Norris, Yellowstone National Park, Summer 2017.

We stopped near Norris Junction to check out the campground and to visit the National Park Ranger Museum. The camp ground was full. It has several winding hillside loops with mostly tent campsites and a couple flatter loops as well. There were big enough sites for us but some of the turns were pretty tight. Probably not a good choice for us but for a smaller camper it would be nice.

There is a nice river here, good fishing we were told.

The Norris Geyser Basin is nearby as well. What we really wanted to see was the National Park Ranger Museum.

When Yellowstone was first established in 1872 the US Army was in charge. Is wasn’t until 1916 that the National Park Service was formed. Most of the early Park Rangers came from the military units already there. This building was a US Army outpost from that early time. It was manned most of the year but not all year year round. Army patrols were posted here to keep a lookout for illegal hunting, poaching and other problems.

Inside there were rooms outfitted the way they would have been in the early 1900s. Much of the interior is restored. There were several displays of Park Ranger gear from the very early days until today. Most of the clothing, jackets, boots, hats and basic equipment came from the Army heritage. Back then even summer clothes would have been made from wool. They might look similar today but materials have changed for comfort and durability.

There are a wide range of Ranger jobs. You will always find them at Visitors Centers but there are many who are law enforcement officers, interpretive guides, educational specialists, and history and naturalist guides. Some specialize in resource preservation and are busy building and maintaining trails. Some are forestry experts. We met one young man who was a park ranger leading a Conservation Corps (part of AmeriCorps) crew doing restoration work in the Norris Campground. Many start in one park and serve in several during their career. We met an older fellow in the Tetons who had been a Park Ranger for 41 years, mostly in the Tetons.

Their dedication and commitment to the Parks is part of why the parks flourish. The number of visitors to almost every park has been increasing. People come from all over the world to experience our National Parks. All you have to do is stand in one spot and listen to the many different spoken languages that go by.

One park person at Madison told us that Yellowstone is over crowded and getting worse. They expected that it won’t be long before you will need an entry permit to just get into the park so that they will be able to manage the number of people and cars. They already do this in the winter in Yellowstone. Many parks do not allow automobiles past the parking lot. You have to use shuttles or busses. Zion, Yosemite, The Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde are like this. When we were at Zion in March 2017, the entrance would usually be closed in early afternoon. There was no more room for cars. You had to park in Springdale and walk into the park. And Senior Lifetime Passes just went from $10 to $80. Even at $80 these are still a bargain.

So get up and go to a National Park. They are pretty amazing places.

More later,

Roger and Susan

Madison Campground, Yellowstone National Park, Summer 2017

Two years ago while we were at Colter Bay in the Tetons, we drove up to Yellowstone on two different days. These ended up being all day drives, maybe 150 miles each and ten hours or more. (This might have been the beginning of thinking about a different toad) Yellowstone is huge, most of the junctions are 30 to 40 miles apart. We saw most of the tourist things in the southern half of the park but didn’t get up to Mammoth Hot Springs or Tower. We checked out every campground we went by where there were no restrictive length limits. Madison Campground on the west side was the nicest of the ones we saw. It is on the Madison River, prime fishing. There are no lodges, no grocery stores, no laundry, no gift shops, no gas stations and no places where tour busses stop. Just campers and fishing people. Perfect. $13.17 per night with our geezer pass. You can get reservations at this campground, in fact you must. It was full every day for the week we were there. No electric, water or waste hookups. We were on our own. Generators are OK from 8AM to 8PM. We have 105 gallons of water capacity and 165 gallons of waste capacity so with full water and empty waste tanks we are good for 10 days or more. And 900 watts of solar panels on the roof.

We left Gros Ventre and headed north through Grand Teton NP towards the southern entrance to Yellowstone. It is about 45 miles to the northern end of the Tetons, then about 10-12 miles along the John D Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway to Yellowstone.

The road around the western side of Yellowstone goes by Lewis Lake and a very nice campground for smaller RVs and tents. Then it goes by the west end of Yellowstone Lake (The West Thumb) and on past Old Faithful. If you want to see crowds be sure to stop here. And then on to Madison. On the way we went over one pass and crossed the Continental Divide three times and followed the Firehole Canyon down to Madison.

When you make reservations at Madison you have to tell them how long everything is when it is all connected. The coach plus the tow bar plus the length of the toad. Many of the campgrounds have these side loop pull through sites. They are sort of along side of the main one way drive through the campground. There are still plenty of shorter back in sites and some of the side loops that are much shorter. But there are many sites here big enough for 45′ coaches and many more big enough for us.

There was quite a bit of open space on the other side of the coach so we felt quite uncrowded.

The Madison River is just down the hill surrounded by a wide grassy area. Early morning visitors (people and animals) include elk and deer, lots of geese, an occasional swan. I looked carefully on the other side of the river at the edge of the trees for a bear but never saw one.

The fishing people are out most of the day. Where they are changes during the day depending on where the sun is. In the warmest part of the day they are on the east side of this part of the river’s curve. The water is pretty cold but it doesn’t stop many people from going in for a dip or at least a wade especially in the later afternoon. There are small areas of sand along the side but the river is mostly a rocky bottom.

The river changes at every turn. Small and bigger islands emerge, channels split off and merge again a bit downstream. The meadows spread wide and then disappear. The tree line gets much closer and then retreats.

In 1988 there was a huge fire in Yellowstone, almost 300,000 acres were burned. It is quite amazing how much has recovered and regrown. And now a new attack is apparent. The pine beetle is killing trees at an alarming rate. It is not that this is an outside invasion, the beetles have been here all along and they have been killing trees for a very long time. But only a few and scattered here and there, mostly older trees. But every winter the very cold temps in Yellowstone killed off most of the beetles keeping them and the damage they do in check. And even though it is still cold in the winter it is warming and many more beetles are managing to survive. Then they reproduce and in the summer there are now vastly more beetles and more damage. Instead of a hillside of burned trees the mountain sides are now covered with pine trees, dead or dying, covered with red needles waiting to drop. And all the more ready for another fire.

Since the beetles are native, there is almost nothing being done to mitigate this problem. It is a natural event. What will be replacing the pine trees will be aspen trees which do better in a slightly warmer environment. Just as Yellowstone looked much different after the 1988 fire and then recovered thirty years later it will look different again in another thirty years.

