Thursday, February 24, 2011

Police Dogs: Just A Tool To Trump Our Rights?

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution states that the people have a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This is generally accepted to mean that police cannot arbitrarily detain and search you, your bags, or your car just because they don't like your looks. The courts do, however, allow an exception when the police have probable cause to believe that you are committing or have committed a crime.
Taking that a step further, the common use of detection dogs by police has led to courts' acceptance of an indication by a police dog as probable cause for a search. In other words, if the cops bring out a dog that is trained to detect drugs, human remains, explosives or whatever, and that dog indicates on your backpack, you will almost certainly be denied your Fourth Amendment protection. The cops will search your backpack whether you want them to or not, and the courts will uphold it. But how reliable is the dog, really? Radley Balko, in "The Mind of a Police Dog", says this:

"The Economist's "Babbage" blog summarizes a recent study led by Lisa Lit, a neurologist (and former dog handler) at the University of California-Davis, that demonstrates the startling consequences of that confusion:
[Researchers] asked 18 professional dog handlers and their mutts to complete two sets of four brief searches. Thirteen of those who participated worked in drug detection, three in explosives detection, and two worked in both. The dogs had been trained to use one of two signals to indicate to their handlers that they had detected something. Some would bark, others would sit.
The experimental searches took places in the rooms of a church, and each team of dog and human had five minutes allocated to each of the eight searches. Before the searches, the handlers were informed that some of the search areas might contain up to three target scents, and also that in two cases those scents would be marked by pieces of red paper.
What the handlers were not told was that two of the targets contained decoy scents, in the form of unwrapped, hidden sausages, to encourage the dogs' interest in a false location. Moreover, none of the search areas contained the scents of either drugs or explosives. Any "detections" made by the teams thus had to be false. Recorders, who were blind to the study, noted where handlers indicated that their dogs had raised alerts.
The results? Dog/handler teams correctly completed a search with no alerts in just 21 of the 144 walk-throughs. The other 123 searches produced an astounding 225 alerts, every one of them false. Even more interesting, the search points designed to trick the handlers (marked by the red slips of paper) were about twice as likely to trigger false alerts as the search points designed to trick the dogs (by luring them with sausages)."

So here is the question: does a right really exist when agents of the government have such a tool to bypass that right? That is one of those polarizing questions where communitarians will claim that the safety of the "rest of us" trumps the right of that one suspect individual in that one case (with the inference that he is probably guilty anyway); while proponents of individual liberty will point out that if a right can be denied to one individual, it can be denied to any individual.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Stand-Alone Internet Radio

In Packet Radio: App For the Apocalypse, we discussed packet radio, an off-grid solution to digital communications in the event of a shutdown or tight control of the Internet. The article described the TNC, Terminal Node Controller, which is the smart modem that connects between a radio transceiver and a terminal or computer and allows BBS, store-and-forward email, and keyboard-to-keyboard communications over the airwaves.
Now there is an even simpler way to start operating on packet: Alinco has the DR-135, which has as an option an internal, plug-in TNC board. The radio has a serial port to plug your computer into, and it also includes a port to interface to a GPS receiver, if you want to be able to transmit geo-location data. At the same time, you can use the radio as a standard FM voice transceiver, with or without the digital equipment connected.
With this setup in your car or RV, you have the ability to communicate via short-range simplex voice, intermediate range repeaters, long range repeater link networks, and also packet BBS and email forwarding. In addition, if your car or RV breaks down in the desert or something similar, you can set the radio to beacon a digital mayday signal with GPS location on the amateur APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) frequency. When you do that, you will show up as a "Mayday" blip on the on-screen map of any amateur within range who is running APRS. And quite a few of them do.
All this stuff has been around since before the Internet became popular. APRS has been around since before Onstar; in fact, Onstar is a commercial version of the amateur APRS.
So how much do all these services cost? Nothing. Absolutely free. In fact, it is illegal to charge anything for the services. That is part of the agreement whereby amateur radio operators are given all these frequencies to play around with.
The only thing new here, is having it all in one box. And you can get it here:

Friday, February 18, 2011

How To Make Bacon Gravy

Bacon fat is too good to waste. Here is another way to make use of it: make gravy! Doctors say it is bad for us, but generations of hard-working folks thrived on this kind of food. The fat is a byproduct; add some flour and you have a super energy food for little cost.
Making good gravy is not as difficult as some seem to think. The only critical parts are deciding when to add the milk, and when to turn off the heat. Once you've done it a couple of times, you will get the hang of it.
Actually, the decision of when to add milk is easy: as soon as it starts smoking.
The milk is not even really necessary, but it does add a bit of flavor.
As for how high to set the heat, that is simple: all the way up. When you add the water, the boiling will keep the temperature down to what it needs to be. Just don't let it get too thick before you turn off the heat, because it will thicken as it cools.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Getting Along in Mexico

GETTING ALONG -- Mexico and Elsewhere
phred Tinseth © 1999-2002 Reproduction permitted
Web site:
This is not about where to go and all the usual "touristy" stuff you read in RV magazines. This is about how to get along well (usually without getting in trouble). Some of it is common sense. Some is simple "street smarts." Most of it is about common courtesy. All of it applies to anywhere you go. Outside the U.S., if you act like an "Ugly American," you'll get treated like one. Inside the U.S. we use a slightly different term, but the meaning is the same. This is also about how Mexicans, American Indians and other peoples (including us) can be thoroughly nice if you don't act like a jerk.
