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


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Old 09-19-2008, 03:18 AM   #1
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Well, Lynne and I are back from a two-week-long trek, gypsy-style, to, from, and through Yellowstone National Park, the Couer d'Alene bike trail, and the Grand Coulee dam. For much of our trip we had no hookups, and depended on the electric power provided by a single 50-watt solar panel permanently affixed to our roof and on a single Optima brand spiral gel-cell battery. Now we're home, and (now fortified with a third and fairly generous glass of wine) I'm here to tell you our story.

Before I tell you about the solar system and how it performed, I gotta tell you it was a wonderful trip. Yellowstone is very definitely on my gotta-go-back-there list. One week there is not enough. We saw geysers, bison, deer, elk, owls, and lots more, and even got a chance to see two younger elk battling one another while the larger, twelve point buck held sway over the women. (They make an interesting squeak when they fight, the kind of noise you'd expect from a penguin or porcupine or something, not the kind of noise a large and majestic animal with eight or ten pointy barbs -- four or five per side -- on his head makes while fighting each other for dominance.)

For those who haven't followed the "modifications and upgrades" topic here, our 19' Scamp has Scamp's stock gas/electric fridge and furnace, and I've been busy remodeling (some would say all-but-gutting and re-building) the interior of our trailer. It's nice and cozy inside. Amongst the modifications we've made are the addition of a roof-mounted 50-watt solar panel and the conversion of all our interior lighting to ultra-low-power LED bulbs.

The LED bulbs came in really handy during our trip. Throughout the trip, even when the battery was waaaayyyy low, they put out enough light for Lynne and I to move about the trailer, read, and generally enjoy our trailer in comfort. Most nights we stayed up well past dark, making dinner, playing cards, and reading. Lynne or I often watched the other as their heads sank downward while reading, eyes closed . . .

"Lynne . . . Lynne?"

"Hugh!"

"You should head off to bed."

"No, I want to read a bit longer."

<back to whatever I was doing>

"Lynne . . . Lynne? . . . "

And the cycle repeats.

Our first night in Yellowstone was at the Norris Campground. No hookups. (None of our campsites at Yellowstone had hookups.) So we were really depending on our solar system to provide enough electricity to keep our furnace running all night, and keeping that furnace running was important. The temps dropped into the 20s at night while we were there. And, generally speaking, our one fully-charged battery should have been more than enough to keep our heater running all night.

The Scamp forced-air heater draws a hefty 2.8 amps while it's running, but only runs about one-fourth of the time. So, over the course of the evening through morning while we were in our trailer for about ten or eleven hours, the furnace should have drawn about eight amp-hours from our battery, which has a usable capacity of around 30 amp-hours or more. So, after a pleasant first day in Yellowstone, encountering a few geysers and bison we had a glass of wine, set the thermostat down to 60-ish, and headed to bed.

Thinking of the wine, we found a pretty reasonable box-wine for our travels. "Pinot Evil" is a French Pinot Noir wine that's imported into the US and sold by the box. If you're into really fine wine, this is not it, but as a table wine it more than holds its own. Very good. And, being a box wine it stores and transports in the trailer very, very well and doesn't start to turn bad on you from the time you first open the package, like bottled wines do. Very handy when it takes you a week to finish the box, and (as the box says) the last glass of wine is just as good as the first.

We also had a box of "Black Box" Merlot along. Not as good, but the box shape stores very well. I'd rather drink the Pinot Evil, though.

Back to the furnace. The sad truth of the matter is we had a malfunction. We have two propane tanks on our trailer with an automatic change-over system that switches from one tank when it runs dry over to the other (full) tank. Since the tanks were full, I only opened one tank valve. This has never been a problem before, but that first night in Yellowstone the system malfunctioned, and didn't provide a full flow of propane to the heater that night. The net result was that the heater ran at full force, sucking down 2.8 amps per hour non-stop in a futile attempt to get the trailer warm. It was about five in the morning when I realized something was wrong, got up out of bed, freezing cold, and discovered the non-stop blast of air being blown from our furnace was only slightly warmer than the arctic air outside.

