Ghostbusting RV electrical systems.

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Davis Dam near the campground we spent the winter of 2013/2014

Our problem began around the fourth year anniversary of the purchase of our rig. We were staying in an old campground with a less that reliable electrical supply. Power would fade and came back again. We know it was the campground power because when our power browned out, the street lights would as well. As the summer progressed, we began having more and more trouble with brown outs. Brown outs also started occurring even when the street lights did not flicker. By the end of the summer it was bad enough that reading at night was an issue. The flickering got annoying and disrupted one’s concentration.

By fall the situation was so bad we decided to take our battery in to get tested. It was no surprise to discover the battery was shot. We installed a new battery and things improved. We expected the problem would vanish once we left the campground. It didn’t. The power kept flickering. We were traveling and when we were not hooked up to the shore line we had no problem but as soon as we plugged in the flickering started.

I began research on line and we decided the problem was our converter. I used the multimeter to check the power across the battery terminals and it was at the nice 13.7 it was supposed to be. I then took the cover off the electrical panels determined where the wires from the converter went to the electrical panel and checked the power flow there. It was fine. In the process of poking about I noticed a large dry red kidney bean in the fan mechanism of the converter. As I watched, the bean moved into and out of the fan blades stopping and then releasing the converter fan. I disconnected the power, removed the offending bean with the needle nose pliers and watched again. All seemed well. I decided the bean was the source of the trouble. A few weeks after we had bought the trailer my husband banged the cover on the electrical panel and we never did get around to repairing it. I decided the bean had somehow fallen in during a spill. I finished the day’s work by finally repairing the electrical panel cover. I should have done that right away. If I had, the bean would never have happened.

The problem seemed to be resolved again. We had two good travel days and then the flickering started up again. We arrived at our location and plugged in for a month. I found a really great article on trouble shooting electrical systems on line. After running through all the steps, I decided our converter was going. I priced out converters on both sides of the border and discovered the usual 40% ripoff markup on the Canadian side. We decided to try to hold out on a new converter until we were south. Meantime, we limped along using our DC system as little as possible. The converter began making some strange noises the last week in Canada. I kept wishing it would work until we got over line. On our last day it developed a weird constant buzz a border guard commented on while she checked our fridge for dangerous Canadian contraband like fresh lemons.

We started down the road in eastern Washington state enjoying the vast lovely countryside and watching for an RV dealer. We didn’t see one. If we had gone into Spokane we probably would have had better luck but we wanted to see the Grand Coulee area. We stayed in the town of Grand Coulee after seeing the dam. It was bitterly cold that night. In a stunning example of ‘be careful what you wish for’, the converter finally died completely at about 2:00am. Because there was no longer any power going to our furnace’s electrical ignition system, we had to rely on the inadequate heat from our two small oil filled heaters that run on shore power. The electric heaters prevented us from freezing to death but barely. I woke up with the cat sleeping under the covers in the small of my back. Naturally, we were informed in the morning that were no RV places nearby. A quick check on the internet and we chose our next location, Kennewick WA, for the abundance of RV supply dealers.

We pulled into Kennewick and got another shock. Apparently there are dozens of styles, types and kinds of converters. We would have to expect to wait 2-3 weeks for our model to come in. At one place the helpful fellow printed off the specifications and price of the new converter. The idea of being heatless in late November in Washington state was not appealing. We headed off to a KOA in town thinking that if it got too cold, we would go into a motel while we waited. We also debated continuing on without a furnace to Boise Idaho where we had relatives who could put us up while we arranged for a repair there. On our way into the KOA we saw a large RV supply shop so we stopped in and asked about the converter there, just in case. It was ten minutes before closing time.