West Yellowstone

We drove into West Yellowstone one morning for a look-see. It is fourteen miles west of Madison. There was a couple mile backup of traffic heading west due to an elk and calves along the side of the road. We went by a trailhead to Harlequin Lake a couple miles up in the mountains. It was one of the destinations on our list of things to do. As we got closer to West Yellowstone, the western entrance to the park, we could see three or four lanes of traffic backed up at the entrance station and backed up all the way through town. No left turns. We found a place to park and walked around for a while. Lots and lots of motels and resorts. There are a couple large RV parks. They were nice, paved, curbs, watered grass and a few trees. And $70 or more per night. And then an hour more wait to get into the park in the morning. Not what we wanted.

We drove about five miles north of West Yellowstone to Bakers Hole Campground, a Forest Service campground, with about 75 camp site, 30 with electric hookups. It was nice, first come first served, but late in the morning it was not full.

We had a nice breakfast, went to a grocery store and headed back. By noon the long lines entering the park were gone. And on the way back the elk and calves were still there but no gawkers.

Harlequin Lake

Harlequin Lake is a couple miles in from the trailhead just a few miles west of Madison. The trail looks to be a well used one and rises through areas of new growth trees. This area was burned in 1988 so these trees are almost thirty years old and many were less than 10 ft tall. And these trees were growing up through the long dead fallen trees from 1988. This fire burned through most areas quickly, enough to kill the trees but in most areas not hot enough or long enough to actually burn the trees down. The scorched, still standing dead trees are left to fall as they might under the winter snows or a strong wind.

There were several layers of trees fallen every which way. More fuel for another fire. An impenetrable trap for wildlife. But still new trees were coming up through every space possible.

On this hillside heading for the lake a sole surviving fire remnant stood. You can see how big the trees must have been. Most of this old forest was mature, maybe 80-100 years old. Now a new forest will grow up and much of it reaching maturity about the same time. Fire is a natural part of the ecological cycle here. Fires that threaten structures or visitor centers or natural sites are constrained but a natural fire is let go. It seems harsh to a visitor but it is the natural order of things.

We made it to Harlequin Lake. Not a big lake, evidence of beaver activity all around the shore line but we never saw a beaver or even a hidden beaver lodge. Most of the lake is filled with water lilies which were blooming. These small lakes slowly fill in with the annual remnants of the water lillies – becoming shallower and more muddy bottomed. Eventually they become a marsh and then a meadow.

A very pleasant place to sit and watch ducks and geese and birds and almost no one else. Together, the best place to be.

More later,

Roger and Susan

Gros Ventre, Grant Teton National Park, Summmer 2017

Gros Ventre Campground, Grand Teton National Park.

We got up and got going in the morning at Lava Mountain. Up over Togwotee pass to Moran, WY and then south towards Gros Ventre. We were there by 10 AM. There was a spot for us, turned out it was a very nice spot. We got all checked in and looped around to get fresh water and disconnect the Jeep. And then a parade of 20 motorhomes drove in, an organized tour from Florida. The Wagon Master had them all go down to the amphitheater parking area while he worked with the campground folks to find spots for all of them. Later I asked the person in the campground registration office how that worked and she said they knew they were coming but just like every one else it was first come first served on a space available basis. Gros Ventre is quite large and in the morning, mid-week, space is almost always available. We were glad to get in before them though, we liked our spot.

We stayed here for five days. On one of those days we had to pick up a package at the UPS Store in Jackson so we combined that with a laundry event, got our spare LP tank filled, got the Jeep washed, did grocery shopping and had lunch at a Guy Fieri Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives recommended spot. Good. We were trying to connect with friends who work (volunteer) at the National Elk Refuge each summer. It was a busy time for them so we missed them.

Our new solar panels got a good test here as well. Our site had early morning and later afternoon shade and good sun during the day. Every day we generated more power from he sun than we used, most days by a long way. We normally used about 2,300 watts. We were generating more than 4,000 watts every day. One day we generated more than 5,200 watts. At one point 720 watts or about 50 amps going into the batteries. These were pretty much perfect conditions. Clouds and shade will change these results.

We walked down to the Gros Ventre River after supper one evening. We could hear it most of the time. We saw folks walking that way with fishing gear everyday. It was close, less than 1/4 mile. There was a family with two young kids there. They were from France. The kids were busy building a rock wall in the shallows along the edge of the river. There is no sand, just rocks.

Many people want to know if we were from Portland. No, they just had end of the season shirts on sale.

This summer it seems we have seen many more people from a variety of European countries in the parks traveling in RVs. Some are rentals but many are from Europe with French or German or other license plates. We saw the same folks we saw in Zion this spring here in the Tetons.

Big huge things, giant tires, very tall. Winches on both ends. I guess they came over here thinking they were going to just drive off road across the county. Almost any off road track that we see would be a tight fit for these. We saw this one three times and two others of this type, different colors.

It is fairly common to see a moose or an elk in Gros Ventre. And mule deer as well. We were sitting in the afternoon sun and this one wandered towards us, never giving us a second look. He was maybe 10 feet away.

A Hike at Jenny Lake

We stayed at Jenny Lake in 1980 in the original Home2, smaller RVs were OK then. It is tents only now. No reservations and the campground is usually full by mid-morning. It is a popular place, close to Jackson, a nice lake where you can rent canoes or kayaks. When I was there in 1974 you could rent small motorboats. I did and went almost to the other side of the lake where a full scale forest fire was underway. Not much going on to stop it at that time.

Now, if you want a parking spot in the parking lots you need to be there by 8:30 or 9 in the morning. There are several hikes that start in Cascade Canyon on the other side of the lake and a couple hikes around the lake. These are among a very few hiking trails in the mountains. Most of the others are south of here, almost none to the north.

To get to the other side there are shuttle boats that go back and forth. Eight round trips an hour normally, more with more boats when it is busy which starts about 10 when there is quite a line waiting for the boat ride. Each boat holds about 40 people. One boat arrives at the Cascade Canyon landing every 7.5 minutes, they all get off, return folks get on and back and forth they go until 7PM.

We were there by 8ish, walked to the docks, bought one way tickets – $9 for the 10 minute ride – planning on hiking back and got on the boat without waiting in line. By 9 AM we were in Cascade Canyon heading for Hidden Falls. Not too far but up hill.

