Most people probably don’t give a second thought to their water heaters but ours came with a story.
We are afraid of it as we’re unfamiliar with it’s inner workings and are concerned it may blow up at any moment. It’s not the heater’s fault nor that of anyone involved with it’s design or installation; they’re just suspicious-seeming by nature. It doesn’t help that we’re ignorant of such things despite over a year of living off-grid in an RV.
When we first got the thing, we had recently seen an episode of Mythbusters wherein the guys purposely removed all of the fail-safe measures on some water heaters and cranked the heat up. The tanks shot hundreds of feet into the air after smashing through mock ceilings without effort, giving my husband and I pause as to what our own rocket/heater might be capable of. But let’s back up.
When we came by our fifth wheeler it had been gutted and refitted for use with city hookups such as electricity rather than for it’s original purpose of boon docking. The electric water heater that had been installed was gobbling our energy so we ordered a propane model. It arrived promptly and we managed to get it nestled into the side of our RV without much ado. We carefully hooked up the gas, checked for leaks and lit her up.
Everything went fine as we turned the bathtub spigot on and off to check the rising temperature but the water got hotter and hotter and stopped flowing altogether. Clueless and sure the heater was nearing ignition, we turned it off and called it a night.
The next day we exchanged the old faucet for a new one and the water ran fine but continued to overheat. We shut it down for a second time to save our very lives lest we recreate that episode of Mythbusters.
We needed a professional. Enter Norstar Heating and Cooling, Inc.
We gave them a call and explained the strange behavior of our water heater and made an appointment. Although they didn’t normally deal with RV type systems, they were willing to come take a look. We kept the unit shut off while we waited for our savior- his elevated status growing every day we went without the ability to shower.
Then the day arrived and “he” showed up. He didn’t have six-shooters on his side but he came with a notepad and a toolbox. Wringing our now filthy hands, we recounted our misadventures as the repairman stole sideways glances at the beast waiting silently in it’s hole on the side of the fifth wheel.
Finally, our man adjusted his collar and approached the offender with a swagger and a coolness that would make John Wayne jealous. He stared at his foe for a moment or two then reached out confidently and began to manipulate the dials with the authority of a….well…appliance repairman. We stood a good ways back and watched with mixed fear and excitement at the prospect of being able to resume our personal hygiene routines.
Then we heard it; the rocket-like flame of the gas feed shot to life as the man cocked his head and squinted suspiciously at the device while he made his final adjustments. With a satisfied nod he turned and walked back our way to give us the news.
His words will haunt us forever; “I turned the heat down.”
A venting I must go
Bought a freakin’ solar kit
Thought it’d really be a hit
Catch the sun rays from the sky
Found out different tell you why
First you have to wire it right
Clamp them hard and do it tight
If you don’t they break in two
When you strike them with your shoe
Get it all set up and goin’
Plug it in and nothin’s showin’
Check it all with a volt meter
Skip a wire and you’re a cheater
And when you still don’t get power
Throw a wrench go take a shower
Next day when you’re at it still
Find out your controller’s ill
Then redo it put together
Hope that rain’s not in the weather
Find out that your cable’s wrong
Wow this’ now taking too long
All I want is my TV
Tools all over skinned my knee
Cables came redid them all
Will my power come on at all
No of course not that’s too easy
Batteries fried and I’m uneasy
Check the RV for the problem
Breakers sockets test all of ’em
Turns out that we’ll be just fine
Only use it at night time
What to do now what is next
Send the comp’ny email text
Hit the troubleshooting checklist
At the bottom and now I’m pissed
What the fuck did I do wrong
That I can’t turn my lights on
Feel so mad like I’ve been jerked
Bought a gas gen cause it works!
Trying to keep up.
I feel so overwhelmed right now. We got our shed about a week ago and I expected to have it up in one day (see picture below for current status). There it sits. We’ve been working on it but there isn’t enough time in one day and dark hitting earlier hasn’t helped.
