New Toys

See that reading? Do you see it?! I'm so happy...

See that reading? Do you see it?! I’m so happy…

Last week, Amazon paid me in RV gear instead of money.

Well, not exactly. Amazon paid me about $550 as usual, and I turned around and spent that $550 back at Amazon, buying the solar suitcase kit and LED lightbulbs I wanted for boondocking this winter as well as Marine-Tex putty, a carbon monoxide detector, and a new converter.

First the solar stuff.

This will be my first long term off-grid experience in the Casita and I don’t really know how much power I’m going to end up needing/wanting. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and then figure out I don’t like boondocking and have it all go to waste and I didn’t want to drill holes in the roof of the Casita or do any other modifications.

With those two thoughts in mind, I did some research and found multiple bloggers and forum aficionados who endorsed the Renogy brand suitcase kit. The 100 watt kit is affordable at $250 (as of this posting), and has everything a person needs to get started. For those who are electric-savvy and don’t mind putting their own system together from scratch, I’m sure there are more energy efficient and better optimized options out there, but for someone like me who wants to keep costs and effort at a minimum, it seemed like the best deal.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit to know how well the panel performs, the truth is I’m not sure yet.

It’s not a hard “install”, if you even want to grace the initial setup of the panel with that term. The solar panel is split in half (panel part on the outside) and folds up like a suitcase, with the charge controller mounted to the underside (inside, when folded). A little cloth bag is inside the “suitcase” that has the wires that hook up to the RV battery with alligator clips. The other end of those wires need to be connected to the panel assembly before you use it for the first time. I think the copper filaments that are exposed on the end need to be screwed down to terminals on either the panel itself or the charge controller – haven’t looked at it real closely yet but it doesn’t seem difficult. Note: while the panel is waterproof the charge controller is not, so the kit needs to be put away when rain is in the forecast.

The suitcase fits inside this hard plastic cover, lined with soft material on the inside to protect the panels. It's not as big or heavy as I was expecting, moving it around won't be a big deal.

The suitcase fits inside this hard plastic cover, lined with soft material on the inside to protect the panels. It’s not as big or heavy as I was expecting, moving it around won’t be a big deal.

The charge controller also needs to be set up before it can be used the first time, and I have heard the occasional grumble in reviews and on forums that the directions aren’t super helpful, it’s probably the most common complaint I’ve seen. Luckily enough people have these where you can find directions on other reviews on Amazon, a lot of other Casita owners on the forum I’m a part of have this kit too and they’ve posted better directions there as well.

Once the charge controller is set up and the wires are connected to the panel, it’s ready to go. Just unfold, secure the legs, set in direct sunlight, and make sure you attach the correct alligator clip to the correct battery terminal so that nothing gets damaged.

Ooo, shiny...

Ooo, shiny…

The problem, and I knew this long before I ordered the panel, is that the battery compartment in a Casita is extremely cramped. The alligator clips are big and unwieldy, and they won’t fit inside the the compartment well. A couple months ago I contacted Little House Customs to set up an appointment to get work done on the Casita after Amazon was over, and I included attaching Anderson clips to the terminals of my battery to the list of things I wanted done. Larry has done this simple modification to several Casitas to make it easier to use these portable solar kits.

The LED lights I bought are Brightech brand, a small business that uses Amazon for their order fulfillment. The exact name of them was “Brightech – 2nd Generation BA15s LED Light Bulb Replacement – Warm White Color – Single Contact Bayonet Base – 10-30V DC – Replaces #1156… etc. etc.”, quite a mouthful, but they work really well and have come down in price recently from $10 to $9 each (I think they were even cheaper the weekend of Black Friday, oh well). Again, finding them was a matter of going on the Casita forum and seeing what other people had replaced their bulbs with, that way even though I know little of lighting I could be sure if they worked in other Casitas, they’d work in mine.

new-toys-2

Scrutinize this picture of my bed in Cas closely. On one end is the new LED bulb, the other end still has a standard incandescent bulb in it. Can you tell the difference? I sure can’t. The hue and brightness seem the same to me which is exactly what I wanted. Here’s the link to them on Amazon, but please know that if you don’t have a Casita, you may well need another kind.

