Our first night boondocking and solar batteries are drained!

 Live and learn . . .

Here I am in the waiting area of the Napa Auto Parts Store in Ajo, Arizona, with the crew at my feet and a drip pot of cold coffee at my side.  We’ll be here for several hours while the PTV’s solar batteries are given a full charge.  After waiting two days for the sun to restore the charge and seeing as it’s a cloudy, rainy day, the sun can use some help.

So what the heck happened to drain the brand-new AGM batteries?

I happened, that’s what.  It’s all my fault.  Sooner or later, I’m bound to make some mistakes.  Unfortunately, this particular mistake is A Really Big Boo-Boo.  I need to back up a bit to give you the whole picture.

We set up our first boondocking camp on Friday under a sunny, cloudless sky.

Al, Kelly, Rick and I are in shirtsleeves.  Spike is having  a grand time playing with Pheebs and Lady.  Bridget sits at my feet in bewilderment or follows me around like a . . . puppy.   I’m a bit stunned myself.  Here we are in this beautiful and secluded area with unpopulated, mountain  and desert vistas all around, and my boondock camp is next to some of the nicest people on the planet.

Once the sun goes down, the desert gets chilly, of course.

Bridget and Spike eat their kibble and I heat up some soup for supper.  I slide open the side and back windows a few inches and light the propane heater.    Now it’s getting too dark to see much, so I plug in two LED lights into the 120v sockets and crawl into bed with my kindle and clip-on LED light.  It’ll be nice when I have LEDs in all the overhead lights.  I look out the back window.

The full moon reveals the outline of a saguaro cactus against a distant mountain peak.

Oh, this is wonderful.  I love this already!  It’s late before I’m ready to settle in for a good night’s rest.  Just as I’m about to get up and turn off the heater, the carbon monoxide alarm starts its hair-raising BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!  I jump up in the dark and yank open the windows and open the door.  Using my flashlight I see the numbers on the alarm’s window start to drop, finally stopping at zero.  I close the door and put the windows back to slightly open.

Now the Casita has lost most of the heat from the heater.

No matter.  It’s a two-dog night and under the quilt, we’re plenty warm.  Bridget, however, will not settle down.  She keeps moving around, jumping off the bed, on the bed, and whining.  I notice a funny smell.  What is that?  Is that propane?  If I go to sleep, will I wake up?

Why does the unknown have such power over the human mind in the middle of the night?

Bridget is going nuts.  She’s at the door scratching like a wild dog.  Is she the canary in the mine?  Oh, this is silly.  She probably needs to go out.  We walk around in the moonlight.  She runs around in circles and obviously doesn’t have to do anything.  I start thinking about coyotes.   The hours on the road, meeting new people, setting up camp, and taking in new surroundings all hits me at once.  I’m exhausted and irritated.

Bridget refuses to go inside!

I pick her up and throw her in.  Enough already!  I pitch her onto the bed, leaving her suit and leash on.  I’ll hold her down until she falls asleep, darnit.  She fights me as if she’s fighting for her life.

That’s when I hear it.

An almost imperceptible beep, more of a faint pulse actually.  Where is that coming from?  I wait.  A few minutes go by.  There it is again!  Bridget coughs and chokes, pulling against the leash wrapped up in my fist under the quilt.  I let her go and she practically climbs up the door.  That smell.  What IS that?

Spike snores softly.

Boy, how does he do it!  He must be really tired out.  LIKE ME!  I turn on my phone and see that it’s a little after three in the morning.   Bridget is back at the screen door, scratching at its plexi-glass bottom.  I open the door and let her run out.   I crawl under the quilt next to Spike’s warm body.   Let the coyotes eat her up, darnit! 

 I start to see coyote jaws sinking into Bridget’s fat behind.

Hoo-boy.  I go outside and chase her around the PTV until I finally get a hold on her and we go back inside.  I’ve had it!  I’m going to get rid of that beep and that smell so I can get some sleep!  I take down the CO detector and the smoke alarm and rip out the batteries.  I turn off the refrigerator.  I go outside and close the propane tank.   I leave the outside door open, so only the screen door is closed.  I crank the Frantastic Fan in the ceiling open even further.  It’s really cold.  I don’t care.  I want this dog to SHUT UP AND THIS SMELL TO GO AWAY!  I WANT TO LIE DOWN AND GET SOME SLEEP!

