Archive for the ‘FAQs’ Category

I’itoi Ki, the maze of life

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

I want to take a small diversion from our current efforts of packing and planning for this summer’s Airstream travel, to step back and consider why we do all of this.  Everything we do is part of a journey through life.  Today’s work of planning where we’ll tow the Airstream may not necessarily be consequential in the overall scheme of our life, but in some small way every experience we have and every effort we make adds to the sum total of who we are.

I named this blog “Man In The Maze” out of respect for the local native Americans, the Tohono O’odham (which means “desert people”) and their story of I’itoi, the man in the maze.  The I’itoi Ki pictured here is the sacred symbol of the O’odham.  It describes the path to wellness and wholeness, and symbolizes the spiritual journey of each person as they seek the deeper meaning of life.  I’itoi travels through life as through a maze, experiencing twists and turns while growing stronger and wiser.  He grows larger in respect to his surroundings, representing his increasing understanding of the world and himself.

Each of us follow that maze.  The life-changing twists and turns make us who we are.

Following the white path, we eventually we reach the dark center of the maze, which represents death but also an opportunity for enlightenment.  At the final turn, we can look back at the trail, reflect on our lives, and find acceptance of the last step.

Hopefully we’re all a long way from the center of the maze.  While a perspective on our whole lives will be nice someday, I use the I’itoi Ki to remind me that the twists and turns we are experiencing are a part of life, and every one provides a new chance to learn and grow.  We can’t stop traveling through the maze, so we may as well make the most of it.

Our summer plan is coming together.  Our first major stop will be Denver CO, then Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza, then Vermont.  I’ll tour New England for a few days with my brother and some friends.  I’ll be Temporary Bachelor Man again in Tucson for a while, then joined by Eleanor and Emma at various points.  We’ll go to Alumafandango in August, Starfest (Mercedes) in September, and a few other places.  The Airstream will cover at least 6,000 miles (probably more).  It should be a good, busy, summer.  More later.

Living cheap on the road

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Here’s another question I often am asked:  What does it cost to live on the road?

I think a lot of people ask this question because they assume that a life of travel has to be an expensive luxury.  This isn’t surprising, since (at least in the USA) most people’s view of free time is tied directly to the concept of “vacation” — and it isn’t a vacation unless you go somewhere and spend a lot of money.

It takes a little re-arranging of the brain space to grasp that full-time travel via an Airstream can be a really economical experience.  Some people try, and fail miserably, having spent many times more on fuel, admission tickets, and “supplies” (read: souvenirs), just like their vacations.  But I’m here to tell you that not only can it be cheaper than living in a stationary house, it can be a life-saver.

See, when I started Airstream Life magazine, I was severely under-capitalized: the curse of many small business entrepreneurs.  After a year of running the small and unprofitable business, it was clear that we needed to reduce our living expenses if our savings were to last long enough to reach profitability.  And our largest expense by far was the upkeep of our house.

The house was eating us alive, with mortgage, substantial taxes, maintenance, utilities, snowplowing, garbage collection … while we were traveling about 5 months per year on business. So after some consideration, we decided to sell it and live on the road for a while before building a smaller house.  A summer of living in our Argosy 24 turned into 36 months of life in our Airstream Safari 30.  Along the way we discovered that life in the Airstream was not only a lot of fun, but much more affordable than life in the house had been.

And that made all the difference.  I could not have succeeded with Airstream Life if we hadn’t lived on the road for three years.  Without the crushing burden of a house, we were able to stretch our savings to permit years of travel — combining a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a smart financial move.

Of course, we took care to ensure to cut our travel expenses whenever possible.  We saw people run through $50,000 in a year traveling by RV, and we saw people doing it on as little as $20,000 per year (and having the same amount of fun).  So we tried to emulate the folks who were having a frugal but wonderful time.

The “tricks of the trade” aren’t really tricks at all.  They’re just common-sense choices that you can make along the way, like limiting your driving.  There’s usually no need to zing back and forth across the country, but as I’ve said before, this is one of the top mistakes made by new full-timers.  One of our very best months was spent in the Four Corners region (CO, UT, AZ, NM) where we visited fourteen national park sites on a budget of $971.  You don’t have to spend a lot to experience a lot.

