Powering and charging “stuff”

Part 1. Charging the camper battery.

I’ve broken this into two parts. Charging the camper battery and charging the other “stuff”. Let’s start with the camper battery.

For preference the camper battery is charged by either solar panels via a Victron Smart Solar MPPT 100/20 or the car via a  Victron Orion-Tr Smart DC-DC Charger.

If we get caught short and 240V is available we can recharge via our Victron  Blue Smart IP22 Charger and if we get really get caught short we can use our generator.

Part 2. Charging the stuff.

I suppose that we are like a heap of other people. We lug around cameras, phones, torches, tablets, etc. Some things rely on dedicated power supplies to be charged or powered and others can use a generic USB socket. Still others can use a 12V socket. With all these different methods we end up with a plethora of chargers, each one different. Example; my wife’s laptop wants 19V DC, my laptop wants 16V DC, The raspberry Pi that we use to watch videos, etc. wants 5.1V and so it goes.

Getting hold of 12V adaptors for all these chargers and things looked to be pretty expensive and we’d have even more stuff to lug around and pack. I would also need to add 12V and USB sockets to the camper. So the fully 12V strategy went straight to the too hard, too expensive and too much messing around basket.

Then something happened. I had a thought.

Why not just buy a single high quality 500W pure sine wave 12V to 240V AC inverter and take along all the existing chargers and a six socket power board ?

A quick google search for “500W pure sine wave inverter” showed that there a loads of the around and at a good price too. Six, or more, socket power boards can be purchased from a local store – even our supermarket carries them for a cheap price. We got one that has four 240V and four USB sockets. We can charge everything that we take without issue. If we need to we can plug the power board into our pure sine wave 700W generator. ( We only have the generator to cover us if we are unable to get the camper battery charged by solar power. Used very rarely.)

I have mounted and wired the inverter in place so all we need to do is to plug in the power board and then just plug all our existing chargers into that.

Problem solved.

This the inverter that we use. Pretty expensive, I know, but very good.

This is similar to the power board that we use.

So for the price of a couple of 12V laptop power supplies our charging / powering problems have been solved.



Efficiency and other thoughts.

One more thing. Efficiency.

Given our modest power usage we can afford a bit of inefficiency. We run an Engel 40 Litre fridge / freezer, a few lights, usually run from the inverter so we can use 240V lights and a diesel heater if the night is cold. We have a couple of hundred Amp Hours of LiFePo4 Lithium battery capacity which we have only managed to flatten once after four days of heavy overcast and cold wet weather with no input from the solar panels. A couple of hours with the generator was enough to put enough into the battery to last until we could charge the battery properly while we towed the camper to our next spot.

Caring for rechargeable batteries.

A bit of an introduction

First up, this not a battery tutorial – there are much better sites for that. Battery University  is but one.

This is a vexed subject with just about everybody having a different opinion concerning the “best” battery chemistry. It also  seems that everyone also has an opinion on how to look after batteries of any chemistry. The really common chemistries are NiCd, NiMh, Lead Acid and Lithium. These are the batteries that we’ll commonly find as rechargeable cells used in car cranking batteries, storage batteries for caravans and campers as well as other uses.

I’ve just had a look at the types that I use. For Amateur Radio I use LiFePo4, my phone and e-cigarette has Lithium Ion, our camper and car have Lead Acid, torches, etc. have NiMh, my old battery operated screwdriver/drill has NiCd and so it goes. You’re probably in the same situation.

To ensure the best battery longevity there are only four basic rules.

  1. Do not over discharge your battery with the exception of some chemistries that don’t mind complete discharge.
  2. Do not over charge your battery.
  3. Charge and discharge the battery’s within the manufacturers specifications.
  4. Store it correctly.

Failure to obey those simple rules will result in a shortened life span or failure. Some failures can be much more spectacular than others. Some may just leak a bit, some will puff up, some will boil over, some will quietly just fail to “hold a charge” and some will explode. Violently.

Sounds simple, yes ? No. Let’s have a look at the capacity, discharging and charging cycles of rechargeable batteries.

Before we have a look at the discharge cycle let’s have a look at how much energy is in a common lithium type. The humble 18650 cell.

