Due to scheduling challenges, our 2018 camping season got off to a slow start. We had one trip in March and another in April, but then a two month gap where we did not have a free weekend for camping. Not ones to sit around and wallow in despair, we used the opportunity to make a number of upgrades to the camper.
Our installation of solar fridge vent fans was already covered in a previous post. Unfortunately, I did not take the time to fully document each additional upgrade, but I’ll do my best to run through them here.
Once the fridge vents were installed, it was time to install a new TV antenna. This was not high on our list of needed upgrades. We rarely watch TV in the camper and when we do, the reception is just fine. The problem was the size and position of the antenna. Our primary upgrade was to install a skylight and the antenna that came with the camper cranked down and laid on the roof exactly where our new skylight would be. It had to go.
Our current antenna was made by Winegard. We did some research and found the Rayzar z1 model as a replacement. Being from the same company, we figured the installation would be the most compatible with what we already had on the roof — we were right. This new antenna rotated, but did not crank down and had a much smaller footprint. Other than rain interfering with the installation at times, the swap went smoothly and after one weekend we had a new antenna.
Note that this picture is the closest we have to a ‘before’ picture. To see all of our upgrades, compare this picture to the featured picture at the top of this post. Note the dirt where the old antenna used to lay. This spot is now occupied by a skylight. And there is just bare roof where we now have a solar panel.
With the antenna out of the way, it was time to install the skylight. I do not want to understate how nervous this project made us. We are talking about cutting a 14×22 inch hole in the roof of our camper. Most people do everything they can to avoid getting holes in their roof. We were doing it deliberately.
Before doing anything, I contacted Forest River and asked if they could send me the plans for the roof so I could locate any obstructions. To my pleasant surprise, they responded within 24 hours with PDF files showing the blueprints for my roof. I also asked them about the notion of installing a skylight where we wanted to and they quickly responded that the roof was very strong and would have no issues with this. I have to say I was amazed at the speed of Forest River’s responses and how they took the time to give me helpful answers — not just canned responses. Their stock has gone up for me.
One of the more challenging parts of the skylight job was finding the parts. One would think that you could just buy a kit with the outer dome and an inner garnish. But, with all of the different types of RVs and roof construction options, I guess that is unrealistic. Buying a skylight requires finding a dome that is the right size and color and then an inner garnish that is the right thickness for your roof. This alone took weeks of research. The details available for the different products is severely lacking which adds to the challenge.
Finally, we had the skylight and the necessary materials to install it. We had mapped out exactly where it needed to go and carefully measured and re-measured and re-measured again to ensure it was exactly where it was supposed to go. As luck would have it, the plans from Forest River indicated that there were wires running right through where we wanted the skylight to go. This meant we would need to be extra careful when cutting the hole so as not to cut the wires. I then figured I would need to splice them to add some length and tuck them out of the way. Upon cutting into the ceiling, we found the wires were exactly where indicated in the plans.
My bigger concern was the height of the garnish. It was 5 inches high. The roof is only 3.5 inches thick and the dome was very shallow. I did some tests in the house and it looked like the garnish would actually touch the dome, which is no good. The next smallest garnish was only 2 inches which was too small. So, plans were made to add material to the roof to raise the dome about an inch. I got some pieces of oak and cut them to make a rectangular frame that I would attach to the roof. The dome would then sit on it and raise it enough to avoid the garnish. This exercise took about 3 hours to get it all cut and holes pre-drilled and everything — and I didn’t need any of it.
When the hole was finally cut in the roof, we test fit everything and the garnish missed the dome by at least half an inch. Better to have been prepared and not need it than to have a hole in my roof and be scrambling to build something on the fly. Another piece of good news was that the wires were long enough where I was able to tuck them out of the way without having to do any splicing.
All in all, the skylight was actually an easier job than the antenna. The difference in the amount of light inside the camper is amazing.
The last big upgrade was our solar panel. We were originally going to wait until next year on this one, but we really wanted to go to Cades Cove and that would be dry camping. We would need to have something to charge the batteries. We found the kit we wanted and went for it.
Again, we measured the roof to find a place where the installation screws would not hit any wires. I also positioned the panel so that there is room for us to add up to 3 more panels if we want to. The charge controller is rated for 4 panels so we are prepared to further upgrade this system if we want.
The panel itself was fairly easy. Just some butyl tape and screw down the brackets, then add lap sealant. I am a little concerned about how the panel will hold up on our roof. We have a vacuum-bonded roof with quarter inch plywood as the top surface. This is a little thin, but I think with eight screws holding it down it will be fine. Plus there is sticky butyl tape under each bracket and plenty of lap sealant. It feels very sturdy. If that changes after some trips I will post an update.
I ran the wires from the panel down behind the fridge and drilled a hole to get behind the converter. I then pushed the wires through an existing hole to get under the camper. I decided to put the controller in the front storage bay as that is closest to the battery. Running these wires was an all day job to get them positioned and secured. The kit only came with 20 feet of 10awg solar PV wire which was not enough to reach the front of the camper. I bought some standard 10awg wire from Lowe’s to use for the parts under the camper. The PV wire is designed to be out in the sun so I made sure to use that wire for the places that would be exposed.
The most complicated part of the solar install was creating a sort of solar power station. I needed to mount the controller, but I also wanted to have a switch where I could turn it off if desired, plus a fuse to protect the system, plus meters to see what kind of power we are getting. This required a bunch of research and more than a couple schematics to get all of the wires in the right places. But in the end, we have a functional solar panel that successfully keeps our battery charged in storage and I can see exactly how much power we are getting.
While these were the biggest changes, we also had a few more improvements.
One thing that bugged us was that our stairs were wobbly. They were only secured in two places at the front. I used some self-tapping screws to secure the back of the stair assembly to the frame of the camper. It is significantly more stable now.
As with most campers, the tank monitors on ours are very unreliable. We decided to do some tests to see how much our tanks can actually hold and how much is in each tank at the different indicator levels. The first thing we found was that while we have a 43 gallon fresh water tank, the vent is positioned about an inch from the top of the tank. As a result, it cannot be completely filled. Using our water meter, we found that the 43 gallon tank can actually only hold about 30 gallons of water. That is disappointing.
Things are not much better with the gray and black tanks. They are advertised as 28 gallons, but they also come up short. We filled the tanks until the indicator showed full. We then continued to fill the gray tank until water came up the shower drain. The net result is there is only 16 gallons in the tank when it shows as full and it takes another 8 gallons before it comes up the drain. I am glad that there is a substantial margin of error, but it seems the 28 gallon tank maxes out at 24 gallons. That is also disappointing. I won’t go into the details, but the black tank is about the same.
We also did some maintenance items like flushing the tanks, sanitizing the freshwater tank with bleach, checking the tire pressure, and giving it a good wash.
Overall, a very productive two months. Now we are ready to get back to some serious camping.