Why was it so cheap? First off, we rarely splurged on full-hookup campgrounds. Instead, we prefer to stay in the national park campgrounds whenever possible.  They’re more natural, better located, and cheaper, in exchange for the trade-off of generally lacking the amenities of commercial campgrounds.

Second, we limited our travel.  We stayed several days in most locations, and never towed more than 100 miles.  When we found a good place, we stayed a while.  Staying put is always cheaper than towing somewhere else. Although we rarely stayed as long as a month, you can really save a lot of bucks with campground monthly rates.

Third, we didn’t buy anything except necessities.  Our souvenirs are strictly limited (because of space limitations too!), so early on we decided what we’d collect.  Eleanor buys a national park pin in almost every park we visit.  Emma sometimes gets one too, or a book, in addition to the Junior Ranger badge she usually earns.  We don’t buy logo apparel because we really don’t need it and the trailer would quickly fill up with the stuff.  (After all, we’ve visited well over 150 national park sites.)  We avoid the cute gift shops in town, and when we do buy something local, it’s most often edible.  I know a lot of people like to shop as they go, and I’m not saying you can’t do that, but you can’t expect a habit like that to be cheap.

Related to this, we were also careful to limit eating out.  It gets expensive quickly, not to mention the rapid impact on your waistline.  This is tougher than it might seem, because everywhere you go, there’s someone who wants to celebrate your arrival (or your new friendship) with dinner out.

Fourth, we took full advantage of the great deal that our nation’s parks offer.  For $85 per year we have free admission to every US national park in the world, including the ones in Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands.  It’s a deal like no other.  If you are over age 62, the deal is even better: $10 for a lifetime pass.  Don’t miss it.

Fifth is the Big One: We sold our house.  You can’t leave cheaper on the road if you still have a house somewhere.  The house stills costs even if you don’t live in it, doesn’t it?  The only ways to make the economic formula work are to sell the house or rent it out while you are gone. We calculated the cost of owning our house at about $65 per day.  Once we had that burden lifted, it was easy to cost-justify the Airstream and the tow vehicle.  You’re even better off if you don’t have a loan on those vehicles.

“The cost of travel” is a red herring.  The cost of staying at home is the unspoken and dangerous story.  Unspoken, that is, until the recent mortgage crisis revealed how many people were living far beyond their means in the name of “home ownership.”  Dangerous, in the sense that if too many people realized how much better off they might be without the trappings of suburbia, the housing market could collapse further. Not everyone can break away from their current responsibilities and travel, but if you are lucky enough to be able to travel — even for a week or two — yes, you can live on the road and save money.

Why we picked this home base

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

After we sold our home in Vermont and started traveling full-time, we had the entire country to consider as a future residence.  We browsed and briefly lived in something like 46 states before we made our choice. So it’s understandable that one of questions we get asked most frequently is “Why did you pick Tucson?”

Really, the criteria was rather mundane:  we liked the desert climate (good for SAD and good for allergies), the cost of living is reasonable, we could buy a “lock and leave” house that wouldn’t need winterizing or constant air conditioning while we were gone, there’s year-round outdoor activity for adults and children, and Tucson has everything we need.  Having spent most of my life in rural country, I appreciate the convenience of living in a city even though it’s not as quiet as what I’m used to.

We don’t pretend that our criteria makes sense for anyone else, so after answering this question I am always quick to point out that it’s really up to everyone to figure out what’s important to them.  I probably don’t need to do that, since most of the folks asking the question are themselves frequent travelers and they tend to be very independent.  Of all the people who have asked the question, none of them have settled here. They’ve all found their own favorite places.

But we like southern Arizona a lot, especially for the diversity of things to do in the area.  Take Saturday, for example.  We decided that our mission would be to browse the Asian food markets in town.  Tucson doesn’t have nearly the Asian population of the California cities, but enough that we can easily find the exotic ingredients that Eleanor likes to use occasionally in her cooking.  We googled up a few likely spots and read the online reviews (mostly useless, as usual), and eventually came up with a list of three targets.  Right there, that’s a win — because in many other cities we’d just be plain out of luck.  I like the fact that I can find almost anything here.

tucson-leelee-market.jpgHaving just put some money into the Mercedes 300D for front end work last week, I wanted to give it a run. So we loaded up into the “Stuttgart Taxi” and cruised to our first stop, the Lee Lee Supermart in northwest Tucson.  This place tries to cover most of the major countries of far east Asia, so you’ll find Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc., all through the store.