It is a lovely falls and an active river downstream. It is hard to describe just how beautiful it is here. Everything about it. For us this is a much more inviting place than Yellowstone.

There is a very nice 2-1/2 mile trail around the lakeshore that was where we were going to hike. We heard it was closed for renovation but the hillside trail was open. Susan was looking at the lakeside trail thinking it would have been nice.

One of the highlights of the Tetons for many is the technical climbing opportunities. There is a climbing school and ranch here and everyday there are many mountain climbing hopefuls trying out new techniques hoping to turn them into skills. It was fun to watch. Almost every day there are climbers working their way to the summits. More than 13,000 ft to the top of the Grand Teton.

Of course the hill side trail was actually mountain side and way up on the mountain. Several hundred feet above the lake. Our phones track this sort of stuff and they said closer to 4 miles and thirty flights of stairs.

I am sure this was a bear's den.

And even though it was not a nice lakeside stroll, we were very close to the Grand Teton, Grand indeed. We saw another small lake and looked for moose or bears. The only wildlife we saw were other hikers. We bought and brought bear spray. At best we figured we might avoid a bear encounter. If not we have some serious mosquito spray as a souvenir.

So a few hours later, no bears but a bit worn out we got an ice cream treat at the Jenny Lake Store.

More later,

Roger and Susan

Nebraska, Summer 2017

Hot here in July. It has been a long time since we drove across Nebraska in July. And bugs, big green and yellow splats. But there isn't much else to do but plow through them.

International Quilt Study Center and Museum

Well there was , actually. We remembered our visit to Ontonagon Michigan where we visited an amazing quilt shop. The lady there told us about the Quilt Museum in Lincoln, NE. Our friend Barb has mentioned it as well. So we found it on the map, parked at a nearby Walmart, disconnected the Cherokee and followed the map (plus many other turns to get around construction) and arrived at the Museum and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln Campus.

Windmills State Recreation Area

Halfway across Nebraska there is Windmills State Recreation Area. About every ten miles along I80 there are ponds or sand pits with conveyors and pools of water. We are not sure why they are there but the land along the North Platte river which I80 follows is flat as far as the eye can see. So we surmise that everyone of these ponds are where they dug out sand to build up the roadbed for I80 and every one of the hills needed for an overpass. About every fourth one seems to be a State Recreation Area with camping and fishing, well pond fishing. No boats or canoes. Windmills State Recreation Area is one of these, we have stayed here a couple times before. It is right off the interstate, easy to get into and out of and when it is 90° at five in the afternoon having hookups even though it costs a bit lets you run AC until the coach and the evening cool off. And this one in particular is fairly large and when we have been there pretty thinly populated. So after a day of driving, a place to get out and walk. There are five ponds, none more than an acre in size. I can't imagine what sort of fish there might be in them.

Cabela's, Sidney, NE

We thought about what were going to do. We had about five extra days now since we skipped TRNP and the North Dakota run. We decided to go up into Wyoming to Caspar and across the middle of Wyoming into the Grand Teton National Park and south to Gros Ventre Campground. It is first come-first served but if you get there in the morning you can almost always get a spot.

The next morning timing and places to stay along the way got us to Sidney, NE where the Cabela's headquarters and show-off store are. Sidney is not very big. Cabela's is just off the interstate as is the Walmart, some truck stops, a hardware store, an RV dealer and a few places to eat. The Cabela's campground was about 1/2 full when we stopped about 3:30. The temperature was in the 90's. Another night where AC felt good. In another hour it was full. According to the reviews the 100 or so spots fill up almost every night. There is a tent section and the overflow was filling in there. We didn't see any tents.

We went into the temple of outdoor stuff. Everything from horribly overpriced socks to boats and even smaller farm tractors. Guns, ammunition, fishing poles and gear, boots, tents and some kind of white coolers for $300! There was a food section and a cafeteria like place but nowhere to sit and eat. I guess it was all to-go. Elk or bison burgers for the price of a nice sit-down dinner. And a fake mountain that took up the middle 20% of the space covered with dozens of dead, stuffed, posed animals of every sort from a chipmunk to elk, badgers to a polar bear. Somehow I don't recall that polar bear's range extended to the Rocky Mountains. Credit was given to the hunter for almost all the carcasses on display. Maybe not for the chipmunk, probably road kill. It was supposed to be some sort of educational display. I just saw a lot of large animals killed for the fun of it in a commercial for Cabela's.

There was a very nice hardware store nearby where we were able to get some spare pins and retaining clips for our towing setup. I was sure that one day we would drop some small clip and not be able to find it. Some spares are good to have. And so far we haven't needed any of them.

Big storm that night mostly north. Noise, no rain.

The next morning the exodus began about 6 AM. We left about 9. The next stop was on the way up Togwotee pass heading for Moran, WY and the middle of the Tetons. There are not many places to stop going this way. If we had gone over the pass and headed for Gros Ventre (Grow Von) we would have arrived late afternoon. So we stopped at Lava Mountain Lodge and RV Park. It was a motel and gas station and maybe 10 RV sites with only 20 amp service or none. There were five or six permanently mounted trailers used as cabins. There was an OK restaurant. And pretty much everywhere around cast off stuff, old farm equipment, an old car, broken fences, just stuff. But for an overnight with no other choices it was fine.

Not sure about winning the National Spelling Bee though.

Gros Ventre is less than two hours away.

More later,

Roger and Susan

Heading West, Sort of. Summer 2017.

On this trip, Summer of 2017, We are heading west. To Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, across Montana, around and into Yellowstone from the west and then down to the Grand Tetons and then to the Oregon coast.

We just about got to the end of the driveway and most of that was out the window. Best laid plans sort-of-thing.

On our way back from the SW in April we were getting an intermittent slide-out room pin lock error. There is a sensor that tells the controller that one or more of the pins that lock the slide in position for travel was not locked. We could look at the display and see which pin it thought was not engaged and visually confirm that it was OK. Having a pin lock error means the transmission gets locked out and the coach goes nowhere. Fortunately there is an over-ride switch which we engaged and got home fine.

I checked with HWH (the slide mechanism and controller folks) and they suggested it was probably a bad sensor, told me what parts I needed and how to fix it. When we tried to put the slide out at home we got the same error. I was busy on other projects so I called and made an appointment at HWH in Iowa for a couple of days before our original departure date hoping it would not be too hard to fix.