Our little matter with the neighbor over the cul de sac kind of derailed us for a day and a half. We left a succinct, firm letter for him and his wife on one of the fence posts he erected stating we had checked and confirmed that the land survey was correct and recorded and asked him to respect our private property signs going forward. He’d previously gone onto our property, past well marked posts, and spray painted the ground while he was planning his cul de sac. We weren’t too happy about that.
I wonder what he’s thinking right now? My husband and I have wondered whether he made a gargantuan mistake in his surveying or thought he’d just see if he could get by with us offering no resistance to his grand plans. That’s purely speculation but one thing isn’t; he never mentioned a word about moving his road onto our property in advance. That baffles us.
He was up here with his chainsaw today cutting down trees again but we couldn’t tell if he was cutting them down along the easement or further out on his property. It was a bit disconcerting to keep hearing the “thumps” as they came down. I might walk down the easement road a bit tonight and check.
We didn’t get the covenants from the recorder’s office the other day and are still not sure where we stand legally in the decision process about making changes to a shared easement. Common sense says that we should be consulted and have to agree to any such changes. Still waiting on the attorney. There was a conflict of interest and we were referred out to another attorney. Tomorrow morning we go and comb over those covenants.
The neighbor said he was planning on adding a lane to the easement road and a lot of gravel to a steep portion to level it out. This is OK with us but we’re not OK with not being consulted.
We had wood delivered the other day and you’d think we never get visitors by the way we spent an hour showing the guys around the property and exchanged antique ax heads for cash off the delivery. Very nice guys. One of them also does handy work so we may have our guy to help with some work around here. The shed might be his first project if he’s game. We can do it ourselves but the time….
I insulated the battery bank tonight as the inverter wouldn’t turn on the past couple of nights in the cold. Some research told us that with the battery temperature sensors now in play, the charging voltage is probably way up and the inverter is most likely protecting itself from over powering. We’ll see if the insulation helps. I got a plastic container and we hefted the batteries and about two million wires and cables into it. It’s now lined on all sides with foam board insulation.
The fire wood is mostly stacked thanks to my husband and son. We’ve been trying to involve our son more in responsibilities around here for the benefits those things offer a young person; a sense of responsibility, confidence, ownership, a sense of independence, family time. 🙂
Work in progress photos:
It was time to refill the huge water tank we bought about a month ago but alas, the freeze sneaked up on us and the hoses froze with water in them. It took us about an hour yesterday to drag them all downhill from the spring and get them into the tub of hot water. After soaking them, my husband had to use the pump to force all the ice out of them. It was exhausting and we’re emptying them after use from now on.
I moved the ever growing pile of tools, fasteners, parts, and the propane fridge we got a month ago but still haven’t installed out of the trailer. We want to put all the extra stuff in the shed but it still needs to be built! Uhggg.
We need to clean up from all of our projects too. It never ends around here.
I also have a million administrative type tasks to do. I’ve been grouchy from the sheer volume of things to do. I’m a list person and I decided to get this stuff out of my head where it’s a giant whirlpool of thoughts and feelings onto paper where I could organize them. I drew a big mind map on some card stock and filled it with every item to be done, along with every sub category attached to it until I’d gotten it all out.
The page looks like a mess unto itself but everything’s there in bubbles that I can look at and know I at least don’t have to keep trying to remember what needs to be done. It’s still a lot but I feel like I have a semi handle on it now.
At least the main mission of the week is handled. The most terrifying to our sense of peace; the issue of the cul de sac. We are so relieved and there will be fallout surrounding the dispute but it sure wasn’t our fault. We simply had to respond to this threat to our land and our peace of mind in an assertive way.
Tomorrow is Monday. Another week starts but for the most part, my husband and I look forward greatly to our future here and have a concrete list of goals to grow in every way.
Writing my blog helps me to just get it out when I feel overwhelmed (between appointments with my counselor). It’s nice to talk at people
It also helps me avoid the bubble list.
