Trials and Tribulations: Dry campng with our Solar Panel - Page 3 - Fiberglass RV


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Old 09-24-2008, 11:54 PM   #29
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I'm sorry. I got a tummy bug Sunday night and was feeling quite sick earlier this week. There are places in my house where there's a place to sit, but no where to put a laptop. I've started the next chapter and should finish it this evening or tomorrow afternoon.

--Peter
Peter,
So sorry to hear you've been ill. We'll get off your case for the next chapter and let you recover in peace.
Best wishes,
Pamela S.
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Old 09-25-2008, 10:25 AM   #30
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I'm sorry. I got a tummy bug Sunday night and was feeling quite sick earlier this week. There are places in my house where there's a place to sit, but no where to put a laptop. I've started the next chapter and should finish it this evening or tomorrow afternoon.

--Peter
I'm sorry that you aren't feeling well... Hope you feel better soon. However, if you want a solution to keep typing...


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Also found at:

http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/20078234

Hopefully this will bring a smile to your face...I think they will be installing these in our bathroom soon at work...helps with that down time!!

Pam
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Old 09-25-2008, 01:58 PM   #31
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what no place to set your L...A...P..top quick manufacture something this is a riveting story!!! (hope ya feel better)


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I'm sorry. I got a tummy bug Sunday night and was feeling quite sick earlier this week. There are places in my house where there's a place to sit, but no where to put a laptop. I've started the next chapter and should finish it this evening or tomorrow afternoon.

--Peter







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Old 09-27-2008, 01:40 AM   #32
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The cycle of the Sun and Moon have a reputation for rising and falling at very precise times. At the other end of the spectrum, the timing of a doctor's appointment is always suspect. The time on the appointment card may say 3:20, but no one is surprised if they're still waiting in the lobby at 4:00. Occasionally you'll even be shown in to the exam room ahead of schedule. And it's far from unusual to get a call to let you know your appointment needs to be re-scheduled for another day altogether. Can you imagine the TV weather guy announcing that Sunset will be delayed to tomorrow afternoon?

Yellowstone's "Old Faithful" also has a reputation for being timely, for erupting "on the hour." Take a quick look at its historical eruption times and you'll see Old Faithful has a bit more in common with a doctor's appointment than the rise and fall of the Sun. The best Yellowstone geologists can do is carefully observe Old Faithful each time it erupts and compare notes with the duration and vigor of previous eruptions, then make an educated guess that the next eruption will fall somewhere within a 20-minute window. When we were there Old Faithful erupted roughly every 90 minutes, and never on the hour.

Yellowstone National Park has around 500 active geysers in its nine geyser basins. More geysers are located within Yellowstone National Park's borders than all the geysers elsewhere on Earth combined, and each geyser has its own character. Some, like Old Faithful, have a very regular and spectacular eruption patterns several times a day. Others bubble with small eruptions every few minutes. The Giant Geyser often goes dormant for years only to burst back to life with huge eruptions that may occur every few days or week. The Steamboat Geyser, with it's bursts of water reaching skyward the length of a football field (300+ feet) is the world's largest, but only seems to erupt after an earthquake. The reason for this variability is each geyser's unique plumbing system, a myriad of rocky passages that allow ground water to seep deep into the ground of Yellowstone's super-volcano. As the water works its way downward, it absorbs and deposits minerals from the ground around it, which widens some passages and blocks others, creating a container that holds the water pat while the lava below heats it boiling and beyond. Eventually the pressure builds to the point where the water demands release, and WOOOSHHHHH! The geyser blows.

Like the geysers around me it appears that I, too, have acquired a kind of quirky predictability in my life. Problem is I hate being predictable. It's, like, something that happens when you grow up, you know? So it may be 2:30 AM, and it is true that I am (once again) crouched on my haunches in a cold, dark trailer, looking at a cold, dark (and decidedly unpredictable) space heater, but this time I am sporting black flannel pajamas with a repeating print of a woman's lips running all up and down my legs.

Bright lipstick-red, stick your tongue out at predictability, lips. It's enough to send shivers down your spine. Or perhaps that's the temperature in my trailer.