These things can sure pack a punch. They can store a whole lot of energy in a very small space. To show just how much energy is contained in a single 3,000 mAh (milli Amp hour or 3Ah) cell we’ll need to do a couple of simple calculations. A single fully charged cell has a terminal voltage of around 3.7V (Volts). 3Ah means that we can draw 3 Amps for an hour (at a specified rate which we can ignore here). Power, in Watts, equals Volts multiplied by Amps which in this case works out to 11.1W which is the power we can draw for an hour. Now if we multiply that by 3600 that will give us a theoretical 39,960 watts for one second. In reality you’ll only get a fraction of that but there’ll still be enough to cause a fire or to cause the battery to fail in spectacular fashion.

So let’s have a look at capacities.

Battery capacity

This is a source of grey hair to many in the power supply industry.

When you see for example a 12V AGM or Absorbed Glass Mat, deep cycle battery of 100Ah capacity you could be forgiven for thinking that you could draw 100A (Amps) for one hour or one amp for 100 hours. You’d be wrong though. What you can actually get out of a fully charged battery is dependant on the rate at which you discharge. The measured capacity of our example battery will be a heap less if you discharge it at 100A and a heap more at one amp so some sort of standardised way of discharging is required so that we can meaningfully compare battery capacities.

With AGM batteries we seemed to have standardised on the 20 hour rate. What this means is that we can discharged a fully charged battery at a constant rate over 20 hours before it is dead flat. Our example battery can be discharged at a rate of 5A for 20 hours which equals 100Ah. So an AGM battery advertised as being of a capacity of 100Ah can be safely assumed to have twice the capacity of an AGM battery advertised as having a capacity of 50Ah.

More confusion creeps in when we look at batteries of different chemistries. Lithium batteries of whatever type, NiCd, NiMh all tend to have their capacities measured at different discharge rates. When comparing  say, AGM to Lithium, make sure that the quoted capacity is at the same rate. If all battery manufacturers specified that the capacity is measured at the 20 hour rate we’d be easily be able to compare capacities. But they don’t, so we can’t.

A few years ago I tested the capacity of a number of 18650 Lithium cells and found that although they were all marked as being 3,500mAh (3.5Ah) capacity they weren’t. Of course I was testing cells of four different brands. In the data sheet of each brand the capacity was rated at a different discharge rate. Confusing. The measured capacity at the ten hour rate varied between 1,400mAh (1.4Ah) and 4,300mAh (4.3Ah). Each cell had a measured capacity of 3.5Ah at the relevant manufacturers discharge rate.

Enough to make you pull your hair out. Anyway let’s move on to discharging batteries.


Now this where the fun begins.

Some battery chemistries don’t care about batteries being completely discharged consistently. Others do.

Your good old AGM deep cycle battery doesn’t much like being discharged beyond about 50% state of charge or SOC consistently. Every now and again is sort of OK though. The only ill effects of deep discharge is a shortened lifespan. Maybe it’ll only last three years instead of seven.

Your car cranking battery is designed to provide very high current for a short period and to be recharged fully as soon as possible afterwards. These batteries don’t like being discharged without an immediate recharge. Leave it partially discharged or let it waste away due to internal losses and it’ll need replacing in a couple of years. In a car that’s used regularly on trips that allow the cranking battery to be fully charged the battery will last for a very long time. The battery in my wife’s car is over twenty years old and still going strong mostly because every time it is driven there is enough time for the battery to recharge completely. It also gets driven on a daily basis so it doesn’t get a chance to just sit there and waste away.


This subject will open a can of worms whenever it’s raised. Some battery types and chemistries require constant voltage, some require constant current, some require a combination. Some can tolerate very fast charging others will start getting hot and puffy whilst they engage in an orgy of destruction. In general though, battery charging is a vexed question.

To simplify matters I’d suggest using a suitable charger or a charger that can be set up for your specific battery type. For lead acid batteries you’ll commonly find that chargers have settings for AGM, GEL and flooded wet cell as each require a different charging profile. My Victron charger for example has four stages for AGM batteries. Bulk, Absorption, Float and Storage. Other chargers break the charging process into as many as seven stages.

For most battery chemistries a charger will exist that will charge it properly. It’s not good to charge NiMh cells with a charger with a LiFePo4 charging profile. Use a charger that has the correct charging profile. Of course this means using a reputable brand of charger which, of course, adds to the expense. Keep in mind, though, that using a “cheap and cheerful” charger may well result in a shorter lifespan for your batteries. A good charger will cost a heap less than having to replace expensive batteries.

The final word

Batteries are expensive. Even cheap AGM’s or flooded wet cell lead acid can cost a fair bit. The purchase price of Lithium batteries of any type can be eye watering. Please protect your investment.

