12v dc

Understanding Solar Power

I see a lot of very basic questions in forums about 12v DC electronics and often see them replied to with some very complex answers.

12v DC electronics is actually a very precise science and it’s really quite easy to understand once armed with some basic information. There’s nothing stupid about not understanding it. Most of us go through life never having to think about it. It’s only when we’re thrust into (or maybe gently led) into the world of off grid living that we have to understand a few basic rules.

Please note: information provided here is also applicable to bricks and mortar dwellings. You do not need to be a licensed tradesperson to undertake 12v installations. If necessary, cabling for 12v DC systems can run freely through dwellings. Basic 12v DC systems can dramatically cut home electricity bills. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of dollars you are told emphatically that you must spend, by solar power contractors; you CAN cut out the middle operator and install very inexpensive systems yourself. 

This guide does not offer schematics as setups can differ greatly. Do not hesitate to contact me for further advice.

Renewable energy is vital to our future, but already it has become an industry rife with operators who provide misinformation for the purpose of profit. Much of that misinformation pertains to the validity of more basic systems. Electrons are electrons – it doesn’t matter how you convert them from photons, just as long as you benefit. 

Some 12v stuff

Ohms Law Basics – It’s really simple. Honestly!

The main things we need to concern ourselves with are:
1. Power – Measured in Watts and abbreviated as P. This is the amount of work that an appliance or light globe does.

2. Current – Measured in Amps and abbreviated as I. This is the amount of electricity that’s drawn from your battery.
3. Voltage – Measured in volts (surprise, surprise) and abbreviated as E. This is the potential difference between two points, more simply described as pressure, like the water flow in a hose.

P and I are very variable for the purpose of calculations. V doesn’t vary much in a DC circuit. There are variations based on a batteries charge or depth of discharge (DoD), but it’s reasonably negligible, so we use 12v as the basis for our calculations. There is an exception to this rule that I personally apply when doing  calculations involving inverters, but that will be explained in due course.Some caravan RVs use 24v systems. They aren’t as common as they are in large commercial vehicles, but the same rules apply, substituting 12 with 24.

The most important equation that we can remember is:

E / V = I

In plain English: Power in Watts, divided by voltage in volts, equals Current in amps.

It’s important to be aware of how much current is being drawn, as that tells you how much you have left in your battery.

Example: 10 watt LED globe / 12v DC supply = 0.833 Amp current

Power is important for the purpose of calculating current. It’s also important to know how much power  devices consume, if you are using an inverter or generator. If the appliance consumes more power than is provided by a source of electricity from an inverter or generator, they just won’t work.

If you have a hair drier that produces 1,300 Watts, plugged in via a 1 KVA (1,000 Watt) generator, the generator will cut out. The same goes for inverters. 

Appliances that heat or cool via compression (air conditioners) consume a lot of power. That’s why items such as electric heaters, hair driers, electric kettles etc, are very impractical in terms of most small off grid 12v DC power set ups. 

Heating appliances are too powerful for small, practical inverters and generators, whilst large inverters / generators draw far too much current to be practical . In the case of inverters, they run batteries down quickly. In the case of larger generators, their power capacity is inversely proportional to their size, weight, noise level, fuel consumption and cost. 

Batteries

Types of batteries have been discussed in a previous post: The Best Things In Life Are Free Camps.
 
The vast majority of house batteries are AGM (absorbed glass mat) deep cycle batteries, so I’m basing information on AGM batteries. 
 
Deep cycle batteries are designed to deliver a steady current over a period of time and discharge / recharge slowly. These differ from cranking (car batteries) that are designed to deliver a large current in a short burst in order to start a car. They are recharged quickly by means of the car’s alternator.
 
Lithium batteries are becoming increasingly popular for many reasons. The downside is the cost. They’re one of my many pet hates for political reasons. More later. 
 
For the purpose of deep cycle house batteries, capacity measurements are generally rated in “Amp hours (Ah).” 
 
This is the measurement of how much a battery holds, based on how many hours it can supply a continuous current of 1 amp for. 
 
If a 100Ah battery is under a load of 1 Amp, technically it will supply power for 100 hours before it is totally discharged. If the combined load of your lights and appliances is 10 Amps (that’s very high by the way), a 100 Ah battery will fully discharge in 10 hours.
 
Now here’s the catch. It’s not a very complex catch, but it brings a lot of people undone!
If you gloss over everything else read this carefully:
Firstly, don’t think too much about the “hour” part in Amp hours. The time is fairly irrelevant to the battery itself, it’s more relevant to how long you run an appliance, or in techy talk; put a load on that battery.
 
Think of the battery as a fuel tank. Think of Amp hours as litres of fuel. A reasonable analogy is one that applies to older diesel engines. Before self bleeding diesel engines existed, running out of fuel could cost you dearly. An empty fuel tank would mean having the engine professionally bled!!!!
 
A similar principle applies to AGM batteries. If you let them run down to empty, it’s going to COST YOU. Every time an AGM battery falls below 50% capacity, think of it as an empty tank. By emptying it that much,  the batteries lifespan is reduced by a not insignificant amount. If you want your expensive AGM batteries to last (up to 7 years for some), treat them well and don’t discharge them below 50% DoD, because they’ll soon be DoA. 
 
The best way to meter your battery’s capacity easily is to read the voltage. Most “intelligent” chargers or solar regulators display the battery voltage. There are also some very inexpensive meters, widely available.
 
50% capacity for an AGM battery or bank of batteries is around 12.2v. Different battery manufacturers publish charts showing 50% DoD anywhere between 12.05v and 12.3v. I use 12.2v as a general guide, bearing in mind that a battery that is under load will show a lower voltage with the DoD at 50%. If a battery shows 12v first thing in the morning with a load on it, you’re fairly guaranteed that you haven’t done any serious damage to it. I tend to aim for a higher figure to be on the safe side. If my battery bank shows 12.1v first thing in the morning, under load, prior to the sun hitting the solar panels, I’m happy.  
 
The basic rule is to work out your daily consumption in Amp hours and at least double that figure in terms of battery capacity in Amp hours. If you are likely to consume 100 Amp hours per day, you will need at least a 200Ah battery bank, but that’s kind of pushing it really; leaving no latitude. In my set up, we consume around 40 Amp hours per day. Our battery bank is 240Ah. That’s more like the figure you should be working towards. It leaves you with a lot of capacity up your sleeve in case of low charging rates, such as solar charging during periods of low sunshine. 

 

Charging

There are three widely used methods of charging house batteries:
Solar panles
240v mains charger.
Tow vehicle alternator.
 
Solar Charging
 
I’ve covered solar charging in a couple of previous posts, so rather than bore everyone with the same information again. I’ll summarise the basics.
Solar panels are connected to a solar regulator, which regulates the charging of your batteries. It’s essentially a battery charger that’s powered from the sun. A group of panels connected to a single regulator is called an array.
 

Many forums advocate the use of MPPT solar chargers, claiming that you get more charge from less sun. I won’t get into the technical nuances of solar regulators, but will say that an MPPT regulator is far more effective if your array of panels exceeds 600w. A good quality PWM charger will suffice for smaller arrays and cost you much less money than a quality MPPT unit. I’m not saying that MPPT regulators don’t employ better technology, they certainly do. I just personally feel with smaller arrays, the cost can far outweigh the benefits. In some instances, high quality PWM regulators such as those made by Victron, are better than lower end MPPT regulators. On the other hand, low end PWM regulators are often bloody useless. 

The charge that a panel generates is generally measured in Watts. 

A 100 Watt solar panel produces approximately 6 Amps of current in full sun. That means that 6 Amp hours of charge would be absorbed by a battery in one hour of full sun, with the sun closest to the earth’s surface ie at midday. Given the movement of the sun from east to west from sunrise to sunset, a 100 Watt panel will produce around 30 Amp hours of charge on a cloudless sunny day. 

If you have a 100 Ah battery, given that it’s not advisable to discharge a battery below 50% DoD, no more than 50 Amp hours.should be discharged in a day. To regain 50Ah per day,  you,  would need a 200 watt array. 

It’s a commonly held belief that your array should be double in Watts,  what your battery bank is rated  in Amp hours.

100 Ah battery bank – 200 Watt array
200 Ah battery bank – 200 Watt array

 
It’s far from a firm and fast rule. Array size is also determined by daily consumption.  
I have a 240 Ah battery bank and a 460 Watt array. According to the above guide, I would have a 280 Watt array. However, I don’t draw anywhere near as many Amps from my battery in one day as is generated by my array. My array produces an average of 85 Amp hours in a day in good weather. I draw around 50 Amp hours from the battery bank, per day on average.
 
My setup is fine for sunny weather. One might even suggest a smaller array.  I could probably do with adding another 100 to 150 Watts to my array to compensate for cloudy weather.
 

However, I have a generator for topping up the batteries when necessary. Array size is to some extent, a case of “horses for courses.” An array can certainly be too small in electronic terms, but not too big. On the other hand, it can be too big in terms of size weight and cost. It’s about finding a balance. 