So here's a short, true story:
I've spent a lot of time in Mexico. On one occasion, in a border town, my car's steering gear collapsed. A Mexican cop recruited several men to manually turn the front wheels and move my car out of traffic to a parking spot. The cop then took coins out of his pocket and put them in the parking meter. He then gave coins to me for use in a pay phone to call a tow truck from the U.S. He then arranged with a nearby hotel for car passengers to wait in its air-conditioned lobby for a taxi. Cop, men who manhandled car and hotel manager all refused any form of payment! (Car handlers did accept a round of beers.)
Later, when I was crossing border to U.S. in the tow truck, Mexican officials apologized for any inconveniences suffered while in Mexico and waved us right on through without any paper work hassles or hints at "mordida."
Once on the U.S. side, things changed. U.S. Customs and DEA officials treated me and tow truck driver like suspected criminals (smugglers). Once those characters were satisfied, they directed us to the "bureaucracy." It was apparently assumed that a car, being dragged by a tow truck, was an "import" and had to have the "proper paper work." After 15 minutes of trudging from office to office, where nobody knew what they were doing, the driver and I simply went out to the parking lot and drove away. Welcome to America! I was tempted to return to Mexico and stay there. I returned to Mexico many times over the years and have never been mistreated. I didn't mistreat anybody either.
My opinion: The Mexican people are great! Mexico is wonderful! Mexico is different, in its own way, but getting along in Mexico is basically no different than getting along anywhere else--unless you do something stupid. Will you run into fuzz-nut bureaucrats in Mexico? Sure, just like in the U.S. A cop who wants $10 for a phony traffic offense? Sure, just like in the U.S. Are there crooks in Mexico? Sure, just like in the U.S. But my experience is there are fewer in Mexico and, in general, they're not as vicious as in the U.S. Can you get robbed and murdered in Mexico? Sure. But mindless drive-by shootings, car jackings and such are far less common than in the U.S. (Obviously, I do love Mexico--Great food. Great scenery. Great fishing. Reasonable prices. Most of all, great people--if you don't act like a jerk.)
Tips: (some learned the hard way):
• Learning Spanish can be useful, but isn't necessary. In fact, your endless bumbling with a phrase book just wastes some Mexican worker's time and can be an annoyance and you can bet the Mexican will find a reason to excuse himself--and leave you there with one thumb in your phrase book and the other stuck in your ear (or someplace else). People who are trying to make a living (and are having a tough time feeding their family) haven't got time to screw around and give you free language lessons. So, if you want to learn conversational Spanish, do it on your own time.
Very Important! Be generous with such courtesies as "please" and "thank you" (both in English and Spanish). Don't go overboard on the "señor/señorita/señora stuff though. (I realize señor means mister as well as sir and other things, but how often do you call your waiter "sir" here at home?) Generally, there's no need to do other than you would here, where you walk up to the Wal-Mart greeter and ask where the rest room is. No need to say "Sir" first.
ALWAYS ASK PERMISSION -- to park (especially), dump trash, get water, whatever. (How would you like it if a convoy of 10 Japanese RVs parked in front of your house and the people wandered off to take pictures somewhere?)
Don't call people "hey you," "boy/girl," "chico/chica," "chief," or similar demeaning names. (Save "garçon" for your trip to France. In Mexico, they'll think you're an idiot--or a Frenchman, which is even worse.)
Do treat people with respect. That old, grinning fool hanging around a garage may well be the chief mechanic's father. Abuse him and you'll get abused also. The toothless, old crone outside a cantina, might be the owner's mother. Mexicans can't afford, and don't necessarily want, to put the elderly away and out of sight. Mexicans have respect for the elderly. (Now there's a lesson Norte Americanos could learn from!)
Don't treat children with disrespect either. Patting a child on the head is demeaning, puts him/her on the same social plane as a "pet" and is a no-no. A simple hello greeting and a smile are just fine. Insert a couple of fingers in a child's hand and simulate a (gentle) handshake if you really want to be chummy. Generally, like in the U.S., it's best to avoid small kids or you'll be suspected as a pervert.
Don't dick around with "pet-type" animals. Dogs, cats (and such) aren't pets so much as they are alarm systems, protectors and "critter" eliminators. Fool with one, get bitten or scratched and find yourself back in the U.S. getting painful shots.
Don't summon people by beckoning with a curled finger. What are you? A conquistador? A rude tourist? (Both bad.) A simple raised hand will (usually) get waiter/waitress to attend you. In Mexico, locals, as well as tourists, often squat at a restaurant table for hours, just screwing around. When you want your check, get up off your can and go ask for it.
Always offer compensation when you get something extra or a favor. Money is usually welcome, but sometimes awkward to offer. One trick (learned when boating in the Caribbean) was to keep a stash of "token" gifts that are hard for the locals to get: Ball-point pens (inexpensive, but not the el-cheapos that fail immediately; preferably with a logo or message that would cause people to remember you or your club), Butane lighters, Disposable batteries (AA size the most common). Inexpensive, digital sports-type watches for a real treat. Personal-care products are valued in Mexico. Offering them can be awkward though. (Give a guy a bar of soap, and he thinks that you're offended by his body odor.) One way around this, yet help people, is to assemble soap, shampoo, toothpaste, tooth brushes, band-aids, etc., into a "goodie bag" and give it to the woman of the family with a simple Spanish phrase like "para (or is it por?--my Spanish is awful) los ninos." (meaning for the children). It will be appreciated, used by all and not be offensive to anybody. Check the coupon section in your paper and the specials at your supermarket. You can accumulate a huge pile of personal-care products for just pennies on the dollar.
