We Needed a Solar Solution

“The creamer was warm.  I pulled on the jeans and sweatshirt tossed on the dinette from the night before.  The creamer was definitely warmer than I was, and that was a problem because it had come out of the refrigerator.  Coffee grounds spilled over the filter and into the pot when I dumped hot water from the gas stove, which worked just fine, into the unplugged GE Brewmaster. An electric drip coffee maker sans electricity is a poor man’s pour-over.  I left the creamer on the counter to keep it cold.  Gritty coffee or crawl back under the comforter and wait for generator hours to open?”

Such is mornings in a motor coach without electricity. There are two 6V lead-acid deep cell Interstate batteries stored under the entry steps. We had been camping without a hook-up to electricity for more than 2 days. We thought we had been careful about our electric usage, but apparently not. What we did not realize was that while the refrigerator had switched over to propane, the DC electronic control elements in the refer still needed electric power for the refrigerator to operate. Incidentally, the same thing was true for the propane furnace. We should have been running the 5.5 kW generator every chance we had. Instead, we had been out exploring the beautiful mountains, getting back in time to run the generator for only an hour before quiet hours were imposed.

“The generator’s din joined a chorus of mechanical voices from neighboring sites. If we were going to bike to the pick-up point for the Rapidan tour in the morning, the Como lithiums would need half of their charge replenished. While the generator ran for an hour, the furnace threw off heat. Transportation and communication devices recharged. Lights made the coach a homey cabin in the dark dank woods. Our reservations ran until Friday, the day after the severe weather alert ended.  Late autumn leaves blanketed the forest floor.  Through the denuded trees, the Shenandoah Mountains were bathed in brisk morning sunlight.  We shed layers on the hike to Dark Hollow Falls as the hiking the incline naturally warmed us.  In a valiant use it or lose it effort, lunch was a smorgasbord of former occupants of the refrigerator, cheese block, half a jar of olives, leftover dinner – use them or lose them.” 

When the motor home is being driven from one location to the next, the alternator on the engine takes care of pushing electrical charge back into the deep cell batteries as well as the chassis battery. When the coach stops moving every day, some other engine or device needs to pick up the job. The onboard generator is a fine if loud choice. Most campgrounds restrict the use of the generator at night – sometimes at day too. It makes sense. No one likes to escape to nature just to find themselves serenaded by a noisy internal combustion engine. If you are not driving, and you want to limit the use of the generator, then solar panels are your best bet.

“How do you feel about your coffee in the morning? He may as well have asked how much air I needed to breathe in the morning.  I was actually being asked to prioritize every little thing I wanted or needed that required a plug in.  It turns out coffee is energy expensive, at least in terms of peak power draw.  Don’t get me started on toast. Would I read or binge The Wire on DVD? Reading costs 5 watts to power LED lights, 150 watts to run a flat screen and DVD player.  Washing dishes not only blew through our fresh water supply, but also cost 50 watts to use the water pump.  Home-baked banana bread?  A whopping 1300 watts for an hour, nearing the total power budget for a day.”

Energy conservation is a challenge. For me, it’s where econ meets accounting – supply and demand, consumption; how many watts you have, how many you desire and how you use it.  It’s assets and liabilities: coffee is an asset, banana bread is a liability.  A French press and a peanut butter and banana sandwich is balance. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the refrigerator comes physiologically first.  Must have fresh produce. Next comes safety with LED lighting.  I am not a bat.  Move up to social belonging through the iphone and ipad.  There is no point in being nomadic if I can’t capture it in photos, write it down and share with others.  And on it went down the pyramid of needs until we had a good idea of how much power we used in a day and night in order to size the solar grid. Six months out, we reserved a hook-up-less northern Montana campground for two weeks in June.  Would we survive or thrive?

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