Next up, the converter.

Remember back in October how I was still having battery issues, even after going back to the Casita factory to get the wires hooked up correctly after the water heater install in April? A blog reader offered to come out and check the battery with his fancy voltmeter doodad and confirmed that indeed the battery was only about 70-80% charged. When we plugged back into shore power he tested again and the voltage was still reading 12.2-12.4.

The old

The old

In short, yes the battery was damaged, but the converter was putting out too low of a voltage to effectively charge the battery. Better than the no charge I was getting from April until October, but if I bought a new battery I’d still have issues again before long.

Now, I could have replaced just the charging unit and left the rest of the converter, it would have been cheaper, but like with the water heater, putting a new part in an aging piece of equipment just didn’t seem like a great idea. I had money in my maintenance budget to replace the whole thing, and this way I shouldn’t have to worry about it for a good long time.

new-toys-5

What I got is an upgrade, a 45 amp model from Progressive Dynamics to replace the stock 25 amp model. It’s overkill, but wasn’t that much more expensive and this way if the boondocking experiment this winter goes well and I decide I want to upgrade to a better solar array I won’t be limited by the converter. Again, I picked this particular one out of the crowd on the recommendations of other Casita owners.

I'm very thankful for the reader who offered to install this, not something I could have done myself

I’m very thankful for the reader who offered to install this, not something I could have done myself

Today around 9 am that same blog reader who did the initial battery testing came back out to install the converter for me. It took a little over two hours and required changing out the board (panel?) with all of the fuses and wires on it as well as the converter unit itself. I felt a little bad, I didn’t realize it was going to be that involved of a process, but apparently he actually enjoys projects like this – he said it was a nice break from having to do inventory at work yesterday.

All done!

All done!

Wow, this post is getting long.

I still need to talk about the Little Buddy heater (and CO2 detector to match), and the Marine-Tex project, but I’m running out of time. I feel like I had to rush this post a little and am not 100% satisfied with the quality and detail but rest assured I’ll put up more info (especially about the solar panel) once I’ve had a chance to test it and seen how it all works “in the field” as it were. Have a good weekend everyone!

* * *

I wanted to give a special shout out for using my Amazon affiliate link and PayPal donate button this holiday season. Your purchases and donations this time of year help me during the first quarter of the next year when I don’t have a paying gig.

Thank you so very much for helping make this lifestyle possible.

Rest in peace, old converter. You served your purpose well.

Rest in peace, old converter. You served your purpose well.

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

34 Comments

  1. Jeff Agueda on December 8, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Such fun toys! How exciting! The Renogy products that I have, have been working great. The LED bulbs are a huge improvement also! Thank you for sharing your story with all of us out there.
    Have a wonderful day Becky.
    Jeff
    Jeff Agueda recently posted..Location UpdateMy Profile



    • Becky on December 8, 2015 at 7:10 pm

      Glad to hear it Jeff. I don’t think I’ve heard of a bad experience with Renogy yet, they really seem to give the best bang for the buck.

      Take care.



  2. pamelab on December 5, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    Hi, Becky –
    I always enjoy your blog posts. Happy to see the monkey is still there! I remember seeing it in one of your first photos of before and after you moved in. I am picturing that monkey having movement and bringing a smile to your face.
    So excited for you to have your solar set up and your LED lights. I look forward to hearing about all of it in your coming posts. I see by the photo that you actually had some sunshine. Yippee.
    Thanks again, Becky, for your very nice blog. You do such a nice job.
    Pamela



    • Becky on December 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      Mr. Bobo as I call him is the perfect RV plushie, since he hangs he takes up vertical space instead of precious horizontal space, haha.

      You’re welcome Pamela, thank you for reading as always. I’m really looking forward to field testing all my new gear and you’ll hear all about it when I do. 🙂 Take care!