• Bargain when it's appropriate but don't act like a gringo jerk. Bargaining in Mexico is just like in the U.S. You bargain for cars and souvenirs. You don't bargain at restaurants, drug stores, super markets and the like.
• If you visit a church, don't act like ugly Americans. No short-shorts, bare midriffs and such. Men remove hats! Women put on hats or kerchiefs! Small donations are appreciated (and needed). Rome doesn't subsidize them (not that it shouldn't).
Don't go where you're not wanted. Don't barge into a wedding, private party or picnic unless invited. Mexican parties can get a bit rowdy. Loud music (it's usually pretty good too), drunken singing and such often gets Norte Americanos to complain to management--Big Mistake! Best is to shut up and enjoy the festivities or just go in your rig and put on some TV or music you can listen to with a head set until it's all over. Often, if you're not a complainer, you'll get invited to join in. Enjoy it -- but don't fondle the women. You may find some guy passed out on your picnic table in the middle of the night. Cover him with a blanket and leave him alone. Offer him a "cuppa" or "hair of the dog" in the morning. When he sobers up he'll often go fishing (or something) and bring you a treat.
• Mexican rest rooms can be just fine, or pretty crude. Many Norte Americano men think crude ones are a good excuse to go wee-wee in the street--Big Mistake! This is what Mexican (and any other) cops see as an "easy bust and fine." Far worse, in Mexico, this is a criminal offense, called indecent exposure, and is pretty serious. You do NOT want to spend a few days in a Mexican jail while your wife tries to find the American consulate!
• The biggest reason American tourists get in serious trouble (robbed, murdered and such) in Mexico is because they insist on snooping around where they never should have gone in the first place! There are areas in your own home town where you'd never think of going. What gives you reason to presume you can do so anywhere else? Use your head! There's a place in Mexico that's very remote where they filmed a portion of the now-classic film "The Wild Bunch." I want to go there. Before I do, I'll check to make sure it's OK. With who? The insurance companies, old-time SKPs who live there, the people who run RV tours into Mexico, cops and the managers of Mexican RV parks. Here's the skinny: There are places in Mexico where the people can earn a living. Most are near tourist cities or where there are factories. Use your street smarts here; stay away from bad places and you're as safe (or safer) than in the U.S. There are other places in Mexico where the people are really destitute. Go there and the most honorable man, with no job and starving children, will be tempted to rip you off. Don't go around looking for trouble!
• In some Mexican cities, at about 5PM, you'll see Army trucks dropping armed soldiers off at street corners. It's not a coup! They're put there to protect tourists (and locals too). Too bad we don't have that in the U.S.?
• Watch your (English) language. Some tourists think they can say anything, in English, when in a foreign place, as if nobody could understand them. Calling out "Hey, Pancho, get your dumb ass over here." is not a bright idea. Neither are lewd comments about waitress's physical attributes, brain power, etc. More people understand English than let on. Rude remarks can get you in more trouble, faster, than in a red-neck bar in the U.S.
Even thoughtless remarks can hurt. A table of ugly americans in a Mexico restaurant were making (what they thought were) comical remarks about the quality of Mexican wines (horse piss and similar). A friend of mine at a nearby table overheard them (who couldn't?) and noticed the distress of the wine steward who was the butt of their humor. When the wine steward approached his table, my friend noticed the wet eyes and humiliation, but ignored that and politely mentioned that he'd heard there were some excellent Mexican wines, what would the steward recommend, etc. After a friendly chat, my friend was very well treated.
• There are lots of public and private places to boondock in Mexico. Once parked there, you'll usually be approached in a day or so by a "cowboy" (really, often on a horse, no less) who will infer, tactfully, that he is the "local protector" or somesuch. Always offer him a beer and a place to sit in the shade. Sometimes this (it will usually be daily) beer is all he'll expect. Lucky you. In other cases, he'll hint at more. OK, give him a $ or so a day if it's a nice place. In return, he'll keep other hustlers from bothering you because you're now his "client" and "under his protection." He'll stop (for that beer or whatever) daily or so and if he finds you with a serious health or vehicle problem, he'll usually summon help. If you cultivate one of these characters you can do well. He'll tell you where the good places are, arrange for fresh fish and vegetables, tell the cops you're OK--all sorts of stuff. Is this a shakedown? Sure. So what? This guy will tell the local thieves to go steal the TV from the RV down the road (who didn't make a payoff) instead of yours. Not a bad deal.
• If you park on a beach, you'll find kids pulling the same racket. If you fish, especially, you'll have several boys (always with a leader) offering to drag your boat from the RV to the water (and back out) for a very reasonable price. Go for it! Bargain. Then add on a tip to show you're not chintzy. In return (because of the tip), you'll get reliable boat service and, in addition, the little hoods will keep all the other little hoods in town from bothering you and stealing your stuff.
• When you park your car in a town you'll run onto a kid (or kids) also. One may have a bucket of water and a rag. He'll say, in English, what sounds like "wash your car?" and you'll be tempted to say "No!" What he's really saying is "watch" your car. Convince him (if you can in your nonexistent Spanish) that you DO NOT want him to wash it, but DO want him to watch it. (If this elaborate Spanish is beyond you, let him wash it. It won't look too good, but so what? Two minutes down the road and it'll be covered with dust anyway.) Bargain and tip as before. The kid will keep other little bandidos from ripping you off. He'll also (sometimes) pop Mexican coins in the meter so you don't get a ticket. He (and his gang) won't let other kiddie gangs let the air out of your tires or use a chunk of metal to scratch your paint (or won't do it themselves). Yet another shakedown? Sure. So what? These guys are just trying to make a living.