It’s probably almost four in the morning before all is quiet in the little Casita boondocked in the still of the desert.  The next morning I look at the meter and see my batteries are drained.

Why do things become so much clearer in the light of day?

Neighbor Rick checks the Casita systems  and asks me a zillion questions.   Suddenly  the cause becomes obvious.  I didn’t turn off the refrigerator in the middle of the night.  I turned off the GAS to the refrigerator.   This caused it to automatically turn over to AC power.  Where is the AC going to come from to handle the heavy load of a refrigerator?

Oh no.  How dumb and careless can I get!

Lesson learned.  If I’m going to rely on solar power, I’ve got to use my head, no matter where I am, no matter what time of day or night, and no matter how tired and lacking in patience I may be.

I never did figure out the source of the pulse sound and the smell.

rvsue

I’m still not sure how well my solar is operating.  Today is cloudy and rainy so it hasn’t had a true test.  I’m being conservative on power usage.  After coming back to camp from having the solar batteries charged, I charged up my laptop.  Other than that, I’m not using electric until the sun can do her thing.  For some reason photos don’t want to post today.  I’ll try again tomorrow.

I apologize for not replying to comments.  I’m taking note of questions and will try to answer them sometime soon,.  When it stops raining, I’m going to move my camp up to a higher place in hopes of a better Verizon signal. 

Despite the solar setback, the crew and I are happy boondockers!

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42 Responses to Our first night boondocking and solar batteries are drained!

  1. Chuck says:

    We have been worried and am glad to hear it was ‘operator error’ and nothing serious! Another thing to be careful of is disconnecting the electric for brake lites,etc from PTV in case something like this happens again as it could drain you PTVs battery also. We’re glad you and the crew are OK. Chuck n Geri n Hound Herd

  2. FLkamper says:

    Glad you figured it out and it was an easy fix!

  3. Mike Leonard says:

    Sue, so glad to see you are back online. I realized yesterday when I was worrying that you would figure out whatever the problem was and get it fixed. It was 43 degrees here today and it is supposed to be 25 degrees tonight. I’m so glad that you and the crew are safe and still having a great time.

  4. Geri says:

    You had us worried! We find ourselves checking the internet for your blog everyday, when you don’t blog, we all worry! So glad you are ok and learning the in’s and out’s of solar. Through you, we are all learning! Thank you!

  5. Shar Pei Mom says:

    “I never did figure out the source of the pulse sound” …Sue the sound may have been coming from your inverter…telling you the batteries were to low.

  6. Grace says:

    Don’t feel too bad. We all make mistakes. I won’t tell you some of the silly things we’ve done and that’s with the RV sitting next to the house in the yard! Glad you got it figured out and I hope the sun shines for you tomorrow. Grace

  7. Bob Giddings says:

    There’s more to the story than that. Two possibilities:

    1. Unbeknownst to you, you have a DC setting on your fridge and that drained your batteries. Having it on the AC mode would do nothing if you weren’t hooked up to AC and your gas was turned off. Unless there is a DC mode as a third default. That would quickly kill your batteries. The smell would be the new coating on your DC heater in the fridge burning off.

    2.Your gas was turned off but your gas MODE was still on in the fridge. This would cause the DC gas igniter circuit to try and start the gas flame in you fridge periodically all night. It can’t without gas, of course, but there’s nothing to tell it to stop trying. Except running out of DC. Look and see if your gas ran out of one tank and failed to switch over to the other.

    Bob

    • rvsueandcrew says:

      Hi, Bob!

      The DC setting is beknownst to me. When the gas is turned off, the fridge goes to AC if AC is available, which is was from my inverter. . . . , I was plugged into the AC power coming from the PTV.

      The gas tanks are fine. I believe the smell was from the desert. I smelled it again briefly while on a walk this morning.

      • Geri says:

        Sometimes the creosote bushes give off a fuel like smell! Rick should be able to point them out to you so you can take a sniff and see if that was what you were smelling!

  8. You have the makings of a true boondocker Sue and somewhere down the road you will be helping others like yourself who are just starting out:))

  9. Bob Giddings says:

    O, and you’ve got the sequence wrong. A dual mode fridge on Auto defaults to AC. Only if there is no AC will it try Gas. A Tri-mode fridge on auto will also try DC if it can’t find gas.