A Stop at HWH

We drove south on Sunday to Moscow Iowa, about 40 miles west of Moline, IL on US 80. It takes about 4-1/2 hours to get there. Our appointment was for 7:00 AM Monday morning. We were up at the crack of dawn with the Iowa farmers and factory workers and there a few minutes early.

I was anticipating a day or two, worst case, something difficult to fix. The most experienced guy was there right away with a fairly new guy. He led the new guy through the diagnostic process one step at a time and figured out which sensor was bad. They pulled out the hydraulic powered pin lock, took out the sensor and replaced it with a new one, put it all back together and cycled the slide in and out a half dozen times. All good. One hour of labor, $90 and a sensor for $75. I got a second sensor for my spare parts bin. We had the Jeep (Cherokee) hooked up and were ready to go by 9:00 AM. No time for lunch at the Tipton Family Diner.

The Amazing Cat Band's and Cat Circus's coach was at HWH for some work too.

Time to rethink the itinerary.

West to Sioux Falls then north to Fargo then west to Teddy Roosevelt NP as planned? Or west through Nebraska then north west into Wyoming and west towards The Grand Tetons?

Hitchcock Nature Center

Nebraska won out over North Dakota. It was blazing hot either way. We drove all the way across Iowa and just got into Nebraska. We always look for city or county parks and found one just north of Council Bluffs. Hitchcock Nature Center. It wasn't far out of the way. 50 amp hookups for $15/night. We got there and signed up for two nights. We just needed a day off.

It was a very interesting place. The original Lincoln Highway went right next to the campground cutting through a ridge in the hills of very soft fine soil along the east side of the Missouri River Valley. The Loess Hills (luss) as they are called were formed after the last ice age when fine sediments were washed down in to the wide prehistoric river valley and winds from the north west blew the powdery sediment into dirt dunes more than 40 miles long. This formation is said to be globally significant in that there are only two others like it world wide.

It was a nice campground, quiet. Hot.

The Loess Hills big hills.

The nature center is quite large. The campground on one corner. Lots of hiking trails, an old ski area and a Visitor's Center right in the middle of the Nature Center on a ridge. It was at one time a YMCA camp. The entire building was rebuilt as the Visitor's center. It was very hot but out on the wide covered veranda and up on the ridge the breeze made it comfortable. There was an observation tower that I climbed. Sort of like a fire tower made out of very large timbers. It was a great view from up there.

The Visitor's Center focuses on all of the different migratory birds that pass this way spring and fall. There were lots of aids to help you learn the sounds and shapes of the different birds. There were also displays to show how the Loess Hills were formed.

The Lincoln Highway still exists although much of its route has changed and sections of the original highway are rare. It was one of the earliest automobile highways heading west.

More later,

Roger and Susan

A New Toad, Summer 2017

Our trusty 1998 Jeep Wrangler has served us well as a tow vehicle (they are called toads) for five years. Our original idea was a Subaru Outback but back in 2011 we would have had to buy a nearly new one to get what we wanted. We were not ready for that. So the Jeep worked fine. But it was noisy, bumpy, stiff and good for (we were good for) not a very long drive. A couple very long days two years ago driving from the Tetons up to Yellowstone and back had us thinking a wee bit more comfort would be nice. And the the AC in the Jeep quit out in Arizona this past winter when it was in the 90s. More thinking.

Even before we got home we were looking for a a Subaru Outback. The last year they were towable (something to do with transmissions) was 2014 and it had to have a manual transmission. And being from MN we thought heated seats were pretty important. So we did a nationwide search for a 2014 Subaru Outback with a manual transmission. There were 12 scattered across the country. Only two had less than 30,000 miles on them. None had heated seats. We didn't want white or black. Some color that went with the coach perhaps, two left in the list, a red one in Austin, TX and a green one near Duluth, MN. Our friend Bob went to check out the green one. It was a marginal maybe at best. He reported that is was just about the worst green color he could imagine on a car. I saw one when we got back to Hastings, I agreed. One left. Too many things that we wanted were not there. The red was OK but a lot of missing things for the price.

Next choices were a Ford Explorer, Escape or Edge or a Jeep Grand Cherokee or (a non-Grand, slightly smaller) Cherokee. Low 20,000 miles.

We looked at a couple 2014 Grand Cherokees. They were bigger than any of our cars now, felt bigger and bulkier. We were not impressed with the interiors or the seats, sort of plain Grand I guess but that is what they had. We looked a a 2014 Cherokee, red, black and gray interior, leather heated and cooled seats, big touchscreen dash sort of thing. Wow! A bit more money than we were thinking but not much. Even the Cherokee was just a bit bigger than our Passat which we think is quite comfortable.

And then on to the Ford dealer. Lots of black, white and gray Explorers. Sort of MInnesota's choice of colors I guess. The Explorer was big. Felt big, looked big, drove big, too big. 1000 lbs more than the Cherokee. The Ford Edge was a cross over, all wheel drive but not really an off-road car by any stretch of the imagination. It was a car. The Escape was OK. About the same size and weight as the Cherokee. It felt a bit more tinny, nowhere near the accoutrements for about the same money.

We thought about it. Sell the Wrangler, sell the Passat, sell our bike rack, sell the tow setup for the Wrangler. Buy the Cherokee, get new towing gear, get a new bike rack. Lots of work.

So all of this went down at the same time as all of our other summer projects. We traded in the Wrangler, probably could have gotten a bit more if we had sold it outright but time was tight. Sold the towing gear from the Wrangler for almost what we had in it. Ordered up all of the parts to set up the Cherokee for towing and a new tow bar and brake setup.

Don at the Auto Doctor installed all towing gear. It took about a week, he fit it in when they had spare time and gave us a break on cost. We did a test tow, made a couple adjustments and we were all set up with a new toad.

Susan and the Jeep Cherokee

Coach and Jeep Ready to Go

This will be Susan's everyday car. We will sell the Passat when we get home and be back to two cars.

So far we have towed it more than driven it. But we like it! A good choice for us.

More later,

Roger and Susan

Summer Projects, 2017

We got back to Hastings in late April. I had a couple simple projects in mind for the coach but mostly wanted to finish a bathroom built-in cabinet that I had been working on for some time.