A Solar charge regulator

240v Charging

A 240v powered intelligent charger is, in my opinion, an essential part of any 12v set up. Regardless of how effective your solar charging is, there’s always going to be a need to plug into a 240v supply and put the battery bank through a very reliable, continuous charge cycle that doesn’t depend on available sunshine. This might be when the sun just isn’t providing and charging takes place by means of a generator. It might be simply when you’re on grid and plugged into a 240v supply, which is a great opportunity to give your batteries a good solid charge.

An intelligent multi-stage chargerter and an old  (now deceased) dicky inverter

Many intelligent chargers will analyse your battery and if necessary, put it through a regeneration cycle, which has the potential to repair a battery that has been damaged to some extent, by being over discharged or being discharged too quickly.

Most intelligent chargers allow selection of the charge rates up to 50 Amps. The charge rate can be explained as simplistically as the amount of Amp hours (litres of fuel) that are put back into the battery (fuel tank) in 1 hour. It isn’t quite so simple due to the nature of multi stage charging. To explain further: One would expect that a 25 Amp charger would charge a 100Ah battery from 50% DoD in in 2 hours. in realty it will charge the battery to around 75% full in around an hour. 25 Amp hours added to an existing  50 Amp hours, taking it up to a 75 Amp hours  or 75% of capacity. At approximately 75% full, the charger will automatically switch stages from “bulk” to “absorb” charge. The charging current is reduced in order to prevent the battery from over heating and over charging. As a result of the reduced current, absorb charging can take considerably longer than bulk charging; often around 3 hours to charge the last 75% of a 100 Ah battery.

 

Charging From A Vehicle

Many Australians say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I hope it’s not entirely true, because I’ve had hundreds and I don’t want to get a surprise bill, but the general gist of the euphemism is true.

If you’re going to gain from something somewhere, you’ll pay elsewhere. Charging a house battery from a vehicle is a bit like that. A vehicle’s alternator is a readily available source of a charging voltage, but a load on an alternator is inversely proportional to fuel consumption by the engine that drives the alternator. It’s not a huge consideration, but it is one to be aware of and should not be over looked.

From a personal perspective, we don’t charge our caravan house battery from the car’s alternator. We have a significant solar array on the roof of the caravan and that generally suffices as far as our charging needs go. We also have a second deep cycle battery system in the car that powers our Engel Freezer. That is charged from the alternator via a simple battery isolator.  The isolator ensures that the Auxiliary battery doesn’t charge if the car battery is below a nominal voltage. That prevents draining the car starting battery. It also ensures that charging ceases when the Aux battery reaches a certain voltage, thus preventing over charging. Battery isolators are a compromise in that they don’t offer multi stage charging as outlined above. They essentially cut off charging prior to the battery reaching full charge, where a multi stage charger drops the charging current in absorb charge mode, then continues to maintain the charge in float mode.

Multi stage charging is easily achievable via a vehicle’s alternator with a DC to DC charger. This type of device is an “intelligent” multi stage charger that’s powered by a 12v DC supply from the vehicle as opposed to a 240v mains supply. They are usually connected between the vehicle and a caravan or trailer via a significant cable of sufficient diameter and Anderson plugs. They usually charge at a rate of around 15 Amps, some up to 25 Amps.

Decent DC to DC chargers are reasonably expensive. They’re potentially an extravagance unless you spend a lot of time towing as opposed to staying in one place for long periods. However, the up side is that a lot of the better models also double up as a solar regulator, which makes them quite cost effective. In saying that, even the good ones aren’t necessarily the best solar regulators. 

Given that I prefer to hang around in places for a while and travel as infrequently as possible, it’s not worth me spending a lot of money on a DC to DC charger. A simple battery isolator serves my purposes well, given that we rarely travel for more than 4 hours in a day. This means that my battery is essentially bulk charged on the road, then plugged into a separate solar regulator for the later stages of charging. 

Inverters

 

Starting an online thread relating to inverters, can be to open a can of worms, which makes about as much sense as the non existence of a free lunch , but you know what I mean.
 
There are two main misconceptions about inverters: 1) That if you have a 600W inverter, it will produce 600 Watts of power, whenever it is switched on. 2) That they are magic! – Some people honestly believe that by plugging in a powerful inverter, they are magically transforming their 12v DC supply into a mains supply, providing and endless source of 240v AC electricity.
 
Debunking number 1 – Inverters only produce whatever power is required for whatever is plugged into it. Let’s say you have a 600W inverter and you plug a 300W stick blender into it. The inverter will consume 300W. Let’s say the stick blender operates for 3 minutes and use our important equation from earlier to debunk number 2.
 
P – 300W (Blender) /  V – 12v (battery supply) = I – 25 Amps
In one hour of continuous use the stick blender will draw 25 Amps from the battery.
 
This is where we get a little tricky. Inverters operate with an inefficiency of around 15 to 20%, that means. When calculating how much current is drawn using an appliance via an inverter, we can allow for it’s inefficiency by substituting 12v (V) in the equation with 10. There for V = 10.
So the equation would be 300W / 10 (V) = 30 Using a 12v DC supply via an inverter to power a 300W blender, it draws 30 Amps.
 
To calculate how much it draws in 3 minutes, is pretty simple 30 Amp hours / 60 (minutes) = 0.5 Amp hours in 1 minute x 3 (minutes) = 1.5 Amp hours
 
I (current) / t (60 minutes) = I per minute x t (minutes of use) = Current Drawn
 
In summary, using a 300W stick blender for a few minutes, doesn’t draw much from the battery. About 1.5 Amp hours. 
 
Inverters can be used in a couple of ways. I’ve taken a line out of the 240v outlet on the front of our inverter and wired that up, so that it can be switched into the caravan’s main 240v circuit. This allows us to use our power points and 240v lighting, which has all been upgraded to LED globes. It’s also possible to keep the invertor in a convenient location and plug appliances into its front panel as required. 
 
When an invertor is left on without actually providing power, it is in a state known as “idling.” Idling generally draws less than 1 Amp, however 1 amp over 24 hours is still 24 Amp hours. Good inverters run in standby mode, which means they idle for less time and power up as required.
 
I personally believe in buying a quality inverter, but not going over the top. Some can get into the thousands, quite unnecessarily. There really isn’t any point in buying a big inverter to run powerful appliances. They put a huge drain on battery banks and need to be hooked up with seriously heavy gauge cabling and breakers, in order to prevent the risk of fire. If you really need powerful appliances when you’re off grid, either get a generator or re-think your priorities. Do you really need the microwave that badly?
 
To buy a good quality (and I mean safe), high powered inverter, you’re looking at $1,500 plus. I had a cheap Chinese on that cost 80 bucks, for years. I wanted it to die so that I could justify buying a good one. I couldn’t kill the bloody thing, when it did eventually bite the dust, it took a few hundred bucks worth of appliances with it.
 
A very good 400 to 600W inverter can be purchased for around $300. Carry on reading to discover why it’s not worth having anything much bigger. There are 2 types of inverter in terms of how their supply voltage “cycles.” A pure sine wave invertor is the only type I recommend. It provides 240v supply that’s probably more stable than most mains supplies. A lot of technology, especially laptops require a pure sine wave inverter to operate. A “modified sine wave” inverter is good for lights and electric motors, but won’t run and could even damage complex technology. It’s not worth buying anything other than a pure sine wave model. 
 
Quality Victron inverter
 
NOW KETTLES!!!! (and other unnecessary things that heat)
 
One of the most commonly asked questions is “what size inverter do I need to boil a kettle?”
 
Let’s look at an average kettle as having a Wattage of 1,800W
Let’s look at the average boiling time to make a cuppa as 3 minutes.
 
We’ll assume that the person who possesses a fear of gas stoves, also possesses an inverter big enough to boil an average kettle. The inverter size is irrelevant. All that is relevant is that it can handle 1,800W.
 
So, strap yourself in for some simple maths with significant results!
 
1,800W / 10 (V) = 180 Amps – Boiling a kettle continuously would not only take a 100 Ah battery lower than it’s recommended DoD (Depth of Discharge 50%), it would actually flatten it in less than one hour!!!
 
What’s that I hear you say? “It’s only going to boil for 3 minutes!”
 
OK then, now that we have a figure of 180 Amps let’s look at the equation that calculates how much current is drawn in a given period.
 
180 (I) / t (60) = 3 Amp hours (I per minute)
3 x 3 (t – minutes of use) = 9 Amp hours
9 Amp hours drawn from the battery to make 1 cuppa. If you have a 100 Ah battery, 5 cups of tea in a day would discharge the battery to a suitable DoD. 2 cups a day would constitute over a quarter of available power.
 
There’s a very easy answer; use a gas burner and a stove top kettle. Appliances that heat, simply draw too much current.
 

