Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cat on a cold van roof

Well that is the first scare I've had in a very long time. Middle of the night, dead silent, quiet and very safe suburban neighborhood. I heard a thump, and the van shook. I heard scratching and tapping on my van. I look out the window, and see nothing. What? Then I hear more banging on the metal. I do my usual bellowing "HEY!!" bark. And I see a cat quickly climb off the roof of my van, down the windsheild, onto the hood, and leap to the ground, meowing the whole time. Great. I just yelled my fool head off... at a cat.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tie rod ends and ball joints

My tie rod ends are shot again. WTF? I just redid my whole front end in September: ball joints, tie rods, brakes. And now my steering is rattling around, and my van drifting all over the road again. I think some nasty potholes and road seams around where I live are the culprit. This sucks. Money's mostly dried up for me, as I'm trying to make the transition from doing hourly contract work to attempting to get some entrepreneurial businesses off the ground. I'm gambling building a business that'll make money for me while I sleep. But it's nowhere near ready to launch yet. I'm probably going to be $200 in the hole for parts and alignment to fix this one-- not a huge problem, but not what I wanted right now either. Grr.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Solar electrical statistics/charts

I put up some statistics and charts on my solar electrical system performance here, if anyone is interested.

Some explanation. The dip on 12/8/12 was due to me replacing the dead battery bank. That was my 420Ah huge bank that was too big for my 210W panel array to charge up in the wintertime. I replaced it with a smaller 210Ah battery bank.

The other dip around the end of December is when I stupidly disconnected the panels-- in the rain-- attempting to check the wiring. Turns out the wiring was fine; winter just sucks here for solar.

The dip in Feburary was due to me forgetting to save the data out of the SunSaver. It only keeps 30 days of data. I have to manually download it every 30 days. If I forget to do that, I get a data gap. Oh well.

I was going to fancy-up the charts some more and play with Flot, but I'm busy with other work at the moment. Maybe sometime soon.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Watts of Spring

Spring is here, the rains have stopped, and my whole winter-electricity emergency is over.

I'm sitting here at 9am and getting 3A of charging from the panels. Used 10Ah last night so I'll have my batteries recharged well before noon, with plenty of sun to spare for whatever.

The sun just cleared the mountains, and already the SunSaver MPPT says the panels are putting out 50W of power as of the last sweep.

That whole panic/emergency/anxiety/expense I went through over the winter, appears to have been for nothing.

Technically we can still get rain here for a few more months, with some minor rain straggling on for longer, but it's been 100% sunny and bright for weeks now. I now have more than enough juice to spare. I can work, and not worry.

I can probably even put the genset into storage, or maybe even flip it if I needed cash. Since I'm working right now, I'd rather keep the unit as a backup anyway, so I'll hold on to it.

If I decide to stay at a park/campsite somewhere, they're always shaded in, so I'll have the generator for that.

And, I'm ready for next winter.

Friday, January 4, 2013


I finally gave in and bought a Honda EU2000i generator.

So, after 5 years of mostly successfully banishing gasoline from my life, I'm back on the stuff again, at least partially, and minimally, and perhaps even temporarily.

I needed it for rainy winter days like today, when the most my solar panels could put out was 2A, and only for a limited number of hours (sun sets at 5pm here this time of year), and I have a refrigerator that wants 5-10Ah/day and I need to run my laptop for 4-8 hours today and tonight at 1A/h, and the most sunlight I can get out of my 200W array in the rain seems to be 5-10Ah, given the hours of "daylight" (more like rain-dark) available.

Despite my intense dislike of gasoline, and the environmental destruction and wars required in order to obtain it, and its volatility and flammability and odor, and its short shelf life, this generator makes dealing with the stuff almost pleasant. It's a very well engineered product. Runs 4-9 hours on a gallon of gas, is light, quiet, and stows away nicely. It'll get me through the winter for sure.

It's a nice unit, well-regarded, with its own thriving community of users-- and hackers. I've seen posts by guys building boxes for it, mounting it in RV's, adding external exhaust pipes, and doing mods like adding an hourmeter for maintenance tracking, adding an external fuel cell for months of operation, or-- most to my interest-- a mod to make it run on propane. Propane isn't much better environmentally than gasoline, but it sure does stay longer, and I could run propane inside to my kitchen and mount my stove permanently, add a heater, and run the genset, all off of the same fuel source, which is appealing.

I ran it for a half-hour today, in the rain, and it seemed pretty happy. It put out enough juice to bring my batteries up to full charge, after which my solar panels more or less trickle-charged them for a few hours afterwards.

I will have to mount the generator somewhere, hidden, and soon. I only really need it in the rain; it's pretty well weatherproof, but running outside to deal with it in the rain is not fun, and laying a big 110V cable out in wet weather isn't so great either. Also, it feels weird having it out: it's a big red obvious theft waiting to happen. Not so much in a paid park where RVers congregate, or on a campsite at a campground-- I can lay it on the ground a few feet away from my van, with a big yellow cable running to it, and run the thing for a couple hours without looking too badly out of place, worrying about it getting ripped off, or making any enemies. But I sure can't run it in the suburbs in stealth mode, and I'm never going to take it out when in the city, it'll be gone in minutes.

Then again, I don't really need it in the city or suburbs; I have some places to plug in to get 110V for a few hours a day in a pinch if needed. The purpose of this unit is to keep my batteries from getting killed when I'm away from civilization in the rain in winter, or when I'm at my favorite campgrounds in the summer which tend to be very shaded. And I think this will do very well for those purposes.

UPDATE: A day later, a scruffy guy on a bicycle who is obviously living on the beach, came by and said "Hey, you can pump up your tires anywhere!". Obviously mistaking the generator for a compressor, and he seemed pretty harmless, and this is a safe-ish spot, but still, within the first day, someone with the Means, Motive, and Opportunity to rip me off, noticed this conspicuously noisy red "please steal me" object. NOT COOL. If he noticed it, everyone who may be a threat to me did too. Time to get a box, now.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Working the demand side

Well it is rainy and dark on the solstice, but I'm doing OK on electricity.

I climbed up on the roof, and it looks like my connections are all plenty solid. Unfortunately I got caught in the rain and had to redo the work once it dried off a few days later. But all is well up there. I see way less amp-hours of charging coming from it because.... it's winter, in the far reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, is why. Even in the heat of summer I'll never get full power from these unless I drive to Mexico or something.

The simple fact is that I don't have enough electricity to run even a 1A @12V notebook in winter, no matter what I do! So worked the demand side. I got one of these Android tablets with a keyboard. It's slow, and I really hate not having a real computer, but I've got it set up so that I can at least read, and surf the internet, watch videos, and even do some work (slowly). The advantage of the tablet? It's ARM-based and uses about 200mA @ 12V. That's right: about 1/4 the consumption of an Intel-based notebook. This one has a spare battery in the keyboard, and gets 9+ hours of use without even having to plug it in to my house batteries! Perfect for winter.

A little side note is that the fast-recharge capability of the tablet is triggered by USB3.0 voltages: give it anything over 11V and it'll bulk recharge quickly. So I hacked up a cable that was female USB on one side, and my Andersons (12v house system) on the other. Cheap, and effective, I just have to remember never to plug any normal USB 2.0 devices into this little cable, or they'll shut off (circuit breaker) or get fried (fuse)-- USB 2.0 expects 5V.

I also found out that I have to bulk charge these batteries using my 75A converter every few days, for at least a half hour to 2.5 hours or so. That sucks; it means I have to find places to plug in. So I'll have to buy a gasoline or propane genset. I don't like dealing with either gas or propane, neither the pollution nor the noise, but gas is so easy to find, and gas generators can be found for reasonable prices. The one I want is the Honda EU2000i. I'd get the EU1000i but my converter will pull 1300W when the batts are really low, and so I need at least a 1500W genset, which in Honda land means I have to get the 2000W one.

My holiday is going well though, reading and studying mostly, and getting used to the tablet. This old dog does not want to learn the new tricks, so I'm basically setting up the tablet as much like a laptop as I can. So far so good.

Wow, the tablet is a Google Android, running Google Chrome, and it absolutely cannot cope with Google Blogger's web interface. Come on guys, get it together, will ya?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dark for the first time in over 3 years

Well the van went dark today with no electricity, for the first time since Friday, March 20th, 2009. That was apparently the date that I switched over from my old PWM controller to my new MPPT controller, and that's the date it had stored in memory as "the beginning of time". It was very strange to not have electricity! I'd forgotten what that felt like.

I did this because, after over 4 years, my Concord Lifeline GP4 batteries finally had enough abuse for one lifetime, and I replaced them. That's not a great duty cycle for these things, but I really did not treat them well-- deep cycling them a few times and not charging them back up promptly. It had gotten to the point where, last week, a couple days of rain and not enough hours of sunlight (only 9Ah of charge for the full day!!) had worn the batteries down to 12.1V by end of night. I've been studying the battery status for the last 3 months, since I've had the PC interface for the Sunsaver MPPT.

I use, on average, 20Ah-30Ah a day, depending on how much work I have. About 10Ah of that is my refrigerator, the rest of it is my computer. If I travel somewhere hot in the summer I might use much more, due to running the fan (4A at full speed, all day and night), but there's usually enough sun to recover.

So I swapped out the old batteries with two new, but smaller, Lifeline batteries, so now I have only 250Ah total capacity, instead of the 420Ah I used to have. A little math indicates that I can run behind on charge for only a few days now, then I have to charge them up, otherwise I'll be making the same mistake again. I have less margin now, but, better diagnostics too, and I own a converter, which I didn't have for years..

For wintertime, I'm thinking I should either get another solar panel to bump up my charging capacity, or maybe get a Honda generator. But both are costly. In the meantime, I've got a few places I can plug in to shore power to run my converter in the winter to charge up. Or, if I'm travelling, I can find an RV park with hookups and pay the $50 or whatever they want for that. Still cheaper than a generator or new panel.

I also could get one or two more batteries of the same make/model, and hook them up in parallel, to be able to go longer before recharges. Lots of options!

So the new batteries are in, and I had to change some of the wiring and hack up some different mounting in my battery box too. I took pictures too; maybe I'll post them in the Vandweller's list photo archives.

I also got rid of that insipid Cobra inverter, the one that made so much noise. I only really used it for my laser printer, and then it beeped and complained when the printer warmed up about the load being too high. I might just run that on shore power only, or with a generator if I pick one up. I have two smaller-- and silent!-- 150W inverters I could use for any small things I might need to run. But these batteries were expensive, and I'm going to make some of that back by selling off stuff I hardly ever use and could do without, like the inverter.