Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Monday, May 30, 2011

RV Entertainment Systems

Today's technology offers many electronic entertainment options for RVs and campers, ranging from portable radios and TVs you can use on your picnic table to complete home theater entertainment systems in RVs. Portable TVs can be used by just about any camper if you have power to operate them. Power could come from campground utilities, portable generators, or invertors and battery packs. A portable TV may be used to receive over-the-air broadcasts or display VHS and DVD movies. Some portable systems are even adaptable to tent camping. My son's new minivan has a built-in inverter and AC outlets that could power small 120 volt appliances in camp but it is necessary to keep an eye on the battery charge level.  Same with some of the pickup trucks equipped with 120 volt outlets to charge cordless tools.  Of course, battery powered radios and "boom boxes" can be used anywhere and I've even seen small battery powered TVs.   With access to campground WiFi or your own cell phone "hotspot", your laptop or tablet becomes a portable movie/TV system.

Permanently mounted systems in motorhomes and travel trailers are only limited by the owner's preferences and budget -- and available space to install them. Portable and permanent satellite systems are available, including automatic systems that can be used when the vehicle is in motion. Some luxury motorhomes have large LCD or Plasma TVs with VHS, DVD, BluRay players, video game systems, and elaborate Surround-sound systems just like a home theater. TVs and other electronic equipment can be added to just about any RV if you have some cabinet space you can sacrifice for the installation and an appropriate source of power. Many RV entertainment systems are just adapted residential systems and require 120-volt AC power but there are TVs, DVD and VHS players and receivers designed to run on 12 volts DC. If you need to run residential style units but don't have a generator, you may be able to use an inverter to convert 12-volt DC to 120-volt AC power -- IF you have a large enough battery bank.  Today's flat screen TVs take up a lot less space, aren't nearly ahs heavy, can be mounted in more places, and use a lot less energy than yesterday's old CRT models.  We recently picked up a pair of flat screens with built-in DVD players, paying only about $175 for the two of them!  The light weight means they can be mounted on thin RV walls that would have never supported a heavy CRT.  Since they only stick out a few inches they don't intrude so much into the usually very limited living space in an RV.  And the lower power requirements mean you will be less likely to run down your batteries if you power them using an inverter.  There are components especially designed for RV use.  They will usually have 12 volt DC power but often have dual power options.  They may offer a few other advantages over adapting residential equipment, such as reduced size or weight and specially "hardened" electronics to make them less vulnerable to the vibration and shock found in vehicles.

Wall-mount radio systems. In recent years there have been a number of wall-mount entertainment systems designed specifically for use in RVs and travel trailers. They are shallow so they can be mounted in a thin RV wall and usually include an AM/FM stereo receiver. Older units had a cassette player while more modern versions have a CD player. The older cassette style units can often be acquired at bargain prices on ebay and other web sites. Some of the newer and more expensive models even have DVD players but you'll need a conveniently placed monitor to view them. Of course you can use an under-dash automotive radio under or in an RV cabinet, but usually it is easier to find a more convenient place for a wall mount. These are fairly inexpensive ways to add basic entertainment systems to campers and older trailers. I even have one in my enclosed motorcycle trailer for weather updates and some music while doing routine maintenance and repairs.

Mobile versus residential technology. In many cases you can adapt ordinary residential equipment for use in an RV. However, residential units are not typically designed to endure the rigors of travel. You are better off if you can purchase units designed and "hardened" for mobile use. When mounting electronic equipment in an RV you have two diametrically opposed needs: secure mounting and isolation from vibration. Most residential units are designed to sit on a shelf so you'll have to engineer a way to secure them for RV travel. To further protect sensitive electronics from vibration, use rubber "isolation" mounts if you can. You need to anchor your equipment so it doesn't bounce around during transit yet so it is isolated from road vibration. Speaker systems need to be isolated so they don't transfer vibrations to the surrounding cabinetry which can distort the sound.

The speaker systems standard in many RVs tend to come from the low end. If you value rich sound from your CDs and movies you may want to upgrade your speakers. The easiest solution is to replace existing speakers with high quality units of the same size and shape. Alternatively you may be able to enlarge the existing space or install larger speakers or additional speakers in, on, or under cabinets. Since you're in a fairly small enclosed space you won't need a lot of sound to produce satisfactory performance.  A fairly inexpensive and easy solution is a "sound bar".  You won't get full home theater sound but you should see a significant improvement over what comes out of the tiny little TV speaker and all you have to do is plug them in and find a place to set them.  Some are designed to fit specific TV models.

