Solar Equipment, Battery Monitoring, True Cost of Dumping

Our primary focus over the past week has been learning to manage our power consumption and battery charging. We have not had another episode of dead batteries, but we’re very diligent about manually checking the voltage on the batteries several times a day. Andy is still convinced that they are not holding a charge the way they should, even though they are brand new. But without any prior experience with boondocking, we don’t have anything to compare it to.

During the day, we hardly use the lights, so the only things that should be drawing on the battery are: (1) the CO2/propane monitor, (2) the water pump, (3) the thermostat in the refrigerator which runs on propane while boondocking, and (4) the backup camera monitor and dashboard display. My guess is that this last item is the one that is creating the greatest draw on the battery, but there’s no way to turn it off unless you just pull the fuse or disconnect the wiring.

Never tire of these beautiful sunsets!

Before the batteries went dead, we were running the generator for about an hour in the morning and an hour at night, and we weren’t testing the battery voltage. Now we’re finding that we need to run the generator at least 90 minutes each time. If there is any significant power draw on the generator while it’s running (i.e. using the Instant Pot or the microwave) then we need to run it longer in order to top off the batteries. That means more gas is being used at the rate of about 1 gallon for every 2-1/2 hours of generator time.

On Friday we drove to Phoenix to pick up our solar equipment, which we had had shipped to our friends’ house. When we got back to the rig and unpacked everything, we had three solar panels, the Kodiak portable generator, a 30′ solar cable, and three LED outdoor lights. Unfortunately, we have not yet received the two chaining cables to connect the three solar panels together (these were supposed to be part of the kit), or the car charger to charge the Kodiak while we’re driving (not part of the kit). Andy is going to contact the company first thing this morning to find out when we can expect those items.

Our new Kodiak portable generator to be charged with solar panels

We were able to connect one of the panels to the Kodiak and test it out, even though it was pretty overcast this weekend. But we really need those chaining cables and a good sunny day to see the real potential of this system.

Kodiak linked to one solar panel, tested successfully

Yesterday we drove into Tucson and went to Home Depot where Andy picked up some PVC pipe and fittings to make supports for the solar panels so we can stand them up and lean them at the right angle to get the most sunlight. He’ll be working on those this week.

On Saturday we drove to Eloy again to refuel, dump the tanks, and refill the fresh water tank. The one downside to this boondocking spot is that it’s not really close to a dump station. We drove 64 miles roundtrip to take care of this little bit of housekeeping. The rig gets about 8.5 miles per gallon, and gas cost us $2.60/gallon, so it cost us about $19.58 in gas, plus the $8.16 dump fee at Flying J, for a total of $27.74 to dump the tanks and get fresh water. (Flying J charges $12 to dump and get water, but we get a discount with our Good Sam’s card.)

The exciting news is that we went SIX NIGHTS this time without dumping! That’s a new record for us!! We have never really pushed it to the limit to see how long we can go. The last thing I want to happen is for the black tank to fill up in the middle of the night. YUCK!!

Technically we could save a little money by driving back into Tucson to the free dump station we found two weeks ago, but the hassle of driving in city traffic offsets the small savings. Alternately, we could go to the nearby state park and pay $15 to dump and get water, but we would still have to drive somewhere else to get gas and propane, so we just prefer to drive a little further and take care of everything in one location.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been camped here in the Cactus Forest for almost two weeks. We’ll be pulling out on Thursday, headed to an RV park in Glendale, Arizona for Christmas. While I’m looking forward to having full hookups again, I’m going to miss the peace and quiet and wide open spaces of our boondocking spot. We’re already looking forward to heading further southwest for the new year.

We’ll always remember our first true boondocking spot in the Cactus Forest

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Battery Update, Christmas Plans, More Geocaching

As I reported in the last post, we had another episode of battery death, this time with our brand new 150 amp-hour batteries that we just purchased last week at Camping World. At the time of that post, we had let the generator run all night to try to recharge the batteries. Here’s what happened next.

When Andy got up, we shut off the generator and checked the batteries. Still nothing. Everything was dead, and they were not being charged from the generator.

Next we tried charging them from the alternator while running the engine (the batteries normally get charged while we’re driving the RV). That didn’t work either.

We checked the fusebox again, and didn’t see any problems with the fuses or breakers. At this point, we were starting to think it was a problem with the converter (the system that converts 110 current from the generator or shore power into DC current to be stored in the battery). However, since all the 12-volt systems in the RV were completely offline, it was just exactly as if the battery disconnect switch had been  flipped, even though it had not been. And THAT reminded us that there was another fused breaker hidden underneath the big pantry drawer below the stove.

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Reset button on the battery disconnect breaker located under the kitchen pantry drawer

In order to reach that breaker, you have to empty the drawer and then remove it from its tracks to gain access. Once he could reach the breaker, Andy pressed the tiny reset button, and…

VOILA!!

