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Posts tagged ‘Upgrades’

8 Months Later – the Grand Lounge Remodel

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New and improved set-up

4.5 years ago Kelly and I moved into the Aristream and have been living inside our comfy tincan on a full-time basis ever since.  Over the years we have made a lot of changes designed to increase comfort or efficiency.

Two years ago when Kelly and I left California – and our traditional corporate office gigs, the trailer began serving as both our home and primary worksite.  Pretty quickly it became apparent that our (otherwise very popular) 27FB floorplan was not adequately meeting our needs or preferences.  We wanted a more flexible seating/lounging setup and more counter top surface space.  Another round of changes was desperately needed.

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The Factory Floorplan

About this same time I stumbled upon Ultimate Airstream, a small Portland, OR based company specializing in customizing Airstream trailers.  Immediately Kelly and I became intrigued with their remodeling ideas and capabilities, in particular a redesign solution dubbed ‘the grand lounge’.

Over the 2015 holidays we had an opportunity to see a grand lounge retrofit firsthand. Impressed with Ultimate’s workmanship, Kelly and I quickly made arrangements for them to remodel our trailer a few months later.

In June of last year we arrived to Portland and handed over our trailer for it’s makeover.  The process took just over three weeks, so we moved into a rental house situated a hipster NE neighborhood.  As we made final decisions relating to upholstery, flooring, laminate surfaces, etc., we enjoyed visits from friends and family while enjoying fabulous dining, craft beers, and delicious espresso.

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To our delight, the conversion process went smoothly.  After a final walk through inspection we signed closing paperwork, paid the bill, and again took to the open road giddy with optimism that our new layout would be a huge improvement for our living comfort.

So how are we enjoying the changes?  In a few words – we love it.  In hindsight, I would have done a couple things slightly differently, but at this point cannot imagine going back to the original layout.

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Leaping To Lithium

More Solar + More Electrical Capacity = More Happiness

Despite what some will say, it turns out you can buy happiness … and a guy named Marv can help.

Before transitioning to full-time travelers, our jobs afforded us flexibility to routinely work out of the office.  Annually, we accumulated about 2.5/3 months camping … 7 to 10 days at a time.  When camping we routinely worked remotely, so having sufficient reliable battery power (and internet) was critically important for us.

Shortly after purchasing the trailer I bought a Yamaha 2kw generator and also replaced the Airstream supplied Interstate batteries with a pair of Trojan T-105 deep cycle batteries.  This set-up afforded us 110 usable amp hours (at 50% draw), plus the ability to use the generator to recharge batteries when boondocking.  Complementing all of this was an Airstream factory installed 600 watt inverter powering three dedicated 120v outlets.  For about a year this solution worked decently well for our needs, but definitely wasn’t perfect.

Over time Kelly and I began to resent our reliance upon the generator when off the grid, so I installed a basic system consisting of four 100 watt rooftop solar panels and a midlevel solar charge controller system, all of which was purchased from AM Solar.  The system was a big improvement, vastly improving our camping experiences for the past 2.5yrs.

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Prepping re-routed rooftop combiner cable & box

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Moving the combiner cable to curbside of coach significantly shortened cable length, reducing voltage drop

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New roof layout.  Removed batwing antenna; added 2 panels (fore and aft) on streetside

All was good until April of this year, when Kelly and I left the Bay Area to live and work full-time from the road, boondocking whenever possible.

Almost immediately we began to stretch the system to its limits, often running negative amp hours.  When days were long, sun constant, and outdoor temperatures moderate, we could make do work with conscious electrical conservation behaviors.  But in the absence these ideal conditions (especially cool/cold nights at elevation) or if we wanted to use a lot of power, we quickly consumed the available 110 amp hours, requiring that we run our 2kw Yamaha for hours, which we hated doing.

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200ah lithium battery pack (1 of 2) wired with cell balancers

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Marv pairing the batteries

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Main cables from outside the bed platform

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Main power console taking shape

Additionally, we were increasingly frustrated with the wimpy inverter (600 watts) and lack of conveniently located inverter power outlets.

Finally, as dog owners we occasionally need to run air conditioning when leaving Lilly behind.  Our particular generator is not powerful enough to enable this and too often we felt compelled to camp at RV parks or campgrounds when we would rather be boondocking.  This issue alone drove much of our route planning this past summer, requiring us to stay in otherwise non-preferred locations.

All of this came to head a few weeks ago in Flagstaff as temperatures dropped into the low 40’s, rain was constant, and I was forced to buy a bigger gas container in order to continue feeding the generator.

Something had to give.  Kelly and I immediately decided to upgrade our electrical infrastructure, mindful of specific objectives:

  • Negate any reliance of external AC power (generator or shore).
  • When boondocking, we want ability to live day-to-day no differently than when connected to an external AC power source (generator or shore).
  • Ability to run our air conditioner directly off battery when boonbocking.
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Charger/Inverter wired up

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Previous charger removed, freeing space for the AC sub-panel

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New 40amp solar charge controller (left) connected to 25amp solar controller (right)

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Roughing in the layout

Given the size and weight restrictions we have to work within, Lithium batteries were the logical solution.  For various reasons I was initially hesitant about lithium, but increasingly I could not look past the numerous benefits.  But, they do not come cheap – each of my two batteries cost $1,600.  More, the technology is still new in RV applications, which raises a whole host of other considerations.

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1/2″ plywood added for protection

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Close-up of plywood

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Test fitting a few bins before re-assembling the bed platform

Ultimately Kelly and I were lured by the potential upside; key considerations solidifying our decision to go lithium being:

  • Discharge capability is far greater with lithium.  For us, usable amp hours would skyrocket from 110ah to 320ah (at 80% discharge) with the same size/weight footprint.
  • Recharging times for lithium back to 100% (full) are significantly faster versus lead acid or AGM batteries.
  • With proper EMS and cell balancing sensor boards, lithium technology is essentially hassle/maintenance free.

Unlike my previous installation, knowing my DIY limitations and the need to stretch beyond my comfort zone, I never considered installing the system myself.

Enter Marv Braun of Precision RV.

I contacted a few potential installers but immediately clicked with Marv.  Besides being very knowledgeable and extremely qualified – he really helped me think through our specific power consumption needs, desires, and preferences.  More, I really appreciated that Marv and his wife are full-timers themselves (12 years going strong).  I valued that he could personally relate to the power consumption challenges and nuances Kelly and I are experiencing.

With Marv’s input, Kelly and I decided on the following equipment to serve as the basis for our electrical infrastructure:

Solar:

  • Addition of two rooftop 100 watt panels  (bringing total to 600 watts).
  • Blue Sky 40 amp charge controller paired to my previously purchased 25 amp Blue Sky controller (which is now dedicated to a previously purchased 160 watt external portable panel) as a slave, allowing the monitoring input performance of portable panels separately from, or combined with the rooftop panels.

Batteries & Battery Management:

Electrical:

  • Magnum 3k hybrid charger/inverter & remote panel.
  • Custom made sub-panel separating the hot water heater and fridge from the inverter.
  • Much of the wiring was upgraded from 6AWG to 4AWG or 2AWG, not to mention a whole host of related misc items (fuses, breakers, cutoff switches, etc.) needed upgrading to accommodate the supercharged power demands.

Marv is awesome and I cannot say enough good things about him and his dedication to ensuring that all aspects of the installation went smoothly. Even if you are only considering a solar/electrical upgrade … or simply need various general repairs to your rig (which he also did for us) give Marv a call.

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Marv and one happy customer

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Top to bottom:  1) battery/EMS monitor, 2) charger/inverter remote, 3) solar change controller remote

So, how’s it been so far? In a word – awesome!  We’ve been dry camping and purposely pushing the new system, consuming power generously … perhaps wastefully, just to see what happens.   And while we’ve only been using the systems for a week, initial indicators suggest the new set-up will be a game changer for us.  In fact, barring something crazy, I don’t think I really need to plug-in anymore.

Thanks Marv!

 

 

New Shoes For Mabel

Our trailer came equipped from Airstream with 15″ aluminum Sendel rims and Goodyear Marathon tires.  Like most larger trailers, ours has two axles and four total tires.

About a year ago I noticed irregular wear pattern on the front curbside tire.  At the time, I didn’t think too much of it – concluding it was simply a faulty tire.  A few days later I replaced it and assumed all was good, but unfortunately the wear has now returned something serious … only this time having expanded to both front axle tires.

Concerned about misalignment, I booked an appointment with an axle shop – specifically contacting a dealer specializing in the same brand axle I have (Dexter), but not immediately.  Instead, I deferred further inspection until a time more convenient, which would be a few weeks later.  Then, on cue as if planned, a couple days prior to the scheduled axle check, one of the tires failed.  Fortunately, not catastrophically.

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I had the alignment checked, but results came back all good, so I remain stumped (as does the owner of the axle shop).

However to be safe, I upgraded to bigger wheels and more durable (truck) tires.  Like many Airstream owners before me, I opted for 16″ wheels and also transitioned from Goodyear to Michelin LTX tires.

Combined, this new set-up can accommodate increased weight ratings, reducing individual stress on all four tires.  I’ve haven’t towed more than an hour since making the swap, but early indicators are positive and I’m expecting an overall improved towing experience ahead.

 

 

New Curtains

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The stock curtains provided by Airstream are a bit boring and also too thin; Kelly has been wanting to swap them for something different for a long time.  And so it was that last week in Tucson, while visiting Kelly’s mom and her husband, that project “curtain upgrade” was hatched.  Kelly assumed the role of project manager, but most of the work was lovingly completed her mom.

Not only are the new curtains better looking, blackout fabric was added, improving privacy and also eliminating unwanted sunshine/glare.

Another benefit of the efforts this week … Kelly will stop ordering and hanging swatch samples throughout the trailer.

 

 

12 Volt Twins

Having spent the month of May without full shore power, Kelly and I have been functioning exclusively via solar power.  For the most part, the lack of shore power has been largely a small nuisance, but during this time we’ve come to learn a lot about our power consumption habits and system constraints.

At purchase, our trailer was equipped with an inverter upgrade which allows us to use a subset of electrical outlets since they are powered directly by a pair of house batteries.  Largely, this solution of works well, but does have some gaps – mainly a lack of 12-volt sockets (similar to cigarette outlets, but with greater power capacity) which can be used to efficiently charge various electronics (phones, tablets, etc.) with less power consumption than traditional outlets.

Most annoying is the lack of 12-volt sockets in the bedroom – specifically near the bedside nightstands.  Always looking for a project, today I decided to add a socket to each of the bedroom nightstands.

My first order of business included a trip to NAPA auto parts and Ace Hardware for a few required supplies.

A variety of supplies needed for the project

A variety of supplies needed for the project

Once all parts were organized I began prepping the cable runs.  I wired-in a 15-amp fuse for each of the negative leads, and added heat shrink over each joint.

Positive cables prepped

Positive cables prepped

Initial wiring of the positive and negative cables was straightforward and didn’t take too much time.  When I completed this task, I began thinking about where to locate the sockets.

Kelly’s chief request with this project was that I locate the  sockets discretely, away from plain view.  Our 27′ FB floor-plan situates the bedroom close to the forward storage area … an easy location for tapping into power.  Once I finalized the socket location, I used a hole saw to bore an opening for each socket.  The first image below is taken from the garage (under) bed storage, while the second is taken from inside the trailer after I had completed seating the socket into place.

I repeated this process for Kelly’s side of the bed, then shifted my attention back to the wiring.

One of the holes awaiting the 12volt socket

One of the holes awaiting the 12-volt socket

The socket installed under the bed, next to the nightstand

The socket installed under the bed, next to the nightstand

With the sockets in place, I could then determine how much wire would be needed to reach the buss bars I’d be tapping into for power.  As seen in the picture below, I consolidated the positive and negative wires from my nightstand side of the bed into protective split loom before anchoring the bundle up and out-of-the-way.

Wiring from the far side nightstand

Wiring from the far side nightstand

Kelly’s nightstand is really close the DC (12-volt) electronics bay, negating the need for split loom.  This being the case, I finalized the wire lengths and attached everything remaining into place … doing my best to keep things “tidy” despite the mass of existing wires already in the area.

Then, using my trusty multimeter, I confirmed both sockets were fully powered “hot” at 12.5 volts and ready for use.

Kelly's socket entering the electronics bay.

Kelly’s socket entering the electronics bay.

A spaghetti mix of wires.

A spaghetti mix of wires.

Theoretically, my work was complete at this point – all that remained was to test both sockets.

Power!

Power!

While I forgot to snap a picture of the partition wall which protects the electronics from all the junk I keep in the “garage”, I reinstalled this divider, effectively concluding the project.  Satisfied with my accomplishments, I rewarded myself with a very satisfying beer.

All in, I’m out about $60 in parts, which I suspect will prove to be money well spent.

 

 

 

 

Be Gone Ugly Accordion Dividers

Life on the road isn’t always full of fun and splendor.  Case in point … a few days ago, one of the accordion privacy dividers in the trailer busted, resulting in it hanging limp and pathetic.  Coincidently, I hated the dividers as equipped by Airstream so I was happy to have an excuse to explore a different solution.

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The dragging divider on the floor

For the uninitiated, our coach is equipped with two dividers, each hanging from a ceiling track.  Chiefly, these curtains provide privacy as needed when we find ourselves frolicking about in the nude, but not wanting to display our nakedness in full glory to any passerby onlookers.

(And yes … technically we have window curtains, but the dividers are employed when curtains are not pulled closed)

My beef with the dividers is that they are ugly as shit.  I’m not being dramatic – they are not good-looking whatsoever.  Once the failure occurred, I needed apply only minor arm-twisting to convince Kelly that the only good solution would be to remove the dividers and replace with something better looking.  Henceforth, the search for replacement material commenced.

Once fabric was secured (a fancy looking shower curtain to be specific), we needed to find new track glides.  As fate would have it, Sun City West happens to be home to plenty of RV service and sales businesses, and without any delay we quickly collected the necessary track hardware.

The final step in the planning process was to determine a method of affixing the curtains to the track glides.  Up for the challenge, I went to JoAnn Fabrics (a first for me) and bought a couple of curtain rod slides which, with a little modification, I figured would work nicely.

Hardware purchased for the modification

Close-up of the new ceiling track slides

My plan was to deconstruct the aluminum thingamajig hangers and use one piece to connect into the plastic slide, the other to the curtain fabric.  The idea worked like a charm and I quickly had all the modified pieces completed.

The modified track glide

The newly constructed thingamajig

As purchased, the curtains had a slit which was fished through the open end of the metal hook above.  And with that, I had my solution ready to go.  Easy peasy.   From here, I unscrewed the entire ceiling track assembly and removed the accordion divider.  Once that was done, I threaded the thingamajig into the track and re-installed back to the ceiling.  Then, just like that – bam – I was back in business.

Two accordion dividers retired and replaced with a set that offer a bit less boring and more pop.  So, without any further adieu … I offer the first look at our new divider curtains.

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Solar Panel Installation Completed !!!

In my last post, I mentioned that I had made good progress on the solar installation, but had not yet completed everything.  Well, within this post I am happy to report that I finished the installation.

The first order business was to mount the various electronics which “talk” to the solar panels and the batteries.  Principally, these devices are responsible for determining how much of the power collected from the panels will be sent to the batteries.  Send too much and the batteries will be over-charged, resulting in damage.  Conversely, if there is not enough charge sent to the batteries, the system will not operate efficiently as it is designed.  This hardware, in coordinated fashion with fuses, switches, and other surge protecting devices, will ensure that the overall system reconciles these two scenarios, delivering what should be a harmonious and hassle-free supply of DC (direct current) power to the Airstream.

In order to connect the batteries to the charge controller (i.e. the “brain” of the system), I needed to run three sizable wires from the utility bay, forward into the existing exterior battery box.  Unfortunately, there was no extra room for me to utilize within the existing cable run for this additional wiring.  This being the case, I drilled a new hole through the utility bay floor to the exterior belly of the trailer and a second hole into the battery box.  Utilizing some silicon and a leftover piece of flexible PVC conduit to connect these two holes, I quickly fabricated a weatherproof pathway for the wires (see image below).

New (gray color) flexible PVC conduit routed into the battery box

New (gray color) flexible PVC conduit routed into the battery box

Flex PVC conduit enters the utility bay from the bottom exterior

Flex PVC conduit — with lots of silicone sealant — enters the utility bay from the bottom exterior

Once all the wires were situated, I moved onto the final significant phase of the project – prepping all the wires to be connected.  This process, while very straightforward, took a lot of time … longer than I would have expected, largely because each wire was cut to size, terminated with lugs and heat-shrink insulated, before finally secured into place.  Unlike the employees on the Airstream assembly line, I tried to orient the wires in a neat and orderly manner, which took some time to complete.  Looking at the finished project, I do not regret taking this part slowly and methodically.

Electronics as installed by Airstream

Electronics as installed by Airstream

Wires installed, labeled, and ready for action

Wires installed by me, labeled, and ready for action

Protective partitian reinstalled

Protective partition reinstalled

When it was time to fire-up the system, everything was working fine, less the 12-volt DC system.  This issue had me very perplexed, so much so that I spent a few hours troubleshooting the situation to no avail.  Frustrated and sputtering curse words as if I were a curmudgeonly  sailor, this proved to be one of the low points of the entire project.  I finally accepted defeat and secured a service appointment with a local Airstream dealer in hopes they might identify the problem.

As luck would have, I was thrown a bone today (Tuesday), and was able to quickly solve my problem.  Standing in front of the Airstream after work, I noticed my mistake and I’m embarrassed at what a silly error it was.

Imagine moving a lamp from one room to another, only to wonder why the light will not illuminate.  In your attempt to troubleshoot why the lamp isn’t working you spend hours attempting to solve the issue.  During this time, you change bulb, test and re-test wires for shorts, pour over manuals and scour the internet for added insights … essentially doing everything you can to resolve the problem.  Everything.  Yet despite these attempts, the damn lamp will not illuminate.

Convinced there must be a wiring short someplace deep in the walls of you home, you reluctantly and with a heavy head schedule an  electrician to come inspect your home wiring.  Then, two days later you notice that throughout all of this, the lamp is not plugged into the electric wall outlet.

That’s more or less what I did.

Three consecutive weekends I spent on the project, only to forget a task so basic and simple.  I can be an idiot.

Anyway …

All in all, the process is completed and I can reflect back on what was a super cool and (mostly) fun DIY project.  Also cool is that I managed to learn a fair bit about the onboard electrical systems while saving an estimated $1,200 doing the work myself.  Not too shabby at all.

Remote monitor panel displaying battery usage details

Remote monitor panel displaying battery usage details

Now, as I type this, all systems are working properly and the next time we find ourselves dry-camping (Labor Day weekend), the generator can stay buried in the truck while each of the four 100 watt solar panels atop the roof bask themselves under the warm rays above.  All the while, quietly and without any additional efforts on my part, our batteries will be recharging.   So long as there is a sun above, we have an endless supply of energy to power our rig.

And that my friends, is bad-ass awesome.