2016 Trip 4: the Get-Away Weekend

Trip 4: Presqu'ile PP - June 2016

Thursday:
The Get-Away Weekend event has finally arrived.  What started out as an idea amongst a few of us in Ontario to camp together this summer, blossomed into a full blown rally once we posted it to the group to see if any others were interested.  We avoided using the term "rally" as the official Altoistes eastern rally is being planned for next year, and the western rally is happening this summer in Oregon.  We have not been to Presqu'ile before, and we are not really certain why that is, but perhaps it has to do with the fondness we have for Sandbanks, which is not far away.



Solar Upgrade Part 2: the install...

Lots of moving parts to this mod, and right up there on a par with the brain cramps experienced solving the furnace dilemma we had a few years back.

As I have mentioned before, do not attempt any sort of mod, or maintenance for that matter, if you are not totally confident you can do it right. The posts I have on our blog are not instructions for you to follow, just simply a recollection of stuff I have done to our Alto. When in doubt, get it done professionally. There...disclaimer over.

Where to start, although that is a bit of an odd statement given I have probably done the mod a dozen times already...in my head. One has to be extra careful with a mod that could bite you hard if it goes off the rails, and believe me, I am super dialled in when working on these ones. I figure the best way to go about it is this one is to do the outside changes first, namely the shunt installation on the battery and the new wiring, then install the Trimetric monitor and get it running, then tackle the charge controller part. This last part involves working in the close confines of the front battery compartment, which is hidden under that long front cushion, and making the switchover of the wiring and components. So this will be the order that I describe my steps.

Battery Box Work:
The Trimetric needs to monitor any voltage changes that occur across a shunt, which is a component that is installed between the negative battery terminal, and the negative load wires. When electricity flows across the shunt, minute changes in voltage are captured, and the monitor performs calculations to figure out the amperage flowing in either direction. It also monitors the voltages present between the positive and negative terminals, very accurately. The shunt is attached to the negative terminal, and this is usually done with a very short piece of really low gauge wire. In my situation, I only have the area on top of the battery to work with, so I decided to fabricate a copper connector to attach the shunt directly to the terminal. This involved bending a short piece of 1/8 inch copper bar, using my handy dandy bending brake. A couple of mounting holes later, and as you can see from the photo, it sits there quite nicely. Also visible is the new terminal fuse, a nice solution when there is limited space to work with.



The topic of fusing came up all the time, and particularly, the overall lack of it in the RV world. I decided to add fuses where research told me they generally should appear. This includes a fuse on the positive terminal. There is already a fusible link installed as part of the positive cable. This is a "slow burn" type of fuse, designed to melt away when an over amperage occurs. This is probably to help accommodate a brief high amperage situation, such as when an inverter starts up. I decided to add a high amp terminal fuse to the equation, as an extra layer of precaution. Blue Sea Marine make excellent electrical products, which I found at my local chanderly outlet. If you ever get a chance to wander the aisles of a marine outfitting store, definitely do it. There are lots of crossover products between the two industries, and I would have to say, the marine parts are of a very high quality.

Wiring:
I sourced the wire at the marine outlet. They have the Ancor brand, and it is really good stuff . Overkill, but not that much more expensive than the welding wire generally used for this purpose. These wires also needed lug ends, so I got a bunch of those as well. This raised another issue, how to crimp the ends. Fancy crimpers cost a fortune, definitely not worth the expense for a handful of necessary crimps. Again, You Tube provided a number of home grown solutions. I was soon able to crimp, and then solder my lug ends. Soldering added just that extra layer of protection from the lug coming off, but frankly, my crimps were pretty effective to begin with. Some adhesive lined heat shrink tubing completed the job. I also took the opportunity to redo the lugs on the existing wiring, as there were starting to show a little too much flex at the joint. Damn fine looking end result if you ask me.



Now to run the wires. I determined that the existing plastic wire wrap would not hold the two new wires, so I ran these in their own wrap. I was able to follow the existing wires along the frame channel, then drilled a new hole through the floor up into the electrical compartment. This wire wrap also contained the cable running from the shunt to the Trimetric, as well as the wire from the temperature sensor that sits in the battery box. Other than crawling around under the Alto, and the pain in the ass it is to remove the spare, it was a simple job.



