Surveying the Wreckage
Originally posted 9/9/2012
As I mentioned before, living in an RV full-time is much different than weekending and vacation touring. And, dry camping is a different animal than standard RV camping where electrical power, water and sewer are readily available. As far as hardware goes, what makes sense to one full-time RVer doesn’t work for another. A few live out of a pickup truck shell, some live out of a converted van, and some live in a bus-sized luxo-home. The great majority opt for something in between. In keeping with the That’s Obsolete blog theme, I’ve opted for a vintage 1994 Gulf Stream 24’ Innsbruck travel trailer. Surprisingly, nearly everything in it still works.
This trailer has suffered the bain of all campers, water leaks. Despite an impressive one-piece aluminum roof, a leak occurred at a rear roof vent in storage, ruining quite a bit of plywood flooring which has since been nicely replaced. The flimsy stick-and-tin construction has survived well in spite of it (as far as I can tell), and it needs no further repair.
In order to make this rig suitable for full-timing, it needs to be modified. Those changes are actually minimal, with the main bedroom gutted to provide an office area with a desk, and the bunk beds converted into a combination of sleeping quarters and large storage shelf above. The Contact Paper wallpaper has bubbled and let go over the last eighteen years, and must be peeled off many of the walls. The good news is that it is fairly easily removed, and the walls underneath are pre-finished thin plywood.
Again, boondocking, the slang term for dry camping, is camping without hookups of any kind – no water, electrical, or sewer connections. Without help, production trailers like the Innsbruck are outfitted for a 2 or 3 day remote stay at best. You camp for the weekend and then go home. This limitation is determined by design: the single battery won’t last long, the fresh water tank is a very modest 20 gallons, and the waste tanks each appear to be about twice that size. Modern RVs tend to drain sinks and the shower into the gray water tank, and the toilet and bathroom sink into the black water tank. This discourages the black water tank from becoming too high a percentage of solids to liquid, which can cause emptying problems at the dump site – emptying problems that could be described as “unpleasant”.
The Innsbruck follows the old-school practice of draining all sinks into the gray water tank, and the toilet alone into the black water tank. This was designed to extend remote camping time when it was permissible to drain relatively harmless sink and shower water onto the ground without harm, and save the black tank for when a dump station was available. Add several big jugs of fresh water into the fresh water tank as needed, don’t use anything electrical, and camp time could easily be extended for as long as the twin 30-pound propane tanks last. But that was then, and this is now. It’s now prohibited to drain sinkwater onto the ground just about everywhere campers go, so the Innsbruck’s smallish old-school waste tanks must be carefully managed in order to avoid eventual anguish. This isn’t the kind of topic one wants to dwell upon, but it can suddenly come to the fore when you least want it to and believe me, you don’t want it to.
In order to make the Innsbruck suitable for boondocking, it needs two things: larger fresh and grey water tank capacities, and much more electrical power than one tired Group 27 cell.
The water tank issue will be addressed by carrying auxiliary fresh and waste water tanks in the bed of the pickup truck tow vehicle. Because of the solids in the black tank, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, but it isn’t all that difficult either. As I observed when I was doing Industrial Design, “Anything is possible if you just throw enough money at it.” I’ll detail the specific solution when it has been addressed.
Creating power where there is none
The electrical issue requires a much more expensive and elaborate solution, and I’m taking a much different path here than is usually taken. Since I will be operating what can be termed a mobile office with extensive computer use, mucho power is needed, approaching some 700-800 amp-hours. That’s a lot, and given the Innsbruck’s foibles, packing that much solar panel and battery power into a design not built to accomodate it will be a challenge.
The main foible I’m referring to is that the wood structure underneath the Innsbruck’s one-piece aluminum roof has shrunken away from supporting it, and the metal is as flexible as a big soda bottle. There’s neither the space nor the support available to mount any panels to the roof. In fact, the roof has been dented and deformed by people sitting on it without using plywood for distributing bodyweight more evenly, and you can hear it thump now and then as the morning sun heats it up and expands it. Nothing’s going up there as far as mounting equipment goes – especially solar panels that will want to be blown off during transport.
Don’t look at the bed of the pickup tow vehicle either – each of the four 195W panels is 3’x5’, and the truck bed will already be fully occupied and actively used. It cannot be shrouded or made impractical to load/unload. I’m not a big fan of ground-mounted solar panels in spite of their ability to be placed as needed for maximum sun exposure. They can get blown over, stepped on, and so on. In populated areas, constant vigilance against theft can be wearing. Ground mounting is an option, but is not my preference.
I had preferred to permanently hinge-mount each panel to the upper edge of the camper’s sidewall, but there was a nagging fear that the four 40-pound panels hanging from screws sunk into the header would not stay there, especially during transport. Since the existing awning would be used one one side, all panels would be relegated to the driver’s side. The panel mounts would have to be superbly secure without threat of tearing out of whatever condition the header structure was in. Those panels make awfully big sails. Hmmm.
Once I realized that the same C-profile awning-capture rail is used on both sides of the upper edges, I considered that a common door hinge of the right barrel size might slide right into this rail and serve as a mount for a metal loop. Fabricate a perimeter frame for each panel that includes two hooks, and each panel could be hung from the loops on the rail. Then grab the lower edge of each panel, swing it up to horizontal and support it with a telescoping pole, and voila, you’re capturing solar energy at any angle you like by adjusting pole height. The awning rail would now be supporting just 80 pounds total for the four panels. To break camp, remove the poles, lift and unhook each panel, and stack them inside the camper (assuming that the truck bed is already full).
But… Can a door hinge barrel be found which is small enough to slide into the aluminum C-channel, yet be large enough to be trapped without threat of pulling out under stress? I’m going to have to find out, since this issue is the only thing that will keep the solar panels off the ground.