What you need to understand, and what few Americans do (other than those who have spent much time "south of the border" or in the far east or mid east) is that THIS is the way it really is in most of the real world. People get paid nothing, or very little, and must (are expected to) augment their wage with a little "bite," "mordida," bribe, payoff, tip, or whatever you want to call it. Oddly, it's only in the U.S. that people don't understand this as routine. (What a bunch of naïve boobs we are.)
Crossing borders can be interesting. DO NOT try to sneak anything across the Mexican (or Canadian) border. You will probably get caught. If you think Mexican officials are fools (from watching TV movies), you're in for a BIG surprise! Many of these people have been to the FBI (and other) training programs in the U.S. and know a lot more about hiding places in an RV than you do. DO NOT try to smuggle guns! Both countries are tough on that. Check with "Vagabundos" (see later) for advice on legitimate transport of hunting weapons. Getting out of Mexico is usually easy ("Thank you for visiting. Come again.") Getting back INTO the U.S. from Mexico can be a nightmare. The DEA and similar agencies have created a monster! Informants tell both (U.S. and Mexican) governments that a vehicle (often an RV) is carrying contraband (drugs). Sometimes the information is just inaccurate. Sometimes your RV is just similar to another. Sometimes the guy you didn't tip adequately, or otherwise offended, just does it maliciously. In any case, you may find the guys on the U.S. side pulling you off and (literally) tearing the roof (and anything else they feel like) off your RV. When they're done and don't find anything, there's no apology, no nothing (no kidding).Your U.S. government has just destroyed your home and they don't have to do one damn thing about it! (Earlier, I mentioned going to Mexico and staying there. See why now? Maybe a crooked Mexican cop will get a few $ from me for a minor traffic offense, but at least he won't destroy my home!) On the American side, there's just you standing in a parking lot with your thumb up your butt and an RV that looks like someone put a can-opener to it. Do you have any recourse? No, you don't. Welcome to America!
• This is scary stuff, isn't it? Should it keep you from going to Mexico? Certainly not! Should it encourage you to go to Mexico and stay there? Maybe. It's your decision. It always is.
Border Changes. Since 9/11/'01, security has gotten a lot stricter. Expect delays, more thorough questioning and searches -- especially on entering the U.S. (Still not as bad as at airports.) Make sure your paperwork is in order. Be patient. Don't act pissed off. Don't make "bomb" jokes. Cops now have explosive-sniffing dogs in addition to drug-sniffing dogs. If you've been reloading cartridges in your RV, think about it.
Here are more examples, closer to home:
I was in New Mexico on an Indian reservation. I found a trading post/service station, filled up with fuel and bought miscellaneous supplies. I asked "Indian" clerk if I could fill my water tank. Clerk said "OK" and suggested I use my own hose ("God knows what people do with mine," he said and "run water a minute to clear out the system"). I complied and then tidied things up the way they were. As I was finishing, up comes an RV with the stereotypical RVers, Durbert and Dora Dumbutt. Durbert, in shorts, garish shirt, big cigar going, yells at Dora and grabs water hose and starts filling his tank. Dora jumps out of RV and starts walking dog (who promptly poops on pavement). Dora doesn't clean up poop. About this time, clerk runs out of trading post, raises hell and runs the Dumbutts off. I, (some familiarity now with clerk) inquire. Clerk says there were two things that irritated him: One, the guy didn't ask permission. Two, while clerk's dogs poop where they choose, that doesn't mean "whitey" (or did he say "white eyes"?) can use his place as a toilet.
There are a couple of lessons here:
Mexicans, who we screwed hundreds of years ago, are more forgiving (forgetful) than native Americans. Native Americans, who we screwed long ago and more recently (genocide is the real term) have more recent memories--and tend to memorialize them. Another lesson, the real one, is that neither of these peoples like being treated like dirt. I have no idea where Durbert went. (Hopefully, back to the Interstate and off to California before he pissed more nice people off.)
Chatting later, clerk asks me where I'm going. I says something stupid like "down the road and ask somebody if I can stay there." Clerk says "Not a chance if they don't know you. Stay here if you want." I ask, "How much?" Clerk says, "Nothing if you don't want electricity." I stayed two days. I ate great fry bread, talked to folks and found that I was welcome to stay in the middle of nowhere (perfect) at "an uncle's place" for a $ a day as long as I wanted, if I didn't need electricity or water. Good deal. When leaving, trading post clerk told me to feel free to stay anytime. A good deal received just for being courteous! (As opposed to Durbert, who got run off for being a typical, loudmouthed American tourist.)
Here's another:
I was driving the RV on the U.S. side of AZ border. I saw a pickup truck parked along the road with "SON MEX" (Sonora, Mexico) license plates and a whole family of Mexicans sitting under a tree. Hood open and steam rising from radiator. Most "anglos" would pass without stopping. I stopped, chatted with driver, hooked up hose from RV and pumped some water in guy's radiator. No big deal. Weeks later, I was in a nearby restaurant on the Mexican side. A guy from a nearby table starts waving at me. It's the guy from the truck. He invites me to have drinks and dinner with he and his friends. It was marvelous! This guy was a businessman? land owner? drug lord? Who cares? He invited me to stay at "his place" anytime with a "Just tell anybody my name, they all know me and they'll tell you how to get there."