Lithium

There’s is another option for running more powerful appliances, which is Lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are considerably lighter than AGM batteries, therefore you can have large banks without having a huge effect on the caravans weight. A 100 Ah AGM weighs about 30kg whereas a 100Ah lithium battery weighs about 10kg. The other huge advantage of Lithium batteries is that they can be discharged to over 80% DoD, therefor they’re considerably more efficient than AGM batteries.
 
Now the bad shit! Personally I don’t like the concept of lithium batteries being touted as the be all and end all of renewable energy. Lithium is a finite resource. A reasonably valuable finite resource. Currently $9,400 per metric Tonne. It has doubled in 4 years and isn’t going to get any cheaper. It’s more water intensive than lead in terms of extraction and unlike lead which is currently $2,300 per tonne, is economically impractical to recycle. 
 
Guess which country has the world’s largest Lithium deposits. Yes, it’s us again. We aren’t the biggest producer, Yet, but explorations have identified huge deposits. So, guess who’s backyard is going to be fucked up most by the increase of lithium battery use? Yes ours. 
 
So, think about those CMCA members in their big busses who feel entitled to exclusive rights to free camps because they are environmental saints for having fitted grey water tanks. Not only are they fucking the environment with their carbon emissions, a lot of them are helping the destruction with their bloody great lithium battery banks. 
 
I must add, I don’t have a personal problem with them, as long as they don’t cast environmentally based dispersions on people who pour a little bit of water on a tree. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order, based purely on financial elitism. It’s NOT environmentalism. They’re not fooling anyone. 
 
I have been accused of being “anti-big rig.” I suppose I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like the people who own them. I generally get on with people. I’m also anti over investment in the housing market, yet many of my close friends have done it. 
 
My problem with “big rigs” is that they defeat the principal purposes and purpose principles of downscaling. Especially given that many owners don’t even live in them permanently. For me and many others, downscaling is political. It’s a means of survival. I just feel that in many cases “big rigs” display an over reliance on wealth. I don’t have a major issue with unnecessary wealth. I have an issue with wealthy people who regard those who struggle, as enemies of the state. The biggest problem in this country is insanely wealthy people who don’t pay taxes. Now, talking about Gina; back to mining lithium. 
 
It’s very interesting that Tesla one of the world’s biggest producers of Lithium batteries, is sneaking it’s way under the bed covers of both state and federal governments. Call me a cynic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the sudden benevolence displayed by Elon Musk and Tesla towards Australia, might just have something to do with them getting their filthy mitts on our resources. 
 
We’ve seen the disastrous results of our national grid being sold off to private investors around the country. That’s only a small taste of the public being fucked over, in comparison to what’s going to happen if Tesla achieve world domination.
 
OK, there’s my political rant over. Well nearly. I have to add that it’s a very sad indictment on Western capitalism, when something as positive for our future as renewable energy, is allowed to be turned into a monster by government / corporate cronyism!
 
So, that’s the political bad shit about Lithium. Most people reading this probably won’t give a shit about that, so I’d better also point out that whilst an 100Ah AGM battery can cost as little as $200, a 100Ah Lithium battery will set you back over $1,000!!!! The charging equipment for Lithium batteries is also considerably more expensive than for AGM batteries. Also, if you’re going to have a huge battery bank, you’re going to need a hell of a big solar array and somewhere to put it. My personal advice to anyone, be they in a home, caravan or motorhome, is scale back your usage and make do with as small a system as you can.
 
Not all lithium stops me from being mad! Lithium batteries make me MAD!!!

Fuses, Breakers and Cable Ratings

Everything in a 12v system needs to have a fuse or breaker in line. A fuse contains a wire that burns out and breaks when a current greater than is required to supply an appliance passes through it. It breaks the circuit rendering it safe. Once the problem has been isolated the fuse can be replaced with a new one.
 
Breakers perform the same task as fuses, only they are somewhat more complex in that they are a switch mechanism that is activated, breaking the circuit when a current greater than it’s nominated value is detected. 
 
The most common reason for a fuse or breaker being activated is a short circuit. A short circuit occurs when there’s some sort of connection between the positive and negative sides of a DC circuit. This can result from wires or terminations making contact with each other, or contact being made through conductive material that is making common contact with each side of the same circuit. 
 
Whilst 12v DC circuits don’t carry the same risk of electrocution that 240v DC does, a 12v short circuit can easily result in a fire with catastrophic results. In my opinion, 12v DC installations can be more dangerous than 240v installations. You don’t have to be qualified to do the work. Terminations are not required to be of the same high safety standard as 240v AC and people fear 12v DC far less than 240v AC, due to the significantly lower risk of electrocution. As already stated, the risk of fire is indeed great, so BE CAREFUL. Read as much as you can and don’t attempt any installation until you are absolutely certain that you can do it safely and avoid short circuits. It’s probably a good idea to get your first few installations safety checked by an auto electrician. It’s a small price to pay for safety.
 
Personally I use breakers instead of fuses on everything. It’s easier to re-set than replace and they allow more convenient isolation of a problem. If a breaker trips after you have “fixed” a problem, you know you haven’t fixed the problem. The same applies to a fuse, however every time a fuse breaks, it has to be thrown away and replaced with a new one. You can go through a lot of fuses while isolating a problem.
 
I have also seen examples of blade fuses burning out but actually fusing open circuit as a result of the metal melting. This could result in an ongoing  short circuit, which could in turn result in a fire. 
 
I tend to use “blade breakers”, which look like a typical “blade fuse” that you fins in a car’s fuse box, only they’re black with a little red re-settable button in the top. They don’t seem to be very popular. I think there’s a common misconception that due to their less than imposing size, they’re somehow less reliable than seemingly more solidly built breakers. I’ve been using them in my caravan fuse box for nearly four years. They are extremely reliable. I’ve never had one fail. They don’t trip unnecessarily and I’ve tested their effectiveness on a regular basis. They’re excellent. They cost considerably less than seemingly more substantial breakers and take up considerably less space. They fit into a typical automotive fuse box.
 
Fuses and breakers are rated in amps. gauging a fuse rating isn’t rocket science. I work out the sum on the maximum current that can be drawn on a particular circuit and round off the fuse value to the next highest value. For instance, if the sum of all of your 12v fans in use at the same time is 4 Amps, the next highest value is a 5 Amp fuse or breaker. This allows for some latitude. They won’t trip the circuit if the current drawn surges slightly and goes above the nominal total current value a little bit, but if a short circuit occurs the fuse or breaker will trip safely. If the fuse or breaker rating is too high for the circuit, problems can occur without it tripping. This can result in damage to equipment.
 
The same principle applies to cable diameter, which in turn corresponds to current rating. However, if the current in a cable is too high for what it’s diameter allows for, it obviously won’t trip. Instead it will overheat with great potential to start a fire. Wire diameter which corresponds to current rating, should match fuse or breaker values. 
 
This post is designed as a brief guide. I seriously suggest reading considerably more on breakers, fuses, cable rating, schematics, terminations and joiners, prior to undertaking any installation work. 
 
Blade fuse box with blade breakers inserted

The 3-Way Fridge Trap

That sounds like some kind of bizarre criminal activity by a psychotic serial killer, but it’s not. At least not yet anyway. 
 
3-way fridges run on gas, 240v electricity and 12v electricity. 
 
I keep reading about people with the same problem; “my 3-way fridge is draining my battery quickly.”
 
This is very simple. This style of fridge runs by means of heat exchange, unlike others that run by means of a compressor. Compressor fridges, such as Engels and Waecos for instance, are very energy efficient. Heat exchanger fridges are very energy inefficient. Some  can draw up to 25 Amps, whilst a similar size compressor fridge will draw between 1.5 and 3 Amps.
3-way fridges are designed specifically to run on LPG when off grid and 240v AC when available. The 12v option is for the specific purpose of powering the fridge whilst the vehicle is moving, with a direct connection to the alternator. 
 
We have a 2-way fridge. We tend to use our freezer to pre-freeze ice packs prior to a long journey. We pack the fridge up with them for the first part of the journey, leaving the fridge turned off. We then connect the fridge to 240v via the invertor for the second half. Our fridge is more efficient than some and we are continuously charging the battery bank via solar panels on the roof as we travel. We usually end up with a reasonably full battery and cold beers when we arrive at our destination.
 
If you have a 3-way fridge, it’s meant to be powered by LPG gas when you’re off grid. Running it from a 12v battery will drain the battery very quickly. Don’t do it, or if you do, don’t whinge on the internet because you’ve been told.
 