    A DC fridge is a battery killer if you are not driving. I’d try to disable that mode, which is only useful when filling up with gas or going through tunnels.

    • rvsueandcrew says:

      The refrigerator AC light was on when error was realized.

      • Bob Giddings says:

        Okay, then, what happened is the fridge tried to run on AC, but the batteries couldn’t provide enough for very long, so it killed the batteries. At some time various things started beeping when voltage got low.

        I suggest you don’t plug the AC cord into the inverter at all. It will work, after a fashion and for a while, as long as you don’t forget and try to run the fridge, the water heater, or the heat strip. But you will forget, and kill your batteries. You can’t carry enough batteries to run an AC heat source overnight. There’s only so many cycles available to batteries, and AGM batteries are not built to be completely discharged very often. Then you will have to buy new ones.

        I’m surprised the inverter didn’t cut off.

        My suggestion is to find a way to plug your Casita battery into either your charge controller or the solar charged batteries directly. Use as thick a wire as you can. At least 8, preferably 6. DC wiring loses voltage rapidly with distance. Your solar setup will work fine hooked up that way. Maybe you can use a connection to the trailer lights line, only just run the power leg. That would charge up the Casita battery just like the alternator does when driving.

        But it would be better to run a thicker and dedicated connection along the frame. If you tell me how far it is from your battery box in the PTV to the battery in your Casita, I will look up the proper gauge wire.

        And use only propane for the fridge and the water heater when boondocking. Unfortunately both default to AC when it is available. Turn off auto, and manually select gas.

        Another option is to use a small generator. But even a 1000W generator wouldn’t run an electric heater. Probably not your water heater.

  10. Bob Giddings says:

    Okay, I tried to look it up. See here:

    http://www.casitaforum.com/invboard/topic/1861-casita-factory-changes/

    it says that in 2009 they “Added switch to refrigerator to enable/disable 12V DC instead of automatically done by refrigerator”. I see no subsequent changes to the fridge.

    So this means the fridge tried to run itself on DC and quickly killed your batteries. The smell was the DC burner burning off some coating, as I said above.

    They probably put that DC disabling switch in there because people were inadvertently killing their batteries while boondocking. Find it and use it.

    Bob

    • Chuck says:

      Bob, Good explanation and that looks like what happened. We met Sue in Truth or Consequences and she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. I’ll bet Casita didn’t fully explain that as the ‘orientation’ is pretty quick and needs 2-5 people to remember everything! Thanks for helping our new friend! Chuck

  11. Jerryc says:

    Now this is probably a stupid question but, on your post of December 8th, you show a picture titled the love connection and when i put my cursor on it it says ” PTV inverter to Casita power cord connection”. Is that cable coming from your batteries, or your inverter? Is it possible that you are “inverting” the 12 volts from your batteries to 120V AC and then “converting” the AC back to 12V dc in your trailer. If so, I would think that will drain your batteries every night because the inverter will be “inverting” all the time whether your are using power or not.

  12. Bob Giddings says:

    Okay, last note, I promise. The Carbon Monoxide detector is set off by a number of things besides monoxide. It this case it was probably the aforementioned coating burning off. Another thing is any sort of pressurized hairspray or bug spray or automotive solvent or the like. Those cans can leak down just from changing elevation, like coming down into the desert. It doesn’t take much to set off the racket. And they may not be visibly leaking while the racket is going on. So check for cans like that, and put them up away from the detector. It can take a while to air out and calm down the detector. Fan it with something.

    IOW, the detector problem and the battery problem may not be related.

  13. Sherry says:

    WOW – so glad you 3 are OK but I had no idea solar was so difficult. You’ve got a lot of advice from your followers. I have none to give other than be careful out there! And thanks for making some mistakes for me. IF I can be smart enough to learn from them.

    Sherry
    http://www.directionofourdreams.blogspot.com

  14. bearwise2010 says:

    Glad to hear things all got figured out, I am sure it was scary when the alarms started going off. Yes dogs are amazing animals, and we can learn a lot from them, their senses are amazing. Amazing journey to follow. thanks for sharing.

  15. Emily says:

    I have also seen in various places that dog farts can set off the carbon monoxide detectors.