When we were in Tucson in February we met several other Foretravel folks among them Kent Spears and Ken Hathaway. These are folks we have met before. They had seen an add on Craig's list for pretty cheap solar panels in Las Vegas so they drove over and returned with as many 240 (maybe 270) watt panels as they could cram in Kent's car and promptly put three on Kent's coach and four on Ken's coach as I recall. They had to find mounting hardware, cables to go from the panels to the solar charge controller, the solar charge controller, cables to the batteries and all of the other bits. I got involved about the time they were trying to hook up their laptops to the solar charge controller to see what it was doing. I had some suggestions on small routers. They were pretty excited about it. The cost seemed reasonable. And there is a 30% tax credit based on the cost of the solar installation. Of course by this time all the panels were gone. But in just days another add popped up on Craig's List, Las Vegas, for 300 watt panels. These are placed by the same few people who are liquidating the remaining panels from projects in Nevada that might use 10 or 12 thousand panels at several sites. They always have extras. I called. He had pallets of twenty, more than a hundred pallets. Could he sell me three or four panels and ship them to Minnesota? Nope. He took my name and phone number anyway. A few days later he called back and asked if I would buy ten on a pallet shipped to MN? He knocked $15 off the price of each panel and added about $35 for shipping to my door in Minnesota. These are commercial panels with a 25 year warranty. I said yes if he could hold off on shipping for a month till we got home. It was a done deal.

So now the list of summer projects started to get longer.

If you add solar you need batteries to store the electricity. When we added a residential refrigerator to the coach it was pretty apparent that some additional battery capacity would be nice. The three batteries in the coach now are 6 years old, maybe another year or two left in them. And the common rule is you don't mix batteries of significantly different ages. So all new batteries? Or add more batteries in a separate group? That seemed to make sense. That way all of my batteries wouldn't be aging out at the same time and needing to be replaced all at once.

Our coach has a 17 gallon LP tank to feed the two burner cooktop and the original LP gas refrigerator. Without the LP gas refrigerator that LP tank could be removed freeing up some space for new batteries and a much smaller LP tank that could be removed and taken somewhere to get refilled rather than having to drive the coach somewhere. A 17 gallon LP tank will run the cooktop for at least five years.

We were still using the original inverter/charger with the first house battery set. At 16 years old it was nearing the end if its expected life and it was not as efficient as some of the newer version. A new one with higher 120 volt power output and 20% more 12 volt charging capacity seemed like a good idea. So I found a buyer for the original, still working inverter and added a new bigger inverter to the list. My buyer reports that it arrived in good working order and is working now in his coach.

Ideas were shaping up. I certainly didn't need ten panels so by the time we got home six had been sold. The plan was for three on our coach (if I never wanted to get on the roof again, there was maybe room for five) and one on the roof of the barn to keep batteries charged while the coach was inside. So 900 watts, a possibility of 65 amps of battery charging. The panels will never be perfectly aligned with the sun, there may be clouds or shade from trees. Almost anything can keep them from their maximum potential. But all of the wires, fuses, solar charge controller – everything – has to be sized for the maximum possible power. Realistically over time a days worth of power from the sun will be about 2700 watts going into the batteries or about 210 amp hours. Our refrigerator is the biggest power consumer, an average of 70 watts per hour or about 1850 watts for the day accounting for some inefficiencies in the 12 volt DC to 120 volt AC process. So on average we would be close to self sufficient just from the sun if we are careful with power usage. In practice we probably use a little more. The solar just means we can go for three or four days before we need to run our generator for a couple hours to make up any shortages.

Two years ago I added a bigger 240 amp Delco Remy alternator, plenty big enough to handle more batteries. I also changed the original diode based isolator to a Sterling ProSplitR zero voltage drop isolator. The isolator keeps each set of batteries separated so that charging power goes to all of the batteries but power cannot go from one battery to another. The diode based isolators lose almost 1 volt from the input side to the output side due to the diodes and heat. This makes the alternator work harder and the process less efficient. With a zero voltage smart isolator the alternator or other charging source feeds power to the batteries with almost no losses.

So the project list …

  • A new house battery bank, wiring so that they can get charged, switches and fuses and wiring to a high efficiency inverter (change 12 volts DC to 120 volts AC) for the refrigerator circuit.
  • A smaller 11 lb (2.6 gal) LP tank and a spare.
  • Solar panels with wiring, switches, fuses and a solar charge controller.
  • Adjust the wiring on the secondary battery charger.
  • Add a distribution point for the solar power.
  • Replace the existing monitoring panels with a control panel that integrates all of the components into a single view.
  • Remove the original inverter that worked with the first house batteries and replace it with a new, bigger more efficient one.
  • Get it done in about 6 weeks
  • Keep working on the built-in cabinet
  • And sneak in a week long project with Douglas and Amanda to replace their dead inverter and put two solar panels on their coach (an unplanned addition to the list but we enjoyed their visit)
  • And still get it done in six weeks

No problem.


If it hadn't been for Ken and Kent none of this might have happened this way. I got lots of help on this project especially from Alan Ferber at Bay Marine Supply in San Diego. He helped me work through all of the possible choices, made good recommendations, helped determine correct wire sizes and frequently helped un-dumbfound this old dog. Barry (Barry and Cindy) from the Foretravel Forum helped with some insights on the 120 volt wiring transfer switches. George D also from the Foretravel Forum gave me ideas on Victron integration. And Don (Don and Tys) another Forum friend has always been there with encouragement. And many others pitched in their two cents. Thanks for the ideas and guidance. All of this is something to learn made complicated by equipment and technology constantly changing.

Here is an overall view of the plan. Yah I know, techno-babble sort-of-thing but part of the function of the blog is to keep this record for ourselves and for others who might be more interested.

Parts List.

