Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, sailing, 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. The organization is pretty much by date of publication. Please use the SEARCH option below to find what you are looking for.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

RV Exterior Lighting Options

On road lights on RVs are pretty much regulated by state and federal vehicle laws.  You can usually safely replace clearance markers and may be able to upgrade headlights, but anything used on highway must meet applicable regulations.  That includes driving lights and fog lights.   Many campers like to add powerful off-road lights to their motorhomes or tow vehicles.  Such lights should not be used on the highway.  In most jurisdictions, these lights must also be covered when the vehicle is on the highway.  Remote control search lights are popular on motorhomes and can be a real boon in scoping out your camp site after dark.  Just don't use them on the highway!  If your headlights don't deliver the performance you would like you may be able to upgrade to Halogen or other high intensity lights.  There are even kits to convert your old sealed beam headlights to modern HID lights that really light up the road.   Just make sure they are DOT approved.   I had a friend who discovered an air craft landing light that would fit in place of one of the sealed beam headlights on his pickup truck.  It really lit up desert roads for him -- until he blinded an on coming Highway Patrolman.  He got a stiff fine and was told to remove the light and never use it again.  You may be able to supplement your headlights with driving lights.   In most places, they can only be legally used on the highway when the headlights are on dim and are usually wired with a relay so they can only be turned on along with the dim headlight setting.  Using them together with your bright lights is a good way to get a fix-it ticket or blind on coming drivers.  In some jurisdictions the law requires you to turn off your driving lights when approaching an on-coming vehicle.  In many places driving lights can only be used in conjunction with low beams.   Always make sure your headlights are clean and clear and in good repair.  A cracked, discolored, or damaged lens will alter the focus and efficiency of your headlights and possible shorten bulb life.  Mud and snow accumulation on the lens will cause a surprising drop in output.  Older, sealed-beam lights that are not damaged only need to be cleaned with window cleaner.  Modern headlights have a polycarbonate lens that become "fuzzy", hazy, or discolored over time.  They can usually be reconditioned for about $35-$50 per pair by a professional service that sands them down and polishes them to make them clear again.  Some of these services add a clear coating when they're done that helps maintain clarity longer than an untreated lens.  You can buy kits to do the cleaning yourself, but be aware the process is somewhat labor intensive and, if you don't don't have the right buffing equipment your results will probably be disappointing.  I found a wet-wipe kit that clears up headlights with little effort.   The results are not as long-lasting as buffing and polishing, but they may be good enough and last long enough to pass a state safety inspection.  There are often several options for replacing the bulbs in these style headlights that give you more control over the amount of light.  The best performing and longest lasting bulbs are going to cost more -- perhaps twice as much -- as standard replacement bulbs but it may be an easy way to get better (and legal) on road lighting.   When upgrading bulbs be sure the sockets and fixtures are rated to accommodate the more powerful bulbs.   Using over powered bulbs can damage the plastic lens, the reflector, and could cause the wiring to overheat and perhaps cause a fire.

Wiring is an infamous and chronic cause of poor headlight performance on motorhomes.   The problem is the manufacturers wire the headlights directly through the headlight switch.  Often the wire gauge used is barely adequate (and sometimes inadequate) for the high load headlights draw and the long wiring runs up under the dash and back sap power.  You can often get significant gains by simply installing relays to connect your headlights via heavy gauge wiring directly to the battery -- and control the relays using the original headlight switch and wiring.  That way, the heavy load appears only on heavy duty wiring directly from battery to headlights, instead of lengthy runs up through the headlight switch.  If you're not up to doing the wiring yourself you may be able to purchase ready made harnesses to convert existing switch-wired installations to more efficient relay-based wiring, but even that requires some electrical system knowledge and skills.  Directly wired headlight switches on motorhomes are more prone to failure due to the overloading the contacts because of the extra load created by the longer wiring runs.

If you aren't happy with the running lights on your RV you may be able to upgrade both the headlights and the stop/tail lights.   Older incandescent headlights can usually be easily replaced with Halogen versions that are easy to install.  If you really want high performance headlights you can upgrade to HID headlights but it will require a new wiring harness and you might need professional help setting it up.  The kits usually use the original wiring harness and switch to control the new HID headlights but they need relay controlled circuits direct from the battery to run the high powered bulbs.  You may also need to consider whether the existing mounting location can withstand the additional heat produced by HID units.

Recreational lights are usually not restricted as long as they aren't used while on the road.  Most RVs have at least one porch light near the entrance.  A popular form is one that has a built-in assist handle for climbing into the RV.  The better ones have a built-in waterproof switch so you can turn it on and off from outside the vehicle.  Others may require a separate switch, which is usually inside the vehicle.  If you don't like the light that came with your vehicle, you can usually replace it with another one for a nominal cost.  You may also want to add other lights.   I find it useful to have an exterior light on the front of my motorcycle trailer.   It illuminates the tongue and hitch for hooking up at night and gives me light for the work area on and around the tongue.  I have a bench vice mounted on my trailer tongue and a place to mount my motorcycle tire changer so the tongue frequently serves as a workshop.   Extra side-mounted lights can help illuminate your camp site for night time group activities.  Another candidate for extra lighting is the area near any outdoor shower, which are usually on the street side of an RV.  You may find it helpful to mount an indicator light inside your RV for all outside lights.  You can wire an LED in parallel with the lamp or just use a lighted switch.   All you have to do is connect the hot wire of the LED to the hot wire of the lamp and the ground to any available ground.  The small investment in time and money will avoid inadvertently leaving outside lights on and running down your batteries.   Many off highway vehicles (usually 4x4s) have multiple off-road lights mounted on the bumper or front brush guard and or the roof or roll bar.  These lights are great off-road but must never be used on the highway.

Porch lights are common on most RVs, providing illumination for unlocking the door and negotiating the steps after dark.   Unfortunately, the switch is sometimes inside the RV so that you either have to leave the light on while you're away (possibly running down your batteries) or you have to unlock the door in the dark.   A fun solution to this problem is to install a motion sensor LED light that will automatically come on when you approach your RV in the dark.  Often these are battery powered so you don't even have to run any wiring to set them up.  Replacing the incandescent bulb in the porch light with and LED bulb will let you leave the light on without as much chance of running down the batteries since LEDs draw much less power.

Entry step lights are another useful addition.  RV steps are usually painted black and are difficult to see at night.   Even with the porch light on they can be hidden in shadow. Reflective or glow-in-the dark tape can be added to highlight the edge of the steps to make them easier to see.  I use LED clearance lights to illuminate my entry steps so I can leave them on when I'm out without running down the battery.  I've left them on for an entire 4 day outing without running down my batteries.  You want to install them so they illuminate the step but don't shine out into the camp site where they may annoy you or your fellow campers.  Many RVs equipped with electric steps already have step lights.  Unless they are fairly new they are probably incandescent bulbs that will suck up a lot of energy from your batteries.  Replacing them with LED lights should be pretty easy.  Adding a step light will require installing wiring and a switch.  For the most convenience use a switch that is opened when the step is opened.  Installing a simple toggle switch will be easier, but you'll have to remember to turn in on and off.  Battery powered "tap lights" might also be an option for illuminating your steps without draining your main batteries.

Awning lights are a popular and convenient way to add illumination with ambiance to the portable patio next to your RV.  Some fancy models slide right into the awning roller tube. Others have to be attached using clips or hooks that slide into the roller tube or clamp to the awning fabric.  You can even use ID card clips, available most places that sell office supplies.  These spring loaded clips are usually easier to use than the snap-lock type clamps on standard awning clamps.  You can get a variety of light styles.  Some popular ones I've seen include miniature Coleman lanterns, American Flags, chili peppers, and colorful coach-light style lanterns.  Most require 120-volt power but some newer LED versions will run on 12 volts.  Remember, LEDs use a tiny fraction of the power of standard incandescent bulbs so if you're dry camping or just worried about draining battery power, look for LED versions.   I recently watched the installation of a fancy 7-color LED rope light under an RV awning.  It even has a remote control so you can change the color, speed, and pattern of light from the comfort of your easy chair.  It is a really neat addition but at the time it was a bit pricey -- about $100 plus installation, but I've seen some knock-off on the market around $30 since then.

Exterior cabinet lights are a real boon when you have to find something in the dark.  The most convenient ones come on automatically when you open the cabinet door but they require special switches.  You can easily install lights with built-in switches -- they might be wired into the vehicle's 12-volt system or be battery powered.  Batter powered "stick anywhere" lights can be found at hardware and building supply stores and don't need any wiring.  Just make sure you check the batteries before each trip.  If you're not using automatic switches, you'll have to remember to turn the lights off before you close the cabinet.   Otherwise you are sure to forget they are on and run down the batteries.  You might even want to wire in an indicator that is visible from the outside so you can tell when the lights are left on.  Using an illuminated switch is an easy way to do this without extra lights and wiring.  The switch itself is lighted whenever the switch is on.

General campground illumination.  You may want to bring along some portable Halogen work lights for lighting up your camp site at night.  The ones I use have folding, tripod stands that are very stable and highly adjustable.  Of course you need 120-volt AC power to run them but I managed to find one that has a 12-volt option as well as the normal 120-volt power cord.  Another option is lights equipped with spring clamps so you can clamp them to awning arms, mirrors, trees, sign posts, fences, OHVs, tables, etc.  Incandescent versions of these are inexpensive and can be found at any hardware store or home center and you could put LED bulbs in them to reduce power requirements.  And don't forget the old camp standard: the Coleman lantern.  White gas or propane powered lanterns provide bright white light about like a 100-watt bulb.  For a more rustic atmosphere, try some old fashioned kerosene lanterns.   If you don't like the smell of kerosene lanterns you can run them on scented lamp oil or unscented "liquid paraffin".  Nowadays there are also many choices for battery powered lanterns, including many LED lanterns that minimize battery drain.   Of course a primary source of traditional camp site is the camp fire.  Once you have a good campfire going you may not need any other lighting for many activities.

Searchlights and spotlights.   Roof mounted remote control search lights are popular on high-end motorhomes.  They usually have both "spot" and "flood" settings.  The spot setting is used to illuminate distant objects like signs and landmarks.  The flood setting can be used for general camp site illumination.  Manually operated spotlights on cars and pickup trucks were once pretty popular, but are quite rate these days.   Still, they can provide light up signs and landmarks to help you find your way to a remote camp at night.  They might also be used during nighttime search and rescue operations.  Hand held spotlights, both 12-volt versions that plug into your cigarette lighter and rechargeable models can approximate the function of permanently mounted spotlights without the expense or effort of what is often a difficult installation.

