Dumping the RV holding tanks is a nasty little job, but it’s part of the fun of traveling around in an RV, and we’ve all gotta do it. It’s really not all that bad when it’s a shared job, but of course that’s easy for us gals to say, because it’s usually our male partners-in-love-and-life who get to do the bulk of the dirty work.
Despite lots of progress over the years for the types of work women can do, emptying an RV’s waste water holding tanks is a job many women are just as happy to leave to their better half.
Sometimes, when we go to an RV dump station, I am amazed to see a woman remain in the passenger’s seat of her truck or motorhome for the whole duration of the job. I’m not sure how these women have negotiated that arrangement with their significant other, but I figure they must be incredibly good cooks to be able to chat with a friend on the phone or check the latest on Facebook while their hubby is grinding it out with the sewer hose, the splashing water, and all that muck and mire.
Mark looks like he’s having so much fun. Can I get away with doing nothing?
I wish my skills were so awesome in the kitchen that I could be exempt from doing anything at the RV dump station. But alas, in our marriage, I need to be a participant in this dirtiest of deeds to win brownie points for other aspects of our life together. Nonetheless, it took me a few years to find things to do while we were at the RV dump station that were truly useful and helpful.
We have a full set of “blue” RV dump station procedural tips below — but they don’t say much about the “pink” side of the job:
Too often at the beginning of our RVing lives I found my best efforts to help with setting up the RV sewer hose or screwing in the water hose ended up with me underfoot and in the way of the general flow of things. Mark had his methods, and I couldn’t read his mind as to what came next.
Few people are in truly sunny and radiant moods when they don their rubber gloves at the RV dump, and too often I found that my most valiant attempts to be helpful resulted in tensions rising between us.
I think he’s trying to tell me something.
Then one day I discovered a way that I can be of significant help and get some important jobs done at the same time.
GIVE THE BLACK TANK A BOOST FLUSH
For starters, I fill two 5-gallon water buckets with water and carry them into the rig to dump them down the toilet after the black tank has been emptied. Even if an RV has a black water flush system like ours does, it is still surprising just how many little bits of gunk and human waste solids get flushed out when two 5-gallon buckets of water are poured down the toilet.
I fill the buckets while Mark gets the sewer hose out and attaches the clear elbow so he can see when the holding tanks are fully drained. Then I can scoot out of the way and carry the buckets around to our RV’s door before he begins attaching the black water flush hose between the rig and the water spigot. This way we don’t end up stepping on each when we first start working at the RV dump station.
We have two buckets and I fill each one with water to give the toilet and sewer pipes an extra flush.
The buckets are heavy to carry around to our trailer’s front door, but I don’t mind a little bit of a shoulder and arm workout, and I take them one at a time. Maneuvering a heavy bucket of water up stairs is excellent exercise for both balance and strength.
I grab the inside of the doorway with my left hand for extra balance, tighten my abs so I don’t throw my back out with the uneven weight distribution of carrying a heavy bucket, and I leverage myself up and set the pails down inside in the kitchen.
The buckets are heavy, but I take my time and grab the door frame to keep my balance as I go up the stairs.
For those who can’t carry the buckets, your partner will likely be happy to carry them for you since this really helps ensure the black tank and toilet get a complete flush. Also, filling the buckets only half way or three quarters of the way can help not only lighten the load but keep the water from splashing all over the place and all over you.
CLEAN THE BATHROOM
The other task I tackle is cleaning the toilet room from top to bottom and cleaning the bathroom vanity and kitchen sink. I figure that if my sweet hubby is dealing with the darker side of RVing outside at the RV dump station, I can deal with the same stuff on the inside..
This insures the bathroom gets cleaned on a regular basis and also means that when we arrive at our next campsite not only are the holding tanks empty but our bathroom is sparkling clean and smells fresh.
So, once I get the water buckets inside the rig, I begin assembling the things I will need to clean the toilet and the bathroom. When I hear Mark’s knock on the wall, I know he has finished emptying the black tank and it is time to dump the buckets of water down the toilet.
I pour one bucket at a time and Mark watches the flow in the sewer hose to make sure the water eventually runs clear.
Since the buckets are just inside the RV door, it takes me a minute to grab one and empty it. Then it takes a few minutes more to go grab the other one and empty it too. Having a few minutes between flushes is helpful because then Mark can monitor whether the water from the second bucket is running clear or is still flushing solids out. If there are still chunks coming out, then, depending on whether anyone is waiting to use the RV dump after us, I’ll fill another bucket or two with water and dump them down the toilet.
Sometimes I have the water pump turned on as I dump the buckets of water down the toilet and sometimes it’s turned off. Having it turned on means even more water flushes down, which is great, but it also uses up water from the fresh water tank. So, whether or not I have the water pump turned on depends on whether there are people waiting behind us at the dump station, as it will take a little longer for us to fill the fresh water tank if we flush a few extra gallons down the toilet as part of the dumping process.
Now that the black tank is completely flushed, Mark begins emptying our kitchen gray tank. We have two gray tanks, one for the kitchen and one for the shower. We empty the kitchen tank first because it is dirtier and has more things in it (like broccoli bits) than the shower gray tank which is just sudsy water.
While he works on emptying the two gray tanks, I get to work cleaning the toilet.
If Mark is mucking around in gross stuff outside, the least I can do is muck around in gross stuff inside. This also gives us a clean bathroom when we set up camp.
Since we have a hatch in the toilet room that we leave open a lot, the toilet lid and the floor often get dusty in just a few days. So I remove everything from the toilet room and clean everything, including the floor.
Over the years we’ve found that the toilet bowl — more so than the black tank itself — can be a big source of foul odors. Unlike household toilets, RV toilet bowls are basically dry except during flushing, so urine can end up drying in the bowl and producing an odor.
Also, the flow of the flushing water doesn’t necessarily rinse every inch of the bowl, so some areas simply don’t get rinsed all that well, even when using the toilet’s spray nozzle. So, I go to town on the inside of the bowl as well as everything else.
Because these are both basically solutions of living critters, the toilet cleaning products we use can’t be too toxic or the colonies of feces-eating bacteria can’t get established and become self-perpetuating. I’ve been using Murphy’s Oil Soap for the last few years with good results.
This is the soap that is recommended for cleaning the rubber roofs on the tops of RV’s, which is why we had it on hand to try on the toilet a few years ago. In addition to being biodegradable, what we like about it for cleaning the toilet is that it assists in keeping both the seals in the toilet bowl and on the black holding tank valve lubricated. I used white vinegar for cleaning the toilet for a while, and after a few months the black tank valve got really sticky. Since switching to Murphy’s Oil Soap a few years ago, that valve hasn’t gotten gummed up.
Periodically, we’ve found the seals in the toilet bowl have stopped holding water which meant the bowl drained completely dry between flushes. This allowed foul odors to come up from the black water tank. This problem is usually due to mineral and gunk build-ups on the seal.
So, I give that seal a really good cleaning too. The critical areas are on both the top and bottom surfaces of the rubber seal, that is, between the seal and the toilet bowl (the top side) and underneath the seal where the dome flapper (the “waste ball”) closes up against it.
A disassembled RV toilet shows what the rubber toilet seal looks like without the toilet bowl sitting on it. To prevent it from leaking and draining the toilet between flushes, I scrub both top and bottom of the rubber seal.
I make sure the water pump is off at this point and hold the toilet flush lever down so I can get at the underside of the seal.
Often, the build-up is due to having hard water in the fresh water tanks which is very common in Arizona and other western states where the fresh water comes from deep, mineral rich aquifers.
The seal needs to be completely free of mineral deposits on both the top and bottom, so I clean the area between the seal and the bowl on the top (red arrow) and below the seal on the bottom (the backside of the seal in this view).
At this point, depending on what Mark is up to outside, I’ll move on to other cleaning projects. If we have nearly emptied our fresh water tanks prior to coming to the RV dump station, it may take 10 minutes to refill them. Also, sometimes the potable water spigot is a little ways beyond the waste water dump area, requiring Mark to move the whole rig a few feet forward.
So, if there is time, I will clean the bathroom vanity sink and then move on to the kitchen sink. Depending on our plans for the next few days and depending on how much time I have at the RV dump, I may also add the holding tank treatment to the black tank, via the toilet, and add it to the gray tanks via the bathroom sink, shower and kitchen sink.
Sometimes, however, I prefer to wait two or three days until those tanks have some liquids in them before adding the holding tank treatment. And sometimes I add just a half tank’s worth of holding tank treatment at the RV dump station and then add the other half a few days later once the holding tanks have become partially full.
Of course, we add a capful of bleach to our fresh water tanks every few months, and that totally obliterates any colonies of anything that have started to grow in any of the holding tanks (including the fresh water tank) as the bleach water works its way through our plumbing system from the fresh water tank to the gray and black waste water tanks.
So, for us, creating fully self-sustaining communities of healthy organisms in any waste water tank is not 100% doable. But by using non-toxic cleansers we can help them along in between bleach blasts.
So, all in all, there is a LOT a girl can do at the RV dump station. We find we are both much happier about the whole process when we each have a set of tasks to do when we get there that are not only similarly grungy but are equally important and that take place in different parts of the RV.
The best part is that when we leave the RV dump station to go set up camp in a new, beautiful location, not only do we have empty waste water tanks but our bathroom is clean and fresh too.
We carry our mountain bikes on the back of our 5th wheel with a Kuat NV Bike Rack
To keep the bike rack from dragging on the ground in crazy places like steep gas station ramps or deep gulleys on small roads, we had a “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser made. This raises the rack up quite high, so now the first thing to hit the ground is the hitch receiver itself rather than the bike rack.
A “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser raised the bike rack so it can’t drag on the ground in a gully or dip.
As is often the case with hitch receivers, the bike rack isn’t a perfectly tight fit in the hitch receiver riser, and the bottom of the riser isn’t a perfect fit in the trailer’s hitch receiver either. So, the whole bike rack tends to wiggle.
We’ve used various shims to make it all tight, but too often they would wiggle loose over time, and eventually the bikes would be jiggling all over the place on the rack again.
We wedged shims in to tighten things up, but it wasn’t an ideal solution
Last fall we stopped in at JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah, to talk with Jack, the man who had made our “Z” hitch riser (more info about it here). We wondered if he had any tricks up his sleeve for making our bike rack arrangement less wobbly.
Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah
It turns out that he had solved this very problem for other customers by making a hitch tightener. This is essentially a hitch clamp that fits over the end of the hitch receiver and snugs up whatever is inserted into the receiver with some lock washers and nuts.
Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.
So, we got two of them, one for the top and one for the bottom of our “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser extension.
He put a second hitch tightener on the trailer’s receiver as well.
The difference in the amount of movement of the bikes was absolutely astonishing. They were rock solid now!
Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.
After installing the hitch tighteners, which was just a matter of tightening the nuts, Mark drove the rig around the JM Custom Welding dirt lot while I walked behind and watched the bikes, and they were steady as could be.
Hitch tighteners at the top and bottom of the hi-low hitch riser extension.
But unlike the shim solution we’d used before, these hitch tighteners have stayed tight without needing any adjusting or fuss for several months and several thousand miles of driving on all kinds of roads.
The whole system is completely rigid now and has not needed any adjustments in six months of use.
The hitch tighteners do make for some extra steps if we want to move the bike rack from the hitch receiver on the trailer to the hitch receiver on our truck. However, we’ve started hauling our bikes in our truck in a different way using a furniture blanket, so there’s no need to take the bike rack off the trailer any more.
An easy way to get the bikes from the trailer to the trail head!
Jack makes these hitch tighteners in batches, so if you are passing through Blanding, Utah, perhaps on your way to or from the beautiful Natural Bridges National Monument, just a mile or so south of Blanding you can stop by JM Custom Welding and pick one up! In 2016 the were $38 apiece.
We discovered later that hitch tighteners of various kinds are also commercially available. So, if Blanding, Utah, isn’t in your sights, you can choose from many different kinds of hitch clamps online.
However, a visit to Jack’s welding shop is very worthwhile, especially if you need any kind of custom metal fabrication done on your RV. He is very creative and does excellent work.
While we were in Jack’s office, we noticed a display of his for a folding storage solution for the beds of pickup trucks he’s created that fits right behind the truck cab. He calls it the “Jack Pack” and it is essentially a framed canvas storage bag the width of the truck bed that is easily opened to throw your bags of groceries into and then easily folded away when you need to haul lumber or fill the truck bed with something else.
If we didn’t have that part of our truck filled up with extra water jugs, we would have snagged one of those from him at the same time!
Since we began our full-time RV travels in 2007, photography has become a huge part of our lives. Photography is an ideal hobby for travelers, and it isn’t hard to learn. Our learning curve has played out on the pages of this website, and it is satisfying to see our improvement over the years. When we first started traveling, we each shot about 6,000 photos per year. Now we each shoot over 35,000 photos per year (a little under 100 per day).
Photography is a lot of fun, and it’s not hard to learn.
People have asked us what cameras and equipment we use, and how we improved our skills. This page presents all of our gear choices, from our camera bodies to our favorite lenses to our filters and tripods to the goodies we use to take our cameras out for a hike to the software we rely on for post-processing.
It also explains how we organize all our photos and lists all the books, eBooks and online tutorials we have studied to learn to take better photos. We are entirely self-taught, and the inspiring resources we reference here lay it all out in plain language.
We’ve invested in our camera equipment because photography is our passion and we do it all day long. What you’ll see here is good solid “value” gear that is above “entry level” but not “strictly for the pros” either.
The best time to buy camera gear is between Thanksgiving and Christmas during Black Friday week or when a manufacturer discontinues a camera model. An inexpensive but good quality DSLR that you can get for a steal is the Nikon D3300, discontinued in June 2016. In October 2016, a smoking deal includes the Nikon D3300, two lenses and a camera bag. Other Nikon D3300 kits are available too. This camera was replaced with the Nikon D3400 which is Nikon’s current (and terrific) entry level DSLR model
As of 2016, we both shoot with Nikon D810 cameras. This is a professional level, truly awesome, full-frame 36 megapixel camera.
For three years prior to that, we both used Nikon D610 cameras. This is a full-frame, 24 megapixel camera. It is considered a “pro-sumer” camera, not quite professional quality but at the high end of the hobbyist ranks.
Although we have a big collection of lenses, we typically take no more than two apiece with us when we are out and about on foot. It’s just too much stuff to lug around!
I have a Nikon 28-300 mm lens on my camera which I use almost exclusively, simply because I love the flexibility of having both wide angle and zoom options with the twist of my wrist without having to change lenses.
When we got into photography, we jumped in with both feet.
Mark likes to pick a lens for the day and work within its limits. His favorites are prime (non-zooming) lenses, and he uses the Nikon 50 mm and Nikon 85mm lenses a lot. These are a lot less expensive than zoom lenses, and they are much faster lenses too (meaning they can be used in lower light). However, they do not have vibration resistance (also known as “image stabilization”), a technology that reduces the inherent wiggle caused by hand-holding a lens.
He also uses the Nikon 24-120 and the Sigma 24-105. These are very similar lenses, and we would have just one of them, but I used to use the Nikon 24-120 all the time before I got the Nikon 28-300, so he got the Sigma 24-105 to have one with a similar range. They’re both terrific lenses, so we can’t decide which one to keep and which one to sell!
We have a Nikon 70-200, which is a truly beautiful lens. For a long time neither of us used it much, but after I commented to that effect when I first published this post, Mark put it into his regular arsenal and uses it frequently now. It is a fabulous lens with excellent color rendition. Another advantage is that the zoom feature doesn’t lengthen or shorten the lens — it is always one length and all the zooming is physically done inside the lens. This means that dust doesn’t sneak into the lens when it is zoomed in and out the way it does with other lenses (like the 28-300, 24-120 and 24-105 mentioned above).
For wide angles, we have a Nikon 16-35 and a Nikon Nikon 18-35 so we can each shoot very wide angles simultaneously. Mark LOVES wide angle photography, and he uses these all the time. The 16-35 is more expensive, and was purchased as an upgrade from the 18-35, but he can’t seem to part with the 18-35 now, so I inherited it.
We have a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for shooting birds (like wild peach faced lovebirds here) and for wildlife — or even for stationary cacti at a faraway distance as in this image here. An alternative to this lens that is priced similarly is the Sigma 150-600 contemporary series lens. If it had been available, we probably would have purchased the Sigma 150-600 instead of the Tamron 150-600, but it wasn’t in production at the time. Another awesome option that has become available since our purchase is the Nikon 200-500 mm lens. That lens is on our wish list right now so we can each have a powerful zoom in situations where we want one.
What about those third party lenses?? Some are better than others, although Sigma’s Art Series lenses are really great these days (and expensive). When I was casting about for a “do it all” lens, we initially bought a Tamron 28-300 mm lens. It had terrible color rendition and didn’t focus for beans, so we returned it to buy the Nikon 28-300, which I totally love. I will be curious to see how the Tamron 150-600 stacks up against the Nikon 200-500 when we eventually buy it.
Our Past Cameras and Lenses
Do you need all this crazy stuff when you first get started? No!
When we began traveling, we purchased two Nikon D40 cameras, which were 6 megapixel crop-sensor cameras. Each came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens, and we got a Nikon 55-200 mm lens for distance. This was a great camera model to learn on, and we published five magazine cover photos taken with it.
Do you need to spend a bundle on a camera? No! I took this photo with a Nikon D40 that you can buy today (used) for $100.
