Tag Archives: solar power

In Praise of LED Lights

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As a van dweller, I used my Luci lights and loved them. The sun recharged them, so as long as I kept them in the sunshine for several hours during the day, I had light at night. I liked that I could inflate the Luci lights and hang them like lanterns or collapse them flat and prop them somewhere close for reading after dark. Each one cost under $20 and served me for a long time.

One of the perks of giving up van life to live in a travel trailer is having built-in overhead lights that come on at the flip of a switch.When we first moved into the trailer, before we hauled it out to our land, we plugged into shore power or used our generator for electricity to run our lights. Once we moved onto our land, The Man installed our solar power system, and the sun provided our light, even at night.

When we moved into the travel trailer, all of the light fixtures were outfitted with small incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are the kind that most of us of middle age and older grew up with. In the article “5 Different Types of Light Bulbs” written for the Omega Pacific Electrical Supply website, Eileen Garcia explains how these bulbs work.

In an incandescent bulb, a tungsten filament glows when the current passes through it, illuminating the bulb. The tungsten filament is surrounded by a vacuum or nitrogen gas… the sudden flow of current causes the filament to heat and burn out. Incandescent bulbs only work for 700–1000 hours and…cause energy waste.

If you’ve ever put your hand next to an burning incandescent bulb (or tried to take one that’s been turned on for a while out of its socket before it’s had a chance to cool down), you know that these things can be HOT! Even the very small incandescent bulbs in our travel trailer light fixtures became very hot when turned on. When I put my hand near one of our burning incandescent bulbs, I could feel the heat even through the light fixture’s plastic cover. It was obvious that it took a lot of energy to produce so much heat.

The Man mentioned getting LED bulbs to replace all of our incandescent bulbs, but I didn’t prioritize this improvement. I thought LED light were outrageously expensive. I thought LED lights for RVs had to come from RV suppliers or at shows aimed at RVers like the Big Tent in Quartzsite, AZ. Guess what? I was wrong!

As we lived through autumn and winter drew near, we found that the sun was no longer charging our three batteries to the level we had enjoyed in the summer. Some nights we had to turn off our lights before we were ready in order to prevent our batteries from discharging to a damagingly low level. The Man thought seriously about how to solve this problem.

The first thing he did was adjust the angle at which the solar panels were placed. According to the article “Optimum Tilt of Solar Panels” by Charles R. Landau,

It is simplest to mount your solar panels at a fixed tilt and just leave them there. But because the sun is higher in the summer and lower in the winter, you can capture more energy during the whole year by adjusting the tilt of the panels according to the season.

The Man did a heck of a lot of work to calculate the optimum tilt of our panels to maximize the amount of energy they could captured during the winter. The optimum angle for our panels was based on our location. Once The Man decided on the correct angle, we moved and tilted the wooden frame our panels are mounted to. (As of now, we have not mounted our solar panels on the roof of our travel trailer. I think that will be a project for the upcoming summer.) When we positioned the frame where he wanted it, The Man fastened supports to the frame to hold it in place. It is certainly nice to have a builder for a partner. An added bonus is his ability to calculate angles.

The second thing The Man did to increase our energy capacity was to move our solar batteries to a warmer spot. According to the Solar Power World article “How to Prepare Your Solar Battery Bank for Winter” by John Connell, vice president of Crown Battery Manufacturing’s SLI Products Group,

Most batteries are rated at 77°F, and their ideal operating temperature is between 50°F and 85°F. Batteries lose about 10% of their capacity for every 15°F to 20°F below 80°F. Their internal chemistries slow down, resistance increases and capacity and charge acceptance drop. This reduced capacity is temporary. However, it can present a problem because most renewable energy systems have the shortest days (i.e. lowest solar production) and highest loads during the winter, when capacity is lower.