This and some other issues need to be addressed.
It’s taken a couple of months since we bought our first solar power system kit to realize where the problems lie and that one of them isn’t being addressed well enough yet. I can’t speak for systems that are professionally set up as I don’t have any knowledge about them. I’m talking about the ones you order and set up yourself.
The first problem is absolutely critical to the life and functioning of the battery array. The battery array stores all of that sunshine for your use. Deep cycle batteries that are used in a battery bank must never be discharged below 50% or 12.1 volts as it can damage them and shorten their lifespan and storage capabilities. It can ruin them necessitating a replacement of the whole bank.
You need a way to monitor the voltage level of the batteries and way to shut off the power draw when they hit that 50% depleted level.
Important here is that solar power systems can run an AC or alternating current system (120 volts) and/or the DC or direct current system. The DC is more of an auxiliary system.
If you live in an RV you have a DC system built in that runs the smaller appliances such as the lights and the water pump either off of the 12 volt house batteries or through a direct connection to a solar setup. The DC system is what you would use while out camping but RVs incorporate both a DC and an AC system for use if an outside source of power is available at a campground, for example. The AC is a 120 volt system that supplies power to larger appliances such as an air conditioner, a ceiling fan, washer and dryer etc.
Our main goal and most folks, I imagine, when buying a solar power system, is to run the BIG stuff with an option of also plugging in those smaller appliances.
When we bought our first set of solar panels, we saw that the control charger that came with the kit (the brains of a solar power system) could be programmed to disconnect the power draw from the batteries at whatever depletion level you set. By doing that, it would theoretically prevent the batteries from being discharged below the 50% (12.1 volt) level (recommended) thus preventing over discharge and the resulting damage to the batteries.
It took us this long and a conversation with the solar company we bought from to find out that the controller they sent only monitors and controls the AC or auxiliary system. The one we never used.
There was no way to program it to monitor and shut off the power draw being funneled through the primary AC system. This particular charge controller was effectively useless to us in protecting our main power storage asset; our battery bank. I have no idea why it would have been designed this way. It makes absolutely NO sense!
The only way to prevent battery damage as we use the system, is to visually look at the voltage level display on the power inverter itself (the component that converts the 12 volt power from the battery bank to usable 120v energy) and turn it off/or unplug the extension cord to our trailer when the batteries get low on voltage. Stupid.
I had to search the internet for a special low-voltage disconnect relay that I bought from another company and I installed it. It worked for awhile then something happened and it started to shut down the inverter altogether and to this day, we can’t figure out why.
We had to remove the relay so the inverter would work again but now we are back to square one. We now have no way to watch the battery voltage levels but we kind of don’t care right now. I could press forward in getting the answers but for now, we’re back to using just two gas powered generators.
Inverters that are programmable to actually work properly with a solar setup are 700.00 and up. The rest (the ones that come with DIY solar panel kits) are preprogrammed to disconnect from the battery bank at 10.5 volts; after your batteries are already dead and/or damaged.
My understanding of why they are set to disconnect power at such a low voltage is to prevent the inverter from tripping off with a load spike when first plugged in. I can’t believe someone hasn’t come up with a work-around for this.
By the time we got a clue as to what was going on, we were worried about our batteries as we were having HUGE problems getting any kind of significant power out of each cycle (day of sunshine). Our batteries had been over depleted so many times by now they were almost surely damaged. We had them tested and although we believe their performance has somewhat been compromised, they are supposedly good.
Here’s another issue I noticed about the planning stage of going solar. This is specifically for those living in an RV. Logically, you have to figure out how much power you’re using in order to estimate the size of the system you plan to purchase. I consulted website after website on how to do this. You make a list of appliances and the amps and/or watts each one uses, total it up, and size your setup accordingly.
We did this and still had a huge problem with a power drain that we couldn’t account for. We would plug in the solar at night, for example, and we would be lucky to make it through the entire night before the solar would shut down.
