Part of living full-time in a travel coach means being somewhat independent. Solar voltaic energy has always been a dream for us. Once Luna became a place we planned to live, solar was at the top of the list. Solar energy installed onboard has provided plenty of 12 volt and 110 volt electricity, to allow us a completely comfortable life. Except for A/C, we utilize electricity in our lives very similar to a normal home. Everything you can imagine gets charged, we sleep on a heated mattress pad, bake bread in an electric countertop oven, watch movies on a big TV, and cook, make coffee, dry hair, defrost the fridge, and all kinds of other stuff on the solar system. We started by doing an energy audit on our belongings, utilities, and accessories. Listing every electric item in the house, we estimated how many hours a day, week, or month we thought we use it. Everything was listed by voltage, wattage, and/or amperage. We sent the audit to Battleborn Batteries where they estimate a 4-5 battery system, including Victron electronics. Christina and I had already estimated a 4-600 amp hour system, so this sounded just about right. We purchased 5, 100 amp hour batteries and all the electronic components, the charge controller, battery monitor, Multiplus, and various smaller components.
After determining the wire gauge and length I ordered it, wire lugs, heat shrink, big fuses, shut-offs, a rachet drive crimper, by-pass cutters and dug out the heat gun. Our panels came from HighTec Solar. 5, 200 watt PV panels are up there now. We installed all of the batteries and electronics on the curbside, just inside the rear of the wheel well, under the cabinetry, and just inside an exterior access door, that used to reach under the bed. I strapped the batteries, mounted on black pipe insulation as a pad, to the floor.
Once I wired the inside of the battery/electronics compartment, I pulled the old converter, glass fuse panel, and 110V breakers, replacing them with a new 12 position, spade fuse panel, a new 30amp main breaker, and new A/C and outlet breakers, all in new boxes.
I installed an electrical management system between the main breaker and the exterior 30 amp connector, which is installed just outside the access door and allows the coach to be connected to shore power, without a cord hanging out the access door.
The new A/C breaker is fed from the Victron Multiplus, auxiliary output, and the outlets’ breaker is fed by the Multiplus main output. Both are backed up by the Multiplus, and battery bank in the case of a shore power reduction. However, that only works if the electric management system is bypassed, as the EMS shuts down shore power at 104 volts anyway. All of the electronics and neutral bus bars are grounded to a freshly bright spot on the trailer frame, directly below the compartment. The compartment is ventilated to the interior for air movement, and a smoke detector is installed inside. None of the components are on top of the wheel well cover, nor directly behind it. The solar charging wire goes up the same route the greywater vent stack takes, to a boot on the roof, leading to a junction box, leading then to each panel.
Each panel is wired with an in-line 30 amp fuse. These panels are wired in parallel. This system works great and we use a lot of electricity, however, we will soon order 3 more panels and wire those in 4 parallel sets of 2 series. It’s a long story, but we camp in a lot of cold, cloudy weather, so we are “over paneling”. I mounted the panels to the roof, low and close. None of the rooftop accessories are covered. The mounting brackets are made from 1/8″ sheet aluminum. I made them at Machine Head in Kansas City, and use stainless steel fasteners on the assembly and installation. All the wiring between the roof and panels is suspended using lots of black zip ties. We keep a Honda 2000 inverter generator on the van and use it when we find ourselves in long cloudy spells and short winter days. Adding 3 more panels will reduce that need somewhat. The crew at Battleborn always answer quickly or call us back, when we have questions. The electronics come pre-programmed, and when we did need to make one adjustment they did it with us over the phone, through our phone app blue tooth connection. We love the freedom the system provides. We don’t watch much TV during the days but watch movies at night. All of the light bulbs in the coach have been replaced with LEDs, the fridge is built for solar living, so it runs on 12v, and can run on 110 if we plug it in. The fridge/freezer has run on solar for over 18 months, 24/7. In sunny weather in the summer, we can’t burn through enough electricity to run the system low. In rainy, cloudy weather or short winter days, we are careful to time and conserve our electric usage.
Overall the solar system has provided a lot of freedom, and comfort. If we stop overnight in a Walmart, we can watch movies, bake food, charge everything and sleep warm, without firing up a generator. When we stay at state parks we park in sites with no hook-ups saving a lot of money. And of course, boon docking in amazing locations is made comfortable with solar. It’s one of our favorite investments.