Creative lighting solutions.  One of my motorhomes came with a pair of bright 120-volt flood lights mounted on the curb side to illuminate the campground.  I didn't want to have to run the generator just to light things up and I wasn't very fond of poking more holes in the wall and cluttering up the outside of the RV with additional lights.  My solution: mount 12-volt light bulbs inside the existing 120-volt fixtures.   I bought a pair of 55-watt driving lights and cannibalized the sockets and bulbs from them and mounted them inside the existing 120-volt fixtures.   I then pushed the wiring through the same hole as the original wiring and hooked it up to conveniently located new switches inside. That allowed me to run the lights on either 120-volts or 12-volts as the situation demands.  For additional general campground illumination I mounted a 500-watt Halogen light on about a 5' piece of conduit connect to an old telescoping aluminum tent pole.   I clamped PVC pipe sleeves to the RV ladder.  When I need extra, broad-area lighting for group activities, I slide the tent pole through the pipe sleeves and plug the cord into an outside outlet on my RV. With the light raised about 4-5' above the roof of the RV, it provides very good general illumination for group activities.   I also mounted a simple 12-volt utility light under the hood so I could see to check the oil after dark.  It is an easy, inexpensive, and useful addition. I f you want to be really fancy you can even use a mercury or gravity switch on the hood so the light comes on automatically when you open the hood, like it does on many well-equipped automobiles.   This is another spot that is a prime candidate for an inexpensive battery powered LED "tap light".   I recently picked up a magnetic mount, battery operated light, with a remote control designed for use in above ground swimming pools.   I figure it can be attached to any metal surface, such as my truck or limited components on my RV to provide general illumination for nighttime activities. It came with a metal plate for use on Doughboy type pools that would also allow it to be installed on a tent.

Portable lights add a lot of flexibility for camp ground use.  I've tried a number of high-output battery powered spotlights, including rechargeable versions.  Some of these send out a pencil-thin beam with a range up to a mile!  There are also 12-volt versions that plug into your vehicle cigarette lighter or other 12-volt receptacle.   I always keep several ordinary flashlights in my RV and trailer.  I like to have a variety of sizes.  Full 2,3, or even 5-cell flashlights are good for many routine tasks. Smaller 3" LED lights are useful in close quarters or if you need to tuck one in your pocket to light your way back to your RV after an evening stroll if you get back late.  The big 5 D-cell lights double as tire-thumpers and would also be an effective self-defense device.

There are a variety of lantern holders that can be used to hang your gas or battery lanterns around camp.  Some are made of chain that can be wrapped around trees; some are designed to clamp to or hang from your RV awning.  I found some that consist of a tube that attaches to the side of your RV and contains a hook that slides out and connects to the top of the tube to create an arm on which to hang your lantern.   Check out the options at your favorite RV or camping store.  You might want to try out several styles.  They usually are not very expensive.  The ones designed to attach to trees usually have a light weight chain that wraps around the tree to hold the lantern hook in place.  They work well on trees and wooden poles, but usually don't cling well to metal poles.  Hangers for awnings are likely to slide into the accessory slot in the awning rail or clamp to the rafters.  Always be careful hanging a gas lantern from your awning as they generate a lot of heat, enough to damage awning fabric if left on too long.  Monitor prevailing breezes to make sure they aren't blowing the heat back under your awning or against the side of your tent or RV.

Light it up!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RV Interior Lighting Options

For many years RVs have come with 12-volt incandescent lights to illuminate the interior.  They usually use standard, single-filament automotive bulbs.  As with all incandescent bulbs, they are more efficient at producing heat than light and consume quite a bit of energy.   I've had my coach batteries run down beyond use when someone left a single light on in the bathroom for an afternoon!  Some RVs include a few 120-volt light fixtures that can be used when you are connected to shore power or running your generator.  In some units with massive battery banks and inverter, you may even be able to run 120-volt lights off the inverter.  Personally I think that is highly inefficient and would avoid it. Most RVs come with adequate lighting, but you may want additional lighting for convenience, special use, decoration, or to reduce energy consumption.

As mentioned above, incandescent 12-volt lights have been the standard for many years and are still in use in many new units.  The bulbs are typically ordinary automotive bulbs that are inexpensive and readily available.   If you already have or want to add incandescent lights to your RV, there is no strong reason not to.  There are more energy efficient choices, but you're going to pay more for them initially and the replacement bulbs are going to be more costly and more difficult to find -- but they usually last longer too. Typical RV fixtures use an 1146 automotive bulb that typically sells for under $1.00.  A single, LED kit designed to replace that 1146 bulb sells for up to $10 each, but prices are getting better so keep an eye open for good deals on LED kits.

Florescent lights have long been recommended as more energy efficient alternatives to incandescent lights.  They are usually a bit more expensive and take up more room.  Some people object to the the harsh white light.  But they do use less electricity than incandescent bulbs and do not generate as much heat.  They are most effective for general area lighting, usually as ceiling fixtures, although I have seen them installed vertically on either side of a bathroom mirror to provide effective lighting for shaving and applying makeup.

LED light fixtures are becoming more popular for use in RVs.  They use even less energy than florescent lights and the LEDs last a very long time and are less subject to breakage.   At this time they are still quite a bit more expensive to purchase than the other two options, but lifetime cost may be be lower.   You can buy LED replacements to fit in the sockets of most standard incandescent RV light fixtures.   They are a lot more expensive than ordinary automotive bulbs.   Plan on paying at least $10.00 a pair (compared to $1.00-$2.00 a pair for incandescent bulbs), but they will last for tens of thousands of hours and are not subject to vibration failures that can plague hot filaments in ordinary bulbs so you won't have to replace them as often.  They won't drain your batteries as quickly either, a significant benefit when boondocking.   Make sure you get LEDs with sufficient power for the intended use of the light.   I have found many LEDs from the auto parts store that replace as standard 1146 bulb inadequate for task lights for reading or food prep.  Still, they work well for general illumination and will save a lot of battery power.   There are brighter LEDs available, but they can cost close to $20 each!

Reading lights can be a nice touch if you need localized light for close activities like reading, knitting, hobbies, etc.   If your RV didn't come with reading lights, they can usually be added fairly easily to the bottom of an overhead cabinet above your favorite reading spot.  They are often referred to as "bullet" lights and can usually be easily aimed precisely where you need them -- much like the overhead lights on airliners.  They usually have a built-in switch or you can wire a switch nearby. Most reading lights are incandescent but LED versions may be an option if they are bright enough. Most fluorescent lights are not focused enough to work well as reading lights.

Under cabinet lights in the galley are sometimes a nice addition if you don't already have them. Shadows from cabinets and from your own body often darken the counter top if all you have are the ceiling lights. Under cabinet lights are fairly easy to install.  I would lean toward fluorescent or LED lights for efficiency unless you really need highly concentrated lights for special projects.

Accent lighting is popular on high-end units.  It may take for form of sconces, "rope" or indirect lights along the edges of the ceiling, or walkway lighting to illuminate dark hallways at night.  You can install your own walkway lighting using universal automotive license lights or LEDs.   If you choose to do this, consider using 3-way switches to allow you to turn the lights on and off from both ends of the walkway.  Ordinary single-pole/double-throw (SPDT) 12-volt toggle switches can be wired as 3-way switches.   If you don't know how to do this, check with a qualified electrician.   In one position the switch powers the light, in the other it powers the other switch.  Avoid using a switch with a "center off" option as that position will turn off the lights AND disable the other switch. Walkway lighting should be installed in cabinet walls an inch or two above the floor.   Just as in your fixed residence, sconces are sometimes used as accent lights in RVs.   I personally find they stick out too far in what is often limited space in an RV without slide outs and prefer flat fixtures mounted on the ceiling or under cabinets but you could mount flat fixtures on the wall if necessary.

Walkway lights.   Some RVs have a few walkway lights to illuminate the floor so you can find your way to the bathroom at night without having to turn on overhead lights that might disturb other sleepers.  If yours  doesn't have them, they are usually fairly easy to install near the bottom of cabinets.  Walkway lights are excellent places to use LED bulbs since you don't need bright work area lighting and they could be left on all night without too much risk of running down the batteries.  The fixtures used for walkway lights are often very similar to universal license plate lights, which could be used to add lights where you want them.

Propane lights were once common in truck campers and travel trailers but you don't usually see them in newer units.  They are usually bulkier than 12-volt fixtures so they sometimes get in the way and, of course, they need a supply line from your propane tank, which is much larger and more difficult to install than simple 12-volt wiring.  One advantage they had, at least on cooler nights, was the heat output helped keep the interior warm.   On warmer nights, that was a decided disadvantage. Of course they didn't run your batteries down.  I have often seen older units where the propane lights have been removed.  If you remove a propane light, be sure to cap and seal the gas line properly.  You don't want propane leaking into and accumulating inside your rig.  The odor is very unpleasant and the results could be explosive!  By the way, propane itself is odorless.  The bad smell comes from chemicals added during manufacturing to aid in leak detection.  The bad odor was chosen to ensure people would notice it.  You probably wouldn't object and perhaps not even notice a sweet vanilla or lavendar smell and better smelling gas would probably be mistaken for cologne or air fresheners.   If you have propane lights you can use them instead of 12-volt lights to conserve your RV batteries.  If you're thinking of adding propane lights, your best bet would be to buy a portable propane lantern rather than trying to install one connected to the propane supply in your RV.  Installing the gas line plumbing to accommodate a permanent fixture would probably be difficult, intrusive, and expensive.

Closet lighting is a nice feature of high-end units that can usually be added to any closet fairly easily. Closet lights can have a built-in switch or can be hard-wired to a convenient switch near the door. The most convenient ones have a door-activated switch so the light comes on automatically when you open the door.   If you have closet lights, either factory-installed or add-ons, keep an eye on them. Normal use plus vibration and movement of the coach can cause the switches to need adjustment.  If the switch is out of adjustment the light might not come on when you open the door -- or, worse yet, might not go off when you close the door -- and run your batteries down.  Portable, battery powered "stick on" lights are an easy way to add lighting to closets or cabinets that don't have them.   For longest life, choose those with LEDs rather than incandescent bulbs.  If you have a problem leaving closet lights on and running down your batteries, consider wiring a single 12-volt LED indicator in the line between the switch and the light and installing it so comes on whenever the switch is on. Install it so it is visible on the outside of the closet to remind you the light is on. Single 12-volt LED indicators can be purchased at Radio Shack and other electronics supply stores.