I’m always intrigued with the strange and interesting new foods and ingredients in Asian markets.  It’s a temptation to start buying a little of everything, just to try it out.  But since we had three markets on our program for the day (two Asian and one “other”), we tried to be moderate in our choices.  I could easily see us filling the roomy trunk of the Stuttgart Taxi with a pile of groceries worth more than the car itself.

tucson-vermont-curry.jpgAnother fun part of this type of shopping is finding truly odd or confusing packaging.  There are things both lost and gained in translation from Asian languages, and sometimes the results can be laughable.  This keeps both adults and kids entertained.  Our first find was “Vermont Curry,” as seen here. Now, I’m from Vermont, and I can tell you that “Vermont” and “curry” go together about as well as “Kansas Lobster.” These days Vermont actually has a few ethnic restaurants, thanks to an increasingly diverse population, but as a child I remember that pizza was about as exotic as it got. If there were such a thing as Vermont Curry, it would probably have maple syrup in it.

tucson-steamed-potato.jpgAnother minor oddity was the House Of Steamed Potato brand kimchi crackers. Apparently this is a major brand in China, with several flavors.  I’m sure the name makes sense in Chinese, and I’m sympathetic to the problem of translation.  I wouldn’t want to try to translate “Ritz crackers” or “Count Chocula” to Chinese.

tucson-mang-gong-cake.jpgBut our favorite was found at our second stop, the Grantstone Supermarket: Mang Gong cakes. Nothing odd here, until you look closely at the bottom of the package. It reads, “The False Packing.”  It’s hard for an American to make any sense out of that.  Given the volume of illegal Asian product knock-offs, is this simply a pre-emptive attempt to admit that these are not real Mang Gong cakes? Perhaps in truth the package contains Nike sneakers.

Sometimes you can figure these things out by playing with synonyms of the words.  For example, could “false” be an attempt to say “low-cal”?  Or perhaps “imitation,”  “see-through,” “empty,” or “absent”?  Likewise, “packing” could mean “packaging,” or “wrapper”?  Maybe this is an attempt to advertise the see-through outer wrap, or to suggest that this has a decorative wrapper for gift-giving.  We need a good Chinese translator to help figure this one out.

tucson-biodiesel-fueling.jpgIt’s amazing that we managed to kill most of a day browsing Asian markets, but we did.  We are, as I’ve said before, easily amused.  I suppose the prospect of eating whatever Eleanor whipped up with the ingredients was helpful in keeping our patience in check too. By 3 p.m. we were wrapping up and heading home with the trunk only 1/4 full of groceries (fortunately for the budget).

There was just one more stop to make, at the Arizona Petroleum depot off 22nd Street, for biodiesel. I have been wanting to run some biodiesel in the Taxi, since it has an “old tech” engine and can eat almost any type of oil.  A little biodiesel helps clean out the fuel lines since it has higher solvency properties than dino diesel.  This pump dispenses B5, B20 and B99 (5%, 20%, and 99% biodiesel respectively) for $3.25 per gallon, which is about in line with local diesel prices at conventional fuel stations in Tucson right now.

I bought five gallons of B99 to mix with the 15 gallons of dino diesel in the tank.  It made the exhaust smell like a restaurant with a fryolator, which is actually quite pleasant.  Most cars I have smelt running B99 exclusively have exhaust reminiscent of french fries, and instead of annoying people, it usually makes them hungry.  I’d like to run this in the GL320 as well, but its super-high-tech engine and exhaust system are restricted to B5 at the most.

That’s not an atypical day for us, on a winter weekend in Tucson.  That’s why we like it here.  If we want to go to a festival, a farmer’s market, go for a hike or bike ride, attend a gallery opening, take sunset pictures, do some gardening, work on the car, roam the gardens, take a class, whatever — there’s always something.  You really can’t go wrong in Tucson this time of year, with lots of things happening and fantastic weather almost every day.