Our kitchen with our 42 year old Electrolux 2-way fridge

Points to Remember

  •  Batteries and battery banks are measured in Amp hours
  • Amp hours are like litres in a fuel tan
  • P (Power) / V (Voltage) = I (Current) – That’s how to calculate how much “fuel” you’re using
  • A deep cycle battery is designed to deliver a low currently continuously over a long period of time, whilst a car / cranking battery is designed to deliver a high current in a short burst to start a motor.
  • You’re battery or bank should never fall below half full (50% DoD)
  • Voltage indicates how full a battery is – 12.2v is about half full.
  • A group of solar panels is called an array. Measured in Watts.
  • In full sun, 6 Amps is generated by every 100 Watts in an array.
  • Solar arrays are connected to solar regulators. Good solar regulators are intelligent multi stage chargers. They ensure a full charge and prevent over charging.
  • As a suggestion, an array should total in Watts, twice the size of a battery bank in amp hours. For example – 200W battery bank requires a 400W array. Not a hard and fast rule. 6
  • A good 240v intelligent charger is important for putting your batteries through a good continuous charge cycle when mains or generator power is available. They are also a very good means of regenerating batteries that have been over discharged.
  • Charging from an alternator / vehicle is very convenient if you travel regularly. Always bear in mind that gained energy is paid for elsewhere. Charging from a vehicle will increase fuel consumption.
  • DC to DC chargers provide multi stage charging from a vehicle. They are reasonably expensive and might be unnecessary for people who don’t move on from a location regularly.
  • Battery isolators can be used in place of DC to DC chargers. They are very inexpensive, but only provide a bulk charge. They will never completely charge a battery because a solenoid cuts switches charging out at a nominal voltage in order to prevent over charging.
  • Battery isolators also prevent a car / cranking battery from being discharged when a house / aux battery reaches a nominal DoD.
  • A house or aux battery can be bulk charged by a vehicle via a battery isolator whilst driving and then switched over to solar charging for final stage charging with a reduced current.
  •  Inverters transform 12v DC from a battery into 240v AC for powering domestic appliances.
  • When an invertor is left on but no appliances are being used, the invertor is “idling.” It does not use run at it’s rated power (wattage) when on but not powering an appliance. Idling draws a very small current.
  • Invertors are not magic. They are only as capable as your battery bank. Large invertors are often a waste of money. They can provide a 240v supply to appliances of a high wattage, but they’ll suck batteries dry in a hurry.
  • Lithium batteries are expensive, evil and the core of world domination by a US power giant. (Shit that’s going to cause some arguments – good job I enjoy being insulted by people who I’ve insulted because they just spent a fuck load of money on lithium batteries) Fuses, breakers and correct cable ratings can save your equipment or possibly your life by preventing a fire. They’re designed to ensure that a circuit does not carry a greater current than it’s supposed to.
  • Fridges that run on LPG gas are supposed to run off LPG gas when a 240v AC supply is not available. If you run one from a 12v DC battery, you will discharge it very quickly, so don’t do it! If you do, don’t whinge about it online, because now you know not to and it’s your own fault if someone calls you a goose. 

How much does it cost to go around Australia – CampersWay

 12 MONTHS ON THE ROAD 

➡️We’ve spent $35,919.20 in total. 
 Includes gas bottles, rego, phone bills, insurances etc etc.
= $690.75 per week

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➡️Total grocery bill is $7,205.77 
= $138.57 per week

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➡️We’ve visited 5 states so far. 
 Tom’s Favourite State – Tasmania
 Mikaela’s Favourite State – Northern Territory

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➡️Travelled 35,970 km’s.

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➡️Most we’ve paid for diesel – $2.50/L⛽️

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➡️Total fuel bill is $6,833.13
= $131.40 per week

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➡️We’ve had one baby 
 Welcome to the Clan Milla

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➡️Visited 124 playgrounds. 

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➡️Collected 61 stubby holders. 

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➡️We’ve gone through 8 pairs of thongs.
•Leaderboard•
 (3) Kane , Lucas
 (2) Tom
 (0) Mikaela, Milla

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➡️We’ve had 1 flat tyre. 

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➡️Car servicing costs – $1368

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➡️We’ve had our towing mirrors and our Caravan stone guard stolen. 

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➡️We’ve replaced one Caravan door handle, one TV antenna handle, one 12V TV, two solar panels, one toilet pump, one cracked water pipe and our awning. 

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➡️Caravan costs – $3,560

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➡️We’ve stayed at 206 free camps. 
 Favourite free camp – Cosy Corner North in Binalong Bay, Tasmania 

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➡️We’ve stayed in 159 Caravan Parks. 
 Favourite Caravan Park – BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort

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➡️Total accommodation bill is $5,602.35
=$107.73 per week

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➡️Most played driving song – Ride With Me by Nelly (boys know it as “the money song”)

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➡️Total activities bill is $2,124.25
 Tom’s Highlights – Wineglass BayThe Daintree Rainforest
 Mikaela’s Highlights – West MacDonnell RangesGreat Barrier Reef Marine ParkUluru
 Kane’s Highlights – Gold Coast Theme Parks, all the water slides
 Lucas’ Highlights – Australia Zoo, all the playgrounds

———————————————-➡️Favourite Pub – Daly Waters Historic Pub

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➡️Total alcohol bill is $1602.43

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➡️A few essentials that make caravanning a lot easier –
 Our washing machine (saves us so much money!)
 12V fans (makes free camping a lot more comfortable!)
 Our Waeco (thank goodness for extra freezer space and cold beer) 

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➡️Families we have met along the way
 Mountain Sun Sea, The Blizzards’ Big Lap, Rogros Great Escape, Sonset Seekers, Aussie Wanderlust (plus a few more who don’t have FB pages) 

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➡️We’ve seen more then what we ever thought was possible. Australia truly is an amazingly diverse, beautiful country. 

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➡️There’s been campfires, red dirt, blue skies, waterfalls, sunsets and sand in our toes.

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➡️We’ve watched as our kids flourish becoming independent, knowledgable, adventurous little boys. 

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➡️Our marriage has gone from strength to strength. 

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➡️We’ve shared a drink and a laugh with so many new friends. 

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➡️A LIFETIME OF MEMORIES ‍‍‍

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And there’s still so much left to see and do —No regrets

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Ignoring The Brand Bigots

I’ve not been having a great time with caravan / camping forums and groups lately. It seems when i proffer information for essentially altruistic reasons, some bigoted old prick wants to go me for no reason other than affirming their self importance. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I appear a little angry. I probably shouldn’t get as angry as I do about the topic of this post, but I really have been driven to being incensed by a prevailing attitude on caravan and camping groups and forums. Campers Way is designed as a resource for low income survival and as a place where alternative views can be expressed. However, this blog has to reach those who it’s relevant to, or else I’m just wasting my time

I post on groups and forums as a means of trying to get useful information via Campers Way posts, to those who might be struggling on low incomes. Many low income earners use such groups and forums, which is certainly a good thing. I also must add that the people who run them, generally do so with very good intentions. Unfortunately they have no effective means of eliminating the bullies and ‘brand bigots’ and empty vessels make the most noise. So there lies the problem. People who don’t rely on low incomes, can very often act like complete arseholes and unfortunately their disdain appears to be firmly focused on those who are on low incomes!

Let’s take an example:
Question – I’m a single mother with a 3 year old, travelling on a budget. Fridge space is limited. Can anyone recommend a reasonably priced “Esky” in which I can keep fresh vegetables at a reasonable temperature.

That seems like a very reasonable question. Some vegetables perish very slowly in cool dark conditions and their gradual deterioration does not promote the growth of harmful bacteria. A good, frugal way to economise on fridge space.

Enter Over 65, Akubra Wearing Bearded Man!

Answer: We have a 96ft Ozbastard  semi lunar surface caravan with a “Megacool 2000, 872 Litre fridge, which runs from it’s own dedicated nuclear reactor and sends me a text when I need a beer!!! If you can’t afford one, you shouldn’t be on the road. It’s Un-Australian!!

So I exaggerate somewhat, but you get my drift.

A lot of us are on the road because it’s our only choice. I’m not complaining about my own situation and I’ve managed to forge a good life by understanding frugality and through resourcefulness. There’s an increasing number of people who can’t possibly afford to be in the housing market. The Commonwealth Government refuse to soil their statistics by recognising us as homeless, whilst at the same time many financially buoyant people who travel by choice, think we’re on ‘holiday and shouldn’t be, because we can’t afford to be.’ I’ve commented on innumerable groups and forums about reasonably priced camping. Time and time again I’ve met a wall of ignorance; “If you can’t afford to be on holiday, stay home.” They have absolute no idea of the……..and the…. Well, they absolutely no fucking idea to be perfectly frank! 

There’s a mean spiritedness in this country that belies the Australian character that inspired me to call this country home. There was a time when people really did respect “the battler;” those who survived contrary to what the system threw their way. These days the idea of “the battler” is one who battles to be part of the system. One who drowns in a stagnant pool of debt for things they don’t need. Debt that does absolutely nothing but prop up the banking system and lavish the wealthiest 1%. There are a lot of angry people whose anger is elicited by their struggle to maintain a lifestyle that they don’t actually need. Instead of blaming the system, they blame those who manage to traverse it.

How can people who are forced out of the housing market, possibly stay at home when they don’t have one. We can’t live in non existent public housing. We can’t “camp” (as it’s often called) in one place, because of ridiculous time limits. That’s why we travel and why the hell shouldn’t we. Many of us are disability pensioners, others are itinerant workers who work where they can. Whatever we may be, there’s a mean spirited middle class who not only don’t get it, but don’t want us around them. These are often the people who frequent online groups and forums, utterly incapable of proffering advice to anyone who’s economic resources are limited. 

A lot of people are lost in time. Many still believe that brands still mean something. Indeed some still do, but the sad reality is that since the global manufacturing shift, many are simply just names. Regardless of what the reality may be, people develop emotional attachments to brand names and nothing will convince them to shop around. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s indeed their choice, however their advice can be somewhat misleading, when it comes to value for money.

Let’s look at fridges. Whilst I won’t delve into the Megacool 2000’s thermonuclear technology, I will look at better known and equally lauded brand; Engel

Engel and Honda in the “do as I say, not what I do configuration

The first point I should make is that I personally believe that Engel products are indeed excellent. I have owned the same 40L fridge for over 20 years and it’s still humming away in the back of my Land Rover.

The first thing many people associate with Engel, is that it’s an Australian brand. Engel is indeed an Australian company, but they have never manufactured a fridge in Australia, which is probably why they were so good in the first place! Engel were smarter than that and contracted production to Sawafuji Electric Co Ltd, Japan. Whilst there were once urban myths about the inferior quality of Japanese manufacturing, the truth is that the Japanese have been close to the world’s best manufacturer of electronics for decades. Classic Engel fridges are testament to that.

Japan is a first world economy and like most manufacturers around the globe, Japanese manufacturers saw the economic benefits of off shore production. Like many other Japanese companies, including motor vehicle manufacturers, Sawafuji Electric also moved production off shore. Now Engel fridges are not only an overseas product, they’re also one of many Chinese manufactured products.

Now let’s have a look at Chinese manufacturing. I’m in no way a fan of the manner in which Australian manufacturing industries have been reduced to virtually nothing, but I’m not going to generally condemn Chinese manufacturing. This is a culture of master craftspeople we’re talking about. They were crafting fine furniture and erecting complex architecture when the average Western plebs were starting the shave the right-angles off early wheel designs. 

There is certainly no reason to doubt the Chinese ability to make some really good stuff. Where Chinese manufacturing has come into question, is by means of very dubious products  that were made primarily for their massive, not very well paid domestic market and of course a growing export market via online sales. The reason that many such products are indeed of dubious quality, is because they are made using extremely low end manufacturing processes and with virtually no quality control, in order that they’re very, very cheap.

Sawafuji Electric on the other hand, would certainly contract much higher end manufacturers to manufacture Engel fridges, under fairly strict supervision. I’m sure that there’s also strict quality control procedures in place. Whether this manufacturing shift is a success, remains to be seen. The newer Chinese made Engel fridges appear to be of exceedingly high quality. The question is will they still be humming away in the backs of cars, more than 20 years after they were purchased. 

It’s interesting that products such as Engel fridges, haven’t come down in price, despite their manufacturing costs being reduced to a fraction of what they were when they were manufactured in Japan. One can hardly blame them for that. Another aspect of the global manufacturing shift has been a huge increase in competition. When I bought my Engel in the 90’s, there were possibly 3 noticeable players on the portable fridge market. Twenty odd years on, there are scores of them. If a company like Engel dropped it’s retail prices in accordance with manufacturing overheads, the product might not be able to withstand the inherent reduction in sales figures brought on by increased competition. I’m not sure what their sales figures are compared to the 90’s, but today’s market is significantly bigger and my hypothesis is based on market share. 

Engel’s top range tends to be a fair bit more expensive than their competitor’s products, but they have also retained a very good reputation. At the end of the day however, not everyone can afford to pay for reputation.

That brings us to the manufacturing buzzword of the new millennium: OEM.
Original Equipment Manufacturers are companies that have contracts with branded companies, to manufacture and badge products. Let’s stay on the subject of fridges. For some manufacturers it might not be economically worthwhile contracting a Chinese factory to custom make their fridges in the manner that Engels are made. OEM manufacturers make products in huge quantities and sell those products to better known companies, branded as their product. The greater the buying ability of the branded company, the more economically viable it is to pay OEMs to customise the appearance of their fridges enough to make them appear somewhat more unique. However, customisation is generally no more than cosmetic and under the surface the fridge is indeed the exact same model as those sold under a number of different brand names. 

One of Australia’s biggest selling portable fridge “brands” is manufactured in exactly this manner. From what I can gather, their products are as reliable as they might have been in the past. My point is not about quality. Let’s not be unfair to OEMs; some of them make quality gear. There’s an example of an OEM compressor fridge being sold in Australia under the name of Lumik via ebay. The Lumik 50L fridge retails for around $450, whereas the same fridge, equipped with the same Danfos compressor, sells for over $700 as a better known brand. over $250 is a big chunk of cash for absolutely nothing, especially since in some cases, Lumik’s Australian distributor offers a longer warranty. Brand Nazis will tell you that the Lumik product is “Chinese Rubbish,” whilst singing the praises of the same product, branded differently. My recommendation is do your research and save your money. 

Brand loyalty is a funny thing. I once owned a brewery. I often had people come into our retail outlet and ask if we had anything that tasted like VB. On the rare occasion that I didn’t possess enough energy for a sarcastic response, I’d question why they might have such a loyalty to VB (Vile Brew). Time and time again, middle aged men would tell me that they drank it because they always had and it’s what their father had drank. I’d ask them from whence they and their fathers had hailed. Being located in NSW, the answer was most often Sydney. The trouble was, VB was a very minor packaged brand in Sydney until the 1990’s when Carlton United re-launched it as an age old brand and distributed it on tap for the first time in NSW, to claw back from the disastrous failure of Fosters as a domestic brand. A lot of middle aged men’s father’s must have done a lot of searching around inner Sydney to find the beer to which they developed such loyalty all those years before it was widely distributed and heavily marketed. 

Fosters itself is an interesting story. Following the success of a barely similar version brewed under licence in the UK, Fosters had a brief taste of success on the domestic market. Even after it’s domestic demise, Carlton continued to brew it for export, largely to Asia and the USA. I have had many conversations with people pertaining to how terrible Fosters is and that ‘foreigners think it’s Australian beer, but Australians would never drink it’: “It’s un-Australian!”

On more than one occasion, that conversation took place between myself and someone drinking their favourite beer, Crown Lager. What incidentally was Crown Lager labelled as for export at that time? You guessed it.

There are very few western nations in which there’s such a strong beer drinking culture amongst men with such a dire lack of beer knowledge. Yet Australian’s will gladly exalt the virtues of quite possibly some of the worst mass produced beers on the planet. American beers get the biggest hammering, yet the USA has developed the best small regional brewing culture on the planet over the past 30 odd years. The one that grates at me, is “Pommy” beer bashing. Not only is there the widespread myth that it’s drunk warm like tea, there’s also the near obsessive belief that it’s of inferior quality. A centuries old tradition of artisan brewing, maligned by middle aged men who eat Chiko rolls and drink VB!

Much of this applies to the equipment that people rely upon on the road. It’s all very well to recommend the most expensive brand because owning such a product makes a middle aged man believe he can piss higher, but if you can’t afford to purchase such an item, there are endless alternatives that will not result in your social inferiority. It might see you being omitted from the “happy hour” invite list, but that’s probably a good thing. You might be handed a VB and feel obliged to drink it through politeness. Oh my god NOOOOO!!!!

Generators are a classic. You must never dare buy anything but a Honda. Advice often given by people who’s fault it is that generators are a waste of money, because they’ll be the first to whinge every time you crank one up. There’s no doubt that Honda generators are indeed excellent. They’re no longer manufactured in Japan, but Honda do have their own factory in Thailand. I own one, which I was lucky enough to purchase second hand at a ridiculously low price. I’m very happy with it. However, I hardly ever use it. If my choice was to buy a Honda at the market price, or buy one of a number of pretty good Chinese OEM generators that are available for a significantly lower price. Well it’s a no brainer. 

Generators are a back up. The idea is to use them as infrequently as possible. There’s nothing sensible about buying a very expensive brand if you use it infrequently. Yet some people in groups and on forums are vehement in their support of Honda generators. The price difference between a cheap perfectly reliable generator and a high quality Honda, could actually be more than the difference between the price of an unpowered and a powered site for a year. We have to budget sensibly and buy what suits our budgets practically. It really pisses me off that some cashed up people bang on to an extent that they make low income earners feel that they’re inferior, or worse still that they “shouldn’t be on the road!” Those people are idiots who really just want to broadcast what they possess, online!

I’ve picked on the Webber Q barbecue obsession before. I have never known a product so universally possessed by one particular demographic. I am absolutely certain that they’re very, very good at performing the task for which they were designed. I’m also quite happy to accept that they are well built and will last a long time. I have absolutely nothing against anyone owning one. What does shit me beyond belief is that they’re at the centre of some kind of inculcated sausage cremating cult!!! How dare anyone not have one and therefore not be “one of us, one of us, one of us!”

“Engineered in the USA!” That’s the line on today’s Webber products. That’s right. Custom made to very high standards in China. Ironically the Chinese boast one of the most ancient and highly respected food cultures on the planet. There are thousands of unashamedly Chinese gas grill products that will do the job and go the distance as good as any Western appropriation and for a fraction of the cost. That lot know how to cook!!

My outdoor cooking set up consists of an old Australian made folding table, a Chinese cast iron burner and a French cast iron grill plate. It cost me $120 to make and breaks down into easy to pack away, easy to re-assemble, individual components. I can cook anything on it to perfection and I’m bloody fussy about my cooking!

Brand Nazis are everywhere. Try driving an old Land Rover Defender. People will literally make an effort to tell me to my face that I’m “a bloody idiot for driving such a shit heap – all they do is break down!” 300tdi Land Rovers and earlier, employed no microchip technology. They’re very simple cars and extremely robust. They are celebrated the world over as one of the last of the real off road vehicles. Parts are cheap, my car has rarely let me down and it costs bugger all in maintenance, because it’s easy enough to do most of it ourselves. 

I’m not suggesting that Land Rovers are for everyone, I’m pretty certain they’re not, neither do I want them to be. I like them and having been  around them for forty odd years, I know that they are absolutely excellent at doing what their designed to do. I really don’t care what some old arsebadger thinks, just because he owns a Toyota Landcruiser. I’m fully aware that Landcruisers are excellent vehicles and also excellent at doing what they’re designed to do. So just fuck off and leave me alone, because I don’t walk up to you and tell me that you’re a dickhead for owning a Toyota. These cockwombles must have lived their entire lives somewhere that one doesn’t get punched for being a complete gobshite. I have absolutely no idea how they’ve lived so long!

I’m not by any stretch of the imagination attempting to hang shit on people for owning certain brands. As noted; I own an Engel fridge, I own a Honda Generator, I have a collection of big brand quality power tools, because I used to be able to afford them. I’m not for one moment suggesting that people only purchase cheaper brands. I’m simply saying that if you live on the road because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, maybe some of the advice that’s proffered in online groups and forums, might be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s all very well for someone who has a shitload of cash to spend on camping for recreation, to bang on about buying only the most expensive gear. Some of us need stuff in order to survive and we need it right away. That means that we have to buy what we can afford to buy, without going without luxuries such as food, medication and fuel, until we can afford what we’re told we “have to buy!” 

A Home Buyers Guide – Caravans

One of the most common questions I read in forums and groups is: “caravan, motorhome, or camper trailer?“ The question leaves me perplexed. Not perplexed as to the answer, but perplexed as to why people keep asking questions that there’s nothing like a definitive answer to. You know, I honestly believe that the purpose of the internet for some people, is accumulating the highest possible number of responses to their posts and kicking off the biggest blues!

Our 1975 Franklin Arrow

Of course there are benefits to all modes of on the road living. Caravans give you the advantage of a separate vehicle to get around in. camper trailers have a weight and access advantage and motorhomes get you invites to a higher class of happy hour – 2L goon boxes instead of 4L. I’m kidding! Motorhomes give you the advantage of an all in one package. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. What might be an advantage for one person, might be a disadvantage for another.

For all intents and purposes, Campers Way is about low income living on the road , not just touring for a given period. I tend to look at topics from the point of view of living permanently on the road. Also, I might add, not everything I say is the bottom line. I merely proffer a personal opinion. There will always be exceptions to my personal rules and there will always be people who genuinely know more about the topics about which I proffer my knowledge and experience. It’s absolutely fantastic when such experts add value to a post by offering a little bit more. It’s also great when people offer their own experiences and tales of successful on the road living, that might be quite different to my own. What isn’t constructive as far as helping people to survive is concerned, are responses that contradict for the sake of contradiction and cast wild and vehement aspersions about being “wrong!” There’s no right and wrong. As John Lennon famously sang “Whatever get’s through the night. S’alright s’alright!”

So, caravans. As far as I see it, the best way to step away from the housing market and stay away from the edge, is by moving into a caravan. Just remember; this is all about living on the road not just touring for recreation. Here are my reasons.

  • Most people already own a car. Admittedly most aren’t perfect tow vehicles, but that will be addressed in a future post.
    Caravans provide a significantly more solid base for a home than camper trailers.
  • You get a hell of a lot of caravan for your buck, compared to motorhomes, which generally enjoy better re-sale values. You can pick up a good caravan very cheaply. Even if it requires work to get it to a roadworthy state, the cost will be relatively low.
  • Once parked, a tow vehicle becomes your everyday ride. Low income earners are generally unlikely to be able to afford to own, register, insure and maintain 2 vehicles and a T-bar / trailer to tow with. For some reason, some people have a sense of guilt about having a bit of dough and will swear that the motorhome towing a car combo, doesn’t cost any more money. It does. A lot. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want and can afford, but this is about surviving on as little money as possible.
  • Caravans are cheap and easy to repair and maintain. Flash modern caravans, not so much, but solid older caravans yes! Many people would be surprised by how cheap trailer parts actually are.
  • If your home is a caravan, you don’t temporarily lose your home when it’s essential to carry out necessary mechanical repairs that involve your vehicle being in a mechanical repairs workshop.
  • It might be a little bit more expensive to register a caravan and vehicle than to register a motorhome, but that’s outweighed by the other savings. Caravan insurance is very inexpensive and some insurers offer attractive packages for car / caravan insurance. If you’re a pensioner, in some states (NSW for instance) pensioners get one free registration. That means that pensioners pay to register their caravan, but not their car. If a couple are both pensioners, the car can be registered in one name for free and the caravan in the other. That is totally legal.
  • Whilst in transit. It’s not difficult to unhitch a caravan temporarily in a discreet location and go off to the shops in the car. That means easier access to car parks and narrow streets.

So, what do you look for when buying a cheap. entry level caravan?

What you buy is down to your budget. However, it’s absolutely vital to consider your ongoing financial situation. Even if you have enough money to purchase a fairly flash, all singing all dancing caravan at a reasonable second hand price, will you have the money in the future to maintain it, should anything go wrong with it? The more basic the caravan, the less it will cost to maintain and repair. Even quite modern caravans are reasonably simple, but some can get into big money when you’re talking independent suspension and highly complex electric brake systems.

This guide is essentially aimed at those who wish to purchase a good dooer upper.

The first step in buying a low cost caravan for the purpose of travelling and living in, is to decide on a budget. Once you have decided on a firm figure, add up the following:

  • The cost of new rims and light truck tyres.
  • The cost of a new set of bearings.
  • The cost of a new set of brake backing plates with shoe assemblies.
  • The cost of a tilt tray to a repairer that can fit those items.
  • The cost of the work.

You’re not going to get much change out of $2,000, so start looking for a caravan that’s advertised at $2,000 under your budget. If you happen to find something that’s roadworthy and registered within your budget, you’re laughing. However, if a seller cannot easily demonstrate that those items are in full working order. Don’t take the risk.

You will generally find that as far as a cheap older caravan goes, those items will not be in sufficient working order. The good news is, you can find reasonably good older vans for between $3,000 and $5,000, so by following this advice, you should be safely on the road for between $5K and $7K. That’s a cheap home, albeit a “renovator’s dream!”

A lot of ads state that the price is negotiable and others state that the price is non negotiable. If a price is listed as not neg. there are 3 likely scenarios: 1) The Caravan is in excellent condition and the price is extremely fair – “Oh look kiddies, there’s Peppa Pig in the ABC chopper.” 2) They aren’t that keen on selling it and are fishing for the best price. 3) They’re bullshitting!

You need to look at every seller as a Bangkok copy watch salesman. You have to act as if despite having to board a flight in 4 hours and thus your time being precious, you know that it looks fuck all like a real Rolex and it’ll stop working as soon as you’ve shown it to your mates in the pub back home, for laugh!

A lot of older caravans have been providing shade for weeds for many years. It’s often a case that they go on the market when the owner needs quick cash. That’s probably not so in the case of a van that’s been loved and maintained, but anything that’s a little shabby, tends to elicit a sense of being very negotiable. Despite the silly prices being put on “vintage” caravans (particularly Viscounts) these days, the reality is that a lot of people are fishing. Market values are finite. If it costs you more money to get it into a decent condition, than it’s actual market value after restoration, it’s simply not worth the asking price.

You also have to be aware of you limitations in regards to carrying out repairs and refurbishments. If you feel that your skills are very limited, start developing some. Otherwise there’s no point in buying a cheap older caravan. It will cost you more to get the work done by a professional than it would cost you to buy something in full working order. Another important consideration is that if your caravan is going to be your home, you probably want it to feel somewhat personalised in terms of it’s interior design. You won’t get that unless you do it yourself.

The finer points of establishing whether or not a caravan is a heap of shit!

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a complete piece of shit, just as long as you’re aware that it is and you are prepared for a significant workload. In the meantime there are several things you can look for in order to greatly reduce that effort:

  • Ask for the caravan to be parked on a hard, dry, level surface for inspection.
  • Check that the caravan itself sits level. That’s your primary suspension check.
  • Inspect leaf type suspension for cracks in the leaves, deep corrosion, worn eye mounts on either end, worn bushes in the case of tandem axle or “rocker roller” systems. Carefully check the U-bolts that hold the axles to the suspension, for warping and corrosion. If it’s IRS (Independent Rubber Suspension) check the rubber for wear. They are easy to replace. I suggest learning a little more about suspension from the “web of all knowledge” prior to inspection. There’s not a great deal to it. Also bear in mind that suspension is not insanely expensive for simple caravans, so even if it does require work or replacement, it could be a good bargaining chip.
  • Check the chassis and draw bar thoroughly for cracks and deep corrosion. In my personal opinion, chassis are a game changer. Unless you or a mate are highly experienced at welding and fish plating to an automotive engineering standard or you have a lot of dough to spend, walk away from a cracked or corroded chassis or draw bar. It’s not worth your while.
  • Take a trolley jack with you. If you are intending towing it away, a quick check of the hubs drums and brakes is necessary. Jack up each wheel individually until it’s off the ground and see how well it spins freely. Hold each wheel firmly with you left and right hands respectively and shake them in a forward / backward motion. If there’s significant wobble, you’re up for new bearings. You’ll be up for new bearings regardless, but demonstrating as much to the seller won’t hurt your cause and it’ll let you know how likely it is that you’ll tow it away on the day.
  • With the braked wheels off the ground, spin each wheel and get some one else to push on the brake lever at the master cylinder on the draw bar. Being brakes, the wheel should stop spinning upon activation. Fairly simple with hydraulic or cabled override breaks. With electric brakes you would need to hook up to a car with an electric brake controller and get someone to depress the brake while you spin. Unless the brakes are fairly new, you’ll need to replace them anyway. It’s much safer. Also bear in mind that old shoes will not be asbestos free. Checking them at the time of inspection is more about whether you can save the cost of a tilt tray and be able to say “these brakes are fucked mate! You’ll have to drop the price.”
  • It’s a good idea to remove each wheel and check for damage to the axle stubs. It’s a little tricky without undoing the castle nuts and removing the hubs, but it might be worth your while. On the other hand, you could check for obvious bows and check the axle fully after purchasing the van. Chances are they’ll be OK, but I’m of the school of thought that replacing axles on an old caravan is a medium term default, especially if they’re the older hollow type. Again new axles are an investment in your safety. They sound like a major component, but in relative terms they really aren’t that expensive.
  • The actuator is a sprung mechanism that has the tow hitch attached at one end and moves backwards and forwards with the motion of the vehicle, allowing the lever that activates the brakes to have pressure applied to it and to be released accordingly. The actuator shaft should be checked for sufficient grease and significant surface corrosion that might lead to it being seized. It has to move for the brakes to work.
  • Signal and clearance lights obviously have to work if you intend towing a caravan away. It can take a very long time to isolate and fix a very simple problem. It’s probably a good to take a towing board with you. You can waste an awful lot of time attempting to make the lights work as required by law.
  • Tyres and rims aren’t worth keeping. If the caravan is fit to be towed, tow it straight to a tyre supplier. Tread means nothing. Tyres that have been in the one position for a long time with weight on them will be egged. They will also be prone to cracking and perishing. Don’t risk your life for the sake of a set of tyres. Make sure they’re in your budget. A lot of older rims are also a bit of a liability. Corrosion causes them to be uneven and incapable of forming a good bead with the tyre. You risk slow leaks and blowouts. You can get around the issue by putting tubes in tubeless tyres, but at as little as $50 per new rim, is it really worth it. Be prepared to get rid of existing rims and tyres.

 

So, the leaves bushes and U-bolts look fine. I’m not so sure about that axle stub plate!

That takes care of basic road worthiness issues but there’s a whole lot more to consider inside:

  • Leaks – leaks are never impossible to fix. They can be tricky to isolate, but they can always be fixed with the right materials and some basic skills. What you are looking for is rot. Everything is replaceable, but some jobs are harder than others. Rot can be especially problematic around front and rear windows. Sills and structural timbers can end up being like sponge as a result of years of leaking. They’re usually quite easy to re-build after leaks have been dealt with. There’s usually only a small area of wall skin around large windows. Sometimes it can be saved, sometimes re-made. When buying a caravan check around sills for sponginess and look for significant staining on wall and roof skins, particularly around hatches. If roof and wall skins are just stained but still firm, they can be treated and painted. If they’re rotten, replacing them can be a major job.
  • Structural water damage. Structural water damage in a timber framed van can be pretty catastrophic. You can’t exactly pull wall skins off upon inspection, but you can sight the caravan along it’s length from outside and check for warping and outward bulging. If anything is noticeable, you’re in for trouble. If you want a full restoration project and you have the time and money to spend, go for it. If you want something to live in for fiscal reasons, walk away. Warped walls are like cracked chassis. There shouldn’t be much of a problem with aluminium framed caravans, that’s why even very old Viscounts are so popular. Whilst warping isn’t as common in composite caravan walls, problems can occur, particularly around kitchens. Timber kitchen units can get wet as a result of being insufficiently sealed. They can swell and cause the composite wall to bow outward. Keep a look out for that. Some composite vans have a structural timber frame along the bottom edge of the side walls. This can prove problematic around the water hose attachment. Hose fittings invariably leak and years of water spraying up onto that structural timber can cause it to rot. Especially around wheel arches.
  • Cupboards and drawers are generally pretty easy to fix up. The trickiest part is attempting to restore or replace original timber-look laminates. They have invariably been discontinued. Some of those laminates are indeed very decorative, particularly in 50’s and 60’s vans. To be brutally honest, most laminates post the early 70’s are as ugly as a hat full of arseholes. Originality is one thing, but what’s the point if it looks like shit! The same goes for cupboard doors and drawer fronts. There’s a lot of laminated chipboard out there. Vast chipboard and plastic wood forests were torn down in the 1970’s in order to make Australian caravans fucking ugly. The argument for chipboard was and sadly still is that it’s light. But seriously! Replacing doors and drawers with quality 10mm plywood is not going to add that much to the overall AGM. Doors can easily be re-made and there are very effective methods for painting laminates, which will be a separate post. I wouldn’t let dodgy cupboards put you off a cheap caravan.
  • Gas. It’s not going to cost a fortune to get some gas plumbing done if required. It’s not worth letting gas problems cloud your judgement too much. Check the gas regulations in the state in which you are registering the caravan and have fittings for fridges and stoves / cookers checked by a licensed gas fitter, even if they are working. Some states require a certificate anyway. The good thing about LPG is that if there is a problem that could cause you trouble inside the caravan, you’ll smell it. The most dangerous area is around gas fridge hatches, on the outer wall. There’s a live flame in the back of a gas fridge. There may be a leak around that area that you can’t necessarily smell whilst inside the van. It could still cause a dangerous ignition from the fridge. If a caravan has a gas fridge, it’s a good idea to fit a gas bottle (take a 4.5kg with you) to the van, open it up and check for a gas odour around the open fridge hatch.
  • 240v electricity on the other hand is a more serious issue. Test the lights and power points upon inspection. If they work, that’s great, but be prepared to replace the power points in due course. If supply is not reaching the lights or the power points, there’s the potential for some very expensive problems. In many vans, the sides have to be removed and replaced with new ones, in order to fix up wiring issues. There are ways of getting supply to a particular point and then running leads discretely via cupboards and trunking in order to avoid major work, but it’s all a little messy. You really do want a caravan with supply to all lights and power points. no matter what work is undertaken on 240v electricity in a caravan, it Must be undertaken by a licensed electrician.
  • 12v supply isn’t such a big problem. The worst case scenario is no supply to the ceiling lights, If that’s the case, it’s unlikely that it’s worth bothering to undergo major work to re-run supply to them. It’s easy to run a new 12v system from the house battery. It can run through cupboards in flexible conduit and even through the floor and under the caravan where necessary. If the ceiling lights remain dead, they can easily be replaced by wall or cupboard mounted lights with discreet wires.
Our first caravan refurbishment – 1969 Viscount C Royal
Inside the Viscount

What we have here is nothing like a caravan buying bible. There are a few pointers based upon my experience of purchasing vintage caravans. I’ve never bought a caravan that was built any later than 1976, so my experience is fairly limited. In saying that, Australian caravan design never changed a great deal until the mid 80s, so this advice covers a broad period. In fact many of my points apply to some fairly late model caravans.

Our Kitchen
1975 Franklin Arrow interior

Australian caravans from the 1970’s, arguably represent the most bang for buck when it comes to structural sturdiness. Franklins, Viscounts, Millards, Chesneys and a number of others were built like tanks in terms of their chassis and suspension. There are many caravan experts who argue that rocker roller suspension systems from that era, were the best ever to be fitted to Australian caravans. Mine is 42 years old, has it’s original leaves and bushes and is as solid as a rock, so I’m inclined to believe it.

Time for bed

There’s a hell of a lot of caravan to be bought for well under $10k, when you’re talking about vintage vans. We bought ours for $7,000 in very good roadworthy condition. We’ve spent about another $12k on it in 3 years. That’s a fair bit of dough, but we could never get anything like what we have, for under $40k. It’s literally fitted out to our own specification.
Over the next week or so, I’ll put up a few posts with details and photographs of specific aspects of our own project.

16 Travel Apps for your Big Lap around Australia

 

Before you take off on an epic tour around Australia, be sure to download the Best Travel Apps on the market. There is already so much you need to consider before you set off on your Big Lap. Here is a list of apps to help make your journey safer, smoother, and more fun! Written by: Mountain Sun Sea

Campsite Apps

You may have a hard copy of the Australian campsites from Camps Australia Wide 8 (Camps Australia Wide 9 is due in February 2017) – be sure to download both the Camps Australia Wide and Wikicamps apps.

  1. Camps Australia Wide is $7.99 to download but it contains indispensable information about campsites in addition to photographs of listings from both the Camps Australia Wide guide as well as the Caravan Parks Australia Wide guide.

camps8

Camps Australia Wide – Android

Camps Australia Wide – iTunes

  1. Wikicamps basic version is free, but the full version can be downloaded for a small one-time fee of $7.99 that will grant you access to the app for a lifetime. Wikicamps is a user generated database which is kept up-to-date with the latest information. It works completely offline so you don’t have to worry about signal or a wifi connection.

You just simply download all the content you need to your device before you go! You will find information about free and paid campsites and whether they are accessible for caravans or camper trailers. It shows you where there are caravan parks, road side rest areas, public dump points and much more! Wikicamps uses your location to show you nearby points of interest so you won’t miss anything cool on your journey.

wikicamps

Wikicamps Australia – iTunes

Wikicamps Australia – Android

 

Tracking Apps

  1. TrackMyTour is great for keeping family members up-to-date on your location. This app uses GPS tracking to make it easy for you to highlight places on your trip and send photos or other fun updates to loved ones at home. It’s a great app for travel in terms of keeping in touch with friends and family. The TrackMyTour app and website are free to use, but you are restricted to the number of maps. If you wish to create more maps you can then purchase an upgrade from within the app. TrackMyTour is only compatible on iTunes.

trackmytour                    trackmytrip

TrackMyTour – iTunes

The android version is called TrackMyTrip

  1. HemaExplorer – 4WD Maps costs $29.99. This app also uses GPS tracking and it literally follows the exact roads you drive. You do need to purchase maps as they only provide the most basic maps. You can upgrade to HEMA Offline for $99.99 if you are looking at navigating over extremely remote areas, with a real-time offline GPS tracking system and claims to have Australia’s best topographic mapping.

hema

Hema Explorer – Australia – iTunes

Hema Explorer – Australia – Android

WikiCamps also allows you plan your trip and if you need to – move each place as you travel. You can also view your route to help you find and plan other stops along the way. (See link above).

Budgeting Apps

  1. Track-Every-Coin is an app designed for tracking expenses in daily life as well as while traveling. It’s free for download just like you’d expect from a good expense tracker and is a very popular app for travellers.

trackeverycoin

Trail Wallet is a travel budget app designed for iPhones or iPads. It’s free for the first 25 items you track, but then you have to pay to use it.

You could also use Expedition Australia Budget Tracking spreadsheet, hardcopy, or just a book to keep track of your travel expenses.

Fuel App

  1. Fuel Map is a user generated database where the information is added and edited by users showing petrol stations and fuel prices. This app keeps the travellers around Australians in-the-know about the cost of petrol throughout the country.

fuel-map

Fuel Map – iTunes

Fuel Map – Android

Weather Apps

 To keep track of inclement weather conditions en-route to your destination!

  1. Bureau of Meteorology
  1. Weatherzone

weatherzone

Reminder Apps

Use these reminder apps to remember all the important dates and times like when to re-register your car and caravan. It’s easy to lose track of important dates when on the road day-after-day!

  1. Due – iTunes for your iPhone or iPad and E-Reminder for Android

First Aid App

  1. The Red Cross First Aid app is free and it offers access to life-saving information in an emergency.

The Red Cross First Aid app is great to have in addition to your first aid kit.

first-aid

Education Apps

  1. Australian Wildflowers is an essential field guide with more than 70 of the most common species of wildflowers found in our beautiful country! This app will assist you in quickly identifying flowering plants and is a highly valuable reference tool in all locations. This app is well structured and easy to navigate. Perfect for field guides that use picture recognition where every flower in Australian Wildflowers is described in detail showing information about its structure, location, common name, scientific name, botanical family and flowering time. You get all this information with no internet connection – and all images and information is available in real time. Australian Wildflowers is currently only available on iTunes.

aust-wildflower

Australian Wildflowers – iTunes

  1. Michael Morcombe’s Field Guide to Australian Birds app has been called the most comprehensive field guide to Australian birds available in the market today It is complimented by the eGuide featuring an extensive and detailed descriptions of almost all bird species including songs and calls, measurements and breeding behaviour.

The app allows you to save your sightings to a list to include the date and location with room for notes. There is a free ‘lite’ version of the app, but it only lists a handful of the 790 species that the full version has.

Michael Morcombe’s Field Guide to Australian Birds – iTunes Cost is $29.99

Michael Morcombe’s Field Guide to Australian Birds – Android Cost is $28.60

  1. Snakes of Australia is a great app to compliment the First Aid app. Snakes of Australia is a comprehensive electronic field guide of 167 species of Australian snakes. Detailing species profiles including photos, distribution maps, description of key characters, danger rating, similar species, conservation, etymology, pronunciation and more. The great part about this app is the introductory chapters on key aspects of identifying snakes, snake venoms and first aid, and snake biology. No network connection is needed when using this app.

The scale count feature is very handy as is the “filter by location” function cross-checks your location (via iPhone GPS) and shows you only snakes that are likely to occur within your area. This app is currently only available on iTunes

snakes

Snakes of Australia – iTunes Cost is $9.99

  1. Australia is home to many of the world’s most venomous snakes, spiders and marine animals. The free Australian Bites and Stings is an app providing education to our Australian community and will be of use to anyone planning to be out in Australia’s great outdoors – whether it be on the beach, camping, bushwalking or just playing out in a back yard!

A recent study found that despite the vast array of venomous creatures in Australia, the majority of people don’t know what to do if they’re unfortunate enough to be bitten or stung by one. This app is a must have if you are travelling with young children and is also a great compliment to the First Aid app.

bites-and-stings

Australian Bites and Stings

Exploring Apps

  1. GoSkyWatch is a trademark of Apple and as such are only available on iTunes. This app is essential for those nights where you are sitting around the campfire and looking up at the stars! You just point your phone to the sky and start exploring! No buttons to press or selecting modes. GoSkyWatch has a unique rotation scheme with touchless navigation, a red light mode for night vision and magnitude adjustment for great viewing conditions. Planets will show with relative brightness for easy identification, a heads-up information display and a full 180 degree display to see at a glance what is in the sky and where. If you are looking for a particular planet or star – just use the finder and let the arrow guide the way.

goskywatch

Sky Map is the Android alternative with fewer features.

  1. Spyglass is like an advanced compass/GPS Navigation App for iPhone and iPad. Spyglass can be used in the car, on a bike, in a boat, on an aircraft, or walking compass. Spyglass is essential for every traveller! Packed with so many useful tools such as a hi-tech viewfinder (HUD), compass, maps, tactical GPS, waypoint tracker, speedometer, and more! Save, track and share your position, multiple waypoints, and bearings, all in real time.

spyglass

Spyglass – iTunes

Spyglass – Android

Added extra…

The National Public Toilet Map shows the location of more than 14,000 public and private toilet facilities across Australia. This is a great App for families travelling with young children (especially when getting out the spade is not an option)

Using the Trip Planner function, you can plan your journey and locate toilets you can use along the way. The information provides location, opening hours, availability of baby change rooms, and accessibility for people with disabilities and the details of other nearby toilets.

toilet

National Public Toilet Map – iTunes

National Public Toilet Map – Android

One last thing before you go – help us by sharing to let others know who may benefit from this information!

We are about to hit the road ourselves in less than 4 weeks time – so if you can recommend any other awesome apps for travelling around Australia – add them in the comments.

Sharing is caring!

Happy travels everyone!

 

Written by: Mountain Sun Sea

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