• Getting along in Mexico (or most anywhere) is mostly a matter of simple courtesy. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions. Wallet in front pocket so you can stand around with hands in pockets and just look casual instead of fearful. Keep a few loose quarters and single dollar bills in pocket for tips and beggars. Pay off beggars judiciously. Don't scatter money like some potentate or you'll have a bunch of bums following you around. On the other hand, a quarter or two to some needy character isn't going to break you--and might get you some good advice (warnings?) on the local situation. Couples should split their resources so a theft doesn't cost you all your cash and credit cards. Women should avoid using purses for important stuff and keep just the necessaries in a pocket. Keep an eye on each other (and on others in your group). Going in a group (even just two couples) helps. If parking your RVs where you can't see them, it's smart to leave a watchman behind. Don't leave your RV unattended in the boonies (even if you've got a protector). Two (or more) RVs in the boonies is smart. Someone always stays behind. Save cantina parties for when in a secure camp ground.
Going south with a commercial tour/caravan (at least the first time) is a smart move. Don't just blindly follow the herd. Watch how your guides operate--how they "get along." Look on the price of the tour as "tuition" for lessons learned in the school of RoVing. There are lots of commercial tour operators. Most are good. Only a few are bad. Send for their literature. At least three are usually represented at Escapades. There's plenty of time at Escapades to visit with them and get a "feel" for the personalities. Personalities are important. You're going to be close to these people for weeks. You need to feel comfortable with them. They'll be checking you out too. If you come off as a loud-mouthed Durbert, they'll be "full up" or find some other excuse to avoid you. Good tour operators want their clients to be happy. They want a convivial group. Ask people who have been on various tours. Consider, though, who you're asking. Some people (the Durberts) are impossible to please.
Caravan informally with someone who's been there. But do it with someone who knows what they're doing. There's no point traveling with people like Durbert and Dora. There are lots of people who have been to Mexico many times and haven't learned anything. They still do the same stupid things they did the first time. You don't need to be a part of that.
The people who know as much or more than anyone about how to get along in Mexico (and will make an expert out of you too) are members of the club VAGABUNDOS DEL MAR. Escapee-like, the "Vags" are a mix of boaters and RVers who concentrate in Baja and the west coast of the Mexican mainland. Organized tours as well as informal groups. Very social. Very sharing. They range up the west coast to Alaska and into the U.S. waterways also. Most knowledgeable.
Most highly recommended. A dandy insurance program also. Too many features to list here. Get their free Info Packet! (800) 474-2252. 190 Main St., Rio Vista, CA 94571. Dues are inexpensive. You need to join the "Vags" at least a year before you go to Mexico. You need their newsletters. All the latest info on road conditions, fuel, water, etc. Most valuable.

Inverter Basics

Updated 4/2002
phred Tinseth © 1998-2002 Reproduction Permitted
Web Site:<
1. INVERTERS--The Basic Basics:
Converter? Inverter? Confused? A CONverter is standard equipment on most RVs. Connected to commercial power or an auxiliary generator, it changes 120 Volt AC power to 12 Volt DC. Some of this is fed direct to RV circuits and some is fed to the batteries through a battery charger. An INverter does the inverse. It takes 12VDC from the batteries and changes it to 120VAC so standard electric items may be operated without "plugging in" or running a generator.
Once you know what an inverter is and what it does the basic question remains: Do you need an inverter? Or, alternately, Can you make use of an inverter? Enough to justify the cost? More than anything else, the answers are a matter of "lifestyle."
People who use full hook-ups every night might not need an inverter. People who don't mind irritating their neighbors with a roaring generator and its fumes might not. People who have adequate 12VDC equipment (TV, radio, etc.,) and don't feel the need to run micro-wave ovens and similar AC items might not.
But there are many people who need, or can make use of an inverter. Consider the person who must rely on a breathing machine: Their travel is severely limited and they are locked into commercial campgrounds. So much so that they often stop RVing. An inverter can return their freedom. Then there are those with computers--RVs are subject to easy power outages (pulled plugs, unreliable campground hookups, stalling generators) that can wipe out a computer. Some buy back-up power supply systems (for big $) without realizing that all they contain is a small, rechargeable battery and, a miniature inverter. The much larger RV battery system is far superior and only requires adding an inverter. And some people do need/want to use microwaves, large TVs, VCRs, stereos, kitchen appliances and power tools. An inverter can actually pay for itself when used for these purposes.
Gather literature from manufacturers and dealers. Use the 800 numbers in ads (and see later). Check particularly "Trace," "Heart Interface," "PowerStar" and "STATPOWER" brands for RV use. There are other excellent inverters also, but these state-of-the-art inverters are those against which others are measured. Contact RV Solar Electric for copies of technical reports on these inverters by recognized authorities. In any case, COMPARE:
Output Power-- In watts. You'll need to get an inverter capable of more than the max watts you'll use at one time. For how long? This figure may be hard to find. Use the manufacturer's website or 800#. Anyone that can't give an answer should be eliminated. Good companies will show, for example, that their 1,500 Watt inverter might operate at maximum power for 15 minutes and at 1,100 Watts continuously. If their inverter actually does run continuously at its rated power, that should be the only number--but you'd better quiz 'em and make sure.
