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Thread: Travel Trailer Electrical Upgrade

  1. #1
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    Mar 2007
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    Default Travel Trailer Electrical Upgrade



    (not mine *above*, but a rough facsimile) Yes it is a bit of a fixer-upper but it was affordable and a place to start.

    Ok guys, this 1996 Fleetwood Prowler 24' travel trailer may not exactly be a "vehicle" but it definitely provides transportation for much gear and a mobile place to stay during temporary relocations - such as one I am planning for 3-week gunsmithing class later this year. That entire 21 days will be spent living off-grid, and I'm pondering my options, having made a similar trip previously and found myself wishing for improvement. Not sure if this is the best sub-forum for the topic but it has wheels and plates so here it goes for now.

    This trailer was constructed back during the mid-90's when solar wasn't really a viable option for RV's, and most of the camping folks planned on doing was in RV parks with full hook-ups. The electrical systems were designed (when plugged in) to provide direct 110v AC to a few wall outlets, and to also power a 12v DC system for things such as lights. They were equipped to have a battery to provide "temporary" juice for occasions when the trailer was in transport and for quick over-nighters - the fridge, for instance, even though it is propane powered, requires 12v to power the control board. This battery was intended to charge at a leisurely 12v current... meaning that in actual practice, it would take about 3 days to reach a full charge when plugged into a hook-up.

    Well, it's now nearly 20 years later and a lot has changed.

    Many of the RV parks with hook-ups have gotten over-commercialized and the prices are through the roof. One near me is charging between $60-$70 per night... to park a trailer and plug it in. Ah, but you see! they have a club house... and a swimming pool... and a mini-golf course... etc. So with the price of RV parks skyrocketing, dry-camping ("boondocking") for free seems a lot more attractive.

    And the price and viability of solar energy has come down... A LOT. I have four 140w 12v panels on the roof of my house right now charging a small alternative energy system. I could easily disconnect 3 of them and put them on the roof of the trailer.

    Also, I have a 55 amp IOTA battery charger designed for charging deep cycle batteries. It will charge a bank of batteries in a few hours, as opposed to a few days. I have a generator, and running the generator for a few hours sounds a LOT better (and more fuel conscious, let alone considerate of anyone within earshot) than letting it putt-putt for three days.

    And last but not least, I have a 600w pure sine wave inverter for any electronics that require AC for operation. This will allow me to run appliances off AC power when dry-camping, even with the generator off.

    The one thing I am missing would be a solar charge regulator, but I have my eye on one. If that's my only major expense, I think I can piece the rest of it together with just what I've got now.

    So here's my situation - I want to retrofit this trailer to -
    1. Be able to charge batteries via solar panels and
    2. Be able to charge batteries in a few hours (a respectable rate) rather than slow-poke charging by using the 55 amp charger with my generator.

    Here are my three power-usage scenarios:

    On-Grid Shore Power
    * Solar panels disconnected (spst relay triggered by presence of 110v incoming)
    * Batteries charged through IOTA 55 amp charger
    * 12v system powered through on-board converter
    * 110v system powered through on-board converter
    * Batteries isolated from 12v system?

    Off-Grid Generator
    * Solar panels disconnected (spst relay triggered by presence of 110v incoming)
    * Batteries charge through IOTA 55amp charger
    * 12v system powered through on-board converter
    * 110v system powered through on-board converter
    * Batteries isolated from 12v system? (spst relay triggered by presence of 110v incoming)

    Off-Grid Solar
    * Battery charger disconnected (spst relay triggered by ABSENCE of 110v incoming)
    * Batteries charged through solar panels
    * 12v system powered through batteries
    * 110v system powered through inverter

    I have a general idea of how to go about this but I'm wondering if anyone with more expertise can advise me: Is there any issue with having the current converter (the trailer power distribution system) connected to the battery bank and the solar charger at the same time? My initial thought is, they should be disconnected from each other... as in, not good to have the converter sending 12v at the battery bank, while the solar panel is cranking out juice, or conversely, the 55 amp charger. I really can't afford to fry anything and I'd prefer not to stress any of the components unnecessarily.

    So, solar/RV experts... how would you connect this all up and make it work? Just wire everything into the battery and have it "just work" or is there more to it than that? I thought it might be necessary to wire in some relay switches to the circuit to disconnect parts as the AC power comes on or goes off. But if that's a needless complication, then let me know. The part that stymies me the most is that I don't know a heck of a lot about the converter that's in the trailer now. It's an expensive part, and I'd rather not upgrade it if not needed, nor would I want to risk damaging it through error. Doing the wiring, I can manage, not a problem... it's the "don't know what you don't know" factor regarding the RV converter that is holding me up.
    Last edited by bruss01; 02-27-2015 at 07:17 PM.
    In a crazy world, it's the crazy man who can get by - and it's about to get cray-cray up in here.

  2. #2
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    instead of polishing a turd - into a polished turd that isn't worth anymore than when you started .... just find some decent parking for that RV .... there's camps around now that are down & dirty for people living in the area for temp work - people down on their luck .... the mobile home parks all have open pads that are sitting empty - some have bank seized homes sitting empty .... save your $$$ and think a little more conventional

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by Illini Warrior View Post
    instead of polishing a turd - into a polished turd that isn't worth anymore than when you started ....
    Well, Illini, if my worn & weathered trailer seems like a turd to you, I hesitate to think what your opinion might be of my '78 IH Scout.

    A little back-story...

    About a year ago I found out I had an opportunity to attend the best gunsmithing school west of the Mississippi, in short bursts for summer classes while on my annual vacation. It's about 4 hours from home, too far to be a practical commute in terms of time, gas and wear/tear on the vehicle. I checked into hotels, motels and rooms for rent. All would have cost me north of a grand when you figure in meals. Then there's the quandary of leaving a lot of guns and other expensive gear in a motel room that plenty of other people have keys to. That just seemed like a bad idea. I checked into rental trailers and surprisingly found them more expensive than a hotel! Finally, I ended up on Craigslist cruising the RV/Trailer section. I found a few that were borderline affordable but all needed some TLC. Keep in mind, the wife has not worked these past 5 years and I can't afford to take on a payment on a new or even slightly used trailer. I saw this one for a little over $2k, loved the basic layout, and rationalized it on the following terms:

    It needs some fixing up... great opportunity to learn. And if I screw something up, I screw up a cheap 20 year old trailer and not a new one I'm still paying on.
    It's not fancy... but I don't need "fancy" just a roof over my head and a private area to secure my gear.
    It would pay for itself in a couple of years of making these trips.
    We can also use it for recreation - camping & fishing trips - We are in our 50's now and sleeping on the ground just ain't what it used to be.
    Finally, it would be a great portable Bug Out Location on wheels. And some great experience with off-grid living in case we get an actual remote BOL property someday.

    So - yeah, it may be a bit of a "turd" in some people's eyes... to me it's more of a Sow's Ear that I can fashion into a leather wallet - I think "silk purse" is out of my league this time around.

    With a bit of tweaking and sprucing up this can be a fun project and a learning opportunity, and make it possible for me to go up on my summer vacations to attend some schooling and get in some fishing on the side.

    I already have the solar panels, the charger, batteries, etc... so it's a small investment of time and effort (maybe just a little money for a charge controller and connectors) so why not make the rig a little better for boondocking? If nothing else, it's another learning experience. Believe me, I'm not kidding myself that this trailer is an "investment" or a show-off piece. By the time I'm ready to sell it or scrap it, there will be much better tools available... if I get a good 5-6 more years out of it, I'll be happy. And by then, we'll probably be ready to put down the coin to get a "nice" and more modern rig for our travels.

    And although it's all a "work in progress" it's a little bit fun being the "retro" couple and the ones who "know things" by virtue of being a little older and having had some experiences that those who buy everything new and have serviced at the dealer, never get to have.

    Last edited by bruss01; 02-28-2015 at 12:35 PM.
    In a crazy world, it's the crazy man who can get by - and it's about to get cray-cray up in here.

  4. #4
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    you really need to get together with LeechHax and strategize over it .... fantasy prepping is an acquired taste .... I tell it like it is - there's the practical and the impractical .... every component you are talking about is worth more than the entire RV .... unlike vehicles - RVs don't go into the classic category at 20 years old ....

  5. #5
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    kids...

    Think I understand your dilemma Bruss, and your trailer power distribution system (PDS) is something I have no knowledge of. Sure it's different for different makes/models of campers too, so kind of the wildcard in the system.

    You probably already tried tackling the problem from this route, but is there anything in the Fleetwood owners manual that states to NOT charge the batteries from an external source while the batteries are still connected to the PDS? There would be a warning/safety note if it wasn't safe to charge the batts while it was still connected to the rest of the system. If there's no specific warning against it I'd say it's safe, since even a smallish 12v battery can put out a couple hundred (cold cranking) amps, and the PDS is obviously designed to handle that safely.

    For the solar charge controller and the 55A battery charger both connected to the batts, and one or both charging the batts at the same time, no problem at all there. Alternative power systems are designed for that, the solar charge controller and the attached panels won't be affected by the 55A charger running. I have a wind generator, solar charge controller, and 35A battery charger all connected continuously to my batts (through circuit breakers), and usually at least one of them is charging the batts at any given time - and in rare occasions all 3 at the same time.
    Everything marked, everything 'membered. You wait, you'll see.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Illini Warrior View Post
    fantasy prepping
    To me, "fantasy prepping" is these guys who dream about buying an old missile silo and turning it into an impregnable underground fortress... or these guys who dream about taking on the invading North Korean & Cuban armies and winning with their suped-up M1A driving their restored Deuce and a half. Stuff that it's fun to daydream about, but they will never actually DO any of it, due to practical limitations of the reality of daily life.

    Having a rig that saves me x-hundred dollars per year while making it possible for me to pursue education for my retirement career in gunsmithing, while offering me the chance to get away from town for some quick yet comfortable weekend fishing/camping trips... well, if that's "fantasy" then it's one that is achievable enough for me to actually get out, do it, and make it a reality. And something that makes you smile... can you really put a price on that? Hey, if the guy with the M1A and the army truck has a good time out in the dessert just goofing off, heck who am I to argue with him. We all die someday, and if you don't have a few bright days and smiles between the cradle and the grave then what's it all worth, anyhoo? Is it a bullet-proof bunker? Most assuredly not. Is it a somewhat comfy place to avoid hypothermia and enjoy time spent away from home? To me, yes, it is. I don't need it to be pretty, stylish, or be a store of re-sale value. Although those things, to whatever degree possible, are nice to the extent possible. My wife's parents had an old Dodge motor home, which they ran into the ground until it was a dodgy eyesore... they turned around and sold it to a couple of migrant workers who were tired of sleeping in barracks with no privacy and no way to secure their belongings. To them, ugly as it was, it was a big upgrade from their previous conditions. So never think there isn't a market, if you're willing to wait for the right buyer.

    So, if I get a thrill out of dry-camping on the school grounds for free for two-three weeks a year, having the sun charge up batteries for me while I tinker on guns all day, so I can do my thing and enjoy my time away from the daily grind... that's not "worth nothing" in my book, even if the trailer itself isn't what you'd think of as an investment. To me, it's an investment in some enjoyment out of life that might actually come in useful if we have unexpected guests (it can serve as a guest-room parked next to the house) or as a temporary home if for some reason we have to be out of our house for a while (let's say extended local power outage or even just a fumigation tent). It's worth it as an educational investment in getting to know the ropes about trailering, RV'ing, and off-grid living that I just wouldn't get from tent camping... and it's something that is a little easier to persuade the wife to come along on trips with me, so she can get out and enjoy the outdoors more with less inconvenience and less effort. That certainly isn't worth nothing to me.

    Thanks, Marked, for your input. I have run all three connected before, but it's since occurred to me to wonder if that was kosher or not. Some additional research has led me to the fact that the converter is not designed to run disconnected from a battery... there should always be one in the circuit. So it looks like I'll be hooking everything directly to the battery bank. I'm thinking of relocating the battery bank from the trailer tongue to under one of the bunks, currently "dead space"/storage. I just need to provide some ventilation to account for potential out-gassing from the batteries. What I'll likely do is swap the two on the tongue right now for the four at home, and bring those two home. Wire in the charger to the incoming AC so it's "always on" when the rig is plugged in. Then route the incoming 12+v from the solar charge controller directly to the battery bank. That simplifies things a lot. Now all I need to do is select a place not too far from the bunk for the charge controller readout - it's designed to be a flat-panel mount. If I move forward on this as planned, I will take pics of the installation. Among the many up-sides to this arrangement is that it will take a little tongue weight off the front. Among the down-sides, the trailer will be a bit heavy on one side... but near the axle so at least fore-aft balance should be good. So I'll have to try to balance this with some prep/gear storage under the opposing bunk on the other side.
    Last edited by bruss01; 03-01-2015 at 01:01 PM.
    In a crazy world, it's the crazy man who can get by - and it's about to get cray-cray up in here.

  7. #7
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    There are those who judge others by their own materialistic comforts and then there are those who are happy.

  8. #8
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    Phase one of the project - The four T-105 Trojan (6v) batteries from my home Micro-Solar setup have been moved to the trailer and ganged into two banks to create 12v power. I installed a new 12v outlet for use with my CPAP machine (I have significant sleep apnea). The new location is under the bunk. Yes, the batteries will have to be inspected periodically which means moving the mattress and unfastening the 4 screws that mount the sleeping platform. Can't really be helped since any alternative would be more work than it is worth for the benefit. There's nowhere else to put 4 deep cycle golf cart batteries.

    Here is the link to the original Micro-Solar project:
    http://www.whenshtf.com/threads/4691...id-Electricity

    The next step is to wire them into the trailer's electrical system, which I will be working on this week. Photos to come tonight or tomorrow. I am in GOOD FORTUNE because there was a diagram on the inside cover that clearly identified the terminals for connection to the battery bank, and there is an additional knockout hole in the rear of the panel through which to feed the new wires.

    I did not hook up the IOTA battery charger. When I attempted to do so there was a spark - it wasn't a very strong spark though. I wondered If some kind of leakage may have developed in the device over the past few times of using it. So I left it out because I don't want it running down my batteries if there is a leak, regardless of how small. After thinking about it overnight, it's possible there are some high-capacity capacitors in that circuit that could be taking on initial charge. If that's true, then there's no "leak" in the true sense and it should be fine to connect the device. I'll experiment with it a bit more.

    The third step will be connecting the solar panels on the roof via a charge controller. For this I have selected a Morningstar 30 amp charger which should be here on Tuesday but will probably not be installed until I have a helper on this weekend.

    Fourth step will be connecting the pure sine wave inverter for the sensitive electronics.

    Need to kick this into high-gear because the departure is only 5 weeks away and I want to give everything enough use between now and then to have confidence in it for an extended trip.
    Last edited by bruss01; 04-27-2015 at 01:58 PM.
    In a crazy world, it's the crazy man who can get by - and it's about to get cray-cray up in here.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by bruss01 View Post
    I did not hook up the IOTA battery charger. When I attempted to do so there was a spark - it wasn't a very strong spark though. I wondered If some kind of leakage may have developed in the device over the past few times of using it. So I left it out because I don't want it running down my batteries if there is a leak, regardless of how small. After thinking about it overnight, it's possible there are some high-capacity capacitors in that circuit that could be taking on initial charge. If that's true, then there's no "leak" in the true sense and it should be fine to connect the device. I'll experiment with it a bit more.
    Just got off the phone with IOTA tech support and they confirm that if the unit has not been used for a prolonged period that there are buffer capacitors that will take an initial charge, but once full, no further drain will occur. He also confirmed that it is suitable to leave the unit attached to the battery bank permanently in an RV. Excellent!

    ETA: Just discovered that the charge controller will not arrive until Tuesday of next week. So it looks like my helper can assist me with getting the panels mounted on the roof this weekend as planned, but actually hooking them into the system will have to wait until the controller arrives. Apologies for no pics yet, but they will be coming soon.
    Last edited by bruss01; 04-29-2015 at 03:21 PM.
    In a crazy world, it's the crazy man who can get by - and it's about to get cray-cray up in here.

  10. #10
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    I'm enjoying your project and hope to see more updates
    Last edited by Tdale; 04-30-2015 at 01:21 PM.
    Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

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