The gods smiled on us and a miracle happened. The clerk frowned when we presented her with the specifications on our print out. Two or three weeks at least. Then she paused. She tilted her head thoughtfully and said “Let me check something.” In a few minutes she was back with an open box. A customer had ordered this a couple of years ago and had never come in to pick it up and no one had ever got around to sending it back. It was a match, our exact make and model. She showed it to us. It was dusty and in an open box but it was obviously our converter. I asked her how much. She was stumped. She said she had no idea what to charge us since all the paperwork was gone. Then she tapped the printout from the other place and said that price less 10% since the box was open. We immediately agreed and after a swipe and some paperwork, we walked out with our new converter. She locked the door behind us.

We checked into the KOA for two nights instead of one and sent messages to the family in Idaho that we would be a day late. The next day we prepared for transplant surgery. First I got out the wiring diagram from the electrical panel’s manual which I had found and downloaded from on line. Then I carefully reread all the general directions on changing the converter from the same fellow with the great trouble shooting guide. I paid special attention to safety precautions since electricity bites. I then assembled all the stuff, electrical tape, multimeter and wiring cutters, needle nose pliers and a trouble light in one place near the electrical panel.

My husband helped me to disconnect the battery cables. We taped up each end to prevent accidental connections and put little sticky notes on to remind us which end was positive and which was negative. Next we disconnected the shore power. Now that all possible electrical power sources were gone, the final preparations could begin. The first step was remove the electrical panel and then carefully examine each wire going in and out of the old converter. More sticky notes were applied and I made a detailed diagram on paper to remind myself. I then examined the new converter and made sure everything matched. More sticky notes about what went where on the new converter wire just to be safe. Preparations completed, I began.

It was really simple. Unscrew five connecting wires and the four screws that held the old converter in place. Carefully lift it free. Put the new converter in place. Triple check sticky notes and diagram. Connect five wires in the exact same way. Set converter in place and put in four screws. That part took only twenty minutes.

The real test was reconnecting the power. First, we reconnected the battery. Everything worked perfectly. That wasn’t really much of a test though, since we had never had any trouble with the DC after the new converter went in. Then came the real test. I held my breath while my husband plugged in shore line and, after the obligatory few moments while the surge protector checked the power, the microwave gave the happy chirp indicating all was well. I tried turning on every light in the place and not only was there no flicking, but I could get the new converter to do low, middle and high speed all at a quiet contented purr complete with little fan shutting off and coming on exactly as it was designed to. I pronounced the transplant a complete success. It took longer to clean up all the stickies and get the tools back in the tool box and put away than it did to do the actual transplant. Naturally that was not the end of it.

We left for Idaho after one wonderful night of everything working perfectly and we arrived having electrical trouble. The flicker was back. Only this time the flicker was present when the shore line power was not plugged in and it vanished when the shoreline was attached. It was Thanksgiving. We had a new baby nephew to bounce on our knee and a whole lot of family to visit so we decided to leave it until later. After Idaho we spent two days traveling to southern Nevada. Every time we stopped, we found that if we were not plugged into shore power we could only turn on one light. If we turned on more than one, power browned out dramatically and then came back up again, over and over. It was maddening.

Back to the electrical drawing board I went. One we were safely settled in Nevada we started diagnostics again. The multimeter showed that when plugged into shore line the battery had a full 13.7 voltage but as soon as we turned off the shore power that dropped to 12.6. Back at the electric panel, the two connections from the battery showed only 10.4. We were getting some current but not enough from battery to DC system. We disconnected the battery and took it into a place and had it tested. To our complete and utter astonishment, we were assured that battery was acting like the new one it was. We left totally stumped and reinstalled the battery. We picked up a trickle charger and left it plugged in giving the battery a trickle charge over night.

The next morning we tested the battery. The trickle charger had left it fully charged. We disconnected the shore power and tested the battery. The current remained at 13.7. I turned on the lights and promptly had a complete brown out. My husband looked up who we might call in the area to do a service call. It was late Sunday and we fell asleep convinced we were in for a big bill.

I must have been working on the problem subconsciously overnight because I woke up with an idea. I was out in the morning with the multimeter. If the battery was fine and the converter was new and working fine on shore power it must be wiring somewhere in between. I tested each and every connection in the panel. All were normal except for the one connection from the battery. I read on line that a bad ground could cause this kind of symptom. I checked every ground line. Nothing. I decided we had an electrical ghost and needed an experienced exorcist who would not come cheaply.