The Monitor:
Now the cool stuff begins. The monitor is installed on the bulkhead wall beneath the front table. I fashioned a nifty little bracket, to push the bottom of it out from the wall just a bit. I figured this will make the monitor just a little easier to see and use. A few holes were drilled, and the next thing you know, we had wiring out to the monitor. I then made the connections to the shunt in the battery box, then to the monitor, put the little fuse in place...success! The Trimetric was alive.

just a few extra connections here



the little bracket actually makes quite the difference when viewing and using

The Trimetric is a nice piece of engineering, but it does have a very complicated programming side to it. In fairness, after setting up three parameters, you can be off to the races. However, people buying this particular piece of kit are more interesting in programming the hell out of it. In a world full of simple user interfaces and mouse click convenience...this thing is old school. Not only is there the challenge of understanding of what the parameters mean, inputting those parameters is a primitive process. It does though invoke a reassuring sense of function over form. While it may not be friendly to program, the sophistication of its capabilities is very apparent, and in reality, that is why it was purchased in the first place. Even the language of the instruction manuals is very functional and to the point. No tech writer has polished this text for the masses, and did require several readings just to begin to understand what was going on.

As the controller was not yet installed, I just performed the basic set up, and let it monitor away. Right off the bat I was enthralled by the information it was gathering and outputting. Enthralled might seem a bit strong...but for the longest time I was mentally kidnapped by the glow of its flickering numbers.

The Rest:
Lots of odds and sods to this part. Panel combiner, controller, fuse holder, wiring...those little changes never seemed to end. Also, I wanted to do this after dark, to minimize the output of the panels. I remember saying to Dale that I had about another hour of work to do...boy did I ever under estimate that!

First I had to take the existing controller out of the picture, and that involved disconnecting the panels, then removing the controller from the front wall, to free up that needed space. As well, I then had to remove the existing wiring that connected the controller output to the distribution panel. This is where I discovered something that seemed a little out of the norm. During my research, in all the photographs or wiring schematics I had viewed, I had never seen the controller output wires go to any location other than directly to the terminals of the battery. In the Alto, the controller output was going to the distribution panel, through a 15 amp fuse. Clearly it works electrically, but is it the most effective method...that might be debatable. To me, it's like having those precious electrons take a rather meandering route to the battery. Does it really make a difference? That depends on how you look at it.  I decided to follow what seemed to be a more common approach, and wired the solar controller output directly to the battery, through a fuse of course.

Next I needed to mount the solar combiner, the new controller, and the new fuse block. I am using a Blue Sea ATC fuse distribution block as a solar combiner. On the roof of most solar installations, the panel wires feed into a combiner box, get consolidated into positive and negative wires, then make their way to the controller, usually through a fuse. Our combiner is installed by the controller. Each panel is now fused, which provides a level of protection from each other, should one ever short circuit, and from the other direction should the controller ever go all willy nilly. I can now disconnect the panels from the solar circuit altogether, and I have lots of room to accommodate additional panels in the future. From here, the combined output goes directly to the controller, using the larger 6AWG wire.




The controller was installed and the combiner wires connected. On the output side, the negative wire goes directly to the Alto side of the shunt on the battery, so that the monitor can keep track of the solar input getting to the battery. The positive wire first passes through a MAXI fuse block on its way directly to the battery positive. The fuse block provides another layer of protection between the controller and the battery. All this is based on my view of what I think are some of the better solar installations that I have seen. I may have a bit of overkill here, but no harm done.




Final connections at the battery, and we are ready. One problem though, it is now pitch dark, and the solar is producing nothing. I left the combiner fuses out, and waited until the morning to see if the whole shebang actually works.

Next morning the fuses went in, the panels were already producing power, the controller was talking to the monitor and sweet electrons were flowing to the battery. Nice!

Now to fully program the Trimetric to manage the controller. Not to go into it completely (those really interested can download all the Trimetric documentation) but essentially you program the Trimetric monitor to manage the charging performed by the controller. Remember the concept mentioned earlier about tailoring the charging profile to the manufacturers specs, this is the time where that comes into play. Bogart has made this a little easier by creating several built in profiles that will populate the parameters needed, based on the different manufacturers specs. I found the Trojan 12 volt profile, and input it where required. This then populates the various charging voltages, amperages and timings accordingly. I discovered on the Trojan site that each of their batteries can have different charging specs, so I downloaded the spec sheet for our battery, and then fine tuned the parameters as needed. Trojan Battery has an excellent web site, and it is used as a knowledge base by many.