That’s our criteria for a place to live, perhaps because it closely mirrors the kind of life we had when we were traveling.  For me at least, once I had tasted the diversity and excitement of constant travel, I couldn’t fathom settling back into a town that didn’t have something going on all the time. No wonder it took years for us to find a place to buy a house.  Future full-timers beware: life on the road may be your dream, but keep in mind that you will face a tough job finding the ideal place to live afterward.

Myths and misconceptions

Friday, December 10th, 2010

It’s a quiet time for us, relaxing at home base in the holiday season.  We have no plans to take the Airstream anywhere until after Christmas, which means we will have spent a full five weeks here in the house.  In the hiatus, since we have no Airstream adventures to relate, I want to use a few blog entries to talk about questions that I am often asked when we are traveling.

The reason for doing this is simply that I am constantly reminded of how much misinformation exists on the Internet about RV’ing. Online forums filled with urban myths, badly-researched or biased magazine articles published by people who should know better, and poorly-edited books from “RV experts” are the primary sources of misinformation that new RV’ers come to believe.  It’s a travesty. Most people don’t understand the most basic concepts of trailer hitching, for example, even though incorrect hitching can result in their death.  Many RV dealers are complicit in this as well, by the common practice of just shoving a new trailer owner out the door with minimal instruction.

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I was impressed at how safety-oriented the industry was.  Everything in aviation is ultimately about safety, which is why it has an incredibly impressive statistical record. As a member of the Airline Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), I received a glossy monthly magazine (AOPA Pilot) which was extremely well produced and loaded with useful information. My parents (also private pilots) subscribed to a newsletter by Belvoir Publications which analyzed the causes of aircraft accidents, which they passed on to my oldest brother (another pilot) and me.  We read it like our lives depended on it — because they did.

In aviation, pilots in training are often expected to read a book from the 1940′s, called “Stick and Rudder.”  In that book, author Wolfgang Langewiesche precisely described what happens when a pilot controls an airplane, in a way that defuses misconceptions that would otherwise occur among pilots.  It was a seminal work, so important that it remains in print today.  There is no comparable book on towing in the RV industry, which is why I asked Andy Thomson to begin writing articles for Airstream Life on that subject.  We hope that someday Andy’s articles will be recompiled into a book much like “Stick and Rudder,” which I will publish.

No question, part of the reason that there is so much good information for aviators compared to the dearth of good information for RV’ers, is the fact that aviation is a very high-profile and wealthy industry. Despite the fact that there a new Airstream runs $35,000-100,000 dollars (about the same price range as a new Mercedes) and that there are hundreds of million-dollar Prevost buses on the road, RV’ing is still too often viewed as the domain of country bumpkins and “trailer trash.”  The industry sells itself short.  When we were learning new concepts in aviation, like Instrument Flight, we considered it a good investment to buy a series of King videos for $80. We watched so many videos of John and Martha King in the living room that it felt like they were members of the family. But even if you are willing to spend in order to learn RV’ing concepts, where do you look for trustworthy information? Too much of what’s out there is either unreliable, or produced by “interested parties” with significant bias.

That’s probably why I’ve been increasing the educational aspect of everything I can touch.  Last year’s Alumapalooza included seminars on towing, axles/brakes, and maintenance.  We’ll do the same again in 2011.   I’m also working on a book of my own for new Airstream owners, which I expect to publish in the first half of 2011.

Andy’s book probably will take a couple of years to complete, but when it comes out I expect it to be an important and long-lasting work.  If you haven’t seen his towing series in Airstream Life, it’s worth the price of subscription all by itself.  (We have some of the back issues in the online store.)

Now, you may be thinking, “Come on — towing is just driving. It’s not nearly as complicated as flying.”  To a certain extent that’s true, but if you can die because you didn’t understand a basic principle, isn’t it worth learning more? I really hate it when I run into long-time RV’ers who say, “We’ve been doing this for XX years, there’s nothing anyone can tell us that we don’t already know.”  Baloney.  I find those are the folks who are most often full of misconceptions and half-truths, and are anxious to spread them around like a virus.

Here’s a really simple example.  How many times have you heard that reducing weight in your trailer will improve your towing fuel economy?  Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to that, but not nearly what people think.  Sure, lowering the trailer weight will result in less energy needed to get the trailer moving from a stop, or pull it up a hill.  But RV’ers spend most of their fuel budget pushing air out of the way, not pulling away from STOP signs.  Aerodynamics play a much larger role in fuel economy than weight.