  16. Hotel California says:

    Just got to tell you about the Carbon Monoxide detector. As previously mentioned, not only CO sets off the alarm. Last year we were camping with our daughter, 2 granddaughters and their chocolate Labrador retriever. They were supposed to be in a tent, but it was so cold that we moved everyone into the 5th wheel. Middle of the night the CO alarm goes off. It was the dog…farting.

  17. Bob Giddings says:

    OOOOooooo. And what JerryC said. Somehow I missed that. You can’t charge up your Casita battery by connecting the AC power line of the trailer to the PTV inverter. At least not efficiently. You are losing all your power to stepping down to 12V then up to 120V then down to 12V. That’s not the way to get the most out of your solar array.

    Besides that, you are going to ruin your PTV AGM batteries running them down all the time trying to run heat sources like your fridge (which will automatically shift to AC unless you have turned off Auto, everytime) through that inverter. Not to mention your water heater and heat strip. Bad idea. Use gas for ANY heating whenever you are not in a full service AC campsite.

    You’ll kill all your batteries quickly and for real with that setup.

    You want to charge the Casita battery directly with DC wiring from the PTV solar battery box. Then you ONLY use your Casita AC cord to plug into campsite AC. Not into the PTV inverter. The batteries just aren’t powerful enough for any sort of routine heating.

    This can get complicated. There’s a way to do this right, but I wouldn’t say more unless I was there with a multimeter and could see what you’ve really got. I hope you’ve got a whole house fuse in that line. Probably do, in the inverter. Something is apt to overheat.

    Bob

  18. Gary says:

    We have a motor home with 6 100w panels, a 2K inverter and 6 AGM batteries, the converter was disconnected when the solar was installed.

    Although my AGMs are not the same as yours, the manufacturer says to recharge them when they reach about 12.2 volts; an 80% discharge. I say that because you mentioned amp hours the other day. You should use SOC (state of charge) or volts. Mine are supposed to be recharged on Float (after taper and bulk) at 14.2 volts for a minimum of 2 hrs per day to maintain full charge. Then once a year at 15.6 IIRC for 8 hrs to equalize them.

    I don’t know how well your system will work with sun alone or without a generator or driving the PTV sufficiently everyday IF its alternator charges them.

    I wouldn’t be using electrical appliances like a coffee pot, hair dryer, George Forum Grill, microwave much etc…

    Gary

    • Gary says:

      I forgot to mention that we turn everything off including the inverter overnight except for the DC lights and the propane alarm. We don’t run heat or any lights overnight. And we have 12 vdc LED lights instead of the regular bulb type..

      I agree with Bob and if you recall I mentioned potential problems with having the panel on the PTV and running a cable to the Casita.

      Gary

  19. Jim says:

    Hi Sue,
    Sorry to hear about your troubles! My wife and I travel in a Casita with solar. We were recently in Ajo near where you are staying. It would’ve been fun to meet the crew and lend a hand on your electrical systems. Maybe our paths will cross somewhere down the road

    Also, please keep those batteries in your CO2 and smoke detectors!

    Be careful and stay safe,
    Jim & Julie
    http://imperfectdestiny.com

  20. cathieok says:

    What a night! You don’t need many of those. We can say “experience is the best teacher”, etc. etc. and I guess that is true. Hope that you get it all straightened out. I do miss your postings. You have very loyal followers!

  21. Teri says:

    Do you have a propane detector, also? Mine is hardwired, and if my batteries get low, the propane detector beeps because it is losing power. Just like when you need new batteries in a smoke alarm and it starts to beep.

  22. Lynne says:

    Sorry to hear about your troubles Sue, but I’m sure you’ll get it all figured out soon. I didn’t look closely enough until tonight of your photo a few days ago showing the “love connection” between PTV and Casita that you were using the 30amp (120v) cable rather than your normal 7-way 12v plug at the front of the trailer.

    While the idea of plugging in the 30 amp to your inverter is fine for limited use, like others have mentioned, it’s not at all efficient for recharging batteries! A better solution for that would be to run a 2nd connection directly from the Optima batteries to your Casita’s 12v towing cable.