Cabinet lighting is usually only found in exterior cabinets.  General area lighting is usually adequate inside but feel free to add cabinet lighting where ever you need a little extra light to see into the corners.   Exterior cabinet lights usually are automatic so the light comes on when you open the cabinet door. The switch may be one of several styles.  There may be a plunger that is depressed to shut off the light when the door is closed or there may be toggle that is activated during opening and closing.  Another variation, used on doors hinged at the top, is a mercury switch, which consists of a small vial of mercury with electrical contacts.  When the door is opened, the mercury pools to connect the contacts.  When the door is closed, it flows to the other end of the vial, leaving the contacts open.   Lacking a mercury switch or plunger, you could install a manual switch.   I would recommend using a lighted switch so it is obvious when the light is on so you don't close the cabinet and forget to turn it off.  You might be able to buy used mercury or other "gravity" switches at an auto junk yard.   They are often used to activate the light under the hood when the hood is opened.

Typical locations for general interior lighting include the ceiling and under cabinets.  Ceiling lights provide general cabin illumination.  Under-cabinet lights illuminate work spaces like counters, tables, and reading areas.   If you aren't happy with the placement of the lights in your RV, you may be able to move them or add lights where you need them.  The main trick is going to be installing the wiring to provide power and ground.  When adding under-cabinet reading lights you can usually tap into wiring for existing under-cabinet lights.  For ceiling lights you may have to run wires across the surface and conceal them with wire-guides if you can't "snake" wire from an existing fixture to the new one.  Sometimes you can shove a piece of coat-hanger wire up through the opening for the new fixture and use it to fish wire through from an existing location, depending on the construction and type of insulation in your unit.  This won't work if there are rafters, other cross-members, or rigid foam insulation between the new and old fixtures.

Bedroom lighting.   I have not seen many RVs that come with lights that are convenient for turning on or off once you are in bed.  Ceiling lights provide ample illumination but you can't reach them once you are in bed.  Many reading lights are within easy reach when you're in bed but they are awkward to get to when you first enter the darkened bedroom.   In some cases I've installed additional lighting on or under cabinets near the bed where I can reach them without getting out of bed.  Battery powered "tap" lights are perfect for t his.  Another solution is to find a way to install a switch near the bed to control the existing fixture. You might also add some indirect lighting controlled by a switch you can reach from bed to provide a nightlight for safe movement without hurting your eyes.   I have a small light fixture with both white and blue lights we've moved from RV to RV for many years.  The blue lights provide soft "mood" illumination that is convenient for getting ready for bed without being too bright or glaring.  A convenient, but comparatively expensive solution, is remote control lighting where you can control the light using a hand-held "clicker".   There are universal 12-volt remote kits for automotive use that could be adapted.  The one's I've seen run as much as $100.00 and are rather bulky, used mostly for activating power door locks and similar devices, so they don't lend themselves to installation in a thin RV light fixture.   But if you are determined, you may find room in the ceiling above the fixture to make it work.   I found one version on Amazon.com for under $20, making this option a lot more viable but I haven't personally tested it. Remote control lights and fans are becoming a popular feature on high end units where tall ceilings put fixtures out of reach.

Bathroom lighting.  You may want to upgrade the bathroom lighting in many RVs.  While it is probably adequate for many routine tasks, it may not be sufficient for shaving and applying makeup. You may be able to add a pair of lights -- one on each side of the mirror -- to eliminate the shadows resulting from standard overhead lighting.  A small night light might be useful for late night use to avoid the pain and loss of night vision that accompanies turning on the standard lights for nocturnal visits to the john.   A little battery operated LED light, like a "tap" light, would be perfect for this.

Single LEDs can sometimes be installed to provide low, focused, energy efficient lighting for nighttime safety.  Several LEDs mounted near the floor can mark the path to the bathroom -- or to the nearest exit -- a la air liner exit lighting.  You can purchase these cheaply from Radio Shack and other electronic supply stores.  They usually install in a simple 1/4" hole and are easy to wire.  You could hook them up through a standard on-off switch or install an "electric eye" to turn them on at night and off when there is sufficient light for normal activities.  I've also used single LEDs to illuminate navigational equipment that didn't have its own back-lighting and LED-based clearance lights to illuminate the entry step.  It is nice to be able to leave the step light on without worrying about running down the batteries.  The clearance marker lights provide enough light to illuminate the steps without offensive glare into the camp site and could be run for days without depleting the battery.

There are LED replacements for votive candles that provide a soft, romantic illumination.  They are self-contained and battery powered so they required no wiring and won't run down your house batteries.  They can be used alone or will fit perfectly in any votive candle holder.  You can use them effectively where ever you need a little bit of light, such as in the bathroom at night.

Troubleshooting lighting problems.  Fortunately, 12-volt interior lighting is fairly stable.  The most common problems, burned out bulbs, are easy to detect and replace.   A second common problem is a blown fuse.  Next in line are loose connections.  Dead batteries are also all too often to blame.  If just one bulb does not light, it is probably a burned out bulb.  Pull the cover off the light and inspect the bulb.  If it is blackened inside or there are loose pieces of filament inside, it had likely failed.  You can test the bulb in another fixture that you know is working or use an ohm meter to determine if the filament is broken: a good bulb will have measurable resistance, a bad one will have infinite resistance.   If neither bulb in a single 2-bulb fixture lights and the bulbs are good, it is probably a blown fuse or a loose connection.  Always check the ground connections as well as the power leads. Loose grounds are a VERY common problem in RV wiring.   Sometimes the switch may go bad. You'll need a test light to check for a bad switch.  First verify there is power reaching the switch from the RV wiring.   Then test the output side. If your test light doesn't light up when the switch is in the ON position, the switch is bad.   If none of the lights are working, the battery may be dead or disconnected.   Some older units have a manual switch that selects either BATTERY or CITY POWER.  If the switch is in the CITY POWER position and the unit is not connected to shore power or a generator, none of the 12-volt systems, including the lights will work.   Fuses may be located in-line near the fixtures or in a central panel.   You may be able to tell if a fuse is blown by visually inspecting it, but to be sure, use a test light.   If it lights on the LINE side but not the LOAD side, the fuse is bad.

Dash lights.   You probably don't have a lot of control over dash lights, but sometimes there are options.  You may be able to replace the bulbs with colored or dyed bulbs to change the appearance. It usually isn't practical to install additional bulbs in gauges and instruments and attempting to do so could damage them.  I have had some luck installing single colored LEDs wired into the dash lights to illuminate auxiliary instruments that lacked internal lighting.

Portable lighting is always an option.  Battery powered lanterns and flashlights are the safest and easiest to use.  Gas or kerosene lanterns are alternatives, but they both consume oxygen and give off dangerous fumes so you need to use them with caution and be sure to maintain adequate ventilation.   They can be useful to  help warm small spaces since they also give off a considerable amount of heat.   A friend of mine heated his Class B van camper with a Coleman lantern.   Candles lend a romantic atmosphere, but can be a fire hazard. Smoke from candles or kerosene lanterns may soil curtains, upholstery, walls, and ceilings.  The odor from kerosene lanterns may permeate carpets, upholstery, curtains, bedding, and clothing so I avoid using kerosene inside.  You might mitigate this problem by burning scented lamp fuel or liquid paraffin.   Fragrant lamp fuels may be more pleasant than kerosene but the odor will cling to interior components long after the lamp has been extinguished so make sure you choose a fragrance you can live with long after the lamp is out.  Liquid paraffin is sometimes difficult to find and a little pricey, but it burns clean and odor free.

Solar lights are a handy addition for RVers and tent campers.   You need to remember to put them out in the sun to be charged if they are normally kept inside, but you don't have to worry about carrying extra batteries.  I've even gotten cute little solar table lamps at my local dollar store!

Let there be light!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Updating an Older RV

Perhaps the first question is why would anyone bother to update an older RV?   Given the bargains on late model units in today's slow economy, it might seem to make more sense to upgrade to a newer unit instead of sinking money into an older one.  That may be true, but there may still be valid reasons to update an older unit.   Sometimes it will be less expensive to update an older unit you have already paid for than to upgrade to a newer model.   Upgrades can be done in increments, as time and other resources are available, while upgrading to a newer unit usually requires a single, large expense or a commitment to years of additional payments.  Or maybe you just really like your current unit and would like to make some improvements to make it even more enjoyable.  Owners of classic motorhomes like the front wheel drive GMCs and the early Travcos may take special pride and satisfcation in their machines.  You may have seen conveniences in newer models that you could adapt to yours.  Sometimes newer appliances are also more efficient.  Or maybe you just want to update the appearance.   If you really like your existing RV you may have already customized it with features and accessories that meet your specific needs and it would be time consuming and probably expensive to repeat all the changes if you purchased a newer RV.

If you are buying your first RV and are on a limited budget, you may be able to pick up an older model for a song.  If it doesn't have any problems you can't deal with, you might save a ton of money and end up with a very unique and enjoyable rig.  A low initial purchase price may give you some extra $ for repairs, upgrades and improvements.

Financial considerations. There are many real estate studies to help us measure the value of improvements to our permanent residences but there are few if any to guide us in making wise investments in updating our RVs.   Updating an RV isn't so much about improving resale value as it is extending its useful lifetime to current owners and increasing the owner's enjoyment and convenience in using it.  If you really like your current RV and are comfortable using it and it doesn't have any major mechanical or structural flaws, you may want to explore your options to make it even more fun and extend its useful lifetime.   But don't expect to reap a big financial return on investments you make in an older unit.  Chances are you'll never recoup what you spend on updates.

Analysis will probably demonstrate that significant updating is unlikely to add enough to the resale value to make it a sound financial investment.   If a unit is in really bad shape a few well chosen, cost-effective repairs may help bring it up to market value, but major renovations and especially upgrades will almost never deliver a good monetary payback. The main payback for updating an older RV is owner satisfaction.   If you like your RV, it may be cheaper to update than to replace it -- without the risk of getting something you'll never like as well.  There may be some simple repairs and renovations that will enhance the resale appeal if not the actual value.  But don't count on making a quick buck or even breaking even on most updates!  Do count on enhancing the convenience and pleasure you get from using your RV.

If the upholstery is getting worn, having it re-done will add years of use and enjoyment and perhaps improve resale appeal even if it adds little to the actual price.  Many fabrics used in older RVs have a very dated look even if they are still in good condition.   Reupholstering the sofa and chairs will go a long way toward improving the interior appearance and extending its usable lifetime and visual appeal. The upholstery in one of my Smuggler trailers was beyond repair.  Fortunately, it was all removable cushions so I was able to simply remove them and take them in to be recovered.  I had them all recovered in a sturdy, Scotchgard protected fabric.  It looked like new inside and the seating and beds were far more comfortable.  I didn't have a particular color (other than being somewhat compatible with the existing carpet) or look I needed so my upholsterer was able to take advantage of closeout prices on a sturdy fabric that helped keep the cost down. If you can sew the new covers  yourself you can save even more.