The misconception about the impact of weight has led to the popular myth that you can save fuel by not carrying water in your fresh water tank.  It’s nonsense, but it is continually spread even by experienced trailerites.  I recently read a book by an Airstreamer who had bought into the myth that reducing his trailer’s weight by dumping his water supply would improve his fuel economy.  So, one windy day on the Interstate he dumped his water, and lo-and-behold his fuel economy did increase that day.

What really happened?  Most likely, the wind decreased slightly, or he reduced his speed a little.  The reduction of weight caused by the loss of 20 or 30 gallons of water, when traveling on the Interstate, is not going to result in significant fuel economy improvement.  If you don’t believe it, then consider this:  Does your fuel economy change materially if you add one passenger to your vehicle?  Probably not unless you strap him to the roof, where he can block some of the windstream.

I had a radical example of the importance of aerodynamics vs. weight last December, when I was towing my 17-foot Airstream Caravel from Michigan to Arizona with a diesel tow vehicle.  Along that 2,000 mile route, I averaged 13 MPG, which is about the same that I get towing the big 30-foot Airstream Safari. But the Caravel weighs just 2,500 pounds, while the Safari weighs about 7,500 pounds.  Triple the weight, almost double the length — and yet, about the same fuel economy.  If a 5,000 pound difference didn’t affect my fuel economy, why would a 160 pound difference (the weight of 20 gallons of water)?

The reason for the similar fuel economy lies in the fact that both Airstream trailers have approximately the same frontal area to pull through the air.  The Caravel is a foot narrower, but that doesn’t make much difference.  In either case, you’re still pulling a rounded block face measuring about 60-70 square feet through the air at highway speed, and that takes a heck of a lot of energy.

winnebago-1966.jpgLook at the boxy Winnebago pictured at left.  The fuel economy of those things at highway speeds is horrible, about 6 MPG on a good day.  Would you make an airplane that looked like that?  It looks like an origami project.  All the folds, flat faces, and square corners add up to incredible amounts of aerodynamic drag. Adding a couple of hundred pounds to that aerodynamic disaster wouldn’t be noticed in terms of fuel consumption.

Airstreams are inherently much more “slippery” than most other travel trailer designs, so we get better fuel economy overall.  Airstream claims about 20% better, which I can believe based on many conversations I’ve had with owners of other brands.  But it could be better.  Even an Airstream has lots of drag-inducing objects hanging off which reduce fuel economy, such as awning, air conditioner, door handle, etc.  When the economic justification is there (higher fuel prices), you’ll see more radical designs of travel trailers and motorhomes that eliminate the bulges and junk on the outside.

The industry is of course interested in reducing weight too, but that’s mostly a response to small tow vehicles with lower overall towing capacity.  The real fuel economy savings will come when travel trailers slip through the air with less drag.

This example of the “weight myth” is just one of dozens that permeate the RV space.  You’re not going to die if you don’t understand it, but there are other myths and misconceptions that are more dangerous, or which cause people to waste their money.  When I’ve spotted them in the past, I’ve talked about them, but perhaps not enough.  I think my tolerance for the “industry standard” level of ignorance and banality has begun to fade, so in the future I’ll call ‘em as I see them.

“How do you decide where to go?”

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

When we were full-timing, one of the questions we were often asked was, “How do you decide where to go?”  This question always mystified me, because it was never clear to me exactly what was meant by the question.  There were many possible interpretations.

Some people meant, “Of all the great places in the country, how do you choose which ones to visit?” This is the easiest variation to answer, because that’s how I see the travel opportunity.  North America is loaded with interesting people, geography, history, foods, adventures, etc.  There are so many possible places to investigate that an interested person can travel full-time by RV for over a decade and still find new and exciting things to discover.  We have friends who have, in fact, done this and are still on the road.

We chose places to visit based on a combination of factors that were unique to us:  business needs, personal interests, weather, family, invitations, etc.  I wouldn’t pretend that our criteria precisely matches anyone else’s criteria.  The beauty of RV travel is that you can customize your experience to your exact interests, with hardly anything to interfere.  You don’t have to worry about transportation timetables, baggage limits, availability of hotels, etc.  You can stay longer and pay less.  You bring all the comforts of home along with you.  So of course you always do whatever the heck you want, whenever you get the chance.