We came to suspect that our RV had some sort of parasitic drain so we flipped the breaker switches one by one while the solar was plugged in. We watched the voltage readout and noted the drain as we went from one to the other.
Finally we found the culprit: Our RV house battery recharging system. If you live in an RV, when you plug into an outside power source, your house battery charging system automatically kicks in and starts to charge your RV batteries. This turned out to be a HUGE extra energy user that not one website had mentioned. We were charging one set of batteries off of another set of batteries.
To make it worse, we discovered our house batteries were bad. We’ll replace them and either disconnect them from our RV charging system and charge and monitor them independently, install a separate charge controller for them, or just flip the breaker switch in our RV that controls the battery recharging system when we plug our solar into our RV.
The last issue was completely our own fault. Our batteries are getting cold with the onset of lowering temperatures. The charge control units came with temperature sensors that attach to the batteries and they send more power to them when recharging at low temperatures as needed. If it’s too warm, the sensors tell the charge control unit to send less power to recharge. It makes the charging system more efficient.
I attached the temperature sensors to the batteries yesterday and the bank is now charging faster and more completely.
I also found out that a Maximum Power Point Tracking or MPPT type of charge controller is more efficient than the ones we have (Pulse Width Modulation-PWM) so I’m considering switching those out too.
The moral of this story is that a lot of factors contribute to how well or IF a solar power system works. Added together, they can have a profound effect on performance. Solar power is a fantastic concept but until the industry makes these kits more failsafe, they’ll continue to be riddled with problems and users are going to keep going through batteries like disposable razors.
Believe it or not, we are still completely sold on solar energy. Our plan at this point is to double our panels and battery bank, switch to MPPT controllers, and invest in a programmable power inverter to preserve our battery array. This is going to take a little more cash so we’re waiting for the sun to come back out in the spring.
Until then, here’s a poem I wrote: Rant Poem On DIY Solar
Our upgrades and fixes.
We’ve been slammed the past few days; hence no blog. Thought I’d post of couple of photos of one or our most impressive “looking” upgrades: Our new solar panel rack!
Took us a whole day and we just got our tent/shed today. Although not a structure of wood, it’s snow-load worthy. I hope it does what it says it does.
We have a new sweet addition to the family. A six month old kitty! Took him to the vet today. All is well. Getting snipped in a few weeks.
We discovered through a process of elimination, that, as I suspected, recharging the RV house batteries is taking up a huge chunk of our energy consumption. I have not seen ONE other person mention that when calculating their energy load for their solar setup.
We’ve also learned that almost ALL inverters shut down the battery bank WAY too late after the batteries are almost dead. An industry wide problem almost NOBODY is addressing, except Missouri Wind and Solar. They are the ONLY company that makes a low voltage shutoff relay. It turns off the power to the inverter when your batteries are at fifty percent or you can adjust to your preference (at your own risk).
If you value your battery bank you should order one here Low Voltage Disconnect Relay Switch. Ours is working perfectly so far and it was easy to install.
Catch up some more when I have a minute or two. Have a shed to put up tomorrow.
How we got here.
My counselor told me to write a book so I’m writing a blog instead. I meant to start it a year ago but being at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs delayed things a bit.
The following stories chronicle our family’s journey from suburbia to the edge of the frontier where we settled on raw land. We are a married couple with a fifteen year old son and two cats and we were growing tired of the increasingly frenetic atmosphere of the Puget Sound region.
The decision was made to head east in search of wide open spaces more compatible with our nature. We sold our house in the spring of 2017, bought a twenty foot travel trailer and hit the road.
We camped in the national forest and began to cruise the online real estate websites for land. The RV had canvas pullouts and was supposed to be our home for only the summer but we ended up living in it for an entire year. It hit me one night that there would be nothing but cloth walls between us and the snow come winter. I was right to be nervous.
