Monday, September 28, 2015

Power to the RV people

Dear Dr. R.V. Shrink:

My husband wants to spend a couple grand on a solar panel system for our fifth-wheel. He complains every time our lights go dim while dry camping. We had to leave Big Bend National Park early because we were out of battery power. It was cold and we had to run the furnace every morning. The furnace fan seems to suck a lot of juice from our batteries.

I argue that we can buy a lot of full hookups for two grand. He is not listening. He is too busy studying the solar system. I tell him he has stars in his eyes.

Do you think I am being unreasonable, frugal or cheap?

--Powerless in El Paso

Dear Powerless:

It really depends on how often you dry camp. You can easily pay for a system in a year if you dry camp the majority of the time. Because so many RVs now have solar, many parks will have a reduced rate if you do not want to plug in. Some Arizona State Parks will reduce the rate and lock the electrical box if you opt out of the electric.

Yes, the furnace fan is a power hog. Another option would be to install a catalytic heater such as an Olympian Wave. They put out a very nice radiant heat without the need for a fan. You can recess mount it or use a long hose with a disconnect to enable you to move it around.

I am solar biased, but it really depends on how you use your RV. If you seldom dry camp, solar is probably a waste of money.

You will start to see more manufacturers offering a solar option. They need little maintenance, give you quiet, continuous power, and as Elon Musk recently said, "We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky, called the Sun."

Another point to be made is the fact that many RVs now come standard with a generator that people put few hours on. For the same money you can put on a very efficient solar system. If you can live with the 12v power that is generated, it will not be necessary to spend another thousand or so for an expensive inverter. You can buy small inverters (400 watt) that are capable of running a coffee grinder, recharge computers or power an electric razor.

You can easily add up your energy needs and see if it is a good investment, a fun project or a worthwhile convenience. You are not going to run an electric heater or refrigerator from a small RV solar array. They have their limitations.

I can tell you from experience that once you can live within the means of a 300 watt system it will set you free.

LED lights can also be a good, long-term investment that will extend your Big Bend, out of the way stay.

And don’t forget CONSERVATION, it gives “power to the people.”

--Keep Smilin’, Dr. R.V. Shrink

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wishy Washy RVer

Dear Dr. R.V. Shrink:
One of the drudgeries of RVing is finding a decent place to do laundry. They are often expensive, poorly managed, dirty and/or busy. I think we should have a washer/dryer in our motorhome, but my husband thinks it’s a bad idea.

We share the laundry duty, but he thinks a machine will take up too much space and add too much weight for the convenience it will afford us. It just sounds so sensible to me.

Don’t you think the full-time lifestyle deserves a guaranteed, clean and personal machine to wash our clothing?  --Wishy Washy in Wilmington

Dear Wishy Washy:
I will agree that finding a clean, affordable laundromat on the road is a constant challenge. Most often you are better served using a commercial campground laundry that is used only by paying guests. If the park is highly rated, you will usually find the laundry facilities reasonable, clean and much less busy.

I have nothing against a washer/dryer combination installed in an RV. Many of them have a very small load capacity, and take a lot of time to cycle. It does allow you to work on the chore at your convenience and not let it all pile up for a trip to the mat.

These units will also suck your water tank dry, so if you are not hooked up to utilities you will find yourself needing fresh water and a dump much more often.

If you decide against an onboard unit, another thought is Googling the laundromat you plan to use. You will often find sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor rating such businesses. The problems with using machines that you find in public parks, such as state and local, can be frustrating. If it rains you will find wet campers throwing their dirty bags and tents into dryers. At fishing sites you may find your clothes come out smelling like the day's catch. 

If you come to an onboard agreement you should weigh the difference between a separate washer/dryer or a combination machine. They can usually be installed in a closet and your unit might even be plumbed for it if you check.

Another alternative is “The John Steinbeck Method.” If you read “Travels with Charley” you will discover that Steinbeck, one of our more prolific literary laundrymen, used a plastic garbage can hanging from bungies to do his wash. He would let the road do his agitating as he meandered across America. Wash all morning, add the rinse water at noon and hang and dry when he stopped. 

Not a bad idea and you save yourself about a grand in machine costs. 
--Keep Smilin’. Dr. R.V. Shrink

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I'm going to Disney World--NOT!

Dear Dr. R.V. Shrink:
We are in the mouse house and I am not talking about Disney World. We just spent a week parked at Many Glacier campground near Babb, Montana. It is starting to feel like fall here and the mice decided they would like to go to Arizona with us. We trapped five last night. The cat caught two, and we still hear gnawing in the underbelly of our trailer.

I want to use d-Con but my wife hates poison and says it is cruel. That sounds Dopey to me. She thinks a quick broken neck is much more humane. Isn’t dead, dead? How can I convince her that we need to take decisive, defensive action before we are overrun with vermin?I’m not getting much sleep lately. In the middle of the night the cat catches a mouse, my wife catches the cat, and they both run outside until the cat drops the mouse. I think at that point the mouse beats them both back to the trailer.

This is our full-time home. Help me.
--Grumpy and in Babb

Dear Babb:
As tight as an RV seems to be, mice can wiggle their way in. It is a problem that must be dealt with quickly before wiring is chewed, material is collected for nesting, food stores are cached, and plumbing tubing is damaged. They can do a tremendous amount of damage in a very short time. I agree with your wife, poison is not your best solution. d-Con is designed to drive the mice out to water after it starts its deadly process. These poison carcasses will move their way up the food chain very quickly as other predators find them, harming things that do not want to travel with you. You will often find the mice have stored it all over the RV and never eaten it.

You need to continue running your trapline and know you have eliminated the last one. At this point you don’t know how “Minnie” Mickeys you have. You will most likely be able to tell you have solved the problem when the cat stops acting Goofy.

Don’t forget to tie a string to every trap and secure it to something. Even after the trap does it’s deadly deed, the mouse will dance a distance. If it ends up in a place you cannot reach it will decay and begin to smell.

Once you get the situation under control you can try home remedies like peppermint tea bags (they hate the smell). For now I would stick to playing cat and mouse and using cheese and traps. Remember, the pioneers got the arrows and the settlers got the land. Same applies here. The second mouse gets the cheese, so use several traps.

The only positive thing you can take from this experience is the fact that this is the most excitement your cat has had in a long time. Living in a small RV is not easy for a cat, even if it sleeps eighteen hours a day. It has most likely raised your cat’s spirits, given your cat much needed exercise, and made your cat feel like the Lion King.

Seriously, set traps everywhere and deal with this problem immediately, before it gets real expensive.
--Keep Smilin’, Dr. R.V. Shrink

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

RV Phone Home

Dear Dr. R.V. Shrink:
We are going to begin our RV adventure this fall. My husband and I are both newly retired and almost ready to head out, beginning with a fall color tour through the Rockies. We have been in almost perfect agreement on every issue leading up to departure until now. We are trying to decide on a service provider for our phones and wireless needs. My husband thinks we need two smartphones, a hotspot with a couple dozen gigs of data and two different service providers. I think that is overkill and a waste of money.

I know you are always suggesting the use of online data for everything from dump stations to gas stations, but do we really need that much coverage?

Besides the data, we just need to phone home once in awhile. Please give us some of your common sense therapy.
--ET in D.C.

Dear ET:
This is a real common concern for people starting out on the road. It also varies for each individual. Expense, affordability, need and desire can be all over the data scale. I would suggest you look at what you use at home. This is only a starting point because you will most likely need more on the road if you both are heavy computer users.

I constantly look for a better deal than I have and switch when it is advantageous. We are grandfathered in to an old Altel plan that Verizon bought out. We get 20 gig for what most people pay for 5 gig. That sounds like a lot of data, but we use it every single month. We don’t stream movies or watch much video, which eats up a lot of data. We do watch Nightly News if we cannot get a TV channel, which is most of the time.

I have a dumb phone and my wife has a smartphone. We cannot tether it, but that is an option if you use the right service and the right phone manufacturer.

My wife has a Walmart Straight Talk plan with a Samsung phone and a Verizon chip. For under fifty bucks a month she gets unlimited talk, text and data. It works almost everywhere we travel. We have RV friends that have Straight Talk, AT&T service and an HTC phone, and they are able to use the phone as a hotspot. Again, unlimited everything.

We were told we would be throttled occasionally if we used to much data, but after a year we have not noticed that ever happening.

You can start out with what you currently have and work up to what you feel you need as you travel. I can guarantee that you will more than pay for data service, in savings you will realize, using the many cheap and often free apps that direct you to fuel, camping, dumping, road construction, directions, and ME, of course!
--Keep Smilin’, Dr. R.V. Shrink

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

RV Road Less Traveled

Dear Dr. R.V. Shrink:
Are we the only ones who always seem to choose the wrong routes? We like to stay off the major highways and see rural America, but we are always in some kind of trouble.

Last month we had to unhook our toad and make a U-turn at a low overpass. Today we spent over two hours along 30 miles of North Dakota road construction that was worse than anything we experienced on the Alcan Highway 30 years ago before it was paved.

We are not sure if the North Dakota Department of Transportation is in charge out here or the “fracking” companies. We had dropped off Hwy. 2 in Stanley, ND, heading for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit, and there was no indication that our route was a virtual nightmare. There were no detour signs, no flag people, inaccurate mileage signs and narrow passage points.

This seems to be a pattern for us. Are we poor navigators, or does everyone deal with situations like this?
--Newbies trying to learn in North Dakota

Dear Newbies:
I applaud your sense of adventure -- keep it up. The alternative is staying on boring, exit-laden, super highways and reading billboards.

There are a few things you can do to alleviate some of your headaches. Many GPS systems have major construction updates and low clearance warnings. You can make a habit of asking locals when you make pit stops to see if you can garner any information about possible surprises ahead of you. Some companies like AAA are well known for travel map information that is very up-to-date.

With all that said, I still go back to using today's technology as your best source of information. Services may be out-of-date, locals may be ill-informed, signs, as you well know, can be deceiving.
As far as who is in charge in the new hot fracking areas, that could fuel a great debate. So much activity and new infrastructure makes some of my old stomping grounds look unrecognizable.

I just asked Dr. Google for North Dakota road conditions. I was directed to the Dept. of Trans. North Dakota site. There I found a state map. On it I found your route lit up like a Christmas Tree. When I clicked on the construction site it warned of “poor road conditions.” If you would have stayed on Hwy. 2 you wouldn’t have a tale to tell. Now you have this great campfire story and it only cost you a bit of slow going and maybe an RV wash.

Chances are you will hit as much construction or more on major travel arteries than you will on the back roads of America. Keep doing what you enjoy and deal with the challenges.

--Keep Smilin’, Dr. R.V.Shrink