Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Changing to daylight

This week I started working daylight, 4x10 hour days. This is a big change after nearly 5 years of night shift. Instead of getting off work and going directly to bed, I'm getting off work and having hours to kill before sleep. Then I get up shortly before going into work.

How does this affect a van dweller like me? First off, I'm getting off work as the sun is preparing to set. I still have the heat  from the day in the van, but hopefully on the downward slope. I might have to run the generator and air conditioner a bit in the beginning to get things cooled down. Then it should continue to cool during the night. I won't have to sleep through the daylight seeping into the van. Ultimately, it will definitely help during spring and summer. During the winter.. hopefully it won't get too cold at night. I guess we'll see how that plays out.

My first night, Monday, I went to flip on a light and it didn't work. I have two lights in the van. One is mounted "permanently" over the desk. The other is a fluorescent drop light plugged into a cigarette lighter. The power for both of these is provided from my solar/battery system. That system is 24V and I have a 24V to 12V converter. I tried both lights and neither worked. I also tried my exhaust fan that is connected to the same system. No dice. At this point, it was already getting dark in the van and I have hours till bed - no lights. 

I use my cell phone to dig out a multimeter and connect it. I get a nice 12V. I test my appliances again, still no luck. I disconnect all of them, then try each one at a time with still no luck. Finally, I give up and watch some shows on Hulu until it's time for bed. 

Today I did some more troubleshooting. Even with a load attached, I was still getting 12V. Eventually I discovered a loose ground. I have two grounding bars - one stand alone that the batteries and 12V downverter connect to, and another that sits on top of my fuse block.  The two are tied together with a wire. My devices use the grounding bock on the fuse block. Measuring the voltage between positive and that ground only gave me +5V. Tightening the ground returned me to 12V and allowed me to power all my devices at once. 

This means that tomorrow, I will be able to do something I didn't do Monday or Tuesday - run the exhaust fan all day. There should be plenty of sunlight to power the fan without touching the batteries. That will help keep the van from cooking up into the 90s like it did today. I  may still need to run the air conditioner off of the generator for a while, but hopefully not for long.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Charger Replaced

I gave Xantrex a call and they walked me through some troubleshooting steps. One interesting thing was to unplug it for 10 minutes and then connect the batter first. "Sometimes if you connect the PV first, the micro-controller locks up." was an interesting factoid. However, they eventually concurred with my theory, which is that the controller is no longer working.

Today, I received the replacement controller and put it in place. Right away, it started charging the batteries back up. With the old controller -or- no load on the PV connections, I get around 40V.  However, once I connect those wires to the charge controller and it starts charging, that voltage drops to 24.2V, which is a good sign. Now, I just need to send the old controller back.

I also brought the generator down and hooked that back up. So I will be able to run the generator and air conditioner over the summer. I still plan on further insulating the van, covering the windows and separating the cab from the the living area. But I'm not going to try to get the A/C working off of batteries and solar.

A major change for me this summer will be me moving to a daylight position. So I will not really be in the van much during daylight hours, just for sleeping at night. This should be an advantage to me during the summer months as I will not have to contend with direct sunlight. Obviously, there will be some disadvantage during the winter, but I think I can deal with that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Back into Spring

March 2012 makes 31 months of camping at work. Over the winter, I haven't had to run electricity, and my only purchase was $7 (actually $5.98 + tax, but I round up) for two propane bottles. For most of the winter, I used one left over from last year, and I'm currently on the first one of my purchase. Since we're getting back into 60F+ weather, I suspect I won't need the second bottle.

Here is a quick snapshot of my savings, and as always, the spreadsheet is available.

31 Months Van
Equipment: $5500
Operating: $1380
Total: $6,879
Equipment Average: $178
Operating Average: $45
E+O Average: $222
31 Months Apartment
Rent + Utils: $600/month
Total: $18,600

Savings: $11,720

Over the winter, I haven't needed any electricity, but I've been observing that my batteries haven't been charging properly. I assumed that this was a problem with the batteries themselves. However, today I went ahead and disconnected all the wires and measured the voltage of each battery. They are all reading 12.5 and when combined, 24.8, so they seem fine. After disconnectng and reconnecting the inverter, I was able to power it on, and I can power the light and fan from the batteries. I then measured voltage from the solar panels. The PV array is putting out around 40V, which is pretty good. My Xantrex C35 can handle up to 55V, so we are well within limits. The problem is when I measure the voltage on the Load/Battery terminal from the C35. The C35 is putting out only 0.1V, which is bad.

I checked my history, the the C35 arrived at my house on 3/12/2010 with a 2-year warranty. I am very glad I decided to fully troubleshoot the system today, as it allowed me to put in a warranty request and get an RMA number before the 12th. I will find out this week if it will still fall under warranty (the warranty language only requires notification within the warranty period). Hopefully they don't attempt to finagle their way out. The device hasn't been working for at least a month, if not more.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not at all awkward

Here we are in the middle of November. I haven't been posting as much, so I figured it was time for an update.

The summer months of July and August were unreasonably warm and I was running the generator a lot more than I remember in previous years. The big difference to me was that things warmed up MUCH sooner than before. It got to the point where I would start the generator at 6 in the morning so I wouldn't have to get up at 9 to turn it on. However, as we went into October, I was able to get by with just running the fan off of the batteries.

In September, I had to take the van in for some shock and strut work, as well as new tires on the front. I also got the van's air conditioner fixed for the first time since I purchased the van. I paid over $500 for the repair work and over $200 for the tires, so my expenses did jump up a bit.

Now that we are firmly into Fall, there are some days I don't even have to turn on the fan. The only power I use is to charge any portable devices and run my drop light. It's rather pleasant this time of year.

Either this week or next, I need to take my van up for inspection, but since I did those repairs in September, I shouldn't have much issue. I also plan to drop off the generator at home so we have it available during the winter months.

I have updated my spreadsheet, and posted my current summary below. I am rather pleased to report that my "savings" is well over what I have spent on the van including investment and operating costs. Over the course of two years, I saved over $9k in post-tax dollars! Or for those of you familiar with living costs around DC and NOVA, I have maintained an "apartment" for 2 years for just under $7000.

Totals as of November 15th, 2011:
Equipment: $5,500
Operating: $1,380
Total: $6,879

My comparison is a $500/mo apartment + $100 utilities.
From 8/1/2009 to 11/1/2011, the cost would be $16,000.
Which means I have currently saved $9,120 or 43%.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When you can't wait 2 years

This would probably be better as a 2/year 24-month post, but I just updated my expense spreadsheet and wanted to share my findings.

Here we are at the "22-month" status. My operating expenses come to $50month and if you factor in the original equipment costs ($4,750) divided over 22 months ($215), it comes to $265/month expenses. In other words, I spent $5,860 over the last 22 months vs $13,200 on an apartment ($500/month rent + $100/month utilities) for 44% savings!

Another fact I like to keep in mind is that all this equipment I've purchased (the van, the solar panels, the generator, etc) is all still in working order and should continue to remain so. So if my situation changed tomorrow (say I got to work from home)I would still have a working camper van and equipment to either use or sell.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Today I did some spring cleaning in the van.  I also re-arranged the furniture somewhat, placing the bed at the back of the van.   This works for me, but for taller people, it would be rather cramped.  It's almost too small for me at 5'7.  The width is 66", so I sleep at an angle or with my knees slightly bent.  The one window does give a few more inches for my feet to hang out.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Winter wrap up, oncoming Spring

Since I replaced the battery, my power situation seems to be stable.  However, with some of the warm days, I tried running the air conditioner off of batteries (this is the 9500 BTU air conditioner) and it only runs a few hours.  My watt meter's screen doesn't appear to be turning on, so I'm not sure how much it is drawing.  I also tried running it on "fan only", and that seems to draw the batteries down just as well.    More on this further down.

Some tidbits from Winter:  I bought a heated blanket from Target.  It worked wonderful... for about 3 hours.  I woke up freezing.   Now, these blankets have an auto-shut off for 8 hours that can be reset by turning it off and on again.  That was not the issue.  So I exchanged it for another blanket and that one never turned on in the first place.  This was very frustrating.   I returned that one for cash.

I ordered a Sunbeam heated blanket from Amazon.  This works "ok".  It takes about 20 minutes to heat up, but does remain heated.  However, the blanket seems to only be useful if I foldit up around me (which the instructions warn me against doing).  Otherwise, you don't really feel any warmth from it.  I would say my sleeping bag remains more useful.

What would probably work better would be a mattress pad.  These are designed to be placed under blankets and radiate warmth.  I would love to have one of these setup with a remote control/timer.  Say at 5:50am it turns on and starts heating up.  I would get out there by 6:20 and just climb right in to heated goodness.

Finally, today marked a grand entrance into Spring for me with temperatures outside bordering around 90F.  I had brought the generator back down yesterday, topped it off, and had it ready for today.  It got to 84F by 11am, so I went out, started up the generator, and fired up the air conditioner.  The temperature started dropping nicely and I actually got cold enough to put a blanket on.  Sweet, sweet, air conditioned bliss.