The night did have it's high points, however. Before heading off to bed Lynne and I listened as wolves howled in the distance and elk made their distinctive call in the night. We'd heard stories about bison coming through the campground at night, too, and had hoped to see some wander the Norris Campground that night or the next, but visiting Bison never appeared. We were luckier later on that week when we woke to elk grazing outside out trailer door at Mammoth campground and a visit by a huge twelve-point buck. People went scurrying for cover when that bull arrived! Wild animals are unpredictable at the best of times, but elk are very surly and aggressive during rutting season, which was in full swing. I got some great pictures of him as he walked by. Taken from the far side of our pickup truck.

. . . More to come. That fourth glass of wine and the fact that it's 1:15am is telling me it's bedtime.
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Old 09-19-2008, 06:31 AM   #2
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Hi: Peter& Lynneh... You do like your Wine Chilled don't you??? Why take up valuable Fridge Space???
Alf S. North shore of Lake Erie
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Old 09-19-2008, 10:04 AM   #3
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What about using a heater buddy....would it adequately heat your trailer? no power draw?
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Old 09-19-2008, 10:09 AM   #4
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heater buddy? sounds like another word for spouse. and that's OK too IMHO

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What about using a heater buddy....would it adequately heat your trailer? no power draw?
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Old 09-19-2008, 03:38 PM   #5
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. . . More to come. That fourth glass of wine and the fact that it's 1:15am is telling me it's bedtime.
Standing stark naked in the middle of an icy trailer parked in Yellowstone National Park at not quite five in the morning with my hand in front of an ever-so-slightly warmer blast of icy air, my thoughts were not of the great splendor of the park that surrounded us. Nor was my groggy, icy mind in its best problem solving form. So I stood there trying to think. In short order I began to shake and shiver, and made my way up to the loft to dive under the covers of the bed to warm up. I was shivering hard when I got there.

The battery and solar system in our Scamp does a wonderful job of supplying our electric needs. Almost everything works as it does when we have full hookups. The water heater and refrigerator, for example, run on propane when we're not plugged in. When we don't have water hookups we fill our fresh water tank and switch the 12v water pump on, and water flows much like it does when were at a full-service site. We picked out a coffee maker that has a thermal (read thermos-like) carafe that keeps coffee hot for a couple hours after its brewed and has a lid that opens wide so we can pour water boiled on the stove through the filter instead of plugging it in and pressing "on." (There just isn't enough power stored in one or even two deep-cycle RV batteries of the size we carry to run these appliances for any length of time. A 50 amp-hour battery, like ours, functionally has around 30 amp-hours of usable power, which translates into running a 700-watt appliance for about half an hour before the battery goes dead. Draining a battery beyond that point can actually damage the battery.)

We even have an inverter circuit that supplies just enough power to charge or run our low-wattage electronic gadgets, like the laptop, cell phone, and camera battery chargers. Of all the things in our trailer, only two don't operate at all when we're dry camping: our microwave and the electric blanket.

I had left the covers open, so the almost-warm bed I had left a couple minutes ago was now roughly the same temperature of the slightly warmed air the furnace was blowing out. I hid under the covers, shivering furiously, until I had the intelligence to pull on the flannel sleepwear I keep in the loft cabinet so I can pad around the trailer in the morning without feeling too cold. After five or ten more minutes I warmed up enough to drift back to sleep, lulled by the now slowing roar of the furnace fan, which had been running non-stop for quite some time.