Last fall was a little quiet for me. Over 10 years ago I started a youth organization called Donderdag! Youth Cyclocross Clinics in Shawnee Kansas. You can find it on Facebook or at Donderdag.bike. We coach kids and their families into the sport of cyclocross. I was inspired by the sport when my son raced in high school. But last fall we didn’t have a season, because of Covid-19. It was quiet, with no Thursday night clinics, no races, and no crowds of noisy kids at the park.
We stayed just past the end of November, quietly slipping out of town between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our winter digs were on my Mom and Joe’s driveway in Maysville Oklahoma. A nice flat driveway, with dumps, a 30 amp hook up, a fenced yard, and a barn with heated workrooms 5 feet behind us. And of course, Mom and Joe. Those two would feed us and have us in every day if we let them. This was our second winter visit here, the year before was our first winter living full time, so we stayed a couple of weeks and raced south to warm weather. But in the winter of 2020, we kept staying. We’d think we would leave in a week or two but then stayed longer. The weather was typical Oklahoma, unpredictable, but mostly warm for winter. My mom was having some medical issues, so we helped with that, and I cleaned the barn and outbuilding and emptied a sunroom on the back of the house that until just a few years ago was part of their previous small business. Helping out, as good boon dockers do. But the most interesting part of the visit was exactly what we were hoping to avoid, cold weather. We’ve been in weather below freezing, and we are ok with it. We’ll take 25-35 degrees all day compared to 85-90. But this winter set record lows, and we rode it out. We started getting a little snow in January. It was pretty and kind of heavy. I kept the roof swept, because that’s how I am, and shoveled the driveway so we could get in and out of the coach, and drive out of the driveway. I shoveled all the snow around Mom and Joe’s house too. I like the exercise enough, but also know Mom and Joe well enough to know they would be going out in their little electric car no matter what the weather was. If they didn’t leave in the car, they sure wouldn’t skip a walk to the mailbox. The wind blew and the weather got colder, so the time in the snow was nice. Lots of drifts. But the Arctic Blast forecasted by the news kept moving south, and that air was super cold.
Our Luna has interior storm windows, which have proven quite effective, a wood-burning stove, a skirt all the way around, and a less than two-year-old furnace. We stay warm. But I was worried about the tanks and plumbing inside the belly pan. We were supposed to see a record-breaking cold front. I worried about the 3 tanks enough, but what really worried me was the drain pipes full of grey water. I wasn’t going to sleep at night if I thought I was laying awake listening for the sound of a black ABS pipe splitting. I had to find a solution. A day before the real cold set in, I set a small thermostatically controlled heater inside the waste valve compartment, set it on low, and left it plugged in. We’ve always had heat tape on the supply lines behind the fridge, so I plugged those in. But the thing I did to make things truly worry-free was to drain the waste tanks. Empty, down to nothing. Then I put plugs in the tub, bathroom, and kitchen sink, and tossed a sink bowl in the bathroom sink and a washtub for dishes in the kitchen sink. I finally relaxed. Most of you are thinking, “but the furnace blows hot air into the belly pan”, yes it does, right over the freshwater tank. Or, “but the skirt and heater will keep things from freezing”. Ok, probably, but guys like me don’t sleep on probably, we seek certainty. So off to bed we went, waking up to the coldest three weeks we’ve been in so far as full-timers. It was below 10 degrees for several days, we saw nighttime lows of around -14 degrees. The whole time we were amazed at how cozy the little coach stayed inside, but mostly, I was relieved knowing there was no water in the waste pipes to freeze. Of course, as Oklahoma goes, as fast as the snow and cold set in, it also melted off. The bitter cold was replaced by above-freezing weather, sunshine, and thaw. By the time we headed for Alabama, the northwestern winds had been replaced by gulf shore warm air, and we switched from winter storm warnings to tornado watches. We bid farewell to Mom and Joe, kissed their dog, and headed south to Demopolis Alabama, via New Boston Texas. Sitting behind the wheel, pulling our little home on the way to Texas, I was relaxed and proud. Relaxed knowing there is a solution to almost any challenge, and feeling proud as an urbanite, who normally lives winter in a solid, well-insulated, modern house, managed not only to avoid freezing to death with my wife and dog in the bed, but did it relaxed, and almost completely worry-free. But enough of winter and cold, I’m going to fill every tank we’ve got drainpipes and all, and hitch up the van, high winds are headed this way, and I plan on sleeping through it all.