Victron Multiplus 12/3000/120 inverter charger
Victron Color Control GX
Victron Bluesolar 150/70 MPPT controller
Victron Phoenix 12v / 800VA Phoenix inverter
Victron BMV 702 battery monitor
Victron BMV 700 battery monitor
2 VE.Direct – 10M (32') for small inverter and Blue Solar controller
3 VE.Direct to USB interface for BMV-700 & 702
2 Digital voltage displays
Powered 5 port USB hub
Cat 6 Ethernet cable, 25', Multiplus to Color Control GX
Cat 6 Ethernet cable, 50', Color Control GX to PC Network Gigabit switch
3 MRBF fuse holders for solar and battery charger
MRBF fuse – 80A, solar
2 MRBF fuses – 50A, battery charger
Blue Sea 5025 fuse block, 30 amp fuses
2 BEP Marinco EZ installer on/off battery switch
ANL fuse holder – 750A double stud for house bank
ANL fuse holder – 300A single stud for house bank
2 Link bars – LB1 (switch to fuse)
ANL fuse – 400A for house bank 1
ANL fuse – 100A for house bank 2
Bus Bar – 4-Stud 250 Amp – 5/16, Black
Bus Bar – 4-Stud 250 Amp – 5/16, Red

Sterling ProSplitR Zero Voltage Drop isolator, 210 amp, 3 way
Sterling Pro Charge Ultra Battery Charger, 12 volt/ 40 amp, three output

4 Fullriver DC 400-6 L16 size 6 volt batteries, 415 amp hr.
Battery rack, custom made.
LP tank mount
2 – 11 lb LP tanks

SquareD circuit breaker panel, 20 amp circuit breaker
Double pole Double throw Center off switch. (DPDT)

  • Enables choice between the two inverters to power the refrigerator/front end circuit.

Custom made cables by me, I got the really big crimper.

  • all with FTZ power lugs or starter lugs,
  • hole sizes as required,
  • double adhesive lined heat shrink tubing.

2 14" 3/0 6 volt battery interconnect
4 26" 3/0 6 volt battery to bus bar
2 25' 4/0 cables, Sterling ProSplitR to House Battery 2
4 8' 2/0 cables House Battery 1 to Victron Multiplus
Several 8, 6 and 4 gauge cables as needed

2 pair 8 ga solar panel cables, 25', MC4 fittings on one end
1 pair 10 ga solar panel cables,15', MC4 fittings on one end
6 watertight cable bulkhead fittings.

Running the 4/0 12 Volt Cables.

I had to run two new 4/0 cables (four ought is the way wire folks speak). These cables are about the size of a garden hose but are pretty flexible. I had to go from the LP bay down the center of the coach basement through the main bay, through the wet bay (this is where the water and waste tanks are) where one could not see where they were going, out from the basement at the rear, over the rear axle and differential, up and over the transmission and then up into the engine bay. The bed in the rear bedroom sits on a box over the engine. The top of the box and the mattress lift up to gain access to the engine from the top. These big wires needed to get to the front inside end of this box.

The hardest part of this was through the wet bay. The cables go over the the water and waste tank and through a hole at the top of the back wall of the bay. The hole is already pretty full of other cables, hoses and other things and you can't see it from inside. Once through the hole there is a frame member about five inches away that you have to go under. Even from under the coach this is not something you can easily see. So with a long skinny rod with a hook on the end I spent a couple hours trying to get a rope through there and into the small space between the back wall of the bay and the frame member. After many tries and into the basement and out and under the coach and back I finally spied the end of the rope using a flashlight and a mirror on a stick. Then with another stick with a hook I was able to snag the rope and pull it down to an accessible point.

My neighbor, Dan, came over to lend a hand feeding the two 4/0 cables, a red one and a black one, through a small hole in the back wall of the basement, through the wet bay and out the back. The cables were tied to the rope. Dan was feeding them in and covering the cables with an electrical cable lubricant that helps them slide through. This goo is about the consistency of thick hand lotion. I was under the coach (which was on six inch blocks and the air bags up all the way for an extra 10" of clearance) and I started pulling, Dan was lubing and pushing and after a few anxious moments the cables appeared. We pulled about 17 of the 25 feet of cable through which left me enough at both ends. Thanks for the helping hand, Dan.

Then I had to feed the two cables one at a time through all of the cable troughs and supports over the rear axle, over the differential, along the side and above the back end of the transmission and then up and through some tight cable supports that were already pretty full. And every where the red +12 volt cable went through a cable guide it had to have a corrugated plastic cover to prevent abrasion. Finally it was all in place along with a couple dozen stout cable zip ties. I was covered from head to toe with dirt, grease, grime and general filth. And I was bleeding from several small scrapes and cuts on my hands, arms and head. Sorry no pictures. It took about three showers to get sort of cleaned up. And then back into the basement of the coach to finish routing the cables through the overhead cable tray forward and to the right into the new battery bay.

Solar Panels.

Three 900 watt solar panels are on the roof. I had a cardboard cutout the size of the panels to help get them positioned. I had a local sheet metal/welding guy make aluminum mounting brackets. The roof is curved side to side so one part of the bracket is bent slightly more than 90° to fit the curve of the roof. Each bracket is 12" long and attaches to the roof with a double sided 3M VHB tape. This tape is very strong and has 91 psi strength in tension. With four brackets the tape has over 6000 lbs of holding strength, no screws needed.

We employed a well known Egyptian method of getting things from one level to another. The panels weigh about 60 lbs and we had no crane available.

Pull them up one at a time.

The panels with the brackets attached were placed in position. I used blue tape to mark where each bracket sat on the roof. The panels were moved aside and the roof and aluminum brackets were prepped with acetone, denatured alcohol and then a 3M cleaner/adhesion enhancer. The VHB tape was put in place on the roof and pressed into place. Then the backing was removed from the VHB tape. The panels were moved back into position and the brackets set down on the VHB tape and pressd into place.

I left them sit for a couple days and then caulked around all of the bracket edges with 3M 4000 UV adhesive sealant to keep moisture out. I used stainless steel bolts and lock nuts to attach the panels to the brackets. Some folks use Dicor caulk. I have tried it but prefer the 3M product. It seems much tougher, the skin forms and dries quicker so it attracts less dirt and after a couple years it looks cleaner. There are others you could use as well. It is just a choice.

The panels are 24 volts each. A pair of wires (+/-) comes from each panel along the roof hidden and protected as much as possible. I used plastic wire tie attachments stuck to the roof with double sided tape. The solar cables are zip tied to these. It makes for a pretty tidy end result. The solar cables are run through water tight grommets in the side of the refrigerator vent and down into the refrigerator bay behind the refrigerator.

Three Solar Panels

Solar Cables into the Refrigerator Vent

These solar panel wires go through the floor of the coach behind the refrigerator into the passengers side of the wet bay where the water pump and the water distribution manifold are located. I rebuilt the back side of the small storage area to gain some extra room, quite a bit actually. This space is heated in the winter so these wall sections are needed to keep heat in and to help keep things neat. This also gave me the additional room needed for a reserve LP tank.