The Nikon D40 (and its modern day equivalent Nikon D3300) are “crop sensor” cameras (or “DX” in Nikon lingo). This means the sensor is smaller than on a “full frame” camera (like our current Nikon D610 cameras which are “FX” in Nikon lingo). This, in turn, means the image quality is slightly lower and if you blew up the image to poster size it won’t look quite as good up close.
The D40 was discontinued long ago, but can be found on Craigslist and eBay for $100 to $150 with two lenses. One that has been lightly used will work just as well now as it did years back.
How do you tell how “used” a used camera is??
If you have a Mac, an easy way to find out how many shutter clicks a camera has is to take a photo, download it to your computer, export it or locate it in the Finder, and open it in Preview by double clicking on it. Then click on Tools > Show Inspector, click the “i” button and then the “Exif” button. The Image Number is the number of shutter clicks the camera has on it. This works only for cameras that have a mechanical shutter, not for pocket cameras with an electronic shutter.
My only frustration with the Nikon D40 was that there was no built-in cleaning system for the camera sensor, so every time we changed lenses the sensor was vulnerable to picking up dust — and it did! We used the Nikon D40 cameras fro 2007 until 2011.
Today’s “equivalent” entry level DSLR is the Nikon D3300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that is far more sophisticated than the D40 and not “equivalent” in any way except the price point. If you want to get it in a kit with multiple lenses, filters, camera bag, tripod, etc., you can pick up a really nice the Nikon D3300 kits right here.
The Nikon D610 and Tamron 150-600 mm lens. I’m in camo to keep from scaring the birds away. Think it will work when I point this huge scary lens at them? Not!!
In 2011, we upgraded to the Nikon D5100, a 16 megapixel crop-sensor camera. Like the Nikon D40, this camera was also a “crop sensor” or “DX” camera.It came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens. We got a Nikon 55-300 lens, and I ran all over Mexico with both of those lenses, switching back and forth all day long.
In hindsight, I should have gotten the Nikon 18-300 lens and spared myself the hassle of carrying a second lens and switching lenses all the time (I missed so many great shots because I was fumbling with the camera!). But I had read some iffy reviews of the first edition of that lens and decided against it (the current model is its 3rd generation and I’ve met people who LOVE this lens. Oh well!).
The best thing about that camera was the built-in sensor cleaner. Living in the salty and dusty environment of coastal Mexico, this was huge. The other fun thing about that camera was the flip-out display on the back. You could put the camera in Live View, then set it on the ground or hold it overhead and still see your composition on the back of the camera.
We used the Nikon D5100 cameras from 2011 to 2013. The Nikon D5100 has been discontinued. Today’s “equivalent” level DSLR is the Nikon D5300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that, again, is far more sophisticated than the predecessor that we had. This is an outstanding “intermediate” camera and can be purchased in a Nikon D5300 camera and lens bundle.
If you have a few more dollars to spend, the Nikon D7200 is even better. It is still a crop sensor camera, but it is very sophisticated. Like the others, if you are starting out, getting a Nikon D7200 Camera and Lens Kit is very cost effective.
Sometimes carrying a big DSLR camera is inconvenient. We both like having a pocket camera for times when a DSLR is too big.
This camera is very rugged. The bruises it has given me on my backside are proof that it holds up a lot better than I do when I fall off my bike and land on it. I like it because the lens doesn’t move in and out when it zooms, and you can drop it and not worry about breaking it. Here are a bunch of photos it took: Bell Rock Pathway in Sedona Arizona.
Mark has a Nikon Coolpix A that he is nuts about because it is just like a mini DSLR. He doesn’t do crazy things like take photos while riding his bike one handed the way I do (and he’s less prone to falling off), so he doesn’t mind having a more delicate camera in his pocket. It is a 16 megapixel camera that has most of the features of a the Nikon D610, except it is a crop-sensor camera that has a fixed 28 mm lens that can’t be changed. It has been discontinued.
Prior to that, he had a Nikon Coolpix P330 (also discontinued). It could shoot in raw format, which was the reason he chose it, but it didn’t produce nearly the quality images of the Coolpix A.
Lots of folks use a smartphone for all their photo ops or as an alternative to their DSLR. We don’t have a smartphone, but we have used a lot of them at scenic overlooks when groups of people pass their cameras around to get pics of themselves. One thing we’ve noticed is that there is a big difference in dynamic range (the rendering of bright spots and shadows) between Androids and iPhones, with iPhones being much better. This is probably common knowledge and not news to you at all, and it may be partly due to which generation of smartphone a person hands us to get their portrait taken.
Batteries – We have two batteries for each of our Nikon D610’s, so we each always have a fully charged battery on hand besides the one in the camera. We’ve found the Watson batteries are a good alternative to the more expensive Nikon batteries. My Watson battery died shortly after the manufacturer’s warranty expired, and I was impressed that they honored it anyway and replaced it for me.
Memory Cards – We also have two memory cards in each camera (the Nikon D610 has two card slots in it). We use the SanDisk 95 MB/second SD cards. We like these fast SD cards because when we start shooting in a burst (holding the shutter down and letting the camera take pics as fast as it can — for instance, when a bison jumps over a fence in front of us), the faster the card can be written to, the faster the camera’s internal memory buffer will empty, and the longer the camera can keep shooting at top speed. Faster SD cards also download photos to the computer faster.
Every evening we download all our photos onto our laptops and reformat the memory cards in the camera. We’ve heard that this reduces the chance of the card failing and losing all our photos (which happened to me once long ago with a Kingston card – ugh!).
The Hoodman Loupe – A Game Changer! The Hoodman Loupe revolutionized our photography because we were suddenly able to see our photos clearly on the back of our cameras and then retake the photo if necessary. The loupe fits over the LCD screen, blocking the glare and magnifying the image. The lens is adjustable, so no matter how good or bad your eyes are, you can adjust it until you can see the image perfectly clearly. We have the original hard sided loupe. A new model collapses down so it can be stored more compactly. In a lot of the photos of me on this website, you can see my Hoodman loupe hanging around my neck!
The Hoodman Loupe lets you see the image on the back of the camera clearly, adjusted for your eyes, and without glare.
Battery Grip – Mark occasionally uses a Vello Battery Grip on his camera. This grip can hold extra batteries and also makes it possible to take portrait oriented shots (vertical images) while holding the camera as if it were upright rather than twisting your right arm over your head. Mark absolutely loves his. I use mine only occasionally because I can’t use it with my tripod L-bracket (see below).
Camera Straps – We replaced the standard Nikon camera straps with the Optech Pro Strap. This strap is thick and cushy and is slightly curved to fit the curve of your shoulder. It also has quick release clasps so you can easily unclip it from the camera when you’re using a tripod.
For a long time we preferred the B+W brand for all our filters, although we’ve used a lot of Hoya filters over the years too. We’ve also tried Tiffen filters, but find they are hit-and-miss. Often, if a “lens deal” includes a filter with the lens, it’s not a great one. Most recently, we have begun buying Nikon filters which seem to be the best quality all around. Just be sure you get the right size for your lens (52 mm or 77 mm, etc.).
UV Filters – We have UV filters for all our lenses to provide protection for them.
Polarizing Filters – We also have polarizing filters for all our lenses. A polarizer makes it possible to enhance the colors or reduce the glare in certain lighting situations. It is best around midday and has less effect at dawn and dusk. It is wonderful around bodies of water and for removing the dashboard glare on the windshield when taking photos from inside a car. A polarizer adds a lot of contrast to an image, however, so while it can enhance a landscape beautifully, I’ve found it makes street photography of people too contrasty.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters – We occasionally use a graduated neutral density filter when the sky is very pale and the scene we are shooting is dark. This kind of filter is half colored and half clear. By twisting it so the colored part lines up with the sky and the clear part lines up with the darker landscape, the sky and landscape come out more evenly exposed. They are also very helpful for sunrises and sunsets.
Neutral Density Filters – When shooting moving water, a neutral density filter darkens what the camera sees enough so the shutter speed can be increased to show silky movement in the water without it being blown out and all white. These filters are also helpful if you want to use a very big aperture (small “F number”) to blur out a background and the camera’s top shutter speed isn’t fast enough to get proper exposure. These filters come in different degrees of darkness. A 10-stop filter is good for shooting a waterfall in broad daylight while a 4-stop filter is good for the same scene at dawn or dusk. We had fun with moving water photography at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York, the Blue Ridge Parkway in N. Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in N. Carolina.
It is really hard to invest in a tripod after blowing the bank account on a nice camera, a few lenses, spare batteries, memory cards and filters. And you can have loads of fun with photography without getting a tripod. But if you want to play with shooting (and showing) motion (i.e., a car going by, clouds streaking across the sky or water flowing) or you want to have perfect exposure in very low light (like a sunset) without a flash, or you want to do some timelapse videos (very cool at sunrise in a big canyon) then a tripod is a must.
Sunwayfoto XB52-DL Ballhead with T2C40C Tripod and Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp
Most people end up upgrading their tripod several times because they just can’t believe, at first, that they have to spend good hard earned money on a tripod, and they go through a bunch of cheap ones before they bite the bullet and get a decent one! We did that, and lots of our friends did too.
The biggest difference between tripods is how much weight they can hold solidly, how easy they are to set up and adjust, and whether things drift or droop a little after you tighten the buttons. I have a Benro carbon fiber tripod that I absolutely love. The legs slide in and out really smoothly, and the adjustments are easy.
Mark has Sunwayfoto tripod legs and ballhead that he loves. We reviewed them in depth at this link:
We both have the SunWay Foto L-Bracket that attaches to the camera body and lets us set the camera in the tripod in either Landscape or Portrait orientation very easily. I keep my L-bracket on the camera all the time for simplicity in case I want to grab my tripod quickly, but it means I can’t use my Vello Battery Grip. Mark loves his battery grip, so he has to switch back and forth between the regular tripod bracket that fits on the camera along with the battery grip and the L-bracket that doesn’t.
We love doing night photography, photographing the milky way and the stars, and doing light painting on old buildings for ghostly effects. At Waterton Lakes National Park we did a timelapse video of the Milky Way.
When we are hiking on a remote trail in the middle of the night, or light painting a building to make it appear visible in a nighttime photo, we find that a good flashlight is essential.
Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen tactical flashlight next to a pocket Mag Light
Built with heavy duty aerospace aluminum, it has a military grade hard-anodized aluminum finish and is water resistant to 2 meters. Offering 3 power levels plus a strobe, there’s also an LED tail light that can be used as a night light when we’re setting up our camera gear in the dark. It also has threads on the bottom for mounting on a tripod.
The flashlight batteries are rechargeable and there is a battery level indicator. The flashlight ships with a wall charger and 12 volt car charging cords, and it comes in a suitcase! The batteries are so strong, it can be used to recharge other smaller devices like cell phones via 2 USB ports.
This is not a pocket flashlight, but it has slots in the end for a strap that makes it very easy to carry.
We love this flashlight and just wish we had had it when we cruised Mexico on our sailboat, as it is far more powerful than the emergency floodlight we had for rescuing a man overboard!
With all this camera stuff, it can be a challenge to figure out how to carry it to scenic spots and where to store it in the RV and truck when we’re not using it. Also, our camera gear takes a lot of abuse from dusty air out west, salty air on the coast, and sunscreen from our faces and hands. So it needs to be cleaned periodically. Here’s where we’re at with all this right now:
Hiking With Camera Equipment
When we go on a hike of a few miles, it is likely to take us four hours or more because we stop to take so many photos. So, we want to have water, snacks, our camera gear, tripods, and possibly a jacket with us. There are a lot of camera-specific backpacks and sling style camera bags on the market, but none we’ve seen is really designed for hiking.
After a lot of searching, we finally decided to use big Camelback hydration packs instead of bona-fide camera bags when we hike with all our photography stuff, and we’ve been really happy with this choice.
I have a Camelback H.A.W.G. and Mark has a Camelback Fourteener. Both can carry 100 ounces of water, and each has enough capacity for the Tamron 150-600 lens along with everything else if need be. (We never take more than two lenses with us — one on the camera and one in the pack).
The Camelback H.A.W.G. can hold a big camera.
We generally hike with our cameras slung around our necks so we can take photos with them as we walk. I put the Camelback on first and then put the camera on afterwards so the camera straps aren’t trapped under the shoulder straps of the Camelback. There’s nothing like getting caught in the Tourist Tangle!
My main criteria for choosing a Camelback was that I wanted to be able to put my camera (with the 28-300 mm lens attached) inside the Camelback and then close that compartment so I could scramble over something gnarly that required two hands and not worry about the camera slipping out of the pack. And it had to do that with 100 ounces of water in the hydration pack.
My other criteria was that I wanted to be able to hang my tripod on one of the Camelback straps and hike without carrying it in my hand.
The straps on the sides of the H.A.W.G. aren’t designed to carry a tripod, and they may fatigue over time, but I’ve been really happy with how this Camelback has held up on the many hikes I’ve taken with it so far in two years of owning it.
The straps on the sides of the Fourteener are designed to hold ice picks and things like that, so they are probably a little more rugged. If I had known about the Fourteener before I bought my H.A.W.G., I probably would have bought that model instead. Mark has had it almost as long as I’ve had my H.A.W.G., and he is very happy with it as well.
The tripod fits neatly on the side of the H.A.W.G., and the camera straps aren’t trapped under the Camelback straps.
One really nice feature of both of these Camelback models is that they have a waterproof rain sack that can be pulled out of a hidden pocket and slipped over the whole Camelback, keeping the contents dry if you’re caught in a downpour. This came in super handy at the Duggers Creek Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
One of the tricks with backpacks in general is that, if they have a waist belt, you can loosen the belt a little, slip your arms out of the arm straps and then swing the pack around so it is in front of you. This way you can get something out of it without taking it off and putting it on the ground. This is fantastic when you want to swap filters, grab a snack, or change batteries without taking the whole darn thing off.
Once we get to an area where we’re going to take a lot of photos, we take the tripods off the Camelbacks and we carry them around in our hands until we’re ready to hike out again.
We carry a plastic bag (a shopping bag is fine) in our packs in case it sprinkles and we want to cover our cameras for a short time. We also carry rain ponchos so we can cover ourselves and our Camelbacks in the event of unexpected rain.
Short Walks With Photography Gear
If we are going to spend the day roaming around but not hiking, or if we’re taking photos a short distance from the truck, we don’t take the big Camelbacks. I use a small fanny pack to carry a spare battery and possibly a second lens. Mark likes to wear a photographer’s vest that has lots of pockets for all his goodies. He likes the one he has, but has his eye on the Phototools Photovest 14!
Storing All This Stuff
In the trailer we have Ruggard camera cases and Ruggard backpacks to hold the cameras and lenses. We also have camera cases in the truck. We’ve found good homes for the tripods in the truck too, and they generally stay there so they are with us if we arrive somewhere and suddenly wish we had them with us.
Sometimes the camera’s built-in sensor cleaning system doesn’t quite do the trick, and getting debris off the camera sensor can be really intimidating. Rather than paying for an expensive cleaning at a camera shop, we’ve discovered that the Sensor Gel Stick sold by Photography Life does a phenomenal job (don’t get the cheap Chinese imitation ones). Check out the video under the product description here to see how to do it. It’s easy and we have done it many times.
We each have a plain MacBook Pro (no retina display) with 16 GB RAM and a 1 TB internal drive and slots for CD, SD card, Thunderbolt, etc. (2012-style case). We also each have a 4 TB external hard drive with a Thunderbolt dock that allows multiple drives to be daisy-chained.
We use Adobe Lightroom for most of our post-processing. The easiest way to learn Lightroom is the Julianne Kost Lightroom Videos. Julianne is Adobe’s “Lightroom Evangelist” (what a great title and job!) and her presentations are clear and concise.
Organizing photos is never easy, and everyone has a different method. Lightroom lets only one person work on a catalog at a time, so we each have separate Lightroom catalogs. We make use of the Smart Previews in Lightroom to get access to each other’s photos without transferring all the original photo files between our laptops. All we have to transfer is the catalog, previews and smart previews. It’s clunky — I know they could do better — but it works.
We also have a separate Lightroom catalogs for each year. The older catalogs are stored on external hard drives and the current year catalogs are on our laptops. We try to make sure all our photos are in two places (laptop and external drive or on two external drives). Some of our older photos are in Apple’s Aperture and our oldest are in Apple’s iPhoto, the two post-processing programs we used prior to Lightroom.
I don’t want to have to plug in an external drive every time I go into Lightroom, which is why we keep our current year’s photos and catalogs local to our laptops. We have our previous year’s catalogs and smart previews on our laptops so we can see and work with our older photos. If we need the full image of an older photo, we plug in the appropriate external hard drive, and the catalog on the laptop reconnects with the original images.
We don’t store anything in the cloud.
We organize our photos by location but like to have an overall sense of the chronological order in which we visited places, since that is the way we remember our travels. So, we label our folders with 2 digits followed by the state to bring up the states in the order in which we visited them.
Inside of each state folder, we name every download with a 4-digit date (month/day) followed by the specific location. For photos that aren’t location specific (like photos of our trailer disc brake conversion or fifth wheel suspension failure, we move them after downloading to a MISC folder and name a subfolder within it more appropriately or add them to an existing folder.
2 digits to order the states chronologically, then 4-digit dates on subfolders with the specific location.
Photomatix Pro is an excellent program for creating HDR (high dynamic range) effects from several identical photos taken at different exposures, and Topaz Adjust and Topaz Detail in the Topaz Suite of software are great for getting a little wild with crazy effects at the click of a button.
For panoramas, we use Panorama Maker to stitch together a series of photos.