As the Trimetric can communicate with the controller, there is a smorgasbord of solar charging information available to monitor and review. I now know exactly what charging phase the controller is currently in, in addition to being able to know exactly the amperage output of the panels themselves. That is just the tip of the information iceberg. One of the first activities I will be doing as well is an energy audit of all things 12 volt. From this, I can then better guess at what our daily power consumption really is, and who the energy hogs are.

At the end of all of this, we now have a solar set up that monitors and charges our battery exactly to Trojan specs. Naturally there are variables, such as the hours of solar available in a particular day, but overall, I know that our new solar charging system will do a far better job of completely charging our battery than our grid power converter can. I see leaving it off grid power at home the majority of times, and letting the solar do its thing. Plugging in the night before we leave, to get the fridge cool using energy from the grid, will most likely be one of the rare times the Alto will be connected.

This mod ties in nicely with our future travel plans, where boon-docking will play be a big part. Even the past few years we have found ourselves preferring sites with no services, as generally, these are on the water, to us, a very desirable location. We have given ourselves excellent solar charging capabilities, and have ensured that any future expansion, however limited that may well be, will also be nicely accommodated.  This was a fun project, and right up my alley, because for me, the Alto is not only about camping, it is also about modding, which is definitely a big hobby of mine.

2016 Trip 3: a dragonfly ballet

Silver Lake - June 2016

Friday:
Heading to a new site on Silver Lake this time, a non-electrical site right on the water. From photos, it appears to be perched above the water, and has a fabulous view right down the lake. The only downside will be that it is close to Hwy 7, so we will be able to both see, and hear the traffic. It is only for the weekend, so we will gladly put up with a little extra noise to be on the water. Little traffic, perhaps because we did head out a tad earlier than usual.

Our site is awesome, situated deep up a laneway and at a higher elevation than the other sites, so we are in total seclusion...a rarity in campgrounds.  In terms of trees, it is quite open, and there is lots of sun.
nice site...feels like we are alone

It is forecasted to be a warm 80 degree weekend, so we are thinking of setting up the awning first thing in the morning to give us a little shade, and more importantly, it will help keep the inside of the camper a little cooler for our man Barley. We got the site squared away, set up our camp chairs, then settled in with a cold one, gazing over the water and seriously relaxing.

the case for a couple of sets of Lynx Levellers

Once the sun started to set we got a some shade from the trees, and the temps dropped a bit. We sat out for the longest time, as a gazillion dragonflys scooting around us and must have been decimating the mosquito population. We did not see a mosquito or get bit by one all evening. So many dragonflys to watch, they are simply amazing flyers, and with great speed and excellent darters. Mosquitos are no match for these guys. All the better. There also seems to be a variety of species, as I have seen many that do not look anything like the previous ones.

A few clouds rolled in around sunset, which is always nice for some classic sunset pics. I was hoping to get the sun peeking out from between a couple of clouds as it descended, but it was not to be. Took a few pics regardless, then we headed in. It is definitely cooling off nicely, so it will be a nice sleep.

a touch of Tom Thompson...



Saturday:
Great sleep last night, and there was only a couple of times that I seemed to have heard any of the highway noise. If you are looking for absolute quiet, this is not the site, but otherwise, I think we will book this one again. We were both up real early, but Dale did head back for another snooze. We discovered last night we forgot to pack a few things, and Dale really wanted the paper, so I made a little list and headed in to Sharbot Lake for the supplies. It is only a quick 10 minute drive and I was there when the store opened at 8:00am. It's a great little grocery store, and a few extra items made their way into the cart.

