Who Needs Electricity? I Do!

How I cope with a sudden electricity problem at Howard Mesa.

About a month ago, Mike and I took care of a water problem at Howard Mesa (detailed in another blog entry). In doing that, we used the water pump hooked up to the camper to flush a bunch of water down the septic system. I think that overuse of the water pump may have been what triggered a new problem.

The problem is this: In the morning, after turning on the light and the stereo in the camper and running the water a bit, I would get a “Low DC” message on the refrigerator’s control panel. The refrigerator does not run off the battery. It uses gas. But it evidently needs some amount of electricity to operate. When the battery’s power level falls below 10 volts, the refrigerator tells me it’s time to start turning things off.

This doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve been living in the camper every other week, while working at the Grand Canyon, since April. The solar panel on the roof has done an excellent job of keeping the two batteries charged. I never had any indication of a low battery.

Until the day after we used the water pump for so long.

Mike thinks the extra electricity use discharged the batteries and the solar cell has not been able to bring them back up to full charge. But the solar panels have full sunshine almost every day when I’m not around running the stereo or turning on the lights. Actually, they get a whole week of charging time without me around to discharge anything. I even shut off the fridge and turned off the power one week. I think the batteries have gone bad and they’re simply not holding a charge. Of course, since I can’t prove that and the batteries are less than two years old, I must be wrong.

The solution, according to Mike, was to buy a generator and hook that up to the camper. So we went to Lowes and bought a 1,000-watt “portable” generator. We loaded it into the helicopter’s passenger seat (if Frank Robinson saw that, he’d probably have a canary) and strapped it in with the seat belt (like a 50-lb squat box is going to shift in flight). I flew it to Howard Mesa, lugged it into position behind the camper, and fired it up.

It was easy to start. It reminded me of the old days when I used to mow the lawn. You know, that pull cord thing. There’s a trick to starting it, but I learned that trick when I got my GoPed, so I was all set.

Although it was advertised as quiet, I’m not sure what they’re comparing it to. Yes, it’s quieter than a Bell 206L helicopter. But it’s considerably louder than the sound of the wind through the trees, which is the only other sound I have to deal with here at Howard Mesa.

It vibrates. It vibrates so much that the power cord that connected it to the camper kept falling out. I had to use bungee cords to hold it in.

But when it’s running and plugged in, I can use all the electricity I want and I don’t get any flashing warnings from the Fridge.

It won’t run the microwave. Whatever rocket scientist thought a camper needed a 1450-watt microwave was gravely mistaken. A 700-watt microwave would have done the job nicely. And the generator would have run it (if I turned everything else off and cooked in the dark).

This morning, I really put it to the test. When I woke up, it was 38° F outside and 45° F inside. Not the kind of indoor climate conducive to showering. And when I turned on the light and the stereo, the refrigerator started flashing. So I put my sweatpants on over my long johns (which I wear to bed here) and threw a sweatshirt over my nightshirt. I went outside, fired up the new generator, plugged it in, and fastened the bungee cords. Then I went inside and turned on the heat. The heat isn’t electric either — it’s gas. But its fan is electric and I knew it would suck the batteries dry within minutes.

The place warmed up nicely. And I couldn’t even hear the generator because the heater made so much noise it drowned out the sound. I had my coffee and took a nice, hot shower. It was pleasant. Until the carbon monoxide detector went off. I guess I shouldn’t have placed the generator with it’s tiny exhaust pipe facing the camper. I had to leave the camper door open when I left for the day because I was worried that the constant beep-beep of the carbon monoxide detector would drain the batteries as quickly as the solar cells filled them.

I finished work at sunset today and raced to Three-Niner-Lima. I was airborne within 10 minutes. I had a great 20-knot tailwind. I made record time getting back to Howard Mesa, but it was still pretty dark when I arrived. (I couldn’t check the windsock from the air because I couldn’t find it. Another 15 minutes and I wouldn’t have found the trailer.) I moved the generator to the front of the camper, so I wouldn’t have to walk so far in 30+° weather in the morning. And, hopefully, I wouldn’t have to listen to the carbon monoxide detector.

As I type this, I’m sitting on my sofa, listening to the stereo. The light is on. The heater has just gone off automatically — it reached its 65° setting. The generator is outside, about 10 feet away. I can hear it humming away. I think I’ll raise the heat so I can listen to that instead.

But at least the refrigerator is happy.

What do you think?