We use the X-Rite Color Checker Passport to create custom color profiles calibrated to specific camera and lens combinations. It also comes with a gray card that we sometimes use to set a custom white balance for particular light conditions.
Photography is something you can spend the rest of your life learning. We’ve been reading and studying photography books and blogs for a few years now, and we have found the following printed books and ebooks and online resources to be really helpful in conquering both the technical aspects of understanding what all those buttons on our cameras do and the artistic aspects of how to capture the essence of what we’re seeing.
If you enjoy a good, dense, technical tome, The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum is outstanding. It is heavy going, but if you can get through it, it’s like taking a college course on art theory, photographic techniques and the history of photography.
The website that has taught us the most is Photography Life written by Nasim Mansurov and his very talented team. He has super detailed gear reviews and his site is read by many of the top professionals in the photography world. His tutorials are excellent, and he has two pages with links to them all:
After a few years wiggles crept in and we started using Hitch Tighteners to make the rack even more stable
The Kuat NV Bike Rack is available at Amazon (left ad), and if you are putting this rack on a car (not an RV), you can add the extension (right ad).
We receive a 4-6% commission from Amazon (at no cost to you) if you make purchases through our links. This helps us cover our out-of-pocket costs for this site, but doesn’t pay us for our time writing reviews like this.
If you make an Amazon purchase here, please drop us a line to let us know so we can say thank you!
We got a flat on our dually’s inside rear tire (passenger side) while towing our trailer — Oof!!
Our 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually has been a fabulous truck for us since we bought it six months ago, and we’ve now got 9,100 miles on it now, 4,633 miles towing and 4,467 miles driving around without our fifth wheel trailer attached.
A few days ago, we stopped at the Libby Dam on the Kootenay River in Montana to get a photo. As I walked around the back of the truck, I heard a weird hissing noise. I stuck my head into the wheel well, and my heart sank when I saw a huge bolt head on the rear inside tire. I put my finger on it, and the hissing stopped. I lifted my finger and the hissing started again. Oh, no!
I almost didn’t have the heart to tell Mark, but after we’d gotten our photos of the dam, I told him the bad news.
We were in a pretty remote spot, completely out of cell phone and internet range. We hit the nifty “Assist” button on the rear view mirror of the truck to give Dodge a call and ask some questions about changing rear tires, but the call wasn’t able to go through.
Ram trucks have a cool “Assist” button that connects you straight to Dodge…if you’re not in the boonies!
The closest town was Libby, Montana. It boasts a population of 2,700 people, but it was 17 miles down the road.
So much for getting any kind of roadside assistance!
The timing for this little inconvenience wasn’t great. We’d been on the road, towing, for 100 miles, and Mark had just been telling me he was ready to call it quits and take a nap. Oh well. No napping just yet!
Luckily, unlike the last time we’d been stranded on the side of the road — when one of our trailer tires blew out four months ago, shortly after our trailer suspension repair — rather than being on the traffic side of an interstate with cars whizzing by at 75 mph, we were working curbside in a nice big pullout next to an extremely quiet country road where a car would leisurely pass by us every five minutes or so.
We unhitched the truck from the trailer to make it a little easier to get at the rear wheels. Mark got our bottle jack out from its storage spot under the driver’s side rear seat of the truck, and he began setting it up. I grabbed a stool from our fifth wheel basement and laid out some mats on the ground to create a work space for him.
From a lifetime of mechanical work, he learned long ago to protect his hands, so he pulled on a pair of leather work gloves that he keeps in the truck.
The first step for changing the tire was to remove the hubcap.
Start by removing the hubcap to reveal the lug nuts.
Then, using a breaker bar, he loosened all of the lug nuts. Doing this with the wheel still on the ground is easier than after it’s lifted, because the wheel can’t spin.
Use a breaker bar to loosen the lug nuts while the wheels are still on the ground.
We used to carry a 4-way lug wrench for swapping out flat tires, but one time one of the arms twisted like a strand of licorice as Mark tried to unscrew a stubborn lug nut that wouldn’t budge. It was probably a cheap 4-way lug wrench. Most likely, a better quality 4-way lug wrench wouldn’t have done that, but Mark swore off of those things right then and there, and we’ve been carrying a breaker bar ever since.
Our bottle jack is rated for 12 tons, enough to hold up the axles of either our trailer or truck easily. More important, it’s also tall enough for the axles on our trailer which we raised a few inches higher from the factory standard during our trailer suspension overhaul to help keep our rear end from dragging on steep ramps at gas stations and on uneven dirt roads.
He unscrewed the top of the bottle jack to raise it up.
Unscrew the top of the bottle jack by hand to raise it.
He placed it under a flat metal piece that was welded onto the axle.
Place the bottle jack under a solid flat spot on the axle.
The bottle jack comes with a two-part handle. After removing the two plastic end caps, one tube can be fitted into the other to make a long handle and give you some leverage while pumping up the jack.
Remove the plastic endcaps and fit the tubes together to form a long handle.
He pumped the handle up and down to raise the top of the bottle jack and lift the axle slightly so the wheels no longer touched the ground.
Raise the rear axle of the truck by pumping the bottle jack handle.
Collect the lug nuts in the hubcap so they don’t roll away.
Then he pulled off the outer wheel.
Pull the wheel off.
The outer wheel is off, now for the inner wheel…
The wheel studs on a dually are extra long to hold both wheels onto the truck. So, once the outer wheel was removed, he could pull off the inner wheel.
Slide the inner wheel off.
And there was the culprit — a big fat self-tapping bolt!
And there it is — a nasty self-tapping bolt. Arghh!!
Our 2016 Ram 3500 came with a toolkit for raising and lowering the spare tire. It is located behind a plastic trim piece under the passenger’s seat.
The toolkit for lowering the spare tire is under the passenger’s seat.
He pulled off the plastic trim piece to get the toolkit out.
Here is the toolkit for lowering and raising the spare tire from its spot under the truck chassis.
Then he pulled the toolkit out from under the passenger’s seat. It is held in place with two knobs, one of which is tightened with a wingnut. When he put the toolkit back in place later, he had to align it before sliding it in, and then tighten the wingnut.
The toolkit is held in place by these knobs (the left one is a wing nut).
The toolkit has several handle extensions and other goodies in it.
The toolkit has all kinds of goodies in it, including a lug wrench that Mark opted not to use since it is probably even more flimsy than a 4-way.
One of the goodies is an L-shaped handle, and there are several extensions that interconnect to lengthen the handle as well.
Two of these tubes fit together to form a long handle that attach to the L-shaped handle.
He assembled two handle extensions to make a long rod and attached the L-shaped handle to the end. Then he inserted this handle into a hole above the license plate bracket. There is a square fitting inside the hole. The end of the handle slipped over the square fitting.
The L-shaped handle and extension tubes fit onto the square fitting in the hole next to the license plate bracket.
Then, he rotated the handle slowly.
Twist the handle to lower (or raise) the spare tire.
This gradually lowered the spare tire from its storage spot under the chassis of the truck onto the ground
The spare tire is held to the truck chassis by a brace that compresses a spring.
The spare tire is held tight to the underside of the truck with a spring fitting that can be snugged nice and tight.
Bracket and spring under the spare tire.
Then he mounted the spare tire on the truck to replace the flat tire.
The spare tire is mounted on the truck.
Next, he slid the outer wheel in place. Using his cordless impact driver, he replaced the lug nuts, tightening them in increments. Starting at the valve stem, he tightened the closest lug nut a bit and then tightened the one that was opposite, then tightened the next one, and then the one opposite that one, etc., working his way around the rim and tightening the wheel equally all the way around. Then he gave each lug nut a final tightening using the breaker bar.
Then he put the hubcap back on. It didn’t pop on really easily using his palm, so he used the top of a rubber mallet to tap it in place.
The hubcap didn’t snap in place using palms only, but the butt end of a soft rubber mallet did the trick.
Interestingly, we could now see exactly how much rubber we had worn off our rear tires in 9,100 miles, because the wheels didn’t hang down evenly.
The brand new spare and 9,000 mile used tire are different heights.
Using a pocket knife, he got a rough estimate of just how much rubber had been worn off — maybe 1/8″ or so.
About 1/8″ of rubber has come off of the tire in 9,000 miles of driving.
He raised the flat tire up into the storage spot under the truck chassis where the spare tire had been, and lowered the bottle jack under the axle so the truck was sitting on all four rear wheels again. We hitched the trailer back up and started to drive.
Our fancy new truck has a cool display (the DID, or Driver Information Display) that shows the air pressure in each of the six tires on the truck (this is the TPMS, or Tire Pressure Monitor System). We were both really alarmed when the spare tire reported that it had 17 lbs. of pressure while the other three rear tires all had 63 to 65 lbs. What the heck??
The tire pressure for the spare is 17 lbs. Yikes!! (huh????)
The dealership where we bought the truck had told us they’d aired up the spare when we bought the truck new six months earlier. Even though Mark usually uses a tire gauge to measure the air in the spare, he hadn’t this time because it was a brand new tire that seemed perfectly good, had the right sound when he thumped it, and bounced nicely on the ground.
But we grew ever more alarmed as the dashboard display showed 15 lbs., then 13 lbs., and then went to dashes. The road was super quiet, so while driving the 17 miles to get to the Les Schwab tire place in Libby, we pulled over several times to check that the tire wasn’t heating up… It wasn’t.
Now the tire pressure is dashes. What does THAT mean??
We made it to Les Schwab, and they put a terrific new kind of patch on the tire that mounts from the inside. It has a big round rubber flange that mounts inside the tire with a plug that fills the hole.
The spare turned out to have 65 lbs. of air pressure, just the way it should have. So, we all scratched our heads for a while about the weird air pressure numbers we’d seen on the dashboard.
Then our service guy suddenly brightened up. “I know what it was!” he said. “The spare tire doesn’t have a sensor in it to report its tire pressure to the truck, but the original tire did!”
So, as the original tire was being carried under the chassis of the truck, where the spare usually sits, it was transmitting its decreasing tire pressure to the console on the dashboard, and the dashboard was dutifully displaying the numbers as coming from the right inside rear tire even though the tire was no longer in that position. Eventually the tire pressure got so low it was below the minimum, so the display showed dashes.
It turns out that that option for the spare tire to have a sensor on the valve stem is only available on Premium models of Ram trucks. We never saw that option in any dealer option lists.
I just showed this post to Mark to see what he thought, and he looked at me in astonishment and said, “When did you take all these photos? This is great!”
“When you were changing the tire!” I explained. “I’m sneaky!” (And I’d MUCH rather write about changing a tire than do it myself!)
The last breakdown — the failure of our fifth wheel trailer’s suspension — ended up being the most expensive repair of them all, because the entire trailer suspension had to be replaced. We were so miserable about the whole situation as it unfolded last fall in Phoenix, Arizona, that the last thing I wanted to do was to write about it on this blog.
So, the story has waited five months until now when our spirits are high and we’re camped near a stunning lake in the Canadian Rockies!
Repairs aside, this is why we RV!
2015 was a phenomenal year of travel for us, but it could have been a financial disaster.
That was the scary total cost of all our RV repairs in 2015. Yikes!!
Fortunately, our out of pocket cost was just $1,045, because we had an extended RV warranty for our trailer.
Here's a summary of what our four year RV warranty through Wholesale Warranties cost, what our repairs WOULD HAVE cost, and what our warranty reimbursements have been to date:
We had to replace a trailer axle after driving the rough back roads in Nova Scotia
Besides damaging a trailer axle while we were in Nova Scotia, we also sprang leaks in both our fresh water tank and in our big rear window. The underbelly compartment of our trailer was filling with water whenever we filled our fresh water tank, and our rear window was leaking water all over our living room carpet whenever it rained (and it rains a lot in the northeast). Ugh!
Sadly, large fresh water tanks are not a commodity item, because they come in all shapes and sizes.
So, rather than waiting for two months for a new fresh water tank to come to the repair shop in Maine, we decided to do both of these water-related repairs (as well as a bunch of other smaller repairs) in Chanute, Kansas, at NuWa Industries, the factory repair facility where our trailer was originally manufactured.
NuWa claimed to have a fresh water tank for our trailer model in stock (this proved not to be the case, but that is another story), and they had an appointment available in two months (and no sooner!).
We could live with the leaks and other small problems, so this gave us two months to get from Maine to Kansas. We moseyed west and enjoyed a fabulous stay in Maysville, Kentucky.
Unfortunately, within 24 hours of leaving there, our RV refrigerator died. Good grief — While en route from a trailer axle repair in Maine to a bunch of plumbing related repairs in Kansas, we had to get a new RV fridge somewhere near western Kentucky. Not many places stock 8 cubic foot Dometic RV refrigerators! We scrambled and got our RV refrigerator replaced outside Indianapolis.
We had to replace our RV refrigerator after 8 years (the typical lifespan for a fridge, we found out!)
Luckily, the refrigerator replacement at Camping World went really well.
Once we got to Chanute, Kansas for our new fresh water tank, window repair, toilet repair, faucet replacement and a few other things, our buggy had to stay in the shop for three days!!
We had to replace our fresh water tank and do many other plumbing and leak-related repairs.
We were not allowed to stay in our rig while it was in the shop in Kansas. Fortunately, the trailer warranty reimbursement for those three days of repairs included our two nights at a motel. Thank goodness for that warranty once again!
Sadly, our saga of trailer repairs was not over yet.
TRAILER SUSPENSION FAILURE
Since we had left Maine (where we had gotten our new trailer axle installed), we had watched with alarm as the two wheels on our trailer’s tandem axles had gotten progressively closer and closer together. The frame of our trailer, built by Lippert Components, had always had very narrow spacing between the two wheels.
When we had upgraded from the factory installed E-rated (10 ply) tires to the higher profile G-rated (14 ply) tires a few years prior, I could squeeze two fingers between the tires. After our trailer axle replacement and new tire purchase in Maine, I verified that this was still the case.
Spacing between the wheels is two finger widths.
However, by the time we got to Phoenix, I could barely get the tip of my pinky finger between them and I could not slide my whole pinky in.
My pinky finger can squeeze only partway in between the tires!
The spacing was down to less than 1/4 inch.
Sagging suspension made our wheels dangerously close together.
Something was very wrong.
We took the trailer to Straight Line Suspension in Mesa, Arizona, a repair shop that had a newly outfitted facility that does a lot of contract suspension maintenance work on fleets of school buses and commercial trucks.
After careful inspection, their consensus was that we needed to revamp the trailer’s suspension completely. Something was failing, and whether the culprit was the leaf springs, or the equalizer between the springs or the axles themselves, no one could determine exactly.
Our buggy goes into the repair shop for a new suspension.
And this is where we were glad not just to have any old extended warranty contract on our trailer but to have one purchased through Wholesale Warranties.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING AN ALLY
Unlike most RV warranty brokers, Wholesale Warranties is heavily invested in the relationship between their clients and the warranty providers they represent. They want to be sure that their customers’ claims are properly handled by the warranty companies. So, they are more than happy to get involved in their clients’ claims to facilitate and make sure there are no misunderstandings.
This level of commitment to their products and belief in them is truly astonishing. And it makes all the difference in the world.
When the service provider (Straight Line Suspension) first called our warranty provider (Portfolio Protection), the warranty company was understandably reluctant to cover the repair without knowing the root cause of the failure. They pressed the shop to determine which specific part had caused the failure. Was it the shocks? The leaf springs? The axles? They wanted to replace only the component(s) that failed and nothing more. That makes sense!
However, the suspension experts had no idea which part had failed, and they said there was no easy way to figure that out. So, we called Wholesale Warranties and had a long conversation with John Wise. We described to him the gradual failure we had witnessed and the difficulty of pin-pointing exactly which component(s) had failed and in what order the failure(s) had occurred.
I emailed him photos of our wheel spacing both before and after the failure. Thank goodness I take so many photos and had both “before” and “after” photos to send him!
He then called our warranty company, Portfolio Protection, and reviewed the photos with them. He explained that the suspension mechanics were not sure exactly what had caused the failure but that the suspension was not functioning properly and needed to be replaced.
In the end, Portfolio Protection agreed to replace the springs, equalizers and shocks and also to correct the insufficient spacing between the leaf spring hangers, placing them further apart so that even if some components failed or sagged in the future, there would no risk that the wheels would touch.
If it weren’t for Wholesale Warranties coming to our aid to act as a liaison and facilitator and to help explain our breakdown in a way that the warranty provider could understand, this vital repair would not have been covered.
Of course, the role of Wholesale Warranties is strictly as a facilitator. They can’t force the provider to reimburse a repair that is not covered by the contract. We have called Wholesale Warranties for liaison assistance several times now, and they have been very up front when our repair was outside the limits of our contract.
However, being able to call them and describe the problem and get their input is extremely helpful. This is particularly true in cases like our trailer axle repair where both our RV insurance plan AND our RV warranty contract could be used to pay for the repair, but one was financially preferable to the other due to differing deductibles and different kinds of coverage.
FIFTH WHEEL TRAILER SUSPENSION REPLACEMENT
The first step in our trailer suspension replacement was to jack up the trailer and remove the two axles. We had just done a fabulous trailer disc brake conversion eight months earlier, and this was the THIRD time the hydraulic lines had been tampered with due to removing the axles or the belly pan from the frame. How frustrating!
The trailer axles are removed from the trailer.
Once the axles were off the trailer, the next step was to remove the leaf spring hangers.
The hangers must be cut off the frame.
The sparks flew like mad as each of the six hangers was cut off the frame using a torch.
