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, January 29, 2012

RV, OHV, and Camping Communications

Communications enroute, around camp, and on the trail, are important.  Today's cell phones work pretty well in populated areas and even along most highways.   Sometimes they even work surprisingly well in remote locations, but hand-held CB, FRS or GMRS radios are a good addition for camping, hiking, and OHV trips, especially if you're headed off the beaten path and out of cell phone coverage.  The addition of an external cell phone antenna may improve reception and transmission, but make sure your phone is compatible with the antenna connector.   I have an external cell phone antenna on my motorhome that worked well with previous phones but my current model doesn't have an external antenna connector.  HAM radios are bit more expensive and require training and licensing but have a much greater range than FRS and GMRS radios.  Be aware that virtually all radio communications are "line-of-sight".   If you're in one valley and the person you're trying to communicate is over the hill in the next one, you probably aren't going to have much luck.  Short wave (HAM) radios can sometimes take advantage of something called "skip", where signals bounce off layers in the upper atmosphere and can reach over the horizon, but for most applications you need a pretty clear path between transmitter and receiver for reliable communications.  Of course, these days, cell phones are pretty ubiquitous and can provide communication between vehicles in a convoy and between camp sites.  You might even be able to make emergency calls out on the trail, but remember, cell phones depend on being within range of a cell tower.  While cell towers cover most cities and even most regularly used highways, you may find coverage lacking in remote mountain and desert areas where you go camping, riding, or  hiking.

Not all communications have to be two-way communications.  A good NOAA weather radio can be an extremely valuable addition to your camping communications gear.   These specialized radios provide continuous local weather forecasts and alerts.  Any good radio can usually provide news, traffic, and weather updates.  Even a good am/fm portable radio can normally bring you news and weather alerts.  Sometimes the radio signals will bounce of parts of the atmosphere but they are usually "line of sight" and mountains or other obstacles will sometimes block reception.  Modern satellite radio systems take advantage of transmitters on orbiting satellites so they usually work just about anywhere above ground.

I recently saw an ad for a multi-band radio that include VHF, CB, Ham, AM and FM all in one unit.   Such a radio would certainly provide the most flexibility for remote communications, but they are a bit pricey:  around $500!  Nice thing to put on the wish list.

On the road.   CB radios are still used by over-the-road truckers and can be easily added to just about any vehicle to provide convenient communications between vehicles enroute.   Hand held versions avoid the need for permanent antennas and wiring to a 12-volt power source.  By the way, RVs, because of their fiberglass bodies, may require a special No Ground Plane antenna.  The range of CB radios is limited to a few miles, but should be more than adequate for most RV "convoys".  CBs have up to 40 different channels. Some channels have been designated for specific purposes. Channel 9 is reserved for emergency communications.  Channel 19 is the channel usually used by over-the-road truckers and an excellent source of traffic and road conditions on most major highways.  Truckrs sometimes use Channel 17 on North-South Highways and Channel 19 on East-West routes.  Channel 19 is dead center of the CB band and is where antennas are frequently most efficient.   Channel 13 is the "RV" channel, and good place to listen for other RVers.  You can choose any of the other channels for more personal communications for your group.  It may take some searching to find an unused or lightly used channel.   Hand held FRS or GMRS walkie-talkies are good for in camp and trail communications.  FRS (Family Radio Service) is what is used by inexpensive and toy walkie talkies and has a more limited power and range than GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service), which uses more power and has a longer range -- but you have to have license to use GMRS.  FRS and CB do not require a license.  For added convenience on the trail, a headset provide hands-free operation.  Though somewhat pricey, "Sidewinder" brand radios are about the most convenient way to communicate with fellow riders on the trial.  These attach to your helmet and can be voice activated.  Be careful using voice activated units.   You're likely to broadcast some unintentional expletives when something goes wrong or surprises you!  I've had good success with ordinary walkie-talkie type FRS radios by tucking them in my Cambelbak and using a pu st-to-talk microphone and earphones under my helmet.  Again, the range is not great, but is usually more than adequate for keeping a group together on the trail and sometimes can even reach back to base camp so it can be useful to have someone monitoring your frequency back there in case of an emergency. We've even used them between groups out on the trails to coordinate emergency services when one of the riders was injured.

Other forms of communication can also be useful.   I may owe my life to a little-known trucker's signal.  I observed a truck driver speeding down the opposite side of the freeway toward me, flashing his lights 3 times over and over and giving three blasts on his air horn as he passed by.  Within a few minutes I encountered a wrong-way driver coming down my side of the freeway like a bat out of hell! The trucker's warning had put me on high alert so I detected the oncoming driver approaching in my lane in time to move over out of his way.  I admire that truck driver for his thoughtful efforts to warn people of the impending danger.  I may even owe him my life!  This was in the days before cell phones.   I pulled off at the next exit and called the State Police, whose tired response was "Where is he now?"  Obviously I wasn't the first one to report the wrong way driver and he had been southbound in the northbound lanes for at least 25 or 30 miles.  Speaking of wrong way drivers, a Highway Patrol friend of mine offered the following advice:   Do not drive in the fast lane of the freeway at night, especially on holidays when alcohol consumption is high, like on New Year's Eve. If you get a wrong way driver (like the one I encountered), he's probably going to be staying to his right, thinking he is being extra safe.   That puts him in the fast lane when he's on the wrong side of the freeway!  My friend says this tidbit was passed on to him by his trainer early in his career, and just minutes later after moving out of the fast lane, he encountered a wrong way driver right where his trainer said he'd be: coming down the fast lane.  When they finally apprehended the guy miles later he insisted the cops had lifted his car over the concrete center divider so it would look like he was driving on the wrong side. I know cops are tough, but not THAT tough!

Some classes of radio communication require special licensing by the FCC.  CB radios used to require a license but no longer do. FRS radios (Family Radio Service) do not require a special license. Range is about 2 miles. GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) offers greater range on some channels but does require an FCC license for the higher powered channels.  A single GMRS license covers the holder and his/her immediate family for personal or business purposes.   Last time I checked the GMRS license cost $85.00 and was good for 5 years.   Some GMRS channels are shared with the FRS service and can be used without a license if you don't exceed the legal transmission power (many GMRS radios have "power save" options that operate at the FRS power, using them at higher power requires a GMRS license).  For long range communications you may need an amateur radio (HAM radio) and license.  HAM radios can sometimes take advantage of repeaters -- automated stations that re-transmit your signal, to extend the range.   You can often get HAM radios classes free from local HAM clubs or educational institutions.  The license itself costs $14.00 and is good for 10 years before they have to be renewed.  Hand-held radios can be purchased for as little as $45 but a good "base station" and antenna setup can cost hundreds of dollars.  Hand helds or mobile radios will be the most useful for camping and caravaning.

Hand signals are useful on the trail.  Ordinary driver's hand signals communicate intentions when turning and stopping and can be very useful in keeping everyone in a group on the right track.  Left arm extended straight out from the shoulder:  left turn.  Left arm held at the square:  right turn.   Left arm held down:  stop.  Left arm  waving as if patting toward the ground:  slow down.  Another helpful signal aids safety when approaching riders coming from the other direction.  Hold up your free hand displaying the number of vehicles behind you in your group.   If there are more than 5, hold up an open hand.  Raise a closed fist, with the fingers facing out, if you are the last rider.   This tells oncoming traffic how many riders to expect.   Don't display your fist with the back of the hand out as that can be interpreted as an aggressive gesture.  Thumbs up and thumbs down have specific meanings so avoid using them in the ordinary "OK/Not OK" sense.   Thumbs up means a crashed rider is back up. Thumbs down means he is down and can't get up.  A simple wave of one hand high over head, like waving "hello", is usually used to indicate "OK".  Low waving of one hand about knee level indicates "not OK".  Avoid low waving of both hands as it is often misinterpreted by baseball fans as "SAFE".

Hand signals can be helpful in camp too, especially when backing into a tight spot.   A closed hand with a thumb extended like you were hitchhiking can be used to show the driver which way the back end of the RV needs to go.  A closed fist means stop.  Slapping the side of the RV means STOP NOW!  You can indicate the driver needs to keep backing up by waving you hand in a "come hither" manner.  Then quickly raise your and and close your fist when they should stop.  Another useful gesture is to indicate the remaining distance by holding  your hands apart facing each other and bringing them closer together as the gap closes.  It helps the driver judge how much further he/she needs to go.  Hand signals avoid the problems of trying to yell commands and disturbing fellow campers.  Two-way radios will let you carry on necessary conversation without yelling but can still be surprisingly loud in a quiet campground.

Though not commonly used any more, flashing Morse code and semaphores (flags) CAN be used to communicate between camps, on the water, and on the trail.   There are marine flags with specific meanings you should be aware of when boating.  They will alert you to water skiers in the water, disabled craft, medical emergencies, out of fuel, and dangerous conditions.   One Morse code signal that IS still frequently used is "S O S", an internationally recognized plea for help.  This consists of three short flashes, three long flashes, and three short long flashes (... --- ...) .   In popular usage, SOS became associated with such phrases as "save our ship", "save our souls" and "send out succour".  These may be regarded as useful mnemonics, but SOS is not an abbreviation, acronym or initialism.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), the letters were chosen merely because they are easily transmitted and recognized in Morse code.  When transmitted in Morse code they are often run together (...---...) instead of being sent as separate letters.  Morse code can easily be sent as flashes of light or as sounds.  You can even send Morse code by beating on a hollow log or banging two rocks together -- three quick hits, three slow hits, three quick hits, spells S O S. An ordinary whistle is a good emergency communication device. You won't ruin your voice yelling and it carries well to alert rescuers to your location. You can whistle "SOS" or just give 3 loud, evenly spaced whistles periodically. The three blasts and rhythmic timing helps distinguish your signal from bird calls or other natural sounds like wind or creaking trees.

Parking an RV sometimes requires two people:   one to drive and one to watch where the vehicle is backing, especially when backing into a confined space.   See the previous paragraph "Hand signals can be helful in camp too".   Two way radios are very helpful here although well understood hand signals can often suffice.   DON'T just try yelling!  It will annoy your fellow campers and will probably not do very much good anyway.  A good "emergency stop" signal is to slap the side of the RV hard.  The driver will be able hear it and can stop and discuss the situation before any damage occurs.

Stop and talk.  Whenever you are traveling in a group -- in vehicles, on OHVs or just hiking -- it is a good idea to stop and talk face to face now and then.  You can check the status of fellow travelers or riders, alert associates to where you're going next, and adjust routes as needed when special circumstances arise.  It is always better to catch any emerging medical or mechanical problems in the group as soon as possible.  When on the trail you can check everyone's ability to identify the way back to camp and help them learn landmarks and trail tips that can help them find their way back if they get separated from the group.  It is also a good idea to stop and talk periodically when you're in a RV or other vehicular convoy.  Regular rest stops keep drivers fresher and more alert and stops give you a chance to socialize with members of your group and discuss any special needs or wants and plan additional food, fuel, and recreation stops and let the group address the concerns of anyone who is uncomfortable with the pace or the route.

Talk it up!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Things for Campers To Do In The Winter

Let's face it.  Most of us don't do much camping in winter.  True, there are a few die hards who take their RVs skiing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing, but when the colder weather hits, most of us park the RVs or pack the tent and camping gear away for the winter.

Winter doesn't mean you have to put away the tent or RV and forget about it until next summer.   If you feel adventurous and prepare properly, there are opportunities for winter camping. You might go skiing or snowmobiling or just try riding your ATV or dirt bike in the snow.   I haven't found dirt bikes very much fun in the snow, but ATVs are cool, especially if they have 4WD.   I've seen guys use spiked tires on dirt bikes to get traction in the snow and ice, but mostly dirt bikes are pretty skittish on the white stuff.  You can spend a weekend or two in your tent or RV in a campground enjoying winter activities if you have properly prepared for it.   Chances are you won't find it crowded!   Skiing, sledding, snowball fights, building an igloo, ice skating, ice fishing, and snowmobiling are all fun things to do in the winter and most can benefit from a good base camp.   If you're taking out your RV in sub-freezing temperatures you'll HAVE to protect any exposed water or sewer lines, holding tanks, and dump valves or suffer messy and expensive freeze damage, and for your own comfort and heating efficiency, make sure your furnace is functioning properly and seal any sources of drafts and heat loss.  Roof vents and windows can transfer a lot of your precious warmth directly to the outdoors so protect them with proper covers.  There are vinyl covers to snap over the inside of roof vents or pillows that stuff into them and exterior covers for windshields and windows. A less expensive and even more effective solution and one that can be installed easily without facing winter weather outside is to cut bubble-foam insulation panels to fit inside every window and vent. The insulation can be purchased in bulk rolls from RV stores and even hardware stores and home centers.   It is easy to cut and stiff enough to stay in place if you cut it slightly larger than the opening for a tight fit.  It is effective when used on windows, windshields, and roof vents to reduce heat loss.  Sometimes you can find windshield inserts at your local dollar store, making it really inexpensive to cover most windows.  The same covers can be used in the summer time to keep your vehicle cooler so they're a good year-round investment.  They are light weight and take up little room.  If you're tent camping, make sure you have sleeping bags that are adequate for the temperatures you'll encounter, a good tent heater, plenty of firewood, and proper clothing.   Those summer sleeping bags that were comfortable in June, July, and August are going to leave you cold in October through March.  You might want to bring along an extra tarp or two. You'll definitely want one as a ground cloth.  Putting one over your tent can help keep it warm(er) and dry(er).  The same bulk bubble insulation recommended for RV windows can be used to insulate beneath your sleeping bags or even to provide heat reflection around the inside walls of your tent if you've a mind to. Its a little bulky to carry around for tent camping but it might be well worth the effort for the extra comfort.  Another couple of options for insulating your tent floors includes rubber anti-fatigue mats and solar swimming pool bubble covers.

Water hoses need special care in the winter.  Be sure to drain them completely after use so they won't freeze in storage.   The proportionally large surface area of the hose will conduct heat out of the water inside and it will freeze more quickly than water in holding tanks or even pools of standing water outside.  Since water expands as it freezes, it will split your hose -- and  your pipes -- when it freezes. If you're using full hookups you'll want to wrap your hose and the exposed pipe with heat tape.  If you leave an unprotected hose attached to the faucet you will likely find yourself liable for the cost of repairs, and it ain't cheap.

If you want to try winter camping, spend a night or two in your RV or tent at home to get used to winter conditions and develop your skills.  That way, if you find you aren't properly prepared, you can retreat into the house and try it again after making appropriate adjustments in your outdoor accommodations.  Practice your fire making and camp cooking skills.   Far better to learn some hard lessons BEFORE you need them in a remote location.  Building a fire in or on the snow is going to be harder than on dry ground.

Still don't want to go camping in cold weather?  You still don't have to abandon your affinity for camping altogether.   In fact, winter is a good time to take inventory of your camping equipment and supplies and to clean, repair or replace, and organize it for use next season.  There are also many vicarious experiences available.   Watch re-runs of Surviorman to hone your survival skills or seek out local camping shows.  You might also invest some time in reviewing new developments in camping equipment and check out alternate locations and/or activities for next year.  Build up your store of knowledge.  Look up information about your favorite or planned destinations.  Learn about historical and geological events at or near your routes and destinations.  Expand your knowledge of things you may encounter while camping: weather, astronomy, geology, plants, animals, historical and geological events are all interesting topics for afternoon walks and campfire conversations.  The Internet is a gold mine of information. So is your local library and ranger stations near your home or your destinations.  Take time to give your OHV or other equipment some special TLC.   I sometimes spend hours in the garage going over my dirt bike, taking time to detail it more completely than I have time for after a summer ride.  When it is time to take it out again it looks like new and I'm confident every fastener is secure and everything is properly adjusted and lubricated.  Every control works smoothly and any damaged parts have been repaired or replaced.   Makes me better prepared for that first ride next summer.   I also like to go through all my riding gear and repair or replace any damaged items, make sure everything is clean and ready to use, and is properly stored in my trailer where I can find it when the time comes.  Go through your closets, cabinets, camping bins, and tool boxes.  Replace missing or damaged items. Check expiration dates of provisions and medicines and replace outdated items.  Replace any depleted supplies.  Look for things you haven't used all summer and lighten the load if you can.  Make sure all your tools and utensils are clean, in good condition, and in their proper place.   Inventory your provisions and replace and spoiled, depleted, and outdated items.  Review your camping wardrobe.  Clean and repair clothing as necessary and put away an unneeded items that may have made their way into your closet, drawers, or duffle bag over the last season.

Look for movies or TV shows about camping.  Or watch your own home movies from previous outings.  These presentations can provide nice vicarious experiences to tide you over until next summer and often will be educational as well.   Now is a good time to read up on camping skills you've been wanting to develop.   Make a list of things you want to learn and look for training and practice opportunities.  ou may want to plan some outings next season to exercise specific new talents.

Get together with your camping buddies for non-camping activities.  We've had many fun times with our Desert Rat group such as BBQs, birthday parties, and Superbowl parties.   Not only do you have a chance to rehash your shared RV and OHV activities, you get to see your friends in a different environment and get to know them better.   It can also provide a forum for planning next year's activities.  Chances are very good that you'll enjoy their company as much around the TV, BBQ, or dinner table as you do around the campfire.

Take time to look for service projects you can participate in or organize your own.   Most projects will be during the camping season so put them on your calendar now so you can plan for them.  There may be some preparatory activities that don't have to wait until the weather is good such welding up fire rings or making signs or assembling picnic tables to be distributed later in the year can be done at any time.  Placement of signs is usually a fair weather activity, but painting and assembling signs is a good winter project.  Winter is also a good time for you to organize your own service project for your family or organization.  You will need to coordinate with the appropriate land managers and arrange for required equipment, permits, facilities and publicity.  I have found that most local OHV dealers are happy to lend their support for service projects in the form of donated prizes to reward participants.  I encourage several small contributions rather than one large one.  It is usually easier for the dealers and it allows me to reward more volunteers.  It takes a lot of time to organize a good service project so start early.  You can run into an amazing and frustrating amount of red tape when dealing with government organizations.   I was really surprised (and angry) when we were once asked to pay for a permit and charge $5.00 per person to perform a volunteer cleanup project in one popular off road area.  Good grief, Charlie Brown!  We're volunteering to assist the land managers and they want us to pay for the privilege?  Yeah, right!  Like THAT'S going to happen.  Fortunately, one of the more creative rangers came up with a way for them to co-sponser the event and avoid fees.

Examine and inventory all your camping, RVing, and OHVing tools and equipment.  The so-called "off season" is a good time to check out your stuff.  Clean and organize things.  Repair or replace worn out or damaged tools and equipment.  I once brought my dirt bike into the garage and detailed it until it looked brand new.  Yeah, that's probably overkill, but it was a better way to spend my winter evenings than slouching in front of the TV watching some sitcom that insults my meager intelligence.  If you're into riding horses or OHVs, now is a good time to clean and repair your gear.  Leather goods, like boots, saddles, and bridles, can usually use a good cleaning with saddle soap and an application of a leather protector like Leather Balm.  Clean your helmets while there is plenty of time for the cushy lining to dry out before you will need them again.  They usually need it after a season of sweaty hot weather riding.

Make a list of the things you'd like to get done during the "off" season.  The list might include taking inventory of provisions and supplies, reviewing and reorganizing your on board wardrobe, checking your tools and utensils, cleaning and repairing upholstery and flooring, installing new equipment or fixtures, servicing lanterns and camp stoves, detailing your OHVs, checking your riding gear, inventory your spare parts and supplies.  Be sure to go over your regular pre-trip checklist too to be sure everything is ship shape for your first outing next season.  You'll find it rewarding to get it done now when there is less pressure to hit the road.  Now may also be a good time to review and update your checklists.  Are there items that are no longer relevant?  Are there new things that need to be checked?  Look for suggested checklists on the Internet and take advantage of other people's experience to improve  your own.