To protect your investment it pays to follow the manufacturer’s suggestions with regard to discharge rates and depth of discharge. You will be well served by storing the battery as the maker suggests and by charging it using the correct charging profile.

If you look after your batteries they’ll reward you with a long and effective service life. Even that very much maligned chemistry, NiCd (or nicad) – a lot of satellites are powered by NiCd cells and their service life is immense. Why ? Because they have been cared for properly.



Why do any preparation ?

We prepare for our trip in the hope that all our preparation will ensure a trouble free and enjoyable trip.

We need to prepare ourselves and our home base for a possibly extended absence. We need to prepare our caravan or camper if we are using one for the trip. We need to prepare our towing vehicle if we are towing. We need to prepare all of the things that we’ll be taking – portable toilet, clothing, fridge / ice box, etc. A critical one is that we need to prepare our finances.

If we manage to get the preparation right, an enjoyable and trouble free trip, whether it be for a weekend trip or a year long “lap” will result.

The camper

Let’s start with the easiest first. Well, it isn’t easy by any means. It is a lot less complicated than your towing vehicle though.

Simple things first. Connect it to the vehicle and test the lights. If they all work as required then good, that’s done. If they don’t then you need to replace bulbs, check connectors, etc. to make sure that they do.

Brakes. Tow it around the block and check the brakes for correct operation whether the be simple override brakes or electric. Do they work properly ? If yes, then good. If no, then either fix them or get them fixed.

Wheel bearings. How many kilometres have they done since they were serviced. If it’s getting a bit up there then now is the time to pull them apart and clean and re-grease them and put them back together properly.

While you’re doing the wheel bearings you can get under the camper to check and grease the suspension. Make good and sure that all of the fixings are tight and that there are no visible issues with the trailing arms, springs and shock absorbers. While you’re are under there you can check connectors, all fasteners, water tank mounts, etc. Check everything.

The tow coupling. We use a poly block hitch so all we need to do in that department is a bit of silicone spray or grease for the top and bottom and the pin and to check the actual block for cracks. There will be a grease nipple or two on the body so a squirt of grease is a good idea too.

Poly block coupling

Check the bolts that hold it onto the trailer. Don’t just look at them. Use a correct sized socket and a breaker bar and make sure that they are tight.

The electrical system. Check all, and I do mean all connectors are clean and tight. Check your batteries and make sure that they are fully charged and that they have good capacity and will hold a charge. The easiest way to do this is to charge the batteries overnight until fully charged. Let them sit with no load and measure the voltage. If it’s still showing 100% state of charge turn on the fridge or a few lights for an hour or so. It should be showing very nearly 100% state of charge. Reliable batteries are essential. They power your water pump and fridge as well as lights, phone chargers, etc. If you charge the batteries from the vehicle while you’re travelling make sure that works as well. Waking to flat batteries with thawed food and no water pump is not pleasant. While you’re at it check for correct operation of the mains 240V system if you have one. If you find it wanting you must have it sorted out by a licensed and registered electrician.

The same goes for your water and gas systems. Check very carefully for correct operation and leaks. If you find water leaks either get them fixed or repair them yourself. Make sure that the water pump still works. While you’re at it use the pump to empty the tank(s) and remove the bung to drain them completely and refill with clean drinking water. If you find any issues with the gas system then you must have a licensed and registered gas fitter rectify the problem.

Remember that if you don’t use a licensed gas fitter or electrician and your camper or caravan has anything untoward happen you may be giving your insurance company an easy way out.

And last but by no means least your wheels and tyres. Wheel nuts done up to the correct torque, tyres have good tread and are at the correct pressure and check the condition of your spare(s).

This is probably not a good spare

The car

First things first. Wash it. Clean the outside and the inside.

You can take the easy way out and get it inspected by a competent mechanic. Tell them what you’re about to do and ask them to make sure that the vehicle is in tip top condition and that they do a full service. It will be expensive but it will repay the expense in peace of mind and reliability.

A full check is beyond the scope of this article as there are many different makes and models, all of which have their own needs and quirks. As a minimum you need to have reasonably new oils – all of them. Engine, gearbox, transfer case (if you have one), differential(s), brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, etc. Your wheel bearings, ball joints, drive shafts, CV joints (and boots) all need to be checked and greased or oiled as required. Belts, all filters and all suspension components need a thorough checking.

