching bulb to make sure the light pattern and intensity were equal.

12vDC and 110VAC LED Replacments

12vDC and 110VAC LED Replacements

The results are dramatic.  On the 12vdc side, my standard incandescent bulb drew 4.1 amps.  The replacement LED only uses 0.8 amps!  This is huge.  When you multiply it out, that’s 32 amps for all eight incandescent lights on in my trailer vs only 6.4 amps for all eight LED lights!

The 110VAC lights are equally beneficial.  The standard 60W bulb draws 0.5 amps, while the LED equivalent requires only 0.1 amp.  Talk about not worrying if the lights are on.

These new lights are available now at MLED.com.  Click here for a direct link.  Be sure to tell him Tim sent ya!

Steve also set me up with replacement brake and running lights.  These are also direct replacements and are top quality.  These retrofit lights are made of an aluminum housing and quality chip LEDs.

1157 and BA9s LEDs

1157 and BA9s LEDs

The LED on the left is a 1157-23-5630-RED and is a direct replacement for an 1157 dual element brake light.  The LED on the right is a BA9s-5-5050-CW, which is a direct replacement for the 57 bulbs used in my running lights.

These are brighter and operate at a cooler temperature than the standard bulbs.  Plus they look cool.

Big thanks to Steve at M4LED.com for helping us out with these new lights.  But now he’s helping us all, because now anyone can get them!  VAP listeners can get a discount 5% off their order by using the code VAP5!

I created a two-part video about the LED retrofit.  Part one is interior lights, and part two is for the running lights.

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Pure Power! – (Part 3 of 3)

Caution: Electricity can be dangerous, consult a professional.

In the first installment we talked about why I chose to go with a pure sine inverter.  In part two we talked about why I chose the GP-SW2000-12 Inverter from GoPower.

Now were are going to talk about the actual installation.  Big inverters require big amounts of power!  I have two 100aH AGM Lifeline batteries giving me a total of 200aH of capacity.  I’d say thats an absolute minimum for this size inverter.  I’d really like to have 400ah of battery.  This just means I have to use my inverter for shorter amounts of time.  Of course the solar installation really helps out.  When wiring multiple batteries together, be sure and use a wire rating as big or bigger than what’s required for your inverter.

GoPower makes inverter installation kits that supply the right size wire and fuse for the inverter you selected.  You do not have to use their kit, but you should use the size of wire and fuse they recommend.  I also suggest using a high-quality multi-strand wire that is flexible.  Like a marine type cable, sometimes referred to as welding cable.  These have many fine strands that make the wire bend easily.  When you are trying to fit the inverter into a small space, you’ll be glad you have flexible wire!  This is exactly what comes in the GoPower! installation kit.

GoPower Inverter Install Kit

GoPower Inverter Install Kit

On my installation, I decided to pick two circuits to power when the inverter is on.  Personally I don’t think it’s a good idea to run the whole trailer’s power off an inverter that isn’t capable of running everything.  If you have an air conditioner, you’re already out.  Add an electric heating element on your water heater, and you just doubled down.  You’d also have remember to unplug your converter because you don’t want to generate power from the battery/inverter combination to try and charge the battery.  That’s just a loosing combination.  I know it’s a lot easier to just plug the trailer cord and and “manage” the devices, but I don’t like it.  I know that sometimes dealers even install them this way.  Just say “No”!

So the best way to do this is with a transfer switch.  Now we start talking about the need for an electrician. You have to dabble in your breaker boxes and get things configured properly the first time.  No room for learning here.  Sorry!

Just so you know what to talk to your electrician about, I’ve made a little diagram of a transfer switch installed in the trailer electrical system.

Transfer Switch Diagram

Transfer Switch Diagram

In a normal connection to shore power, the energy flows from the AC Main Panel through the Transfer Switch to the Controlled Outlets via the Sub Panel.  These outlets can be anything your inverter can handle, like my microwave and TV’s.

When the inverter is on, the Transfer Switch is engaged, and physically moves the wires off of the AC Main Panel, and to the Inverter.  Now the inverter is supplying power to the Controlled Outlets and Microwave.

Notice the Converter is only connected to the AC Main Panel, along with other high power devices not shown, like the air conditioner, water heater, etc…  This way, the inverter cannot supply power to those appliances.

Now you have an idea of what I did, lets have a closer look.

Below is the installed inverter next to the transfer switch.

Transfer Switch

Transfer Switch

Here is the AC Main Panel and Sub Panel.  The reason for the sub panel was to be able to have independent circuit breakers for the microwave and outlets with my TVs.

AC Main Panel and Sub Panel

AC Main Panel and Sub Panel

The installation was a success in that I’m able to run my microwave from the inverter.  Without sun present, the inverter draws 146 amps from the batteries to run the microwave.  When there is full sun, my solar panels deliver 20 amps, and batteries make up the difference at around 120-130 amps.  When the microwave is finished, the solar continues to dump 20 amps back into my batteries to fill them back up.  Sweet solar!