Dale was awake and waiting for her papers, quickly settling into her favourite morning routine, while I got the coffee going. We put the awning up first thing, as when the sun got over the trees it started to get warm quick. Once we got it set up, which took us at best 5 minutes, and we saw the shade it produced, we came to the realization that perhaps we should be putting it up more often. It was quite pleasant having a nice shaded area, and it helps keep the inside a touch cooler. Funny how these little ideas pop into our heads after so many years of using the Alto. Guess it just shows there is always something new to learn or figure out.

a really nice site with a great view, and up high, a nice breeze

Lounged around outside and read the paper the rest of the morning, and by noon, it was getting well into the temps where a quick dip in the lake would be fabulously refreshing. The edge has a small patch of coarse sand bottom, perfect for working your way into the lake. Dale was in first, as she always is, but I was not far behind. The water was reasonably warm and refreshing. We floated for the longest time, I swam out a distance then back, and after a while, the little chill started to set in. We can't remember the last time we were in for a full swim this early in the season. Certainly the effects of a very warm and dry spring, although, I would trade the warmth for some good long rain showers...everything is just a little too parched, this early in the summer. We sat on the rocks for a bit then headed back up for a nice chilled cider.

I suspect these boys were heading from Petawawa to Trenton...

hard to resist the Alto reflections

Still tons of dragonflies around, I can't ever remember seeing so many at one time, the constant movement was sort of mesmerizing, like watching a campfire. The afternoon was spent just sitting and staring at the lake, a perfect activity to relax with. Still pretty hot, but the passing clouds are giving us a nice break every so often.


amazing flyers, and little wonder with these dual wings

I've cycled through the information display of the new Trimetric meter numerous times. Very interesting to see exactly what the solar is doing. At 2:00pm, the sun was pretty much directly overhead, and the solar panels were outputting 8.1 amps, which is pretty close to the peak that the two of them can produce. The battery, which started the morning at 95 full, was now sitting at 102%. The Trimetric has a parameter to allow a certain percentage of overcharge to be applied to the battery, as per Trojan recommended specs. From what I seen so far, I feel quite good that the investment of time, and quite reasonable money outlay, is showing the benefits already. Later this evening I plan to do an energy audit of all 12 volt loads. Best to do this after dark, when the solar output is not an influencing factor. It was interesting to see the effect of clouds passing over the panels. The output change is picked up in real time by the monitor, and when the cloud passes, up goes the amps out. Pretty geeky stuff, but definitely most interesting.

We brought Barley out to sit with us in the afternoon, as there was a little breeze and it was a bit cooler. He was restless at first, but did eventually sit in the step outside the camper, close to the door, in case it magically opened and he could slip in unnoticed. Good luck with that.
The awning has been a godsend this weekend, as the sun has been quite intense. It offers a nice little respite area from the rays. A cold cider and a grapefruit Radler beer helped quench the afternoon thirst.



Pre-dinner G&T time rolled along, so Dale made us up a couple while I started to get the dinner ready. The sun is starting to get lower in the western sky, and our awning shade areas are now moving in the opposite direction.
Simple burgers on the Q this evening, with a potato salad side I picked up this morning in Sharbot Lake. Washed down with a cold beer, kept cold much longer in our new Hydra Flask pints, made for a nice camping meal. We sat out and watched the sun go down, a nice ending to a relaxing day. It has cooled off this evening, and the camper is now at a great temperature for a good sleep.

the new insulated flask works great...definitely makes a difference in how long the beer stays cold





Sunday:
Woke up early to a bank of low grey rainclouds marching their way towards us. No complaints here though, we badly need a real good soak of rain lasting a few days.
amazing the sights at 5:00 am

Started to drizzle so started up packing up the outside.  Back inside, we turned on the furnace to take the chill off, and crawled back under the covers for a few more zzzz's.

By the time we awoke again, the rain was really coming down. The parched ground was quickly soaking it up. We are in no hurry today so we put on the coffee, lounged on the bed and read the paper.


Barley enjoys Sunday morning papers as well

It rained for a couple of hours, then tapered off into scattered showers. The dark clouds finally passed, it got much brighter out, and the rain stopped. Slowly started to get our act together to head out, and the weather cooperated by actually clearing up a bit.

Uneventful drive home and it was nice to see that the rain seemed to perk up the farmers fields along the way. Our lawn and garden beds seemed more alive as well, and we took the opportunity to do a little (long overdue) weeding. All in all, a great weekend. We found a new site to book again, and even though there was some highway noise, the view, being on the water, and the nice breeze more than made up for any traffic. We will be back to this site in the future for sure!

Solar Upgrade Part 1: solar musings...

This is a long post...two parts actually. It is pretty much my thoughts based on a winter of analysis, trying to figure out how to best manage our future solar requirements. Do any sort of reading on solar power for RV use and for as many manufacturer articles and personal blogs you find, you will find a similar number of opinions. You really have to separate the wheat from the chaff to get at what is best for you.

As retirement is just starting to peek over the horizon for Dale and I, we find ourselves thinking more and more about how we will spend our time. A lot of that thinking is centred around how our Alto will figure into these plans. I have to admit, the places to visit and sights to see are mostly coming from Dale's planning. A good part of my planning, quite naturally so, is centred around how to make sure the Alto best meets our travel and campsite needs. We knew pretty quickly that the Alto would be well suited for us, from a design, usability and comfort perspective. Safari Condo has put a lot of thought and effort into making this a great product right out of the gate...and it certainly is! Over time and use though, we have been doing a few things to make it just a little bit better for us. I think most owners do this. Nothing big really, just stuff that we want to add, mods we make, that sort of thing. So we have been reading and following a number bloggers, ones that seem to either resonate with us from a travel perspective, or those that perk my interest from a technical bent, all towards gathering information for the future.

I've been reading a lot about solar power. A LOT.  Focussed primarily on RV applications, but also general knowledge. Scratch the surface on this topic, and you will find there is much more than just panels and batteries. There is the theory, the various types of components, and of course, the abundant opinions. So as I kept discovering new sources of information of the topic, I found myself gravitating to those that just seemed to make the most common sense to me. The key is finding that balance. There are lots of solutions out there that are just so enticing...the lure of the lithium battery, the wattage available with newer/more panels. All this dreaming comes at a cost though, both in terms of monetary and effort outlays. It is very easy to be led down the garden path towards someones idea of boon-docking nirvana. Sanity must prevail. Personal needs must be determined, and those are different for everyone. Spend too little time figuring this out, and you may find your wallet a lot thinner than it really needs to be.

I sifted the info, contemplated the sort of camping we would be doing, and tried to come up with an overall solar plan to best meet our needs. At this point, we don't anticipate the use of an inverter, so that will certainly factor into our required capacity. There are those that certainly do need to use an inverter, but I am confident our solar planning will support this in the future, should the need ever arise. So just where have I ended up after this information overload. I like to think I have figured out our anticipated needs as best I can, bounced my ideas off poor Dale, who in fairness, has tried her very best to not fall quickly asleep listening to my technical ramblings. I can get pretty focussed when I become interested in a topic, especially one that can easily morph into a hands-on project. As well, based on our off-grid experiences of the past few years, it seems we don't really need to throw a lot of money at this to see an improvement. Going the lithium route to gain amp hour capacity, now that would be some serious coin, and probably not really necessary for us. I think this is one of the key decisions for those contemplating the same sort of analysis. Lithiums do take you do a bit of a different path from an equipment perspective, and it requires some serious thought, and a fat wallet.

What will our setup look like? Well, no acres of panels, no expensive lithiums, no inverter sucking the life out of our battery, and certainly no configuration to support air conditioning. Don't be thinking for a moment though that if it got stinking hot while we were in the middle of nowhere, that we would not be pulling up stakes and heading towards the nearest full service park...to plug in and crank that A/C up full.

Another big influence over the solar improvements available to us were the limitations imposed by the Alto itself. We don't have a lot of space to work with. We are somewhat panel limited by a small and unique roofline, and we are battery limited by a tiny and already well utilized tongue area. There are the possibilities of external panels, or lithiums inside, but both of those would impact our storage space, in the tow vehicle and the Alto. There is no way there will ever be a line of Trojan T-125's residing on the tongue, as excellent as that would be, but it is just not feasible. I have recently heard of one Alto owner almost covering the roof with panels, and it looks pretty impressive, but just what are they charging with those watts of power? Perhaps a big bank of lithiums, but that brings us full circle back to that space concern. Who knows what the future might hold. If our panels have an issue down the road, we would probably take the opportunity to add an extra panel, and maybe throw on an extra battery...but right now...that's not in the cards.

So what are the core concepts of our plan? Well, kinda straight forward really:
- the panels we have
- a good monitor & charge controller
- improved wiring
- true deep cycle battery
- energy efficiencies

Let's bounce around some thoughts on these:

Panels:
There are a number of general ideas floating around out there that try to provide a guide as to how to size your solar array, and what is needed to recharge a battery bank. Figuring out what, or who to believe definitely takes some thought. I went with the guides that seemed to be logically defined and explained, and ultimately, just simply made sense to me. It is said to have a panel array output wattage relatively equal to the 20 amp hour rating of your battery bank. Seems reasonable. As well, given an average of the effective solar generating hours in a day, and this will certainly vary a lot, you should have at minimum from 3-6 % of your total battery amp hour rating available in charging amps, to even hope to recharge your battery bank.  This is perhaps a a little tougher to quantify, but these same numbers came up a lot. I'll go with this.

We have two 68 watt panels on our Alto, wired in parallel, for a combined output of 136W / 16.5V / 8.2A. These are the specs based on testing at what is referred to as STC (Standard Test Conditions), and really only represents perfect world lab conditions. Looking at the other set of specs, based on NOCT (Nominal Operating Cell Temperature) and the numbers are certainly different at 106W / 15.4V / 6.84A. This second test is meant to mimic actual conditions, so perhaps reality is somewhere in between. Either way, real output is less than the glossy brochure says. Crunching some numbers made me realize that even though we have a relatively modest panel watts/amps, we should be OK from a charging perspective. One also has to keep in mind that you are really only recharging half your total amp hour capacity, given that you should not run down your battery to below 50%. So what would I do with a roof covered in panels, I'm not really sure. Certainly would speed up the charging times, but I suspect we will be just fine as is.

Monitoring:
To really know what is going on with your batteries, you need much more than those idiot lights or a simple voltmeter. You need accurate voltage readings, and a way to keep track of the amps/watts being consumed and then replenished back into the battery. To get this, you need a good monitor, and also a shunt. These two work hand in hand to provide information back to the user. General consensus out there seems to be that the Trimetric brand, made by Bogart Engineering, is one of the very best of monitors available. It can provide all sorts of key information back to the user, and this information can be adjusted based on the geekiness of the particular user. Ours will be set up for maximum geek.

Charging:
Now here is a very interesting aspect of the whole solar equation. Opinions run pretty fast and furious here, not only from the user community, but also from solar equipment manufacturers and retailers. Lots of statements get bounced around..."Get an MPPT controller because it boosts the output of your solar panels". Do you know why, do you have the whole story, does it apply to your solar setup? And the list goes on. This is when you need to continue to read, develop your own opinion, and apply it to your needs. In a nutshell, it seemed to boil down to a couple of things. The type of controller to use...PMW or MPPT, which one could argue is really decided for you based on the output specs of your panels, and whether you feel the controller will be charging your battery effectively?

From what I have seen and read, solar controller manufacturers do not seem to be optimizing the phase charging voltages according to battery manufacturers specs. This does impact the efficiency of a controller to truly bring the battery to a full charge. In most cases, it is very much a one size fits all situation. Does generic get the job done...perhaps. Do the majority of end users really care...probably not. Regardless of the PMW/MPPT debate, it seems to me that a key requirement for a controller is to provide the ability for user adjustments to the phase voltages, to bring this in line with what a battery manufacturer recommends. After all, who best to spec those details. Exactly! And by the way...phase voltages are just one part of the equation, there are a few others that matter as well, such as current output and charge times, but volts always turns up as the first discussion point. To top it all off, controller manufacturers are not the only ones lacking this flexibility. When you plug into grid power, that converter is likely not optimized to charge effectively either...and some don't even provide phased charging. It's kinda like never totally filling the gas tank on your car before a big trip...why would you not do that? To me, good controllers are adjustable, and sophisticated enough to utilize charging parameters to best ensure the battery is operating at full capacity. If I'm limited by the amp hours that I can carry with me, and we are, then I want to make damn sure I have as many of those available for use as possible. What controller to get...one that I can adjust to suit the battery I am using, even if I change it out down the road.

Wiring:
Small gauge wires can impact your charging efficiency. Simply Ohm's Law. The more resistance in the wire, the less voltage/amps getting to the battery. Smaller wire equates to greater resistance...and this is definitely a direct current specific statement. General rule of thumb is to have as big a wire as possible between the output of the controller and the battery terminals. In a perfect world this would apply to the entire solar circuit, but in reality, that is sometimes hard to achieve. Pretty hard to run a 4 or 6 AWG wire up to the panels on the top of the Alto...now that would be an interesting challenge. So in that case, maximize the wire where you can. There are wire gauge tables out there that will tell you the recommended length for each gauge of wire, to keep any voltage loss below a 3 percent maximum. Does any of this really matter.  Yes...and no. If you have gobs of panel wattage and battery amp hours, probably not. But if you are trying to eek out as much power as you can from a modest solar setup, then I am of the opinion it certainly can't hurt.

Battery:
Another very opinionated topic. Flooded, AGM, Lithium...how to decide??? Easy..research and buy to suit your needs, and wallet. Of late, I have been fascinated with the promise of the lithium battery. They sound like an ideal overall solution. Awesome usable amp hour capacity, compact, relatively lightweight, simple charging profiles...this all sounds ideal. What do these wonders cost? "Really...wow!".  As with most new innovations, the early days are the most expensive. Crazy expensive. Now before you bring out your calculator and start rhyming off cost per amp/hour numbers, the bottom line is that right now, to me, they represent a tremendous outlay. And it is not only for the batteries themselves, the charging and battery management components that are required go for a princely sum as well. Now if we were going to be full timing, then the benefits might well outweigh the sticker shock. I gather the lithiums are a bit temperamental as well, and do not peak performers in hot temperatures. That is why you will rarely find them installed in battery boxes on the tongue of a camper. This means they would be inside the Alto, and that means giving up storage space.

We needed to replace our original battery last year, which was a Marine/Deep Cycle group 27 unit. I did a little research and went with a Trojan 12v deep cycle battery, in a group 31. This has increased our amp hour availability somewhat, and it is what I am calling a true deep cycle style of battery, where the design considerations are more based on charge/discharge cycles and amp hour capacity, rather than the need to crank over an engine. I had contemplated going the dual 6 volt battery route, but decided to wait and see how this new one would perform.  We also want to get a year or so of retirement trips with extended boon-docking under our belts first, to really give us an idea of our true needs.

Energy Efficiency:
How conservative you are with the amp hours available to you will directly impact your boon-docking time. Run an inverter to make popcorn in your microwave, or watch movies all weekend (we've been there, suffered the consequences) and you will find yourself with a dead battery. It is no fun when your propane fridge shuts itself off because it has no power to meet the 12v requirements...and that is a pretty minimal draw. We won't even get into a debate on the merits of the 12 volt compressor fridge over a propane...that's another hot topic. For the record though, I'm in the propane fridge camp, and actually, quite happy to debate that.

You can do all sorts of things to conserve power, and it certainly does not mean you have to sit there in the dark like a couple of moles. Switch to LED lighting, if you do not already have them. We did, and beyond the energy efficiency, we really like the warmer colour tone of the light they provide. Become aware of your power usage, figure out your power priorities. First thing that jumps to my mind as a priority is the fridge. I'll take a cold beer over a bag of microwave popcorn any day of the week! I guess you could say it all boils down to living within your amp hour means, and a factor in that is definitely how well you can recharge that battery. We find that after draining our battery a couple of years ago, we have become very power conscious when off grid.  We have boon-docked for a couple of weeks solid, and so far, have not had any real power concerns, and we are hoping this little upgrade will help our overall solar system.

So after this rather lengthly rambling, where does that leave us. With this:
-Trimetric setup
-Improved wiring (and fusing!)
-True deep cell battery (already in place)

The general idea is to swap out the existing charge controller for a Trimetric SC-2030, and manage it with a TM-2030 monitor. These pieces were designed to be used together. New wiring from the controller directly to the battery will be 6AWG in size, and fusing will be added in appropriate areas of the solar circuit. All this in the hopes to maximize the charging and storage abilities of our rather modest solar setup.  Even in the future, I can't see changes going much beyond this new setup. Perhaps an extra panel, perhaps another battery, but that is about it. I might also say that this could be termed a reasonable upgrade, specifically in terms of a monetary outlay.

Part 2 of this will detail the work involved to put all the pieces in place, and it was a fair bit of work.