If you intend to travel along one or more of the iconic tracks (Oodnadatta, Birdsville, Gibb River Road, Tanami, etc.) the suspension and running gear is going to cop a pounding so get it all checked.

Remember that while you’re towing the whole car is put under a lot of stress and strain. Making sure that it’s in tip top condition will enable it to cope and give you peace of mind.

If you’re very familiar with your vehicle and are capable and confident then by all means do it yourself. If you’re not then get a mechanic who knows what they are doing to do it for you. As I said at the outset, it will be expensive but well worth it.


What do I mean by preparing ourselves ?

Before we set off on an extended trip we need to have everything at home sorted out. It’s no use setting off on a long trip having nagging doubts about what’s happening at home. I’m not going to make a list here but my wife has a few that we would be lost without. In the near future I’ll post a spiel about our lists and what’s in them.

What else do we need to do ? Well, for starters we should really be prepared for an extended time together with very little time apart. We’ll be cooped up in the car for a number of hours on most days. When we’re not in the car we’ll probably be in the camper or engaging in some activity together. Be sure that you’re both mentally prepared for that.

Do you need a house sitter ? Have you organised someone to collect the mail and papers ? Can someone water the garden and mow the lawns if required ? What about getting your mail held for you ?

There are lots and lots of things to consider before you leave for an extended trip. If you make a list and tick off everything then you need not be worried about what’s going on at the home front.

A final word

Seeing as a lot of us are getting a bit older there is one more consideration. Medical issues.

Where we go there are few medical facilities. In a lot of places the best you can hope for is a doctor visiting once or twice a week because they don’t have a permanent doctor. They will probably have a list of patients as long as your arm to see on the days that they are there. In small towns there may be no pharmacy either.

So what do you do ? Well, before you leave for you great adventure visit you usual doctor in your home town and get checked over. I’m diabetic (Type II) so I make sure that’s under control and that there are no other pending issues. This usually involves a blood test. I get a letter from the doc. outlining all of my medications and get a prescription that will cover me for the time that I’m going to be away.

When I got to the pharmacy I ask them to dispense more than enought to last me until I get to another major centre where there’s a pharmacy that can dispense more.

We have seen during times of emergency – floods, fires, etc. – people going to a medical centre or smaller hospital demanding that the be seen so that they can get another prescription or medical treatment for a known ailment. It behoves us, as tourists, to do our best to not place a load on an already stretched resource.

Of course there will be emergencies of one sort or another that require immediate attention or worse, evacuation.

Remember that your lack of planning may cause a long time resident of a small, outback town to have to have thier dialysis delayed which may put them in a life threatening situation.

Be a good tourist and don’t use local, limited resources if it’s at all possible. Have enough medications / drugs to last between large centres.

Above all else, don’t be one of those “entitled”, needy types that we all despise.

What to do when Plan A goes to the dogs

The grand plan

It’s probably happened to all of us at some stage. You’ve at last, finally been able to schedule your four weeks annual leave with your employer and you managed to coordinate it with your partners annual leave and as a bonus you’ve managed to get it all together at a time when you, your partner and the kids can go away for the whole four weeks.

You’ve got everything serviced and have packed enough of everything to last for however long it needs to last before you go shopping. You’ve got the camp site, or motel or cottage or whatever booked and confirmed and paid for. The scene is set for a great holiday. Wrong.

The spanner in the works

Well, the planning and packing and stuff is all done and dusted. You’ve pulled out of the driveway and the trip has started. From this point on you can bet that there will be something that doesn’t go to plan. Ninety nine percent of the time this won’t matter a bit. It’ll probably be something that’s not absolutely necessary being forgotten and can be picked up at the first fuel stop – our favourite thing to forget is insect repellent. The rest of your trip may well continue on with no stray spanners finding their way into the works. But then again….

A few years ago Jenny and I decided that we’d do a grand trip from Moe to Marla to Oodnadatta to Marree to Birdsville and back home via central NSW. We got to Oodnadatta just fine and we were having a great time. Our first night in Oodnadatta we went to the Transcontinental Hotel for a couple of quick drinks before we made dinner. Lots of drinks and about seven hours later we staggered back to the caravan park, had a sandwich and went to bed. Sometime during the night we were woken up by rain and we just rolled over and went back to sleep. Next morning we were confronted by this.

That put a bit of a spanner in our works. We were stuck in Oodnadatta until a road opened.