The 24 volt solar panel wires connect to a Blue Sea fuse block. Each panel has its own 30 amp fuse. The output of all three panels is combined at the fuse block and fed to the Victron BlueSolar 150/70 charge controller using 6 gauge cable. The charge controller converts it to 12 volts which doubles the amps and sends power to the batteries through an on/off switch. For this longer run to the batteries I used 4 gauge cable.

Solar Charge Controller, fuse block, switch, temperature sensor

The charge controller senses the voltage at the battery and adjusts the output voltage. When the batteries need power the output voltage is higher which helps charge the batteries quicker. This is a bulk charge mode. As they become more fully charged the voltage drops and the charge level is reduced as the charger works to get the batteries to absorb as much as they can. This is the absorption mode. Finally when the batteries are fully charged, the voltage drops a bit more and the charge level is reduced even more to just keep the batteries fully charged. This is the float mode. The charge controller has a data cable that goes to the Victron Color Control GX panel where its function can be monitored.

The charger output is fed through a Blue Sea MRBF fuse holder with a 80 amp fuse to the input side of a Victron ArgoFET isolator located in the engine bay on the front inside of the bed box. This isolator has no diodes and no voltage drop. It prevents any interconnection between battery banks but still allows the solar power to go to all three battery banks as needed. Output from the isolator goes to the three distribution points on the Sterling ProSplitR isolator.

My original thinking was to send the output from the solar charger to the input side of the Sterling and let it manage the distribution of power to the different battery banks using its internal management system. That would work but it would mean the Sterling would need to be powered up all the time. This power usually comes from an ignition powered source when the engine is running. That source would need to be isolated with a diode so when the Sterling is powered by a secondary source (solar charger) the engine ignition source is not getting feedback. This got more difficult than I wanted it to be so I just used the ArgoFET isolator. No extra wiring, no diodes. And the Sterling is off except when driving. I would still like to use the smart part of the Sterling, it would do a better job of putting solar where it is needed most. More thinking is required.

A New Battery Bank.

The three coach batteries now are Lifeline 8Ds. These are big (10"x22"x11" high) and heavy (167 lbs). There is room for three of these on two levels on the driver's side. On the other side where the big LP tank is there is the same footprint but not enough height for two levels. So the big LP tank was removed. I had it sold to a fellow in TX but there is no reasonable way to ship a used LP tank. It is considered a hazardous shipment. So that deal fell through.

In that space there is room for four L16 sized batteries, each about 8"x12"x16" tall. Four of these six volt batteries have about 15% more capacity than the three 8D batteries for about the same total weight. I designed a rack to hold the batteries and use the big LP tank mounting holes. The metal guy welded it up.

The Fullriver batteries came from AAA Battery in NE Minneapolis. I picked them up and got 10% off plus a credit for recycling old batteries. In the end it was the cheapest I could find for these batteries anywhere. The batteries got test fit on the rack in the shop. Perfect. The rack got installed with the original bolts that went through the basement floor steel frame. I made bigger plates to fit on the under side of the floor and loaded the plate and bolt hole with a 3M 5200 adhesive sealant and bolted it all together. It should be water tight for ever.

There are four vent holes through the floor. I made a fiberglass cover that fits over all of these vents preventing water or dirt from getting into the new battery area but still allowing for positive ventilation. I made covers for the vent holes in the driver's side battery bay and for the AquaHot Bay vent as well. All of these are glued in place with a 3M 5200 adhesive.

I made a plywood panel to fit on the upper rear wall of the bay. The two bus bars (plus and minus) are attached to the panel as are the switch and fuse block. There is also a shunt mounted just above the negative bus bar. The shunt allows the measurement of amps coming out of the battery. The shunt is between the bus bar and the 4/0 black cable running all the way to the rear of the coach to the common ground point. This ensures uniform grounding through direct cables.

All of the negative battery cables attach to the negative bus bar. The positive battery cables to the positive bus bar. All of these cables from the batteries to the bus bars are the same length. The 4/0 red cable that runs from rear of the coach is connected at this end to the positive bus bar and at the other end to the B2 post on the Sterling ProSplitR. A 4 gauge positive cable from the positive bus bar goes through the fuse and the switch to the Victron Phoenix 800 inverter that powers the refrigerator circuit. A 4 gauge negative cable from the far end if the shunt goes to the Victron Phoenix 800 inverter as well.

Battery Rack

Batteries in Place, Wired up.

LP tank mounting bracket.

LP Tank in place, Drawer back in. The old LP lines really stink. I will replace them.

Feeding the Refrigerator/Front End Circuit.

The coach has a main 120 volt circuit breaker panel and a sub panel that can be switched from land line or generator power to inverter power with an automatic transfer switch. One of these sub panel circuits feeds the refrigerator as well as several other outlets, the Bose Stereo system, the front overhead spaces where the TV, BlueRay player, all of the DirectTV and satellite equipment is located and the coach PC and network equipment.

The new battery bank powers a Victron Phoenix 800 inverter. This is a very high efficiency pure sine wave inverter that is rated at 650 watts continuous and 1500 watts peak 120 volt output. I wanted this to feed part of the circuit described above, just the refrigerator and the front overhead equipment. The rest of the circuit would remain connected to the main inverter or the land line/generator. It took some doing to figure out where to split the circuit. There are lots of 120 volt wires that all look the same.

Once I figured out where to split the circuit I added a double pole double throw center off (DPDT) switch that lets me run the split part of the circuit from the Phoenix inverter or from the MultiPlus inverter (or land line or generator if they are available). After the DPDT switch the circuit needed to run through a circuit breaker and then on to the refrigerator and front end.

The refrigerator has no on/off switch so part of this circuit goes to a switch and outlet on the front face of the lower kitchen cabinets and from the switch back to an outlet under the kitchen cabinet into which the refrigerator and the cooktop (gas ignition) are plugged.

Lots of stuff under the kitchen cabinet. The Phoenix inverter, the panel and circuit breaker, the manual transfer switch and outlets. The round silver thing is part of the leveling system. I have yet to figure out what the gray box does. Some big relay thing.

This circuit continues up into the front overhead space and is branched again so that different parts of the entertainment equipment can be selectively turned on or off. The TV and BlueRay player are on one switch. All of the DirecTV and satellite parts are on another and the Bose equipment is on a third. Most of this stuff is on all the time if it has power. If we are in a very low power use mode then we can shut it all off and just turn on what we need. The other branch of this circuit powers the coach PC, router, ethernet switch, internet access device and mobile device chargers and then down to another outlet on the outside wall next to the driver's seat.