Slip covers are not often used in RVs, but might provide a quick and inexpensive temporary solution to damaged upholstery in the living area.   Slip-on seat covers might work on the driver and co-pilot seats that often show the most wear and tear.  Plush or fleece covers can also make cold vinyl or leather seats more comfortable in winter months.

Flooring is usually a relatively easy and inexpensive update if you can do it yourself.
  If your unit has linoleum or vinyl flooring you may be able to install press-and-place tile directly over the old surface for a quick and fairly inexpensive do-it-yourself upgrade.   If the old flooring is torn or worn through it should be removed and the under layment properly prepared before installing new tile or sheet goods.   A heat gun may be helpful in removing old glued down flooring.   I have used acetone to soften the residual glue and embedded backing so I could scrape it down enough to get a smooth surface.  Always ensure you have adequate ventilation when using solvents and adhesives.  If you are using sheet goods, try to remove the old flooring in one piece so you can use it as a pattern.  If that doesn't work, make a pattern from cardboard or newspaper so you can cut the new flooring exactly the first time.   Press and place tile is easier to work with than sheet goods.   If you cut one wrong you haven't wasted the whole sheet.  Carpeting is a little more difficult to install and may require some specialized tools (like "kickers") to ensure proper installation and fit.  In small, confined areas, like a little camper or trailer or a narrow hallway, you may be able to get away without having to tack the carpet into place. For larger areas and for more secure installations anywhere, use "tackless strips" along the edges or an adhesive over the entire floor to anchor the carpet.  What are the specific advantages of carpet or hard flooring?  Hard flooring is easier to clean which makes it ideal for galley and eating areas.  Carpet is warmer and softer to walk on for bedroom areas or if you just want warmer floors throughout your RV.   Carpet also provides additional insulation to prevent heat loss and reduce road noise.  If you don't have experience cutting carpet, make a pattern from newspaper or cardboard first and then cut the carpet to carefully match your pattern.  Patterns tend to "creep" so check alignment often to be sure your carpet will match your pattern and will fit properly.

A really quick and easy update is changing the bedspread and shams in the bedroom.  If you can make a bed you can easily implement this change yourself.   Select materials that match or complement the existing decor -- unless you also plan to change wallpaper, window treatments, and flooring.

Window treatments are another good candidate for updating.  Compared to some modifications they are relatively easy and inexpensive and done right will improve livability and enjoyment as well as updating the appearance.  Window treatments might include drapes, curtains, shades, or blinds or adding solar film to the windows.  For winter camping, you can use a clear stretch window covering on the outside for extra insulation if your unit doesn't already have dual pane windows.  You can also make inserts of reflective foam or "bubble" insulation to block heat in summer, hold in the heat in winter, control unwanted outside light, and ensure privacy inside.  Replacing any cracked, broken, or missing window panes kind of goes without saying and falls more into the maintenance category than upgrades -- unless you are upgrading from single to dual-pane windows.  Dual pane windows can conserve energy and improve interior comfort, but are a pretty expensive and difficult modification. However, any reasonably competent do-it-yourselfer should be able to handle the task if you can find matching sizes.  You simply remove all the screws securing the window frames, use a putty knife to loosen the "putty tape" that seals the window frame, remove the old window, apply NEW putty tape to the new window, put the new window into place, and re-install the screws.  Ideally you can purchase replacement windows the same size and shape as the old ones.   Otherwise you will have to modify the opening to fit the new windows.  If you have the right tools and know how to use them it is pretty easy to enlarge an existing opening, but very difficult to close one up to use a smaller window.   Upgrading the windows may be a pretty ambitions and expensive task if exact replacement sizes are not available, so beware.   Slight differences in the radius of the rounded corners can create major fit and installation problems resulting in unsightly patching and leaks.

Interior lighting updates are pretty easy and relatively inexpensive.  Replacing faded and inefficient existing lights with newer ones is the easiest, but adding more lights in convenient locations is usually a viable option as well.  Cracked or discolored shades, lenses, or covers can sometimes be replaced to improve existing lights at minimal cost and effort.  You can usually tap into to existing wiring inside the bottom shelf of cabinets if yo want to add new lights.  To add new ceiling lights you may have to "fish" wiring from an existing fixture or add surface "tracks" for the wire.  Automatic closet lights are a nice addition if you don't already have them.   Replacing existing incandescent fixtures with LED models will save battery power.

Closet and cabinet improvements.  Switching closet rods from the old standard bars to rods specially designed for RVs can keep your clothes from ending up on the floor on rough roads.   Adding shelves or organizers can greatly improve the convenience and efficiency of your cabinets.  To keep hangers on ordinary rods, try stuffing a big car wash size sponge on top of the rod over the hangers to keep them from bouncing off.   Replacing missing or damaged doors can sometimes avoid the cost of replacing the cabinets.

Exterior upgrades tend to move toward the high end, but there are a few things you can do without breaking the bank.  Wheel simulators can replace aging, missing or outdated wheel covers for a few hundred dollars and they make a big difference in the appearance.  Full body paint and graphics will really make an older unit look younger, but be prepared to shell out some significant bucks, especially if you want it done right.   Just a restoration of part of the paint (the lower 2') on my 40' Holiday Rambler cost the previous owner about $6000!  Sometimes you can update the paint on faded highlight panels on campers or travel trailers yourself using spray paint.   Small panels or stripes, say up to about a foot in height, are the best candidates.  It is really hard to get even coverage on larger areas with a spray can.  Be sure you prepare the old surface according to the requirements and recommendations for the paint you'll be using.  Then mask off the adjacent areas, and repaint the stripes.  If you aren't already skilled in applying spray paint, practice on a piece of cardboard until you can get a consistently smooth application.  You may have to apply several thin coats.  A common mistake of amateurs is to apply coats that are too thick.  This often causes unsightly runs and will slow drying time, allowing dust or small insects to become embedded in the paint.   If you do get runs you can sometimes gently blot them away and then touch up the spot with fresh spray.  I don't recommend spray can painting of large sections as it is difficult to get even coverage over large areas with a spray can.   But it can be a very cost effective improvement on smaller areas.   If the original finish itself is still in fairly good condition or can be restored, you might be able to upgrade the look with more modern vinyl stripes or graphics or even just replacing faded original graphics.  By the way, you might be surprised how much better your RV will look after just a good detailing.  It may take you a whole weekend to wash and wax an RV or you might have to spend a couple hundred bucks to have it done professionally, but when it has been completed, even a dated paint job will look a lot better when it is bright and shiny.   Faded, cracked, or missing lights and lenses can be easily replaced to add a "like new" touch.  And don't forget the chrome!  Most newer RVs have little "bright metal" trim but older units that do can usually benefit from a good shining.  If the chrome is beginning to pit you may be able to remove much of the rust by rubbing it with a penny or a copper kitchen scrubber.   The copper is soft enough so it doesn't damage the chrome while hard enough to scrape away the rust.  And you can, literally, do it for pennies!  Then polish it with a good metal polish.   I've used "chrome" spray paint fairly successfully to improve the appearance of rusted chrome.   It doesn't really come out looking like chrome but it is a lot nicer than rusty spots!   If the chrome surface is severely damaged, you may be able to remove the parts and have them re-chromed. Re-chroming is an electroplating process and can be somewhat expensive, especially if you don't prep the parts first.   Some accessories, like rear view mirrors are easy to replace and not too pricey.  You may even want to look at power or heated mirrors to add convenience as well as improve appearance. Newer mirror designs may even improve safety by giving you better visibility.   Some mirrors these days have integrated turn signal indicators that help remind you when you use your turn signals and add a touch of warning for nearby drivers.

Exterior lighting can often be upgraded at nominal costs.  You might want to upgrade your standard headlights to Halogen or other high performance lamps or add driving lights or fog lights. The OEM headlights on many older motorhomes were installed with substandard wiring.  Upgrading the wiring and connecting them directly to the battery via relays instead of running them directly from the headlight switch will often improve brightness.   Replacing faded, broken, or missing clearance lights, parking lights, etc will improve safety as well as appearance and might save you a fix-it ticket.  I found a kit to add turning lights to one of my motorhomes.  They were wired into both the parking lights for power and the turn signals to activate the side-facing lights much like those on luxury automobiles.  Unfortunately, I haven't seen any of those around since the 1990s so I don't know if they are still available.  Docking lights are a feature on many large, high-end vehicles and can be added to just about any RV fairly easily.  They usually mount about the middle of each side to illuminate the dark area between headlights and backup lights when backing into a camp site. OEM installations are usually recessed into the wall.  You might get away with installing ordinary driving lights beneath the coach -- if you have sufficient ground clearance.  You may also want to update existing porch lights or add more at convenient locations.  Most RVs come with at least one porch light near the entrance.  Other locations I've found convenient include the front of a trailer to illuminate the tongue area and hitch and near the outside shower.  I also added some really bright flood lights (salvaged from an ambulance) to the rear and the curb side of my motorcycle trailer to facilitate after-dark bike maintenance and illuminate group activities after dark.

Furniture, such as sofas, chairs, and tables can often be replaced to improve the appearance and functionality of your RV.  If your old sofa isn't a sleeper, switching to a sleeper can add room form more guests.  Sometimes you can replace dual chairs with a sofa for even more sleeping room if your family is out growing your present rig.  Dinette cushions can be easily replaced or recovered.

Cabinets and counter tops are usually too expensive to update, but you might try painting or refinishing cabinets for a fresh look.  I would only go after the cabinets if they were really ugly or badly damaged and then probably only in an older unit where any collateral damage wouldn't affect the resale value or appeal.   Damaged or missing doors might be replaceable.  If you can't match your existing doors, perhaps you could replace them all for an updated look. Y ou might be able to use Contact Paper to recover some cabinets and doors.   If you have cabinets that are damaged beyond repair and have to be replaced you might be able to find pre-made cabinets at a home center or building supply store.   Measure carefully to be sure they will fit and that you can get them through the RV door!   Make sure you anchor them properly, keeping in mind they will be subjected to much greater stress than they would in a fixed residence.  If counter tops are damaged you will probably need the services of a professional to replace them.   If you do have to replace counter tops you might want to consider upgrading old Formica counters to solid-surface, ceramic tile, or even granite -- if your budget can handle it.  You might be able to pick up a suitable sized piece of granite from remnants from a residential counter top shop fairly cheaply, but you will still need professional equipment and/or help to cut it and finish it to fit your RV and to install it. Replacing damaged Formica is a fairly straightforward task, but because of the precision required for proper fit and clean, smooth joints, you will probably want to have it professionally done. Sometimes you can adapt a pre-made residential countertop from a home center if you can find one the right size.  Faded Formica can be difficult to restore but I've had good luck using the same SC-1 detail spray I use on my dirt bikes.