Advanced sound systems. There are advanced sound systems on the market that have microphones that sense speaker performance and adjust output dynamically to maximize listening enjoyment. Given that RVs are not designed with acoustical superiority in mind, these systems can at least partially compensate for physical limitations. These systems are not cheap, but may be worth the investment if you value high quality sound and spend enough time using your RV entertainment system to justify the cost. Clearly, if you can't hear any difference, there is no point paying big bucks for a fancy sound system.

Outside Entertainment Systems are becoming more popular. It makes sense, because we spend so much of our camping time outside. They may range from a simple radio/casette/CD player mounted in an outside cabinet under the patio awning to complete home theater systems with flat panel TVs that swing out from outside cabinets. Of course, an old-fashioned "boom box" works too. Weatherproof speakers mounted in the outside wall provide audio, but due to the nature of their construction to resist the elements, the way they must be mounted, and the near total lack of acoustic control in the outdoors, the sound quality won't match interior systems. Even so, they can provide hours and hours of highly enjoyable entertainment. One note of caution: be considerate of your fellow campers when using outside entertainment systems. Your neighbors may not share your appreciation of bone-rattling bass or screeching heavy metal music. NEVER play at high volume during "quiet hours" and be mindful of the impact on nearby folks at all times. If your RV didn't come with an outside entertainment system you may be able to install one yourself in an available cabinet space. Since there won't be built-in compartments for the speakers you may have to use external box speakers that attach to the side of your RV. For safety you may want to use removable speakers so they don't get snagged by trees or signposts when you are driving -- or appropriated by thieves! And weather eventually takes its toll on even outdoor rated speakers.

Generator power for electronic equipment. RV generators usually supply appropriate power for electronic equipment, but they must be tuned to operate at the right speed to produce correct 60-cycle AC current. AC stands for Alternating Current. The positive and negative legs of the circuit switch or alternate 60 times a second. If you find that electric clocks run too fast or too slow when powered from your generator, the speed is off and needs to be adjusted. There are frequency meters you can buy that plug into an outlet and let you monitor the frequency, but they are a little pricey.  An incorrect frequency can seriously affect the performance or even damage sensitive electronic equipment. If you have any doubts about your generator's performance, have it checked and adjusted by an electrician or a qualified RV technician.

Battery and inverter power. Inverters are used to convert DC power from 12 volt batteries to 120 Volt AC to operate appliances and electronic equipment. Be sure you have sufficient battery capacity to furnish the power you need. Some electronic equipment requires clean, sine-wave AC power. Some cheaper inverters create a "modified sine wave" which is adequate for some appliances but will not usually work well with sensitive electronic equipment. What you really want is a an inverter with "true sine wave" technology.  Of course, such units are going to cost more.  You will need sufficient battery power to be able to use your inverter. You need to calculate the power needs of all the equipment (both your entertainment systems and other RV systems such as your furnace, light, and water pump) and ensure you have enough batteries to provide power for the length of time you expect to be using the inverter. When making your caclulations find out the overhead of the inverter and include its power usage in your requirements.  Unless you have a solar charging system you will need to run the vehicle engine or the generator periodically (or plug into shore power) to recharge the batteries.  Unless you need the generator for something else, like running the A/C, it is probably more efficient to charge the batteries using the vehicle alternator by running the vehicle engine.  Inverters are good for powering small 120 Volt appliances for a short time during quiet hours when you can't run the generator. Some of the big luxury motorhomes today use inverters (and huge battery banks) to power residential refrigerators and other high power appliances.

Trouble shooting. The more sophisticated your entertainment system is, the more there is to go wrong with it. Yet many of the most common problems are simple to diagnose and repair. Given the normal vibration and "tweaking" of RVs, loose connections are a prime source of poor performance. If you start having problems with sound quality or your system doesn't turn on, check all the connections before you call in a repairman. Of course, it it doesn't turn on, check to make sure you have power to the unit. Check the fuse(s) and make sure both the hot and ground wire connections are secure. Problems with sound on one side may indicate faulty wiring or a blown speaker, but make sure to check the balance control first to make sure it isn't just mis-adjusted. If you have access to the speaker wiring you can test for bad speakers or speaker wiring by switching the wires. Connect the wires for the good channel to the bad side speaker and the wires for the bad channel to the good side speaker.. If you still have poor sound on the same side, the problem is the speaker or the wiring to that speaker. If the problem moves to the other speaker, you have a problem inside the amplifier and that will probably require professional diagnosis and repair. Most components of today's entertainment systems are not designed to be repaired by the consumer in the field. Even the pros often have to remove them and take them back to the shop where they have proper diagnostic equipment to troubleshoot the problem.  Many electronic devices are designed to be disposable and to be replaced rather than repaired these days.  The main lesson here is to check all the connections before you fork out $$$ for professional help or new equipment. Loose connections can be easily fixed and are a very common cause of failures in mobile entertainment systems.