Surge Power-- Should range from about 2 times output power to 6 times output power. You need this to start heavy loads, capacitor-start motors and the like. For how long? Most manufacturers don't commonly list this figure. It's short, usually 2 minutes or so. Nothing wrong with that because that's all that's needed. If it lasted much longer, it would just get hot and ruin itself
Idle Current or No Load Power Drain-- An important figure if you'll leave it turned on (idling) so that it automatically delivers full power when an appliance is turned on. This can equal nearly 20 watts of 12-volt power in some brands. (20W at 12V = 1.7Amps). You certainly don't want an idling/standby inverter to constantly drain over an amp-and-a half from your battery. Quality inverters draw only a fraction of an amp (as little as a tenth, or much less, of an amp) at idle.
Efficiency-- Is a critical figure. It should exceed 90% overall in [most] inverters. It should not vary much from partial to full loads. Beware of inverters that advertise 90+% overall efficiency but may drop to less than 50% at some load levels.
The above are the key comparison figures. Others, such as output voltage and frequency regulation should also be compared but will be similar in high-quality inverters. Note that top quality inverters will regulate voltage, for example, to within 2% of the rated 120VAC. This is better than your power company, which usually regulates voltage to only ±5%!
Cost-- is the final comparison. As when buying anything else, just make sure you don't mix apples and oranges.
Mixing apples and oranges is common when shopping for inverters. It's complicated because of the brands and models within brands that can vary widely in capacity and quality of components. Even though they look alike, they may not be alike. Many inverter manufacturers make top-of-the-line models for reliability, maximum performance and durability. They'll then make a similar model intended for light or intermittent use (sometimes called a "consumer" version). There's nothing wrong with this. The "lighter" model will work well if used as intended and can often be 50% or so cheaper. What you have to remember is TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). If you're a serious RVer, you'll be demanding the maximum from an inverter. Get the top model with the capacity you need. If you're just going to watch a bit of TV or similar, you might be satisfied with the light-duty version. I get lots of mail saying, "I was going to buy an XYZ inverter for $800 but I found the same one in a truck stop for $300." No they didn't! The look alike and may have had the same or similar brand name, different model name and was rated at lesser watts. BIG difference. (It may also have been a pirated phoney copy from who-knows-where--and probably was in the above example--because of the ridiculous difference in price.)
It depends on what you're going to use it for. You don't buy a 20-ton truck to pull a 10-foot camper. You don't pull a large trailer with a tiny plastic car. If you only want to operate a computer or similar low-energy user, all you may need is a small (300 watt) inverter. If you're going to run a microwave or power tools, you may need a 1,200 watt or larger inverter. You may actually find it more efficient to have more than one inverter.
5. TYPE of Inverter
Not brand, but type. Just as there are types of engines (gas, diesel, etc.), there are types of inverters (or different technologies). Cost plays a part. You can still find low-tech, square-wave inverters for sale. They're grossly inefficient, using most of the electricity they consume just to run themselves. Their simple electronics lead to other problems also -- such as square TV pictures. But they're CHEAP! If you're just going to run a simple item for a few minutes, you might get by with one of these for $75 (for about 200 watts) and up. A few of the "rotary" inverters are still available (an electric motor turns an alternator). Also very inefficient and noisy, they're also cheap. Except for special cases, like a huge power tool operated for a few minutes, this type can be ignored.
Technological advances have led to very sophisticated, solid-state inverters. From 100 to over 5,000 watts, ultra-efficient, with all sorts of advantages. Some of these use less than 10% of the energy consumed when fully loaded and way less than 1% at lesser inputs to run their own components. Phenomenal! At first glance, these are not cheap. But in terms of efficiency and the $ per watt cost compared to what you get out of them, they're cheaper than the el-cheapos. Some can be held in your palm and simply plugged into a 12VDC receptacle. Other, larger output models, require elaborate installation. Some have features and options well worth an added cost.
6. GENERAL SELECTION AND SIZING--Some guidelines and rules of thumb:
Use: Microwave and more? You'll need over 1,200 watts capacity. You'll also need at least 200AH (Amp Hours) of battery capacity (to run a microwave for brief periods). You'll need more battery reserve for longer periods and heavier loads. If you'll be cooking full dinners for 30 minutes, you'll need a 400AH battery capacity. Just a TV? Usually 200W is enough. A variety of things? There are two ways to go:
One. Get a good, efficient 1,200W or larger inverter and feed the whole place. The best ones are 90+% efficient and no longer need to be matched to the load. They'll do nearly as well running a small load as a big one. Incredible but true.
Two. If you don't need a big inverter, consider a smaller one or maybe more than one inverter. Maybe 800W for about anything less than a microwave. Perhaps a 300W for TVs, VCRs, stereos and satellite systems. A 200W palm-size may operate a TV, small stereo, computer or breathing machine. The breathing machine is a prime inverter use. A palm size can be easily plugged into RV or tow vehicle cigarette lighter receptacle and can bring freedom to the camp-ground bound.
COST: You do the best you can. A 1,200+ watt may cost over $1,000. A "variety pack" may cost about the same or less, possibly more (depending on what you need). A variety, though, offers flexibility--and you don't have to buy it all at the same time.
BATTERIES: Technically, you can run anything you want from an inverter -- if it's big enough and you have enough batteries and if you have a way to keep them charged. But an RV, while it may be a home, is not a homestead. Space and weight are considerations. You can't create a "blivet" (10 lbs of horse poop in a 5-lb bag). Nor can you drag out 200 miles of extension cord as you drive along. Small inverters can be used on a one-battery system with hardly any difference in amp draw. Large inverters will demand two batteries or four (or more) with heavy loads.