  3. Ernesto Quintero on December 5, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    I concur with Jim@HiTek. IMHO quality of components have a bigger bearing on longevity. I had several first gen compact fluoresce bulb that lasted around a decade. The twelve or so Chinese made house brand from Lowes in 2007 lasted around one year, some stop working in less then two months. Melamine probably is causing LED’s lives to be shortened. (that last one was pure sarcasm)



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:43 pm

      My fluorescent bulbs in the RV sure never last long Ernesto, I’m hoping these will do better. Thanks for sharing.



  4. Jim@HiTek on December 5, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    That would be a new one on me, Steve. The LEDs are sealed with a relatively thick clear coating and they don’t really get hot enough for there to be a worry about human skin oil causing them to overheat and fail early. There would be a warning on the package if that were the case.

    Most likely, LED replacement bulbs failing too often in a RV would be caused by an overvoltage condition (Becky has a device to read that voltage now), or in a Class A, by the overshoot voltage that happens during an alternator load dump. Both problems would need to be addressed at a shop.

    Another cause I can think of is if a RV’er repeatedly unplugged their shore power with multiple LED lights on and without switching off the breaker at the shore power post first, causing arcing and sparking. But of course, the LED bulb would need to be ON for any damage to occur.

    (Experienced electronics tech/engineer here).
    Jim@HiTek recently posted..On to Rosamond…My Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:42 pm

      Interesting Jim, I’d heard that one should always switch the breaker before unplugging from shore power but I never knew why before. I love all the things I learn from IO readers. 🙂



  5. Steve P on December 5, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    As always a great informative post. Just a note here … I was in Camping World a month ago buying some LED bulbs. A fellow customer was complaining that his didn’t last very long. The sales person said that is often because you have touched the little yellow rectangles with your bare skin … something about the oils in our skin. Your posted picture reminded my of that. Don’t know if that is true or not, but I am careful when putting them in their sockets not to touch the actual LEDs.



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      I hadn’t heard that before Steve, thanks for sharing. The reviews for this kind all seem to report positively on their longevity, but I’ll be more careful in the future, it can’t hurt.



  6. Jim Schmechel on December 5, 2015 at 10:51 am

    That is awesome to read about a blog reader helping you fix Cas! Now you know how much you are loved by your readers 🙂

    I know you are excited about your new toys, but what I found most interesting were the stuffed animals. Especially the monkey hanging upside down 🙂

    Yep, I was the child who wasn’t paying attention in school……
    Jim Schmechel recently posted..What I Am Thankful ForMy Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      Well, I guess I did tell everyone to scrutinize the picture closely, so you were doing what you were told technically. 😉 The stuffed Dalek was knitted by a college friend, the monkey puppet next to that was a Christmas gift from Julie one year, and the hanging monkey was a freebie I got from work, back when I was working as a vet tech with monkeys.



  7. Jim@HiTek on December 5, 2015 at 9:58 am

    It’s always fun to get new toys!

    I agree with one of your readers about getting a wire cable and strong lock for your solar panel. That thing will disappear in a flash without them.

    I think it’s universal that us technical types love to help others with their projects. For a couple reasons; one, it can get really boring just sitting around doing nothing, and two, it keeps our skills sharp.

    Did you contact the Casita factory and demand partial payment for the converter and possibly the battery they ruined? You might try that.
    Jim@HiTek recently posted..On to Rosamond…My Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      It’s just hard for me to understand Jim, as a non-techie person. I want as little to do with fixing and installing stuff as possible. 😛

      No, there’s no way I could pin the converter on them – it’s possible it was getting ready to go anyway – maybe I could the battery, but it’s not worth the hassle to me.

      I’ll look into those cable locks.



  8. Shelly, Durham, NC on December 5, 2015 at 9:19 am

    My Christmas gift to myself was the same solar panel suitcase. Like Joan said, I need to get a lock for my panels also. I had Larry Gamble install the battery do-da at the Green Eggs and Ham rally and I look forward to using it soon.

