As we made our way from the Portland area to the Coast, we stopped for a night at a Harvest Host at Emerson Vineyards. According to the reviews, this is a popular stop that features live entertainment on Friday nights, though we were the sole RV on the Monday night that we stayed. We didn’t do any wine tasting, but did purchase a bottle of their award-winning Brother Red, which is a 5-grape blend. Minus the sporadic distant gunshots, this was a peaceful, private stay where we were able to test our newly installed solar and lithium batteries.
When we bought the Airstream in June of 2017, we had the dealership install two 100w flex solar panels. We never upgraded the batteries to anything beyond what was installed at the factory, and even after replacing those first batteries with a new set (of the same), they were never able to hold a charge like we would need to successfully function without shore power (that’s what RVers call an electric hookup). We talked about upgrading the batteries for a while, and in doing research, found that our flex panels don’t generally have a long life expectancy either. In April, after 15 months on the road, we decided we wanted to add two more solar panels and upgrade to lithium batteries. We knew we were missing out on one of the benefits of this lifestyle, which is to be able to stay places without having to hook up. There are so many options out there for boondocking, especially in the West. We wanted to have the convenience and flexibility to be able to subsist for a few nights and not have to depend on electricity. We scheduled an appointment for late August with AM Solar in Springfield, Oregon, who we found to have rave reviews.
We originally were going to have them install just two 100w rigid panels, but decided to have them replace the flex panels as well. We now have four 100w rigid panels. We swapped our crappy batteries for two Battle Born 12v 100Ah lithium batteries. Our original converter has been disconnected and replaced with two lithium-compatible chargers. To complete the upgrade, a Victron battery monitor system was installed so we can monitor our battery levels as well as our solar input on our phones in the Victron app.
There are two big decisions that need to be made when upgrading solar and batteries: Lithium vs AGM batteries and Fixed vs Portable solar panels. You should make these decisions based on how YOU are going to use YOUR rig – don’t worry about how other people are using theirs. We weren’t looking to be able to live off grid 100% of the time, though we are fully capable of doing that now, but to have the flexibility and convenience to make decisions about where we stay independent of whether or not there’s an electric hook up. Sometimes we want full hookups, other times we don’t. We have a great setup now for the times we don’t.
There are some solar purists out there that feel that anything other than portable solar panels are a waste of money. Again, this depends on how you’re going to use your rig. For the non-RVers out there, when you park a trailer in direct sun, it gets hot inside. Alternatively, when you park in the shade, it stays cooler. For the people that like to stay off grid regularly, being able to park in the shade but still receive sun on the solar panels is a necessity. In cases like this, one would need to have portable solar panels that are plugged into the RV by a long cord, but sit on the ground and are able to be moved around and adjusted as needed in reference to where the sun is in the sky. We don’t like heat. When it’s hot, we like to use our air conditioning. In order to use a/c, we need to have an electric hookup as our inverter does not support running a/c. It’s possible to install an inverter powerful enough that will allow you to run a/c strictly off of battery power as opposed to shore power, but it’s very pricy, and as I said, we aren’t looking to go off grid permanently so it’s unnecessary for us. If it’s hot, we like to be on shore power. Therefore, we don’t need to be able to park in the shade and still get sun to our solar panels. We’ll save our dependent-on-solar-panels days for cooler temps that allow us to sit in direct sun without feeling like we’re slowing baking inside our Airstream.
Wholesale Solar has a great blog post that explains lithium vs AGM batteries better than I ever could, so please click here to read it if this topic interests you. For us, the deciding factors were that lithium has a much greater depth of discharge, a faster charge rate, and a longer lifespan.
So, what exactly can we do with our fancy new batteries and solar panels? We recently spent about 24 hours at a Harvest Hosts to try our new system out. We made dinner in the oven, watched hours of TV, had the furnace kick in a few times, ran the fridge on propane, charged cell phones, used the water pump as needed, turned on lights, and used the stove to heat water for the French press. The lowest our batteries got to was 78%, and seeing as they can safely get down to 20% and we were not holding back on using power, we were very impressed. Even though it was raining when we hitched up and rained for about half of our 4-hour drive, we were back up to 100% when we reached our next destination, thanks to our solar panels.
While this project was not cheap, to us, the convenience it provides and the money we can save boondocking is worth every penny. The staff at AM Solar are consummate professionals and did an amazing job. Everything is under warranty for an unheard of seven years, so we have peace of mind that if any issues should arise in years to come, AM Solar has our back!
The day before we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we pulled into a campground in Cascade Locks, Oregon and noticed an odd rattling sound coming from the wheel area on the passenger side of the Airstream. Travis crawled underneath to see if he could see what was going on, but didn’t see anything obvious. Seeing as there was nothing we could do where we currently were, we hitched up the next day and continued to Springfield with bated breath. We knew there was an Airstream dealership/service center in Portland, so figured that was going to be our best option. After we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we drove to our hotel in downtown Eugene. Along the way, we noticed a billboard for Sutton RV, the ‘Pacific Northwest’s Original Airstream Dealership’ which was located in Eugene.
Guys, this is the second time we’ve had an issue with the Airstream and both times we happened to be in a city with an Airstream dealership/service center. What are the odds?
We called them the next morning, which was a Monday. We explained our situation: weird noise; full timers; Airstream currently at AM Solar until Thursday; Airstream would be dropped off at Ultimate Airstreams the following Tuesday. It was a small window of time. They were busy. It was short notice. BUT, they told us to bring it in Thursday and they would look at it to at least diagnose the problem. We cancelled the first night of our RV park stay and extended our hotel stay one night. We picked the trailer up Thursday from AM Solar and drove 15 minutes to Sutton RV. Just 2.5 hours later we got a call saying one of our brakes was basically shredded and needed to be replaced. They had the part and the Airstream would be fixed and ready to go Friday afternoon. Yay! We were able to pick the Airstream up 24 hours after dropping it off and continue on our way to Portland. Kelly at Sutton RV did us a solid and was awesome to work with. While we hope we never have to see them again, we know we’d receive fantastic service from a hard-working and honest service department if a problem were to arise in their area again.
While AM Solar was working on the Airstream and Sutton RV fixed our brake issue, we stayed at the Home 2 Suites in Eugene. While the hotel was very nice – suite with kitchenette, indoor pool, free breakfast, free laundry, decent fitness center – I would not stay there again. There’s a very large transient population in downtown Eugene, which made us feel a little uncomfortable walking around. After living in San Diego for a while, homelessness is not unfamiliar to us, but we saw some really nasty things that were pretty off putting. Our recommendation for anyone getting work done at AM Solar that needs to stay in a hotel for a few days would be to stay in Springfield.
Today marks one year since we started living, working and traveling full time in our Airstream. One year ago feels both so incredibly distant, but also like it flew by! We have learned a lot in the last twelve months — about ourselves, about our airstream, and about what we hope to get out of this lifestyle. Here’s a look back at our first year as nomads:
We travelled 7,997 miles across 16 states:
(We spent two isolated, quiet nights in Cedar Point, IA and have nothing to show for it. Sorry, Iowa)
We visited 24 National Park Service sites:
Joshua Tree National Park
Death Valley National Park
Saguaro National Park
Petrified Forest National Park
Badlands National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Glacier National Park
Redwood National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Yosemite National Park
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Manzanar National Historic Site
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area
…and one ghost town (Bodie, CA)…
…the world’s only corn palace (Mitchell, SD)…
…and a cheese factory (Tillamook, OR).
We drank some beer…
…and some liquor…
…and some wine!
We boondocked for the first time in Wisconsin on a family friend’s farm…
…and stayed at a Harvest Hosts for the first time in Nevada.
Travis ran a half marathon in Death Valley…
…and we learned how to play pickle ball.
We did a lot of hiking…
…and a bit of relaxing.
But most importantly, we were able to spend a lot of time with family and friends!
As you can see, it was a great year! We have a lot of amazing adventures planned for 2019, and we look forward to sharing them with you!