7. DETAILED SELECTION AND SIZING--The size and type of inverter depends on:
• Continuous running wattage of all loads to be run at one time.
• Surge power needed to start heavy loads.
• Quality of power needed (wave form and regulation).
• Efficiency needed.
• Options and safety features desired.
Continuous running wattage of all loads to be run at one time. List all items you'll run at one time. Add up Watts. (From labels as W or VA, or as measured with an ammeter, or calculated as Watts = Volts x Amps, so 120VAC x 5A = 600 Watts.) Examples: Computer 160W, Monitor 40W, Printer 110W could operate from a 300W inverter. But, if total is near the max rating of the inverter, look closely at inverter manufacturer's data sheet. Some will state, "200W for 25 minutes, 140W continuous" or similar. (Not bad if drilling a hole. Terrible if running a computer.) With microwaves, don't mistake cooking power for actual running power. Read the label. A 500W cooking-capacity microwave might use over 1,000 watts actual power.
Surge power needed to start heavy loads. Some tools need heavy jolts to get started, then less electricity after they're running. (Pressing a drill hard and then hitting the trigger, for example.) In the computer example above, items can be turned on one at a time. A large TV with built-in VCR can't. Everything comes on at once, but after the VCR motor settles down and the picture tube warms, all is well. If the inverter is just slightly undersized, often it can be turned on first, without a load. Then the TV/VCR can be turned on. If it goes off after a second, repeated attempts will gradually "warm" it. This is hard on the equipment. Better to buy a larger size inverter. Again, a good inverter's literature will state something like,"200 watts to 140 watts continuous." (Almost no inverters have enough surge power to start a fairly-good sized air compressor or air conditioner.)
Quality of power needed. Most of the new, sophisticated inverters provide a "quasi" sine wave that is remarkably close to perfect and suitable for almost any application except exotics like a laser printer. Cheap, square-wave inverters provide square TV pictures. (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.) Still, many household appliances (blenders, sewing machines) will run from a square-wave inverter if that's all you need. On the other hand, don't be penny wise and pound foolish. That cheap $75 inverter is electrically inefficient and severely limited. It's going to waste a lot of valuable battery power just running itself. A $130, 200-watt, hi-tech inverter will do much more and do it efficiently.
Efficiency. A measurement of how small an amount of electricity an inverter uses just to run its own "innards." If you're just going to run a drill a few minutes, you don't care. If your TV, VCR, computer is going to run for hours, this is a prime consideration. Some of the quality inverters mentioned idle at less than one-tenth of an amp and are well over 90% efficient. You can leave them running 24 hours a day.
Bells and Whistles, Options, Safety Features. Quality inverters in medium to large sizes will have several features: Remote switching (some with monitors) so you don't have to go outside to turn them on. Low voltage warnings--to alert you it's going to shut itself off pretty soon. Circuit breakers. Monitor lights--so you don't leave it on and run down your battery. These are important. A few inverters have automatic load switch protection that keeps them from being energized if there is already 120VAC in the lines (from commercial power or generator). Plugging an inverter into a "hot" circuit will destroy the inverter in seconds (and they won't honor your warranty in such cases). Battery chargers built into the larger inverters are another worthwhile option. No, they don't use a battery to charge a battery. They simply use some of the existing circuits in the inverter (that are far superior to those in an RV converter) to operate a very sophisticated battery charger (that is also far superior to anything in a standard RV converter).
NOTE: See added page near end for comparison of various popular inverters.
8. DO's AND DONT's
DO--yourself a favor and gather some information. Flea markets are littered with useless, old-fashioned inverters that people thought were bargains. Read surplus catalogs carefully -- bargain inverters from military aircraft are grossly inefficient (because an engine is always running) and many operate at 400Hz, or cycles per second, instead of the standard 60Hz. Plug into one of these and fry lots of things (clocks are amusing to watch).
DO--read the instructions very carefully, more than once, and hilite the critical steps before attempting to connect an inverter. Some have elaborate instructions (good), but critical safety precautions are buried in the text and easily overlooked.
DO--locate an inverter as close to the batteries as possible, with as heavy a cable as possible (read the instructions). But DON'T put the inverter in the same compartment with the batteries unless you enclose it in its own, vented to the outside, "mini" compartment. Even if you're fortunate enough not to have a spark cause a battery explosion in a poorly located inverter, battery gases in the air will literally "eat" the insides of the inverter.
DO--ventilate an inverter well. They get warm. They need fresh air, just like a stereo or computer. Inverters do well in outside RV compartments as long as they are protected from the elements.
DO--consider small, palm-in-your-hand inverters if that's what you need. Unless your wiring is very skimpy or has puny connections, you can plug these into standard 12VDC receptacles, avoid installation problems and save money. Again, for medical machinery like breathing machines, you can easily move the hand helds from living place to car, etc.
DON'T--ever-attempt to connect the 120VAC output of an inverter to your electrical system with a simple jumper cord using a male connector (plug) at each end. The electrical shock hazard might/might not be a big deal, BUT, you WILL, someday, forget to unplug the inverter before connecting to commercial power or starting a generator. You will then lose an inverter. Guaranteed! (And they won't honor the warranty.)
DO--consider load transfer switches even though they may cost more. (Read the above again and see more details later.)