I may be a rebel in pajamas, but I am a defeated rebel. My "Plan B," my "Portable Buddy" has failed me. Now I have two choices: depend on power from our half-charged battery to run the furnace for the rest of the night, or practice cold weather survival skills with my wife.

Earlier on in my story I told you a battery is like a bucket of water with a hose coming out the bottom. When the bucket (battery) is full, the water pressure (voltage) in the hose is high, and water flows freely when you turn the tap, but as water empties out of the bucket, the pressure drops and the water doesn't flow as quickly. That really is a pretty good analogy, but it leaves one important thing out: bad things happen when you let the bucket get low or go dry.

It's a great analogy, but "lead acid" batteries don't really hold water under pressure. They store energy using chemistry. When you dip two strips of metal, one made of lead the other made of lead dioxide, into a bucket of sulfuric acid the acid tries to eat away at the lead dioxide. It really wants to do that, but can't without a way to magically get some electrons to leave the bucket and somehow jump across to the strip of plain lead. Connect a light bulb to the two strips of metal, and the magic happens: a chemical reaction releases the "dioxide" from the lead, pushes electrons through the wires to and from the light bulb (making it glow) and the battery acid gets to make a new chemical called lead sulfate. The thing that makes lead-acid batteries so wonderful is you can push the electrons back into the battery and the whole process runs backwards. A lead-acid battery can be recharged!

Recharged within limits. You see there are two different types of lead sulfate. One is a soft, crumbly form like the carbon graphite in a pencil, the other is a hard crystal that's like the carbon matrix of a diamond. When the battery's voltage is high, over 12.4 volts, most of the lead sulfate the acid makes as the battery pumps out electricity is the soft stuff, but as the voltage drops lower, the battery makes more and more of the hard crystal. The annoying thing about batteries and lead sulfate crystals is they can't be converted back into lead dioxide. Worse yet, the lead sulfate crystals can collect on the metal strips and clog up the works. This is why a car battery that's been run down several times can't hold a charge. This is why it's a bad idea to run your trailer battery down, too.

And this is why, when I went to bed with the battery voltage hanging at 12.4 volts I really didn't want to run the furnace all night. It's 2:30 in the morning, and I just switched the furnace on.


----------

Sorry about the lag between the last chapter and this one. I really enjoy this kind of writing, but to do it well I have to be able to get into the right frame of mind. The stuff I wrote late last weekend after my tummy acted up just didn't have the right sparkle. (A better way of putting it is my sense of nausea kinda spilled over onto the page. It was gross!) Wednesday night's attempt was better, but I was still holding my nose when I read. I hope you like this one better.

There is one more story chapter in this tale; I'll follow that with a less-humorous epilogue that talks about my solar charging system and some changes I'll be making. I'll get both done this weekend. Sorry I kept you waiting.
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Old 09-27-2008, 09:38 AM   #33
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Thanks Peter - glad you're feeling better! We are enjoying the story (and the travel log).

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Old 09-27-2008, 10:53 AM   #34
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get a call to let you know your appointment needs to be re-scheduled for another day altogether
You have Kaiser, dontcha?

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Old 09-27-2008, 10:55 PM   #35
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Like the geysers around me it appears that I, too, have acquired a kind of quirky predictability in my life. Problem is I hate being predictable. It's, like, something that happens when you grow up, you know? So it may be 2:30 AM, and it is true that I am (once again) crouched on my haunches in a cold, dark trailer, looking at a cold, dark (and decidedly unpredictable) space heater, but this time I am sporting black flannel pajamas with a repeating print of a woman's lips running all up and down my legs.
After the first night's problems, I would have found a place with electric hookup for the second night. Because I'm a weenie, I guess. One tough night would be enough to do me in. You're a brave man! (And those PJs... most men are afraid to admit to their cross-dressing, LOL!)
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Old 09-27-2008, 11:38 PM   #36
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There is one more story chapter in this tale; I'll follow that with a less-humorous epilogue that talks about my solar charging system and some changes I'll be making. I'll get both done this weekend. Sorry I kept you waiting.
Peter,

I've enjoyed every word and I especially like the way you weave science into your narrative. Could it be that you teach science or history as a profession?