Sparks fly as the old trailer leaf spring hangers are cut off
Straight Line Suspension wanted to ensure the new springs were strong enough, so they chose 8,000 lb. American made springs from Rockwell American, even though we had just 7,000 lb. axles and only 11,250 lbs. sitting on the pair of axles (as of our most recent RV weighing by the Escapees Smartweigh program).
New 8000 lb American made leaf springs from Rockwell American
They pointed out to us the difference between Chinese made springs and American made springs. Chinese steel is notorious for being inferior to American steel, and the overall fabrication quality of the springs, especially at the eye, was not as good.
The eye of the American made leaf springs looks clean and well made.
Not so much for the Chinese made leaf springs
Our trailer’s original Chinese springs had come with nylon bushings inside the eye, but they had been upgraded to brass bushings. When the old springs were removed from the trailer, we saw the brass bushings inside were worn out. The curvature of the spring from the eye was also flat, an indication that the spring itself was worn out.
Worn out bushings and the spring is flat — no curvature left! (compare to above pics!)
Straight Line Suspension fabricated a new leaf spring hanger system that had three hangers welded onto a bar. These hangers would space the axles further apart than they originally had been.
New custom trailer leaf spring hangers
The bar was then welded onto the underside of the trailer frame.
The new trailer leaf spring hanger bar is positioned so it can be welded onto the frame.
After welding on the new hanger bar, new equalizers were bolted onto each center hangers.
Then the leaf springs were bolted onto the outer hangers.
Springs and equalizers in place — all set to reinstall the axles.
The axles were installed using new U-bolts. Straight Line Suspension also made a brace to span the width of the trailer between the two hanger bars to add some rigidity to the suspension system.
A brace running across the width of the trailer makes the system stronger and more sturdy.
We flew to turn off the inverter and then began troubleshooting segments of our AC wiring to try to figure out the problem.
Suddenly, we heard a huge loud POP. And that was the end of the inverter.
Good heavenly days.
Luckily, the inverter was still under its manufacturer’s warranty. Exeltech is phenomenal about caring for their equipment out in the field. They provide inverters to NASA and their equipment is on both the American and Russian sides of the International Space Station. They take great pride in their equipment and have an excellent warranty repair process.
Mark undid the really nice inverter installation job he’d done for our Exeltech, boxed it up, and shipped it to Exeltech’s Ft. Worth, Texas, facility.
Geez… Our beautiful inverter (the suspended black box) had been working flawlessly! (To keep the inverter cool and well clear of the batteries, yet still close, it is securely suspended above)
In the meantime, we spent a day troubleshooting our wiring to try to understand what had gone wrong. It wasn’t clear to us how the trailer suspension replacement might have impacted our trailer wiring, and Straight Line Suspension was certain that the two were unrelated.
After many hours of crawling under the trailer, and removing the belly pan section by section, and running our fingers along the frame and shining a flashlight into the unreachable depths, we found a spot where the AC trunk line was resting on the frame.
Well, it wasn’t exactly resting any more. The heat from the cutting and welding torches had melted the cable’s insulation onto the frame!
Mark carefully incised the casing, separated the hot and neutral lines, re-wrapped them in new insulation and affixed the cable firmly to the underside of the plywood flooring well away from the frame.
How had this happened?
Sadly, Straight Line Suspension did not check the frame sufficiently in the areas where they would be welding before they started torching the hangers off of it and welding on the new hanger system. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do because a plastic corrugated sheeting covers the entire underbelly of the trailer, protecting the tanks and wiring from road grime.
In order to inspect the frame before taking a torch to it, this corrugated sheeting must be removed, and any wiring in the area where the welding will take place must be located to ensure that it is not touching the frame.
RV manufacturers should enclose all wiring in conduit, or at least tack it to the underside of the plywood flooring, rather running it along the I-beams. However, that was not the case in our trailer. The wiring was tacked up to the flooring in some places, but there were extensive gaps that sagged, and this one portion sagged enough to be touching the frame right where the cutting and welding took place.
While we waited for ten days or so for our inverter to make it to Ft. Worth, undergo diagnosis and repair then be shipped back to Phoenix, Mark installed our old Exeltech XP 1100 inverter in its place. Thank goodness we hung onto it after our upgrade from the 1100 watt to the 2000 watt version of the inverter!!
Straight Line Suspension paid for the expedited shipping and insurance for our inverter, and eventually, the happy day came when our inverter arrived and Mark got it put back in place.
The Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter has been repaired and is ready to be reinstalled.
Needless to say, this was an ordeal that was not fun to live through and one that I waited a long time to write about. However, it is an amazing illustration of just how valuable an RV warranty can be, especially if you get one from a broker that stands behind their customers during the claims process. It’s also an important reminder that if someone is going to take a torch to your RV frame, they should check the nearby wiring first!
We weren’t sure just how worthwhile an RV Warranty would be when we got ours, but 2015 would have been an extremely expensive year for us without it. It’s bad enough to be stuck on the side of the road. But having to pay through the nose for the nasty surprise of a major repair makes the ordeal even worse.
What’s worse than being dead on the side of the road? Knowing it’s gonna cost ya!
Wholesale Warranties loves our repair stories, and they have offered our readers a $50 discount on an RV warranty if you mention our website, Roads Less Traveled, when you set it up. The discount will come off the quoted price at the time of purchase (remind them before you sign if you don’t see it — it’s not automated!!). Here is the link to get a quote for a warranty on your particular RV:
Choosing a truck to pull a trailer is a critical decision for RVers, because getting there, and particularly getting there safely, is the first and most important part of enjoying the RV lifestyle! Towing specs and towing guidelines always give the outer limits of what a truck can safely tow. Too often, in towing situations, the trailer is a little too big for the truck, or the truck is a little too small for the trailer, pushing the truck right to its outer safety limits or beyond.
The 2016 Ram 3500 Dually is an awesomely powerful truck for towing big and heavy trailers
The truck-trailer combo may be just a little out of spec on paper, so it may seem okay, like you can get away with it, but it is a really unwise decision. Not only is it absolutely no fun to drive a truck that is screaming its little heart out to tow the load its tied to, but if you have an accident and it is determined your truck was towing a load that is beyond its safety limits, you will be liable.
Heaven forbid that there is a fatality in the accident — either yours or someone else’s. There are lots of horror stories out there of people’s lives that were transformed because someone decided not to get a truck that could tow their trailer safely.
Of course, truck and trailer salesmen don’t help. We have heard time and again, “That truck is fine for this trailer,” or “This trailer will be no problem for that truck.” Don’t listen to them! Trust your instincts and your gut feelings. If you are studying the specs and are nervous that your truck *might* be too small because your trailer puts it on the hairy edge of its specs, then you need a bigger truck or a smaller trailer.
We have been amazed at the huge difference between our old 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel and this new 2016 Ram 3500 dually
This article covers all the specifications we studied and were concerned about when we placed the order for our 2016 Ram 3500 truck to tow our 14,100 lb. 5th wheel trailer. You can navigate to the various sections with these links:
When we bought our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel long bed diesel truck with the 6.7 liter Cummins engine, its purpose was to tow a 7,000 lb. (fully loaded) 2007 Fleetwood Lynx travel trailer. Our 2004 Toyota Tundra (4.7 liter engine) had been okay to tow that trailer on paper, but when we took it on its first mountain excursion up and over Tioga Pass on the eastern side of Yosemite in California, it could not go faster than 28 mph with the gas pedal all the way to the floor. What a scary, white knuckle drive that was. Who needs that?
Our ’04 Toyota Tundra half-ton pickup rests as it tries to tow our 27′ travel trailer over Tioga Pass… sigh.
We replaced the Toyota Tundra with a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 which was rated to tow much bigger trailers than the little Lynx travel trailer, so all was good with that small travel trailer. However, within a year, we upgraded our trailer from the lightweight Fleetwood Lynx to a full-time quality, four season, 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker LS II fifth wheel trailer that the scales told us was 14,100 lbs. fully loaded. Suddenly, our big beefy diesel truck was at its outer limits!
We drove our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 and 36′ fifth wheel combo for seven years without a mishap, but it was not an ideal situation. The truck would strain in the mountains and would wander in strong cross winds on the highway. We installed a K&N Cold Air Intake Filter and an Edge Evolution Diesel tuner which helped the engine breathe better and increased its power (see our Edge Evolution Tuner Review), and we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System to keep the truck from sagging when hitched to the trailer. But the frame of the truck and the transmission were still stressed by the heavy load on steep inclines.
We wanted a truck that was well within its towing limits and that could tow our trailer effortlessly.
The weight ratings for trucks and trailers are an alphabet soup of confusion that takes a little imagination to grasp. Here’s a synopsis:
Unloaded Vehicle Weight
The weight of the vehicle without fuel, people and stuff
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating
The heaviest weight the vehicle can safely be when it is loaded up with fuel, people and stuff
Gross Combined Weight Rating
The most a truck-and-trailer combo can safely weigh when hitched together and loaded up with people, fuel, food, etc
The GVWR less the UVW
The amount of weight the truck can safely carry. Compare to the trailer’s Pin Weight
The actual weight on the truck’s rear axle when a trailer is hitched up. Compare to the Payload
The Pin Weight is most easily visualized by first imagining yourself standing on a bathroom scale and making a note of your weight. Then your teenage kid walks up and puts his arms around your neck and hangs on your shoulder. The weight on the scale goes up a little bit, but not a huge amount, because your kid is still standing on the floor on his own two feet. The more he leans on you, the more weight the scale shows.
The difference between the weight the scale shows when your kid is hanging on your shoulder and the weight it shows when you’re by yourself is the “pin weight.” In the case of you and your kid, the “pin weight” might be 30 lbs.
The Pin Weight is the weight of the trailer at the hitch pin, a value that has to be calculated.
The following chart shows the factory safety weight ratings given by Chrysler and NuWa and the actual weights for our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 truck and ’07 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker 5th Wheel trailer. We had our rig weighed by the Escapees Smart Weigh program at their North Ranch RV Park in Wickenburg, Arizona. This is a detailed, wheel by wheel, RV specific method of weighing.
Our truck, when loaded, carries fuel, 24 gallons of water, a generator and BBQ, the fifth wheel hitch, several leveling boards, two huge bins of “stuff” and ourselves, as well as the pin weight of the trailer. So, even though the pin weight itself was within tolerance on our ’07 Dodge 3500, all that other stuff made the truck way overweight. Moving those things to the trailer would clog our fifth wheel basement and would just make the trailer way overweight instead.
2007 Dodge Ram 3500 SRW (Single Rear Wheel) Truck
* LOADED with passengers, fuel and cargo but not towing
Besides the pin weight, our truck carries spare water, a heavy hitch, leveling boards, and generator. And there’s more stuff plus ourselves in the cab!
We improved our trailer’s cargo carrying capacity by upgrading from E rated tires to G rated tires and by revamping the suspension completely (I have not yet written about that project). So, even though some elements of the trailer frame are still at the spec limit, we have some leeway with our trailer in those places where the rubber meets the road.
The truck, however, was over its limit for both GVWR and GCWR, and it was pushed nearly to its max when towing.
The 2007 Ram 3500 towing guide is here: 2007 Dodge Ram Trucks Towing Guide. Our truck is on p. 20, on the 2nd to last line. Search for this text: “D1 8H42 (SRW)” (you can copy and paste it from here).
There are three brands of big diesel pickup trucks on the market: Chevy/GMC, Ford and Dodge. People have lots of brand loyalty when it comes to diesel trucks, and the bottom line is it’s pointless to get into a religious war over truck manufacturers. That said, the following are our personal opinions and there is no offense intended to anyone who loves a particular brand.
GMC makes the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra which both have the Chevy Duramax 6.6 liter engine and the Allison transmission. The Allison transmission is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
FORD makes the Super Duty series of trucks which have Ford built engines and transmissions. Ford has modified its Power Stroke engine several times since the early 2000’s. The current engine is a 6.7 liter engine and it has performed well. Earlier models, the 6.0 liter engine and 6.4 liter engine, both had significant problems and were less reliable.
CHRYSLER makes the Ram series of trucks which have the Cummins 6.7 liter engine and Aisin transmission. The Cummins engine is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
With the late model Ram trucks there are two models of 6 speed automatic transmissions to choose from. The 68RFE transmission was the only one available for our ’07 Dodge, and we found it developed problems over time (before our installation of the K&N Cold Air Intake and Edge tuner). It stuttered on climbs and didn’t always shift smoothly. The new (in 2013) Aisin AS69RC transmission is much more rugged and reliable and is now available as an option in the Ram Trucks lineup.
All three big diesel truck brands are good. After much research and many test drives, we chose the Ram 3500.
PICKUP TRUCK SIZES
All trucks are categorized into eight weight classes, from Class 1 (lightest) to Class 8 (heaviest) according to their GVWR. Pickup trucks fall into the smallest (lowest) three classes:
0 – 6,000 lbs
6,001 – 10,000 lbs
10,001 – 14,000 lbs
All three classes of pickups are referred to as “light duty” trucks, as compared to dump trucks and semi tractor-trailers in the higher “medium duty” and “heavy duty” classes. Within the pickup truck market, however, they are referred to as “Pickups” (Class 1), “Full Size Pickups” (Class 2) and “Heavy Duty Pickups” (Class 3). So, even though a large diesel pickup is marketed as “heavy duty,” it is not technically a heavy duty truck. It’s just a heavy duty pickup. This may be obvious to many, but sure had me confused at first glance.
When we were first time truck buyers shopping for a truck to pull our popup tent trailer, the advertising made the ’04 Toyota Tundra look like it was a heavy duty towing monster that could pull a mountain right across a valley. But it is not so! Pickups come in all sizes.
Toyota Tundra and Ram 3500 — Which one is the towing monster?
Pickup truck sizes are referred to as “half-ton” “three-quarter ton” and “one ton,” and they are numbered accordingly:
Ford also mass markets 450, 550 and larger pickups. Some people make custom Chevy and Dodge trucks in those sizes too, but they don’t come from the factories that way.
Ensuring the tow ratings of the truck are well beyond the actual weight of the trailer is essential.
For reference, a ton is 2,000 lbs. The truck naming convention comes from the original payloads these trucks could carry when they were first introduced decades ago. Back in those days, a half-ton truck could carry 1,000 lbs. (half a ton) in the bed of the truck. A three-quarter ton could carry 1,500 lbs and a big one ton truck could carry 2,000 lbs.
In 1918 Chevy had a very cute half-ton pickup that was basically a car with sturdy rear springs. By the mid-1930’s pickups came with factory installed box style beds, and a 1937 Chevy half-ton truck went on a 10,245 mile drive around the US with a 1,060 lb. load in the bed. It got 20.74 miles to the gallon!
As the payload capacities increased, the manufacturers assigned model numbers that corresponded to the weights the trucks could carry. But technology advances never quit!
Our 2016 Ram 3500 dually can tow this trailer with one hand tied behind its back.
Since those early times, truck and engine designs have improved dramatically, and the payloads modern trucks can carry now is significantly higher. For instance, the payload of a 2016 Toyota Tundra, a half-ton truck, is 1,430 to 2,060 lbs., depending on the options, making it essentially a “one ton” truck. The payload of a 2016 Dodge Ram diesel can be as high as 6,170 lbs. (and even higher for the gas HEMI version), making the 3500 model more of a “three ton” truck than a one ton.
In the modern trucks, the major difference between a three quarter ton 250/2500 truck and a one ton 350/3500 truck is the beefiness in the rear end suspension for supporting a heavy payload, that is, the number of leaf springs on the rear axle. In our opinion, if you are going to spend the money to buy a three quarter ton truck for towing purposes, you might as well spend the tiny incremental extra few bucks to buy a one ton.
Pickups come with more than one bed size. A “short bed” truck has a box that is a little over 6′ long and a “long bed” truck has a box that is around 8′ long. When a fifth wheel hitch is installed in the bed of a pickup, it is placed so the king pin of the fifth wheel will be over the rear axle. In a short bed truck this leaves less distance between the hitch and the back of the pickup cab than in a long bed truck.
The advantage of a short bed truck is that the two axles are closer together, so the truck can make tighter turns. This is really handy in parking lots and when making u-turns. The truck also takes up less space when it’s parked, again, a big advantage in parking lots.
A long bed truck is less maneuverable when it’s not towing but is preferable for towing a fifth wheel trailer
However, when towing a fifth wheel trailer, there is a risk that the front of the fifth wheel cap will hit the back of the pickup cab when making a tight turn. For this reason, there are special sliding fifth wheel hitches, and some 5th wheel manufacturers make the fifth wheel cap very pointy and even concave on the sides so there’s room enough to ensure the pickup cab doesn’t touch the fifth wheel cap on tight turns.
The advantage of a long bed truck is that not only can it carry more and bigger things in the bed of the truck, but when it is hitched to a fifth wheel trailer, doing a tight turn will not risk the front of the fifth wheel hitting the back of the truck cab.
Also, you can open and close the tailgate when the fifth wheel trailer is hitched up. We can actually walk from one side of our trailer to the other through the gap that’s between the open tailgate and the front of the trailer, even when the truck is cocked in a tight turn.
With a long bed, the truck can be at a sharp angle to the trailer and still have the tailgate open.
For folks that use their pickup primarily in non-towing situations and take their fiver out for just a few weekends a year (and stay close to home), a short bed truck is fine. However, in our opinion, if you are going to tow a large fifth wheel frequently, and especially if you are a seasonal or full-time RVer traveling longer distances, a long bed truck is the way to go.
We bought a long bed as our first diesel truck for our little travel trailer, knowing we might eventually get a fifth wheel, even though it takes much more real estate to back a travel trailer into a parking spot with a long bed truck that it does with a short bed truck (because the pivot point on a travel trailer is behind the bumper rather than over the truck axle, forcing the front end to swing exceedingly wide to make a turn).
When we use our truck as a daily driver, even though we always have to park away from the crowd and walk a little further, and we sometimes struggle making u-turns and maneuvering in tight spaces (it takes nearly four lanes to do a U-turn in a long bed pickup without the trailer attached), we have never once regretted having a long bed truck.
SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs. DUAL REAR WHEEL (DUALLY)
In the one ton class of trucks (Ford 350, Chevy/Dodge 3500), there is an additional consideration: single wheels on the rear axle of the truck (“single rear wheel”) or two pairs (“dual rear wheel” or “dually”).
The advantages of a single rear wheel truck are:
Only 4 tires to maintain instead of 6
Changing a flat will never involve accessing an inner tire under the truck
No wide rear fender to worry about at toll booths and drive-through bank windows and fast food windows
Easy to jump in and out of the bed of the truck from the side using the rear wheel as a foothold
Can handle rough two track roads better because the rear wheels fit neatly into the ruts
Gets traction on slick ice, snow and muddy roads better than a dually
The advantages of a dual rear wheel truck (“dually”) are:
Wider stance supporting the weight of the king pin (or bumper hitch)
Can carry a heavier payload — heavier trailer pin weight and/or bigger slide-in truck camper
Much safer if there’s a blowout on one of the rear wheels, and you can still drive (for a while)
A dually has a wider stance, providing more stability, and it can handle much more weight in the bed of the truck.
Why do you need to get in and out of the truck bed from the side? Climbing in on the tailgate is great, and there is a very handy foothold at the license plate mount on the 2016 model that is low enough for a short person to reach easily. However, when the truck is hitched to the fifth wheel, it’s not possible to climb in from the tailgate, and sometimes we need to get into the bed of the truck when the fiver is attached!
For instance, we keep 22 gallons of spare water in the bed of the truck in 5.5-gallon jerry jugs. I’m the one who holds the hose in the jugs while Mark goes to the other end of the hose and turns the water on or off at the spigot. We could switch roles, but I like that job!
When we’re hitched up, I have to get into the bed of the truck from the side to get to the water jugs. I plant one foot on the rear tire, and I hoist myself up and over the side. Getting over that fat fender is not so easy with the dually!
When hitching/unhitching, Mark also reaches over the side of the truck to loop the emergency break-away brake cable from the trailer onto the hitch in the truck bed. That way, if the trailer comes unhitched as we’re driving, the quick yank on the small cable (as the trailer breaks free) will engage the trailer’s own brakes as we wave it goodbye behind us.
Obviously, for both of these maneuvers, the width of the dually fender makes reaching into the bed of the truck a whole lot harder. Doing these things on a single rear wheel truck is trifling by comparison!
RESEARCHING SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs DUALLY TRUCKS
Our biggest debate was whether or not we should simply buy a new single rear wheel truck that had the latest engine and drive-train and chassis improvements or if we should take the plunge and get a dually. We do occasional research online, but our preferred method of learning about things in the RV world is to talk to experienced people in person, especially since we are out and about all day long and we enjoy meeting new people.
So, we interviewed every single dually truck owner that we ever saw. For two years! Whenever we saw a dually parked somewhere, we’d look around to see if the owner was anywhere nearby. If so, we’d walk up and ask him about his truck.
Did he like it? What did he tow with it? How long had he had it? Was it his first dually? Did he have trouble maneuvering in tight quarters? Had he towed that same trailer with a single rear wheel truck? How did they compare?
We asked lots of people how their dually performed compared to a one ton single rear wheel long bed truck towing the same heavy trailer.
To our astonishment, although we searched for two years for a person who had towed the same large fifth wheel trailer with both a dually and a single rear wheel truck, and we talked to dozens of dually truck owners who had towed all kinds of trailers, we found only one who had towed the same fifth wheel trailer with both styles of truck.
This guy was a rancher with several big cattle and horse trailers as well as a 40′ toy hauler fifth wheel. He’d been towing comparable trailers with single rear wheel long bed trucks for over twenty years. Three years ago he’d switched to a dually, and he said the difference for his toy hauler was night and day. He’d never go back.
Another fellow told us the ranch he worked on had both single rear wheel and dually trucks and that the duallies were used exclusively for the big trailers because they were better tow vehicles.
We LOVED the new, sleek styling on the Ram duallies.Our biggest questions: is the wide dually fender flare a pain? How does it do at toll booths and drive-through windows?
This was very convincing, but an interesting side tid-bit we learned is that many folks go either dually or single rear wheel when they buy their first diesel truck for a big trailer, and they stick with that type of truck when they replace it. Guys love their trucks, so we heard few complaints, but when folks raved about how their single rear wheel or dually was the ultimate towing machine and that they’d never switch, when pressed for details, we found they didn’t have first-hand experience using the two different types of trucks to tow the same large trailer.
For those looking to conduct their own research, in addition to talking with ranchers and horse owners, one of the best sources of information we found was the trailer transport drivers who drive their own personal trucks to tow both large RV and horse trailers from the manufacturers to the dealerships where they are sold..
Our questions would have all been answered in a heartbeat if we could have hitched our trailer onto a dually sitting in a truck dealership lot and towed it up a mountain and on a few back roads. However, that wasn’t possible.
Perhaps in the future, because of the fantastic new hitch puck systems that can be factory installed in pickups these days, dealerships will decide to keep one of the nifty B&W OEM fifth wheel hitches on hand for prospective customers to do just that (if they can sort out the liability and insurance issues).
Ultimately, we held out on the dually versus single rear wheel decision until the very end, but we knew inside that if we did buy a new truck it would probably be a dually. So every test drive we did was with a dually truck.
We took all three brands of pickups out on over 200 miles of test drives at 25 or so dealerships.
Going for test drives is lots of fun and is the best way to learn the product
Dealing with Slick Salesmen
A reader wrote me recently to say he was intimidated by the sales tactics at car dealerships, so he was reluctant to do many test drives or much dealership research. That is a real shame, because the only way to learn about trucks is to spend time with them, test drive them, sit in them, crawl underneath, study what’s under the hood, read the marketing literature, and hound the salesmen with questions.
After all, the salesmen are there to teach you what you need to know about the product, and if they don’t sell you a truck today, they are helping another salesman (or themselves) sell you a truck tomorrow. What goes around comes around, and any good salesman understands that. You can easily deflect the high pressure sales tactics by saying, “We are starting our search and just want to do a test drive today. We won’t be ready to buy for a few months.”
Where to Do a Test Drive? Where to Buy?
The best places to find knowledgeable diesel truck salesmen and buy big diesel trucks, especially duallies, is in cattle ranching country. As we scoured dealerships from San Diego to Maine and from Sarasota to the Tetons, we found urban areas generally have few big trucks on the lot and the salesmen know very little about diesel trucks. Cattle ranchers, horse owners and big commercial farmers know their trucks, and so do the salesmen they work with.
The most knowledgeable truck salesmen are in places where people need and use big trucks — a lot!
Our first test drives were focused on the turning radius and maneuverability of a dually truck as compared to the single rear wheel truck we knew so well. It was hard to tell, but the turning radius seemed to be the same or better (and we now feel the 2016 Ram dually definitely turns tighter) than our old 2007 single rear wheel Ram.
As for general maneuverability, Mark didn’t notice a whole lot of difference driving a dually versus our single wheel truck. Frankly, owning a long bed diesel truck period means you have to park in the back 40 and walk long distances anyway, so we soon realized that dealing with a dually in parking lots would be no different.
We did one round of comparative test drives on the uphill entrance ramp to an interstate in Baker City, Oregon. We visited each truck dealership in town, and when we did our test drives, we floored each dually truck on the incline to see how powerful it felt. The 2015 Chevy won by a long shot, against the Ford and Dodge 2015 models, but did not feel as powerful as our single rear wheel ’07 Dodge Ram (at that point our truck had the K&N Cold Air Intake and Timbrens but did not have the Edge Evolution Diesel tuner).
Our trailer snuggles up to its new companion, a 2016 Ram 3500 dually
Deciding Factor – The Cummins Engine
In the end, the deciding factor for us for choosing a brand was the Cummins engine. This was true when we were researching our ’07 single rear wheel truck and again when researching the 2013-2016 duallies. Lots of people wish they could buy a pickup with both the Cummins engine and an Allison transmission in one brand of truck, a combo that is on many commercial trucks. But that’s not possible.
For us, the simplicity of the inline 6 cylinder Cummins engine (as compared to the more complex V8 engines in the Chevy and Ford) along with the longer stroke (inherently higher torque) makes a lot of sense. Inline engines are used commercially in big rigs and tractors, and the 6.7 liter Cummins engine has a long and solid track record, not just in Ram trucks but in many commercial applications as well. The Cummins quality control and manufacturing seem to be top notch.
Here is a fantastic video showing a Cummins engine being built:
Amazingly, with each passing year, the payload and towing capacity of each brand of truck jumps higher. From the time we started test driving duallies in 2013 until we placed our order for our new 2016 Ram 3500, the horsepower and torque across all three brands increased, and the towing and payload capacities climbed too.
Built with the right options, the 2016 Ram 3500 diesel truck has an eye-popping, 385 horsepower and 900 ft-lbs. of torque with a GCWR of 39,100 lbs. It can tow a trailer weighing 31,210 lbs. and has a max payload of 6,720 lbs.
This is absolutely astonishing, and neither the Chevy nor the Ford trucks match that torque right now.
Accurate comparisons between brands are challenging within the same model classes, however, because there are different standards for making measurements. Ram Trucks uses the SAE J2807 standards, while other manufacturers don’t. Also, we were able to locate Ford’s towing and payload capacity charts online (see the links at the bottom of the page), but did not locate a similar chart for GM.
Some of the head-to-head tests between the brands that are posted online are also a little misleading, because, for instance, a Ram 3500 is pitted against a Ford F450. Even though both of those models are Class 3 trucks (10,001 to 14,000 lbs GVWR), one would expect the Ram 3500 to compete head to head with the Ford F350, not the Ford F450.
Best in Show
Here are the towing and payload capacities of the many models of Dodge Ram trucks:
As mentioned above, the Ram trucks are sold with two options for the transmission. After our troubles with the old 68RFE transmission in our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500, we wanted the new and better one, the AISIN AS69RC. In the Ram Trucks marketing literature, the 6.7 liter Cummins engine is paired with the AISIN AS69RC transmission to make their “High Output Engine” because it delivers max torque at the low end for heavy towing situations. This combo became available in 2013.
“High Output” engines on Ram Trucks pair the Cummins 6.7 liter engine with the Aisin AS69RC transmission
The rear axle gearing on a pickup determines the GCWR for the truck (the maximum safe weight of truck and trailer hitched together and fully loaded) and the maximum weight trailer that the truck can tow safely. It also makes a huge difference in how the truck drives, both while towing and not towing.
Rear axle gear ratios are given as a ratio, for example “4.10” which means 4.10:1 or “3.73” which means 3.73:1. The ratio refers to the number of teeth on the axle ring gear as compared to the number of teeth on the driveshaft’s pinion gear. With a 4.10 rear end, the driveshaft has to turn 4.1 times in order to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. With a 3.73 rear end, the driveshaft must turn 3.73 times to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. So, with a 4.10 rear axle ratio the driveshaft’s pinion gear is spinning more quickly at a given speed than with a 3.73 rear axle ratio.
“Easier” Gears vs. “Harder” Gears
If you think of riding a bike, when you have the bike in a “hard” gear, it takes a lot of leg strength to turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke will cover a lot of distance. For example, going uphill in a “hard” gear would be especially hard. Your legs are turning really slowly and straining and you’re wishing you could put it in an “easier” gear! But when you descend in that same gear, you can hit high speeds easily. Back to trucks, this is like having the driveshaft turn a little to make the wheels turn a lot as it does with the 3.42 or 3.73 rear axle gear ratios found on Dodge Rams.
However, when the bike is in an “easy” gear, just a small amount of leg strength will turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke doesn’t get you very far. For example, going uphill isn’t so bad — you can inch up slowly — but once you began descending you’re spun out because your legs can’t pedal fast enough to hit super fast top speeds. In the truck world, this is like having the driveshaft turn a lot to make the wheels turn a little as it does with the 4.10 rear axle gear ratio.
Wide Load!! The highest tow ratings are achieved with a high rear axle gear ratio (like 4.10)
Towing Heavy Loads vs. Driving Fast on the Highway
So, on a truck, the higher ratio (4.10) is ideal for towing heavy loads. It takes more turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck, so the engine revs higher, putting it in the power band for RPMs, and the heavy load gets moved. But the top end speed and fuel economy get sacrificed a bit.
With a lower gear ratio (3.73 or 3.42) it takes fewer turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck. When the truck is zipping along at highway speeds, the gears are turning a little more slowly (lower RPMs) than they would with a 4.10 rear end, which saves on fuel efficiency and makes the fastest attainable speed a little higher.
The highest tow ratings are achieved with a 4.10 rear end, so the heaviest trailers will be best if towed by a truck with a 4.10 rear axle gear ratio. However, if most of your towing is with lighter weight trailers, and your driving will be primarily on interstates, and your personal preference is to drive fast, a 3.73 or 3.42 rear axle gear ratio may make more sense.
Our ’07 Dodge had a 3.73 rear end. The problem was that at the speeds we tended to drive — 55-65 — the engine would lug. Mark manually changed gears a lot to try to keep the RPMs up, but he found it fatiguing to have to monitor the gears so closely and to change gears all the time.
We also don’t drive on interstates very often, and when we do, we’re the grannies of the road, moseying along in the right lane.
We take life, and the open road, fairly slowly, so a 3.73 rear end, which is awesome a 75 mph, was not the right choice for us.
4.10 vs. 3.73 – RPMs at Different Speeds
We wanted a 4.10 rear end on our new truck, but we wanted to be 100% sure this would truly make the kind of difference we expected. So, on one Ram dually test drive we drove a stretch of highway in our ’07 Dodge at various speeds between 45 and 65 mph, noting the RPMs in a notebook, and then we took a 2015 Ram 3500 dually with a 4.10 rear end out on the same road at the same speeds. The salesman raised an eyebrow in surprise when we marched into the dealership and announced we wanted to do a test drive at various speeds to note the engine RPMs, but he went along with the idea!
On that test drive we found the 4.10 rear end shifts out of lower gears sooner than the 3.73 rear end, and generally keeps the engine RPMs about 100-200 RPMs higher at each speed. Our new truck bears out those findings.
So, how can you tell if a truck on the dealer lot has a 4.10 rear end without peering at the window sticker? Check underneath the back end of the truck. The differential is the big round casing that hangs between the rear wheels. On trucks with a 4.10 rear end, the differential has a series of vertical cooling fins on it. These help keep it cool since the gears spin faster and it is designed for heavier towing loads, both of which make it heat up.
Looking under the rear end of the truck, the differential has cooling fins if the rear axle ratio is a 4.10
BEEFED UP FRAME
Besides the more powerful engine tuning and transmission, Ram has improved the truck frame on the dually considerable. Every aspect of the frame is more sturdy than it used to be, making the truck not only powerful enough to pull heavier loads but strong enough to withstand the multitude of forces as it hauls the load up a mountain.
Peering under the front end of the truck, the frame has been strengthened for heavy towing
We learned with our ’04 Toyota Tundra truck towing our 7,000 lb. 27′ travel trailer that four wheel drive is a necessity for us in our RV lifestyle. In our first weeks of full-timing, a small, wet grassy incline prohibited us from camping in a campground in Texas, because our truck kept slipping and couldn’t tow the trailer up over the short rise! From that moment on, we’ve felt that a four wheel drive is mandatory if you are going to tow a big trailer.
Also, while descending a really gnarly, skinny, twisty, single lane road on a mountain in Utah, with grades of 10% or more in places, we discovered that the safest way to drive DOWN a very steep descent is to put the truck in four wheel drive LOW gear, and creep down the mountain at 5-10 mph using the exhaust brake. This tactic was a lifesaver for us on that mountain with our ’07 Dodge truck and fifth wheel trailer. Without it, we would still be living at the summit of that mountain!
The new Dodge Ram and Ford Super Duty trucks have a really fantastic option for a factory installed puck system in the bed of the truck where you can mount either a fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch. During our truck search, GM did not have that option on their trucks.
This option has five holes in the bed of the pickup, one in the center for a gooseneck hitch and four outer ones to hold a fifth wheel hitch. The idea behind this mounting system is that rather than drilling holes in your brand new truck bed to install hitch rails to support a fifth wheel hitch — the method that was always used until this new system was devised — you can buy a hitch designed for these puck mounts and simply drop it in.
Looking towards the tailgate, there’s a gooseneck puck in the middle and four pucks in a square to mount a fifth wheel hitch. The bed is totally flat without the hitch in it.
If you want to use the bed of your truck for hauling, and you won’t be towing your fifth wheel, you can easily remove the fifth wheel hitch temporarily and have the entire bed of the truck available to you. Not only is it a snap to remove the hitch, but the bed of the truck will be flat and obstacle free because there won’t be any hitch rails installed in it.
The B&W Companion Fifth Wheel Hitch is easily installed and removed (facing the front of the truck)
Another huge benefit is that installing the hitch is an easy do-it-yourself job. We have a detailed pictorial step-by-step guide showing how to install a B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch here (it took just one hour from start to finish!):
Our 2007 Dodge Ram came with an exhaust brake built into the turbo. Mark LOVED this brake and used it all the time, both towing and not towing. The only thing that bugged him about it was that coming down mountains with our trailer hitched on, he often had to shift gears manually and feather the gas pedal to keep the truck going the speed he wanted.
The 2016 Ram trucks have an improved exhaust brake that has two modes: max braking power and constant speed braking. We definitely wanted that option!
Dodge Ram trucks have two backup cameras, one that aims at the bed of the truck (for hitching and unhitching) and one that aims behind the truck (for backing up). Beginning in 2016, both of these cameras could be set to display their image on the main touch screen display (in the 2015 model, one camera would display in the rear view mirror while the other would display on the touch screen display).
It’s nice to have a backup camera when backing the truck in next to the trailer!
An option on the 2016 Ram trucks is to have four leaf springs with computer controlled air bags to provide for auto-leveling of the rear suspension. This is instead of the standard six leaf springs without air bags that have a fixed height suspension.
Without the air bags — the standard configuration — the “rake” of the truck’s rear end is four inches, meaning that the rear end of the truck is raised four inches higher than the front to compensate for the weight of the trailer which will push it down when it’s hitched up. For a shorter person, this is quite high, and I was astonished how much higher the tailgate of a 2016 Ram truck sits than our old ’07 truck did.
With the air bags, the rear end is raked only one inch, making the whole back end of the truck much easier to access for those of us who aren’t that tall. In addition, there is an “Alt Ride Height” button that can be used to lower the back of the truck one more inch. Hurray for short people!
When the trailer is hitched onto the truck, pushing the truck down, the on-board compressor kicks on and pumps air into the air bags, raising the back end of the truck until it achieves its normal one inch rake. If you prefer to drive with the truck level, the “Alt Ride Height” button can be pressed to lower the back end one inch.
When we did our test drives, we found that the duallies with the auto-level suspension had a slightly smoother ride when not towing than the ordinary leaf spring only models did. This has proven true with our new truck too.
VENTED and HEATED LEATHER SEATS and STEERING WHEEL plus OTHER GOODIES
As we test drove different trim levels of trucks, we decided that if we were going to buy a new truck, we’d go all out and get the many little conveniences and options that are a “splurge” but that make using the truck a pleasure.
Let’s go for a ride!
Heated and vented leather seats with power seat adjustments and lumbar support, a side step to make it easier to get in and out of the truck, independent climate control for driver and passenger, a CD player, OWL on/off-rad tires, the fancy electronics console with the big touch screen display and GPS nav system and power adjustable pedals were all on our list.
Most of these options are bundled into the Laramie model of the Ram 3500 trucks.
The Laramie comes with a beautiful interior that includes all the fancy stuff.
Top level Nav/GPS Display with voice activation and climate control
Tan colored Heated/Vented Leather Seats and Steering Wheel
The Tow and Payload Ratings for the 2016 Ram 3500 dually with the above options as compared to our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel are the following:
Max Trailer Weight
Even though the make and model of these two trucks is the same, separated by just nine years, these numbers show that they are two radically different trucks!
After doing so many test drives, studying all the material and thinking about this truck for two years, there was no way we would give up any of the options we wanted, especially the ones that made the tow ratings and payload rating so high. But we never found a dealership that ordered this exact truck for their lot. Time and again, Mark would find a truck that was close, but there would be some things missing and other things we didn’t want.
So we decided to order the exact truck we wanted and wait 8 weeks for it to be built.
We had a ball ordering this truck through Airpark Dodge in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a marketing connection with Alice Cooper made one of Mark’s lifelong dreams come true. See our really fun blog post:
A significant difference between our 2007 Dodge Ram truck and our new 2016 Ram dually is that the new truck requires occasional refilling of the DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluide) tank. Here are some tips we’ve discovered about DEF since we purchased our new truck:
There are a lot of decisions to make when you install solar panels on an RV or boat. Some of the most basic are: what size solar panels to buy, whether to go with flexible solar panels or aluminum framed rigid panels, whether the solar cells should be monocrystalline or polycrystalline, and whether to install nominal 12 volt or 24 volt panels.
We have done several RV and marine solar panel installations, and we have used not only 12 volt and 24 volt panels of various sizes but we have also used both aluminum framed rigid solar panels and the newer semi-flexible solar panels. We have also worked with both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. This article outlines the pros and cons of the various types and sizes of solar panels and offers some things to think about when you are deciding which solar panels to buy for your RV or boat.
Once you decide on overall capacity for your solar panel array, the next thing to think about is solar panel placement and wiring. The panels should be a matched set of identical or nearly identical panels. If you have a lot of real estate on the RV roof, then you can get a few big panels. If you have a truck camper or your RV roof is cluttered with a lot of things on it already (hatches, vents, antennas, etc.), then you may need to go with smaller panels that can be squeezed in and around everything else.
Our fifth wheel trailer is powered by four 120 & 130 watt 12 volt rigid polycrystalline solar panels wired in series
WHAT VOLTAGE IS THAT SOLAR PANEL?
Solar panels are constructed internally with DC wiring, and they are sized to work on 12 or 24 volt circuits. So, they are commonly referred to as 12 or 24 volt solar panels. What’s confusing is that while the nominal voltage of a solar panel may be 12 or 24 volts, the open circuit voltage is higher. So, for a nominal 12 volt solar panel that is 100 watts, the open circuit voltage (“Voc“) will be 17 or 18 volts. Likewise, for a nominal 24 volt panel, the Voc will be 34 to 36 volts.
Also, smaller solar panels (both physically and in terms of watts) are typically nominal 12 volt panels while larger panels are typically 24 volts. Solar panels under about 150 watts in size are usually 12 volt panels. Solar panels over about 150 watts are usually 24 volt panels.
For nearly four years, we sailed our boat on Mexico’s coast relying on three 185 watt 24 volt polycrystalline rigid solar panels, wired in parallel, for all our electrical needs.
Solar panels work best when they are a matched set. The electrical characteristics of all the solar panels in the array need to be very similar, preferably identical. When upgrading a solar power array this can make things complicated as you try to mix and match old small panels with new big ones.
One technique for upgrading is to wire two 12 volt solar panels in series to work on a 24 volt circuit. For instance, if you have two 100 watt 12 volt panels and you are buying a 200 watt 24 volt panel, you can wire the two 100 watt panels in series and then wire that pair in parallel with the new 200 watt solar panel.
This will work as long as the electrical characteristics of the pair of solar panels in series match the electrical characteristics of the single panel that is wired in parallel with them.
THE EFFECT OF SHADE ON SOLAR PANELS
Shade is the biggest enemy of any solar power installation. Unbelievable as it seems, a tiny bit of shade will effectively shut down a solar panel. The impact is dramatic: a few square inches of shade can drop a solar panels current production down from 8 amps to 2 amps. A few more square inches of shade can drop the current production to 0.
Before deciding on the size of the panels, it is worthwhile to take some time to study the various things that might cast shade across them once they are in place. A closed hatch may cause little shade, but when it is open on a hot day, depending on where the sun is in the sky, it might cast a big shadow across a nearby solar panel. Satellite dishes, air conditioners and even holding tank vents can cast sizable shadows as well.
We put a book in one corner of a 120 watt 12 volt panel and discovered that even though it was a small percentage of the surface area of the panel, that 8.5″ x 11″ book was enough to knock down the current production of a 120 watt solar panel by 80%. Rather than producing 7 amps, it produced a measly 1.4 amps. Egads!
Just 8.5″ x 11″ of shade from this book reduced current production by 80%!
Similarly, shade wreaked havoc on our three185 watt 24 volt panels on our sailboat. The shade from our mast traveled across the panels as the boat swung at anchor, and the current production dropped by 1/3 and then by 2/3 as the shade first crossed one of the three panels and then straddled two of them. It did this over and over, with the current rising and falling repeatedly, as the boat slowly swung back and forth at anchor.
A line of shade from the mast on our sailboat reduced our solar panel array to 65% and then 35% of its capacity as it traveled across the panels and occasionally straddled two of them.
Shade is a huge concern in the solar power industry, and there are several white papers (here’e one) about the impact of shade on commercial solar panel installations. The gist is the importance of spacing the rows of commercial solar panel arrays in such a way that one row of panels doesn’t accidentally shade the bottom inch or so of the next row behind it when the sun is low in the sky.
If it does, the second row of panels shuts down. If there are rows and rows of solar panels spaced like this, none of the panels except the ones in the first row can function until the sun rises a little higher in the sky.
Solar panels are most sensitive to shade along the longest part of the panel, so in the case of our sailboat, when the sun was over our bow, the mast would shade the panels in a strip that had a maximum impact on current production (as you can see in the above photo)!
For RVers, besides rooftop obstructions, shade comes into play primarily if you park near a building or trees. Snowbirds boondocking in the southwest deserts of Arizona and California during the wintertime have little concern with shade from trees and buildings. But summertime RV travelers who boondock in wooded areas need to be cognizant of where the shade from the trees will fall during the course of the day.
WIRING SOLAR PANELS IN PARALLEL vs. IN SERIES
One of the big decisions for a solar power installation on an RV or boat is whether to wire the solar panels in series or in parallel. There are several things to consider when making this decision.
When the solar panels are wired in series, then the developed voltage across all the panels is additive while the current remains constant from panel to panel. That is, if there were four 120 watt 12 volt panels producing 7 amps each, then the developed voltage across all the panels would be 48 volts (12 x 4) while the current would be just 7 amps.
In contrast, when the solar panels are wired in parallel, then the voltage of the panels remains constant through the circuit while the current is additive from panel to panel. For instance, for those same four panels, the developed voltage across them would be 12 volts but the current would be 28 amps (7 x 4).
The solar charge controller takes care of balancing everything out by ensuring the circuit between it and the batteries is 12 volts. In the case of the above solar panels wired in series, the solar charge controller steps down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts (if they are 12 volt batteries). The current then increases from 7 amps to 28 amps in the wire run going between the solar charge controller and the batteries.
In the case of the above solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage is already 12 volts, so the solar charge controller does not need to step it down for the batteries.
SHADE EFFECTS on SOLAR PANELS WIRED IN SERIES vs. WIRED IN PARALLEL
When solar panels are wired in series, if shade hits one panel and shuts it down (caused by that solar panel’s internal circuitry building up a massive amount of resistance), then the entire string of solar panels shuts down. For instance, if a tree shaded 1/3 of one solar panel in the string of four panels given above, wired in series, the current production of the entire array of four panels would be reduced to to 0 amps, even though the three other solar panels were in full sun.
In contrast, if the panels are wired in parallel, when shade knocks one panel out, the other panels are unaffected. So, even if 1/3 of one solar panel were shaded, reducing it to 0 amps of current production, the other three would be working just fine. The total current production would be 3/4 of what it could be if that one panel were in full sun (in this case, 21 amps), rather than 0 amps.
So, it would seem that the best way to wire solar panels is in parallel.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, and here’s why:
CURRENT and WIRE SIZE in a SOLAR PANEL INSTALLATION
The more amps of current there are flowing in a circuit, the thicker the wire needs to be to ensure that no energy is lost to heat. Unfortunately, thicker, heavier gauge wire is a pain to work with. It’s stiff and doesn’t bend around corners easily. It is hard to tighten down in the solar charge controller connections and it’s hard to crimp ring terminals onto. It is also more expensive per foot.
So, when the solar panels are wired in series, a thinner gauge wire can be used for a given distance than when they are wired in parallel.
Of course, the thickness of the wire is also dependent on the length of the wire. The longer a wire is, the more energy is lost along its length. So, if you are installing the solar panels high on an arch off the aft end of a 50′ sailboat and the batteries are located at the bottom of the hull over the keel, the wire must be a lot heavier gauge than if you are installing the panels on an RV roof directly above the battery compartment.
What is the price difference in the cable? We like to use Ancor Marine Cable because it is tinned and it is very supple (the copper is fine stranded). Here are the price differences for 25′ of 2 gauge wire as compared to 25′ of 10 gauge wire.
Ultimately, there is a dilemma: Is it better to go for thinner, cheaper wire and an easier installation, and wire the panels in series, risking that the whole array will shut down whenever a corner of one panel is shaded by a nearby tree? Or is it better to pay the extra bucks for heavier gauge wire and endure a more challenging installation but have a system that will be more tolerant of partial shade?
What to do?
SOLAR PANEL VOLTAGE and WIRE SIZE
Luckily, there is another option: higher voltage solar panels can be wired with thinner gauge wire. Remember, Watts = Current x Voltage. So, for the same number of watts in a panel, a higher voltage panel will produce a smaller amount of current.
Rather than using four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in parallel that would produce 28 amps at 12 volts, you can use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel that produce 14 amps at 24 volts. The net effect on the battery bank will be the same, but the bigger panels can be wired with smaller gauge wire.
As mentioned above, the wiring that is most affected by these solar panel choices is the wiring that runs from the solar panels to the solar charge controller. The wiring from the solar charge controller to the batteries is the same in either configuration, as the same amount of current will be flowing in that wire regardless of how the solar panels are wired. In the case of solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage will be stepped down in the solar charge controller. So, in our example, the solar charge controller will step down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts, ensuring that the circuitry between the solar charge controller and the batteries is at operating at 12 volts.
CHOOSING THE OPTIMAL WIRE GAUGE
The thickness of the wire, or wire gauge, depends entirely on how long the wire is going to be. That is, the wire gauge is determined by how far apart the solar panels and the solar charge controller and the batteries are.
Why is this? The more current that flows in a wire, the more the conductor in the wire will warm up. The more it warms up, the more energy is lost to heat. Eventually, this becomes measurable as a voltage loss between the two end points.
When wiring solar power circuits, you can choose how much voltage loss you are willing to have. Somewhere between 2.5% and 5% is typically considered okay. There are voltage loss tables that will help you decide on the proper wire gauge size for the distance you are spanning between the solar panels and the solar charge controller and between there and the batteries. Here’s a good one:
An Example: 480 watts of solar power located 27′ from the batteries
Say we have four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in series. If the distance is going to be 27′, then by looking at the third chart at the above link (the 12 volt chart) and going to the line for 8 amps flowing in the wire, it shows a wire run of up to 27′ can be done with 10 gauge wire.
Now, imagine putting those same panels in parallel. 32 amps will flow at 12 volts. For that same 27′ distance you’ll need 2 gauge wire.
Lastly, instead of using four 120 watt 12 volt panels, use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel. For this you use the 2nd chart down (24 volt chart). There will be 16 amps flowing in the wire at 24 volts. You will be able use 8 gauge wire.
Of course, due to the nature of multi-stage battery charging and the changing position (and angle) of the sun in the sky, the solar panels will be operating at full tilt for a very short time each day. They may produce max current for 30 minutes near noon as they wrap up the Bulk Stage, however, as the Absorb stage takes over and continues in the afternoon, the solar charge controller will gradually hold the panels back so they produce far less than max current.
With less than peak current flowing in the wires, less energy will be lost to heat.
So, although it may seem dire that you’re wiring is on the hairy edge size-wise, it is only that way for a little while each day. Depending on the overall size of the solar power array, the size of the battery bank, and the state of discharge when the batteries wake up in the morning, your system may not even hit the theoretical maximum current production or even come close.
You must run more wires between the RV roof and the location in the coach where the solar charge controllers are installed (preferably next to the batteries), and so you must not only pay for additional solar charge controllers, but you must buy more wire and install it all. However, this design option does deserve mention and consideration.
TILTING THE SOLAR PANELS
Solar panels perform a whole lot better in the summer than in the winter. This is because the sun rides much higher in the sky and its rays hit the panels at a nearly perpendicular angle in the summertime. The days are also a whole lot longer. In the winter, the sun’s rays hit the panels at an angle and the sun is only out for a short while.
Tilting solar panels in winter can improve current production by 30% Or…install more panels and save yourself from climbing up and down the RV ladder!
To get around this, rather than using ordinary Z-brackets to mount their solar panels on the roof, many RVers use tilting brackets. By tilting the panels towards the sun at about a 45 degree angle (technically, at the angle of your latitude), then the sun’s rays hit the panels at a nice 90 degree angle if they are oriented to face south. This can increase the overall power production by about 30% on a sunny winter day.
The only problem is that you have to climb up on the roof to tilt the panels each time you set up camp and then climb up again later to lay them flat when you are packing up before you drive away. We’ve seen many a winter snowbird driving their RV around with the solar panels still raised.
An alternative is simply to install more solar panels and to keep them lying flat all the time. This is easy for a big RV that has a huge roof but is not so easy for a little trailer with a small roof. We have not installed tilting brackets on our trailers.
MONOCRYSTALLINE vs. POLYCRYSTALLINE SOLAR CELLS
Monocrystalline solar panel
There are lots of different kinds of solar panels on the market today. There are two primary types of solar cells used in the manufacture of solar panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline.
Monocrystalline solar panels are more efficient and more expensive, but they are also extremely intolerant of shade. Polycrystalline panels are slightly less efficient and less expensive, but they handle partial shade just a smidge better.
The way to tell if a solar panel is monocrystalline or polycrystalline is to look at the pattern of rectangles on the panel itself.
If the circuitry between the rectangles has large silver diamond shapes, it is monocrystalline. If the pattern of rectangles is just intersecting lines, it is polycrystalline.
Polycrystalline solar panel
Examples of popular monocrystalline solar panels are here:
Flexible solar panels have several advantages over rigid panels. They are a little lighter than framed solar panels and you can glue them onto an RV roof using Dicor Lap Sealant, or something similar. This saves you from the complexity of drilling holes into a perfectly watertight roof and risking creating leaks. This is especially helpful with a fiberglass roof. It takes just a few minutes with a caulk gun to attach these panels to the RV roof.
Another nice feature is that on a rounded roof, like an Airstream travel trailer or Casita travel trailer, the panels can bend to follow the contour of the roof.
Mark uses Dicor Lap Sealant to affix flexible solar panels to a friend’s fiberglass roof.
One of the most important things for solar panels to work well is heat dissipation. Rigid aluminum framed solar panels stand up off the roof of the RV by about an inch, allowing air to flow underneath and for heat to dissipate. Air can’t flow underneath flexible solar panels. The aluminum substrate serves to dissipate the heat instead. This may or may not be as efficient a method of heat dissipation, and I have heard of a case where all the flexible solar panels on a sailboat had to be replaced after two years because they did not dissipate the heat sufficiently in the tropics and the panels self-destructed.
FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL CONSTRUCTION and INSTALLATION
We had a tough time getting the plastic off the back of the Eco-Worthy flexible solar panels
With all of us working together, we got the job done!
Once we got up on the roof, and got past a cute warning from Winnebego, the installation was straight forward.
Hmmm…I wonder what sage advice the manual suggests for this problem?
Flexible solar panels are lighter than their rigid counterparts
The plastic protection needed to be removed from the face of the panels as well. Interestingly, at one point Mark found himself picking at the corner of the mylar that has the solar collection circuitry embedded in it and almost began to peel that whole layer off the aluminum substrate! But once he got a hold of just the most superficial layer of plastic, it came off easily.
Mark removes the plastic from the face of the flexible solar panels
He used Dicor Lap Sealant to tack down the corners of the panels and then ran a bead around each side of each panel.
FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL DISADVANTAGES
Flexible solar panels are less efficient than rigid aluminum framed solar panels, which means you may want to get a few more total watts of solar panels than you would if you were buying framed panels. Bendable panels also can’t be installed on tilting brackets. So, again, buying more total watts may be the best solution.
Flexible solar panels are not as rugged as rigid aluminum framed solar panels built with tempered glass. Overhanging branches can scratch them. This is important for anyone that will be boondocking or dry camping a lot on public lands and in rustic public campgrounds, as it is often impossible to get in or out of a site without ducking under some low lying tree branches.
Some RVers have found that flexible solar panels installed on flat motorhome roofs tend to pool water when it rains. This can lead to debris building up and taking root and damaging the panels.
Perhaps for all these reasons, flexible solar panels are sold with a much shorter warranty than rigid solar panels. Whereas many solar panel manufacturers warranty their tempered glass aluminum framed rigid solar panels for 25 or 30 years, bendable solar panel manufacturers generally warranty their panels for 5 years or less.
This may or may not be relevant for RVers, as the fine print in almost every solar panel manufacturer’s warranty states that their solar panels are not warrantied for use on mobile vehicles.
Also, there has been a huge problem across the entire solar power industry with rigid solar panels failing prematurely in large numbers in big commercial installations (see a May 2013 NY Times article here). Apparently, just because those lovely rigid solar panels are warrantied for decades doesn’t mean they will last that long. We have already had a failure of one of our framed solar panels that was warrantied for 25 years, and we discovered the manufacturer’s warranty did not apply to RV installations.
However, as a general rule, when manufacturers warranty a product for 5 years versus 30 years, it says something about how they think their product will hold up over time.
Nice job! (but don’t fall off that roof!)
There are many ways to go about installing solar power on an RV roof, and the solar panels that work best in one installation may not be the same as those that are best for another. Not only is every RV roof different, but every RVer’s needs are different.
If you have loads of space on a big motorhome roof or fifth wheel trailer roof, and you are setting it up for full-time use, you may be best off with three or four 200+ watt 24 volt rigid solar panels wired in parallel. If you have a little tear drop camper you use on weekends and store in the garage, a single flexible 100 watt 12 volt panel may be just the ticket for you.
What happens when two RV or marine battery charging systems attempt to charge the batteries at the same time? The interactions between solar charge controllers, converters, inverter/chargers and engine alternators can be complex, and in our lives off the grid in a sailboat and RV, we have observed them working together in many different kinds of circumstances.
This page offers some insights into what goes on when two battery charging systems operate simultaneously, specifically: solar power and shore power, and solar power and an engine alternator. It is the fourth post in our series on RV and Marine Battery Charging Systems. The previous articles in this series are:
When two battery charging systems are working side by side simultaneously, each follows its own internal algorithms to get the job done. However, when this happens, and the two charging systems measure the battery voltage to determine which charging stage they should each be in, they don’t see a “real” value. They see an artificially elevated battery voltage due to the presence of the other charging system. This can throw one or the other or both systems off of their normal Bulk-Absorb-Float cycle.
Because solar charging systems operate 24/7, the most common scenario in which two charging systems work simultaneously is solar charging and some form of artificially powered charging, either a converter or inverter/charger when the RV or boat is plugged into shore power or the generator is turned on, or an engine alternator when the boat or motorhome is under way.
The bottom line with two charging systems working simultaneously is that each will do a little work, but one will do more work than the other. Higher end solar charge controllers are designed to ensure that the batteries are never overcharged. As explained in the previous post about solar charge controllers, they are the gate keepers for the solar panels and will reduce the current coming in from the panels to 0 amps if need be.
There are many factors to consider when running an artificially powered charging system alongside a solar charging system. And in reality, just letting the two systems do their thing without worrying about how they get along is probably fine. But for those who want to ponder the relationships, here are some things we’ve learned.
In order for all the charging systems on an RV or boat to work together truly harmoniously, it is helpful for the voltages at which the systems change charging stages to be the same across all the systems. For instance, each charging system should be set up with one common set of voltages similar to the following:
Obviously, these voltages should be whatever values you have determined are optimal for your battery type. Unfortunately, some charging systems don’t allow you to enter specific voltages, so you may be stuck with whatever defaults the manufacturer chose or whatever “set” of voltages they provide that is closest to the values you want.
Soaking up the sun: 600 watts of flexible solar panels we installed on a friend’s motorhome roof.
As you can see, if one system has an Absorb target voltage of 14.7 volts and another has an Absorb target voltage of 14.1 volts, there is going to be a conflict. What will happen is that the system that is aiming for the higher voltage will win out and raise the batteries to or towards the higher voltage. The reaction of the other system will depend on how it was designed to handle a situation where the battery voltage is higher than the stage it was in. This is true for all the target voltages (Bulk, Absorb and Float).
Similarly, all the charging systems on the RV or boat should be set up with the same algorithm for switching from one stage to the next. However, as shown in the posts about converters, inverter/chargers and engine Alternators and about solar charge controllers, this is not possible, because every product made by the many manufacturers who build these things has a unique charging algorithm.
There are some similarities, however. All multi-stage charging systems remain in the Bulk stage, pouring the maximum current they can into the batteries, until the Bulk voltage is reached. Then they switch to the Absorb stage. However, no two charging systems use the same criteria to exit the Absorb stage to go into Float. The Float stage is also handled differently by different chargers and manufacturers.
Every RV and marine battery multi-stage charging system monitors the battery voltage to decide which stage to be in. How and where this voltage is measured and how each device is internally calibrated can make quite a difference.
For instance, the solar charge controller in a sailboat may be located as much as 20′ from the battery bank if the batteries are strung out from bow to stern in the bottom of the bilge and the charge controller is mounted in an aft compartment. Unless the charge controller is connected to the batteries with fairly beefy wires, there will be some voltage loss between the batteries and the charge controller, and the charge controller will get inaccurate readings of what the battery voltage actually is.
This can happen even if the distance is just 10′ but the wire used is too small for that distance. It can also happen if the engine alternator or the converter or the inverter/charger is a long distance from the batteries. Wire gauge sizes, distances and percentages of voltage lost are given in the following chart:
Higher end solar charge controllers are complex pieces of electronic engineering that are likely to be calibrated pretty well coming out of the factory. However, a cheapie single stage converter, like the factory installed units that come with so many RVs, may not be calibrated as well, and may be off in its measurement of the battery voltage by a tenth of a volt or more. Likewise with a simplistic engine alternator.
It was a big surprise to me to read in the user manual for our boat’s engine alternator/regulator (a Balmar ARS-4 multi-stage regulator) that the voltages may be off by +/- 3%. That means that a target Bulk voltage of 14.4 volts could vary between 14.0 volts and 14.8 volts. Hmmm. Not a lot of precision there!
Our solar panels catch some tropical rays on the back of our sailboat during our cruise in Mexico.
If the two charging systems that are working simultaneously are detecting different voltages on the batteries — for instance, the solar charge controller is measuring the batteries to be 14.5 volts while the converter is measuring them to be 14.7 volts — they will each react according to their own internal charging algorthims.
For instance, say both the solar charge controller and converter are in Bulk mode, trying to attain a voltage of 14.7 volts before switching to Absorb. When the batteries reach 14.7 volts according to the converter, the converter will think they have achieved the Bulk voltage already and will switch to the Absorb stage, while the solar charge controller will remain in the Bulk stage because it sees only 14.5 volts, and it will continue aiming for 14.7 volts, according to its internal measurements and algorithm.
What does this mean? It simply means that the solar charge controller will continue to let as much current in from the solar panels as they can produce while the converter will already be backing off how much current it puts into the batteries to hold them steady at what it perceives to be 14.7 volts (and which the solar charge controller sees as 14.5 volts). Not a big deal. The solar charge controller will keep pushing while the converter keeps backing off, and the job will eventually get done.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM OUR ENGINE ALTERNATOR AND SOLAR CHARGE CONTROLLER
The most challenging relationship we’ve had between charging systems was on our sailboat, and it was the one that forced me to investigate this whole business more deeply and to learn how to program a solar charge controller — and to discover, in the process, the value of programming one!
The two systems were our Balmar ARS-4 engine alternator/regulator and our Xantrex XW-MPPT-60-150 solar charge controller. The charging algorithms for these systems are described in detail here (for the alternator) and here (for the solar charger).
When I first observed them working together, I noticed two things right away.
1) Whenever we turned on the engine, the solar charge controller went into the Float stage soon afterwards.
2) Once the solar charge controller was in the Float stage, if we turned the engine off, it remained in the Float stage, even if the batteries hadn’t been fully charged by the engine alternator.
For instance, if the solar charge controller had been in the Absorb stage when we turned the engine on, and then we ran the engine for just 15 minutes and turned it off (not nearly long enough to charge the batteries), the solar charge controller would wind up in the Float stage and remain there for the rest of the day, depriving the batteries of a proper charge.
Engine Alternator Causes the Solar Charge Controller to Switch from Absorb to Float
The thing about batteries in a complex vehicle like a motorhome or a boat is that they are running many different systems that are continually turning on and off. In the case of our boat, when we were underway, any or all of our big systems might be in use at any one time: fridge and freezer compressors, radar, chartplotter, autopilot, anchor windlass, and even the microwave.
100 amp Balmar diesel engine alternator
Worst case, all of those things might be on at once for several minutes as we raised or lowered 200′ of stainless steel anchor chain with a 60 lb. anchor attached to the end of it (well, maybe not the microwave!).
Plus, there was no guarantee we’d run the engine long enough for the alternator to go through its Bulk and Absorb stages and charge the batteries completely.
We might run it for as little as a few minutes while moving from one anchoring spot to another, or for half an hour while we motored out of the bay to go daysailing.
We wouldn’t want to idle the engine at anchor just to charge the batteries, because the engine RPMs have to be fairly high for the alternator to generate a good charging current. These high RPMs happen naturally while driving the boat, but unfortunately, conventional wisdom says that revving the engine to high RPMs while not in gear (i.e., without a load on it) risks glazing the cylinder walls.
Besides it being random as to how long we might run the engine, it was also random as to what state the solar charge controller would be in when we started the engine up.
We might start the engine in the dark to raise the anchor, and in that case the solar charge controller would be asleep. Or we might do it early in the morning when the solar charge controller was in the Bulk stage and gamely trying to get whatever current it could from the wimpy sun on the horizon. Or we might do it later in the day when the solar charge controller was in the Absorb stage and cranking away.
We used a clamp-on ammeter to find out exactly what was going on at various points in the system. We put it around the alternator’s battery cable to see how much current the alternator was putting into the batteries. We also used it on the solar charge controller’s battery cable to verify that the current it displayed on its LCD screen was correct (it was).
The alternator is pouring 77.9 amps into the batteries – WOW!!
Whenever we turned on the engine, regardless of what the solar charge controller was doing, the engine alternator would immediately go into the Bulk stage and dump as much current into the batteries as they needed to reach the alternator’s Bulk voltage.
If the solar charge controller had been in the Bulk stage already, its job would suddenly become much easier as it got a huge boost from the alternator.
If it had been putting 21 amps into the batteries and had been slowly raising the voltage towards 14.4 volts (the setting we had for the boat’s batteries), the engine alternator might contribute another 40 amps for a while, getting the batteries up to the Bulk voltage a whole lot faster than if the solar panels had continued working by themselves.
If the solar charge controller had been in the Absorb stage already, putting something like 18 amps into the batteries to hold the Absorb voltage of 14.4 volts, the engine alternator would begin its own Bulk stage regardless, and it would remain in the Bulk stage for 36 minutes as it followed its own internal algorithm.
The solar charge controller would react by backing off and delivering less current.
To make things more complicated, as these two systems worked through their charging stages, the loads on the batteries would be fluctuating widely as Mark and I went about our business of living on a boat.
If the fridge and freezer compressors were both running, and the autopilot was maintaining our course and the radar and chartplotter were on and we were making burritos in the microwave, the batteries would need a lot of current.
However, if neither compressor was on and someone was hand steering the boat, etc., then the batteries would need a whole lot less current. During those lulls in current demand, the solar charge controller would suddenly scale things way back and put just 8 or 9 amps from the panels into the batteries.
As soon as that happened, the solar charge controller would suddenly switch to the Float stage!
After some sleuthing, as described in the previous post, I realized that the charge controller was switching from Absorb to the Float stage because the current needed to maintain the Absorb voltage had dropped below 2% of the capacity of the battery bank.
In Tangolunda Bay (Huatulco, Mexico) we motored back and forth across the bay every few days to anchor out of the swell as it changed its flow.
Since I had entered the true value of the battery bank (710 amp-hours), the controller switched from Absorb to Float when the current dropped below 14 amps (2% of 710).
So, I lied to the controller and told it the battery bank was just 250 amp-hours. Then it would remain in Absorb down to 5 amps.
What I found (by trial and error) was that the solar charge controller pretty much always needed more than 5 amps when it was in Bulk or Absorb.
I don’t know why the alternator didn’t produce that last 5 or so amps on its own, but I suspect it was because the alternator’s Absorb voltage was set to 14.2 volts while the solar charge controller’s Absorb voltage was set to 14.4 volts (the alternator had “sets” of values for the three target voltages, and 14.2 volts for Absorb was in what I felt at the time was the most appropriate set).
The Solar Charge Controller Gets Stuck in the Float Stage
The second problem I encountered was that in the event that the solar charge controller went into the Float stage prematurely, then, after the engine was turned off it would remain there until the next morning.
Xantrex solar charge controller (bottom plate removed)
Yet the batteries may not have been fully charged by the alternator, and they may have really needed to remain in Absorb with the solar panels charging them at a fast clip for another hour or two.
In this case, the solar charge controller needed either to resume the Absorb stage or cycle back through the Bulk stage as soon as the engine was turned off.
The only way the Xantrex XW MPPT 60-150 would cycle back through the Bulk stage is if the battery voltage dropped below a certain level.
I experimented with different voltages. The Float voltage was 13.4 volts, so if I set the “ReBulk” voltage to be 13.5 volts or higher, then the charge controller would never get into the Float stage at all, because it would keep cycling back to Bulk.
According to the user manual, this is actually a valid way to operate this solar charge controller, and they even provide a programming parameter that sets the charge controller up to be a “two stage” charger that has no Float stage and has just the Bulk and Absorb stages.
I wasn’t comfortable with not having a Float stage (although in hindsight that probably would have been just fine given the intermittent heavy loads that were on the batteries all day long). In the end, I settled on a ReBulk value of 12.9 volts.
So, if the solar charge controller was in the Float stage after the engine was turned off, and a big load came on some time afterwards that drew the battery voltage down from 13.4 volts to below 12.9 volts (microwave plus fridge and freezer, for instance), then the solar charge controller would cycle back through the Bulk stage and start the charging cycle all over again.
Programming For Storage
Periodically, we left the boat for a month or several months at a time when we traveled inland or went back to our RV for hurricane season. Since the fridge and freezer would be turned off, and there would be no loads on the batteries at all, I would undo these two programming changes. I would reprogram the solar charge controller with the true size of the battery bank so it would switch from Absorb to Float at 14 amps rather than 5, and I would change the “ReBulk” voltage back to 12.5, the factory default.
Solar power is free, however, the electricity from shore power hookups may not be. If your shore power electricity is “free” (i.e., built into the overnight fee you are paying for your RV site or boat slip), then it doesn’t really matter which charging system is dominant.
If you have metered electricity (a common situation if you are renting your RV site or your boat slip on a monthly, seasonal or annual basis), and you are paying for your electricity, then you may want to ensure that your solar charger is running the show and doing the bulk of the work while your converter or inverter/charger is playing second fiddle.
One easy way to do this is just to flip off the electric switch on the shore power post. Flip it on only as needed when the batteries get low and need a boost.
It was nice when we settled up the bills for these places at the end of each stay to have a big ol’ “$0” on the line item for electricity.
What Happens If You DO Plug In?
If your RV or boat is plugged into shore power, and the switch at the post is turned on, it is hard to get the solar power system to be dominant because its power source is flakey (as explained here).
We plugged our sailboat into shore power for several months while we lived aboard at Kona Kai Marina in San Diego at the end of our cruise.
Schneider Electric (Xantrex) 2500 watt Freedom inverter / charger
Our Xantrex inverter/charger went through the Bulk and Absorb stages the first time we plugged in, and then it remained in the Float stage forever after (except when we unplugged to go day sailing and plugged back in again upon returning)!
Each morning when our Xantrex solar charge controller woke up, it zipped through the charging stages and went into the Float stage after just a few minutes, because it saw the batteries were already fully charged.
In our RV, we plugged into shore power for 48 hours during rainy and stormy skies while we stayed at Narrows Too RV Resort in Maine. It was overcast when we plugged in. Our Outback solar charge controller was in the Bulk stage putting about 6 amps into the batteries at around 13.9 volts (it was aiming for 14.7 volts).
Ordinarily, since we live a solar power only lifestyle, our Outback solar charger is set up with Bulk and Absorb values of 14.7 volts, a minimum Absorb time of 2 hours and a maximum Absorb time of 4 hours. However, our Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter has a fixed (non-modifiable) Bulk voltage of 14.6 volts and Absorb voltage of 14.2 volts and Absorb time of 8 hours.
I temporarily changed the solar charge controller to have Bulk and Absorb voltages that matched the converter, and minimum and maximum Absorb times of 0 hours so it would remain in Absorb only as long as it took to get to Bulk (the charging algorithm of the Outback solar charge controller is explained in detail here).
Iota DLS 90 IQ4 Converter and smart charger ready for installation in our RV
As soon as we plugged in, the converter began dumping 49 amps into the batteries which zoomed the battery voltage up to the converter’s Bulk stage value of 14.6 volts. Then it backed way off to 30 amps, then 20, then 15 as it held the converter’s and solar charger’s Absorb voltage of 14.2 volts (our new Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt batteries charge up extraordinarily quickly!).
From there, the Outback solar charge controller went through its usual Sleeping and ZZZZ stages as the Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter quietly slipped from Absorb (14.2 volts) to Float (13.6 volts). When the Outback solar charge controller went through its wakeup sequence after being in the ZZZZ stage for 3 hours, it saw the batteries were fully charged, so it rolled over and went back to sleep in the ZZZZ mode.
We catch our RV’s solar charge controller sleeping on the job at midday! The solar panels are in full sun and are at 68 voltsThe converter is in control and has elevated the batteries to 13.5v But the controller sleeps soundly as 0 amps go from the panels to the batteries!
In fact, the whole rest of the time we were plugged into shore power, the Outback solar charger stayed in the ZZZZ mode, even in bright afternoon sunshine. Every 3 hours it would lazily open its eyes, yawn, look at the state of the batteries, see that they were fully charged and go right back to dreamland in the ZZZZ mode.
To summarize, these are two examples of how different solar charge controllers handled the presence of full-time shore power:
No. On another occasion, while getting repairs done at an RV dealership, we plugged in our trailer for an afternoon while it was out on the lot next to the building on a cloudy day. The solar charge controller was putting in 6 amps at 13.8 volts in the Absorb stage (trying to keep the batteries at 14.7 volts) at mid-afternoon.
As soon as the shore power cord was plugged in, the converter began dumping 55 amps into the batteries and the battery voltage zoomed to 14.6 volts. The solar charge controller kept putting in around 6 amps.
For the next few minutes, the total current going into the batteries dropped from 61 amps to 33 amps and then settled there. If the solar charge controller could put in 8 amps, as the sky lightened, the converter put in 25 amps. If the solar charge controller could put in only 2 amps as the sky darkened, the converter put in 31 amps.
Suddenly, the converter switched to its Absorb stage where it holds the batteries at 14.2 volts, and the total current going into the batteries dropped to 20 amps. The solar charge controller was still in its own Absorb stage where it wanted to hold the batteries at 14.7 volts, so it kept putting in as much current as it could (5 to 8 amps and even as high as 12 when the sun came out for a few minutes) while the converter made up the difference, keeping the total at around 20 amps.
We didn’t stay plugged in long enough to see the solar charge controller switch to Float (the converter stays in Absorb for 8 hours), but at that point the converter would have held the batteries at 14.2 volts while the solar charge controller wanted them at 13.5 volts. It also would have been dark, so the converter would have been in complete control and the solar charge controller would have gone to sleep.
If you are using a generator to give the batteries a boost of charge because you’ve been in cloudy conditions or don’t have enough solar power to run everything on board indefinitely, then you’ll want the generator to charge the batteries as quickly as possible, saving you a few dollars in fuel (gas or diesel) and saving yourself from the loud noise and obnoxious fumes of the generator itself.
Yamaha 2400i generator — our backup
In essence, the goal with a generator is to run it for as short a time as possible to get the batteries charged up.
With solar power, at the end of the day, before nightfall, the batteries are in their most charged state.
During the evening and into the darkest hours of the night, the batteries get depleted from running the lights, the TV, the computers, the microwave and whatever else your household uses until bedtime.
By dawn, the batteries are at their lowest state of charge. This is also a time when the sun is low in the sky and the solar panels are operating weakly and producing minimal current.
Early morning is the ideal time to turn on the generator!
An Example of Generator Use at Midday versus Dawn
The first time we fired up our generator to charge our batteries via the Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 converter, we’d had several overcast days in a row. It was mid-afternoon, and the batteries were fairly depleted from days of cloudiness. However, they had already gotten about 25 amp-hours of charge during the morning and noon hour, so they weren’t as depleted as they had been at dawn.
The solar panels were limping along in the Bulk stage with the batteries at about 13.5 volts. The solar charge controller was aiming at a Bulk voltage of 14.7 volts and the panels were valiantly trying to produce enough current to get there, but all they could muster was about 6 amps. It wasn’t likely the batteries would reach the Float stage before dark.
As soon as we turned on the generator, the the Iota converter went into the Bulk stage and began delivering about 60 amps to the batteries. It quickly got them up to 14.6 volts and switched to Absorb, dropping to about 20 amps. Great! But this converter is capable of putting 90 amps into the batteries, so why run it when Bulk mode delivers just 20 amps?
We let the solar panels do their job during the day.
We decided turn off the generator and let the solar panels do whatever they could for the rest of the day.
Early the next morning when the batteries were depleted from several days of inadequate charging plus a night of activity in the RV (they were down to about 12.3 volts), we fired it up again.
I did not modify the settings on the Outback solar charge controller to match those of the converter because we were just going to run the generator for a few hours and probably wouldn’t need it again for a few months.
This time the converter rolled up its sleeves and got to work, pumping 67 amps into the batteries as it aimed for its target Bulk voltage of 14.6 volts. The solar charge controller was in Bulk mode too and was busy putting in 1-2 amps of its own (it was early morning), and with the converter’s assistance, it briefly hit 14.7 volt Bulk target and switched to Absorb.
With both the converter and solar charge controller operating in the Absorb stage, the converter dropped the current to maintain the target Absorb voltage. The solar charge controller could still bring only 1-2 amps to the party due to the low light, so the converter was in control and doing virtually all the work.
We shut off the generator off after about two hours and let the solar charge controller take over. Now that the batteries were partially charged up, the solar charge controller was able to get the batteries up to its Absorb voltage target and finish the job, even in the overcast conditions, getting the batteries through its Absorb stage and going into the Float stage for the first time in a few days.
So, you can see, there are many ways to charge RV and boat batteries and many things to consider. Of course, it’s easy enough to leave the various charging systems at their factory settings after installing them, and there is nothing wrong with that!
But if you want to understand your system and get the most out of it — especially if you are using solar power and end up running a second charging system in conjunction with your solar power system — you may want to dig into the nitty gritty details buried in the user manuals and figure out what the charging algorithms are and how to program each system with the parameters that make the most sense for you.
All battery charging systems for mobile installations like RVs and boats have become increasingly more sophisticated over the years. A quick review of the older systems described in detail in the previous posts here and here show how the engineers designing these systems have become more and more knowledgeable about the real world applications of their products and what conditions they might encounter as they interact with other charging systems.
As the years go by from here forward, more and more solar charge controllers, inverter/chargers, converters and engine alternators will be designed with the understanding that they may not be the only charging system operating in the RV or boat.
This was the last article in our series on RV and Marine Battery Charging:
The two sample systems described in Part III of our Solar Power Tutorial series are essentially the same systems we have installed on our RV and sailboat. The RV system is pretty standard for full-time RVers (four 120-140 watt 12-volt panels and 440 amp-hour battery bank). The sailboat system is bigger than many cruisers carry (three 185 watt 24-volt panels and 710 amp-hour battery bank).
Cruisers often install less solar power and rely on additional charging methods via engine alternator, and wind/gas/diesel generators. However, we have found our solar power alone is sufficient to live an ordinary house-like lifestyle on our boat (if we don’t use our standalone DC freezer). We lived for 10 mid-winter weeks in southern Mexico on solar power alone, without using the alternator once (it was broken), and still used two laptops, the TV/DVD, stereo, microwave, chartplotter, autopilot, anchor windlass and vacuum as much as we wanted.
Our rationale for having enough solar power to live comfortably without alternative charging methods was: we didn’t want to store a lot of gasoline to power a gas generator; we had found that boats with wind generators often suffered from the whirring noise and vibration; and we didn’t want the added cost, installation work and maintenance of an inboard diesel generator. Solar power has been a great solution for us on both the boat and the fifth wheel.
Part III described these two basic full-timer systems with just a cursory comparison of the solar panel choices. This page goes into more detail about the various options for sizing solar panels and suggests different ways to wire them.
Wiring in Series versus in Parallel and Wire Gauge Size
There are quite a few choices for solar panel configurations, each with its own pros and cons. But before choosing a panel configuration it’s worthwhile to consider how to deal with the large current that will be flowing through the wires. As much as 35 amps or more might be flowing from the panels to the charge controller and then from the charge controller into the batteries. This requires heavier gauge wire which is more difficult to work with and is expensive. However, there are several ways to reduce the amount of current in the wires.
If the panels are wired in parallel, the amps produced by each panel are additive while the volts remain constant (Ohm’s law). Therefore, the cable leading from the connection point of all the panels to the charge controller and then on to the batteries will carry the full current load, or potentially as much as 35 or 40 amps at 12 volts DC. Heavier gauge wire must be installed to handle this large current load throughout the system.
If there is too much current on a cable, then it will get warm (or hot), and lose some of its precious amperage to heat. In other words, if the wire gauge is too small, not all the power produced by the panels will make it to the batteries. It will dissipate as heat loss along the way. And at the extreme, there’s the risk of melting the shielding off the cable (highly unlikely).
Larger wire is more expensive and is more difficult to handle because it is stiffer. “Larger” generally means 6 or 8 gauge wire and “smaller” is generally 10 gauge. The size is dependent on the current flowing through the wire and the length of the wiring run. A detailed chart for selecting wire gauge is given here. Note that some charge controllers can’t accommodate wire heavier than 4 or 6 gauge.
If the panels are wired in series, the amps produced by each panel stay constant while the voltage is additive (also Ohm’s law). Therefore, the cable leading from the connection point of the panels to the charge controller will carry just the amperage produced by a single panel (7-9 amps) at 48 volts DC (if four 12 volt panels are installed in series), rather than the 25-35 amps at 12 volts DC that would flow when wired in parallel. Because there is less current, thinner gauge wire can be used throughout the system.
In practical terms, most solar power systems on RVs and boats never reach their full potential current load. During the morning hours, before the sun gets high and powerful in the sky, the batteries get quite a bit of charge. Usually, by the time the sun is really cranking out maximum energy at noon — the time when the system could be producing max amps — the batteries have already gotten pretty well charged and are starting to ask for less and less current. So the charge controller has already begun to throttle the panels back a bit and less current is flowing through the system.
Also, solar panels are rated for operating with the sun perpendicular to their surface, and anything other than a perpendicular orientation reduces their output significantly. In all months except May-July, the sun doesn’t ride all that high in the sky. We have rarely seen much more than 25-30 amps on either of our full-timer systems, although they are capable of 30 and 36 amps respectively.
Another important consideration is that when a small fraction of a solar panel is shaded — as little as a 4 square inch area on a 2′ x 5′ panel — the entire panel stops producing power. That is because internally the panel is “wired” in series. When there is resistance, caused by shade, in just one portion of it the panel’s internal circuitry, current can’t flow through any of it.
By extension, if the panels are all wired in series, when one panel shuts down due to a palm-sized bit of shade, then the entire array of panels shuts down. A tree branch or part of a boat’s standing rigging or mast/boom can cause the entire array to shut down if it is wired in series.
Shade from the mast and shrouds on our three 185 watt panels.
If the panels are all wired in parallel, a small amount of shade on one panel will only shut down that individual panel. Current will still flow through the rest of the panels and then through the rest of the system.
We were persuaded by our solar panel vendor to wire our trailer’s panels in series so we could use small gauge wire throughout the system. We have experimented with shading a small corner of one of the four panels and were stunned to see the entire array quit working! However, almost everywhere we boondock we are in full sun. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter for us. Wiring our RV’s solar panels in series has worked out just fine. If, however, you anticipate camping under trees on a regular basis and you want to maximize the panels’ chances of getting access to the sun, wire the panels in parallel and use heavier gauge wire.
On a boat, this series versus parallel decision is much more critical than on the roof of an RV. The mast, boom and shrouds often shade portions of the panels as the boat swings at anchor. Under sail the shading can be even worse. So the best wiring option on a boat is to wire the panels in parallel. However, the cable runs in a boat can be much longer than in a comparably sized RV. On our sailboat the wiring running from one end of the system to the other — panels-controller-batteries — is 45′. Why so long? The panels are high in the air on an arch at the back end of the boat, the batteries are at the bottom of the hull in the middle of the boat, and the all the wiring is routed so as not to be seen.
12 volt versus 24 volt panels
Another way to tackle this issue of having a lot of current flowing through the system is to use 24 volt solar panels instead of 12 volt panels. When the voltage is doubled like this (24 versus 12 volts), the current is halved. So the current produced by 24 volt panels is half that of equivalent wattage 12 volt panels (the watts don’t change whether the panels are 12 volts or 24 volts). We chose to go this route on our sailboat, using three 185 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel.
Since the batteries are 12 volt batteries, the input side of the charge controller coming from the solar panels is 24 volts while the output side going to the batteries is 12 volts. Most large capacity charge controllers allow this kind of configuration. This means that the current flowing between the panels and the charge controller is half that flowing between the charge controller and the batteries. So, while the panels may be producing 14 amps at 24 volts, and those 14 amps may be flowing from the panels to the charge controller, the current will double to 28 amps at 12 volts when it flows from the charge controller to the battieries.
While the wiring run between the panels and the charge controller can be smaller gauge (less current flows in that portion of the system), the last wire run between the charge controller and the batteries needs to be as short as possible and wired with heavier gauge wire to accommodate the larger amount of current.
We made the mistake of placing the charge controller 25′ from the batteries at first and using 10 gauge wire (I suspect we didn’t explain our situation to the salesmen at the solar panel store well enough when we asked him for guidelines). When the panels were running at full power we lost about 10-15% of the power they were producing. Once we moved the charge controller to within 10′ of the batteries and replaced the 10 gauge wire with 8 gauge wire, we lost just 1.5% of the power between the charge controller and the batteries, which is considered acceptable.
Tilting brackets make a lot of sense on an RV because an RV is parked in a stationary position. In wintertime it is possible to tilt the panels towards the sun (tilt them about 45 degrees). Most folks align the panels with the length of the RV and tilt them on their sides. This means that either the driver side or passenger side of the RV will be situated to face due south and the panels will be tilted in that direction. In most boondocking locations we find we can orient the rig any way we want to because there is so much space around us.
In experiments one December with RVing neighbors who had tilting brackets, we found that their solar power system produced about 40% more amp-hours throughout the day. Their system was fully charged and their batteries were floating in the afternoon, while ours never reached the Float stage. Some of that may have had to do with their batteries being better charged to begin with in the morning (we have no idea if they were or weren’t), but it is a pretty dramatic difference nonetheless.
Four 120-130 watt panels on our fifth wheel’s roof
However, to get the advantage of tilting brackets, you have to get on the roof to tilt each panel every time you set up camp, and then remember to return them to their flat position before breaking camp and driving off.
An alternative is to keep the panels flat in all but the most dire circumstances (a week of cloudy winter days), but have one more panel in your system than necessary. Or don’t even bother installing tilting brackets at all. The trade-off is a few hundred dollars for an extra panel versus climbing up and down your RV ladder and fussing with the panels, as well as the risk that you might drive off with them raised up (we’ve seen plenty of people do that).
Tilting brackets don’t make much sense on a boat because boats move around so much at anchor. Ours swings back and forth in a 90 degree arc. Also, the tilting mechanism for a lot of boats introduces shade across the panels at certain angles. On a boat, it is best to mount the panels as far from the mast and boom as possible and to focus on keeping the shade off the panels as much as possible by forcing the boom off to one side or the other while at anchor. A fixed, flat mounting position works best.
For more information about how to select the best solar panels for your installations, see this article:
Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.
Shown here is a complete full-timer's kit (far left), a big charge controller (middle) and a big inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links: