Power Source Tips

Airstreamers at Alumafandango picked up some energy-saving power usage tips from seminar leaders who provided answers to a variety of power resource questions.

Solar power, shore power, generator backup…the configurations are as varied as the number of rigs on the road, and the answer to most power questions is “it depends”.

While each Airstream is uniquely outfitted, many Airstreamers have common queries. Following are answers to questions posed at the latest Aluma-event.

I’m a solar user, but what happens to my batteries when I plug in to shore power?

“Your solar panels are still active when you use shore power, and a built-in regulator prevents the batteries from overcharging,” explained the seminar leader. Put simply, solar panels always produce power when exposed to light, and that power is sent to be stored in the battery. Shore power (AC, which gets converted to DC) also goes to the battery, so both sources are working to keep the batteries charged. One source might contribute more than the other, but it’s all good power input.

How can I extend my battery life?

Baby it. Your battery will last nine years and counting, depending on how it’s maintained. “If you’re plugged in often, it’s a good practice to check the battery water every 30 days,” advised the seminar leader. “Every couple of months in the summer, put in a cup of water. In the winter, put in two cups.” (Batteries begin to die in cold weather, and require more water.) “Pop the caps off and fill them up over the lead plates; otherwise, they’ll sulfate and corrode the other batteries.” A dead cell in one battery will drag the other battery down with it, over time.

“If it freezes outside in winter it won’t last it’s full life expectancy,” continued our expert. “Don’t leave it dead; if the electrolytes aren’t excited in the battery, they’ll freeze.” Take your battery out and let it winter over in the garage.

Can my family multitask in the trailer?

Not much. “If you’re using a curling iron, the air conditioner, and a microwave all at the same time, you’ll draw too much and flip the breaker,” he said. Overloading the outlets (a.k.a. AC power system) with too many plug-in appliances will trip the circuit breaker.

DC power differs, and if your battery has drawn down too low you’ll have trouble with the vent fan, lights, or water pump—and there’s no circuit breaker on the DC power system. When lights dim and the pump and fan are sluggish (or non-working), it’s past time to recharge. Try not to draw the batteries down more than 50% between charges, because doing so will shorten its life. Consider installing an amp-hour meter to more accurately keep track of the power in your batteries.

Where is my converter? And what does it do?

Your converter changes 120 volts AC shore power to Airstream appliance-friendly 12 volt DC power, and prevents your Airstream battery from draining. You’ll have to snoop around to find it, as the location depends on your Airstream floor plan. Often the power converter (a “black box”, literally) will be installed under the refrigerator or sofa, or inside the closet. Open the door and you’ll see the 110 breakers and fuses inside.

I want to go solar. How much do I really need? How much does it cost?

These and other questions about solar conversion are like asking “how long is a rope?” Answers will vary, depending on the panel size and watt capacity. Some users claim that one hundred watts of solar provides enough power for a family; others require nearly three times that amount.

Your location and weather play an important factor as well, as “the battery charges through the day for the night, and recharges the next day,” he explained—and the more panels you have, the merrier you’ll be. The number of permanently-attached solar panels you can accommodate depends on your Airstream model and the available real estate on the roof.

What’s that rotten egg smell?

Could be the converter is overcharging the battery, but more likely you have a battery low on water (assuming it uses water). Allow the battery to cool before adding more water.

What battery is best?

Though they take longer to charge, “six volts are the way to go once the twelve volts that came with your coach die out,” advised our expert. (By the way, “Airstream is talking about increasing the size of the battery box by three inches.”) Tip: Install them close together, right underneath the tongue, as the battery cable itself uses energy.