    Mr Blog Reader, thank you for helping Becky. You are terrific.

    The other thing you need to collect are 1 gallon jugs for carrying extra water. I have heard the Arizona Iced Tea jugs are the best.

    Did Amazon give you an employee discount??



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      Maybe we can compare notes Shelly once we’ve both had the chance to use it, hehe.

      Yeah, I’ve actually been using water jugs for quite some time. I know there’s stuff growing in my plumbing lines so I don’t drink the water that comes through my faucets.

      Nope, no discount for seasonal employees.



  9. Jodee Gravel on December 5, 2015 at 9:17 am

    All look to be great investments for your continued adventures! How perfect to have a handy man reader nearby – kudos to him for helping you out. Can’t wait to see how it all works for you off the grid this winter.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..New Treasures in an Old PlaceMy Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      I can’t wait either Jodee! Enjoy your time in the desert. 🙂



  10. Joan on December 5, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Becky,

    Don’t forget to get that metal/rope with a lock for your solar system. There will be times you have to leave and you want to lock it to your bumper. I have a lock that has a loud alarm on it that when it is moved it screams….never thought I would say this but I really like boondocking! Yes, Larry G. has made the procedure very easy—open door and snap on! I leave mine just flat on the ground sometimes to avoid winds blowing over it over and rain as it might be beautiful when you wake but a popup shower that afternoon while you are out sightseeing. Plus maybe you can rig some kind of vinyl/plastic cover for your charge controller as you really need to leave it out as long as possible. Fun times to come!



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:18 pm

      Ah yes Joan, I’ve been meaning to look into those, thanks for the reminder. I didn’t know you could get them with an alarm on them, the added security can’t hurt.

      I’m happy that you’re enjoying boondocking. I have a feeling once I get out there and try it I’ll have a much better idea of what I want/need to make the experience enjoyable for me. Luckily my first boondocking “stop” is going to be a gathering at Q and many of the people there are boondocking pros, so I’ll have plenty of advice and help available. 🙂



  11. Tom Dunn on December 5, 2015 at 8:00 am

    A little off subject but I remember an earlier discussion about geotagging photos. I recently purchased a digital SLR camera but couldn’t afford to buy one with an internal GPS unit and the add on dongle is $250. After some searching I found this app for my cell phone that is basically a “work around” for the GPS photo tagging.

    gps4cam.com

    It basically is a stand alone GPS tracker. It captures your location as often as you want it to and doesn’t need cell service for 3 of the 4 capture modes. You start the app and then use your separate digital camera to take pictures. When you are done taking pics you stop the app and it generates a QRcode on your phone’s screen which you also take a picture of. That code has your location data and the time the location capture was made. On a separate desktop/laptop free app from their company, it compares and compensates for clock differences btw the phone and camera to geo stamp your picture with latitude & longitude info based on the time information in the picture’s meta-data. Check it out – not nearly as complicated as it might sound.



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:13 pm

      Wow Tom, that sounds really nifty, thanks for sharing.

      The fact that the phone and camera can communicate that closely really is something. Technology has come a long ways.



  12. Ernesto Quintero on December 5, 2015 at 7:55 am

    I applaud the Mr. Blog Reader who helped Becky with installation. Becky that was a good decision to buy a greater capacity converter, under your normal load it should last way longer then original due to higher grade components. Be safe.



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      He wished to remain anonymous Ernesto but I’m sure he’ll read your comment. It really was very nice of him to take 3 hours out of his Friday to come help. 🙂

      Everyone says Progressive Dymanics is a good brand (it is American made), I could have got something similar from a Chinese company for a little less, but the difference was so slight that going for the trusted brand was a no brainer in this case.



  13. Terri on December 5, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Becky, your posts area always great, and detailed. I couldn’t tell you were rushed at all in writing this! (Really, I couldn’t.) And this is great info to have in case I do seasonal work like you and don’t want to have to install solar stuff on the roof of my vehicle, whatever it ends up being.