    You can easily make your own PTV-side cable for less than $20. I did a similar thing when I used to carry a secondary AGM battery in the back of my tow vehicle for recharging my T@B. Here’s a post I did on that solution. Look at picture #2 for the cable you need to make:
    http://tabventures.blogspot.com/2008/04/battery-recharging-alternative.html

    Basically, to make the Optima-side 12v cable, get some heavy gauge wire (a heavy duty extension cord would work too if you cut the connectors off and strip the wires on both ends. Get some flat blade connectors to crimp onto one end of the cable (that will connect the pos and neg wires to your pos and neg posts on your batteries). On the other end of the wire, connect it up to a 7-way car-side plug adapter (about $5). Do an online search to determine which of the 7 posts on the back of the adapter to crimp your 2 wires to. You should be able to easily test with your multi-meter until you get the right pins identified. Once wired up, wrap the 7 way adapter to the wires good and tight with electrical tape to keep it weatherproof.

    You should be able to just add this 12v cable/plug to the posts of your Optimas without harming your existing setup. Basically, when you’d want 120v, turn your inverter on and use the 30amp “love connection”, but at all other times (when recharging batteries and/or conserving power), turn the inverter off and plug the 12v Casita cord into your new 12v cord going right to the Optimas.

    I think your solar panel on the PTV is absolutely genius and a great solution…it will work even better with just this minor tweek.

    Happy Boondocking! It looks so wonderful out there!

    Lynne

    • Gary says:

      Anything used in a cable must be rated higher than the amps that will be run through it or you’ll be burning things up. And I would want a charger to control charging the Casita battery so as to not overcharge it.

      An extension cord and 7 conductor trailer plug may not be heavy enough..

      Gary

      • Lynne says:

        It works, but agree with your point that appropriate wire should be used (ie 10 or 12 gauge), and my assumption was that Sue’s solar controller is already limiting the batteries from overcharging.

        As long as that’s the case, then basically all this 12v connection is doing is to “level out” the battery charge from the more-charged Optimas to the less-charged Casita battery. It is impossible for the Casita’s battery to be overcharged in this setup.

        Charging a battery from other batteries was really a odd concept when I first learned about it, but it does indeed work well.

        Lynne

        • Gary says:

          Unless the Casita battery is connected properly to the charger in the PTV, or wherever it is, the charger may not be controlling the charge. If all the batteries are not the same type there can be a problem of overcharging.

          As to wire size more like 4 or 6 AWG to reduce voltage drop as much as possible and a trailer plug can’t handle those wire sizes IMO..And possibly not the amps being used in the Castia.

          As has been said by others, we should all be on site with the proper meters and knowledge before we get into the do this do that mode. Sue should not listen to us except to familiarize herself with what questions to ask the pro she gets to check things out.

          Before Sue anywhere she should also go to and read;
          http://handybobsolar.wordpress.com/the-rv-battery-charging-puzzle-2/
          and the other articles found there.

          I wish I had found that before I paid AM Solar $10k for my system that doesn’t work well at all and they refuse to help me correct it (because I mentioned what handybob says). And since I bought they have changed their panels and charger and increased the size of wire they use.

          Gary

  23. Old Texan says:

    Simple solution is to make you a Check list in LARGE LETTERS and post it at eye level of things that need to be switched ON or OFF while you are in the middle of nowhere not connected to a real power source.

    Personally ( and it is a PERSONAL thing) Boon Docking has never appealed to me. that’s why I have my Honda Generator primed and at the ready.

    • Chuck says:

      Hi Ole Texan! We have our 2000 Honda converted to propane and use it as back up(primarily the slide) Check list is a good idea but the Casita (Norcolds) are confusing on the 2 way or 3 way. Chuck

  24. Kathryn says:

    Sue I have a family member with a small house in the northern part of the state. They have not had any luck in selling it. It is all furnished and set up and I am sure they would be happy to rent it to you for a few months. I know you are a trooper and learning all of this and doing fine. I know you are but I thought I would mention it just incase you are interested. You can park there too. For some reason it sounds like the crew is uptight or feeling uneasy. It would help get through the winter ahead at least this year. xoox

  25. Mike says:

    The smell of rain and creosote bushes is my favorite scent. I’ve spent almost my entire life in the Sonoran desert, and that is just one of the many reasons why I still call Arizona home. Glad to hear you enjoyed the saguaros! 🙂

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