When The Man set up our solar power system in the summer, he put the batteries in the storage compartment at the front of the trailer and ran the necessary wires into bedroom where he located the inverter and charge controller. With temperatures dropping and winter on its way, he realized the placement of the batteries was not so good because the storage compartment did not provide much insulation for the batteries. Our batteries were getting too cold (and would get colder as winter progressed); we were suffering the effects of reduced capacity. He moved the batteries to the enclosed storage area under our bed. He built a box for the batteries, sealed it, and vented the battery box into the adjacent storage compartment. When he set up that storage compartment to house the solar batteries, he had vented it to the outside so any dangerous gases that made their way from the battery box to the compartment would escape.

Once The Man adjusted the angle of our solar panels and moved the batteries into a warmer environment, our batteries began holding their charge longer. Success! However, The Man wasn’t finished with his solar power system home improvements just yet. He had one more trick up his sleeve.

The Man started talking about LED lights again. They would really help conserve our energy, he said. I asked him to figure out what lights we needed, where to buy them, and how much they would cost. I figured once we had that information, we could make an informed decision about whether any savings would be worth the cost.

He got on eBay first. He found a listing for 20 “cool white” 12 volt LED light bulbs. The price? $10.50, including shipping. Even a tightwad like me couldn’t argue with that price. We ordered the LED bulbs.

We were excited the day we picked up the bulbs at our mailbox. When we got home, The Man installed them in the two fixtures above our sofa. The lights weren’t very bright, but we decided they would do. They would help us save energy, so we were on board. However, when The Man tried to install the lights in the rest of the fixtures in the house, he ran into a big problem. Our new bulbs did not fit in the other fixtures. Yep, our one travel trailer had two different types of fixtures that took bulbs with two different types of connectors. Frustration! It was back to the drawing board for The Man.

(We discovered later that the first LED bulbs we bought also fit in the reading lights installed above our bed. We were very glad to exchange the very bright lights we had dubbed “interrogation lights” for the more subdued lights from eBay. In other good news, we were able to use a local Facebook group to sell the remaining 16 bulbs we couldn’t use for $8.)

The Man’s next stop was Amazon.com. There he found the appropriate LED bulbs for the rest of our light fixtures. This time we bought ten “super bright” 12 volt “soft white” LED bulbs for $15.49. (I’m not sure if that price includes shipping, if we paid a shipping fee, or if we were using a free trial of Amazon Prime when we placed that order.)

Again, we waited for our bulbs to arrive in our mailbox. Again, we were excited to install the bulbs in our light fixtures. This time: Success! The bulbs not only fit in the fixtures, but they were in fact, “super bright.” They were so bright that in fixtures where we before had two incandescent bulbs, we now only needed one of our new LED bulbs. (I can’t find any information on how many lumens the first bulbs were, but the bulbs in the second batch are 600 lumens each. If you need help calculating how many lumens you need to light up your life, check out the Language of Light article “How to Determine How Many LED Lumens You’ll Need to Properly Light Your Space” by David P Hakimi. Of course, this article is about lighting a conventional home, not a travel trailer since I couldn’t find any articles about how many lumens one might need in an RV.)

The rooms in our travel trailer are so much brighter at night since we put in the new bulbs. The Man can do his detailed artwork now even after the sun goes down. I like having the place well lit too. The quality of the light is better as well. I can best describe the new light as “crisp.” Only in retrospect did I realize that the incandescent lights in the travel trailer when we bought it were yellow and dull, even somewhat hazy. The new lighting seems to be better for my mental health.

The new LED lights also solved our original problem: they don’t use as much energy. I can tell this is true because when I put my hand next to them, I feel no heat. The Trailer Life article “Making the LED Swap” by Kristopher Bunker explains why this is the case.

“Typical halogen lights that are used in the RV industry are either 10 or 20 watts,” said Mike Camarota, president of ITC RV, a company that offers interior lighting products for the RV industry. “In contrast, the LED equivalent lights are 4 or 6 watts. This reduction on energy consumption of 70 percent means less draw on the power circuit of the RV…In dry-camping situations the battery will last longer.”

But the benefits of LED technology go beyond power consumption. Ever notice how hot the interior of your trailer gets when all the lights are on? “Lights produce heat,” said Camarota. “The process of converting energy into light involves two byproducts, heat and light. The difference between LED lights and non-LED lights is not that LED lights produce no heat but instead that they use less energy to produce light. In that conversion process, a greater percentage of energy goes into light emission than heat emission.”

Do I recommend you replace the incandescent lights in your RV with LED lights? Absolutely! If you have $10 to $15 to spare (or even $30, if your RV is larger than ours and you need double the number of bulbs), get yourself some LED bulbs. They will make your solar power last longer, keep your rig cooler during hot times of the year, and require replacement less frequently. Just be sure you check all of your fixtures so you will know if you need bulbs with different types of connectors and determine if you are getting the number of lumens you need to keep your living space as bright (or dim) as you desire. I think you’ll thank me for this advice once your new LED bulbs are in place.

Update: Late Spring 2019

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Grey clouds are lit from behind over a vast expanse of New Mexico sage
Clouds to the west of our land on a Saturday afternoon in May of 2019.

It’s been a while since I shared an update on what’s happening in my life. It feels like a lot has happened, but not much has changed. Perhaps the problem is that all the things that have happened don’t seem exciting enough for a blog post.

We’ve been living on our land for nearly two months now. We look at mountains and sky every day. The view is amazing. I particularly like to watch the clouds.

Blue sky and puffy white clouds above a camper surrounded by New Mexico sage
This is not our land, but this is what our land looked like before The Man cleared it.

When The Man cleared our property, he removed all the sage plants so rattlesnakes would have fewer places to hide. We were mostly worried for Jerico the dog. A snake bite would be a big ordeal for someone weighing only 35 pounds. Now we wish we had left some vegetation on our property. The Man is trying to grow some grass. We bought a drought-resistant blend from the local hardware store, but so far we’re not having much luck with it. The Man is experimenting with different planting and watering techniques. I recently noticed little green plants volunteering all over our property, so maybe with the sage gone, native plants will make a comeback.

After weeks of struggle, The Man got our solar power system up and running. After watching numerous YouTube videos, he ended up consulting with a representative of a local company that sells and installs solar power setups. He finally got it all figured out, and from the moment everything was connected, it’s all be running fine. The sun rises before 6am these days, and our batteries begin charging immediately. We have enough energy to ignite the refrigerator pilot light (the fridge runs primarily on propane but has an electric starter—ditto the heater), run lights and television (!) at night, charge our electronics, and power The Man’s electric guitar and amplifier. All our needs are met, and I’m proud to get our power from the sun.

We joined the local water association, so we can haul our water from a location closer to our place and pay less for it than we’d been paying in town. We got a 55 gallon, BPA free barrel for hauling the water as well as a 195 gallon reservoir in which to store the water. I’ll be glad to have to haul water less frequently. Going to town every four or five days to buy water was getting to be a real drag.

We put up a prefab metal shed. We completed the project in about four days. First The Man (with a bit of help from me) built the floor from tongue and groove plywood and 4x4s. By the time the floor was complete, the wind had picked up, and we didn’t want to deal with sharp-edged metal panels. We called it a day.

The next day we (mostly he) got the side, back, and front walls built before the wind started. Our first step in wall building was sorting the components. There were probably 100 parts to the shed (mostly sheets of thin metal), and they were boxed together in no particular order. As we sorted according to five-digit numbers stamped on the components, we found many of the pieces had been bent during shipping and had to be finessed back into shape. Once we started the actual building of the walls, we discovered the instructions (mostly drawings with few words) were difficult to decipher. We were pretty sure the person who’d written (drawn) the directions had never actually constructed the shed in question.

Two small green plants growing in the dirt
Some of the plants volunteering on our land.,

On the third day, we put the walls up and attached them to each other and the floor. The process was not nearly as simple as the preceding sentence makes it sound. When The Man started putting up the second side wall, he realized the directions had told him to put a corner in the wrong place. He had to correct the mistake while I held the other two walls in place. When The Man started putting in screws to hold the walls together, he found the manufacturer of the shed had put holes for screws in one panel but not the other. He had to push hard to get the screws through the second piece of metal.

Once the walls were up, we had to construct the roof. Before we were done, we’d run out of the plastic washers that went with the screws to help keep water out of the shed. The kit had come with at least fifty extra screws but not a single extra washer. We had no idea why the manufacturer didn’t throw in a few extra of the kit’s cheapest part. Luckily we found a few washers to do the job in our stash of fasteners.

After about four hours of work, all that was missing was the door. The Man and I were both tired and hungry, and we needed to run some errands in town. We’ll finish this later, The Man grumbled.

The wind had come up strong by then, but the shed didn’t move, even without the door. We were away from home for at least four hours; when we returned, the shed was still standing. We were certainly grateful for this demonstration of the shed’s sturdiness.

While I cooked diner, The Man assembled the shed’s door.

Oh no! I messed it up! I heard him say. He’d used his intuition instead of the instructions, and things hadn’t turned out the way he’d hoped. So he took the door apart and followed the directions exactly. The door was still wrong! Following the directions hadn’t helped one bit!

White metal shed against an overcast sky
Our shed, complete.

Somehow he got the components of the door assembled, and I helped him hang it. Finally—success! After dinner, he dragged the shed where he wanted it on our property. (We built it close to the trailer and not where we actually wanted it to sit because we wanted the trailer to serve as a windbreak during construction.) While I washed the dishes, he loaded the shed with tools and plastic totes and water jugs. Later, I found a padlock and key in the junk drawer and brought it outside to lock the shed’s door. We stood in front of the shed for a few moments and admired our work.

I’m convinced that if our relationship survived us building that shed together, it can survive anything.

I took all the photos in this post.

The Rubber Tramp Artist’s 10 Essential Items for Vandwelling

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I’ve been vandwelling since 2010. During most of those years, I lived in my van at least half the time. Even now that I have a home base for the winter, I still live in my van for at least six months in the spring, summer, and into the fall.

During my time as a vandweller, I’ve found some items I don’t want to live without. Today I’ll share my essentials for vandwelling. Please realize these are my essentials. Other van dwellers may find these items frivolous or useless. That’s ok! To each his/her own. I’m simply sharing what works for me in hopes that my ideas will help my readers find what works for them.

#1 The Rubber Tramp Artist’s first rule of van life is “Always know where your keys are.” I follow this rule by keeping my keys on a lanyard I wear around my neck. I made the lanyard myself with pretty glass beads and Stretch Magic. While you may not want to carry your keys around your neck, you should find a system that works for you so you can put your hands on your keys the moment you need them.

#2 Dr. Bronner’s soap is biodegradable and gentle on the environment and is made by a company that does right by their employees and is fair to their suppliers. What more could I ask? Oh yeah. The peppermint (my favorite of the many varieties available) smells and feels amazing. I buy it in the big bottle (or better yet, receive the big bottle as a gift) and refill smaller bottles I put in bags and pockets throughout my van for quick and easy access. Not only is the soap good for washing hands, face, and body, I’ve used it to wash dishes and to hand-wash clothes. I’ve heard of people using it to brush their teeth, but I’ve never gone that far!

#3 Wipes are not just for the butts of babies. They work pretty well on my adult butt and on my armpits too. When I’m working in the woods, I have my privacy tent where I can take a jug shower, but early and late in the season, it’s too cold for me to bear being naked and wet. Other times when I’m on the road, I’m nowhere near a shower, or I want to freshen up between showers. During all those times, I use wipes. I discovered Pure ‘n Gentle at Wal-Mart. Not only were they the least expensive wipes on the shelf, they are fragrance free, hypoallergenic, and alcohol-free. Score!

#4 While I don’t worry too much about how I look (I’ve had one manicure in my whole life, never had a pedicure, and haven’t worn makeup  consistently since the 90s), I am vain about my hair. What can I say? I like some fluff, and when I’ve gone too long between washes, dry shampoo ups my hair’s fluff factor. I’ve written an entire blog post about how I love dry shampoo, but I’ll say here it too: dry shampoo can really perk up hair that hasn’t had a washing in a while. Some folks whip up their own dry shampoo, which I’ve never tried, but I do like the DIY aspect of homemade beauty products. You can find recipes for dry shampoo suitable for light or dark hair at the Wellness Mama website.

#5 I got tired of eggs breaking in my ice chest, so I picked up an egg suitcase from the camping department at Wal-Mart. It turned out to be a great investment. I hardly ever have to deal with an egg that breaks in the suitcase. Eggs in the suitcase only break if I drop the suitcase really hard while I’m rummaging around in the cooler. I save money and have fewer messes by keeping eggs in their special container.

#6 I deliberated for quite a while before I bought my stainless steel camping cup, but I’ve never regretted the purchase. My cup cost around $5 from the camping department of Wal-Mart, but there are many different brands and designs available from a variety of manufacturers.

I like being able to put the cup directly on the open flame of my stove. No longer do I have to drag out a cooking pot to heat water for tea or instant soup. I keep the cup hanging in the food area of my van for quick access, but the folding handles allow me to put it in my backpack more easily if I need to carry it with me. I can eat cereal or soup out of it and drink tea, coffee, or Emergen-C from it. It’s versatile, easy to clean, and truly makes my life easier. If I were living simply, without a bowl or a pot, I would make room in my life for this cup.

#7 I’ve never put solar panels on my van, but I do love my solar powered Luci lights. They require no expensive, quickly drained disposable batteries, and I never have to plug them in. All they need is the power of the sun. I have a couple that are still providing me with light despite the fact they no longer inflate. (The plastic of one was chewed up by a forest rodent, and a hole developed at the plastic’s seam of another one.) A few hours in the sun gives me several hours of light. They provide enough light to read or write by, which is crucial to me. I don’t know what I’d do at night without a Luci light.

#8 I bought my Mr. Buddy heater (more accurately called the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy) on a whim at my first Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) A guy had a brand new one he wanted to sell because he’d found something he liked better. I paid his asking price, not even sure I would ever use the thing. I’ll tell you what, in the last 3+ years that heater has kept me warm on many occasions. It heats my van fast and is ideal when I want to warm up before I crawl into bed at night or before I get out of bed to get dressed in the morning. I never sleep with the heater on, and I always crack a window when I’m using it, so I feel perfectly safe.

#9 Since my welcome-to-2018 tire disaster, I keep a large can of Fix-a-Flat in my van. I’ve not had to use my emergency can, but I did give one away to some folks on the side of the road having tire problems of their own.

For about ten bucks, I at least have the chance of pumping up a flat tire and getting myself to a tire repair shop, thus saving myself the ordeal of a tow.

#10 Another way I stay prepared to handle my own emergencies is by keeping a pair of jumper cables in my van. It seems like every time I go through a daytime headlight area, I forget to turn my headlights off when I come out the other side, and my battery drains while the van is sitting in a parking lot. I’d be a fool to count on finding another jumper cable-owning driver willing to give my battery a jump, so I provide my own tools for the job. Also, as the owner of jumper cables, I get to be the hero when someone with a dead battery and no tools asks me for help. No matter who has the dead battery, with jumper cables in my van, I’m the winner!

Don’t know how to jump start a car? The Dummies website can help you out.

Of course, you don’t need any products in order to live in a van. To start your vanlife, all you need is a van and yourself! I started my vanlife in an old G-20 with no bed of any kind. They guy who was my boyfriend and I slept on blankets on the floor. We started out with nothing. In my next van, I placed my sleeping bag (a gift from a kind fellow I’d just met) on the back seat that folded out into a bed and called it good. You don’t have to wait until you can afford a bunch of things to start living in your van. If you want to be a vandweller, move into your van today! However, perhaps getting some of my essentials for vandwelling can help you live a little more comfortably.

Note: I’m endorsing these products because I like them. No one asked me to endorse them. No one paid me to endorse them or gave them to me for free to review. The pictures you see in this post are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on any of those links, you will zip over to Amazon. Anything you put in your cart and buy after clicking on my affiliate link will earn me a small advertising fee at no cost to you.