Living in a travel coach full time is a lot like a normal house. It takes some work, especially when seasons change. In 2020 we purchased a skirt kit for our 1979 Avion 34V. Skirts are a barrier installed between the bottom of the trailer and the ground. They can be made from rigid permanent materials, semi-permanent, or from materials that are easily removed and stowed for travel. Our skirt is 18# black vinyl. We travel regularly so a bulky rigid skirt wouldn’t be practical. We ordered a kit from idahocanvas.com.
Measuring our coach, we knew we wanted to be able to use two sections of the skirt as summer shade for the tires and wheel wells. That left a long skirt for the front section of the coach, and another for the rear. I ordered the skirts six inches longer than the distance to the ground, knowing we’d be parked on unlevel ground at times, and realizing we would not want a gap. The skirt kits come in different mounting styles, hook and pile or snaps. We chose the hook and loop type, and decided we would fortify the installation with twist snaps every 12”. After racing sailboats for a few years, I knew that twist snaps are easier to deal with than friction snaps. They don’t corrode and lock up, and you don’t have to pull hard on the vinyl to release them. I ordered black twist snaps, matching twist snap grommets, and the punch tool used to make a hole in the canvas that includes four slots for the grommet tangs to stick through. I also ordered two zippers for the wastewater access and four zippers for the two wheel wells. The black vinyl skirt kit arrived perfectly folded in a box that weighed about 40 pounds. As I opened the shipping box, I laughed knowing I’d never be able to get that skirt kit folded into anything that small ever again. Starting with the wheel well pieces, I cleaned and installed the 2” self-adhesive “hook” to the coach a couple of inches above the wheel well. The black twist snaps were installed in the center of the hook, every 12” with stainless black screws. It’s important to install the twist snaps, THEN install the grommets to match the spacing of the installed twist snaps. This is made clear in the kit’s instructions and makes a difference, so don’t rush in and install the grommets in the vinyl first, it will reduce the effectiveness of the whole install. I installed the first grommet and hung it on the first twist snap. Of course, being on a learning curve makes this seem slow and clumsy, but once the tools are all out and the pattern and rhythm are found, things start to move right along. Pulling the vinyl straight, but not stretched, to the next twist snap, I made a pencil mark on the center of the twist snap, used the punch tool to make the hole and slots, and installed the second grommet. Then the third, fourth, and so on. Within a short period of time, I had two really nice skirts covering both wheel wells. The front and rear skirts were more complicated, but having warmed up on the wheel wells I felt comfortable moving on. To prepare our coach for the front and rear skirts, a hanging point had to be chosen. Our coach has a piece of horizontal aluminum trim all the way around at the same height, down near the bottom. It normally has a black filler in it, that cover’s the screws. Most of the filler on our 40-year-old coach was damaged or missing, so I pulled the rest out. On Avions it’s a good idea to add some extra screws to this section. I drilled a hole and installed 2”, pan head, stainless screws about three inches from the original screws all the way around the coach. Each hole got a shot of Trempro 635 before running the screw in. With all the new screws installed, I primed the aluminum and let it dry a day or two. The kit comes with 2” wide, self-adhesive, hook to match the length of all the skirting ordered, so I cut the hook to 7/8” width, with a fresh utility blade and straight edge, and installed it into the trim where I had screwed, sealed, and primed. Using a plastic screen spline roller I must have rolled the entire length of the self-adhesive hook, all the way around the coach at least four times. Remember, most of these self-adhesive products stick at first, but are only load-bearing after about 24 hours. With that done, I shot the tiniest bead of silicone along the top and bottom of the hook to help keep out water and hold the edges in place. I know, everyone says never use silicone on an Avion, but it is a sparing application, and really makes the install complete.