Appliances can be updated to replace damaged, defective, unattractive, or inefficient models in older units.   Or you might just want to have some of the features of newer models.   But, unless you have ready access to used units in good condition, this can be an expensive upgrade, especially if you try to replace them all at once.   If your appliances still function properly, consider a good cleaning and perhaps painting before costly replacement.  Be sure to use special appliance paint for best results and appropriate durability.  Stoves, ovens, range hoods, and painted refrigerators are all candidates for this.  Some refrigerators have a replaceable front panel to change the color or texture.  These panels can sometimes be refinished or covered with Contact Paper or wall paper for a new and fresh look if replacement panels are no longer available.  My dad removed the damaged and dated wallpaper covering from a fridge panel, then cleaned and varnished the underlying plywood panel. The result was a rather spectacular natural wood finish that blended with the rest of the paneled interior!  You may be able to add a roof air conditioner to a unit that didn't have one.  I once got one salvaged from a motorhome in a junkyard for just $100 to install on my enclosed motorcycle trailer. New ones will cost many times that.  Some motorhomes and trailers were pre-wired for air conditioners, making the installation fairly easy.  If yours was not pre-wired you'll have to run 120-volt wiring for the roof A/C and will probably have to add a breaker in the panel for it.  If you are not familiar with electrical wiring it is best to have this done by a professional -- a licensed electrician or a competent RV technician.  Roof A/Cs are usually designed to fit the same 14"x14" opening as a standard roof vent. Before adding a heavy A/C to the roof of your RV, check to see if it will support the load. You may have to remove an existing vent to inspect the supporting structure around the opening. If there is no supporting structure, consult a competent RV technician to see if adequate support can be added to ensure the heavy A/C unit doesn't come crashing down and bring a good part of the roof with it.  Stoves/ovens, water heaters, furnaces, and refrigerators are, of course, also candidates to be upgraded.  Try to find units with the same dimensions as the originals to minimize the amount of structural or cosmetic modifications needed for the change over.  Of course, if one of your goals is a larger fridge or bigger furnace, you will have to modify the surrounding cabinets to accommodate the new units.   Because of technological advances, you may be able to improve performance or capacity within the same footprint as the original models, so shop around.  If you do a lot of winter camping and your current furnace is inadequate, consider adding a second furnace. You will probably have to sacrifice some cabinet space, but it will be well worth it.   Be sure you understand all the installation requirements or hire a professional to assist you.  Improper installation could result in fire or an explosion.  A popular alternative to a second furnace is a catalytic heater. These are especially good for boondocking since they don't have a fan to consume battery power. Other popular appliances in newer units include ice makers and counter-top food processors.  These are not cheap upgrades but they do add convenience and functionality so they are worth considering -- especially if you can get your hands on some good used equipment at a reasonable price.  One way to get used equipment is to buy a "donor" vehicle, a used or salvage motorhome or trailer that has appliances or fixtures you can scavenge for your RV. I've seen fairly late model salvage travel trailers offered for as little as $100.

Entertainment systems.  Many new luxury RVs come with elaborate home theater systems.  Older units can often benefit from the addition of a simple radio/cassette/CD player or a portable TV.   If you have the cabinet space to spare and the budget, you can install permanent entertainment options to fit your wants and needs.   I found it convenient to use a combination DVD/VCR unit in my motorhome.  It saves space and simplifies wiring and switching between sources.  These days you may also need a digital converter if your TV isn't digital ready.  A "batwing" roof antenna usually does a pretty good job of grabbing over-the-air TV signals.  There are digital upgrades that can be installed on older antennas if necessary.   For the ultimate viewing choices, consider a satellite receiver system.  These are fairly expensive and require a monthly fee to the satellite provider. Satellite antenna options include portable models you set on the ground or on a table and permanent, roof-mounted dishes.   The ultimate antenna can even be used on the road and automatically re-aligns itself as you drive, but these are very expensive.  Modern flat screen TVs with built in DVD players are reasonably priced and and be installed just about anywhere.  The are much lighter and used much less electricity than the older CRT models.

A generator is a desirable addition if you don't already have one.  You'll need to find an appropriate place to mount it.   It will have to be in an exterior cabinet that is sealed against fumes entering the coach.  It should also be well insulated to minimize noise levels inside the coach.  You may have to add insulation to achieve satisfactory results.  On travel trailers you may be able to mount it on the tongue or build a rack on the back bumper.  Other considerations include access to the fuel supply and wiring to feed the power to the coach's existing 120-volt system -- or wiring your own system if there is none in place to start with.  The simplest way to connect a generator is to wire it to a receptacle in the power cord storage compartment where you can plug in the existing shore power line.   Buying a used generator in good condition can save you hundreds of dollars. so check out your favorite sources -- local classified ads, ebay, cragislist, and local junk yards.   For even more convenience, consider connecting the generator through an automatic transfer switch.  Then you don't have to plug and unplug the shore power line each time you want to use the generator.  You will want to select a generator whose fuel supply is compatible with the fuel your vehicle already uses.  Options include gasoline, diesel, and propane powered generators. S ome diesel powered motorhomes use propane powered generators and they are also a good choice for trailers, which don't have a source of motor fuel.

Automatic transfer switches are a nice addition if you don't already have one.  These devices sense when the generator is running and automatically switch from shore power to generator power.   If you already have a generator but have to plug and unplug your shore power line when using it, adding an automatic transfer switch may be a viable option.  You can expect to pay $100 to $300 for one and, unless you are a qualified electrician, may have to have it professionally installed to ensure safety and proper operation.

Upgrades that add comfort and driving enjoyment may not be readily visible to the average on-looker but are still often worth considering for owner comfort and satisfaction.   Perhaps one of the most frequent changes are suspension improvements.  This could be as simple as replacing worn shock absorbers with better quality units or as complex and expensive as upgrading the entire suspension and adding anti-sway bars.  Just replacing worn-out shocks can significantly improve the ride and handling of older units.  I've seen owners add shock absorbers to travel trailers that didn't have any to reduce how much things get tossed around inside on rough roads and reduce the jerking on the tow vehicle.  When I broke a spring on one of my "Smuggler" trailers, I replaced and upgraded both springs to enhance the load bearing capacity of the suspension.  You should always replace both springs if one breaks to maintain even weight distribution and performance.   Upgrading my springs gave me a little extra ground clearance on desert roads and negotiating in and out of primitive camp sites as well as increased carrying capacity and a better ride.   A major consideration when replacing springs are the dimensions -- the overall length and the width of the leaves and the mounting eye. You may need different sized U-bolts to mount the new springs. It is a very good idea to use new U-bolts anyway, even if the old ones will still fit. The old ones will have been stretched and stressed by torquing and use.  A well advertised option is the addition or air bags to increase weight capacities and stiffen suspension to improve handling.  This can be very effective in many situations but I urge you to use caution.   I have seen airbag installations that resulted in bending the motorhome frame because they altered the weight distribution.  The bags were mounted directly over the rear axle where the frame was the weakest and became the primary load bearing point.  OEM airbag installations often reinforce the frame to avoid this problem.   I had an aeronautical stress engineer evaluate the specifications for the frame on my motorhome and found out with air bags installed a drop of as little as 1.5", such as is often found where driveways meet the street, would be enough to bend the frame!

Performance enhancements.  Who wouldn't like to pull up hills more easily or maintain highway speeds on grades?  Or get better gas mileage?   Some vehicles lend themselves well to performance upgrades, some do not.  Banks Engineering provides a proprietary "Power Pack" system that can be used on many popular chassis to improve air intake and exhaust performance, usually delivering gains in both performance and fuel economy.   However, increases in performance usually come at the expense of higher fuel consumption and improved mileage usually means reduced performance. The manufacturer's warranty on many newer engines prohibit any modifications and some modifications may seriously reduce engine life expectancy, so be cautious about making any changes to your vehicle's engine.   Improvements in intake and exhaust as well as upgrades in computer chips for modern engines can make significant power and fuel economy gains, but make sure your engine can handle the load and the modifications don't invalidate any warranty.   Calculate the fuel savings to determine the "pay back" time for the cost of performance enhancements to see if they will be economically viable.  Many improvements are so costly you may never get it back in fuel savings unless you drive a lot!

Mechanical upgrades.  Unless you have a major problem with the power train you probably won't want to attempt any significant mechanical upgrades.   If you have engine problems and would like more power you might consider installing a larger engine. Another option is to make internal improvements when rebuilding your engine.  When the Chevrolet 454 engine in my Class A Suncrest began knocking and required a rebuild, we upgraded the pistons and added an "RV" camshaft to improve performance.   I would probably not have made those upgrades if I wasn't already rebuilding the engine.  Sometimes a worn out or defective engine can be replaced with a good used or rebuilt motor.  Upgrading to a larger motor or converting from gas to diesel are often a lot of work and are usually cost prohibitive.   Other things you might consider are adding an overdrive/underdrive unit like Gear-Vendors to give you more options in gear ratio for either higher highway speeds and improved mileage or lower ratios for more pulling power.  Upgrading from drum to disc brakes adds a measure of safety and peace of mind but the task is quite daunting and expensive.    Some home hot-rod modifications like swapping carburetors and intake manifolds might be worth considering, but perform enough due diligence and research to make sure they will be worth the effort and that you will have realistic expectations for the results.   Some engine modifications will invalidate your warranty, if you have one and may cause problems passing emissions test where such tests are required.   Intake and exhaust enhancements, like Banks PowerPack kits, are popular ways to improve performance, if there is a kit available to fit your engine.

Replacing original equipment parts can be problematic on older units.  Exact replacement parts may be hard to find, perhaps even impossible.  You may have some luck and junk yards or on ebay. There are also salvage yards that specialize in RVs and companies that stock old parts so be sure to check the Internet for possible sources. Y ou'll be surprised what you can find among "NOS" -- New Old Stock parts.  When you can't find an exact replacement, you may have to convert to the closest modern equivalent.  Taillight assemblies may have to be totally replaced if you can't find replacements for damaged lenses.  You may be forced to replace missing or broken windows with the closest size you can find.  If you have damaged exterior panels you may have to replace entire sections when you can't match the pattern and texture of the original to achieve a good cosmetic repair. In a pinch, a small area of damage might be covered by a "fake" vent panel.  Choose a standard residential flat furnace wall vent big enough to hide the damage and paint it to match your unit.