Stock up on camping and RV supplies and accessories.  Being an off-season can bring good deals on both new and used equipment and gear.  Re-read some of your RV and camping magazines to review new gadgets and see if there are any that appeal to you.  Winter is a good time to install accessories inside your RV or update some of your tent camping equipment.  Advances in technology often provide upgrades that are lighter, more durable, more convenient, more efficient, and/or have more functions than current models.  Watch the flyers from sporting goods stores and stop by and check out their clearance tables.  Review online resources like ebay, craigslist, and your local classified ads. Keep your eyes open as you drive by garage sales.  You won't see as many as during the summer, but they can still be a good source of bargains.

Day dream!   Yeah, you heard me right.  Day dream.  Create ideal camping dreams in your head.  Not only will it be fun and entertaining, it may help you design some new and exciting adventures for next season!

Don't become a winter couch potato!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Some General Repair Tips

RVs, OHVs, and various camping gear and equipment are all going to require repairs from time to time.  Whether you're facing a major project like rebuilding the engine in your RV or tow vehicle, or just replacing a worn pump gasket on a camp stove, there are some basic principles you should follow.  If you don't work on the specific equipment you're tackling quite regularly, you're going to need to keep track of parts as you go -- where they come from, and where you put them -- so you can put it all back together.  All too often, repairs to recreational equipment tend to get pushed to the bottom of our "to do" lists, making it even harder to remember where things went when we finally get do around to completing the task.  We often have to disassemble things before we can figure out what parts are needed for the repair, then it takes time to get the new parts, introducing delays before we can put them back together.  The less familiar you are with the equipment or the specific repair, the more careful and detailed you need to be as you take it apart.  Small boxes and plastic containers (like old margarine cups) are handy.  Small parts can be saved in plastic bags and labeled so you know exactly where they came from.   Diagrams or photos can also be helpful.  Be sure to take advantage of the camera in your smart phone!  It may seem like overkill when you're taking something apart, but you'll really be glad you did it when you try to put it back together a month or so later.   Sometimes it is a good idea to number parts as you take them off so you can put them back in the same order when you put it back together.   Internet access provides a wonderful source of information for many unfamiliar projects.  You can often find a Youtube video that will take you through common repairs step by step.  If  you can't find ready made help you may be able to ask for assistance in a relevant forum.

Take some pictures.  With today's digital cameras and even cameras in cell phones it is really easy to take photos of a project BEFORE you take things apart.  These BEFORE photos can be invaluable when it comes time to put it back together.   Modern vehicles, even OHVs, contain a maze of tubes, cables, wires, and connectors that can be extremely frustrating to put back together if you're not familiar with them, especially if your project extends past a day or two or you experience a "senior moment" now and then.  Photos or even hand-drawn diagrams and notes will be worth more than their weight in gold.   Or invest in some labels to attach to both sides of a connection so you KNOW easily and exactly where it goes when the time comes.  Or make your own labels from little pieces of masking tape.  I prefer to use blue painter's tape so it comes off easily when I'm ready and it doesn't leave residual adhesive on the components.  Shop manuals are available for most vehicles, some even free of charge on the Internet.  Most offer helpful tips about dis-assembly and reassembly as well as necessary technical specifications such as tightening patterns and torque specs.  Wiring diagrams and vacuum hose routing layouts can aid in diagnosis and save a lot of time putting things back together.

Organize your parts and fasteners as you remove them.   I like to clean all the nuts and bolts and small parts as I take them off and keep them in a plastic container like a margarine cup so they don't get lost.  Plastic bags are another good way to keep things straight.  You can write a description of the contents directly on the bag or on a label attached to the bag.   Cleaning them before you store them keeps dirty parts from contaminating not so dirty parts and makes putting things back together easier. It also gives you chance to examine the threads, look for wear, cracks, etc, and determine if any of the small parts need to be replaced.  Why waste time fighting a bolt with damaged threads or a stripped head.   Items like that can usually be replaced without much cost and will save a lot of assembly time and frustration and ensure proper assembly, fit,  and performance.  Rusty, damaged, or corroded bolts will prevent you from getting a proper torque measurement when tightened and attempting to reinstall them may cause early failure or further damage to the components they attach.

Keep your work are neat and clean.  There are often spilled fluids when working on RVs and OHVs and even some camping equipment.  Clean it up right away so it doesn't create a slip hazard or contaminate other components or equipment.   Some fluids present slip hazards and some may be toxic.  Some emit toxic or flammable vapors.   Use boxes or bins to organize and store related parts as you disassemble things.   It helps keep them clean, keeps all the related parts together, and avoids them getting lost.  If you mop up spilled cleaning fluids, like gasoline or solvent, be sure to dispose of the rags safely.   Left in a pile they can spontaneously ignite.   Put them in an air tight container, burn them right away, or hang them out to dry in a well-ventilated area.

Keep your tools clean and organized.   I highly recommend putting them away at the end of each work period, even if you plan to return to the project fairly soon.  It only takes a few minutes and, whether you get back to the project right away or not, your tools are properly stored for any task that may come up.  Its a lot easier to remember where things normally "live" than to remember where you left them last.   This practice also helps you avoid losing tools.  If something has been misplaced, it is usually easier to locate it right away when you remember where you were using it instead of searching for it hours, days, weeks, or months later.  I keep my tools out while I'm actively working on a project, but if I have to leave, even for an hour or so, I like to put everything away.  My kids think I'm OCD about it, but it works.

Some tasks require specialized tools.  Sometimes they are quite expensive so you probably won't be adding them to your own toolbox.  Many auto parts chain stores offer free use of specialized tools for mechanical repairs.  For other situations you may have to canvas your friends and associates to see if anyone has what you need or give in to having a professional do the job.  Having the right tools makes almost any job relatively pleasant while having the wrong tools can turn even the simplest task into a nightmare.

Inspect all parts as you disassemble something for repairs.  You may find components that are worn, damaged, bent, or out of adjustment.  You might as well replace them now since it won't take any additional labor -- and it will improve the overall results.

Use proper adhesives and lubrication when re-assembling things.  Your results will be much better.  Things will go back together easier and function better.   Simple things, like soaking the leather gasket for a lantern or camp stove pump in oil before installing it, will make a world of difference in how well it works.  Gasket adhesive will hold gaskets in place and avoid them slipping and being damaged during assembly as well as adding an extra layer of sealing.

Pay close attention to specifications.  Torque fasteners to the correct rating and in the right pattern. Using the wrong pattern or torque when tightening head bolts can result in a warped head.  Make proper adjustments to moving parts.  Adjustments may require specialized measuring tools to get them right.  Make sure all moving parts are properly lubricated.

Tent, awning, and sleeping bag repairs usually require little dis-assembly, but keep track of all components, like tent poles and stakes.  Repairing tears in fabrics may require adding a patch to reinforce the damaged area.   This is especially necessary if the edges of the tear have begun to unravel.   Some small tears can be quickly repaired with self-adhesive patches but larger ones will require sewing.  Heavy material may require the use of an awl to make holes for stitches.  On tents and awnings, apply waterproof seam sealer to any new stitching.

Seek professional advice.  These days you can get help on almost any subject via the Internet.  You may have to pay a modest fee to get a response from a qualified technician, but it is often well worth it.  Their tips can save lots of time and avoid damaging components when you don't know the proper dis-assembly procedures.

One last thing:  don't wait for catastrophic failure before making repairs.  Many times repairs will be easier and far less expensive if you catch the problem early.  A classic example is brakes. Replacing the pads on disc brakes is fairly quick, easy, and inexpensive, but if you let it go until the pads wear down to metal, they will damage the rotors which then will have to be turned or replaced. Drum brakes require a little more expertise to service, but the same principle applies: replacing the shoes BEFORE they damage the drums will be a LOT less expensive.  Letting problems go, especially on things like brakes or tires, also creates a safety hazard.  You might think metal-to-metal will still stop your vehicle, but it won't. Brakes convert the kinetic energy of the vehicle movement into heat, and metal-to-metal doesn't do that very effectively.   That is also why "riding your brakes" will reduce stopping power (sometimes to zero!).  They get so hot they can't absorb any more heat and they glaze over, making the surface of the friction material (pads or shoes) slick so they don't work at all.

Fix it right!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

RV Converters and Inverters

What's the difference between converters and inverters and why should you care?  You may hear fellow RVers using these terms and often they may be using them interchangeably and incorrectly.  Why should you care?  Most RVs are equipped with a converter and many also have an inverter.  You need to know what you have and how to use each one properly to get the most out of your equipment and avoid depleting your batteries.  Both have to do with managing the coach electrical system.  Each device provides a valuable and distinct function for your RV.  So, what is the difference and why does it matter?   Converters and inverters actually perform opposite functions.

A converter converts 120-volt AC power to 12-volt DC power.  This powers the 12-volt lights and appliances in an RV when it is connected to shore power or when the generator is running instead of running down the batteries.   The converter usually includes or is located near the fuse or breaker panel.  Converters usually include a battery-charging circuit to recharge coach batteries whenever 120-volt power is available.  However, these are usually intended only for light charging to maintain batteries when the coach is in storage and they're not very good at re-charging depleted batteries.  If your converter doesn't include a good multi-stage charger, you may want to add an automatic, automotive battery charger.  This solution is usually easier, less expensive, and more effective than upgrading the internal charger in a converter.   And I confirmed that with an engineer at one of the converter manufacturers.  I had called because the charging circuit on my converter gone bad and was putting out about 18 volts and boiling my batteries.  Rather than repair or upgrade the converter, the engineer suggested I disable the charging circuit (and instructed me how to do it) and install an automatic car battery charger.  It worked very well for a long time -- until I upgraded the whole system to an Intellipower converter with Charge Wizard from Progressive Dynamics.  Still, the fastest way to recharge your batteries will likely be running your vehicle engine.  The vehicle alternator has a higher, regulated output and will usually re-charge batteries faster and safer than any converter or plug-in charger.  Gas consumption with the engine at idle will probably be about the same as running the on board generator, so there is no obvious fuel savings to using the generator, even though it has a smaller engine.  Running the vehicle at or slightly above idle should be sufficient to charge your batteries.  Another advantage to running the vehicle engine is that it will recharge the starting battery as well as the house batteries.  Replacing an existing converter may be as simple as unplugging and disconnecting the old one and connecting and plugging in the new one.  However, if the old converter is an integral part of the power panel that includes the 120 volt breakers, the installation will be more difficult and complicated.  You will need to remove all the components of the old converter without messing up the 120 volt power panel, then connect the input to a 120 volt source and the output of new converter to the supply side of the 12-volt fuse panel.