Here is the tri-metric showing the 146 amp draw (without sun), and the GP-SWR-B Remote Monitor running at 80%.

High current draw when running the microwave

High current draw when running the microwave

I completed the installation by adding a small shelf over the inverter.  There is plenty of room around it for ventilation, and it will keep us from stacking items directly on the inverter.

Inverter Shelf

Inverter Shelf

Here is a video walk through of my GoPower! GP-SW2000-12 Inverter installation.

That about covers it.  I’d like to thank GoPower for their assistance in this project as well as the solar project.

Here are links to some helpful items.

Amazon link for the GP-SW2000-12 Inverter
Amazon link for the GP-SWR-B Remote
Amazon link for the Go Power! GP-DC-KIT4 DC Installation Kit
Amazon link for the Go Power! GP-TS 30 Amp Prewired Transfer Switch for Quick Connect

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Sine of the Times – (Part 2 of 3)

As I mentioned in the first installment, I wanted to upgrade my inverter to a pure sine model capable of running my microwave.

Microwave’s are tricky because the number of watts is marketed heavily.  My 900w convection microwave is pretty typical for RV use.  Mainly because it is the smallest model you can get that can be built-in to a cabinet.  Low power is desirable for an RV because of the sometimes questionable power available at the pedestal when you’re hooked up.  30amp service isn’t always the same.

The tricky part of the microwave is that the 900w rating is what it’s cooking power is, not the AC power requirement is takes to generate that.  Pay special attention to your specific appliances to make sure you pick the right inverter.  It turns out that my 900w microwave draws 1450 watts of AC power!

This is an important point.  If you buy a 1000 watt inverter thinking it will power your 900w microwave, you’ll be in for a sad awakening.  You may also think, “well, I’ll just run my microwave at half power so it will work with my inverter.”  Not so fast there.  It turns out that microwaves merely change their duty cycle to run at anything less than full power.  In other words, they run at full power, cycle off for a time, then run full power again.  The result is you still need an inverter capable of powering the full load of the microwave.

Another consideration is you should never run electronics consistently at 100% of their capacity.  My choice of a 1500w inverter to supply the 1450 watts of input power I need for my microwave would be a poor decision.  This is why I went with the 2000w pure sine inverter from GoPower.

GoPower 2000w Pure Sine Inverter

GoPower 2000w Pure Sine Inverter

The GP-SW2000W Inverter has a continuous duty of 2000 watts.  It features a GFI protected outlet, hardwire output, and an optional remote panel.  The remote panel is handy because you usually mount the inverter out of the way near the batteries.

GoPower Remote Panel

GoPower Remote Panel

There are dip switch settings on the inverter that allow you to switch between 60hz (US) and 50hz operation.  The remaining switches adjust a power-save mode.

Power-save mode helps to lower the standby current of the inverter when its turned on, but not in use.  Typical on power draws about 2.6 amps and the power-save can lower it to around .3 amps.  The power-save mode can be confusing.  The power draw needs to be a certain, programmed amount before the inverter turns the full power on.  Make sure you understand this completely before using the feature.  My suggestion is to disable it and just turn the inverter on when you know you need it.

Check the specifications of the inverter you intend to buy.  One key spec is the lower operating voltage.  When running high current loads, the battery voltage will tend to drop.  This is normal, even for fully-charged batteries.  If the low voltage cut-off is too high, you will have a problem.  Typical low cutoff voltage for RV use is 10.5 volts.  Of course your battery is completely dead if it reads that under no load, but as I said, it’s normal for voltage to drop during high current situations.  So a higher cutoff voltage will sound unnecessary alarms or shut down your inverter.

GoPower made a line of “Fleet” inverters with a higher cut off voltage of 11.5v.  This was a special request of a fleet owner to help keep his crew from running their batteries down.  These should not make their way to the general public.

"Fleet" inverter with 11.5v low voltage cutoff

“Fleet” inverter with 11.5v low voltage cutoff

Every effort is made to keep these from the general public.  I just wanted to make you aware in case you wind up with one, or someone tries to sell you a used one.

Here is the proper model for RV use.

RV model with 10.5v cutoff

RV model with 10.5v cutoff

The last installment will talk about the installation into my 1960 Airstream Ambassador.

Amazon link for the GP-SW2000-12 Inverter
Amazon link for the GP-SWR-B12 Remote


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Modified Sine vs Pure Sine Inverters – (Part 1 of 3)

What’s an inverter?

An inverter turns 12vdc battery power into 110vac capable of running devices that require household voltage.  Household voltage, in the US, is 110v alternating current.  Alternating current means the power alternates or changes between plus and minus.  In the US it does it 60 times a second.  The result is termed a sine wave, which is illustrated as a smooth transition between the two extremes.

Alternating Current Sine Wave

Alternating Current Sine Wave                                             Image from commons.wikimedia.org

When I restored my trailer seven years ago, I included a inverter that could power my LCD TV’s whenever we were without hook ups.  We rarely boondock, actually we’ve only done it once, but it’s come in handy now and again.

Inverters use various design techniques to turn 12vdc into 110vac.  Back when I bought my inverter the big technology at the time was termed Modified Sine Wave inverters.  Before that, they were square wave inverters.  Basically a rapid transition from positive to negative.  This type of transition was terrible for equipment.  The modified sine wave inverter added some filtering to the electronics to smooth out the edges of the square and simulate the pure rounded nature of household current.

Modified Sine Wave

Modified Sine Wave                                                          Image from highfields-arc.co.uk

Although improved over the square wave, the modified sine is still not ideal.  It is ok for certain loads like motors and light bulbs.  It may run other devices, but at less efficiency.  Newer electronics use more sophisticated power supplies and rely more heavily on a pure sine wave.

Cost is the major issue going from modified sine wave inverters to pure sine.  Modified sine inverters are relatively cheap when compared to pure sine inverters that require a lot more engineering the achieve correct wave pattern.

One caution to pay attention to is the really cheap modified sine inverters can actually be wired unsafe.  Some of them put half the power out of the neutral line to trick the load into operating at full 110vac.  This is an unsafe condition, especially if you try and wire it into your RV panel.

If you want to go with a modified sine wave inverter, go with a quality brand, and check that your loads will work properly on a inverter of this type.

My Astron modified sine inverter installation

Photo during my Astron 800w modified sine inverter installation

Appliances like microwaves, may run on a modified sine inverter, if it’s large enough, but they run less efficient because of the poor sine wave.  They run better on a pure sine inverter that truly mimics household power.  In the end, they use less battery power to do it.

My old modified sine inverter ran my TV’s ok, but not much else.  I really wanted to be able to run my microwave in addition to the TV’s.  I also wanted to be able to use complex power supplies like those used in my macbook charger. So it was time to upgrade to a pure sine inverter.  I decided on a model from GoPower!

GoPower! makes a line of pure sine inverters of various sizes including, 1500w , 2000w, and 3000w models.


GoPower! 1500w Pure Sine Inverter

GoPower! 1500w Pure Sine Inverter

GoPower 2000w Pure Sine Inverter

GoPower 2000w Pure Sine Inverter

Like anything else, you get what you pay for.  Check out carefully before you buy.  Some manufactures typically over-rate what their products can do.

In the next installment, I’ll talk about why I chose the inverter I did and some of it’s features.

Amazon link for the GP-SW2000-12 Inverter

Disclaimer: Although my inverter was sponsored by GoPower, the experience and opinions expressed here are my own.

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Solar Show!

We are going to have GoPower on the show this week to talk solar, along with the Snowmads.

 Jason and Kristin Snow recently installed solar on their ’65 Airstream to help them while they full-time.  We will ask them about their new lifestyle and how solar plays a part.

We need your help.  Call in and give us your questions or comments on solar so we can play them on the show.

Call Now! 707-533-4827.

Call Now! 707-533-4827.

Don’t forget to enter the GoPower giveaway for a 100w Flex-Solar kit!  Click on the image below.

Click banner to enter!

Click banner to enter!


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HooToo Review!

I mentioned the original HooToo TripMate device on Episode 211 and talked about how we used it on our trip.  I contacted HooToo about their new Elite model and they sent it to me to review.

Either TripMate will do several things for the road warrior.

1. First it will create a wifi network and stream media to tablet and smart phone users.  Perfect for keeping the kids happy on those long driving days.

2. Secondly it will share an internet connection via it’s wifi.  If there is a internet connection near, either wireless or wired, the HooToo can connect to that service and rebroadcast it via it’s own network.  Many times increasing range and security.

3. Thirdly the HooToo is a battery bank and can charge phones and some tablets on the go.

Great device for the road warrior!

Amazon links:
HooToo TripMate Elite
HooToo TripMate

Here is a video review of the HooToo TripMate Elite.

Some times hotels or campgrounds require getting access through a permissions or what they call a splash page.  When I asked HooToo support if their device can handle that, here is their response.

“Yes you can connect the tripmate to a wireless network which has a splash page.
i.e. the hotel wifi network which need you to login with the room# and pw.
You can follow the below steps to set up:
– ask hotel front desk to get the wifi user name and password of your room
– connect your phone with Elite, login its webend
– setting -> internet -> wireless access -> scan -> select your hotel’s wifi name (SSID), leave the password empty, save.
– open another page on your phone browser, the hotel restrict page pops up, login with the username & password you asked from front desk
– your Elite’s mac address has been registered by hotel wifi system, then your other devices could access the network bridged by Elite.”


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