    I have really found folks in the RV community to be so extraordinarily helpful so I’m not surprised about that guy helping you out. I hope you are surviving Amazon. Have they mentioned any new locations for next year, yet? If I go mobile, I might be looking to be in Texas where you are right now!

    Oh, and the furballs all seem to gather around me on these cold nights, even with the second space heater going. It makes it hard for me to get up in the morning, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t want to disturb them with my movement.

    Do you miss working with animals now that you are out on the road?
    Terri recently posted..Zion National Park’s Pa’Rus TrailMy Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      Good to know that the post didn’t seem rushed from the reader end Terri.

      The list of next year’s CamperForce sites won’t come out until after this season is over, but it’ll be before applications open in February. Which means sometime in January we’ll probably know. One huge thing Texas has going for it: the temperature has been mild so far. Only a few nights below freezing, and not even enough below freezing where I had to unhook my water hose. during the days it’s been around 60, warm enough to want to spend time outside. By this time in Kansas and Nevada I was huddled up like a hermit inside the Casita and crossing my fingers that my pipes weren’t freezing.

      Sounds like a very cozy and enjoyable morning routine! I miss it occasionally, but I think adopting will fulfill that need. It’s seems pretty likely that I’ll be adopting next year, but still working things out…



  14. Lynne (Winnie Views) on December 4, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    I upgraded to the PD4645 a few years ago with my previous View. When I traded to a different model View in 2013, I asked the dealer to transfer my PD to the new View (loved it that much!). Recently, the 110 portion of the Parallax power center in my RV got fried due to a shorted out shore power plug, but thankfully the 12-volt side (i.e. all the PD4645 components) survived just fine, so what did I do? Bought a new power center and transferred my trusty PD4645 to it! I think you’ll really love your upgrade– it certainly keeps batteries charged to their highest potential. Congrats on the Solar and LED upgrades too! Renogy is a great company– they really stand behind their products and are very customer-focused.
    Lynne (Winnie Views) recently posted..5 Tips for a Cozy Winter RV Home (plus the conclusion of my electrical saga!)My Profile



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 6:56 pm

      I really love that feature where you can tell the converter to supply more or less volts to the battery, it’ll be nice having some manual control over it. Does the noise it makes ever bother you? Some reviewers say the fans are loud, but I haven’t noticed them at all. Then again, I’m sleeping with my head away from the power center right now. I flip flop which end of the bed my pillow is on to wear the cushions evenly, haha.

      Thanks for sharing your story Lynne. Sorry to hear about the short, but the PD made it through all right. 🙂

      And thanks! I’m doing an antsy dance waiting to try the solar, three weeks and a day until my appointment at LHC.



      • Lynne (Winnie Views) on December 6, 2015 at 1:57 am

        Well I guarantee that fan on the PD is a lot quieter than the LP Furnace that’s directly beneath my bed 🙂 . Honestly, my PD fan rarely runs– not sure if that’s because my rooftop solar does the lions’ share of the battery charging, or because my 12-volt usage is pretty minimal most of the time (thanks to LED lighting).
        Lynne (Winnie Views) recently posted..5 Tips for a Cozy Winter RV Home (plus the conclusion of my electrical saga!)My Profile



        • Becky on December 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm

          The furnace is below the bed in a View? Yikes. Then again I suppose you’re use to it. On Casitas the furnace is under the stove and sink, but mine doesn’t have one.



  15. Ken on December 4, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Congrats. Nice setup. I look forward to hearing about your boondocking experiences next year.



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      And I’m looking forward to sharing them Ken, thanks. This is something I’ve been waiting for since I hit the road.



  16. Terry Brawley on December 4, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Hi. We must be on similar wavelengths…I switched to LEDs about 6 weeks ago and and got the Remote solar suitcase…love it! Glad things are working out for you. Terry



    • Becky on December 5, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Glad to hear it’s working well for you Terry. I won’t really get to test mine until the end of the month and it’s such a long wait! Hearing from others that it’s a good investment eases my mind.

      Enjoy your new toys. 🙂



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