You're damn good at it.

baglo
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Old 09-28-2008, 02:16 AM   #37
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I've enjoyed every word and I especially like the way you weave science into your narrative. Could it be that you teach science or history as a profession?

You're damn good at it.
Thank you for the compliment. I majored in Biology when I started college, but before I could finish my degree I was abducted by computer science aliens who were willing to pay me money to write computer programs.

Ever met a rich biologist? Me neither. Rich computer nerd? Hmmmmm. Suddenly computer work sounded a whole lot more interesting.

Somewhere along the way I decided to write about computers, and then people started offering me money to do that, too. Must not be very good at it, though. Some copies of the books I've written showed up, but I can't read them at all. It's like they're written in Portuguese. (And French and Italian).

I got tired of working with computers a while back, and decided to go back to college to finish that biology degree and to find a new profession. So I've decided to become a Medical Radiographer, and that's been taking up almost all my time lately.

I still like to write, though. Some day someone's gonna pay me to do that again . . .
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Old 10-02-2008, 01:43 AM   #38
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"Look around, see if you can find another one that looks like this" I said while holding up an oddly shaped item. This is our last full day in Yellowstone and we're well off-trail somewhere in the midst of Buffalo Plateau near Hellroaring Creek, scrounging for treasure in the grass. We'd cut off the trail to hike across the plateau and to the creek, and had just turned around and started our way back when we came across a long-dead buffalo. All that's left of the poor fellow is a collection of dry, wind-swept bones. The oddly shaped item I'm holding up is the bison's fourth cervical vertebra, one of the bones of the neck.

It's massive. Two of these buffalo neck vertebra stacked one on top of the other are almost as long as all seven bones in my neck put together! So we're both scrounging in the grass and acting like we've lost our contact lenses somewhere in an acre of grassland. I'm trying to collect the whole set, all 29 vertebra from the buffalo's head to his hips, but carrion have scattered Mr. Bison's Bones over a large area, so there are gaps in my collection. I have collected five of the seven cervical, ten of the fourteen thoracic vertebra (two more than people have), four of the five lumbar vertebra, and the sacrum, but I want more.

How do palentologists find all Mr. Dinosaur's pieces for their collections? None of the bones we're looking for are buried, they're all here just lying in the grass somewhere. Yet we've been searching for over half an hour I'm still missing five vertebra, the sun is hanging low in the sky, and we're a long way from the trail head.

It's time to head back. I assemble what we have, take a picture, then turn my back on my collection and head for the landmark that shows us where our trail home is. About half-way back to the trail head we stop at the cat-walk suspension bridge over the river for a pictures of the sun as it sets over the hills. Soon we'll be back home, back in our trailer one last time before leaving the park the next morning. We'll wash our dishes using running water that's pumped using solar power that has been collecting in our battery since we left earlier in the day, read our books using LED lights powered by stored sunlight, and doze off to sleep with the furnace fan switching on and off through the night.

Those first two nights when we had so many problems are behind us now. We made it through the second night in better shape than the first, snug and warm in a heated trailer. At 11.6 volts our morning battery voltage was bad news, a warning that we had again drawn the battery well down into the sulphation range where damage to our battery was likely.

After that second night the solar array jacked the battery to just 12.7-12.8 volts, well short of the 12.8-13.2 volts I'm used to seeing at the end of a sunny day on solar. By itself that would not be a problem, but each morning the battery fell into the 11.6-12.0 volt ranges, so the battery was loosing voltage faster than expected, too. My expensive, $160, spiral "absorbed glass mat (AGM) Optima battery no longer held a full charge.

So we will return home and map out some changes in our solar and electric system, but even though we had some malfunctions, our solar system made it through. We read by electric lights, carefully used our water pump to provide water for the toilet and to wash ourselves and our dishes, and ran our furnace each night to stay warm against the cold outside. We did not need hookups to make it through the 20-degree nights at Yellowstone.