Fun stuff!  Fun additions such as awnings, outside BBQs and outside showers can add fun and livability to your RV.  Screen rooms or "add-a-room" enclosures can enhance the utility of your patio awning.   If you frequently engage in activities after dark, you might improve the exterior lighting on your rig.   I added a bright white light salvaged from an ambulance to my enclosed motorcycle trailer to make night time maintenance tasks easier.  A matching light on the side of my motorhome illuminated the entire "circle of wagons" for evening group activities.  Some campers like to fly flags on their rigs, either as sign of their patriotic nature or a club or group identifier.  Small flags can be temporarily mounted in brackets mounted to the side of your RV.   Larger flags can be flown from flagpoles.   Mine mounts in a pipe welded to the tongue of my motorcycle trailer.  Portable flagpoles are available with a base you drive one of your tires onto and can fly your favorite flag(s) high above the vehicle roof.  There are fancy LED powered star burst lights you can mount on your flagpole to help guide late arrivals to your camp site at night.   I found a 12-volt powered fan that mounts in the accessory rail on my patio awning to provide a pleasant breeze under the awning.   There are at least two kinds of devices designed to fit into the accessory rail and attach lights, shades, banners, etc. One style is a series of "S" hooks with plastic tabs that slide into the awning rail.   Another has clamps like those on suspenders to clip to the awning and grab banners and shades.

Many of today's RVs have slide outs that greatly expand and improve the living space in camp. It is possible to have a slide out added to an older RV but it is usually not cost effective.  Count on something on the order of $2000 a foot!  That's right, not $200, but $2000 a foot.  Adding a 14' slide out to an existing RV can cost around $28,000. Y ou'd have to REALLY love your old RV and REALLY want a slide out to justify spending that kind of money.  And unless you are already an engineer and trained RV technician, this kind of upgrade will require professional engineering and installation.  If you really wants a slide out it will probably be less expensive to sell or trade your current RV for one with a slide.   Even with professional installation, adding a slide to an older RV may be problematic since the body and frame wasn't designed to handle the additional stress that slides create and it may be difficult or even impossible to do an adequate retrofit.

Bargain updates.  To maximize the value and minimize the cost, look for bargains on materials and appliances for your updates.   Used or discontinued RV appliances and furniture are often available on ebay and other online selling sites or even from your local RV store at reduced prices.  You may be able to purchase a cheap wrecked vehicle to serve as a donor for appliances and accessories.   Keep an eye on closeouts at your local home center for things you can use in your RV.  Limit your changes to things you can do yourself to eliminate paying premium rates for professional installation services.  If you have an update you really want but don't feel qualified to tackle yourself, shop around for advice and estimates.  Feel free to send me an inquiry.   If I don't already have any useful information,  I'll research it and let you know.

The most cost effective updates are those you can do yourself with minimal materials.  A thorough detailing will take a lot of elbow grease and, to make it easier and do it right, you may have to invest in some specialized cleaners but it may deliver the best return on investment.  You'll feel better using a clean, well kept RV and it will have better sales appeal and resale value.  Along those lines, replacing damaged or discolored vent and A/C covers and clearance lights are also among good things to do.  The "Blue Book" values are based on units in fairly good condition and any damaged vents or lenses will result in a downgraded rating, reducing the curb appeal and the trade-in or potential sales value.

Update and away!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

12-Volt RV Accessories

There are lots of 12-volt accessories for your RV.    Most come with a plug to fit in a standard 12-volt receptacle which is like a cigarette lighter socket.  You will probably want to add some sockets at convenient locations where you want to use your accessories.  When choosing a location, your primary criteria will be the convenience of using accessories, but there are installation requirements you need to consider too.  First, will there be a source of power available or can you safely run wiring from a nearby source?  Next, is there room to mount the socket?  You will need a flat surface with enough room in a cabinet behind it to accommodate the depth of the socket and wiring connections.  It should be located where it won't be in the way or damaged by contents in the cabinet.  In many cases the bottom shelf on RV cabinets is hollow. Y ou can usually pry up the paneling inside the cabinet and gain access to the space.  Take it easy and work your way along the whole edge so you don't make unwanted holes in edge of the panel.  Often there will already be 12-volt wiring inside for under-cabinet lights you can tap into.  There may also be room to mount the socket so it is inside the hollow space and doesn't intrude into usable cabinet space.   When I haven't been able to use the hollow bottom shelf, I usually mount the socket high in the cabinet and as far into a corner as possible to get it out of the way as much as I can.   12-volt sockets are  handy for using a "car charger" to recharge cell phones, I-pads, etc.

If you need a 12-volt socket outside, use a marine-grade waterproof socket.  You may have to go to a marina or boat supply store to find one.  I use such an external socket on my motorcycle trailer to plug in my strobe lights.  Before I installed the socket, I had to run the wiring through an open window to an inside socket, which was always a bit of a nuisance and not good at all in inclement weather.  Note:  these sockets are only water proof when the attached cap is closed so use in rain is not recommended.  The covers only keep the weather out when nothing is plugged in.   For that reason I have installed permanently mounted and wired strobe lights on the roof of my motorcycle trailer.

Many RVs come with general purpose area lighting under the cabinets.  You may want to add some high intensity reading lights.  You will probably need to cut a hole in the bottom of the cabinet to accommodate the new light fixtures.  Then wire the new lights to the wires that feed the existing area light.   Most reading lights will have a built-in switch.   If yours doesn't, you'll need to put a switch in the hot feed between the source and the light.  The best place to put it would be beside the new fixture, but you may want to mount it through the face or side of the cabinet instead if that would make it easier to use.  Just make sure the wires and connections are protected so they won't be jarred loose or shorted out by contents in the cabinet.  Mounting the switch adjacent to the fixture should allow all the wiring etc to be safely concealed inside the hollow shelf.

With a little research you can probably find 12-volt versions of most common household electrical appliances including radios, TVs, VCRs, corn poppers, hair dryers, mixers and blenders, just to name a few. 12-volt appliances can be used in RVs and you can run them off your cigarette lighter in your vehicle when tent camping.   If you plan to use 12-volt appliances, make sure you have sufficient battery capacity to handle the load and monitor your appliance usage and battery state.  It will be very disappointing if you turn on the blender and all it does is hum softly and perhaps even more disappointing if you wake up cold in the middle of the night because you ran the batteries down watching TV all afternoon and the furnace has stopped working and is only blowing cold air! And the ultimate nasty surprise:  you drained your batteries and can't get your vehicle started to go home!  Motorhomes usually have separate isolated battery banks for the engine and the coach, reducing your chances of running down your starting battery.   But if you're using the cigarette lighter in your car or tow vehicle to power 12 volt appliances while tent camping, you will need to closely monitor the level of battery charge to avoid getting stranded.

If you can't find a 12-volt version of a 120-volt appliance you want to use you might be able to use an inverter to supply 120-volt power using  your battery bank.   Inverters convert 12-volt DC from batteries into 120-volt AC power.  You can get small ones (100-400 watts) that  plug into 12-volt receptacles to power a single small device (like a laptop) or hard wired ones (up to 3000 watts) that can run several outlets.  About the only down side to inverters are there is some loss of energy in the conversion process and keep in mind that 120 volt appliances will use 10 times the energy of 12 volt appliances of the same amp rating.  Inverters are sometimes a good way to run your TV and entertainment system without running the generator -- if you have a enough battery capacity.

Most RVs come with one or more auxiliary power sockets (12-volt receptacles like cigarette lighter sockets). Why would you need more auxiliary power sockets?  Think about what you will be using them for.  Do you need a portable fan near your bed?   Do you need a convenient place to plug in your cell phone charger?  How about chargers for re-chargeable lanterns and entertainment devices?  Portable air pumps?  You can buy 12-volt TVs, DVD and VCR players for use in your RV and you'll need a place to plug them in.  You may want to install a weatherproof socket on the outside of your RV where you can plug in air compressors to pump up OHV tires, 12-volt work lights, even 12-volt fans to cool the "patio" under your awning.   If you add an exterior socket, be sure to use a waterproof, marine-grade fixture.

Wiring your accessories.  If you don't need accessories to be portable or don't need the ability to use multiple accessories in the same place you can hard wire them.   Lights are almost always hardwired. Permanently mounted fans should be hard wired too.  If you need a socket to plug in your cell phone charger or plug in a portable fan, install a cigarette lighter socket.  Regardless of what your are wiring, pay close attention to the polarity -- connect hot leads of the accessory or socket to the 12-volt power supply and the ground leads to a vehicle ground.  RV 12-volt wiring usually uses red wires for hot and black for ground, but test your wiring to be sure.  Owners (and even mechanics) often use whatever they have on hand when adding accessories so wiring could be any color.  Connect the ground clamp of a test light to a known ground and touch the probe to the wire to be tested, making sure to contact the metal conductor and not just the insulation.  The test light will come on when you touch a hot lead but will not light when you touch a ground wire or other non-powered wire. Connecting accessories backwards can damage some electronic components or create a potential shock or fire hazard. 12-volt DC electricity isn't as dangerous as 120-volt AC power.  You probably won't even get an unpleasant tingle but it may create a situation where arcing can occur and cause a fire if you cross-wire things.  For most 12-volt connections you can use wire nuts -- plastic cones that twist onto the ends of the two wires to be joined.  Strip about 1/2" of insulation from both wires, twist the wires together, then twist on the wire nut.  Twist the wires and the wire nut in a clockwise direction for installation.  Turn the wire nut until it is snug, but don't over-tighten or you'll risk twisting off the wires.   For even more permanent and secure connections you can solder the wires together and wrap the connection with electrical tape or use heat-shrink insulation.

