Saturday, May 27, 2023

Power on the Road

When I researched working while traveling in Mexico in an RV, what I found was not hopeful. Travelers were generally miserable and they didn't stay long. They would come down and decide the facilities were not up to American RV park standards and they couldn't get work done. Their rigs were not set up for it. I heard stories of bad water, the unavailability to dump waste, and above all, bad power that could destroy an RVs sensitive electronics. 

For a while I researched three stage water filters, until I decided we would live off bottled water. Mexican water isn't that bad, really, mostly just different than American water in its microbial makeup. I fill my tanks, rather than connect to park water directly, and I use a simple single stage filter. I'm not going to ever drink from my tanks, so that's fine. We go through a couple gallons a week of bottled drinking water instead and use about 50 gallons a week of semi filtered water for general use.

WalMart 5 gallon water bottle with a lithium pump (which I haven't bothered using yet)

We've had no problems, so far, after five RV parks, in finding a place to dump tanks. A priority of the RV purchase was buying an RV with tanks large enough for extended travel. With easy availability of dump stations at RV parks, we tend to dump twice a week. I could go maybe five days without this option before our toilet would be inoperable. We've never come close to filling our gray kitchen and bathroom (shower and sink) tanks. The blank tank size is definitely the lowest common denominator in this system.

One of the tank monitor systems we're using

Dumping tanks, a twice a week job

Power is certainly an issue. I have a 50 amp coach, meaning it can run off two, 120 volt legs of a power connector. It can conceivably draw a lot of power and run both air conditioners, the microwave and a host of power hungry appliances. We have stayed in one RV park with a 50 amp receptacle. Most have 30 amp, and one had 15 amp. Expecting 15 amp to be the lowest common denominator, my RV custom electrical system is designed to run seamlessly on 15 amps. I've never changed it off that. Running one air conditioner I'm pretty much using 21 amps, beyond the 15 amp input (which is usually 9-11), so having a system that draws on my batteries is critical.

Example of janky 15 amp receptacle. It should look familiar. That white pipe is our sewer

I certainly didn't expect to spend $10,000 on an electrical system, it just kind of happened as we were building it. This is a five year plan for a series of trips, so I wanted to get this right. I knew I wanted a special inverter that had power assist. This means if I use more than those 15 amps, the inverter draws from battery power to supplement my needs. If the power went out, it would also draw on battery power seamlessly. It goes out a lot with my set up. With this in mind, and our large power needs, the battery bank grew larger and the solar panel install was informed by that capacity. All the work was done by a friend, with me assisting, and it is working flawlessly.

The electrical system, other than the 1,200 watts of solar panels

One of the design decisions I insisted on was a Hughes Power Watchdog, which monitors incoming power and prevents bad conditions from hitting your electrical system. Boy is the dog getting a workout! Every RV park in Mexico so far has a potentially dangerous "open ground" condition. I've seen no problems in the US, so far. My receptacle voltage tester will often tell me "Naw, don't plug into this." If I listened to my tester, I would have no park power anywhere I've been. Instead, I'll often think to myself, "Let the dog decide."

The dog is displeased

In every case the Watchdog has let the power through, and in every case, sometime during our stay, the Watchdog has stopped power coming through either because of a dangerous condition or an under-over voltage condition. It will cut power for 90 seconds, test again, and if it's alright, allow power through again. Bad power conditions are often like storms, as there's some sort of grid or RV park event occurring. Eventually the storm passes. This often happens at dawn when people wake up and turn on their air conditioners in the park. It's an unfortunate alarm clock on my phone as the notifications start rolling in from the Watchdog app.

There is a chance the Watchdog will get fried and there's an inexpensive $35 board that can be replaced if this happens. I brought one spare. Hopefully it lasts or I'll have no external power coming in. The inverter is key to power assist and running off grid. We've stayed two nights in 100 degree conditions without any outside power at all and three nights in more temperate conditions where the AC was only slightly used. That's pretty much our power limits running off solar with our six batteries. If the AC isn't used much, there are no limits to power and our limitation becomes tanks. As we getting into the more temperate Mexican Highlands, we should be more energy independent without AC. 

So this fancy, $10K system, supports a high end travel trailer full of electronics, yet I'm only running on 15 amps of RV park power, what you would see from a household extension cord. It is not enough to cover our needs, so the solar and lithium batteries supplements this. We're at 97% battery capacity right now (the watchdog is angry and the power is off) and we'll probably drop to as low as 65% as the day draws on and the AC is running. We're going out today so the system gets a break.

Our lowest power level after 2 days in 100 degree weather and no external power

Some of the gadgetry includes Starlink for fast Internet, which isn't working right now, due to a wiring issue (we're sharing one until the parts arrive). We tried to make it run off 12 volts instead of 120v and it stopped working. We think Starlink disabled the ability to do this, since both system stopped working at the same time after months of use.

The main consumer of power and the one who needs high speed Internet is this gamer I brought with me with his power hungry gaming laptop and accessories:

Typical 30 amp receptacles:

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