Archive for the ‘FAQs’ Category

Sunny rainy days

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Ironically, as I sit down to write up this blog which is eventually going to discuss solar energy, the weather here in Tucson is astonishingly wintry.  Three Pacific storms are blowing by this week, each one bringing more rain and wind than the previous one.  Last night we heard the unfamiliar sound of heavy rain pounding our flat house roof in the desert, and this morning we woke to crystal clear air, sidewalks and driveways scrubbed clean of dust, a few downed palm fronds, and beautiful views of snow in the Catalinas above 6,000 feet.

uawebcam.jpg

Webcam image courtesy of UA Computer Science Dept.

tucsonwx.jpgEven when our forecast looks like this, it’s usually sunny most of the day in Tucson.  They get excited about rain here, for obvious reasons, and a “winter storm” has an entirely different meaning than it does in the rest of the country.  Here, it means wind, a little rain, and maybe a thunderstorm.  “100% chance of showers” doesn’t mean rain all day; it means definite rain at some point in the day.  Freezes are rare except in the mountains.

emmas-foot.jpgNormally after a big snow we’d go sledding in the mountains, but Emma has one foot in a cast that can’t get wet, and she can’t climb snowy hills anyway.  Broken fifth metatarsal, nothing serious. And we’ve got carnies in the driveway, and I’m afraid to leave the house unguarded while they’re here.  (Just kidding, they’ve been good courtesy parkers).

So instead of karate, hiking, biking, and sledding, we’re forced to some sedentary activities like cheap Tuesday night movies and Tucson Roller Derbydsc_4366.jpgThe ladies of TRD put on a good show Saturday and now Emma is sporting a cast covered with the autographs of roller derby queens, which is just extremely cool.  Not everyone has the autograph of Bev Rage, Furious Oxide, Pinky McLovin, Hellbent Betty, Zippy’s Takeout, Dirty Duchess, Blanka Trohl, and others on their foot.

The breaking of the metatarsal also means we’re staying home for a little while.  So, it’s time to clean up the inbox and respond to various inquiries.  Yesterday, blog reader Vernon wrote to me about solar panels:

Rich,

It seems that I get more real world data from your blog than most ‘data’ sources… Have you ever logged hour-by-hour amp output from your 230 W solar system under ideal conditions? I see your daily totals and they seem well below the system theoreticals …  Thanks!

I often watch real-time amp-hour output from the panels and I’ve found that theoretical output is not very useful in the real world.  There is huge variation depending on sun angle, time of year, time of day, cloudiness, dust on the panels, and shading from trees.  There’s also some loss inherent in the wiring.  As a result, on a sunny day at noon we might generate as little as 8 amps, and as much as 12 amps.

The rest of the day the output will be considerably less.  In December, even on a clear day, output will generally run less than 3 amps until 9 a.m., and after 3 p.m.  Thus, on a clear winter day we might generate just 25 amp-hours per day.  On a partly-cloudy day, that can be cut to as little as 15-20 amp-hours, which is not much at all.

dsc_4469.jpgBut under “ideal conditions,” we can generate quite a lot more.  In late June or early July with full sun and 16-hour northern daylight, we could certainly produce more than 60 amp-hours per day.

We’ve never been able to measure our true total potential capability because, ironically, you generally need the least power in summer when it is most easily generated.  Thus, our batteries are always full by 2 or 3 p.m. in the summer.  Once the batteries begin to reach full charge, the system stops absorbing power and we have no way to determine accurately how much more power we might have been able to store.

Winter is the relevant challenge.  That’s when you have short days, low sun angle, and much higher power consumption due to increased furnace and light requirements.  It takes a powerful solar charging system and good weather conditions, to generate and store enough power to make up a typical day’s use.

It is for this reason that I recommend serious boondockers go for much more panel capability than the standard 55-watt installed as part of the Airstream “solar package.”  You want to have the power to get through a couple of partly-cloudy winter days if you camp during that season.  Having tilting capability on the panels will also boost power production considerably, but this is difficult to implement on an Airstream.  The best way to look at it is that solar generally just makes your batteries seem bigger.

The other piece of the solar equation is the capability of your solar panel controller.  Most solar controller incorporate good charging, so that when you have sun the batteries can enjoy the maximum capacity available. However, when you go plug in (whether to campground power or a generator) your factory-installed power converter kicks in, and those are often pathetically bad at recharging batteries.  Read about our experience here.  It makes sense to replace the factory converter/charger with a better 3-stage charger if you are going to use a generator to top off your batteries in addition to solar.

State parks and specs

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

We’re now in the Denver area, staying at our favorite central stop, Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora.  We’ll be here a few days catching up on work, visiting friends and Airstream Life contributors who live in the area, and taking care of a few minor maintenance items.

I editorialized in the Fall 2009 Airstream Life about the budget cuts that are closing state parks and/or reducing services all over the country.  More states are charging day use fees in their parks on top of the camping fees, and the fees are rising.  We’ve been forced to buy annual passes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado so far because the day use fees are more than the cost of the annual pass after just a few days.  The windshield of the car is starting to get obscured by all the big stickers. In South Dakota we also paid $15 for a one-week pass because they don’t offer a single-day pass.  Texas and California also have annual state park pass programs, Arizona is considering it, and I’m sure there are many other states as well.

Wisconsin’s pass isn’t too expensive but Colorado’s is a monster at $63.  Day use fees here at Cherry Creek are $8, so an eight-day stay justifies the pass.  We won’t be here that long but we do plan to visit a few other Colorado state parks this month.  All told, we’ve dropped about $120 in state park passes so far.  I’ll have to add that expense into the budget for future trips, since user fees seem to be the trend these days.

On another subject, blog reader Vernon writes:

Rich,
Have you considered adding a spec’s page to your blog? Specifically, what equipment are you using – camera, computers, upgrade specifics to the ‘stream such as solar panel sizes… I have been able to search both blogs and usually find references but it would be nice to have it on a single link.

We did have something like that on the Tour of America blog, but it is now out of date.  I’ll put the current specs and major equipment here so people can find it using the “search” box on this blog.

RV:  2005 Airstream Safari 30-ft “bunkhouse”.  Empty weight 6400, GVWR 8400. Upgrades include: two 115 watt “Evergreen” solar panels, four Optima “blue top” AGM batteries, Tri-Metric 2020 battery monitor, Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e MPPT solar controller, Kodiak disc brakes with Actibrake hydraulic brake actuator, 5000# axles, Dometic NDR1026 10-cu. ft. refrigerator, MaxxAir “Maxxfan” for ventilation, Northstar catalytic heater, Centramatic wheel balancers, stainless steel furnace & water heater covers from Roger Williams Airstream, many other minor modifications/upgrades.

Tow vehicle: 2009 Mercedes GL320 Bluetec.  V6 turbodiesel, 398 ft-lbs torque, 215 hp, 121″ wheelbase, with modified hitch receiver, otherwise stock. Typical fuel economy: 14 MPG towing, 25 MPG solo.

Hitch: Hensley with straight receiver bar (slightly curved for better weight distribution), custom drilled hole for shorter overhang.  I carry a set of spare parts for the Hensley including spare zerk (grease) fittings, and a grease gun.

Cameras:  Nikon D90 with 18-200mm VR zoom, Nikon D70 with Tokina 10-24mm wide angle zoom, various filters, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, Canon Powershot.  (Note: I do not own Photoshop or any other photo-manipulation software and so all of my photos you see in the blog and in Airstream Life magazine are exactly as taken by the camera.)

Computers: A 2009 MacBook Pro “unibody”, and a 2004 iBook G4. We also carry several backup hard drives, a battery-powered printer (HP OfficeJet H470), and a CanoScan LiDE60 flatbed scanner.

Internet:  Verizon USB card with Cradlepoint CTR500 cellular wifi router.

I think that’s the majority of the stuff. Post a comment if you would like me to add more info here.

Top 12 mistakes of full-timers

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

In the past year, I’ve been getting a lot of requests from people for information about the full-time lifestyle.  Most of our lessons are covered in the Tour of America blog archives, but since not everyone wants to read through all 800+ blog entries, I’m going to summarize “The Top Twelve Mistakes Made By Full-Timers” here.   Hopefully this list will help a few prospective travelers to start off on the right foot.  In no particular order, here they are:

1.  Driving too much.  Everyone starts out with a bang — rushing away from home base to get to the first great destination.  Over the first few months, new full-timers seem to cover thousands of miles per month, and then gradually they calm down and begin to stop at all the great little things that they’ve been passing by.  That’s when they get into the rhythm of full-timing, and inevitably start to enjoy their travels more.

Tip: Slow down!  Stay longer, talk more, meet more people, explore the small stuff — and save money by traveling less and getting weekly rates at campgrounds.  Set a limit, like no more than 100 or 150 miles on driving days, and no more than two or three travel days each week.

2.  Keeping too much in storage.  This is a classic.  Ask any full-timer who has been traveling for more than a year, and you’ll get a story about how much stuff they left behind in storage, and how much they’ve come to regret it. Storage is expensive, but worse than that is the shock you’ll get when you come back and find all the stuff you paid to store that you didn’t even remember owning (or no longer want!)

Tip: If you plan to be out for more than a year, be aggressive about getting rid of the marginal items.  Sure, it’s still useful, but will you be happy to pay $10 to store a $5 item for a year?  Better to get rid of it and buy another one when you get back. Try your local Freecycle (on Yahoo! Groups) to get rid of low-value but useful items.

3.  Trying to keep a rigid schedule, OR not allowing enough time to explore.  Isn’t the point of full-timing that you can explore without a schedule?  Yet I have met many newbie full-timers who are rushing to keep up with their schedule, just like they did when they had jobs or kids in school.  When you hit a good spot you’ll nearly always find you want to stay longer than you thought, so if you must make plans, leave yourself lots of time and plenty of options.

Tip: Don’t make reservations unless absolutely necessary.  Remember, you’re a full-timer — you can wait until a space opens up. The exceptions are airline tickets (where prices go up if you wait), and really popular things that must be reserved months in advance.

4.  Being afraid to camp without hookups.  You can only see the country if you’re willing to get off the beaten path once in a while. Boondocking terrifies some people, but it’s actually fun, easy, and economical.  It’s in those rustic national park, state park, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest, and Corps of Engineers campgrounds that you’ll find some of the most memorable outdoor experiences in the USA.

Tip: Get to know the capacities of your holding tanks, and how long they will last.  This takes practice.  The best way to learn to boondock is to just do it.

5. Not carrying water.  This one amazes me.  People will advise you to carry less water in order to improve your fuel economy.  It’s a myth, at least for our rig.  If you are not climbing a mountain, 200 lbs of water (25 gallons) isn’t going to impact your fuel economy much.  With travel trailers and motorhomes on relatively flat land, aerodynamics play a larger role than weight. (But see Tip #7 before you decide.)

Not having water means you must go where the water hookups are, and you can’t stop spontaneously at a delightful spot along the way.  It also means that if you have a problem and can’t reach your intended destination, you’re out of luck for showers, cooking, and toilet.  Yet I constantly hear from other travelers that they recommend leaving the water tank empty and filling up only when they arrive.  That’s like leaving your gas tank on 1/4 all the time and hoping there’s a gas station every 50 miles.

Tip:  If you’re concerned about weight, just carry 10-15 gallons.  That’s enough to get you through a night with careful conservation.

6. Using the wrong mail forwarding service.  When we were looking for a new mail forwarding service, people advised us to “just use any UPS Store.”  Bad idea.  What if that little shop in the strip mall closes?  It just happened to a friend and fellow full-timer a few months ago, and he had a heck of a time moving everything to another address.

I recommend looking for an established mail forwarding specialist that has a succession plan in place in case the owners retire or the business has to move.  Also, look for a service that will give you excellent personal attention via phone and email.  It can work to have a friend or relative forward your mail, but ask yourself if that person will keep doing it reliably and regularly for a year or more.

Tip:  We use and recommend St. Brendan’s Isle.  Others use Escapees mail forwarding.  There are a lot of other services that specialize in RV’ers, too.  Do a Google search to find them.  USPS “change of address notifications”  are not a good choice — temporary mail forwarding is unreliable and lasts only for six months.  The USPS Premium mail forward service is better but too expensive.

Try to reduce the volume of mail you receive by using e-billing (see Tip #11), asking to be removed from mailing lists, and closing unnecessary accounts.  Ideally you should just get a few pieces of mail each week, so you can spend most of your time enjoying the travel experience.

Make sure whatever service you choose will forward your periodicals (magazines) — we get a lot of complaints from subscribers who paid for the cheapest service they could get and found out later that their magazines were getting tossed.  Ask if they will deliver urgent mail by FedEx if needed (at your expense).  Also, make sure you get a physical address, not a PO Box, or you may have trouble with banks and drivers licenses later.

7. Traveling overweight.  I don’t mean you, I mean your RV!  Hardly anyone ever weighs their rig, and yet everyone should.  Overweight travel means tire problems, premature brake wear, handling problems, hitching problems, and DANGER!  Don’t do it.

Tip:  Drop in on a CAT Scale (located at truck stops all over the country) and get weighed!  It costs just $8.  If your rig is approaching or over the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating on the serial number plate, start culling out the heavy stuff.  Traveling overweight is asking for trouble, and it’s the most easily prevented cause of accidents.

8. Deferring maintenance.  Oh yeah, we all do it.  But still, for a full-timer or long-distance traveler, it’s crazy.  You’re putting extra miles and wear on every system, and that means you need to think about maintenance as a preventative step, not as a response only when something breaks.

Tip:  Start at the bottom and work up. Think about brakes, tires, wheel bearings, axles, shocks, and hitch parts.  Then look at other things that can kill you, and the systems that control them.  Check for propane leaks, faulty appliances, batteries in smoke and CO detectors, date on the fire extinguisher, signals, tight bolts, lubricated parts, etc.

Everything in your rig came with an Owners Manual.  Pull ‘em all out and look for the parts that say “DANGER” or “CAUTION,” then act accordingly.  Then maintain the heck out of everything you own at least annually.  If you don’t want to do it or don’t know how, find a really good service center and plan on spending 4-5 days there every year.

9. Not understanding the rig.  If you go out on the road assured by the dealer that “you’re all set,” you’re going to have a nasty surprise someday.  A hitch part might break, a tire will go flat, an appliance will stop working, etc., and if you don’t really understand the systems, you’ll be at the mercy of whoever you meet who claims to.  AAA membership is not a substitute for having a spare and knowing how to use it.

Tip: (Shameless self-promotion here)  Get a copy of The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming.  For about $10, it’s the quickest, most reliable way to get up to speed quickly.  You can also get it from Amazon.com.   Or, you can spend six months reading contradictory and often uninformed opinions on Internet forums.

In general, try to learn how to change a tire, jump a flat battery, grease the hitch, find and replace the fuses (all of them including truck and trailer), lubricate the locks, check the tires, test for gas leaks, winterize, and logically troubleshoot other problems.  As Robert Heinlein said, “specialization is for insects.”

10.  Choosing the wrong state of residence.  Some states have lower income taxes than others, some have punitive residency requirements, some are very expensive for vehicle registrations, and a few have perks (like discounted state resident rates for theme parks).  Think three times before you choose a state of residence.  It’s easiest if it matches your mailing address, but that’s not always necessary.

Tip:  Look at the cost of vehicle registrations, income taxes, health insurance rates, vehicle insurance rates, and residency requirements.  Once you’ve got a state picked out, move all your accounts to your mailing address, and get a passport too.

11. Not using online banking.   A lot of people just love paper statements, but you’ll find that if you don’t use e-billing to get your bills, you’ll often get hit with late charges on your credit cards and other bills.  That adds up fast, and can affect your credit rating.  These days banks are narrowing the gap between when they send your bill and when it must be paid.

Tip: Get every credit card, utility, bank, and other recurring relationship to send you an e-bill, or get rid of that vendor Have all your small recurring bills (cell phone, etc) billed automatically to your credit or debit card, to reduce the number of bills you get. Save copies of the e-bills on your computer as PDFs so you can refer to them if you need to.  Use online banking to simplify your bill paying. It’s generally free and easy to use.

12. Relying too heavily on the GPS.  GPS is a great tool and we love it, but it is no substitute for a good map, or common sense.  The GPS database won’t tell you about all the things you’d like to see, either.  But it will send you down a one-lane (or non-existent) back road to save 10 feet on the route.

Tip:  Use the GPS as just one of several tools.  Keep and use a good road atlas.  Research things to do on the Internet and through local brochures before you plan your route.  When traveling in the west always have a supply of drinking water in the truck, and be sure to ask locally for information before going on any dirt road.  When approaching state or national parks, always follow the official brown signs rather than the shortcut your GPS is advising.

Taking the First Step

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

man_in_the_maze.jpgIf you’ve been following the Tour of America weblog, you already know me and how I’ve come to this point.  If not, you’ll figure it out.  I am just like you, symbolized by the Man In The Maze, who travels through life from dark to light, growing larger in relation to his surroundings by learning and making choices at every turn.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine