Thursday, August 30, 2012

Airbags Deflated? - Pump Them Up And Keep Them That Way!

Sad Right Air Bag - No Pressure
    I like air bags. No, not the ones that save lives...though those are good too. The ones that help your suspension out and/or level your RV using nothing but air pressure. They've been around for a long time. It's a mature technology that's pretty reliable. Well, mostly. I've got a set of air bags on my real wheels. They help out the rear springs when the RV is loaded AND allow me to level the coach from side to side (and somewhat fore and aft.) The problem? A leak had developed on the right side air bag. We checked every inch of the air lines and fittings going from the bag to the dash valves and the pump/storage tank assembly. No luck. Turned out the "DOWN" valve for the right side airbag was leaking air into the gauge! You couldn't hear it, you couldn't see it from the valve. We finally found it by dousing (accidentally) the back of the gauge with soap bubbles from the spray bottle.

Bad "DOWN" Valve
The newer systems use electric solenoids to trigger valves to inflate or deflate the bags. Mine uses manual push valves. Four of them in two sets. Each set has an "UP" and a "DOWN" valve. I manually turn on the compressor to fill/refill the air storage tank, though I can set it up to automatically fill at a set pressure. To do it this way, you cannot simply use a pressure switch at the compressor (or storage tank) to feed power to the compressor so it will refill. The large amp draw will kill the pressure switch in short order. (Yup, I did it.) You HAVE to use a relay to switch the high amp draw item!! OK, to be fair you could find a pressure switch that would handle a high enough amp current to do the job, but it's MUCH harder to find!

Typical air Bag System 
The main problem with air systems is leaks. Anytime you put joints, disconnects, valves and fittings on any system it is a sure bet that a leak (or leaks!) will develop over time. Some of them are easy to find. Pump up your system and walk around listening for a HISS! of escaping air. You can also use the old fashioned "soapy water in a spray bottle" trick. Take an old (or new) spray bottle and mix some dish washing soap in it. Hold it upside-down and pump until some of the bubbles come out the nozzle then flip it over and gently spray onto anything you believe might be the leaky culprit. It makes it pretty easy to spot even slow leaks.

Air bag System Service Kits
Replacement Valves
Once you find the leak(s) then you have to fix them. If it's a simple crack or hole in one of the lines, you can either replace the entire line or splice in a new piece using an inline connector. The connectors are pretty simple to install. Cut the line, slip it into the connector and press the plastic or metal ring down firmly. That locks the connector to the hose and prevents leaks. If your valves are leaking (like mine) or the gauge itself is dying a slow death, it can get a bit more complex. Depending on the vintage of your system, you may find that no one has ANY information about it or where to buy parts. In fact, you often cannot even get them to admit they built the kit in the first place! There are a couple of manufacturers that make small push button valves. I called both.....only one got back to me and they were VERY helpful. Even sent me a diagram of the replacement parts and how to use them. I would publish here, but the valves have a "mushroom" shaped button and the drawing was...well...a bit pornographic. Not on purpose....I'm sure! OK, maybe it was me and my wild imagination. *If you look closely at the photos, you'll see the drawing peeking out from under the parts and plastic bags.*

Assembled Valve
The diagram was extremely helpful as the replacements connected a bit differently from the originals. I had to screw together various parts (all supplied) to build each specialized valve. The nice thing about these? They have little O-rings as extra seals at the base of each part. Once assembled I had ZERO leaks. Amazing.

Aggravating 90 Degree Bend!
Next up was crawling back under the dash to install the valves in the flat trim plate the gauge is mounted to. Thankfully, my dash actually lifts up and has prop rods that allow for decent access. Though you still have to be on your back, it's not as bad as working on my car, upside-down on the seat! Once the new valves were connected up I found one small problem. Since the original valves both fed from the back, the normally straight shot for the tubing had to bend 90 degrees to go into the DOWN valve. Guess what? I was going to need about 2 inches of extra slack. That I didn't have. I traced the line all the way to the "T" fitting in the engine bay and without replacing the ENTIRE line, I was out of luck. Since everything was already connected, I decided to fill the bags to 50 pounds and leave it alone for a few days to see if I lost any pressure.

50 Pounds And Holding!
After returning in a couple of days it was obvious that pressure was holding. In fact better than it EVER had! So, how do you fix the 90 degree bend problem WITHOUT replacing the whole line? I didn't know it at the time, but after a quick call (and web site search) I found out that the same company manufactures 90 degree bend fittings for the tiny 10-32 threaded orifices on the sides of their valves. One with a swivel fitting, the other solid. Sent off a email and they were nice enough to send me both. Sometimes, things do just work out!

As soon as they arrive this week, I'll put on the new bits and close up the dash, ready for my trip over the holiday weekend.

No more pressing the valve every fifteen minutes. Quite a boost to my already fragile sanity!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What's It Like Outside? - Weather Forecasting For Non-Meteorologists

Dead Space Above Door
    I'm not a big fan of really hot or cold weather and my RV does a pretty decent job of keeping it nice inside. When I wake up, I like to know how hot or cold it is OUTSIDE. A long time ago I bought a nifty little indoor/outdoor thermometer that had a sensor, attached by a thin wire, that I ran outside through a window. It worked really well and showed indoor and outdoor temps as well as humidity. Sadly the years and elements took their toll on the outdoor sensor. It was only a little bitty thing, no bigger than a grain of rice wearing a wetsuit. I tried to find an equivalent sensor to graft onto the end of the wire. None of them worked. So this year all I've had was inside temps and humidity readings.

My Bargain Weather Center
The Aero Cruiser I currently own (and love!) has a large rectangular space above the door. It's carpeted like the rest of the walls and ceilings so is a really good Velcro attachment point. I figured I could buy one of those new-fangled digital weather stations that read out all sorts of weather info and set their clocks with a radio signal from the Atomic clock system (RCC). These can have some nice displays with lots of cool stuff to look at, and many of them are decor items to boot.

After some basic research, I found they can be VERY expensive. The cheaper ones seemed to have limited sensors and displays while the more pricey ones show more information. I got lucky and found a "close-out" on my last trip to Cabela's Flagship store in Hamburg, Pennsylvania (Stay Tuned for a Road Trip Report!). They had a normally >$100.00 one with wind speed and rain sensor AND a remote display temperature/humidity that also transmits its info to the base for only $15.99! How could I resist?

Back Of Weather Station Display with Stand Removed
Now to install it over the door and figure out places for the remote sensors to be mounted. This one should have been a breeze. I figured I'd use heavy duty velcro to mount the base unit to the space above the door since the wall (like ALMOST everything in the Aero Cruiser!) is carpeted. I removed the pull-out stand to lighten the unit and give me some working space to mount the sticky back velcro. Not going to work. The four half-round "feet" on the back of the unit would hit the wall before the velcro, so that was out. I thought about taking a Dremel and grinding the little evil things off, but  thought that was pretty extreme. Aha! How about using some heavy duty double sided foam mounting tape to mount the velcro to? That would increase the thickness enough (maybe) and give me a REALLY sticky place to mount the velcro strips I had cut.

Now With Foam Tape!
With Velcro!
My only worry was high interior temperatures may cause the foam mounting tape to degrade and let go, dropping this expensive gadget onto my wood flooring covered step. SMASH! Being somewhat impatient, I went ahead. You have to make sure you cut the foam tape AND the velcro to the same sizes so the foam tape won't stick where it's not supposed to. Also, make sure you leave access to the units buttons for setting various things. I had to use a very small screwdriver to punch a tiny hole in the bottom left square of mounting tape and velcro to make sure I could access the tiny reset hole the manufacturer provided.

Weather Station With Backlight On, Mounted
I carefully measured the width of the space above the door and pressed the prepped weather station to the carpet. Looked pretty decent. I hope it stays on while underway! I used as much velcro as I could fit on the back, and it "feels" stable enough. I'll let you know how it works out.

Next up was the remote temperature and humidity sensor. Originally I thought I would mount it under the back bumper and be done with it. Visions of it bouncing down the road behind me put a stop to that. Besides, it has a small display of it's own that I'd like to be able to look at. I thought about the storage bay. I thought about the sewer/dump door.

Base Of the Refrigerator Outside Compartment
Then it hit me, how about the bottom of the refrigerator compartment? Even if the temperature wasn't super accurate it would tell me the temp of the interior of the compartment! Since I had just installed a fan in the chimney to increase the fridge's efficiency, I figured it would be good information to know! I cleaned the corner farthest away from anything that get's hot on the fridge mechanism and realized that the fiberglass "wall" was a bit wobbly. Obviously, this was because the screw that was originally here...wasn't. Easy fix, put in a new screw.

Velcro On Remote Sensor
Remote Sensor Mounted
Of course, AFTER putting on the velcro did I realize the screw I just put in to stop the wall piece from wobbling would be perfect for the "key-hole" mount on the remote sensor.'s still me, had to have some small glitch someplace!  Ah well...

Last was the Rain and Wind Sensor. This is designed to be mounted on a piece of pipe and set up permanently. Kind of hard to do for an RV. I'd get some REALLY interesting wind speed readings while underway! The sensor itself plugs into the remote temperature and humidity sensor with a 50 ft cord and there isn't a real downside to NOT having it connected, but I like to get everything I can out of a system. Why bypass features that you've already paid for? I rigged up a quick mount to attach it to a small tripod style emergency light I had lying around. A simple sandbag or other weight can be used to hold it down in high winds. You could turn on the light as well....not sure why exactly...but you COULD.

There you have it. A complete miniature weather station and clock. Now a simple glance up before walking outside will tell you what to expect. I sort of had that before. It's called a window! But this is cooler.

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Throw Another Shrimp On The Barbie - Compact BBQ Grills That Work!

1991 Gardner Pacific Aero Cruiser 23RBa
    As most of you already know, my RV is small. 23 feet 8 inches from front to back and only 99 inches tall. Plenty of inside space, nice big bed, couch, full bath with separate shower and a full galley including a 4 burner stove and convection microwave oven. Pretty much everything I wanted and need. What's missing? What did I lose going compact? Mostly storage space. Instead of the typical class A RV's hefty amount of "basement" storage I have one...count'em ONE basement storage area. It's relatively roomy, mind you. Just not enough space. I suppose you can never have too much space, but I like traveling as light as I can. ready to launch off on the next adventure at a moments notice.

My Storage Bay. BBQ Grill in the Center
A few weeks ago I took a trip where I wanted to Barbecue for lunch and maybe even dinner. I like BBQ, tastes good and there's something primal about cooking over an open flame, whether it be charcoal or propane. (Right about now, you're probably hearing Tim Allen grunting...) Perhaps it's a "guy" thing....perhaps not. Either way, I like it. At home I've got a big propane fired, stainless steel monstrosity that I can cook large animals on. This was obviously not going to work in my RV. Now what? Same as always, RESEARCH! I spent a few hours scouring the internet for every kind of grill imaginable. You wouldn't believe how many there are! OK, so maybe you would.... Mind boggling. You could have propane, natural gas, charcoal, heat tablets, alcohol even white gasoline. if it burns, someone has figured out a way to cook on it! They ranged in size from tiny round alcohol stoves to gigantic propane or wood burners that had built in tow hitches. I'll be honest, I did seriously consider towing one for a few seconds. But that would be crazy...or would it?

Alcohol Stoves and Grills

These are actually pretty cool. They use some type of fibers (cloth or loose in a container) to contain the alcohol and slowly release the vapors to heat up the cooker. Further, they can be used as a heat source (around 5500 BTUs) Neat idea, been used on sailboats for years and years. They come in many sizes. I looked around....a bit pricey. You have to have alcohol on hand to refill the wick system. Seemed a bit more trouble than I wanted. Still, I like the idea.

Charcoal Grills

There is nothing exactly like the flavor of foods cooked over charcoal. Not the pre-fab briquets mind you (though there not all that bad either) bit genuine charcoal from wood. Alton Brown, of GOOD EATS fame (it's a show..or was...on the FOOD NETWORK) really loves the stuff. I'm a big fan...his logic makes sense. You should look into it. Yes, I'll stop being a fanboy now. There is a charcoal grill that can fit every budget and they do come in every size. I even saw some disposable ones that looked like a disposable aluminum Lasagna pan. Pull off the cover and light. Wait until the coals are white and cook. When done, throw it all away (after appropriately extinguishing the coals with water) Neat idea. While I would hope to be forgiven by Alton, I just didn't want the hassle of using charcoal on the road. It's messy to cleanup, you need to carry bags of fuel and kindling....etc, etc. Bleh. I want to relax on my short enough times away.

Other Grills

I looked into the alternate fuel models...heat tabs, white gas and electric.... Too hard to source the fuels on the road and I didn't like the idea of having a container of white gas sloshing around in my only basement storage compartment. Electric was interesting, but really isn't viable since it would require shore power or the generator to use. That left us with:

Propane Grills

What's not to like? Most of us carry on board propane tanks of one sort or another. I already had a propane based grill at home. I'm used to the way it cooks.....Seemed like a perfect fit. Now, did anyone make a compact propane grill that was easy to store, easy to clean and easy to fuel? Short answer? Yes. The longer answer was yes, but you really have to look around and get one that will serve your needs. I cook chicken parts, burgers, hot dogs, steaks, shrimp potatoes and grilled vegetables mostly. Hey, I'll likely try anything once....someone once grilled me some watermelon. It was...honestly...a bit weird, but not bad.

Most grills will be described by the size of their cooking area, in SQUARE INCHES (sq. in.) and the amount of heat they produce, in BRITISH THERMAL UNITS (BTU.) I looked for the biggest grill I could find, that would cook everything I wanted (even with a few friends over) at a temperature and speed that didn't make it a chore, that would fit in the leftover space in my small basement storage compartment. I bought one that had 180 sq. in. of non-stick cooking surface with a drip pan, a tube style 12,000BTU burner, push button Piezo ignition, VERY easy cleanup and used VERY easy to find 16.4 oz. common disposable propane cylinders. Best of all it was only 20 inches x 14 inches x 15 inches! It came in various colors to boot. I got a black one. If you look around, you can find these for under 70.00 dollars SHIPPED!

There are also accessories available to allow you to tap into your much larger on board propane tank(s) we'll be looking at that in another article

We should BBQ swap recipes. Now that I can cook outdoors easily....I'm ready to grill!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Converter, Inverter, Charger - What's What And Why?

    While reading the various RV forums, I come across a lot of misinformation about converters, chargers, and inverters. Well, I'm here to set the record straight! What's what, which you should use and why.

Old "Boat Anchor" Convert/Charger"
In the beginning (OK not the BEGINNING, per se) most RVs had a simple converter. This device took 120V AC power from your shore power cord (or generator) and turned it into 12V DV power for your RV. This typically ran your lights, water pump, furnace, fridge, etc. Some models began to come with rudimentary chargers. These were single stage, meaning they put out a set voltage. Usually the amps were very low, from 2 amp to 6 amp. Not really enough to fully charge your batteries, but it did help. Later on, they became much better adding 3 (or 4) stage charging at a much higher amperage. These could be "smart" chargers that would maintain a battery bank quite well without boiling the liquid out of them.

New PD4645 Replacement Converter/Charger
  I have one of these. It's a Progressive Dynamics PD4645. It directly replaced the charging section of my original Magnatek 6345. In addition it also replaced the DC fuse panel with a more advanced design that shows me, using a red LED, which fuses have failed. To be honest, after I installed the first one, it buzzed. A Lot. I called the company and they exchanged it for another one. This one made a "sizzling" noise. Not that it was burning out, just a sound. Called again, they sent another. This one was much better. Only when there is no load on it does it make any noise at all and then only on shore power. I now had brighter lights, cleaner power and a full 45 amp 4 stage battery charger. All for well under 275.00!

Installed Converter/Charger

The install was easy and it really only took about an hour to do. The existing door and hardware still fits and the box from the exterior looks stock. I highly recommend this update as it will be nicer to your batteries and adds some useful functions to your DC power center.

Now let's switch to the AC side of things. An inverter takes DC power from you batteries and turns it into household style AC power, similar to what you will get from an outlet at home. They can be had in many power ratings from tiny 25 watt versions up to big bruiser 8000 watt types. There are two major types. MODIFIED SINE WAVE and TRUE SINE WAVE. The Modified one is the most common and can be purchased inexpensively from many sources. It outputs AC current that is similar to what you get from the power company at home, but slightly different. The picture shows how it has "star steps" rather than curves. The rapid on/off doesn't get along with some devices. Most devices will work fine with this, there are some that will not and few that it can actually hurt. Be Careful! True sine wave models give power that is identical (or better!) than what you get from your power company at home. That's great and all, but figure on spending 2x to 3x the price!

Battery chargers come in so many flavors it would be hard to list them all! Obviously, their main function is to, duh, CHARGE BATTERIES. Mainly, they vary in the amount of power they can use to charge the batteries. Typically from trickle chargers at around 2 amps up to rapid chargers at 100amps. The more amps you have the faster your batteries will charge up to a certain point. After that, most battery manufacturers suggest tapering off the amps (and volts) to gently bring the battery up to full charge. I prefer using 3 (or 4 stage) smart chargers these sense the state of the battery, some even have a temperature probe to modify the charging profile based on the temperature of the battery. This makes for a very effective charging system. Now, "simply"  add some Solar Panels and you can have free power as well. OK, simply is probably an overstatement, but it's not all that hard.

Now, just to add some confusion, you can buy any combination of Converter/Charger/Inverter. So each function could be in the same box.

Hopefully, this will clarify the purposes and names of the often confused components. I know I was a bit confused at the very beginning!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Shouldn't You Be Able To Use Deep Cycle Batteries As Engine Start Batteries?

My Tiny Battery Drawer
    When I was planning my solar charging system, I had to determine the storage capacity of my house batteries. Since my battery compartment is so small I can only fit 2 Group 27 Deep Cycles in there. That gives me 2 x 105ah which is 210ah total. Of course, since you should only discharge lead acid batteries to 50% I actually only have 105ah to use. This was...OK. Not great, but OK.

I seldom use more than 80ah in a given day/night cycle so I was mostly alright. More would be better! I am looking into the new technology Lithium Phosphate batteries to create much larger storage "tank" for my use. Around 400ah total that you can discharge down to 20% remaining giving me 320ah total! This is NOT ready for prime time. They are REALLY expensive (around $2100 for 400ah).

Battery Master Switch (OFF/1/ALL/2) - On Right
In my RV I have a switch that separates the Engine/Chassis battery from the two House Batteries. Most/All RVs have a similar setup. Some of them can charge the house batteries from the alternator when the engine battery is full, and some will do the reverse. Namely, charging the chassis battery when the house batteries are full. Unfortunately, most deep cycle batteries want to charge at a different voltage than a typical automotive start battery. My deep cycles charge at 14.8V and the Engine battery likes 14.4V If I connect the two systems, I am either undercharging the house batteries or overcharging the engine battery. Now what?

Typical 5 Amp "Power Theft" Device
I came up with a way around one direction of this problem. You have to figure out a way to isolate the systems and charge one from the other at the proper voltage. Easy to do FROM the house batteries TO the engine battery. There are a few devices that will "steal" around 5 amps from a charging house battery system and flow it to the engine battery. Everything is good. What about the reverse. Many, if not all, RVs have a battery isolator that will prevent the flow of electricity from one battery system to the other. This works well. Now it will allow you to charge your house batteries (after your engine battery is charged). Some RVs just tie the battery systems together when the engine is running. Now we're back to the wants and needs of deep cycle batteries vs. engine start batteries. How can I get 14.8V volt charge to the house batteries when my vehicle only puts out 14.4!

MosFET Battery Isolator
That got me thinking, what would happen if I tied all the batteries together and replaced the engine start battery with 1 (or maybe 2!) Deep cycles. I would then have 4 x 105ah giving me a total of 420ah with 210ah usable! The only issue is the starting of the engine. I found out, the average draw from a V8 engine starter is 60amps. If I split this between 3 or 4 batteries I get 20 or less amps. No problem for modern deep cycles!!!

***WARNING!! - I've Been receiving conflicting information about using multiple deep cycles to start an engine. TRY THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!***

After testing the max draw from the two deep cycles in my RV. (I disconnected my engine battery first) I've determined for my 5.9L (360 cu. in) V8 I draw less than 50 Amps! It actually read 35 Amps, but I has some power coming in from the panels ~6amps or so. The manufacturer gives these deep cycles a CCA (Cold Cranking Amp) rating so they CAN be used as start batteries. The <25 Amp, per battery, draw I am using for 3-5 seconds falls well within the specs for these batteries. My inverter can use significantly more than this! I believe we are safe. When I add in the third (or even fourth) battery, the draw per battery goes down even further. If you are nervous, let me test it for the rest of the season and I'll report on the condition of my batteries at that time. Now where am I going to find a used 27 TMX battery or 2????

Now for the down sides. If you leave your battery systems connected together, you could deplete them enough that you couldn't start you main engine and perhaps even your generator. This is bad. I am very mindful of my state of charge, and even have low voltage alarms in place to stop that from happening. I also carry a "jumper box" which is simply a sealed lead acid battery in a plastic box with attached jumper cables. That's a last resort.

I am looking into setting up a way to have the batteries charge 2 at a time. And then, get used 2 at a time. Yes, I could do this with a switch, but I'd like it to be automatic. I found that several charge controllers will provide this, but of course, it's not the one I already have! I know it's all pretty confusing, but there is a good solution. Could this be the stop-gap measure until the Lithium Phosphate batteries are ready for prim-time?

More info on this as I work through the details. Stay Tuned!

Be Seeing You...Down The Road,

Rich "The Wanderman"