This gives us maximum flexibility in managing power use and distribution. Perhaps a bit of overkill but it works for us especially when we are in one place for a while and are only using solar and battery power.

Victron MultiPlus 12/300/120 inverter/charger.

The Victron MultiPlus inverter charger is mounted on the basement wall in the same place as the original Xantrex Prosine inverter. The Victron takes up less space on the wall but is about 4" deeper so it sticks out a bit more. This was a good thing because it forced us to take everything out of the basement and sort through all of it and repack it into smaller tubs that are easier to handle and find things in. The tubs are not so crammed full and they stack more efficiently in the basement. In the end we ended up with more useful space.

These new tubs are nice, three tall ones and six shorter ones, all the same width and length. They are all labeled too so we can find stuff. Well almost.

The MultiPlus uses a pair of 2/0 cables for the plus side and the minus side of the 12 volt connections. The original inverter used a single 3/0 cable pair. The MultiPlus can pull more amps from the batteries and charge more than the original so bigger wires were needed. Two 2/0 cables have a bigger copper cross section area than a single 4/0 cable and they are easier to snake through the space so that is what got used.

The existing 120 volt wire was sufficient so it got connected without any changes.

With the cover off the MultiPlus was very easy to work on. All of the connections are in front. You can see the two positive and two negative cables, each with its own connection point.

I just replaced another inverter with a new Xantrex inverter and I have to say this one was much easier to connect.

The MultiPlus has a built in transfer switch. When land line power or generator is available that power is sent to the coach. When it is not the inverter makes 120 V AC from 12 V DC and passes it to the coach. I elected to use the existing transfer switch in the coach. The way it is wired when the land line is connected or the generator is running up to 50 amps is available on the circuits that are powered by either the land line or the generator or the inverter. When there is no land line or generator power then it switches and uses the output from the inverter to power these circuits. The MultiPlus will transfer switch 50 amps as well but I would have had to run much bigger 120 volt wiring. Another choice.

There are always trade offs. If I used the Multiplus transfer switch then it has the capability to add 120 volt capacity from the inverter to that which is available from the land line. If you were connected to a 30 amp land line for example, and you wanted to be running the water heater and the AC at the same time you might be close to how much power is available from the 30 amp land line. If you start the microwave as well you might blow a circuit breaker but for that short time when the power needs exceeded the capacity of the land line, the charger side of the MultiPlus would back off and the inverter would add whatever was needed to make up the difference. Someday I may rewire the 120 volt loop for 50 amps so that the additive component available from the MultiPlus becomes available.

The Multiplus closed up and operating, batteries are at float.

Battery Charger.

I also added a second battery charger. This was initially to charge the start battery when we were connected to shore power or had the generator running. I sized it so that it could also charge the second house battery set. At 40 amps it is sufficient but a bigger choice would have charged the second house batteries faster. It has a display that shows what the current battery voltage and charge rate are.

A smart battery charger, three independent outputs, each can be different battery types. Normally this is in a vented enclosure in the engine bay.

The charger display shows that the house 2 and start batteries are at 13.3 volts, a float level and being maintained with 1.8 amps into the seven batteries.

Monitor Panel.

Of course one wants to know what is going on. One of the best parts for the Victron product line is that almost all of the devices have communication links. They all come together at the Victron Color Control GX (CCGX). Each battery bank and the start batteries are monitored by connections to the shunts at the house battery sets and these connect to the CCGX. The solar charge controller, the MultiPlus inverter and the Phoenix inverter are all connected as well.

The CCGX is also connected to the coach computer network and through that to the internet. You can do all of the configuration programming on-line, store it on-line, update the CCGX on-line and log performance data on-line.

And it shows you in graphical form what is going on. Where power is coming from and where it is going. Very nice.

I also added digital volt meters that show the voltage on each leg of the incoming AC lines when you are connected to shore power or generator power. Another display in the bedroom closet shows how many amps are being drawn through each leg and if there are any connection errors.

The really hard part of this part was getting the data cables from where they come from to the space where the display panel is. They feed up from the basement into the refrigerator bay then up into the cabinet above the microwave. Then they feed through the space between the inside bottom of the cabinet and the outside bottom across over the sink, down over and up through the next kitchen cabinet and then into the cabinet where the display is mounted.

The data cables, internet cables, USB cables, and several pairs of spare cables meant about twenty wires made the trip through some very narrow passages.

The original display panel was attached from the inside, a very difficult place to get hands and tools. I remade the mounting so that the new book-matched, 3/8" solid cherry panel is fixed in place with velcro. A pair of handles helps pull it out for easy access to the pile of wires behind.

Typical CCGX display. The batteries are at 100%. The charger is idle. Solar is feeding 119 watts into the batteries. 8 watts are being consumed by 12 volt devices. 111 watts are maintaining the batteries at float. Only 2 watts are being consumed by the Multiplus in idle mode.


All is working as expected. Of course every bit of it got tested along the way as it was installed and adjustments were made as needed.

The solar panels are putting out an astounding amount of power. Even in the shadow of trees and a cloudy day they are adding more than the refrigerator uses. Our best day so far was in a sunny campsite on a clear day, more than 5.2 KW into the batteries. 20-25% of the max possible is still going to be about 2.1 KW which is what I was using as a planning point. This is more than enough to run the refrigerator and our other loads with some care for four or more days without any generator support. We spent a week at Madison in Yellowstone and ran the generator once for two hours. We need lots more time and experience with this to know how to balance loads and get the best results.

Our Lifelines are six years old, not dead but not new by any means. Replacing them now gets them included in the "solar project". With a different battery rack and some repositioned water drain lines there is room for four of the L16 batteries for 830 amp hr capacity or four or maybe even six of the Fullriver DC335-6 batteries (same footprint as the L16s, shorter) for 670 or 1005 amp hrs capacity. In a few years Lithium batteries should be much cheaper. They may be an option for the next battery cycle.

More projects ahead — after I finish the bathroom built-in cabinet. It is much closer to being finished now than when we got home in April. Really.

More later,

Roger and Susan (the editor)

Editors note: I think my head just exploded after proofreading this post