Even in my sleepwear, tucked into a bed with flannel sheets, blanket, and comforter on top, my I never really got warm in our bed. So after another fitful half-hour or so I found myself mentally troubleshooting the heater problem. It wasn't like the heater wasn't working at all. The heater was heating the air and blowing it about, just not heating it very much. I didn't think altitude was the problem, either. We were at about 7500 feet above sea level at the Norris campground, but base camp tents on Mount Everest use furnaces very much like the one installed in our Scamp to heat their tents, and they're way over that altitude, at 17500 feet. No, altitude was not the problem. The fan was working. It was producing heat. (Just not very much.) The problem had to be the propane. Perhaps I had somehow failed to open the valve all the way?

I had to screw up enough courage to pull on a winter jacket and a pair of sandals to go outside into the 20 degree air for the few minutes it would take to turn both propane bottle valves all the way on, but when I got there I was confused. One propane bottle -- recently fully filled -- had its valve cracked all the way open. It alone should have had no problem providing all the propane we needed to keep our trailer toasty. So I opened the valve on the other bottle, hoping that would somehow solve the problem, and headed inside. It was about six AM, and the furnace was finally making heat.

My wife is a very smart woman. Warm-loving creature she is, she does not sleep naked in the frosty environs of Yellowstone. She went to bed dressed in thermal silk tights and top, and throughout my nocturnal wanderings and shivering, she remained cocooned under the flannel sheet, blanket, and thick comforter, oblivious to the events around her. Hibernating. Her first thought upon seeing me in flannel sleepwear was probably wonderment that her cold-adapted husband, who often sleeps on top of the covers while she is wrapped, mummy-like, below, had donned pajamas at all. Then she flushed the toilet.

Ordinarily the water pump grinds quietly away for a second or two each time the toilet is flushed. Its usual rapid pulsing sounds somewhat like a rotary hammer drill, but quieter. This morning the pump was not up to its usual quick recovery of water pressure, and the rapid fire pulses of the pump came slower and slower as the pump strained to bring the water pressure up to snuff. The electric requirements of running the furnace almost non-stop all night, plus the smaller demand of running the lights and water pump the night before had drained our battery well below its customary charging level, all the way down to 11.2 volts.

A little information about the relationship between battery voltage and available power might help you understand why 11.2 volts is such a problem. Think of a battery as a big bucket of water with a hose coming out the bottom. When the bucket is full and you open the tap, the water pressure is high and the water flows readily, but as the water level in the bucket falls, so does the water pressure (or voltage) and rate at which the water comes down the pipe. When the water is at the bottom of the bucket there's very little pressure (voltage) left and the water flows out at barely a trickle. When our Optima battery is fully charged it carries about 13.2 volts; when the battery falls to 12.0 volts about seventy-five percent of the electricity is gone . . . 11.2 volts is the trickle left in the bottom of the bucket after 95% of the battery's capacity is gone.

A trickle left in the bottom of the battery bucket means barely a trickle of water to flush the toilet. We had a dilemma. Our first night in Yellowstone and we had consumed about 30 amps of electricity instead of our usual ten, and that was all our battery had to give. We had a dead battery. Dead, dead, dead, dead.

. . . More to come. Gotta do some real work for a while.
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Old 09-19-2008, 03:53 PM   #6
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What about using a heater buddy....would it adequately heat your trailer? no power draw?
Ahh, Pamela. We have a Portable Buddy!. It's always stowed in our trailer somewhere and we always have two or more full propane cylinders with us in case we have a heater problem. This trip was no exception, so we came prepared! The entry of our Portable Buddy Heater into our story is yet to come. Needless to say, our Portable Buddy Heater adds . . . flavor . . . to the events of our second night in Yellowstone.
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Old 09-19-2008, 05:48 PM   #7
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Ahh, Pamela. We have a Portable Buddy!. It's always stowed in our trailer somewhere and we always have two or more full propane cylinders with us in case we have a heater problem. This trip was no exception, so we came prepared! The entry of our Portable Buddy Heater into our story is yet to come. Needless to say, our Portable Buddy Heater adds . . . flavor . . . to the events of our second night in Yellowstone.
Okay...you are a much better story teller than I...I have been waiting with baited breath for the next part of your saga...our Buddy saved our toast last year in Jackson...This was the last time I was to stay in a tent-like structure instead of a trailer, (You know, they call them teepees? the only spot available on labor day weekend...never again), with our autistic daughter trying to escape all night...it was too cold, and she didn't approve of the sleeping bag idea. I set it outside, due to the higher altitude, used a blow torch to light it...and basked in its warmth...but I digress...please hurry with your tale...