Whenever you add accessories you want the installation to look good.   If you're adding a cigarette lighter socket, make sure you drill the right size hole so it fits snugly.  Automotive style receptacles are designed to install through a thin metal or plastic dash panel.  Installing them through thicker wall panels in RVs may require some modification.  Receptacles designed especially for RVs come mounted in a chrome or other metal finished plate about the size of a residential light switch plate that simplifies installation and gives a nice, professional appearance.   Since they are already mounted, it gives you more latitude in drilling the hole and they can be installed on thick walls.  Look for 12-volt wall outlets at your favorite RV supply store.  When adding surface mount lights on walls or ceilings make the opening in the surface beneath the fixture where you run the wires large enough to push the wire nuts back inside so the fixture will mount tightly if there isn't room in the base of the fixture.   For best appearance, align ceiling fixtures to be parallel to adjacent walls.  You can usually do this by eye-balling them, but to be certain, you might want to measure and mark alignment. When mounting items on the wall, you may be able to use a level -- assuming your RV itself is level at the time.  Or measure from adjacent walls, ceiling, windows, or cabinets.   If you have to run exposed wiring, you may be able to disguise it with plastic wire guides or tracks.  These are available in various colors at home centers and usually have a semi-circular cross-section that is open all along one edge so you can push the wires inside.  There is an adhesive strip attached to the flat back surface. Be sure to clean the area where it will be attached so the adhesive strip will stick.  Rubbing alcohol is usually a good way to quickly clean the area.  You run your wires first, cut the guide to fit the length of the exposed wires, remove the covering from the adhesive strip, carefully slide the guide over the wires, keeping the adhesive away from the surface until you are ready to press it into place. Slip the wires into the guide, then press it tightly against the surface so the adhesive strip will hold it in place.  Usually keeping pressure on for about 30 seconds is enough to make it stick.  Use rubber grommets to protect wires wherever they pass through metal surfaces, rough wood openings, or where you want to make a professional looking penetration that will normally be visible.

Warning indicators.   Single 12-volt LEDs are easy to install as indicators to remind you when things are turned on.  One innovative RV owner wired one to the on/off switch of the water heater and installed it right next to the switch so he could tell when the hot water heater was turned on.  Most RV water heaters have a red light that lets you know when the water heater isn't working but should be (that is, it is turned on).  Most hydraulic or electric leveling jacks have indicators to let you know when they are in the extended position.  Another common place to add an indicator is on the electric step to let you know when it is extended and remind you to retract it before driving off (most motorhomes have an interlock to prevent this, but it is a nice addition to travel trailers).  The water pump usually has a lighted indicator, but if it doesn't this is another good place to add one.   you have an auxiliary electric heating element on your water heater you might add a 120-volt LED to let you know when it is powered.   If you can't remember if your TV antenna is up or down, try adding an indicator light to that too.   I have several outside lights on my RV and trailer and have added LED indicators inside so I can tell if the lights are on or off, even in the daylight.  You can also use illuminated switches that glow when in the "on" position.  Since battery power is a limited and quite precious resource when camping, being able to detect and eliminate unnecessary light usage can significantly reduce battery drain.

Plug it in!

Monday, September 5, 2011

General Camp Site Lighting

It can get REALLY dark in camp.  Most of us live in urban or suburban environments with lots of street lights and light pollution from office buildings, shopping malls, parking lots, traffic, and neighbor's homes and have no idea how dark it can be on a moonless night in a remote area.   Even if you aren't within the glow of streetlights etc, the reflection off clouds or even air pollution creates a glow from remote cities etc. that usually illuminates the darkness to some extent in urban and suburban areas.  It can be surprising -- even frightening for some people -- how dark it gets when you get away from the city!  Moonless nights in the desert or forest are extremely dark.   Deep woods often filter enough moonlight to make it almost like there is no moon at ground level in some forests, even when there is a full moon.   If you are an RVer, you will usually have some built-in indoor lighting (as long as your batteries hold up).  Most RVs have one or more outside "porch" lights that illuminate the area next to the RV entrance.  For more distant activities or for tent camping you'll need portable light sources.  Some older travel trailers and truck campers had propane powered lights but you aren't likely to see them very often these days.  Even units that did have them have often been converted entirely to 12-volt lighting long ago.  One feature of propane lights was that they gave off quite a bit of heat, helping to warm a camper on chilly evenings, but during warmer times that was a distinct disadvantage.

Flashlights are one of the least expensive and most convenient and versatile sources of portable illumination.  You can often even find them at "dollar" stores.  These plastic bargains are usually not very durable but they can provide many hours of illumination at a very low cost.  They are also an attractive option if you have people (like children) who tend to break or lose track of things easily. The loss or destruction of a $1.00 flashlight is no big deal.  Dollar stores often  have fairly nice little aluminum pocket LED flashlights that are fairly durable, efficient, and quite attractive.  There are also high-end flashlights made of aircraft grade aluminum that are far more durable and often even waterproof, but they can be quite expensive -- upwards of $25-$50.  Cheap flashlights are usually not adjustable; better units can often be adjusted so the beam casts a spot light or flood light pattern. Flashlights are ideal for individual use in moving around in the dark and for many camp tasks. Traditional flashlights use a small incandescent bulb but today you can also buy flashlights with multiple LEDs that use far less power and both batteries and the LEDs last a lot longer than when using ordinary bulbs.  My wife and I both carry small, LED flashlights powered by AA or AAA batteries in our fanny packs and/or tool kits when we go dirt biking.  They will provide much needed illumination for any after-dark repairs on the trail and for signaling if needed.  We used to use regular "mini-mag" lights.  They are sturdy and effective but the little LED lights don't weigh as much and don't take up as much room and the batteries in the LED lights will last a lot longer and LEDs are much more durable than incandescent bulbs.   In addition to a standard on-off switch, most flashlights have a push-button that can be used to turn the light on momentarily to aid in signaling.  You should at least know the Morse Code signal for S.O.S. -- three dots, three dashes, three dots.  When signalling with a light that means three quick flashes, three slow flashes, and three quick flashes.  Urban myths equate S.O.S. to Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship, but it reality it was simply the ease of signally S.O.S. in Morse code that led to the use of S.O.S. for an emergency signal.  The cute, if historically inaccurate, phrases now associated with it do serve as useful memory aids.

Multi-purpose lights.  As with just about any camping gadget, multi-purpose lights are attractive since they can serve many uses without the weight and space requirements of separate items.  One I've found particularly convenient came from Harbor Freight. It is an LED light with a focused LED spot light on one end and a bank of LEDs in a flood light configuration on one flat side. It cost under $3.00 with a coupon. It measures about 2"x3"x3/4", is light weight, and takes up little space in pocket, purse or pack, yet provides a lot of light. It has a built in plastic hook so you can hang it in your tent on or a convenient branch. It also has a magnet if you need to attach it to your vehicle -- or your camp stove.  Some larger camp lanterns also feature both spot and flood light options. Keep your eye out for potentially useful items everywhere you go.  I recently picked up a pair of LED lanterns shaped like old-fashioned kerosene lanterns at a discount store for $10 each and small solar camping lanterns for just $2.00 each.  The kerosene style lanterns have 17 LEDs, a dimmer for controlling brightness, and run on 3 "D" cell batteries.  I once left one on in my barn overnight and it was still bright the next day when I discovered it and turned it off and was still functional for months afterwards.  Leave an ordinary incandescent battery light on overnight and you'll have dead batteries by morning.   I've even seen a single incandescent bulb left on in an RV drain the big 12-volt deep cycle house battery in an afternoon!

Wide area lighting may be needed for some activities, such as preparing, serving, and eating meals and for many games, chopping wood, or repairing equipment.  Some RVs are or can be equipped with wide-angle lighting but the traditional camp standard is the gas lantern.   The long-time standard camping lantern is the Coleman gas lantern, but today's lanterns come in many sizes, shapes, and fuel choices.  Some of my favorite exterior lights came off of an old ambulance.  They provide excellent flood lighting for night time repairs and other activities, but the bulbs are difficult to find and quite expensive.  Fortunately, they are quite durable.

Awning lights are popular for use on RV awnings.   Some folks string 120-volt patio lanterns along the accessory rail on the awning.   Smaller strings, similar to Christmas lights are also frequently used.  You can find these in various camping themes like mini Coleman lanterns, American flags, and chili peppers.  You could even use ordinary Christmas lights.  Awning lights provide festive illumination for activities under or near your RV awning.  The latest additions include programmable, multi-colored LED rope lights that can put on quite a show.  LED lights will use less power than incandescent versions and won't heat up and possibly damage the awning fabric.  One word of caution when using awning lights:  be considerate of your neighbors.  Excessive lighting might intrude into their space.

White-gas or propane powered lanterns provide a bright white light almost like an electric light bulb.   They also produce quite a bit of heat.  A friend of mine used one as the only heat source for his Class B motorhome on cool evenings.  They might be enough to take the chill off in your motorhome or tent, but always make sure you have adequate ventilation or you could succumb to fumes or suffocate due to lack of oxygen.  One other significant feature of these lanterns is that the mantles are quite fragile. They are made of silk ash.  When they are new they are little silk mesh socks you tie onto the gas outlets of the lanterns.  They are then burned to turn them into ash, which glows brightly when the gas is lit, giving off the characteristic bright white light.  Always bring plenty of spare mantles.  It doesn't take much to break them once they've been burned.  Anytime you use a gas lantern inside an RV or tent or other confined space make sure you have adequate ventilation to prevent suffocation (yes, it is worth repeating -- repeating and repeating!).

Kerosene lanterns lend an old-fashioned touch to camping.  They are a little less fragile than gas lanterns because they use a standard, sturdy cotton wick instead of the delicate silk ash mantle.  The wick also makes them a little more flexible in the level of light than gas lanterns. They are not nearly as bright and the light is not as white as a gas lantern, but they are economical to purchase and to operate and lend a nice ambiance.  They are usually less expensive to buy than gas lanterns, often under $10. At one time the fuel was commonly used in many homes for lanterns and heaters so everyone already had fuel.  It is seldom used in our urban and suburban homes today but it is still readily available.  One potential downside is that kerosene gives off a distinctive odor similar to jet fuel (which is actually kerosene).   If you don't like the smell of burning kerosene you can burn fragrant lamp oils or odorless "liquid paraffin".   Use citronella oil to help keep the bugs away.   You can usually find kerosene lanterns at farm and ranch stores, at some sporting goods stores and I've even seen them at Walmart.

There are many battery powered lanterns available where ever camping goods are sold.  Some use square 6-volt batteries, some use multiple "D" or "C" cells, some are rechargeable.  Some even have built-in solar chargers to recharge them during the day.  You can even get lanterns with remote controls so you can turn them off after you've already snuggled into your sleeping bag.  One of my favorite tent lights is very small and runs on "AAA" batteries.   It has a florescent tube for area lighting and a focused bulb on one end so it can be used as a directed flashlight.  It is small enough to fit easily into a shirt pocket or fanny pack (about the size of  three ball point pens) and runs on two "AAA" batteries.  These days I'd look for an LED model.   LEDs are much cooler and significantly more efficient than incandescent bubls.   I recently acquired a couple of LED lanterns designed to look like kerosene lanterns.  They have 17 LEDs on a dimmer switch, powered by 3 D cell batteries. The LEDs have a projected life of over 100,000 hours and the way LEDs sip energy, the 3 D cells will last a long time. I've already used them at home for several hours and they show no signs of degradation.  I even left one on overnight in my barn and it was still burning bright the next morning when I went out.  Try that with ordinary incandescent lights and the batteries would be dead dead dead by morning.

Candles are another old-fashioned and inexpensive lighting solution.  Citronella candles on your picnic table also help keep bugs away.  Exercise caution when using candles inside of an RV and be especially careful or avoid using them altogether in your tent.  Candles are very susceptible to breezes.   There are lantern-like candle holders that protect the flame from the breeze and to some extent, provide extra safety if the candle gets knocked over. Candles give off some dangerous fumes and do consume oxygen, so always use them with adequate ventilation.  You can make your own decorative candle "lanterns" from discarded tin or aluminum cans by punching a design into them using an awl or ordinary nails.  Some folks like to paint them flat black so they look more like lanterns.

Tiki torches are often used for back yard and patio illumination and, if you have room to bring them camping, they would provide a nice touch to an evening's activities.  Use some citronella oil in the them and they double as insect repellant.  Do not use tiki torches inside a tent or RV or under an awning or canopy.  If space is at a premium, look for torches that can be broken down into small components you can tuck them in cabinets or camping tubs more easily.  I've seen large candles on a stick that are designed for similar backyard or camping use.

Solar lights provide a safe and energy efficient way to have modest illumination in camp.   They aren't going to light up the campground like a baseball stadium, but they are sufficient to light the pathways, mark tent pegs, and even illuminate your camp stove and dinner table.  And they aren't expensive.   I've even seen them at Dollar Tree on several occasions.  Some were stake-style yard lights and some were designed to look like little rocks (except for the solar panel on top and the lens on one side).  You can probably add a bail or handle and remove the stakes on the yard or pathway lights so you can hang them in your tent or from your RV awning.  I even found a couple of solar powered tent lights at a discount store for $2.00 each.  They are each about the size of a soup can but are sufficient for comfortable tent lighting -- unless you're doing something that requires more intense light, like needle work or surgery!

Custom camp lights can be as creative as you feel like being.  Some of the innovations I've seen and used include bright white flood lights salvaged from a wrecked ambulance and mounted to the wall of my RV and trailer to light up the work area around my motorcycle trailer and a 500-watt 120 volt Halogen yard light I mounted on a staff that fastens to the ladder of my motorhome when we want to light up the whole campsite for group activities.  Many RVers attach strings of festive lights to their awnings. These are usually more for decoration than illumination, yet can still provide a nice glow for your "patio party" and are available in a variety of shapes and colors.  One of my favorites for general camping is a Christmas light like string of tiny lights shaped like Coleman lanterns.  You might choose lighted chilis for a Mexican themed party or American flags for the 4th of July. The possibilities are endless.   Ordinary Christmas lights could also be used. I suggest going for the new LED lights.  They have bright colors, use little power, and don't get hot like incandescent bulbs, reducing the risk of scorching your awning or canopy -- or your fingers should you happen to touch one.   Rope lights are also popular as awning lights.   Plain white provides comfortable illumination and there are some fancy (but somewhat pricey) multi-colored version with multiple flash patterns and remote controls.

Work lights of various sorts may be needed.   If you have a generator you might use an ordinary drop light, but there are LED,  florescent and incandescent 12-volt work lights you can buy for use on battery power in and around your RV or other vehicle. Some use flashlight batteries and are completely portable; some plug into your 12 volt socket.   A camping lantern can also be used for illuminating a general work area and an ordinary flashlight can be used in close quarters.

Chemical light sticks are good for markers to highlight obstacles or people and to provide some light for moving around.   They usually aren't bright enough for reading or any serious activities, such as cooking, repairing equipment, or playing board or card games.   I did find they were a good substitute for the burning sticks the kids liked to drag out of the fire and wave around.   They lasted longer and eliminated the danger of someone or something getting accidentally set on fire!  I tried attaching them to our "Desert Rat" signs at night to help guide latecomers to camp, but kids from a neighboring camp kept stealing them.  I keep one in my fanny pack (safely stored in a short piece of PVC pipe capped on both ends (but not glued).  It may not provide a lot of light for emergency night time repairs, but it would be better than nothing and any kind of light can provide comfort if you're stuck out for very long.   They can be used for signaling and may even help keep wild animals away.  A light stick is usually adequate to light your way to the latrine at night too.

Strobe lights are sometimes used as markers to aid late arrivals in locating our OHV camps in the desert.  The ones I've used for years are dome-shaped units with suction cups on the bottom and are wired to plug into a cigarette lighter style 12-volt receptacle on the outside of my motorcycle trailer.   I've seen really fancy LED "starburst" lights designed for the top of a flagpole that would be even more visible from a distance.  Of course you wouldn't want to use something that bright in a developed campground where it would annoy your fellow campers but it works well in the open desert where we usually have plenty of space between camps.

Natural light.  Moonlight is often adequate for many camp activities when the moon is near full. I've seen it light enough during a full moon in the desert to even ride OHVs (cautiously) without needing headlights.  During a new moon you'll need supplemental light sources, unless you and your companions have the eyes of a cat!   For best results, avoid wiping out your night vision by exposing your eyes to bright lights inside your RV.  When you first step out of a brightly lit RV into a moonlit night, you'll be nearly blind for several minutes until your eyes adapt to the darkness.  If you do need temporary auxiliary light, try using a red filter on your flashlight.   That will usually let you see what you need to see with minimal affect on night vision.   A red flashlight would be useful for illuminating the firewood pile so you don't mess up your night vision.    I find using red filters especially helpful when working with telescopes for star gazing.  They provide sufficient light to assemble and adjust the optics and read star charts and don't trigger the restriction of the pupils like bright white does.

Firelight retains the ambiance of camping.  For large gatherings, a big bonfire might be appropriate.  For more intimate occasions, keep the fire small and add a few Tiki torches if you need more light.  You can fuel the Tiki torches with citronella lamp oil to help keep the bugs away so they're especially good around the picnic table or other eating or sitting areas.  Sometimes having several small fires is more effective and efficient than one big one.

Tent lighting.   I strongly favor battery powered lights for use in tents and other small enclosed spaces.  Any kind of flame-powered light includes the risk of setting the tent on fire and suffocation as the flame consumes available oxygen.  If you MUST use your Coleman or kerosene lantern in a tent, exercise extreme caution and keep a couple of windows open an inch or two for cross ventilation.  Just touching the hot glass globe to a tent wall or sleeping bag can melt it beyond repair, so be VERY careful using any kind of flame device inside a tent.  The close quarters in most tents means you have to be careful not to touch the lantern globe.   It becomes VERY hot and will blister your skin instantly.   My favorite tent light is powered by a couple of AA batteries and includes a spot light and a general illumination flood light.  An LED version would be ideal since the batteries will last longer.

Searchlights and spotlights can be helpful in locating a remote camp when boondocking and for searching for errant campers who may have wandered away from camp in the dark.   Remote control searchlights mount on the roof of RVs and usually have both "spot" and "flood" settings so they can be used for general camp site lighting in "flood" mode or as a beacon or search light in "spot" mode  (helpful finding signs).  Though not as popular as they once were, spotlights that can be mounted on the windshield post of many vehicles can help locating signs and landmarks when searching for a remote camp at night.  In a pinch you might use them to light up an area for after-dark equipment maintenance.   Portable spotlights can also come in handy.  I've seen them with ratings in the range of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 candle power, having range up to a mile!  I've seen some that used ordinary flashlight batteries, some that are 12-volt powered (connect to a 12-volt cigarette light style receptacle) and even some that are rechargeable.

Trail lighting.  Many ATVs are equipped with headlights so night time operation is often viable. Dirt bikes (especially those designed for motocross), on the other hand, usually don't have headlights unless they are Enduro style bikes or have been modified.  The magnetos on many dirt bikes are not designed to handle the demands of lighting so you may have to upgrade the electrical system if you plan to add lights.  Baja Designs provides light kits for most off-road bikes.  A friend of mine upgraded the electrics on his dirt bike and added a 55 watt halogen driving light as a headlight.  Man, did that light up the trail! We called it the "bush burner".  In an emergency I've seen guys tape flashlights to their handlebars, front fenders, or helmets, but the light pattern is very limited and most flashlights won't last long,  especially given the constant bouncing and vibration to say nothing of the quick battery drain by incandescent bulbs. Unless they are LED flashlights they will drain the batteries pretty quickly, leaving you in the dark again. I picked up a specially designed helmet mounted light but I haven't had a chance to try it out yet. Chemical light sticks might be used to make the vehicle more visible but they won't provide enough light to see where you're going. Flashlights are very good options for night time hiking. You should have at least one on your person on any hike, just in case you are out after dark. In an emergency you might use duct tape or cable ties to secure a flashlight to the handlebars or front fender of your OHV for at least some lighting.

Emergency signaling.  If you get lost or your OHV breaks down and you're stuck out on the trails after dark, it may be a good idea to just stay put if you can't see where you're going unless you are in immediate danger if you stay where you are.  A flashlight or light stick can make you and your vehicle more visible to searchers or any other riders who may come along and you may be able to use them to flash an "S O S" (three short, three long, three short flashes).  If you think you'll be stuck out for any length of time or all night, you may want to try to get a fire going.   Fire will keep you warm, provide a visible signal for potential rescuers, and keep animals away.  If you use fuel from your OHV to start the fire, make sure your OHV is far enough away from the fire to avoid lighting it up -- and make sure the fuel is shut off before moving your OHV!   For a couple of examples of the consequences of failing to follow this advice, check out the movies "On Any Sunday" and On Any Sunday II".   In "On Any Sunday" the rider manages to set his bike on fire because it is too close to his signal fire.  In "On Any Sunday II" he carefully moves the bike a safe distance away before lighting his fire -- but he had disconnected the fuel line to soak the wood to make getting his fire going easier and forgot to shut it off, leaving a trail of fuel from the fire pit to his bike.  He lights his fire, it snakes a long the trail and "Poof!" his bike once again goes up in flames. On the one hand, a burning bike, will probably make a very good signal, especially once the magnesium parts start burning.   On the other hand, that's a pretty expensive signal fire!   It may be kind of amusing to watch in the movie, but I doubt if any of us would be laughing if it happened to us.  And once those magnesium parts start to burn you're going to have a heck of time putting out the fire without a Class D fire extinguisher.

Light it up!