July 3, 2008—Summer in New Mexico. To many people, that phrase probably conjures images of scorching desert... and indeed, things can get pretty hot in the southwestern part of the state. But one of the many advantages of being a full-time RVer is that you can always move to a better climate, and when the weather gets uncomfortably warm, I do just that.
I don't have to drive far to find a cooler climate... I just head for higher ground. New Mexico has a dozen state parks (and many other campgrounds) that are a mile or more high, and they're generally quite comfortable in the summertime. Bluewater Lake State Park, located at 7,500 feet, is one of my favorites. Some of the dry-camping sites have lovely views of the lake, and the temperature rarely gets above the mid-eighties in July. You can even park right along the shoreline... but on summer weekends, that area attracts noisy boaters and ATV riders, so it's not great for long-term stays.
My hillside site was nice and private, and had a great view. Since I have plenty of solar panels and batteries, I was doing fine... until a cloudy day came along and I tried to fire up the generator. Uh-oh—it wouldn't start. To be more precise, it cranked vigorously, caught almost immediately, ran for about a second... and then shut off with an error code 32.
According to Onan's manual, the error code signified a low cranking speed, but that was clearly not the case. I checked the obvious things that could cause a shutdown: was there enough oil? Was the gas tank more than 1/4 full? Was the air filter clean? The answer was "yes" in all cases; I couldn't find a reason for the misbehavior. So I made an appointment with Rocky Mountain Cummins/Onan in Albuquerque to look at the generator. Fortunately, I was only 100 miles from the city, so the drive wasn't a long one.
To make a long story short, I spent the night in their RV parking area (with hookups—a good thing, since Albuquerque was mighty hot) and by the following afternoon they had fixed the problem. The cause: a failed rotor. The cost: a thousand dollars and change. Ouch! The tech expressed surprise that this would happen to a generator with only 411 hours of use. "I'd expect more like 2,400 hours before something like that would turn up," he said. Was there anything I could have done to prevent it? Nope, he said, it was more or less a freak occurrence.
While I was in town, I stopped in at Statkus Engines, a family-operated business that many of my RVing friends have recommended. Skylark had just passed the 25,000-mile mark, but I decided to have Ford's 30,000-mile major service performed early. I put so little mileage on this rig (only 7,000 miles in the first 20 months I owned it) that I'm more concerned about getting the oil changed at least once a year than about doing it every umpteen thousand miles. The folks at Statkus did a great job, and let me stay overnight on their lot (with a 15A electrical hookup, so I could stay cool)... but there went another $750. Oh, well... at least they didn't find anything wrong.
Back at Bluewater Lake, I found a nice site and awaited the arrival of my friends Jan and James. They had just purchased a used 29' Bigfoot motorhome and were beginning a new life as fulltimers. But they needed to add solar panels, batteries and an inverter, much as I'd done right after buying Skylark, to make boondocking possible. The RV tech they'd hired to do the work had backed out at the last minute, leaving them in the lurch, so I offered to lend a hand.
Fortunately, James is a former engineer, and I've had experience installing electrical upgrades on Gertie and on this rig, so we were pretty confident of being able to do the job right. We emailed back and forth about how to do the work and what parts and tools would be needed, and Jan and James ordered all the major items from AM Solar, who for my money make the best solar power systems for RVs. So when they arrived, we were all ready to get to work... and that's what we did for the next two and a half days.
My friends were on a tight schedule due to commitments back home, so we pushed along just as fast as we could. James did the hardest parts of the job, while I helped out as necessary and contributed specialized tools and spare parts. I can't count the number of times he'd say "You wouldn't happen to have a _______, would you?" and I'd reply "Sure! I'll go get it." Between the two of us, we had everything needed to do the rather complicated installations: four solar panels, four AGM batteries, and (the hardest part) lots of cables that needed to be run everywhere.
We finished up on schedule, and Jan and James posed for a family picture in front of their new home before heading back.
I don't want to make it sound as if I didn't get anything out of all this work. Once we had finished the work on their coach, James helped me install an additional AGM battery in Skylark, bringing my total storage capacity to 520 amp-hours. Boosting my battery capacity by 20% means I'll be able to make better use of the power generated by my five 100W solar panels. It's always bothered me when the batteries are fully charged by midafternoon, because from then on, the sun is wasted. I want to grab those photons and store them away for late-night writing sessions!
We had wired Jan and James's rig with AWG 2/0 (#00) cable, which is pretty heavy. But since Skylark has a 2,000W "whole-house" inverter, the amperage to and from the batteries can get pretty high when I'm running high-drain appliances. The microwave oven, for example, pulls 130 amps at 12V. So to hook up my new battery, we used 4/0 welding cable. Each conductor of this super-heavy-duty stuff is as thick as my thumb, yet it's amazingly supple thanks to its hundreds of hair-thin copper strands. It may be overkill—Gertie was originally wired with 2/0 cable, and she too had a 2,000W inverter—but I'd rather be safe than sorry, and it gives me a nice secure feeling to see those short, fat cables connecting my batteries together.
An unwelcome surprise
A couple of months ago I had signed up for Verizon's NationalAccess/BroadbandAccess internet service, in order to have a backup in case anything went wrong with my HughesNet satellite internet setup. (Running a freelance graphics business as I do, I need to be able to respond to clients within hours, so I must have a constant internet connection.)
The USB-720 cellular modem that came with my subscription is a palm-sized USB device that plugs in and works wherever there's a digital cell signal—no need to set up and aim a bulky tripod-mounted dish. It's so convenient, in fact, that for the month or so after getting it, I didn't even bother to set up the dish; I just used the USB-720 to access the internet through Verizon.
But shortly after Jan and James left, I got a shocking email from Verizon:
You see, there's a catch to almost all internet services: the large type may say "UNLIMITED ACCESS!", but buried in the small type is a clause that says if you use too much, they'll penalize you. In HughesNet's case, if I upload or download more than 375 MB in a 24 hour period, they will slow down my connection for the next 24 hours. (This has only happened once: when a friend who was piggybacking on my connection downloaded 400 MB of Windows security updates.) That's a nuisance, but I can live with it.
Verizon plays it a little differently: if you exceed 5 GB (5,120 MB) in a given monthly billing period, they will cheerfully keep on feeding you data at high speed... but they'll charge you 49 cents for every megabyte above their limit. As you can see from the bill I got, that can add up fast! In my case, it added up to $1,405.32 in excess data charges.
Now, to be fair, they do give you a way to check your usage. I knew about the five-gig limit, and I should have been watching my usage like a hawk, since it was my first month with the service and I'm normally a heavy internet user. It was purely my own fault that I went so far over the limit. But needless to say, I nearly had a heart attack when the bill showed up... especially coming a week after I'd spent $1,000 on generator repairs and $750 on routine chassis maintenance! My income is small and I don't have much of a nest egg, so a $1,500 phone bill is a big deal.
I did the only thing I could think of: I called up Verizon customer service and, well, played dumb. I acted like a computer novice who had no idea how this huge bill happened. "Gosh, I signed up for $60-a-month internet service... how could I get this $1,500 bill?" To my surprise and relief, the woman I was speaking with said "I can take that charge off your account." I didn't even have to ask; she volunteered it only a few sentences into my sob story. In fact, she sounded as if this kind of thing happened every day... and perhaps it does. I can't help wondering whether Verizon's unwritten policy is "Screw the customer... unless they complain too loudly."
But again, I knew about Verizon's bandwidth limit, and I failed to watch my usage carefully enough, so I can't blame anybody else. I was just overwhelmingly relieved that I wasn't going to have to pay them $1,400 for my lack of vigilance! I thanked the woman profusely, promised to be careful in the future, and hung up.
Then I went out and set up the dish.
Photo: Paul SooHoo