Leaving Yellowstone was a sad thing. We have left so many things we would have liked to do undone, and missed many things we could have seen had we been in Yellowstone earlier in the year. In late fall the spring runoff has run its course and dried up, so Artist's Paint Pots do not bubble and perk as they should. Spring flowers that bloomed and painted the grasslands in color have wilted and blown away. The young elk and bison that romped in the flowers have lost their careless, youthful zing and cuteness.

So we will be back. There will always be something to go back to at Yellowstone.

==========

This chapter spells the end of our Yellowstone tail. I'll be back in another few days with a more boring, technical article that talks about the changes and choices we need to make to improve our trailer's dry-camping performance. I hope you enjoyed my story.

2008 by Peter John Harrison. All rights reserved.
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Old 10-03-2008, 09:48 AM   #39
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I may be a rebel in pajamas, but I am a defeated rebel. My "Plan B," my "Portable Buddy" has failed me. Now I have two choices: depend on power from our half-charged battery to run the furnace for the rest of the night, or practice cold weather survival skills with my wife.
There is something I am confused about...in the previous segment, you got Mr. Buddy to work, and then it failed again? I have one...I am interested in seeing if you know why it failed? It is our primary heat choice. Thanks!

Pam
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Old 10-03-2008, 12:12 PM   #40
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Please pardon my curiosity about an indelicate topic, but....

Dry camping also means camping without a sewer connection. Scamp blackwater tanks are only about 9.5 gallons. This is quite a bit less than many conventional trailers.

About how many days do you average before you need to pull up stakes and visit a dump station?

Obtaining an endless supply of electricity means that tanks (fresh gray and black) are probably the limiting factors in dry camping stays. How limited did you feel by tank capacity? Do you use a porta-tote or similar auxilliary tank?

My wife and I have a D-19 fiver, and we have had problems managing our tank situations. We are learning, but start worrying after about three days. I can kind of check the blackwater tank by holding a flashlight against it at night. Gray is not checkable, but should correspond to the easily checked fresh water tank.

Still, there's not a bunch of capacity, and I wonder how long a camping trip you think you can go for?
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Old 10-05-2008, 03:11 PM   #41
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Dry camping also means camping without a sewer connection. Scamp blackwater tanks are only about 9.5 gallons. This is quite a bit less than many conventional trailers.
Since "normal" urinary output ranges from 800ml to 3000ml daily. Even with solids added that's less than a gallon a day. Toilet rinse water increases that volume, of course*, but even if you spent your entire day at the trailer and don't use other facilities the 9.5 gallon capacity should manage two people for at least two days. In actual practice, however, most people tend to be out-and-about and using other toilet facilities much of the time, and we prefer to use campground facilities whenever possible for "number two" potty visits. Those things combined we've never even come close to topping our black water tank.

As for our gray water tank, our new fresh water tank holds less than 19 gallons and the stock gray tank holds 27. That means we have enough gray tank capacity to use a gerry-can to put a good-sized splash of fresh water in our tank if we run dry and know we have plenty of space left for gray waste. In most cases 20 gallons will last us three-plus days, and since our preference is to move from one campsite to the next every few days anyway we plan our trips so that we pass a dump station every other move or so.

We've only ever topped the capacity of our gray tank once. That was when we were camping at a site with electric and water hookups (no sewer) for four days and didn't need to worry about running the fresh water tank dry. On the morning of the fourth day water started to back up into the sink. The lesson we learned from that was that it's bad to leave the water running when we rinse our dishes!

--Peter

* Edit note: Lynne reminded me that there's rinse water that goes down, so I edited this post and revised my number somewhat since its original posting a few minutes ago.
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Old 10-05-2008, 05:29 PM   #42
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Epilogue

A good story teller knows that a good story isn't the whole story. In many ways it's not what you include, but all that stuff you keep out that makes it fun to read. Put another way, do you really care whether I made pancakes or ate cereal for breakfast? So a lot of technical things got left out, but since this is (at least partly) a story about living with Solar, there are a few things I'd like to add so the curious can learn from my mistakes.

***

Sitting at the top of the list of details left out of the story is my much-maligned Mr. Heater Portable Buddy. In my story it failed and I didn't understand why, and I still don't understand the underlying problem. Now I've come home and surfed over to the Mr. Heater troubleshooting pages I've learned something.

Mr. Heater says their Portable Buddy works at altitudes up to 7000 feet. We were at and above 7500 feet when we were having heater problems.


***

I talked about the advantages of using a high-end solar panel, but what does that mean and why are high-end panels better?

Most inexpensive solar panels are made using an "amorphous" coating that's cooked on to the panel substrate and looks like a coat of waxy black paint. Amorphous solar panels have advantages: First of all they're cheap and serve as an entry point into the world of solar, and because they're cheap they make good "axillary" panels you can place away from your trailer where the sun shines brighter. In my book cheap counts when they're not screwed down because you won't feel quite as bad if they get stolen.

Those advantages aside, crystalline-structure solar cells offer advantages amorphous panels can't touch. There are two types of "crystalline" structure solar cells: "monocrystalline" and "polycrystalline" (also called "multicrystalline") panels, referring to the number of directions the silicone crystal structures in the solar cells generally line up in. "Mono" panels are more efficient than "poly" or "multi" crystalline panels.

Crystalline structure panels advantages are that they take up less than half the space that amorphous panels do to generate the same amount of power. An amorphous panel would have to have ten square feet (one foot by ten feet in size) to replace my existing four-square-foot crystalline panel.

Crystalline panels (and particularly monocrystalline panels) do a better job of making electricity under less-than-ideal conditions, too. All solar panels produce their highest energy output when they're pointed directly at the sun produce less energy as te sunlight falls on them at an angle, but crystalline panel power output falls more gradually as the sun sets, even at a 45-degree angle they still make substantial power where an amorphous panel's power output at 45 degrees is negligible. And crystalline panels don't have to have direct sunlight to pump out the amps. Parked under the shade tree in my front yard on a sunny spring afternoon my solar panel pumped out almost an Amp of charging voltage. Amorphous panels produce no usable power under those conditions, when the sunlight comes in at a steep angle. This kind of performance is critical when your solar panel is bolted to the roof of your trailer and its orientation to the rising and falling sun is hard to adjust.

Crystalline panels also last longer. They're designed to sit out under the full sun for thirty years before their power production drops below 85% of their original power output. Amorphous panels deteriorate to half their initial capacity in just five years under the same conditions, less if they become overheated due to poor air circulation, then they fail altogether.

Those disadvantages aside, an amorphous panel might well be your best choice if you keep it stowed away from the sun when you're not using it and set it up as a detached unit that you point at the sun. For Lynne and I, who have our solar panel bolted to the roof, the crystalline panel is a must-have.

50-watt crystalline panels cost $500+ new, so I'd suggest you (very carefully) shop for used panels on eBay where they can be found for under $300. Just be sure your seller has lots of sales and a high positive feedback rate and offers some sort of warranty that the panel will work when you get it.

***

Another important part of the solar system is the battery, otherwise you have no where to store the power your solar panel collects so you can turn the lights on when the sun is down.

I could write a long article about batteries, but that'll have to be something I do on another day. For now I'll just list the advantages of the Optima-brand battery I've installed in our trailer and compare its advantages to a standard lead-acid "deep cycle" marine battery.

The Optima battery is an "absorbed glass mat" (AGM) type battery that keeps chemicals that are produced by the electrodes as the battery gets charged and discharged in close proximity to the electrodes. That makes it so that the battery doesn't spend a lot of charging energy moving chemicals around when the battery charges and discharges, so it stores more usable energy. An brand-new AGM battery can store and release electrical energy at 99% efficiency compared to the 85-90% efficiency of a traditional battery, and that translates into more usable electricity from your solar panel.

AGM batteries are also more durable than regular deep-cycle batteries. They last longer partly because the "glass mat" that's embedded between the electrodes creates a padding layer that makes them less likely to deteriorate due to the vibration causes by towing your trailer, but that other thing the glass mat does, keeping the chemicals near where they were made, also prevents lead sulfate from migrating from one location to another, preventing the formation of battery-killing large lead sulfate crystals.