I then began looking all over. I found a connection box on the front of the trailer not far from the battery and removed the cover. The multimeter gave me the same result as at the panel. I then continued following the wires back towards the battery and I found two tiny circuit connectors I had never noticed. The battery was not directly connected to the tailer. The battery was connected to the two circuit boxes which were then connected to the outside connection box. I lifted the little rubber covers off the circuit boxes and I found them both totally blocked with spider nests. Every bit of the wiring was wound up in spider silk. I careful removed the offending spider webbing and nest mass after shooing away the two disgruntled mamas and I tested the circuit and shouted eureka. The one closest to the battery was badly corroded and the multimeter showed this was where the power was dropping. I knew where the problem was and what we needed to fix it.

The following Sunday we took disconnected the battery and shore power again. We again took all the ends off and wrapped them up in electrical tape after making a careful wiring diagram. We removed the two circuits. We were momentarily defeated when we arrived at the nearby RV place to find it closed. It was DC stuff so we stopped in an automotive store instead. They confirmed what we needed but didn’t have it and sent us on to someone who did. They did sell us everything else we needed, like some cables that already had built in connections to connect the 4 gauge wiring between the battery and the circuit box. The second autobody store had the required circuits. Back at our rig, we installed the new circuit breakers. We double and triple checked all the new connections against the diagram. We turned on the power and, lo and behold, everything was working perfectly again.

We think that the circuit breaker must have partly disconnected on the trip between Kennewick and Boise, likely when we went over some rough road or maybe in all the wet drizzle we had on the trip. I had carefully rearranged the chain that secured the battery in place after we disconnected the battery in Kennewick. While doing so, I had accidentally placed the chain in a manner that meant the circuit was under pressure. Already corroded, stuffed full of spider webs and in bad shape, that pressure had been the last kick and it had partly disconnected. My husband invented a new way secure the new circuits so they were now sheltered from rain and protected from any pressure coming from the security chain. The last thing we did was to screw both circuit boxes down into their new safer location.

It has several months now since we replaced the circuit breakers. We have disconnected and reconnected several times and everything seems to be fine. The new converter continues to purr happily exactly as it is supposed to. We have plenty of power. The lights don’t flicker. My husband read somewhere on line that with the new LED type bulbs the power demand is so low that even if all the lights are on the converter doesn’t kick into highest mode. We have ordered a few bulbs to test them and we really like them. They use a lot less power which is nice while boon docking.

The moral to this story is be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. You can never get away with fixing only one thing. Fixing one thing invariably leads to creating or locating additional things that need fixing. When all else fails, sleep on it before taking further action. And last but not least, a properly equipped electrical supply box with an appropriate multimeter will pay for itself many times over. Above all, when you first notice electrical symptoms chase them down and fix them. That battery we replaced in the fall might not have needed replacing if we had dealt with the converter when it first began to fail. Maybe if I had fixed the door and pulled out that bean way way back a few days after we first got our trailer the converter might not have failed at all.

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About tumbleweedstumbling

I have three blogs, embryogenesis explained, tumbleweed tumbling AND fulltimetumbleweed. I am a scientist, and my husband and I have written a book which was published by World Scientific Publishing in Nov 2016 called Embryogensis Explained. Full time tumbleweed was my first blog which I worked on during five years of living full time in a travel trailer. I have now retired that blog in favour of Tumbleweeds Tumbling since we bought a stick house in April 2015 and are no longer full-time. I have a blended family of five sons and one daughter, all grown up now. I am (step)grandmother to nine boys and one girl. My husband and I have two dogs and a cat. We spend summers in Manitoba, Canada, in a 480 square foot house on a half acre of land in the tiny town of Alonsa. We spend winters in the USA. My husband is retired and being a US citizen, he does volunteer work in winters for Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea Florida as their emeritus. I retired in Sept 2013 and so far I am loving it.
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