We bought a few acres of raw land in eastern Washington near the Idaho and Canadian borders and set about making a new home for ourselves. Moving onto undeveloped land meant we had to do without things such as electricity and water from the city. We learned this is called living off-grid and it necessitates using stand alone systems.
For the first few months we hauled city water from a standpipe home in a barrel in the back of our truck. Then we discovered natural springs on our property. How lucky is that? For power we used a gas generator and installed solar power. It was tricky to set up and we learned from our experiences but I highly recommend it.
We initially used WiFi for Internet but it became us vs the Google data pig. The neighbors let us use their WiFi until we got into a fight and they changed their password. We could only connect from my husband’s spot in our bed and only if it wasn’t raining. It eventually took downing three gargantuan trees to get Internet service to the property.
Emotional and social adjustments were inevitable with such a big move. Like the new extremes in the weather in eastern Washington as opposed to those of the moderate rain belt we moved from, the emotional highs and lows have been more extreme.
Hotter summers and colder winters came with newfound happiness that gave way to days and weeks of depression. I hope the hardest times are behind us. I’m ready for the kiddie rides after the roller coaster that was our first year.
It was autumn when we moved in and we were very low on our budget. Still, it was new and fun and I repeatedly thought to myself “this might make for some good reading” and I made plans to start a blog.
Then winter came on fierce and with a seriousness that slapped all thoughts of anything but survival out of our consciousnesses. We experienced a reality smack-down like no other and any ideas I had of the self actualization of “artfully” documenting our adventures disappeared under the snow along with most of our worldly possessions. I was too busy crying to write.
Zero degree temperatures forced us to make the decision to relocate my son and I to an emergency shelter while my husband hunkered down at the property with our cat.
Three months later, we came back to the property and picked up where we left off; still struggling financially and with very little to work with. Spring, then summer came with new challenges. We got a crash course on ticks and dealt with hordes of Yellow Jackets. The heat, and a continuing feeling of oppression made summer one of the longest I’ve ever experienced but we had things in the works.
We tilled rock-hard soil and planted a garden. We dug the spring and water delivery system. We used antiques we found buried on our land to construct things we needed such as the fence to our garden. We did whatever we could to pass the time and keep our chins up.
Thank you to my husband for helping me to get through it all. When I was at my worst, he would hold my face in his hands, look at me and say “Good things Baby, good things”.
As fall arrived, our “eggs” began to hatch and we were finally able to make some huge changes to our living conditions and begin to build, literally and figuratively, the quality of our lives. We could stop trying to just survive and begin to live.
It was time to take up that blog again…..
We’ve accomplished a lot since fall. We now have a solar power system, generators, a large shed, an upgraded RV (we decided to put off building until spring), and other necessities. We have a fireplace to sit by, a wood pile, larger propane tanks and other means for which to stay comfortable and dry for the winter. So far, so good as of January 2019.
We have lot’s of plans going forward. We are excited and ready.
I’ve edited this first post several times and didn’t want to give up my original bullet list outline so though it may be a little redundant, here it is:
- We are a husband and wife with a teenager who sold their house in western Washington and moved to eastern Washington.
- We have two cats and want a dog but not before we put up a fence.
- We are not perfect. Far from it.
- We don’t care that we are not perfect and we are known to swear but we are nice people (although one neighbor said we are evil).
- We sold our house in May 2017
- We lived in a trailer all summer while we looked for property
- We found property we liked. It “spoke to” my husband 🙂
- We moved onto the property and continued to live in the trailer
- We had a major reality check as fall progressed
- We weren’t very well prepared financially and some things happened that made it worse but things are better now 🙂
- We made the best of things but winter sucked
- Summer then sucked
- Fall is here and we’re doing WAY better but some things still suck but most things DON’T suck anymore
I love humor and aspire to write in the style of Jean Sheppard of A Christmas Story fame. I try to write poetry and you’ll find some in these pages although of a somewhat unconventional nature.
Now that I’ve acquainted you with our story, I hope you’ll enjoy those that follow.