Not that Optima batteries won't sulfate. It's a major bummer: running our battery down as much as we did on our first and second nights in Yellowstone did cause our expensive Optima battery to sulfate. The loss of electrical storage capacity in our battery is is pretty obvious. So when I came back home I went hunting for information to see if there was anything I could do about it.

What I found is a device called a BatteryMINDer, an intelligent charging system that sets up pulses of electricity at a specific frequency that vibrate and break lead sulfate crystals. It works something like a legendary opera singer who could hit just the right high note to breaks a lead crystal glass, but the BatteryMINDer uses electrical frequencies instead of sound to do the job.

BatteryMINDer makes a grand claim on their website that their charger can restore a sulfated battery to near-new condition. I was pretty skeptical, but I did some reading on boating and telecommunications/computer websites (large computer and communications installations use lead-acid batteries to provide power to their equipment when a storm hits and the electricity goes out) and found a lot of people who did very careful testing to see the BatteryMINDer claims held up. The news was good, so I gambled and bought one for $50. I'll report back and let you know how well it works.

***

Last of all I want to tell you about some of the changes I think I need to make to improve our ability to dry camp using our solar setup.

The main thing about using solar power is you have to make careful choices about how you collect, store, and use it. There has to be a balance.

Having, for example, 220 watts of solar panels that can collect forty to sixty Amp-hours of electricity on a normal day won't do you much good if you only have a single battery that holds just 30 amps of usable power. On the other end of the equation you can fully discharge two 30 amp batteries if you leave just two regular light bulbs turned on for 24 hours.

In other words, you have to have balance.

We've already made great strides in reducing the amount of power our trailer uses by replacing all our light bulbs with LEDs. Regular light bulbs are amazing energy hogs: just two regular light bulbs draw more power (3 Amps) than our furnace does (2.8 Amps) when its running! Now our trailer lights are all LEDs we can turn on all eleven (soon to be fourteen) lights, light the inside of the trailer up like an interrogator's chair, and still not use 3 Amps of power.

So we have to look to other ways to balance the system.

I have two choices: find some other way to cut our energy consumption or up the amount of power I can collect and store. Currently the major electricity hog in our trailer is the furnace, which draws 2.8 amps when it's running. (The water pump actually draws more power, 3.8 amps, but it only runs when someone used the sink or toilet, so its overall contribution to our power consumption is negligible.)

My preference is to double the size of our solar array from 50 to 100 watts. At 100 watts it'll be a lot easier to collect a full battery load of charge without having to park in "ideal" locations so our battery will more likely recover from unexpected energy drains like we had that first night at Yellowstone. If the battery had fully recovered by the time we got back to our trailer for our second night's stay I wouldn't have had a need to pull out the Portable Buddy to save on electricity. (And woud have lost out on a really good story to tell.)

I like this solution better than the alternative, replacing our furnace with a catalytic heater that uses no electricity at all. My problem with catalytic heaters is they don't heat the trailer evenly because they have no fan to blow the heat around. That's a big liability in a 19' trailer.

I have, however, come up with a neat way to make our furnace a little more energy-efficient and easier to live with. Something Lynne and I noticed when the battery voltage was low is the furnace runs more quietly. That has given me an idea: I think I'll design and install a controller that limits the voltage the furnace fan gets to around 11.5 volts. That'll do two great things: it'll make the fan quieter without compromising safety and cut the furnace's power consumption from 2.8 Amps down to around 2.5 Amps. :-) Not a big energy saving there, but the reduced fan noise makes the project very worthwhile.

(NOTE: DO NOT TRY BUILDING A FURNACE VOLTAGE REGULATOR UNLESS YOU REALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DOING. AT 2.8 AMPS POWER DRAW AN INCORRECTLY BUILT VOLTAGE REGULATOR CIRCUIT CAN OVERHEAT AND CATCH FIRE. I also make not promises this is a good idea. Use it at your own risk.)
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