Just before lunch the next day we were told that in about an hour the road will be opened for anyone who wants to leave and then it’ll be closed again. We packed up quickly and waited for the road to open. At this stage we didn’t know which road though. It transpired that it was the road to Marla so off we went.

Getting down and dirty on the Oodnadatta Track

It was a pretty muddy trip but we managed to avoid getting bogged.

Once back in Marla the question was what now ? Out came the map and we decided that we’d head on down towards the Flinders Ranges and have a bit of a poke around there and then head off to Broken Hill and from there meander homewards.

Our second big spanner in the works was this.

Oh dear – that worked out well didn’t it ?

There we were about thirty kilometres from Hawker with no mobile phone coverage and a busted camper. So what to do ? We unhitched and drove to Hawker and organised recovery of the camper whilst hoping it was still there. I had the inevitable screaming match with the insurance company that got me nowhere of course. While the camper was being recovered we organised a motel room for the night. When the camper arrived we found out that the damage wasn’t extensive and it only needed and new brake drum and six wheel studs. We retired to the pub for a very nice meal and the next morning we continued on our way.


Plan B or flexibility ?

As you can tell from both of our episodes we had no plan B.

What we did have though was flexibility. This is an attitude thing and not a planning thing. When things go pear shaped as outback travellers we need to be able to just deal with it and make the best of the situation. In both of our cases in spite of the spanners we had a great time.

So. Plan B or flexibility ? I’d go for flexibility every time. Remember that your plan B is still subject to spanners in the works. Flexibility isn’t because you’re, well, flexible. It is what it is is a saying that annoys me but in outback or remote travel it’s worth keeping in mind. With flexibility you can just go along with your circumstances. The important thing is to not panic or get stressed – just go with it.

It’s worth noting that the roads out of Oodnadatta didn’t reopen for over a month after we left. If we didn’t take the chance when it was presented we’d have been there a long time.

Now, I’m a planner. If you know about the MBTI you’ll understand when I say I report ESTJ. But once the planning is done and you’re on your way remember anything can happen and it’s up to you to make the best of it and have fun regardless. Flexibility is the key.

Tips and tricks

On our travels we’ve discovered a few little tips and tricks that have served us well.

Make sure that you take breaks from sitting in the car. An hour or so is long enough to be sitting there before you get out and stretch your legs and straighten you back. Sitting in the car for hours on end without breaks can lead to DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) as Jenny discovered.

Make sure that you drink enough water. Being a little dehydrated is not good and coupled with long periods in the car may cause the dreaded DVT to raise its ugly head. Drink enough so that you need to get out of the car regularly.

We tend to be a bit guilty of not taking enough photos and sometimes wish that we’d taken the time to take a few. Be sure to have more than one camera and be sure to use it. Some things are almost impossible to describe.

Strange sculpture at the south end of The Old Strzelecki Track.

Car snacks. Chips (crisps) can be a mixed blessing. They’re a good snack but they tend to leave crumbs and greasy fingers. They also make you thirsty which makes you drink more water which can be a good thing. I’m diabetic so lollies and chocolate are a bit off the menu but if you’re not concerned by sugar then go for it.

Fuel. If you get to a “servo” with less than half a tank then fill up no matter what the price. It’s insurance. What happens if the next servo is closed and you’re down to the last dregs ? Try and keep a full Jerry Can for emergencies. It’s better to get home with the Jerry untouched than to be caught in the middle of nowhere with no fuel. If you use it make sure to fill it up at the next fuel stop.

Gas bottles. If you have two make sure that as soon as one is empty get a refill. Try and ensure that you’ve got a full one and a “working” one.

Water. That’s a bit like fuel. Never pass up a chance to top up your water tank(s). I’d much rather have too much than not enough.

Storage. We use stackable Sistema plastic boxes. The 27 and 14 litre ones stack on each other nicely. We use them for non refrigerated food, condiments, sauces, etc. as well as other bits and pieces including chargers, batteries, tablets (windows, ipad), keyboards, etc. They fit perfectly in the slides in the cupboards in the camper. We also use the larger, flatter 30 litre boxes for spare bedding, pots and pans and utensils, etc.

Just about everything, except clothing, goes in a box. They stack nicely in both the camper and the back of the car and don’t slide around because they fit perfectly in the available space.

The other big advantage of using the plastic boxes is that we can pack everything properly and check that we have what’s on our list before we trot them out to the car and camper. When we get home it takes but minutes to get the boxes and fridge/freezer baskets into the house where we can unpack at our leisure.