After giving all this a few days to cure, I starting on the driver’s side, at the back of the wheel well, hanging the first 4 feet of the skirt, overlapping the wheel well skirt about 6 inches for added wind resistance. With the first 4 feet in place, I marked the position of the zipper that would connect the rear skirt to the wheel well skirt. Using the recommended contact cement, the first zipper was installed. Moving aft, I installed zippers on each side of the waste valve access, marking the needed zipper position, taking it down, cutting it, and gluing the two zippers in. Once I reached the back corner, I had to figure out how to get under and across the bottom of the belly pan to the other side of the coach. I made a little hanging tab for the section that runs across the bottom, at the back of the belly pan, then installed the 2” hook on the bottom of the belly pan after cleaning it well. At the passenger side of the coach, the pattern was repeated, rounding the curve and finishing the section all the way to the rear of the passenger side wheel well. Just like the driver’s side, a zipper was installed at this point. The front section of the skirt was again started at the driver’s side wheel well, forward end. Again, after hanging the first four feet, the zipper was glued into place and the long run toward the front of the trailer began. Since it’s a long straight run I found myself rounding the front curve and headed for the tongue A-frame pretty quickly. Once I reached the driver’s side A-frame member, I marked and cut a center slot, with a V at the bottom to fit snuggly over the frame member. Crossing the front a second slot was created for the center A-frame member, then just a few inches further a slot to accommodate the propane pipe and 7 pin connector pigtail exiting the front of the coach. All the while, carefully marking, punching, and installing the grommets and hanging the skirt as I progressed. The third A-frame member slot was cut and around the front, passenger side curve, and away we went. Skirt, tools, punch, and grommets. The last run was along the passenger side, under the door, and finishing at the front of the passenger side wheel well. Once all the grommets were installed, I took down the whole thing and fortified the slots for the A-frame members so the vinyl would not tear out in the wind. I also added a 5” piece of the hook to the top gap of the slot, so each side of the slotted skirt could be snuggly closed. Grommets were included in the skirt bottom when it arrived, but I added a few to fill in more tie-down points. There is also a place stitched into the bottom that a piece of pipe can be slid into for rigidity and weight.
All in all the skirt looks quite nice. And it definitely makes a difference in cold weather. It takes a couple of days for the ground temperature to warm up, but with almost no wind blowing under the trailer, the whole place is quieter and warmer. It also reduces the chances of freezing waste drains, which is about the only thing other than the high wind that keeps me awake at night. I picked up three big duffle bags at Savers, storing the two wheel well skirts in one, and the front and rear skirts each in the other two, making it easy to stow them in the van. After several times of installing and uninstalling the skirts, I have found them pretty easy to deal with. I’ve even put them up one time when we only parked on a driveway for two nights, knowing it was going to be windy and in the 20s. The whole thing has just become part of the checklist I use. I think the coach looks handsome with the skirts too. They are not totally impervious to high wind. We are in Oklahoma right now, and as I type this, sitting through a wind advisory with 55 miles an hour gusts. The skirt billows a little, but the grommets and ground stakes keep it in place nicely. You may be wondering about accessing the lower “basement” storage boxes, and that’s no problem. The turn snaps and zippers make it easy enough to loosen a section above the access door I need to get into. Since I put a zipper on both sides of the waste drain access door, that whole panel can be removed so waste water doesn’t get on the vinyl. I hope this helps, and if you live full-time in your Avion or another travel coach, I think this is a nice upgrade. If you have any questions, just post them below, or send me an email at email@example.com.
Happy travels friends!
PS. Just before publishing this article, we were in the coldest weather we have stayed in so far. Here in Maysville Oklahoma, it reached -12F below zero at night, and was in the single digits for severals days. Before the temperatures fell below 10F degrees, I emptied the waste tanks. We use a composter toilet, so the black tank stayed water free, and I put a dishpan in the kitchen sink, and a basin bowl in the bathroom, so no water went down the drains. Since it was super cold outside, about all we did was burn a fire and work inside, so we didn’t use the shower for a few days. This left only the fresh water tank to keep thawed. I used a tiny, thermostat controlled heater inside the waste dump valve access. I think things would have been fine without it, especially since the furnace has a 4″ duct blowing into the belly pan. The empty waste plumbing meant that I didn’t lay awake at night worried about the plumbing freezing, or worst yet, breaking. We were both amazed at how well the coach felt during the super cold weather. The floor was comfortable, none of the indoor plumbing supply lines froze, and with the help of the small electric heater in the back, and the wood burning stove, the only time the furnace ran was at night. Since a few inches of snow had fallen, the skirt was weighted and sealed to the ground. The one time I did check under the coach, I stuck my hand in a zipper in the skirt, to find it warm inside. The skirt did a great job, and is really worth the investment.