Pam(AKA Pamela....)
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Old 09-19-2008, 06:49 PM   #8
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...our Buddy saved our toast last year in Jackson...
Toast? I hadn't thought of using it to make toast before.
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Old 09-19-2008, 07:05 PM   #9
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C'mon!!!!

Where's the next installment???

baglo
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Old 09-19-2008, 08:16 PM   #10
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"Pinot Evil"
It also has monkeys on the label!

I will let you finish your story.. but I will second guess you and I have an "Answer" already...

Part of it involves the portability of panels.. the other is available voltage to light the furnace.

But.. I won't guess completely just yet.
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Old 09-20-2008, 01:58 AM   #11
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. . . More to come. Gotta do some real work for a while.
Yellowstone's crowning beauty has a great deal to do with its violent, volcanic past. Geothermal energy is one of the very few power sources on the planet that aren't directly linked to the energy provided by the Sun's rays. (The other power sources are nuclear power and tidal energy.) It is geothermal energy produced by the active volcano under Yellowstone that provides the heat that makes the famous Old Faithful geyser blow, the colorful Artist's Mud Pots perk, and forces a wealth of minerals to bubble up from the depths so plants and bacteria can feed on them and form the base of a rich food chain.

All other fuels and energy sources we use are really just re-packaged sunlight. Hydroelectric dams are powered by water that has been evaporated by the heat of the sun, raised skyward before falling as rain that collects in the reservoirs above our dams. The wind of wind power is created by the interactions between our spinning planet and the Sun's uneven heating of the atmosphere. Even fossil fuels stored deep in the earth are byproducts left behind by ancient plants, which used the energy of the sun to create complex hydrocarbon chains that decayed into the an oily goo that's not unlike the goo that was once a head of lettuce left, quite forgotten, in my refrigerator before we left on vacation.

Plants are the king of efficiency when it comes to converting the Sun's energy into fuel. They convert the sun's light into fuel five times more efficiently than today's best commercially available solar cells. Plants are so good at turning sunlight into fuel that there are plants that thrive only in shady places where man-made solar cells are all but useless.

Which is why, when hunting for campsite real-estate for a solar-powered trailer, location is everything. This is particularly true when your solar panel is bolted to the roof of your trailer, making it kinda hard to move the panels around as the Sun passes overhead. The cool comfort of a shade tree may be a great place to set up a lawn chair, but it sucks if you want to make electricity using a solar panel. When we look for a campsite, we look for sites that get "partial" shade that won't fall on our solar panel too much.

There are lots of trees on the "B" loop of the Norris campground, but we were lucky enough to find a spot that really does get a reasonable amount of sun. When we set up I figured our site would get three hours of full sun and another three hours or so of usable filtered sunlight, and that seemed enough to meet our usual ten or twelve amp-hours a day power consumption.

Shortly after the new day began and the sun was peeking through the trees our solar panel started making small amounts of electricity. That's one of the advantages the more expensive "multicrystaline" solar cell panels offer: they're four times as efficient as cheaper solar panels, and can generate power when the sun really isn't at an ideal angle. This was really important to us on Monday morning, because our battery was quite dead and we needed solar juice so we could have lights and the best luxuries of life: forced air heating and a flush toilet.

Life in the trailer slowly returned to normal. I rummaged through the street-side storage area under the dinette table to recover a "Portable Buddy" ceramic heater and one-pound propane cylinder. Once the ceramic heater (which doesn't need batteries and is entirely propane-powered) was fired up the trailer started to get truly warm again. Cooking was not a problem -- no electricity required there -- but the anemic efforts of the water pump on a very low battery were painful to watch and listen to, so we did most of the morning's dish washing in the campground sink.

After breakfast we turned everything off, left the trailer and headed out to spend our first full day at Yellowstone, hoping that enough sun would reach our solar panel to bring the battery up to a minimally serviceable level . . . enough to keep the lights running and pump water to our sink and toilet. We planned to use "Plan B" to heat the trailer that night.

Yellowstone's Grand Canyon is a wondrous and beautiful thing. Lynne and I spent the entire day hiking parts of the north and south rim. There are beautiful water falls and stunning scenery. It's not as big or as breathtaking in scope as Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, but that's part of its beauty, too. Yellowstone's Grand Canyon is small enough that you can almost wrap your mind around it. Arizona's Grand Canyon is more than your mind can take in in one or even ten days.

Most of our day was spent hiking the south rim of the canyon, heading downriver from Artist Point. It was pretty in the afternoon, but gorgeous in the evening as the sun sank toward the hills and the shadows on the canyon walls became long . We wrapped up the day's activities with a trip down the 300+ steps of "Uncle Tom's" trail. The open wire mesh of the staircase and perilously steep cliff face was, however, too much for acrophobic Lynne, but I made it all the way to the platform at the bottom and was richly rewarded. The bottom platform is the best place to see the crashing waters of Yellowstone's Lower Falls. I marveled for a bit, snapped a few pictures that I knew would be incapable of capturing the spirit of this place, and raced my way up the stairs as best I could to get back to Lynne.

There were four deer, three adult does and an adolescent who had yet to face his first winter, feeding in the brush to one side of the parking lot as we pulled out and headed back to our trailer. They were completely unconcerned by our presence or the several people taking pictures of them from a few yards away.

The sun had done a good job that day. At 12.4 volts our battery was far from fully charged (under half-way), but it was enough to run our energy efficient LED lights and water pump that evening. We were planning to use the Portable Buddy to heat the trailer for the night, so didn't expect to run the furnace much. So we set the furnace thermostat low so it would kick on when the propane cylinder in the Portable Buddy ran out sometime around five in the morning.

I've used our Mr Heater brand Portable Buddy Heater several times in the past. When I went to pick up a well-used Surfside trailer last Spring our Portable Buddy heater served me well, keeping the poorly insulated and drafty trailer warm while I slept and Canadian snow draped the trailer and the roads around it in a coat of white. They're ceramic heaters that burn propane in a very controlled manner along the face of a waffle-like ceramic element that heats up and glows a cherry red when the heater is in operation, and they throw off a lot of heat. Even on a 20-degree Yellowstone night the Portable Buddy's "low" setting can easily keep our 19' fifth wheel trailer warm, and because it has an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) that shuts the heater off if it consumes too much oxygen from the room its in, it's certified as safe for indoor use.

I knew from experience that a cylinder of propane lasts six or seven hours when the heater is set to "low." I figured that, even with our low battery, our furnace could take up the slack for the few hours of the night between the time the cylinder exhausted itself and we got up in the morning. So Lynne and I had a pleasant evening, reading and playing a couple games of cribbage, changed the propane cylinder out for a fresh one, and went to bed.

It wasn't even one in the morning when Lynne needed to get up for a bathroom break. While she was up she enjoyed a moment to look at the warm glow coming from the ceramic heater, but as she watched the pilot light on the heater sputtered and the flame front across the ceramic element rippled in a most uncharacteristic way.

Then it went out.
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Old 09-20-2008, 06:14 AM   #12
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[b]Now that I've read the teasers, where can I buy The Book?
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Old 09-20-2008, 09:26 AM   #13
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Peter - are you awake yet??? Coffee's brewed and we're awaiting the next installment...
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Old 09-20-2008, 09:34 AM   #14
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What Dave & Kathie and George said!
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