All the 12-volt systems were back online! The battery was still weak, registering around 11.95 volts as I remember, but at least we knew why the batteries had not been charging…they were in effect disconnected from the system.

We immediately fired up the generator and let it run for a couple of hours, and then checked the batteries again, and found that they were indeed charging and were back to a safe reading of 12.95. And since we needed to run the generator in the evening so I could use the Instant Pots for dinner, we kept the batteries topped off at 12.95.

The next test was to see how well they held up overnight with the furnace blower running, as well as the other minor draws on the system. When Andy got up this morning and checked the batteries, they read about 12.19, or about 60% capacity, which was acceptable. We ran the generator for a little over an hour this morning, and by then the reading was about 13.1, so we’re feeling great about that.

Our best guess of what happened is that when we failed to run the generator on Tuesday morning based on the reading on the stupid control panel, the batteries drained to the point that it caused the disconnect breaker to trip when we turned off the generator on Tuesday night to switch back over to the 12-volt system.

So we’ve learned some valuable lessons in the last two days:

  • We cannot rely on the factory-installed battery meter to monitor the available charge on the batteries. Instead, we are now using the multi-meter to get the exact voltage, even though it’s a pain to have to open up the battery compartment (located under one of the entry steps) to use the meter. We check it several times a day. At some point we’ll probably look into having a proper battery meter installed that displays the voltage at all times.
  • We will always run the generator at least twice a day to keep the batteries topped off, unless we’re driving the RV, in which case they’ll be charged from the alternator.
  • If the entire 12-volt system goes dead, the first thing we will check will be the disconnect breaker under the kitchen drawer.

So Andy called Camping World in Tucson to cancel the service appointment that we had scheduled with them for 8:00 AM on Friday. Turns out they didn’t even log the appointment so they wouldn’t have been expecting us anyway. Funny how that all worked out.

Tomorrow we’ll be picking up our new solar panels and Kodiak generator at our friends’ house in Phoenix. They were kind enough to let us have the equipment shipped to their address, and we’re looking forward to getting to visit with them for a little bit! While we’re in Phoenix, we’re also going to have lunch at one of our old favorites, Green New American Vegetarian restaurant on 7th Street. They have an extensive vegan menu, and we can’t wait to chow down!

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We’ve loved camping among these giant saguaros!

We have also made our plans for Christmas. We’ll be leaving this beautiful BLM campsite  in the Cactus Forest on Thursday of next week (sad face!), and we’ll travel to Glendale where we have reservations at an RV park for six nights. It will be nice to have full hookups again for a little while–unlimited showers, laundry facilities onsite, sewer hookups, electricity, and wi-fi. We were fortunate to get a site in this campground on our Passport America membership at half-price, so the six nights will only cost us $117, which is awesome! We’ll stay there through Christmas Day, and then pull out on December 26th for destination still to be determined.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to hunt for geocaches, finding my fourth one this morning. The ones that I’ve found are all located just off the road so I could have easily driven to the spot and saved some time. But I’ve picked up this hobby primarily for the exercise, so I’m hiking through the desert to each of the cache sites, burning off some calories and seeing some beautiful scenery.

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My 3rd geocache find was hanging near an electrical transmission tower.

If you would like to know more about what geocaching is and how it works, check out their website at Geocaching.com.

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My 4th geocache find was in an oxygen cylindar stuck in a tree. Fun find!

Yesterday we made a quick trip into Marana to ship a Christmas package to my parents and pick up a few grocery items for our salads. While there we also had lunch at Chipotle (the sofritas bowl rocks!!) and later some ice cream at The Screamery.

So that’s what’s been going on around here…just enjoying some blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and fully-charged batteries!! Our next big challenge this weekend will be learning to use our new solar system so we don’t have to run the generator so much to keep the batteries charged. Free power from the sun!!

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Safe travels, and Happy Holidays!!

Lizzy Gets Her Mojo Back

If you remember from my last post, Lizzy was having some electrical issues with the 12-volt system. We did a lot of research and located the breaker that was tripping and reset it. We thought we had the problem solved.

But when Andy went to check on her a day later, the breaker had tripped again, so we knew it was time to give up and call in the experts. So we took her to our local Camper City and left her for some good old-fashioned TLC. We asked them to do what we should have done before we bought her, and that was to perform a thorough check of all the electrical and plumbing systems and fix any issues they might find.

Turns out the two house batteries were both bad. The technician at Camper City told us that when the RV is in storage it should only be plugged in to shore power about 24 hours every 3-4 weeks, just to top off the batteries, and that the rest of the time she should be in “store” mode. This is exactly opposite of what the previous owner told us–he kept the RV plugged in all the time. According to the technician, that’s probably what ruined the batteries.

So now we have two new house batteries and everything seems to be working fine.