Other people who asked the question assumed that we traveled on a rigid schedule and therefore meant, “How do you decide how long to make your scheduled stops?” Even working, most of the time we had a fairly flexible schedule.  The first year we were out, we obligated ourselves to be at various Airstream dealers when they were having special sales events.  This meant we had to zig-zag all over the country at inconvenient times, ending up in Indiana in March (not an ideal time to visit).  After a year of that, we stopped promising to be at events and started drawing out a more rational schedule.

“Schedule” is much too strong a word for what we really had.  We kept a list of ideas, long-term obligations, and general goals in mind.  Our actual travel plan was worked out between 1 day and 2 months at a time, no longer. Anything more than two months away was simply a “goal” (such as spending summer in Vermont).  While we always hit the goals, we never let the plan become too organized because that would eliminate happenstance, lucky finds, changes of heart, serendipity, new friends, and unforeseen opportunity from playing their vital part.

Some people who asked the question were concerned with having only perfect stops, so they meant, “How do you know what places are good and which are not?”  Folks like this are usually oriented to the “vacation mode” of travel, where you have a very limited amount of time (a week or two) and want to make the absolute most of it with some sort of fantastic adventure.  To be reasonably sure this is going to happen, you usually need reservations and strict plans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the mode of a full-timer, so the question really didn’t apply to us.  Full-timers don’t have the restriction of a vacation, and come to find that life on the road shares some realities with life in a house.  In other words, you can’t expect every moment of full-timing to be perfect and wonderful, any more than you can in stationary life.  There are fantastic days of adventure that you could never have anticipated or planned, and there are many more of the mundane days where you had to catch up on laundry or spend the day waiting at the service center.

But I always tried to answer this question anyway. I’d treat it literally, and tell people that we used various sources of information to guide us, including the Internet (RVparkreviews, various travel forums, National Park Service, etc.), tips and invitations from friends, and knowledge of events or rallies that we wanted to attend. Regardless of our pre-planning, we accepted that there would always be surprises of the pleasant and unpleasant kind.  If you fear the uncertainty of that, you probably should stay close to previously-traveled routes.

A few people who asked the question had no concept of what our travel was like at all, and meant, “What do you do if you’re not following the normal air/rental car/hotel/destination resort program?”  That represents a certain cluelessness about RV travel, but I liked that because it meant I could open someone’s eyes to an opportunity that they probably had never considered before.

However, these people broke into two subgroups:  (a) Those who were genuinely curious about what it was like to travel in an RV because they might like the concept for themselves someday; and (b) Those who were curious because they regarded us as nutcases and perhaps thought they would be amused by the tale of our oddball behavior.  The latter group would never seriously consider doing what we were doing, so I never invested a lot of time in trying to convince them to change their ways.  After all, RV’ing isn’t for everyone.

The former group (a) was more interesting.  People’s eyes tend to widen as you describe the idea of pitching the package trips and instead going on a wonderful free-flowing roadtrip where everything has the potential to be an adventure.  The trick here is to appreciate the small things along the road.  Those who were hung up on having a High Concept trip would eventually realize they would be happier flying to the resort in Maui and going to the nightly luau, than finding historic architectural beauty camped behind a deserted Rt 66 gas station in Oklahoma.

The literal answer to this version of the question is elusive in its simplicity:  You do whatever interests you.  If you aren’t interested or passionate about something, life can be pretty boring.  I think little healthy obsessions are part of what makes people stand out from the crowd.  Our obsession over the past several years has been Airstreaming, and it will continue to be for some time, because the lifestyle (full time or not) has yielded so many incredible benefits for all of us.  The Airstream is a vehicle to indulge our interests and discover new ones at the same time. Where it takes you depends on who you are.

A short history of the sun

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

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

horseneck-beach-airstream-excella.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good kite flying weather

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separation

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

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

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

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

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

tour-trailer.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Denver to Denver

Monday, May 24th, 2010

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

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

denver-ia-courtesy-parking.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado Springs, CO

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

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

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

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

cheyenne-mtn-sp-site-20.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine