Dirty Little Secrets from the RV Dump Station – RV Dumping Tips + Composting Toilets

When Trailer Life Magazine asked me to write a 2,000 word feature article about RV sanitation systems, including step-by-step RV dumping procedures, overall RV dump station etiquette and tips for emptying the RV holding tanks, all I could think of were two words:

Don’t Spill !!

Once Mark and I put our heads together, though, Continue reading

RV Mountain Driving: How to drive your RV safely on mountain roads

Sheep Creek Overlook Flaming Gorge Utah

It was a steep climb to get to this gorgeous spot in Flaming Gorge, Utah.

For us one of the best things about the RVing lifestyle is seeing all the spectacular scenery that North America has to offer.  But getting there often involves driving over scary mountain passes.  We are far from experts, but here are a few things we’ve learned about how to get up and over the mountains:

Get familiar with the mountain pass in advance

The book Mountain Directory West for Truckers, RV and Motorhome Drivers is a terrific resource.  Every mountain pass in the west is described in detail, including grades, turns, how many miles you will drive at each grade and whether the road has steep drop-offs or wide shoulders and other helpful info.  This book (and its companion eastern states edition) is available in a print edition or as an eBook.

Steepness is described in terms of grades: 5% grades are not bad; 10% grades are very steep.  The tightness of the switchback turns are described by the speed limit: 25 mph turns are a bit tight; 15 mph turns are very tight.

Once you’ve got a handle on the nature of the pass you’re considering, it also helps to get some first-hand feedback from drivers who’ve done it.  As we travel we often ask locals about upcoming roads that concern us.  Folks at visitors centers, chambers of commerce, local stores and libraries can give you a sense of what the drive is like, and this will help you decide whether you want to tackle the climb.

For the steepest climbs and most scary seeming roads, we driving the road in our truck without the trailer first. Then we know exactly what to expect when we drive it with our trailer attached!

Ascending:  Keep the engine cool

At the bottom of a big pass, even if it’s a hot day, we turn off the air conditioning.  If the pass is a long one, we also turn on the heat — full blast — to draw heat off the engine. This is tough on the passengers on hot summer days but keeps the engine happy.

Overheating:  Pull over and let it idle

If you need to pull over to let the engine cool down, keep it idling so it can continue to circulate anti-freeze through the radiator.  The electric fan should kick on to circulate air through the radiator as well.  You can also turn the heater on with the fan on high to help draw more heat off the engine even faster.

Descending:  Use the exhaust brake, drop down a gear or even switch to 4×4 Low

Depressing and letting off the gas pedal will engage the exhaust brake.  If the descent is steep, dropping into 2nd gear will slow the vehicle down further.  If it is very steep, switching into 4×4 Low and driving in 1st gear can slow the rig to 5 mph and make it possible to creep down a crazy steep mountain in a controlled fashion. We’ve done it and it works!!

As I mentioned, we aren’t experts, but these few simple things have made a big difference for us.

Good luck with your mountain driving, and don’t be afraid to take the scenic route, even if it involves some steep climbs and descents!

New to this site?  Check out RVing Lifestyle and Tech Tips at the top of the page for detailed info about installing a vent-free propane heater, living the full-time RV lifestyle, how to go boondocking, the costs of full-time RVing and more.  Please visit our Home page and Welcome page for RVers to learn more about us and discover all the other good stuff available to you on this blog.

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Trailer Suspension Nuts & Bolts – RV Blues on Rough Roads!

Lots of full-time RVers with big rigs are very sensible and stick to traveling on paved roads. But we like to get off the beaten path, and sometimes that puts us on crazy, rough and rugged dirt roads.

On our recent trip to Bisti Badlands in northwestern New Mexico, a 45 minute drive down three miles of extremely washboarded, nasty dirt road wreaked havoc with our trailer’s suspension.

Equalizer bolt walks out of fifth wheel suspension

Hmmm…. That center bolt on the equalizer doesn’t look right!

As we were hitching up to leave, Mark did his usual walk around our trailer to make sure nothing was about to fall off and that everything was secure. To his shock, he noticed that the long bolt that goes through the equalizer on our trailer’s leaf spring suspension system had walked almost all the way out!

Fifth wheel suspension Equalizer bolt unscrews itself on rough road

Yikes!

Holy Smokes! Our 14,000 lb. 36′ fifth wheel trailer was about to lose the bolt holding this vital piece of gear together!

We were miles from nowhere, and I immediately began scenario building in my head to plan various ways we might get out of this mess.

While I theorized, Mark calmly set about getting out his tools and tackling the problem right there in the dirt. His first task was to raise the trailer up so he could get the bolt properly aligned horizontally and tap it back into place with a hammer.

So, out came the 12 ton bottle jack.

Raise fifth wheel trailer with bottle jack for suspension repair

First things first:
Raise the wheels totally off the ground with our 12 ton bottle jack.

He needed to raise the trailer up quite high to relieve all the pressure on that bolt, so he took a piece of wood we sometimes use under the fifth wheel landing legs and put it under the bottle jack to raise it higher. Then he took a second block of wood and put it on top of the bottle jack to span the c-channel tube that runs the width of the trailer.

Pumping away on the bottle jack, he finally got the wheels entirely off the ground and began tapping the bolt through the two sides of the hanger with a small hammer.

Hammer fifth wheel equalizer bolt pack in place in suspension repair

With the pressure off, Mark taps the bolt back into place.

It took a little finagling to get the bolt to line up and go through the second hole on the back side of the hanger.

Fifth wheel equalizer bolt holds suspension together

At first, the bolt didn’t want to go through the second hole on the axle hanger.

But he was able to get it aligned and he got it to go through.

Equalizer bolt in position for fifth wheel suspension hanger assembly

All the way through. Yay!

The bigger problem, though, was figuring out what had happened to the nut that had been holding this bolt in place. It was nowhere to be found and undoubtedly was somewhere out on that nasty 3 mile dirt road.

So, now what?

Mark is a really amazing mechanic, and he keeps a magic container of potential spare parts in his Man Cave in the basement of our trailer. This magical container is a lot like the carpet bag that Mary Poppins carried.

Remember how Mary Poppins pulled all kinds of surprising things out of that bag, to the sheer delight and amazement of Jane and Michael Banks? Among other things, she pulled out a hat rack, a potted plant and a full-size standing lamp while Michael searched under the table to try to figure how she did it.

Well, that’s just the way Mark’s magic box of spare parts tricks works. When he needs a special little gizmo to make things right again, he fishes around in the box and finds just the thing while I scratch my head wondering how such a little container could always produce exactly what he needs.

A few months back we’d replaced the tires on our fifth wheel trailer and decided to replace the original lug nuts with locking lug nuts. A few of the original lug nuts also had cosmetic cracks on them which didn’t look attractive, so the new locking lug nuts were much nicer all around. Mark had decided to put a few of the old lug nuts in his magic box of tricks.

5th wheel trailer wheel lug nuts

A few months back we had replaced all the lug nuts on our trailer wheels.

So, as he fished around for an appropriately sized nut, lo and behold, it turned out those lug nuts were the exact diameter he needed!

Fifth wheel trailer lug nut_

This old lug nut is exactly the right diameter for our wayward bolt!

The thread pitch on the lug nut was not quite right, but the threads on the bolt had been damaged anyway as it walked itself out of the hanger.

While I held the bolt in place with a wrench on one side, Mark ratcheted the lug nut on the other side. He was able to jam the nut on the bolt and re-groove the bolt’s threads enough to make a super tight connection.

In no time we were back up and running and towing our fifth wheel trailer back down that crazy 3 mile road to the paved highway to go see other new and exciting destinations.

As I mentioned in my post about Bisti Badlands, it’s okay for a passenger car or van, but I would leave a bigger RV in Farmington and drive the tow vehicle or toad to Bisti instead!

Ratcheting 5th wheel equalizer suspension bolt in place

With some force, we secure the lug nut on the bolt. What a terrific temporary fix!

Who would’ve ever thunk that a rough road could loosen the nut on a big fifth wheel trailer’s suspension and walk the bolt that holds the equalizer in position almost all the way out?!

And who would’ve ever thunk that a lug nut from the trailer’s wheels would give us such a great temporary fix to get us back on the road?!

Other blog posts about our fifth wheel trailer suspension:

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Royal Flush! – A Surprise RV Toilet Replacement…Under Warranty :-)

Our fifth wheel trailer is 10 years old now, and we’ve been living in it full-time for most of those years. Our RV toilet has been with us every step of the way, although over the last few years it has struggled to hold water in the bowl.

Last week, out of the blue, Mark put his foot on the pedal to flush the toilet, heard a loud snap, and then the toilet flapper valve refused to budge. It was completely broken and unable to open and flush properly. Ugh!!

Luckily, the toilet bowl couldn’t hold water any more either, so it was kinda able to flush, just in a dribbling sort of way!

RV Toilet Replacement under an Extended RV Warranty

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So, our delightful plans to go play in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado were dashed, and we drove off over the horizon in pursuit of a replacement RV toilet.

Broken RV toilet can't hold water in the toilet bowl

The toilet flushing mechanism broke, and pressing the pedal no longer opened
the flush valve in the toilet bowl. Fluids dribbled out quickly anyway… Not good!

After some calling around, we found a shop that had our exact Thetford toilet in stock, and when we arrived, there it was on the display rack!

New RV toilet at the RV repair shop

What luck! There is an identical toilet on the display rack.

We have an RV Extended Warranty with Wholesale Warranties that has been a huge help in dealing with the many surprise financial blows we’ve faced as our trailer has aged and various components have quit working.

We first got our warranty in October of 2014, and by Christmas of the following year it had paid for itself several times over as we faced one major repair after another, all in a row.

Unlike vehicle insurance, which protects vehicle owners against accidents, an extended RV warranty protects against failures of the systems in the RV that aren’t caused by a mishap.

Installing new RV toilet in tiny RV toilet room in fifth wheel trailer

There wasn’t a whole lot of space to work in our little toilet room!

We learned from our last RV toilet repair job that replacing broken parts in an RV toilet is often more expensive than simply swapping out the toilet all together.

So we weren’t surprised when the service manager said he wanted to replace our toilet rather than troubleshooting the problem and disassembling and reassembling the toilet to replace the broken part. He called our RV warranty company and explained that the toilet couldn’t flush and that the flushing mechanism was broken.

The warranty company agreed to cover the toilet replacement in full.

To get started, the RV technician removed the shield around the base of the toilet and then unscrewed the two large bolts that hold the RV toilet to the floor.

Remove RV toilet base shield in fifth wheel trailer

The first step to removing the toilet is to remove the shield from around the base.

Two bolts hold an RV toilet to the floor of a fifth wheel trailer

Two bolts — one on either side of the base — hold the RV toilet to the floor.

Then he detached the fresh water line from the toilet and pulled the toilet off of the hole in the floor that goes to the black tank underneath.

Old RV toilet removed from hole to black sewage wastewater tank

The toilet is removed from its position over the sewer drain hole that goes to the black wastewater holding tank.

Next, he detached the hose clamps holding the rinse spray wand’s flexible hose onto the toilet

Removing broken RV toilet before installing new RV toilet

The hose clamp for the fresh water rinse sprayer is removed.

After pulling out the toilet, all that was left in the little toilet room was the hole in the floor that goes to the black wastewater holding tank, the blue fresh water line that fills the bowl and flushes the toilet, and the fresh water spray wand with its flexible hose (this was an option on our old toilet and didn’t come with the new toilet, so we kept the old spray wand).

Empty RV toilet room in 5th wheel trailer

After the toilet is removed, all that remains is the black water sewer hole, the blue fresh water flush pipe and the flexible fresh water sprayer hose.

Then it was out with the old — and in with the new!

Removing broken RV toilet from fifth wheel trailer

Out with the old toilet…

Installing new RV toilet in a fifth wheel trailer

…In with the new toilet!

To install the new RV toilet, the process was repeated in reverse. First the toilet was positioned over the black tank hole, then the fresh water line and the fresh water spray wand were reattached, and finally the RV toilet was bolted to the floor.

Since the spray wand is an option, the toilet ships with the barbed hose fitting it slides onto sealed shut. So, before sliding the hose onto the barbed hose fitting, the end of the fitting had to be clipped off.

Back of new Thetford RV toilet with optional spray wand

In order to attach the rinse sprayer, the hose connection must be clipped to open it up.

Optional sprayer nozzle on RV toilet installation

Sprayer and fresh water flush lines attached.

And then the installation was finished and our sparkling new RV toilet was all ready for its first Royal Flush!

The whole procedure took an hour from start to finish. When we settled up with the service manager, the final bill was the following:

FINAL BILL FOR REPLACING OUR RV TOILET:

Parts – New RV toilet (porcelain bowl) $297.59
Labor – One hour $105.00
Tax $11.61
Total Cost $414.20

RV EXTENDED WARRANTY PAYMENT BREAKDOWN:

Warranty Coverage (amount we saved) $314.20
Out of Pocket Cost (our deductible) $100.00
Total Payment $414.20
New RV toilet installation in fifth wheel trailer

A nice sparkling brand new toilet. Yay!

This brings our total repairs and savings with our Trailer Extended Warranty to the following:

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:

Cost of Warranty $1,904
Total Cost of Repairs we've had done $7,834
Total Out of Pocket Costs for those repairs $1,145
Repair Reimbursements:
Trailer Axle Replacement $1,036
RV Refrigerator Replacement $1,647
Plumbing Issues & Window Leak $1,142
Suspension Replacement $2,550
RV Toilet Replacement $314
Total Repair Reimbursements $6,689

Our trailer warranty has paid for itself 3.5 times over!
Confused about the nitty gritty fine print buried in RV Extended Warranties? Here's an excellent detailed explanation!!

If you are curious what an extended RV warranty would cost for your rig, Wholesale Warranties is offering a $50 discount to our readers. Call our contact, Missi Junior at (800) 939-2806 or email her at missi@wholesalewarranties.com and mention that you heard about them from our website, Roads Less Traveled. Or go to this link:

Wholesale Warranties Quote Form

The $50 discount comes off of the quoted price at the time of purchase — just be sure to ask!

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The Full Case History of our RV Extended Warranty:

Other Plumbing and Black Tank Articles!

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Pocket Flashlight Review – Lumintop EDC25 & Lumintop SD26 Flashlights

In our mobile lifestyle in our RV we often find ourselves in the dark. I’ve written in the past about how Mark is a flashlight junkie, and I’m so glad he is, because no matter where we go or what we do he always has one in his pocket!

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight review Lumintop SD26 flashlight review 1000 lumen pocket flashlights

Two nifty pocket flashlights that are lighting up the dark for us!

A few months ago I reviewed the truly incredible Lumintop SD75 4,000 lumen flashlight, which is the brightest flashlight either of us has ever seen, by a long shot. It is truly like carrying around a car headlight.

When we started planning our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Mark decided to upgrade his pocket flashlight to the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight to take with him on the trip. I secretly wondered where he thought we would be going in the dark once we got to Thailand, but he felt this flashlight was a very important piece of gear that he just had to take with him.

Sure enough, we visited quite a few caves in Thailand, we snuck into the darkest corners of many jaw-dropping ancient Khmer ruins in Angkor, Cambodia, and we took several nighttime boating excursions on Cheow Lan Lake.

Oh my. He was a man in love…with his flashlight! Sigh.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight with shipping containers

The big Lumintop SD75 searchlight with its suitcase and the two Lumintop pocket flashlights: SD26 (left) and EDC25 (right).

When we returned home, he absolutely had to replace yet another of his small pocket flashlights with the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, another 1,000 lumen total “must have” for a true flashlight junkie!

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight with belt holsters

Lumintop SD26 (left) and Lumintop EDC25 (right): 1000 lumen pocket flashlights with belt holsters.

I wondered why a man would ever need TWO pocket flashlights, but of course he has had a flashlight in almost every drawer and cabinet and pocket since I’ve known him, so I’ve learned not to ask. But when the Amazon boxes arrived, I couldn’t help myself from asking him a little bit more.

What makes these flashlights so special?

First, they are extremely bright for their size. Both the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and the Lumintop SD26 flashlight use the latest Cree LED technology, and the beam they cast is astonishing.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight, with its Cree XPL-V5 LED technology, has a narrower beam than the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, which has Cree XP-L HD LED technology, and that is why Mark just had to have BOTH flashlights. Each has its purpose.

He uses the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight to peer into dark corners around the rig. From searching for that small bag of almonds he knows is at the back of the snack cabinet, to crawling under the trailer and looking at the backside of our trailer’s leaf springs where a locking nut recently decided to unscrew itself, to searching the back of the Man Cave (our fifth wheel basement) for his plumber’s wrench or PVC cutters, which he rarely needs so they’re stashed in the depths somewhere, this little narrow-beam flashlight is ideal.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has a slightly wider beam and is best for short trips in the dark around the rig where he doesn’t want to carry the whopping Lumintop SD75 flashlight” . He keeps it in a cupboard near the door to shine outside when he hears a strange noise, and it’s the one he grabs for quickie nighttime jaunts in the dark where he doesn’t need to light up the whole world.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumen

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (left) and Lumintop SD26 flashlight (right)

We took both of these pocket flashlights and the big Lumintop SD75 searchlight out with us on our nighttime hike in New Mexico’s Bisti De-Na-Zin Wilderness recently so we could see the difference in the light cast by each one.

Setting ourselves up near a short cliff, we shined each flashlight directly at the cliff at max power.

The characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see:

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam_

Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (1000 lumens).

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam_

Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 flashlight (1000 lumens).

Lumintop SD75 flashlight 4,000 lumen beam_

The “car headlight” effect of the Lumintop SD75 searchlight (4000 lumens).

Changing our angle slightly, we repeated the test with the flashlights shining at the cliff from off to the right. The same characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight beam 1,000 lumens

Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight beam 1,000 lumens

Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight beam 4,000 lumens

Huge light from the Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen searchlight.

 

LUMINTOP EDC25 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight — the smaller one with the narrower beam — is a true pocket flashlight, complete with a spring clip to clip onto a shirt pocket or the back pocket of a pair of pants.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam in shirt pocket

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has a spring clip for pockets.

Lumintop EDC25 flashlight 1,000 lumen beam in jeans pocket

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The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight comes with a belt holster which is a more secure alternative if going on a longer hike with it.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight in a belt holster

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight also has a belt holster.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (the battery is supplied with the flashlight). Simply unscrew the back end of the flashlight and slip the battery into it.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight and 3400 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

To charge the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight, just unscrew it in the middle.

Unscrew the Lumintop EDC25 to access the charging port

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The battery is charged by connecting to a laptop or other USB connector. The flashlight’s charging port for the cable is located in the threads of the male half (the back half) of the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight charging port

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight charging port is located in the threads of the back half of the flashlight.

Plug the charging cable into the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight unscrews for charging

Ready for charging.

Then plug the USB end of the charging cable into the laptop. Initially, the flashlight will light up green.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight turns green when charging

Initially, the charging light turns green, but the battery is not charging yet.

In order to initiate the charging process, press the on/off button on the back end of the flashlight.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight back end button to start charging

Press the button on the end of the flashlight to initiate battery charging.

Then the flashlight will light up red to indicate that it is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the flashlight will turn green again.

Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight turns red when it is charging

The battery is charging while the light is red.
Once it turns green again, the battery is fully charged.

The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has six modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly.

 

LUMINTOP SD26 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also 1000 lumens but it is a little thicker and slightly shorter and casts a wider beam.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumen beam in hand

Lumintop SD26 flashlight, 1000 lumens.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight doesn’t have a spring clip on it but it comes with a belt holster to make it easy to take on hikes.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight in a belt holster

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not have a spring clip but it does have a belt holster for easy carrying.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (supplied with the flashlight). This slightly beefier battery allows the Lumintop SD26 flashlight to run for slightly longer than that The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight before needing to be recharged.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight and 5000 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also charged with a USB cable. The charging port is hidden beneath a rubber cover.

Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight charging port

The charging port is located under a rubber cover.

Simply plug the charging cable into the charging port on the flashlight.

And then plug the USB connector into your laptop.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumens before charging

The battery charging process begins as soon as the flashlight is plugged into the laptop (or other) USB port.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight battery will begin charging immediately, and you’ll see a green light flashing on and off to indicate that the battery is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the light will stop flashing and will stay green.

Lumintop SD26 flashlight 1000 lumens charging from laptop

The battery is charging as long as the light flashes green.
Once it stays lit solid green, the battery is fully charged.

The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has seven modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly. In addition, it has an SOS mode where it flashes Morse code for the letters “SOS.”

 

POCKET FLASHLIGHT SUMMARY

Both the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight and the Lumintop SD26 flashlight are 1,000 lumen pocket flashlights that are o-ring sealed and water resistent and built with aerospace grade aluminum construction.

The thinner Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is 137 mm long, has a spring clip and bulges a little less in a back pocket, but its 3,400 mAh battery doesn’t last as long. It’s beam is narrower and more focused.

The thicker (and slightly shorter at 123 mm long) Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not need to be unscrewed into two pieces in order to be charged and has a longer lasting battery. It’s beam is slightly broader. It also has a cool “SOS” Morse code mode just in case you need to flash a call for help!

If you are a flashlight junkie like Mark — and I was really surprised after writing our Lumintop SD75 review that there are so many like-minded flashlight junkies out there! — then one of these two pocket flashlights might be something to consider for your life in the dark around your RV.

You can buy the flashlights at these links:

Our review of the Lumintop SD75 flashlight is at this link.

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RV Plumbing Tips – Cleaning RV Faucets, Sink Drains & Shower Wands

The effects of hard water on RV sinks, faucets and drains can be an ongoing problem for RVers. This page describes a few tips for how we remove these pesky mineral deposit buildups from our bathroom and kitchen sinks in our fifth wheel trailer and keep the water flowing smoothly in our shower wand and RV toilet rinse sprayer.

RV plumbing tips for cleaning RV faucets and drains and removing mineral deposits

RV plumbing tips for removing mineral deposits and cleaning RV faucets and drains.

We like the water to flow freely in our RV vanity sink faucet, kitchen sink faucet and in the shower and RV toilet sprayer wands, however, periodically these faucets begin to spray water in weird directions because their inner workings have gotten clogged up by mineral deposits from the hard water.

In our bathroom vanity, our first step is to remove and clean the screen filter in the faucet. Sometimes the faucet tip can be unscrewed by hand, but if we’ve let it go too long, we have to use a pair of pliers to break the faucet tip free due to corrosion that makes it impossible to unscrew.

Remove RV faucet screen with pliers

Remove the RV faucet screen (with pliers if it’s stuck!)

Then we unscrew the entire screen assembly from the faucet.

Disassemble RV faucet

The faucet tip unscrews from the faucet.

Dirty RV faucet screen

Ugh… the screen is pretty dirty. No wonder the water comes out funny!

This time the screen was very corroded. We remove the corrosion and mineral buildup by putting all the pieces in a bath of white vinegar for 20-30 minutes or so.

Prior to putting the pieces in the white vinegar bath, it is a good idea to make note of the order that these parts go into the faucet assembly!

Soak RV faucet parts in white vinegar

After noting how the pieces go together, soak them in white vinegar.

After the bath, the bits of corrosion can be seen in the white vinegar!

RV faucet parts get cleaned with white vinegar

Here are all the pieces. You can see the dirt that came off in the vinegar bath!

Using an old toothbrush, we scrub each piece until it is clean.

Use toothbrush to clean RV faucet screen

Use a toothbrush to get the screen totally clean.

RV faucet cleaning with toothbrush and white vinegar

Scrub all the parts with the toothbrush.

Then we reassemble the pieces in the correct order and orientation.

Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 2

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Reassemble RV faucet after cleaning 1

Reassemble the pieces.

Put RV faucet together after cleaning it 2

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Put RV faucet together after cleaning it

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To make it easier to remove the faucet tip the next time we do this job, it helps to grease the threads with a marine PTEF lubricant prior to screwing the assembly back onto the faucet.

Lubricate RV faucet with PTEF lubricant grease

Lubricating the threads makes it easier to unscrew next time!

Lubricate RV faucet after cleaning

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Reassemble RV faucet

Screw it back into the faucet.

RV faucet cleaned and lubricated

Ta da! Now the flow will be smooth and full.

Our trailer has white plastic sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, and these sinks often develop a skanky brown ring around the sink drain. For years, we relied on Comet to clean these sinks. We sprinkled it on the entire sink, let it sit for a bit, and then scrubbed.

We recently discovered that Baking Soda is just as effective!! The fantastic thing about Baking Soda is that it is non-toxic. This is wonderful not only for our gray water holding tanks but also for the RV dump stations as well as the septic fields and municipal waste water treatment systems that are downstream from them.

It’s also really cheap!

Tips for cleaning an RV sink drain

White plastic RV sinks are prone to getting ugly stains.

Dirty RV sink drain

Yuck!

We simply sprinkle it on the sink and then scrub the sink with a damp Scotch-Brite scrubbing pad.

RV sink drain cleaning with baking soda

Sprinkle the baking soda in the sink and scrub the stains with a damp scrubby pad.

What a great result — a wonderfully squeaky clean sink!

RV sink drain is sparkling clean

Sparkling!

The drain plug also gets gummy, and we use an old toothbrush to scrub it clean with either baking soda and/or Murphy’s Oil Soap (a handy all around biodegradable cleanser).

In an RV that is used for dry camping a lot, like ours, the bathroom vanity sink drain can get really gross really quickly because in an effort to conserve fresh water not much clean water gets flushed down the drain.

This can result in foul odors in the sink drain, and it’s pretty unsightly too.

So, we do two things.

First, we scrub the inside of the bathroom sink drain with an old toothbrush. To get a longer reach down the drain, we taped our toothbrush to an old tent stake we had lying around. Anything long and narrow will work.

Toothbrush and extension rod to clean RV sink drain

Tape an old toothbrush to a long stick to reach deep down the RV sink drain.

Cleaning an RV sink drain

Scrub inside the sink drain.

We also scrub the sink drain plug.

Second, to keep the RV bathroom sink drain fresh smelling, we use Happy Camper Holding Tank Treatment which we’ve found is a particularly good deodorizer. We put scoop of powder in an old water bottle, fill it up with water and shake it well (the bottle gets warm as the enzymes get activated!), and then pour it down the drain.

Most of it goes into the gray water tank, but a small amount stays in the bathroom sink drain p-trap and does its magic there, killing off the offensive odors.

Use toothbrush to scrub RV sink drain plut

Scrub the sink drain plug with a toothbrush.

To keep our RV shower in tip-top shape, we clean the drain there as well. The biggest problem in our RV shower drain isn’t foul odors, because the shower drain gets flushed with lots of water everyday. Instead, the challenge with the RV shower drain is accumulated hair.

In a house, it’s easy enough to use a powerful cleanser like Drano to clean out any clogs caused by hair, but we don’t want strong chemicals like that sitting in our gray wastewater holding tank. Afterall, we want the enzymes and bacteria in the Happy Camper and Unique RV Digest-It holding tank treatment products we use to thrive and go to work breaking things down!

So, we use a long spring hook (and flashlight) to pull the hair out. It just takes a few minutes and then the drain is clear.

Some RV shower stalls may have drain components that can be removed for cleaning. Ours doesn’t.

Cleaning hair from an RV shower drain

Use a spring hook to pull hair out of the RV shower drain.

Periodically, the RV shower wand gets crudded up with mineral deposits just like our RV sink faucets do. Again, we rely on white vinegar to clean up the deposits clogging the spray holes in the shower nozzle.

First, we pour the white vinegar through the shower wand to let it soak from the inside.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

The RV shower wand can be cleaned with white vinegar.

Then we soak the shower wand’s face in a bath of white vinegar.

Tips for cleaning an RV shower wand

Put the RV shower wand face down in a white vinegar bath to clean all the little holes.

If we’ve let a little too much time pass, we’ll also use a toothpick to clean out each hole in the shower head. We use bamboo toothpicks because they hold up well in water. Ordinary wooden toothpicks tend to disintegrate when they get wet. A scribe also works well.

The before-and-after difference in the flow of water through the shower wand is startling. When half of the little holes are blocked from mineral deposits and the other half have an impeded flow, the water can feel like needles on your skin. After cleaning the wand, it is more like a waterfall.

Clean each hole in an RV shower wand with a toothpick or scribe

Use a toothpick or scribe to clean each hole in the shower wand.

Lots of RVers love the Oxygenics RV shower head. We don’t use it because it doesn’t work well with the low water pressure we use to conserve water since we dry camp every night, but for RVers who get water hookups a lot, these shower heads are extremely popular. Of course, in hard water areas, these shower heads will need periodic cleaning as well.

The RV toilet bowl rinsing wand is also subject to corrosion from mineral deposits, and after a while when we go to rinse the toilet bowl we find the water flow from the sprayer is restricted and funky.

RV toilet sprayer wand cleaning

The RV toilet sprayer wand gets clogged with minerals too.

Again, it’s easy to unscrew the end of the toilet spay wand, put it in a white vinegar for 20-30 minutes, scrub it a bit with a toothbrush, and then put it back on the wand.

RV toilet rinse wand cleaning

Unscrew the tip of the toilet rinsing wand and soak it in white vinegar to clean the holes.

As an aside, if you have energy leftover after cleaning all your RV sinks, faucets, drains and spray nozzles, a spray bottle filled with a water and white vinegar mixture is super for washing the windows. As I wrote this, some flies got in our trailer and Mark started spraying them when they landed on the window next to him using a spray bottle filled with water and white vinegar. Besides slowing them down and killing them, he was really impressed with how clean the window was when he finished!

So, these are a few of the things we do to keep our sinks and drains flowing smoothly in our life on the road in our RV.

We hope they help you too!

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B&W Companion Hitch Performance in a Fifth Wheel Trailer Rollover Accident

The April 2017 issue of Trailer Life magazine featured our article on the new Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch from B&W Trailer Hitches. Ironically, just as that issue came out, a reader emailed us the harrowing tale of his recent fifth wheel trailer rollover accident.

Trailer Life Magazine Latch and Release B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch article

Trailer Life Magazine, April 2017.
Text and photos by Emily Fagan.
Installation by Mark Fagan and Mark Graika.

Like most RVers, we installed our hitch without giving much thought to rollover accidents, and we have been very happy with it.

The B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch is special because it is designed to fit into the new puck sytems that the diesel truck manufacturers are now making available in the beds of their pickup trucks.

This makes it easy to install the hitch in the truck without having to take the truck to a shop.

Mark was able to install it in our truck with a friend’s help in about an hour, using minimal tools, and that included opening the boxes and reading the instructions. A step-by-step guide for how to install the B&W Companion OEM hitch are at this link:

B&W Companion OEM Hitch Installation Guide

The other fabulous thing about the B&W Companion OEM hitch is that not only is it easy to install but it is easy to remove from the truck.

Anytime you want to use the bed of your truck to haul something big like lumber, fire wood or furniture, it is a very straight forward process to take the hitch out of the truck.

The best part is that there are no hitch rails in the bed of the truck, so once the hitch is removed, the bed of the truck is totally flat.

These features are not part of the design of conventional fifth wheel hitches, like the conventional rails-based B&W Companion hitch (not an “OEM” model), so it’s a worthwhile to consider buying a truck with the optional puck system on it if you are considering buying a late model diesel truck.

When buying a truck/trailer combination, not only are the quality of the truck and trailer important, but the hitch is really important too, and not just for its ability to tow a heavy load…

We were shocked when full-time RVers Mark and Doran Gipson sent us photos of their terrifying rollover accident with their fifth wheel. They were towing their home, a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America fifth wheel, with a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500, and they were hitched together with B&W Companion hitch.

While driving at 60 mph on I-10 outside in El Paso in February, two very inconsiderate drivers suddenly cut them off in a series of swerves right in front of them.

Here is Mark’s description of what happened:

“We were going 60 mph and were cut off by two vehicles who decided to not exit on loop 375. They dove back into our lane within 2 car lengths. With no time to brake, I swerved to the inside lane only to have the second vehicle also move into that lane as well. I lost the trailer when I swerved back to miss the concrete median.”

The result was that the trailer went over on the driver’s side at 60 mph, slid 150 feet and hit its roof on the concrete median.

Hitchhiker trailer wheel trailer RV rollover accident

The Hitchhiker fifth wheel hit the pavement at 60 mph and slid 150 feet.
Most trailers would have splintered on impact.

Fortunately, as the trailer went over on its side, the B&W hitch — which comes in two pieces: a base on the bottom and a coupler on the top — separated in two. The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin as the trailer toppled over while the base stayed in the bed of the truck, allowing the truck to remain upright.

Hitchhiker fifith wheel trailer rollover accident with B&W fifth wheel hitch coupler still attached

The upper half of the fifth wheel hitch — the coupler — remained attached to the trailer
as it rolled over on the driver’s side.

So, while Mark and Doran came to a skidding stop in their truck, sitting upright in their seats, the trailer rolled over, detached and slid to a stop on its side.

Truck damage from fifth wheel trailer rollover accident

As the trailer went over, the fifth wheel overhang crushed the driver’s side of the truck bed.

If the truck had rolled over too, Mark and Doran could have easily been very badly injured or even killed. However, because the truck stayed upright, they walked away unscathed. Thank heavens!!

With the truck badly damaged and the trailer on its side on I-10, Mark called for help and a wrecking crew arrived. As he wrote to me:

“The wrecker driver came with two trucks and a trailer because he had not gotten to a 5th wheel rollover without the truck also on its side and the trailer in pieces. He said that it would collapse when he tried to pick it up. But he put it on its wheels and towed it to his shop and still can’t believe how well built it was.

“Things were tumbled around inside but we virtually lost none of our possessions.”

Fifth wheel trailer damage from RV rollover accident with Hitchhiker 5th wheel trailer

The wrecking crew righted the trailer and were amazed that it stood up just fine on its own wheels.
The damage to the trailer was cosmetic except for a roof rafter.

“We tested the slides and everything worked. The major damage was cosmetic on the side that slid and possibly a broken roof rafter where the AC unit came against the concrete barrier. Though everything was scrambled inside, nothing was broken. We lost almost nothing of our possessions including TV and computers.”

My husband Mark and I saw a trailer accident on the highway once, and the entire trailer was in splinters. That is what usually happens in trailer accidents and that’s why the wrecker driver arrived at the accident scene prepared to pick up a million pieces off the highway.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer sustained little damage in 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

The wrecking crew expected the trailer to fall apart when it was righted, but it stood right up.
They towed it away on its own wheels just fine.

It is quite a testament to the way the Hitchhiker Discover America trailers were built that one could fall over on its side at 60 mph and still be intact with the slide-out mechanisms still functioning and only cosmetic damage on the side that skidded on the asphalt.

Unfortunately, Hitchhiker (NuWa Industries) stopped building fifth wheel trailers in 2013, but used models of all ages can still be found. Our blog posts from our visits to NuWa in Chanute, Kansas, can be found at the following links:

B&W Trailer Hitches is located just a few miles away from the NuWa plant (NuWa is now called Kansas RV Center) in Humboldt, Kansas, and we enjoyed a wonderful factory tour and a unique American heartland small town celebration that was sponsored in part by B&W Trailer Hitches two years ago (blog post here).

For Mark and Doran, the key to their truck staying upright during their rollover accident was the way the pivot arm on the base of the B&W Companion hitch bent sideways and let the coupler break free as the trailer toppled over.

Bent pivot arm on B&W fifth wheel hitch after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Looking forward towards the cab of the truck, the pivot arm on the driver’s side bent outwards allowing the coupler to break free (with some small broken parts inside) while the entire hitch base stayed planted in the bed of the truck. This kept the truck upright.

B&W fifth wheel hitch bent pivot arm after 5th wheel trailer rollover accident

Bent pivot arm on the fifth wheel hitch base.

It is impressive that the B&W hitch allowed for the hitch coupler and hitch base to separate completely once one of the pivot arms on the hitch base began to bend as the trailer went over. As the wrecker driver noted, usually both the truck and the trailer roll over together because once the trailer starts to go over the hitch forces the truck over too.

B&W Fifth wheel hitch coupler after trailer rollover accident

The coupler stayed attached to the trailer’s king pin.
In this photo it has been removed from the king pin and laid in the bed of the truck for inspection.

B&W Companion hitch coupler after rollover accident broken pieces inside

The coupler is flipped upside down here to reveal the broken pieces inside.

Broken pieces inside the B&W Companion fifth wheel hitch after a rollover accident

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In the end, Mark and Doran decided to replace both their truck (a 2008 Dodge Ram 2500) and their trailer (a 2007 32′ Hitchhiker Discover America) as well as their slightly damaged B&W Companion hitch with a new set: a 2012 3500 Ram dually truck, 2012 36′ Hitchhiker Discover America and a new B&W Companion hitch!

We feel very blessed to have towed our fifth wheel trailer so many tens of thousands of miles and seen so many beautiful places in nearly 10 years of full-time travel. We’ve had our share of near misses, especially in our trip back east two years ago where traffic is blindingly fast on very crowded and confusing highways, and we’ve seen our share of accidents too.

One RV upgrade we did that has made a massive difference for us in dealing with sudden stops at high speed while towing our 36′ 14k lb. fifth wheel trailer was a trailer disc brake conversion where we upgraded from standard trailer drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. This is a pricey upgrade, but one we highly recommend doing.

Hitchhiker fifth wheel RV with B&W Companion OEM fifth wheel hitch under sunny skies

RVing in a fifth wheel trailer is so much fun, especially in gorgeous places far from the open road.
But accidents do happen and good equipment — from truck to trailer, hitch and brakes — can make a huge difference in the outcome when things go wrong.

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Dodge Ram Truck Owners — Please note:
Late model Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks have been recalled (beginning 6/23/17) for side airbag problems in a rollover accident. See this article for details: Dodge Ram Side Airbag Recall

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Is RV Solar Affordable? 3 Solar Power Solutions for RVs and Boats

Is RV solar power affordable? Or is installing a solar power system on a motorhome or trailer — or even on a sailboat — just too darn expensive to be cost effective? We never thought this question would be hard to answer until recently.

This article outlines three different RV solar power solutions and lists all the parts (and costs) of everything you need to buy:

1. A Small, Expandable Rooftop RV Solar Power Solution – For weekends and vacations
2. A Portable RV Solar Power Solution – To get you up and running effortlessly
3. A Big Rooftop RV Solar Power Solution – For full-time RVing

Solar panels on a fifth wheel trailer

Can a solar power installation on an RV or sailboat pay for itself?

Ever since we installed our first (very small) solar power system on our first full-time RV nearly ten years ago, we’ve been excitedly telling people it is a very affordable do-it-yourself project for anyone with some mechanical and electrical knowledge. And for those who can’t turn a wrench, it shouldn’t be that much more.

Our first 130 watt solar power system cost us about twice as much as the same system would today, but even at that high price, we felt it was dollar-for-dollar an equal value to buying a Yamaha or Honda 1000 generator. Best of all, once a little system like that was installed, it was a whole lot less noisy, expensive to operate and complicated to use than a generator would be.

At today’s super cheap solar prices, that little solar power system is even more valuable compared to one of those nice Japanese portable gas generators than it was 10 years ago!

Installing solar panels on a motorhome RV

Installing solar power can be a DIY project if you’re handy.

Recently, however, we’ve heard some crazy prices being quoted for installing solar power systems on RVs. We met one couple with a gorgeous brand new DRV Suites fifth wheel who were quoted $13,000 for a solar power installation. Not long after that, we read an article in a popular RV magazine describing a $12,000 solar power installation on a fifth wheel.

Yikes!! These are outrageous prices!!

We sure hope no one is finding they have to spend that kind of crazy money to get a solar power system installed on their trailer or motorhome or sailboat.

We’ve got oodles of articles on this website that go into the nitty gritty details of things to consider when designing and installing a solar power system on an RV or a boat (located HERE). However, all that theory aside, it’s not all that complicated.

Here are three solar power “packages” — with approximate prices — that will do the trick whether you’re a part-timer or full-time RVer.

Although it is possible to buy “pre-packaged RV solar power kits” online, we suggest hand selecting the components you want so that just in case any individual item has a problem it can be returned easily.

We’ve heard of cases where people bought a pre-packaged solar power kit online and then had problems returning a broken part because they had to return the entire kit — solar panels, charge controller, cables and all — just because the one item wasn’t working right.

 

SMALL ROOFTOP RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM – 150 WATT SYSTEM

Affordable solar panel with a popup tent trailer

For part-time RVers, installing solar on the roof isn’t a requirement.

The following is essentially what we put on our roof and what we camped with off the grid every night for a year when we started.

The brands are not exactly the same, but these components are highly rated and will do the trick for anyone that wants a roof-mounted solar power system on their motorhome or trailer.

This kit includes both a solar battery charging component and an 110 volt AC power component provided by an inverter. If you don’t understand the distinction, please see our post: RV Solar Power Made Simple.

The simplest inverter installation is to connect the inverter to the batteries using heavy duty cables and then to run an ordinary (but long) power strip (or two) from the inverter to somewhere convenient inside the rig.

Rather than using the wall outlets in the rig, just plug the AC appliances into the power strip as needed, taking care not to operate too many things at once and overload the inverter.

Prices always change, so check the links to see the current prices.

The nice thing about this kit is that it is easily expandable. If a second or third solar panel is eventually desired (to double or triple the size of the system to 300 or 450 watts, for another $200 or $400), those panels can be purchased at a later date. At that point the solar charge controller can also be replaced with a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller (for $600).

 

PORTABLE FOLDING SOLAR POWER KIT SUITCASE – 120 WATT SYSTEM

Portable folding solar panel suitcase for RV and motorhome use

A portable solar power kit that folds up and can be carried like a suitcase is an awesome solution for weekenders, vacationers and seasonal RVers.

A really nifty alternative for anyone that isn’t super skilled with tools or that’s a bit spooked by electrical things, is a portable solar power kit that folds into a suitcase. These come with two matching solar panels, battery cables with alligator clips, and a panel-mounted solar charge controller. The solar panels are hinged together and can be folded towards each other. A handle on the side of one of them makes the whole thing easy to carry and store like a suitcase.

These portable folding suitcase solar panel kits come in all sizes. A good size is anywhere from 120 to 200 watts:

The advantage of a portable suitcase solar kit like this is that it is self-contained. If you think you might upgrade to a different RV soon, then there’s no loss in investment when one RV is sold and another is purchased. Also, if you decide to install a roof-mounted system at a later date, the suitcase solar panel kit can be sold to another RVer.

As for the inverter, heavy duty cables and power strip, they are included here just to round out the package so you have AC power in the rig as well as the ability to charge the batteries just like the “small solar power kit” described above.

 

Affordable solar power on a motorhome

Installing solar panels on tilting brackets is popular, but only necessary in mid-winter. We’ve never done it.

With a big RV solar power installation, it is likely that the RV’s house battery bank will need to be upgraded or replaced too, so this package includes a “replacement” AGM battery bank.

The Magnum inverter is an inverter/charger that has a built in transfer switch, making it very straight forward to wire the inverter into the house AC wiring system so you can use the standard wall outlets in the rig rather than plugging things into a power strip.

We’ve been living exclusively on solar power since we started this crazy traveling lifestyle in 2007, and this system is larger than any system we’ve ever had on a boat or trailer. So it ought to work just fine for anyone who wants to RV full-time and do a lot of boondocking.

 

INSTALLATION COSTS

If you are not a DIY RVer, you’ll need to budget for the installation labor too. As a very rough estimate, I would allow for $500-$1,000 for a small system installation and $1,500-$2,500 for a big system installation. The variations in labor costs will depend on how difficult it is to work in your rig, how hard it is to mount the various components and run the wires from roof to basement, and whether or not you choose to have the batteries upgraded or replaced.

 

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

RV park and campground prices are all over the map, but assuming that the average cost is $25 per night for a site with hookups if you don’t take advantage of monthly discounts or $15 per night if you do, these systems can pay for themselves in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on what size system you buy, whether or not you do the installation yourself, and how you typically camp. Of course, this assumes the rig is equipped with a refrigerator that can run on propane and that if air conditioning is needed an alternative power source like a generator is used.

As with everything in the RVing world, starting small and cheap is the best way to go.

 

BIG and COMPLEX SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS

Solar panel arch with solar panels on sailboat transom

Installing solar power on a sailboat has its own set of challenges.

We have installed three different RV solar power systems and one solar power system on a sailboat.

We published an article in the February 2017 issue of Cruising World Magazine (one of the top magazines in the sailing industry) describing the solar power system we installed on our sailboat Groovy back in 2010. This system gave us all the power we needed to “anchor out” in bays and coves away from electrical hookups in marinas for 750 nights during our cruise of Mexico.

Cruising World has posted the article online here:

Sunny Disposition – Adding Solar Power – Cruising World Magazine, February, 2017

Installing solar power on a sailboat is very similar to installing it in an RV, but there is an added complexity because there isn’t a big flat roof to lay the panels on. Instead, we had to construct a stainless steel arch to support the panels. Fortunately, our boat, a 2008 Hunter 44DS, had a factory installed stainless steel arch over the cockpit already. So, we hired a brilliant Mexican metal fabricator named Alejandro Ulloa, to create our solar panel arch in Ensenada, Mexico.

Solar power installation on sailboat Hunter 44

We turned to Alejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico, for our solar panel arch
He can be contracted the=rough Baja Naval.

Solar panel arch installation on Hunter 44 sailboat

Alejandro is an artist. He wrapped the arch in plastic to prevent scratches until it was permanently mounted on our boat!

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44

The arch went back to Alejandro’s workshop for tweaking after this measuring session.

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44 installed by Alejandro Ulloa

Dimensions now perfect, Alejandro mounts the arch permanently.

Getting the 185 watt 24 volt solar panels up onto the arch was a challenge. Getting solar panels up onto an RV roof is tricky too!

Affordable marine Solar panel installation on sailboat Hunter 44

Getting the solar panels onto the roof of an RV or up onto this arch takes two people (at least!)

Installing solar panels on an arch on sailboat (Hunter 44) with Alejandro Ulloa Baja Naval Ensenada Mexico

The second of the three panels gets installed.

The solar panel arch was going to double as a “dinghy davit” system with telescoping rods that extended out over the transom. These davits supported a pulley system to hoist the dinghy up out of the water. So once the solar panels were mounted on the arch, we had to be sure it could handle the weight of the dinghy.

Our dinghy weighed a lot less than the combined weight of Mark and Alejandro!

Strong solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension

Alejandro and Mark test the arch to be sure it can support the dinghy (which weighed half what they do).

The solar panels were wired in parallel because they would be subjected to shade constantly shifting on and off the panels at certain times of the day as the boat swung at anchor.

Wiring solar panels on a sailboat (Hunter 44) marine solar power installation

Mark wires up the panels in parallel.

Affordable solar panel installation on a sailboat

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Solar panel arch with dinghy davit extension supporting affordable solar power on sailboat

A beautiful, clean installation with wire loom covering the exposed cabling and the rest snaked down inside the tubes of the Hunter arch. The davit extensions for hoisting the dinghy are clearly visible under the panels.

Solar panels installed on arch on Hunter 44 sailboat

Nice!

Down below the cockpit inside a huge locker in the transom, Mark mounted a combiner box that brought three cables in from the three panels and then sent out one cable to the solar charge controller.

Emily and Mark Fagan aboard sailboat Groovy

The transom locker in our Hunter 44DS sailboat was very large!

Combiner box for solar panel parallel wiring on a sailboat

A combiner box brings the wires from the three panels together before a single run goes to the solar charge controller (this is optional and not at all necessary).

The solar charge controller was installed in the cabin inside a hanging locker in the master stateroom.

Xantrex solar charge controller installed in sailboat locker

We have an Outback FlexMax charge controller on our trailer but chose a Xantrex controller for our boat because there were no moving parts. We compare the two HERE.

The solar charge controller was located about 8 feet from the near end of the battery bank which spanned a ~14 foot distance under the floorboards in the bilge.

Two 4D AGM batteries in bilge of sailboat

We had four 160 amp-hour 4D AGM batteries for the house bank and a Group 27 AGM start battery installed under the floorboards in the bilge.
One 4D house battery and the Group 27 start battery are seen here

This 555 watt solar power system, which charged a 640 amp-hour house bank of 4D AGM batteries, supplied all of our electrical needs, including powering our under-counter electric refrigerator.

Usually our engine alternator provided backup battery charging whenever we ran the engine. However, at one point our alternator died, and we were without it for 10 straight weeks while we waited for a replacement alternator.

Why such a long wait for a simple replacement part? Getting boat parts in Mexico requires either paying exorbitant shipping fees and import taxes or waiting for a friend to bring the part with them in their backpack when they fly from the US to Mexico.

During that long wait our solar power system supplied all our electricity without a backup while we were anchored in a beautiful bay. Diesel engines don’t require an alternator to run, so we moved the boat around and went sailing etc., and lived our normal lives during our wait.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension with solar panels installed on sailboat

View from the water — cool!

The dinghy davit extensions on the solar panel arch made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy from the water and also to raise and lower the 6 horsepower outboard engine.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension on sailboat

A pulley system on the davit extensions made hoisting the outboard and dinghy a cinch for either of us to do singlehandedly.

Solar panel arch and solar panels on sailboat transom

For 7 months we left our boat at the dock in Chiapas, unplugged from shorepower, and let the solar panels keep the batteries topped off. Everyday during that time they put 19 amp-hours into the batteries which was essentially the power required to operate the solar charge controller!

At anchor, sometimes the solar panels were in full sun all day long if the current and wind and the pattern of the sun crossing the sky allowed the boat to move around without the sun coming forward of the beam of the boat.

However, whenever the sun was forward of the beam, the shadow of the mast and the radome fell on the panels. We could watch the current production from the panels go from full on, to two-thirds, to one-third and back again as the shadow crossed one panel and then two at once, and then one and then none, etc, as the boat swung back and forth at anchor.

Mast and radome cast shade on solar panels on sailboat

RV solar installations have to avoid shade from air conditions and open vent hatches.
On boats the shade from the mast and radome is often unavoidable.

Mast and radome cast shade on pair of sailboat solar panels

When the shadow fell across two 185 watt panels at once, it knocked both of them out of the system so only one of the three solar panels was actually producing power.

The coolest and most unexpected benefit of having our solar panels mounted on an arch over the cockpit was the shade that they provided. The sun in Mexico is very intense, especially out on the water, and it was wonderful to have two huge forward facing jump seats at the back of the cockpit that fully shade as we sailed!

Under the shade of solar panels and a solar panel arch on a sailboat

Made in the shade — What a life that was!!

We have more solar power related articles at these links:

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

Our technical articles in Cruising World magazine can be found here:

Do We Miss Our Boat “Groovy” and Sailing?

We describe our thrilling — and heart wrenching — first and last days on our wonderful sailboat in the following posts. It is very true that the happiest days of a boater’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it’s sold!

Our most recent posts:

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RV Solar Power Made Simple

Thanks to solar power, we have lived completely off the grid in two trailers and a sailboat full-time since May 2007. Without doubt, our solar power installations have given us more independence and freedom as full-time RVers and sailors than anything else in these lifestyles. It has allowed us to go anywhere at anytime, and has revolutionized our lives.

On this page I describe the two systems we have had on our trailers. These were installed in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Prices for solar power equipment have dropped every year since then, however the prices listed throughout this page are from August 2014:

  • A Small (minimal) RV Solar installation for ~$700 that we used full-time for a year of boondocking in 2007
  • A Full-timer (all you need) RV Solar installation for ~$2,500 that we have used for full-time boondocking since 2008

I also offer a little theory and reveal some of the discoveries we have made along the way. For more info, please see our Solar Power Tutorial pages and our Sailboat Solar Power Installation page.

Links to all of our articles about solar power can be found on our Solar Power For RVs and Boats page.

You can navigate to different parts of this article by using these links:

WHY BOTHER WITH A SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION ON AN RV?

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The biggest advantage of a solar power system in an RV is that the system works from dawn to dusk, silently, odor free and without requiring any fuel or maintenance, no matter where you are or what you are doing. Towing, parked at the grocery store, or camped, the batteries are being charged. They start getting charged before you finish breakfast, keep charging while you hike or go sightseeing, and continue all day, rain or shine. They don’t quit charging until nightfall. You never have to think about the batteries getting charged. It just happens. In our current rig, I feel like we have electrical hookups all the time — and we never get hookups any more!

Traveling full-time since 2007, we have connected to electrical hookups for a total of about 25 days, and that was during our first 18 months on the road. The last time we got electrical hookups was in October, 2008. Since we began our full-time travels in 2007, as of June 2019, we have boondocked in our RV nearly 3,200 nights. We also lived on solar power on our sailboat for over 900 nights during our sailing cruise of Mexico.

We do carry a Yamaha 2400i generator, but use it only a few days each year, either after a long period of winter storms to give the batteries a boost, or on hot summer days to run our 15,000 BTU air conditioner. We have used it a total of about 20 times since we purchased it in December 2007. We run it every six months or so to flush the gas through the lines. Little as we have used it, we have found the Yamaha to be a fabulous generator. It has always started on the first pull, even after it sat in storage for 20 months when we first moved onto our sailboat!

Our first solar power installation that we used for a year in 2007 was a “small” system that allowed us to use almost every appliance we owned, that is, laptop, TV, hair dryer, vacuum, two-way radio charger, power drill, etc. However, we had to be very conservative with our electrical use during the winter months. A similar “small” RV solar power kit can be found here.

Our second “full-timer” solar power system that we have been using since 2008 is like having full electrical hookups wherever we go. Very little conservation is necessary! On our biggest electrical use day to date, we watched our 26″ LCD TV with its huge surround-sound system and sub-woofer for 15 hours (it was the Olympics!) and ran two 13″ laptops for 7 hours, made popcorn in the microwave and ran several lights for 4 hours in the evening. It was July, and the next day was very sunny and the batteries were fully charged by mid-afternoon. A similar “full-time” RV solar power kit can be found here.

Here are some sample kits, smaller and bigger in size, and their prices. The only trouble with buying a component kit is that if one component fails the whole kit has to be returned. The third item, however, is a portable suitcase kit that does make a lot of sense for someone who doesn’t want to hassle with the installation just yet (you can always sell the portable kit later).

BASIC ELEMENTS OF A SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION

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BATTERY CHARGING and AC POWER
The basic components of all solar power installations is the same, and is comprised of two major subsystems: BATTERY CHARGING to get the batteries charged up and AC (120v) POWER for appliances that can’t be run on DC (12v) power (i.e., TV, computer, vacuum, hair dryer, etc.).

The BATTERY CHARGING subsystem includes these components:

  • Batteries
  • Solar panel(s)
  • Charge controller to protect the batteries from getting overcharged

The AC POWER subsystem includes this component:

  • Inverter(s) to convert the batteries’ 12 volt DC power to 120v AC power

GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY!

300 watt inverter for an RV solar panel installation

A 350 watt portable inverter
Plug it into a cigarette lighter

It is hard to “play with” the battery charging subsystem of a solar power installation to get a feel for how it works until you actually take the leap and buy a solar panel, charge controller and cables and hook it all up to the batteries. One great option if you don’t want to do any wiring but want some hands on experience is to get a portable solar panel kit. You can sell it later if you want to upgrade to a rooftop system.

You can get the hang of how the AC power subsystem works very easily. Simply run down to Walmart or any auto parts store and pick up a $15-$20 inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter DC outlet. Plug it into the lighter in your car, turn it on, and then plug your laptop into it or your electric razor or any other small appliance. Now your 12 volt car battery is operating your 120 volt appliance.

Big inverters that can run the microwave, toaster, blender and vacuum cleaner work on exactly the same principal, the difference is just the amount of power the inverter can produce. Big inverters are also wired directly to the batteries rather than plugging into a cigarette lighter.

IS SOLAR POWER EXPENSIVE? SMALL SYSTEMS VERSUS BIG SYSTEMS

The difference between the “small” system we used for one year on our little Lynx travel trailer and our “full-timer” system we have now on our big Hitchhiker fifth wheel is simply the overall capacity of each of the components. That is, the capacity of the battery charging system (solar panels, batteries and charge controller) and of the AC power system (the inverter).

In functional terms this means that the difference between the “small” and “full-timer” systems is threefold:

1) the ability to run more appliances at once (i.e., have two laptops running while the TV and blender are going)
2) the ability to run larger appliances (i.e., using a VitaMix versus a small blender)
3) the ability to run more appliances for a longer time at night without discharging the batteries too much.

So, in a nutshell, the two subsystems — battery charging (batteries + panels + charge controller) and AC power (inverter(s)) — combine to do the same job as plugging a generator into the shore power connector on the side of the rig. The panels and charge controller charge the batteries. The inverter makes it possible to use AC appliances.

The cost of the parts for these installations is:

Small: $700 – Comparable to having a Yamaha 1000i generator
Full-timer: $2,500 – Comparable to having a built-in Cummins Onan 2.5KW generator

With solar power there is no noise, no fuel cost, no maintenance and no smell, unlike a generator. However, it is not possible to run the air conditioning in the summertime on solar power, unless you have a massive system with several hundred pounds of batteries and a roof absolutely loaded with panels. As mentioned before, we use our Yamaha 2400i generator to run our 15,000 BTU air conditioner.

 

OUR “SMALL” RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM (~$700 in parts)

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This setup is a fully functional, inexpensive solar power installation, and is what we used for a 350 nights in our first year in our Lynx travel trailer. It could power a 19″ LCD TV and DVD player, radio, laptop and vacuum as well as charge camera batteries, razor, toothbrush, cordless drill, cell phone, etc.

  • Two 6-volt batteries (wired in series) giving 220 amp-hours of capacity $250

    Ours were Energizers from Sam’s Club

  • 140 watts of solar power $175

    Ours was a Kyocera 130 watt DC panel. Today Kyocera sells the 140 watt panel instead.

  • A charge controller that can support at least 10 amps $90

    Ours was a Morningstar Sunsaver 10 amp charge controller (consider a Sunsaver 20)

  • A portable inverter that can supply 1000 watts of AC power $80

    Ours was a Pro One 800 watt inverter

  • Cables, connectors and mounting brackets $100

Here are the parts for the system (except for batteries and cables) — solar panel, solar charge controller and inverter:

This system is the smallest size system I would consider for an RV if you want to drycamp or boondock for more than a night or two and be comfortable. This setup worked great in the spring, summer and fall when the sun was high in the sky and the days were long. We never thought too much about our power use until the wintertime when the days got short and the nights got long and cold. Then we began to wish for a bigger system.

RV solar panel installation - wiring the panel's junction box

Mark installs our first solar panel on the roof.
He chose a nice spot by the ocean to do it!

On those long cold winter nights we had to conserve our use of lights and the TV to make sure our furnace (which used a lot of battery power) could still run. We used oil lamps a lot in the evenings. If we had stayed in that trailer longer, we would have installed a vent-free propane heater that did not use any battery power (we eventually did that in our bigger trailer the following winter: see our Vent-Free Propane Heater Installation page).

I think every RV should have this kind of a charging system installed as standard equipment, as it is useful even for the most short-term camping, like weekends and week-long vacations during the summer months.

When we installed this “small” system in our little Lynx trailer in June 2007, we were quoted $135-$350 for installation. Mark is very handy (although he is not a Master Electrician), and he found the installation was not difficult at all and completed it in one day.

SOME THEORY – SIZING THE SYSTEM

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CHARGING & CONSUMPTION

Here is some theory to explain why the above system is “sufficient” but is not great for “full-time” use. When it comes to a solar battery charging system, the concept of power charging and consumption is very simple. The amount of power you can use, or take out of the batteries, is essentially only as much as the amount you can put into the batteries. If you use (or take out) more power than you replace (or charge them with), sooner or later your batteries will be discharged and dead. The batteries are just a temporary storage place for electricity. They act as a flow-through area for the power you are going to use.

The most important part of any solar setup is the amount of charging going on (i.e., the total size, or capacity, of the solar panels), and you want that to be greater than the amount of electricity you use. More must go into the batteries than comes out. You can have an infinite number of batteries and eventually discharge them all completely if you repeatedly use more electricity than your solar panels put in.

We often find people want to add batteries to address their power shortages when what they really need to do is add more solar panels. As a rule of thumb, don’t use more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the total capacity of the batteries in one night. More important, though, is that the bigger the solar power panel array, the better. And lastly, Keep the size and age of all the batteries in the system fairly similar so the strong ones don’t waste their energy helping the weak ones keep up.

AMPS and AMP-HOURS

Appliances use amps to run. Another unit, the amp-hour (abbreviated as “Ah“), refers to the number of amps an appliance uses when it is run for an hour. For instance, an appliance that uses three amps to run will use up three amp-hours when it runs for an hour. These amp-hours will be drawn from the batteries, and the batteries, in turn, will look to the solar panels to recharge the amp-hours they have forked over to the appliance. It is for this reason that you need to know how many amp-hours you will use in a typical day. Ultimately those amp-hours must be replaced by the solar panels, so the size and number of panels you purchase will be determined by how many amp-hours you use in a day.

To estimate how many amp-hours you might use in a day, estimate how many hours each appliance will run and multiply that by the number of amps the appliance uses. We have measured some of the appliances in our trailer, and this is how many amps they use:

Single bulb DC light — 1.5 amps
Dual bulb DC light — 3.0 amps
Dual bulb fluorescent light — 1.5 amps
19″ LCD TV — 5.5 amps
DVD / CD Player — 0.5 amps
13″ MacBook laptop, on & running — 6-8 amps
13″ MacBook, off and charging — 1.6 amps
Sonicare toothbrush charging — 0.1 amps
FM Radio w/ surround-sound — 3.0 amps
12′ string of rope lights — 3.3 amps

We find that we typically use anywhere from 50 to 150 amp-hours per day, most commonly in the 70-90 range.

HOW MANY AMP-HOURS DOES MY FAVORITE GIZMO USE?

Since RV solar power systems are DC battery based, it is helpful to know how many amps (in DC) various appliances use. Multiplying that value by the number of hours the appliance is used each day then reveals how many amp-hours the appliance will require from the battery in the course of a day.

Most DC appliances list their amp usage in the user manual or spec sheet. In contrast, most AC appliances list their wattage in the user manual instead of amperage. So, for AC appliances that are run on an inverter you have to do some math to get their equivalent DC amperage rating.

You can get a rough estimate of the number of amps that an AC device will use on an inverter simply by dividing the wattage by 10.

Why is that?

Here’s one way to look at it: Technically, Watts = Volts x Amps. AC circuits run at ~120 volts. DC circuits run at 12 volts. An AC appliance will use the same number of watts whether running on a DC or AC. On a DC circuit (using an inverter so it can run), that AC appliance will use 10 times as many amps as it will on an AC circuit (that is, 120/12 = 10).

Here’s another way to look at it: Watts / Volts = Amps. So, to determine most precisely how many DC amps an AC appliance will use when running on an inverter, start by dividing the number of watts it uses by 12 volts to get its Amps DC. HOWEVER, keep in mind that inverters are not 100% efficient. Typically they are only about 85% efficient. That is, an inverter loses a bunch of watts to heat as it runs — about 15% of the watts it needs to run get dissipated into heat. So, it takes more watts to get the required amps out of the inverter, the exact figure being 1 / 85%. This means that after you divide the appliance’s Watts by its Volts (Watts / 12, as I mentioned above), then you have to divide that result by 0.85. This is messy.

Rather than dividing watts first by 12 and then again by 0.85, you can simply divide the watts by 10 and get a pretty close estimate. (That is, (1/12)/0.85 = 0.1)

Our AC 19″ LCD TV is rated at 65 watts. How many amps is that DC? 65/10 = 6.5 amps DC. We measured the TV at the volume we like to hear it and it was using 5.5 amps. If we cranked up the volume, the meter went up to 6.5 amps.

Likewise, our old white MacBook Pro laptop was rated for 65 watts. As we opened and closed files and started and stopped various programs, the meter zoomed all over the place between 3 amps and 8 amps. When we ran Adobe Lightroom, which is very disk and memory intensive, the readings hovered in the 7-8 amp range. So on average you could say it uses about 6.5 amps DC.

When we shut down the laptop and left it plugged in and charging, the meter dropped to 1.6 amps. This is important if you are trying to conserve electricity! Run your laptop on its own battery until the battery is depleted. Then turn it off and let it charge from the inverter while you do something else!

HOW DO YOU MEASURE THE POWER USAGE OF A DEVICE?

If you have nothing running in the rig (no computers running, no TV, no vacuum or toaster, etc.), you can measure the current a device is drawing from the batteries using a clamp-on meter around one of the battery cables. To measure the AC current of a small device, you can use a Kill-a-Watt meter. Simply plug it into an AC outlet and plug your device into it.

WHERE DO THE BATTERIES FIT IN?

Battery storage capacity is measured in amp-hours (Ah), and more is better. As a starting point, most new RVs come equipped with one 12-volt Group 24 battery which will give you about 70-85 Ah of capacity. Assuming the sun has charged the batteries completely by nightfall, and sticking to the rule of using only 1/3 of your total battery capacity each night, you will have only 25 Ah available each evening. That isn’t very much!

What is the best upgrade strategy?

Upgrading to two 12-volt Group 24 batteries (wired in parallel) will give you 140-170 Ah of capacity.

However, a 6-volt golf cart style battery has the same footprint as a Group 24 12-volt battery (although it is about 3″ taller), and a pair of them wired in series will give you about 210-240 Ah of capacity.

So, rather than buying a second 12-volt Group 24 batteries and getting just 140-170 Ah of capacity out of the pair, why not sell the 12 volt battery and buy to two 6-volt golf cart style batteries for 210-240 Ah of capacity? That’s what we did on our first trailer. Just make sure that you have enough height in the battery compartment for the taller golf cart batteries.

WHAT ABOUT BATTERY MAINTENANCE?

So far I’ve been talking about wet cell batteries, and these kinds of batteries need to be maintained. Wet cell batteries are made with thick metal plates and liquid between them. Over time the liquid evaporates and needs to be replaced with distilled water. Also, over time, sulphite builds up on the plates and needs to be removed by “equalizing” the batteries.

Hydrometer Reading on Battery

Use a hydrometer to check each battery cell.

Before we upgraded to AGM batteries, Once a month Mark would check the liquid levels in each cell of each battery and pours in a little distilled water wherever needed. He also checked the condition of each battery cell using a hydrometer. This little device indicates whether a cell is functioning at full capacity. Then he equalizes the batteries by programming our charge controller to raise the voltage on them to one volt higher than their normal charging voltage for five hours. Last of all, he re-checks the liquid level in each battery cell and adds distilled water as needed and re-checks each cell with the hydrometer. Usually any cells that had a poor reading before equalizing now give a good reading.

This maintenance stuff can be avoided by buying AGM batteries which are maintenance free. However, AGM batteries are really expensive. One big advantage of AGM batteries for sailors and for people with tight battery compartments is that they operate fine in any position, that is, they can be installed on their sides and will operate when a sailboat is heeling. We had them on our sailboat.

On our trailers, we initially opted for wet cell batteries. We had Trojan 105 wet cell batteries for the first five years on our fifth wheel. Then we replaced them with cheaper Costco batteries from Interstate (Johnson Controls).

The Trojans worked very well, but replacing them with cheapo batteries was a mistake. The cheap batteries failed completely within 14 months.

We now have four Trojan T-105 Reliant AGM batteries which are truly awesome. They are a little more money than the T-105 wet cell batteries, but they are superior and, in our minds, worth the extra little bit of cash.

For price comparisons: Trojan Reliant AGM (single), VMaxTanks AGM (set of 4 & free shipping), Trojan T105 Wet Cell (single):

To learn more about our new batteries, why we chose them, and how we upgraded the power plant on our trailer in April 2015, visit:

Wet Cell vs. AGM Batteries – Why We Upgraded to AGM Batteries PLUS Wiring Tips!
RV Electrical System Overhaul

To learn more about batteries and what “single-stage” and “multi-stage” battery charging is all about, visit:

RV and Marine Battery Charging Basics

AND HOW ABOUT THE SOLAR PANELS?

Battery capacity is only part of the story. The ultimate limiting factor is how many amp-hours the solar panels can put into the batteries during the day. If the solar panels are sized too small to charge the batteries sufficiently each day, you will eventually discharge the batteries over a series of days and they will be dead.

Solar panels are rated in terms of Watts. The relationship between the amp-hours that the panel can store in a battery and the panel’s watts rating is not straight forward. Suffice it to say that a 130 Watt panel produces 7.5 amps in maximum sunlight when the panel is exactly perpendicular to the sun, and both of those numbers are available in the specs for the panel. What isn’t stated, however, is how many amp-hours a panel will produce in a given day. That is because it varies by what latitude you are at, what angle the sun is to the panel (which changes all day long), how brightly the sun shines, how many clouds go by, etc.

We have found that each of our 120 watt and 130 watt panels typically produces between about 8 Ah and 40 Ah per day depending on the season, weather, latitude, battery demands, etc. Most commonly, they produce around 25-30 Ah per day each.

If you have the time and inclination (who’s got that stuff?), you can figure out how many amp-hours you use each night. Make sure that that number is less than 1/3 of your total battery capacity AND make sure your panels can provide that many amp-hours of charging each day.

But all that sounds very difficult.

Solar panels also come in a variety of flavors, including rigid or flexible and monocrystalline or polycrystalline as seen below:

To learn more about SOLAR PANELS, see our detailed review of the pros and cons of the different types of panels available today:

Solar Panel Selection – Flexible or Rigid? 12 volt or 24 volt? Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline?

NEVERMIND THE THEORY – JUST TELL ME WHAT SIZE STUFF I NEED!

As I have mentioned before, we changed how we lived when we had a small solar power installation and again when we got a big one. You can opt to live with very little electricity or not.

We met a couple living on their 27′ sailboat on its trailer in the desert in Quartzsite, Arizona (they were on their way to launch it in the Sea of Cortez). They were using just 6 amp-hours per day because they had a tiny solar panel. Lord knows, I never saw their lights on at night!

In our little Lynx travel trailer we used about 25-35 amp-hours per day. We relied on kerosene lamps for much of our lighting at night in the winter.

In our Hitchhiker fifth wheel we use an average of 60-120 amp-hours per day and we do not conserve electricity.

So as a rule of thumb, here is the number of amp-hours you might consume per day:

• 6 Ah = living ultra-conservatively
• 35 Ah = living very modestly
• 120 Ah = living much the way you do in your house

The amp-hour capacity of your battery bank should be three (to four) times your typical daily amp-hour usage.

A popular rule of thumb is to match (roughly) the amp-hour capacity of the batteries to the watts capacity of the solar panels. So, 140 Ah of battery capacity “goes with” 140 watts of solar power. 440 Ah of batteries “goes with” 440 watts of solar power.

However, having more solar capacity than that is not a problem, as it gives you much more flexibility in case you have cloudy days, the panels aren’t oriented well towards the sun, or you have periodic shading during the day from buildings or trees.

Side note: The average American house uses about 30 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per day (see here), whereas we use anywhere from 0.6 to 1.2 kWh per day in our RV. This is because houses are much bigger and more complex and have much larger appliances and systems that run on electricity (refrigerator(s), stove/oven, hot water heater, heat and air conditioning, etc.).

It is also interesting to note that the ~1 kWh of power that our fifth wheel requires to recharge its batteries every day is approximately the same amount of energy that is required to recharge the batteries of a Tesla Model S after it is driven three miles (see here). Charging a frequently driven Tesla’s batteries exclusively with solar power would require an immense solar panel array.

 

OUR “FULL-TIMER” RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM (~$2,500 in parts)

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Fifth wheel trailer solar power 681

In a nutshell, in order to run your RV with the same level of comfort as a house, using all of your appliances whenever you feel like it without thinking about conserving at all, you will need at least the following:

  • Four or more 6-volt batteries giving you at least 440 amp-hours of capacity

    We have four 6-volt batteries (2 pairs of batteries in series to make two 12-volt equivalent batteries, and then those 2 twelve volt equivalent batteries placed in parallel with each other). We had Trojan 105’s for the first five years, and after that we’ve had batteries from Costco, ~$480, which we soon replaced with Trojan T-105 AGM Reliant batteries, $1,200 (see note below).

  • 500 or more watts of solar power (preferably 600-800 watts)

    We have three 120-watt Mitsubishi panels and one 130-watt Kyocera panel, for a total of 490 watts of solar power, `$1,140

  • A charge controller that can support 40 amps or more (preferably 60 or 80 amps)

    We have an Outback FlexMax 60 60 amp charge controller (consider the FlexMax 80) $565
    For more info see our page: Solar Charge Controllers – Optimizing RV Battery Charging

  • A true sine wave inverter that can supply at least 1000 watts of AC power (preferably 2000 or 3000 watts)

    For 7 years we had an Exceltech XP 1100 watt true sine wave inverter $600.

PLEASE NOTE: In April, 2015, we upgraded to Trojan 105 Reliant AGM batteries ($1,200) and an Exeltech XP 2000 watt true sine wave inverter ($1,700). See our post RV Electrical Power System Overhaul to learn more.

This system will power everything except the air conditioner, regardless of weather or season. My notes indicating “preferably” larger sizes for everything reflects the fact that our installation is now quite old and component parts costs are half what they were when we were buying. More is definitely better.

I’ve never heard anyone say they wished they had less solar power!

Mark did the installation of this solar power system on our Hitchhiker fifth wheel. My rough guess is that the installation might have cost $700-$1,500 if done by an experienced installer. It took him three partial days, largely because we were boondocked in the woods about 15 miles from Home Depot, and I had to keep running back and forth to get little things for him!

NOTES and LESSONS LEARNED

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More and more solar power equipment manufacturers are selling complete kits for RVs, boats and cabins. Here is an example full-timer kit from Go Power, and a slightly smaller full-timer system from Renogy. Here is a small solar power kit from Go Power for “weekender/vacation” use and another small solar kit using Renogy panels.

Also, if you don’t want the hassle of doing an installation, here’s a nifty portable solar panel kit that folds into an easy-to-carry suitcase!!

 

INVERTER and CONVERTER CONFUSION

If you are like me, the terms “inverter” and “converter” are confusing. They sound so similar it seems they must be one and the same thing. They are actually two very different components with very different missions in an RV.

CONVERTERS

A converter takes the AC power coming in from the shore power cord (via electrical hookups or a generator) and gives power to all the DC appliances in the rig so the batteries can take a break. It essentially does what the batteries do, but does it only when there is shore power.

The DC converter in an RV also charges the batteries while connected to shore power. Some converters have sophisticated multi-stage charging mechanisms, and others simply provide a trickle charge.

For more about single-stage versus multi-stage charging, click here.

The DC converter is not involved in the solar power system. In our “full-time” solar setup, the DC converter is actually unplugged because our inverter powers all the AC outlets in the rig. Because of our converter’s design, when it is plugged in it senses when there is AC power available and automatically turns on. This would impose a huge demand on our batteries whenever we turned on the inverter.

Once in a while, when the skies have been overcast or stormy for a few days, we fire up our trusty Yamaha 2400i generator to bring the batteries up to full charge. We plug our shore power cord into the generator, unplug the inverter and plug in the converter. Now the converter is charging the batteries.

The converter that came with our rig was a single-stage trickle charge Atwood 55 amp converter. This was very inefficient for use with the generator because it charges at such a slow rate that we had to run the generator for hours and hours to get the batteries charged up.

In April, 2015, we replaced that converter with a slick new Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 converter. This converter can put as much as 90 amps into the batteries and has a true multi-stage charging algorithm. To see our introductory post about our big electrical system upgrade, see this post: RV Electrical Power System Overhaul

For more about converters, visit: RV Converters, Inverter/Chargers & Engine Alternator Battery Charging Systems

Almost all trailers and many smaller motorhomes have a converter installed at the factory.

INVERTERS

An inverter takes the DC power from the batteries and converts it to AC power so you can run things like TVs, computers, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, toasters, etc., and also charge things like your phone and camera batteries. Turn on the inverter, plug an AC appliance like an electric razor or TV into it, and poof, the razor or TV works.

Inverters come in two flavors:

True Sine Wave (or Pure Sine Wave) which means the AC power signal coming out of the inverter is identical to the power signal of a wall outlet in a house (a smooth sine wave).

Modified Sine Wave which means the waveform is clipped at the top and bottom and is stair-stepped in between rather than being a smooth sine wave.

It is easier to convert DC power to a square-type wave than a smooth sine wave, so modified sine wave inverters are much cheaper. However, some sensitive AC appliances don’t work with a modified sine wave inverter.

We purchased a high-end true sine wave inverter for our “full-time” solar setup, because it matched the quality of the system and our particular unit was noted for its ruggedness (we run it 15 hours a day, sometimes 24). Our Exeltech true sine-wave inverter is designed to operate medical equipment, so it provides exceptionally clean and stable AC power.

See our story “How Much Inverter Is Enough?” to learn about what happened to us when we accidentally “blew up” our fancy Exeltech true sine wave inverter and had to live on a tiny cheapo 350 watt modified sine wave inverter while waiting for the parts to fix it!

Ironically, some RV parks have unstable AC power that can damage AC appliances in an RV. Our inverter power from our Exeltech is cleaner and more reliable (Exeltech inverters are designed to power sensitive medical equipment)! Desktop computers, laser printers, TV and stereo equipment and Sonicare toothbrushes are the most likely appliances to have trouble with modified sine wave inverters. However, when we used modified sine wave inverters exclusively with our small solar power setup on our Lynx travel trailer, we never had a problem with any of our appliances. Modified sine wave inverters often have loud fans, and Mark did have to put some WD40 on our Radio Shack inverter twice when the fan quit working unexpectedly.

INVERTER/CHARGERS

To add to the confusion about inverters and converters, some inverters combine a little of the functionality of both an inverter and a converter. These are called inverter/chargers and have two independent functions: (1) convert the batteries’ DC power to AC (inverter), and (2) use the AC power from the shore power cord (connected to electrical hookups or generator) and charge the batteries.

These are pricey pieces of equipment and many higher end motorhomes come with them. Our sailboat came with both a 600 watt pure sine wave inverter (which we used for everything on the boat except the microwave) and a 2500 watt modified sine wave inverter/charger (which powered the microwave and charged the batteries when we plugged into shore power).

NOW THAT IT’S ALL CLEAR, THE MANUFACTURERS MESS US UP!

The distinction between inverters and converters is pretty easy, isn’t it? However, recently when I was in an auto parts store I noticed a box labeled “POWER CONVERTER” and the picture and description were very clearly that of an INVERTER! So, maybe the distinction is going to get all muddied up after all.

For more about inverter/chargers, visit: RV Converters, Inverter/Chargers & Engine Alternator Battery Charging Systems

AN IMPORTANT NOTE ON RV REFRIGERATORS

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Because conventional propane RV refrigerators are inefficient and are (shockingly) expected to fail within ten years of service (see our blog post about that here), the current trend in full-time RVs is to manufacture them with residential AC refrigerators. These RVs are built with an inverter large enough to power the refrigerator while the RV is in transit. This is great for folks that are going to plug into electrical hookups 100% of the time. However, the electricity required to run a refrigerator, whether AC or DC, and no matter how Energy Star Efficient it is rated to be, is astronomical.

A typical 10 to 12 cubic foot Energy Star refrigerator will use over 300 kilowatts per year, or 822 watts per day. There is some energy lost when running on an inverter, so this will be roughly 822 Watts / 10 Volts = 82 amp-hours per day. To keep this fridge operating during the short days of winter when the sun is low in the sky, you will need 400+ watts of solar panels and 200+ amp-hours of battery capacity in addition to whatever you will need to run the rest of the household.

If you plan to boondock a lot, and you don’t want to run your generator 24/7, be prepared to outfit your rig with over 1,000 watts of solar panels and close to 1,000 amp-hours of battery capacity to power a residential refrigerator.

Non-Energy Star compliant DC electric refrigerators are even worse. Our sailboat had a 3.5 cubic foot DC refrigerator (“counter height” or “dorm size”) that was built for RV use. It did not have a freezer compartment. We had 710 amp-hours of AGM batteries and 555 watts of solar power. Granted, we were living in the tropics and the ambient cabin temperature was generally 85 degrees. The refrigerator compressor ran about 50% of the time and our solar power system was pushed to the max to keep the batteries topped off every day.

We had a separate standalone 2.5 cubic foot DC freezer on our sailboat. If we turned the freezer on, the solar panels could not keep the batteries charged without supplemental charging from the engine alternator every third or fourth day.

Residential refrigerators have vastly improved in recent years, running on a mere 25% of the electricity they used to use in 1986, and they are only getting better. For more information about refrigerator energy use and energy saving tips, see this resource: How Much Electricity Does My Refrigerator Use?

I have corresponded at length with a reader who has been boondocking 95% of the time for 6 months in a 40′ Tiffin Phaeton motorhome. He has a Whirlpool 22 cubic foot residential refrigerator, 1,140 watts of solar panels on his roof and 940 amp-hours of battery capacity in his basement. His fridge is powered with a dedicated Xantrex pure sine wave 2,000 watt inverter that is wired through a transfer switch to both his shorepower line and his generator, just in case the inverter fails (he had a 1,500 watt modified sine wave inverter that literally burnt up and started smoking).

So it can be done, but it will be easier in a motorhome that has a big payload capacity than in a fifth wheel or travel trailer that has a smaller payload capacity due to the weight of the batteries required. Even though we had to replace our RV refrigerator in its 8th year of service, we do not want double our battery bank and solar panel array just to power a residential fridge. I would rather put that extra 275 lbs into other things we need in our mobile lifestyle.

PHEW! THAT WAS A LOT OF INFO. WHAT NOW?

Still confused about the components and operation of an RV solar power system? See our four part RV SOLAR POWER TUTORIAL series where these concepts are re-introduced and discussed in greater detail:

Learn more about the different kinds of solar panels on the market:

Solar Panel Selection – Flexible vs. Rigid, 12 volt vs. 24 volt, Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline – PLUS Wiring Tips!!

Get the quick-and-dirty shopping list of things to buy for your solar power installation:

Three RV Solar Power Solutions: Small, Portable, and Big!

Want to learn more about BATTERIES and understand how battery charging works at a deeper level? Our Intro to Battery Types and our four-part tutorial series covers all the details involved in charging RV and marine batteries and takes a close look at a variety of specific charging systems, from converters to inverter/chargers to engine alternators to solar charge controllers. It also reveals how these systems work together:

Curious about the solar power installation we did on our sailboat? See our page: SAILBOAT SOLAR POWER INSTALLATION.

In April, 2015, we overhauled our electrical power plant on our trailer. See the introductory post about this upgrade here:
RV ELECTRIC POWER SYSTEM OVERHAUL

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We offer all the information on our website free of charge in hopes of helping help our fellow RVers and cruisers. We have been alarmed and saddened to find portions of the copyrighted material on this page plagiarized in ebooks that are sold for profit, but so it goes. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Good luck with your solar power installation — we hope our articles on this website are useful to you!

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What’s A Girl To Do at the RV Dump Station?

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.

RV dump station tips for women RVers-2

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.

RV dump station tips for RVing women

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:

Dirty Little Secrets from the RV dump station

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.

RV dump station tips for women RVers

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.

RV dump station tips flushing black tank with buckets of water in toilet

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.

RV dump station tip flush black tank with buckets of water in toilet

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.

RV dump station tips flush black tank

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.

RV dump station tip woman cleans toilet and bathroom

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.

We use two enzyme/bacteria based RV holding tank treatment products: Happy Campers RV holding tank treatment has worked best for us in extreme temperatures (very cold and very hot) and for controlling tank odors. RV Digest-It holding tank treatment has worked best for us in moderate temperatures to break down the solids in the tank.

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.

RV toilet assembly and flapper valve installation

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.

RV toilet flapper cleaning tips

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.

Happy cleaning!!

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Goodies I use for my jobs at the RV Dump Station:

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