RV entertainment systems can provide many hours of pleasure and supply what is sometimes much-needed distraction in bad weather where our intended outdoor activities are thwarted by Mother Nature. Entertainment systems in motorhomes and tow vehicles can significantly reduce the incessant chorus of "are we there yet" that is inevitable when traveling with small children, or anyone with a similar mentality and attitude.  I envy the "back of seat" DVD players my kids use to entertain their kids on trips.  We had to improvise with lots of verbal games on the road.  With movies to watch, "Are we there yet?" might change to "Are we there already?".

Specialized radios that may be useful in an RV include two-way radios and weather radios. A weather radio is a radio with special channels that received NOAA weather broadcasts. Many have built in alarms that respond to severe weather alerts. Two-way radios can be useful in communicating between vehicles caravaning to or from a camp site, assisting a driver and spotter in backing a vehicle into a tight spot, or talking with companions who are out hiking or riding. Hand held "walkie talkies", including FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios, are among the most convenient for use around camp. FRS radios do not require a license. GMRS radios operated on GRMS frequencies require an FCC license, which costs $85.00! Channels 2-14 on most GRMS radios operat at FRS frequencies and require no license -- but they only operate at 1/2 watt and have limited range. The other channels on 22 channel GMRS radios typically operate at 1-5 watts. Special helmet-mounted units are really nice if you're out on an OHV, personal watercraft, or horse. A permanently installed CB (Citizens Band) radio is handy for talking with other drivers on the highway. Commercial truckers often use CB radios and you can learn a lot about traffic and road conditions just by listening to their chatter. You might even get some tips about the best diners to stop at -- and which ones to avoid. For more sophisticated two-way communications consider ham radios. These definitely require an FCC license but they have much greater range. Participation in a ham radio club may give you access to "repeaters" -- special unmanned stations that relay your signal -- for even greater coverage.

With so many Internet and computer options available these days, you may want to include a way to connect your laptop, tablet, or smart phone to your RV entertainment system

VHS tapes and DVDs can provide many hours of entertainment in camp if you have the equipment to play them. You will need to find a safe place to store them during travel. VHS tapes need to be kept away from sources of electromagnetic radiation. Do not store them near any 120-volt motor, your inverter or converter, or even electronic equipment such as TVs and movie players. DVDs aren't magnetic so they won't be affected by electricity but you do want them store away from heat, moisture, and dust. A tightly sealed plastic container, such as Tupperware, is a convenient way to organize movies and protect them from dust and moisture.  Online systems like Roku and expand your entertainment options if you have internet access.  You may be able to use a Wifi "Hot Spot" on your cell phone to power your Roku if you aren't in a campground with Wifi.

Analog versus digital TV signals.   The older, CRT style TVs in many older RVs may need to upgraded in order to receive current digital over-the-air signals.  This would require an analog-to-digital converter and switching the TV antenna to one designed for digital reception.  The older TVs should still be perfectly fine playing video tapes and DVDs. 

For a movie-theater experience in camp, don't forget the popcorn! If you have an RV with electronic entertainment systems it probably has microwave oven so you can have popcorn ready in minutes. Lacking a microwave, Jiffy-pop is an easy way to do popcorn over a campfire or your RV or camp stove. For a more nostalgic approach, get a metal campfire popcorn cooker and popping the corn over the campfire may be almost as entertaining as the movie!  Actually, in some cases it might be a lot more entertaining!  For many of us, the candy counter at the movie theater is almost as important as the movie that's playing.  You can purchase many popular "theater sized" candies at places like Walmart and at the convenience stores at travel centers and truck stops to help make your experience even more fun.  Those of us from the Saturday matinee generation can find nostalgic candies online at places like OldTimeCandy.com and even at Amazon.com

Th-th-th-that's all folks!

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