An inverter does just the opposite from a converter: it changes 12-volt DC power from your batteries into 120-volt AC power to run AC appliances.  Inverters come in a variety of sizes and with a wide range of effectiveness.  Cheap inverters create a "modified sine wave" AC power.   These may be OK for some AC appliances, but any sensitive electronics will require a "true sine wave" output to function properly.  Inverters may be small and inexpensive and plug into a 12-volt cigarette lighter style receptacle.  These may be adequate to power small appliances, even a laptop computer, and charge cell phones (if the output is "clean" enough).  I have found my cell phones charge faster using a 120 volt charger plugged into an inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter than they do using a 12-volt car charger directly .   Larger units are hard wired into the battery bank and may power several outlets or circuits in the RV.   Anytime you're using an inverter, remember the 120-volt wattage draw will be 10 times the same wattage draw for 12-volt appliances of similar amperage.  What does that mean to you?  It means your batteries will run down at least 10 times as fast running a 120-volt 10-amp appliance as they will running a 12-volt 10-amp appliance.  Appliances are usually rated in watts.  For those of you who may not remember your high school physics, watts = amps * volts.   A 10-amp, 12-volt appliance uses 120 watts.   A 10-amp, 120-volt appliances uses 1200 watts. Batteries are often rated in amp-hours.  That determines the number of hours they can deliver 1 amp at 12-volts.  That means a 12-volt deep cycle RV battery bank with a rating of 850 amp-hours, theoretically, could run a 1-amp load for 850 hours or a 10-amp load for 85 hours or an 850 amp load for 1 hour.  That same battery powering 120-volt appliances through an inverter would run a 10-amp 120-volt load for only 8.5 hours or less.   Inverters are quiet so they can be used to power TVs and other entertainment systems past allowable generator hours -- IF you have a large enough battery bank.  Inverters are not typically used to run the electric side of a refrigerator (although some monster luxury motorhomes with really huge battery banks may have that capability).  They are best used for short periods of time for discreet functions, like running the microwave for a few minutes or making coffee. If you have sufficient battery capacity, they can be used effectively to run TVs and entertainment systems during "quiet hours".   They can be used to power electric lights but since incandescent lights are about 10% efficient as lights and 90% efficient as heaters, it is not an efficient use of battery power.   Just using the regular 12-volt lights would be more efficient since there is some loss of power in changing 12-volt DC to 120-volt AC in the inverter.  Or, better yet, use gas or battery powered portable lanterns and save your batteries altogether.  If you install an inverter be sure to use the proper gauge wiring for both connections to the battery bank.  The higher the converter output, the bigger wire you will need.  A handy trick for connecting a converter is to buy a set of heavy duty automotive battery jumper cables and cut the ends off.  Add terminals to the battery ends.  Large inverters usually have screw connectors that clamp down on the bare conductor itself.  If you connect the inverter output to outlets in your RV, be sure the wiring is of the proper size.

Some inverter units include a powerful multi-stage battery charger.  Battery charging is NOT a direct function of an inverter, but is rather an additional function that is sometimes included in a unit to be able to recharge the batteries that are needed to power the inverter whenever there is shore or generator power available.   Small, plug-in units won't have a battery charging function. Large, permanently installed units might.

Installation.   Both converters and inverters generate heat and need to be installed in an area with adequate ventilation.  They may also contain relays that can spark so make sure they aren't in the same compartment with flammable liquids or gasses.  Off-gassing from charging lead-acid batteries creates hydrogen gas,  which is highly flammable.  That is what caused the famous Hindenburg disaster.  They also draw a lot of current so make sure you connect them with adequate wiring.  My son, who is an electrician, suggested using a set of #6 gauge battery jumper cables to connect our 2500 watt inverter.  The jumper cables are the right gauge and the bonded wiring makes running the wires and identifying the proper polarity for the connections much easier.   Be aware that there are cheap jumper cables that are much smaller than #6 wires, so make sure you get the right ones.

Inverter use.  Always make sure inverter is disconnected when using your generator or shore power.  OEM installations will have a switch that only connect the inverter or the power from the 120-volt panel.  If the inverter is connected along with another power source it can burn out the inverter.

Maintenance.  Converters and inverters require little maintenance.   There are usually no user-servicable internal parts.  They both require adequate ventilation to avoid over-heating so don't use their cabinets for storage and keep all vents clear and occasionally remove any accumulated dust and lint from the cooling fins and vents.  It is a good idea to periodically check all the electrical connections.   Road vibration may cause connections to loosen.   Loose connections may cause arcing which will result in poor or intermittent performance and could cause a fire.  With proper care and usage both converters and inverters should last many years in normal service.  Output circuits from a convertor are usually distributed through a fuse panel.   If any circuit stops working, be sure to check to see that the fuse is securely in place and has not been blown.

