Battery hygiene

Airstream batteries on charge

I wish this was a post about installing Lithium batteries and a $12,000 solar setup. Sadly what follows are rather more mundane observations about battery maintenance.

Our Airstream shipped with two fairly inexpensive Interstate SRM-24 deep cycle batteries. These retail for about $120 each. I have great respect for them – they kept us going for over two days in a blizzard.

Unfortunately the lifespan for deep cycle batteries in RV applications seems to be about two years and they don’t age gracefully. This is a function of two things:

  1. The standard factory installed charging systems are poor and never fully charge the batteries, which leads to death by sulphation. One of the best resources I have found on this topic is HandyBob’s blog.

    The remedy is to install a three-stage charging system. Outback chargers are highly regarded but costly at $1,700.

  2. Boondockers in particular tend to discharge batteries more than they should. Guidance on discharge cycles and effect on lifespan can be found directly from the battery manufacturer. For the SRM-24s, find a helpful document here . A rule of thumb is not to discharge batteries more than 50%.

    To monitor charge state properly you’ll need a real battery monitor. The factory installed one that also measures the holding tank status is insufficient. The Bogart Engineering Trimetric TM-2030RV-F is a good one – I bought it myself.

If you aren’t into boondocking it’s not unreasonable to simply regard batteries as disposable. After all, for the $1,700 cost of an Outback charger you could buy 7 sets of SRM-24s. If you get two years out of each set, that’s 14 years worth of batteries.

But if you are into boondocking, battery life is material. And the thing is, batteries don’t get to two years and then die. They die slowly, reducing the time you can run without shore power. So at some point you’ll find yourself running your generator 20 hours a day.

If we found ourselves living on the road again (you never know), then I’d probably invest in a 3-stage charger/inverter.

What about weekender boondocking? That’s the sort of boondocking we’re doing these days. Our goal is to be off the grid for two or three nights and run the generator infrequently. Even quiet generators are loud.

Our batteries were new in December, 2012. I know that because it’s printed on a label on the top of the battery. At nearly three years old they are still working well. We haven’t made any modifications to the factory power setup.

Airstream batteries

This is what I do.

  1. At the end of a trip remove the batteries and take them home. Tip: before yanking them out, take a picture so you can wire them back up! I have some clear plastic contractor glasses I wear when messing with batteries. 10 minute task.

  2. Ensure the electrolyte levels are correct. Pop open the two caps and peek into the individual cells. Top off with distilled water if necessary. Wear eye protection! 2 minute task.

  3. Leave them on charge in the garage using a BatteryMINDer 3-stage charger. $140. It is conceivable you could get a build up of explosive gas storing and charging in a small enclosed space.  Our garage is big and the door is opened quite often. I probably wouldn’t do this in a closet in the basement.

    The very first time I used the BatteryMINDer I de-sulphated the batteries one at a time over a period of several days. Simply follow the directions. I then connected the batteries together in parallel and now use this device to re-charge/maintain the charge when the Airstream is in storage.

  4. When we head off for a trip, I take the batteries back and re-install them. 10 minute task.

On September 14th, after taking the batteries off charge and letting them sit for 12 hours, I then tested them using a Schumacher Electric BTF-250. Results below.

Ratings
MCA: 690
CCA: 550

Test Results

Battery A
12.87V
702 MCA
586 SAE (CCA)

Battery B
12.78V
696 MCA
562 SAE (CCA)

The local Interstate Battery dealer will also perform a load test. If I get around to that I’ll post the results.

Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

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Our most popular post

Alfred on the Airstream bed. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

I was browsing through the site statistics and was surprised to see that our most popular post is this one, Is living in an Airstream a bad idea?

Now to the question I’m sure you’re asking. Why do you have a sleeping bag on the bed?

streamer_j is enrolled in a course with several all-day weekend classes. Poor streamer_j. But not poor streamer_a and Alfred! We’re going anyway. When it’s just me and the furry one I don’t burn propane running the furnace at night, unless it’s forecast to drop below 30-ish. I leave a window open, fresh air and it’s nice and toasty in the bag. As a side benefit I don’t have to clean the sheets or make the bed. Alfred likes it cold.

I picked this technique up winter camping with Alfred. I’d have to run the furnace to keep the lines from freezing but using a sleeping bag means I can set the furnace at 40 (the lowest it will go).

The bag is a REI Lumen.

– Anthony, Lake Anita State Park, Iowa

Hellwig helper springs

Hellwig Helper Springs. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa

We’re all trying to avoid a saggy rear end, so I finally installed the Hellwig 61902 Pro-Series Helper Springs with Silent Feature.

These were straight forward to install without raising the truck or removing the wheels.

The installation took me about 90 minutes but would have been far less with the proper tool – namely an appropriate socket for my torque wrench. Instead I was forced to tighten all the screws using an adjustable wrench because I couldn’t invest the 20 minutes driving to AutoZone. Brilliant.

I simply followed the instructions and installed the springs to their minimum tension.

I only have one set of measurements so far but the result is that the rear wheel arches are 3/4″ higher than the front wheel arches with the Airstream in tow.

This is the best measurement I have ever taken, in contrast to previous results.

Date Rear arch Front arch Difference Trunnion bars Helper springs
8/31/2014 36 1/2″ 37 3/4″ – 1 1/4″ 800 lb. No
9/7/2014 36 3/4″ 36 3/4″ 0 1,200 lb. No
2/7/2015 37 5/8″ 36 7/8″ + 3/4″ 1,200 lb. Yes

You can see from the table above that switching from 800 lb. to 1,200 lb. trunnion bars on my Reese hitch did level the load by forcing more weight to the front. Compare the first and second readings and note in the second that the back end is higher and the front end lower than the first reading.

The third reading shows the effect of adding the springs. You see the front springs remain more compressed due to the 1,200 lb. bars, but the rear springs compressed about an inch less than before due to the Hellwig helper springs.

These results are an imperfect test. The first two readings were taken on a “full-time” load out. The second reading on a “weekend” load out. Imperfect but I believe still valid. Almost all the weight difference would be found in the trailer itself and even a few hundred pounds more in the trailer would result in something fairly trivial on the tongue due to leverage. So the effect on rear axle load should be marginal.

So I am confident the springs are effective. There is a lot more room for tightening should the load increase substantially.

It’s important to note that I am attempting to ensure a level load to reduce headlight glare to oncoming traffic. I am not attempting to exceed the rear GAWR.

One final quick technique you can use to assist with leveling: inflate the rear tires 5 PSI over the front tires, ensuring the tires remain within the manufacturer’s maximum pressure.

– Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

19 steps to winterizing

Sunrise. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

Below are the steps I take to winterize after each trip. I perform these steps at the campsite before leaving.

I have gone through this routine about a half dozen times this season with only one failure – in one instance I forgot to purge and add anti-freeze to the toilet causing a small and inexpensive plastic valve at the back to break. Don’t forget the toilet!

I have this down to about a 20 – 30 minute process.

My instructions are below. For items that may benefit from a bit of visualization, photographs are inline.

1. Turn off hot water heater (switch probably in the bathroom).

2. Run hot water until cold.

3. Disconnect city water line.

4. Remove water filter (under the galley sink).

5. Open low point drains.

6. When low point drains stop flowing, close again.

7. Open faucet and turn to hot (nothing will flow). This prevents the hot water tank from “gulping” as you drain it.

8. Open hot water tank from the outside – stand to the side! Leave this open while being transported and stored.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

The 3/4″ drain plug can be difficult to wrangle due to its extraordinarily bizarre placement. I use pliars.

9. Once hot water tank is drained, close bypass valve and close faucet previously opened (step 7). This valve is located by the hot water tank which, in the 28′ International, is under the front couch next to the sink.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

Note the winterized and non-winterized position – it will be marked next to the valve.

10. Hook up air compressor – set to 50 PSI.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

In the photograph above you will see my Bostitch pancake compressor attached to my water hose using a Camco Blow Out Plug. This purges the hose as well allowing it to be stored safely in the Airstream.

11. Go back inside, open up all faucets (including toilet and shower) one by one and purge. Repeat as necessary. You’ll probably be surprised how much water comes out.

11(a). You may need to do this for the outside shower as well unless you have previously winterized this.

11(b). You should purge the black tank flush intake as well. Do this once at the beginning of winter and don’t bother flushing the black tank for the remainder of winter.

12. De-pressurize compressor & detach from Airstream.

13. Open faucets and de-pressurize the system.

14. Attach anti-freeze hose line to anti-freeze.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

In the photograph above you can see a cheap Camco 36543 winterizing kit installed. This is a one minute install. Just leave it in place forever once installed.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

15. Turn on pump. Run faucets (including toilet and shower) one by one until pink comes out. Do not forget the toilet!

15(a). Do this for the outside shower as well. We avoid using the outside shower in winter after it has been winterized.

16. Put a cup of anti-freeze down all sinks, showers and into toilet bowl.This prevents (in theory) the rubber toilet bowl seal from drying out and cracking.

17. Re-open low drains and leave open while being transported and stored.

18. Drain fresh water tank (pepcock between wheels on road side) and leave pepcock open while being transported and stored.

19. Dump black and grey tanks.

Airstream winterizing. Lake Anita State Park, Iowa.

You may have to shovel out the dump station.

A nice video on this topic here, showing location of the low point drains and fresh water tank drain pepcock.

2015-02-18 update – things you’ll need:

– Anthony, Waukee, Iowa

I think this is how cholera spreads

Blue boy

For the next two weeks we are staying at Hillsdale State Park in Kansas. The sites have fresh water and 30amp power but for the first time we will be without a sewer hookup for more than a couple of days. The glamour ends here . . .

We generally need to empty the black tank every 4 – 5 days. I suppose we could hitch up and tow the trailer over to the dump station every 5 days. But the grey tank needs to be emptied daily with our normal routine. Most parks, including this one, do not allow grey water to be dumped on the ground – a topic widely debated in the RV community.

Moving the trailer daily would be a chore so we bought a 35 gallon Thetford Smartote to get the waste water from a > b without moving the trailer.

The tote (we call it a “blue boy”) can be towed behind a vehicle at a top speed of 5mph. The park’s dump station is a mile away. That would mean a 10 – 15 minute drive. Enough for a repeat of “Purple Rain” to be sure but I wouldn’t bet on the tote’s wheels lasting very long.

The only method I could find to deal with this problem is to leave the blue boy in the truck bed and use a macerator pump to defy gravity and transfer the waste water into it. What could go wrong? After a few minor tweaks it works as well as something like this could work. I wish it were prettier.

I haven’t figured out how to manage all the components with a reasonable degree of cleanliness since the pump is not permanently installed. So we won’t be using this to dump black water. For now we will move the trailer every 5 days to dump the black.

What’s involved?

Camping World

Home Depot

Wal-Mart

How do you put it all together?

At the base

1
21′ retractable hose + 1/2 – 1-1/4″ hose repair clamp > Rotating Grey Water Bayonet Fitting + Plumbers’ tape > Clearview 5″ Sewer Adaptor with Bayonet Lugs > Thetford Smartote.

2
Drain pipe > Thetford Sani-Con Tank Buddy with 21′ retractable hose > 12v lawn mower battery

3

At the dump station

4
A lot of junk helps. Notice the spray can of silicon lubricant – this is good for helping the plastic connectors twist together and apart.

5

6
Thetford Smartote > Clearview 5″ Sewer Adaptor with Bayonet Lugs > Double Pin Termination Adaptor > sewer hose.

– Anthony, Hillsdale State Park, Kansas

Spring Cleaning

Car wash

The weather has finally turned and today we made a short move from Lake Dardanelle State Park to Petit Jean State Park.

Last week we resolved not to attempt another winter north of Ft. Smith. It can be done and we have done it, but it’s not what we’re doing this for. So we took the opportunity this weekend to have a quick spring clean. Our rig is lighter 12 items, including a pair of crutches and an old shower head.

These are a few other things we didn’t need: a 5 gallon water container; an Hitachi cordless drill with scissor jack socket (heck yes I’m using a drill to raise my stabilizing jacks); more than one space heater, a heat gun and variety of insulation; a toaster; an Harmony remote; ugly pants; many chopping boards; an iron and ironing board.

– Anthony, Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

A few of my favorite things

a-few-of-my-favorite-things-jan-7-2011

Julie’s top 11 favorite items to have while Airstreaming!
(Not in any specific order)

1. Dyson hard floor vacuum
I use my Dyson hand mop every single day. Our dog Afred sheds a LOT. I joke about him having a new coat of fur every day. I’m not sure it is a joke. I have also found a lot of dirt generally comes in walking outside to inside. We did buy a nice rug for the entrance, but it doesn’t capture everything. The smaller space makes you really see the dirt inside and there isn’t very much room for it to go. In our previous house I would only vacuum once a week but all of Alfred’s fur would be spread out and not really noticable like it is in our small space. So this is a must have item to make life easier and cleaner.

2. Heated mattress pad
Ahh, the warm bed. I have never had a heated blanket before. The first night we had this heated mattress pad I thought I might have gone to heaven. It was so wonderful! Espically useful now in the winter months. During the night we can turn down the furnance to around 50 degrees and I’m still nice and sometimes too toasty. The Airstream bed is actually not very insulated. You can feel quite a chill from below it since it is almost directly linked to outside. If you lift it up and have the back door open, TA-DA! The outside is right there. This was the perfect fix to sleeping a lot better at night. It also serves as one more fluffy layer on the bed too which I enjoy.

3. Stackable pots and pans
The storage space for my kitchen stuff seems a bit limited. Most of our plates, cups, cooking pots and pans are all above the counter. But I have food up there as well. I find that with our new pots the removable handle really lets me stack them all. So instead of having 3 pots taking up my whole upper cabinet, it really just uses the space of one.

4. Mifi internet
This is a biggie! We have the Verizon mi-fi hot spot. It has worked at nearly every location we have gone to so far. I’m using it right now as I type this. We are big internet users. From doing our blog, to upoading photos. Online games even work perfectly on the mi-fi. We can be sitting on the top of a mountain in a state park, playing an online game with my brother in Florida. How cool is that! When we were first thinking about doing Airstreaming full time, my hesitation was partly not having any internet. The only down side to the mi-fi is that you pay for every 1GB overage. My beloved Apple TV has really become a thing of the past. I used to download tv shows and rent movies every day. But with the limited amout of data that can be downloaded I have had to change tactics. I have tried going to a local spot with “Free wi-fi!” but they never seem fast enough to download a full show. Unless I want to sit there for 6 hours to download a 30 minute show. The last time we went to a hotel I had my whole list of shows and did a massive download. Or when I have been to a family members home, I use theirs as well for the big downloads. But overall I have been really impressed with the speed and reliability of the mi-fi.

5. Walkie talkies
The fun walkie talkie! 10-4 over and out. These are used mainly when we are traveling from place to place. We use them a lot while driving, since we have two vehicles and have to be separate. Its nice to just press a button and say “lets stop at the next rest area”. Instead of using cell phones everytime. Also we use the walkie talkies when we are parking the Airstream. I will stand in the spot that we are backing into and give direction to which way it needs to go. Also they have been used when going out with Alfred late at night. I have walked around a park late at night when it is dark and have the walkie talkie handy to just say something to Anthony inside the Airstream, or vise versa. It’s just an extra security to always be in touch with one another at the push of a button.

6. Stay put hangers
These are so handy to have. At first you might think… umm hangers? really? But YES, really! After the Airstream has been on the road, every single time my closet of clothes would be all in a pile at the bottom. So annoying to go to your closet after a long day of driving and having everything in a heap and wrinkled. Then you have to take the time to rehang them all, etc. It sounds like a silly little thing, but these hangers have made my life better. My clothes always stay put now when we travel. We have the hangers in both side wardrobes and also our bigger closet, where we hang our coats.

7. Crocs
Crocs were really cool maybe 2 years ago? Well I think they need to have a comeback already. They are the perfect shoe for Airstreaming. You can just slip them on, take the dog outside quick. They can get wet, snowy, muddy, sandy. Just give them a rinse and PRESTO clean and ready to go. I have a pair of nice hiking shoes, but once they get wet, they stay wet. I find it very difficult to dry things inside the Airstream. Especially in the cold weather that we have been in lately. You can’t just leave your wet things outside to dry because they will just turn into an ice cube instead. You also don’t want a bunch of wet stuff inside the Airstream, because a damp stream is a big no no. All our shoe problems were solved with these little rubbery shoes.

8. Micro fiber towels
Towels were also a big problem with dampness. We had great big fluffy towels to use after showers. They were wonderful and soft. But they would never seem to dry. You could leave the exhaust vent on in the bathroom all day long and they still wouldn’t dry out. Eventually after a couple of days they would start to get that musty smell, as if you had left a load of clothes in the washer too long. This was not good. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if I had my own washer and dryer in the trunk of my car but I do not. Going to the laundromat is already time consuming. I didn’t want to make special trips to one just to wash my towels every few days. The answer to this problem was micro fiber towels. They are thin and feel a bit strange to dry off with. They do however dry very quickly! They don’t take up a lot of space in the laundry loads either. They are a real win win for Airstreaming.

9. Folding bikes
We actually purchased the bikes before the Airstream. We saw a blog post from ‘Where is Kyle now’ and he had a folding bike. So we went ahead and ordered two of them for us. The only difference that I can really tell between the folding bike and a regular bike is that the wheels are smaller which makes your turning radius a little different. But these bikes are so cool! I can just fold it up, put it in my trunk and away I go. The folding/unfolding process takes only a minute or less. I have been using my bike nearly every warm day so far. I look forward to using it even more with the summer weather. I suppose we could have bought a hitch to put regular sized bikes on the back of the Airstream while traveling. But these bikes fit in the bed of the truck. Super easy for anyone to use.

10. Kindle
To be honest I had a Kindle before we started Airsteaming. But the Kindle is the perfect book for a small space. Sometimes I miss the feel and smell of a real book. Streamer_a got me the new paper white Kindle for Christmas and I am in love. I’ve always been a reader, ever since I was young. There is something about sitting outside your Airstream on a warm day reading that is just wonderful. The new Kindle has a backlight feature which is very nice. The Kindle can have hundreads of books on it which otherwise would fill up the space of the entire Airstream. So huge space saver and fun to use.

11. Small space heater
The space heater in our ‘stream has saved us hundreads in propane, I’m certain of it. We upgraded to a larger space heater then we started with. The one we have now doesn’t get hot to the touch which I thought would be safer with Alfred playing around by it on the floor. The heater really keeps the space in the Airstream warm. When it is really cold outside the furnance will still come on but half as often with having this little heater running too.

There are other things we have bought since starting this journey as well. I just wanted to do a quick update with my favorites that we have acquired since the start. Do any other full-timers have a must have item that we don’t know of? Reach out to us on Twitter.

– Julie, Colorado Springs, CO