New house batteries

We’re taking her out again this weekend for a short two-night stay at nearby Tombigbee State Park. It will be hot and humid, but we want to continue getting acquainted with Lizzy and RV life, since one day in the not-too-distant future, she’s going to be our home on wheels. We’ll have shore power so we can run the air conditioner, and we’ll be parked in the shade with a fan for breeze. I think there’s rain in the forecast, so we’ll see how it goes.

Leaky Window | No Battery Power

Anyone with an RV will tell you that there are always things that need fixing or maintaining–after all, you’re driving around with your house on wheels, rocking and rolling through potholes and bad weather. And as RV newbies, we know just enough about our Thor Chateau Class C to be dangerous.

The first issue we encountered was a leaky window. When we went on our last camping trip, I climbed up into the overhead compartment to retrieve the privacy curtain which was folded up and stored in a little nook under the overhead side window. I found the curtain to be wet, but couldn’t determine where the moisture was coming from. Nothing else was wet, so we decided that water must have dripped in through the window and landed on the folded curtain.

After the trip was over and we returned Lizzy to the storage lot, Andy did some testing. In the space where she’s parked, she leans just a little to the left. Andy was running the air conditioning, and as the condensation from the A/C unit pooled on the roof, it eventually ran over the side of the RV, right down onto the leaky window.

Andy called an RV service shop here in Tupelo to see if they could take a look at it, but they said it would be about a week, due to the holiday weekend. In the meantime, we turned to YouTube to get some ideas for temporary fixes–saw a lot of suggestions for duct tape. And that’s what we were about to use until we saw a video where an RV owner was showing how to clean the tracks and weep-holes on RV sliding windows.

Andy decided to check the tracks on our problem window, so he headed back to the storage lot with a shop vac, air compressor, cleaning supplies and tools. He got on a ladder and looked for the weep-holes on the problem window, but didn’t see any. He checked all the other windows–they all had weep-holes. So he went back to the problem window and looked more closely.

And there it was–someone had put dark adhesive tape over the weep-holes. It blended in so well with the frame of the window that it was almost invisible. He pulled the tape off, and immediately water drained out of the tracks. He tested it thoroughly, and it has stayed dry ever since.

Problem #1 – SOLVED!

The second issue has been more challenging. Our RV has a battery disconnect switch just inside the door that is labeled Store / Use. We were told by the previous owner to put the switch in Store mode when we were storing the RV, and to put it in Use mode when we were actually using her. He didn’t specify whether or not it made a difference if we had her plugged in to shore power while being stored, and we are such newbies that we didn’t make the connection.

So when we put her in storage, we plugged her in and put the the switch on Store.

BAD!

We didn’t notice anything particularly wrong except that the audio system/backup camera display wouldn’t work consistently. But on the last day of our last camping trip, we tried turning on the overhead lights after we had unplugged from shore power, and nothing worked. The battery monitor said the house batteries were fully charged, but we were getting nothing. Nada.

So when we got home we started researching, reading the pitiful excuse for an owners manual that Thor puts out, searching Google and YouTube, and posting in the online RV forums. Andy even called Thor’s support line, and the guy told him to crawl under the RV and look for a 50-amp breaker under the chassis, which would need to be removed and replaced. Andy did as he was told, but there was no such breaker there.

So I got back on the user forums this afternoon, and finally found a post from 2015 where someone with our same unit had the same problem. He stated that he found the reset switch–but to get to it you have to pull out the bottom kitchen drawer that is under the stovetop, and the breaker reset switch is bolted to the floor under/behind the drawer.

I showed the post to Andy who had just started cooking dinner. We dropped everything, got in the car, drove to the storage lot and started working on Lizzy. We finally figured out how to remove the drawer from the suspension tracks so that we could get into the space under the counter, and sure enough, there was the breaker and relay we were looking for. There was a tiny, tiny little black button on the side, and when Andy pushed it we heard a click. We unplugged the shore power, pushed the button again, tested the overhead lights and they finally worked!

The lights were significantly dimmer than they are with shore power, so we’re thinking the batteries may be drained, or may even need to be replaced. But now we know several things we didn’t know before:

  • If the RV is plugged in to shore power, the battery disconnect switch should be in “USE” mode, even if it’s technically in storage. It should only be in “STORE” mode if it’s unplugged.
  • We now know the location of the reset switch.
  • We now know that we actually have a bottom drawer under the stove–we had been told that was just a decorative panel on the cabinet face.
  • We now know how to remove the drawers from the suspension tracks.

This is exactly why we wanted to spend some time in a smaller “practice” RV before we pull the trigger to buy a larger unit and go full-time. We need these kinds of learning experiences to build our confidence and skill set so that we can take care of ourselves and our future home on wheels. Every time we’re able to troubleshoot and resolve a problem, we gather information and gain experience that will serve us well in the future!