Converter, inverter is definitely NOT like Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, or even Po-tay-to, To-may-to; the difference is more like the difference between dogs and cats.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Camping and RVing -- Keep It Interesting

Will you ever get tired of camping, RVing, or OHVing?  Probably not!   Partly just because every outing is different and it is so darn much fun but another contributing factor is the variety of activities and destinations that are available to you.  You might get tired of your outings if you always go to the same camp ground, eat the same meals, participate in the same activities, and ride or hike the same trails.  For more than 30 years we camped and rode our dirt bikes in the Mojave desert without getting bored. We chose a different base camp for each holiday weekend, which automatically varied the scenery and the trails we would be riding.  Although there were a handful of families that made up the core of our "Desert Rat" group, the rest of the group varied at each outing, further adding variety to the event.   Meals were planned uniquely for each outing so dining was never dull.   We got to know the trails around each base camp pretty well, but never tired of riding them.  Sometimes riding or  hiking a familiar trails is just what you need.  And it was always fun to share favorite trails with new comers to the group.  If nothing else it can be entertaining watching them learn to negotiate some of the trickier spots you have mastered over time.

Vary your routine.  There is no good reason to keep doing the same thing over and over until you tire of it.  There are always alternatives.  Try out a different camp ground or base camp.  Check out some new camp cuisine.  Ride or hike some different trails.  Sometimes just riding or hiking the same trails in the opposite direction you usually go makes them more interesting (of course, don't do that on trails designated as one-way trails!).   Leave time in your travels to take some side trips.  It is very likely you pass a number of interesting historical or geological sites on your way to your favorite camp ground or riding area.  The same is true for OHV rides: try out some side trails and alternate routes now and then.  Consider hiking some of the trails you normally ride on your OHV.   Albert Einstein said that insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results.  The same might be said of camping -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to be different isn't going to work.  But there are plenty of ways of modifying your routine to keep things interesting and fun -- and even educational.

Try out some new toys.   There seems to be a never-ending list of new camping and RV gadgets coming on the market.  A new camp stove can make meals an adventure.  Try your hand at Dutch oven cooking or give a shot at some pioneer meals like ash cakes.  New games are often a great hit with your fellow campers as well as your family.  Horseshoes is popular with many campers, but I suspect few have tired the "bolo" style game where you throw balls tied together at a goal made of PVC pipe.  The winner is the one who gets the most tosses to wrap around the goal.  The game is available at sporting goods stores or you can make your own using golf balls and string and building the goals from common PVC pipe and fittings.   Most any campground lends itself to learning about local flora and fauna.  Desert outings are particularly good for astronomy lessons. An unobstructed view of clear skies and few lights makes star-gazing particularly amazing, giving you a view you will never see from an urban or even suburban environment.

Vary your activities. If your main activity is riding OHVs, plan an afternoon or evening of skeet shooting now and then -- if shooting is allowed where you are camping.  Check out local ranger-led hikes and lectures.  A general store in the area where we rode dirt bikes in Sequoia would borrow classic films from the local library and show them for free in a make-shift amphitheater outside the store every Friday night.  Campers would come from miles around.  I'm sure they sold lots of popcorn, candy, and soda to reward them for their effort, but they also provided free enjoyable entertainment.  Have your own talent show around the camp fire.   An old fashioned hootenanny or singalong is campfire tradition enjoyed by almost everyone.  Organize service projects to maintain and improve the areas you frequent.  Or even try an entirely different activity, like fishing or boating or hiking.  Look for local museums or historic sites to explore.  I found a monument for an X-15 crash site within an easy ride of one of our favorite Mojave Desert OHV base camps.   Sharing it with other riders who didn't know about it was always fun.   Some of them had ridden past the marker but never knew what it was.  I also did some research on old railroad water tower that was a popular landmark in one of our riding areas and discovered it was all that was left of  small town that once supported the famous 20 Mule Team Borax wagon trains and later the railroad that took over the hauling.  Campfires are a good opportunity for singing songs and telling stories.  It is always good to know a few of the old favorites, but adding some new material on each trip helps keep things interesting.  Encourage everyone to participate.  Our Desert Rat group had a few guitarists to start with but an another enterprising member of the group learned to play the harmonica which added a lot to many folk songs.  Almost anyone can play a tambourine.

Learn more about your destinations.  You can almost always find interesting information about the ecology, geology, or history of the area around your camp ground.  What kind of trees are those? How old are those rocks?  What are they made of and how did they get here?  By the way, most rocks fall into one of three categories:  sedimentary, ignious, or metamorphic.  Sedimentary are created in the bottom of lakes as streams as sediment accumulates and becomes compacted.  Ignious are generally the result of cooled magma pushed up from inside the earth.  Metamorphic rocks are created from any of the three types of rock when they are exposed to heat and pressure which causes chemical changes in the composition.  Everyplace has geology and anyplace there has been human habitation has the potential of yielding interesting history.   Sometimes the trash previous inhabitants or users have left behind yields a bit of insight into their involvement with the area.

If you get bored camping, RVing, or OHVing, it is because you choose to let it happen or even make it happen.