DO--make sure the transfer switch, if you use one (you might need two in tandem), will handle three sources of power if you also have a generator. (Many remote homeowners, without access to commercial power, can use simple, cheaper switching devices just to go from generator to inverter. RVs might come on commercial power anywhere.)
DO--make sure you know what you're doing when wiring or get help from someone who does. But DON'T get help from someone who doesn't know what he's doing. Guaranteed he will short the whole business out. Even if you use a "professional" electrician, DO make sure he understands that neutral and ground wires in an RV are NOT bonded together. (More later and in the "Batteries ...." poopsheet 120 VAC section.)
DO--consider an inverter as a priority item if medical appliances keep you tied to commercial power. (You can even plug the small ones into wheel chair batteries in many cases.)
DO--buy an inverter from someone who will let you return it for full (or nearly full) credit if it's in like new condition, original box, etc. Some inverters will cause radio/TV interference. Some will cause interference only on certain brands or models within brands. Ask first. Good dealers will know most of the static or interference-prone items and can advise you in advance. Good dealers will also allow you to bring your RV to their place of business so inverters can be temporarily connected to test interference.
DO--notice that I haven't mentioned solar panels except casually. An inverter runs from a battery. The battery doesn't know or care where its charge came from. Also note that an adequate solar system can eliminate the need for a generator or commercial power except as a backup.
DON'T--let the above scare you away from inverters. They're perfectly safe if used properly. They're not difficult to install if you follow the instructions. They can just about pay for themselves depending on what you use them for. Some of us used to modify all sorts of things to operate on 12 volts. It can be clumsy, things can get damaged and such modifications void warranties. I encourage people to make a hobby out of electronics so they can do this, but it's really not necessary with the efficiency of today's inverters.
Do you need one? Generally not. "Quasi" sine-wave inverters provide electricity that so very closely approaches a "true" sine wave (that of commercial power) that, for most applications, nothing more is needed. Some, very few, appliances require a true sine wave. (Most laser computer printers, for example.) Do not confuse "true" or "quasi" sine waves with the crude "square" waves of cheap inverters.
Alternating current varies, above and below, a "base line." It does so in a smooth wave that changes position, or polarity, (in the case of standard U.S. power) 60 times per second. This is the 60 cycle (or hertz) power we use as normal AC electricity. This is a "true" sine wave. A "quasi" sine wave is produced by hi-tech inverters. It is created by pulses that create small stair-steps of increments that almost equal the smooth sine wave. Cheap inverters simply change polarity in abrupt "jolts." The abrupt drop and rise of these jolts is alternating current, but the abrupt change results in a "square" wave form. That square wave form causes square TV pictures and will not operate some motors or other electric appliances.
So why not go for the best and use a true sine-wave inverter? Cost is a chief reason: Just as the quasi sine wave is more expensive than the square wave, the true sine wave is more expensive than the quasi. A much more important reason is efficiency: A true sine wave inverter is not as efficient as a quasi (yet, but the newest ones are really close).
Ideally, you get a huge inverter with battery charger option and cable it up and that's all there is to it. There are other things to consider though. Suppose the monster poops out and you have to return it for repair? Then you have nothing. Suppose you have many different AC needs? Suppose, as above, you need true sine wave power for a computer printer? Suppose you need to run a breathing machine in RV and tow vehicle? (And need to move an inverter from one to the other?) Depending on your circumstance, it may be better to use multiple inverters. What I have used as an example:
First, I use two battery banks and two photovoltaic systems. Redundant? Yes, but I've always got a spare and can switch back and forth or connect them together. The main system feeds a large inverter with 4-stage built-in battery charger for running the "house" and all computer equipment.
The second system feeds a mid-size inverter (with battery charger option) and powers my audio/video equipment. Either system can also power the other (within wattage limits) and can be switched over. I use hand-held inverters to power small items independently. All these inverters, together, cost little more than a large house inverter would and provide flexibility. I can change things around when I want. My point here is not to brag about quantity, but to point out that there are many ways to go depending on your lifestyle, not anyone else's.
Currently, for example, I've changed my lifestyle and travel in a mere 21' MH. I retained the 2,500 watt, pure sine wave, STATPOWER inverter, but drastically reduced the number of solar modules and batteries.
Quality inverters seldom sell at "discount" though there are occasional "sales." Some people think this is price fixing, but it's really not. Respectable dealers have a limited range of prices. Most will operate at the bottom of that range (or near it). This allows them a reasonable profit and you a fair deal. Considering that these things are expensive, that dealers must spend a great deal of time with customers before the sale, and that respectable dealers often will spend even more time after the sale in educating you, it all makes sense. Respectable dealers will often "sweeten" the deal a bit, though, by furnishing extras, such as switches, battery connection cables, free UPS shipping and the like.
I used the word respectable several times in the above. BEWARE the dealer who isn't. Some dealers, in order to avoid price guidelines, will call themselves "distributors" and will sell you an inverter with you being listed as a "dealer." Some people think this is great. They love to get things "wholesale." Well, they're not really getting it wholesale. What they are getting is absolutely no support after the sale. I've seen dealers pull this scam. They'll claim to sell an inverter at "cost." Baloney! If they did that, they couldn't remain in business. Once done though, when you ask for help, they refer you to the manufacturer and may even say something like, "You're a dealer now, you're supposed to know what to do, contact the manufacturer."
An added page at the end lists a few respectable, trustworthy dealers. There are many more. Read the ads in "Home Power" magazine. Use your consumer skills. Since the prices are all about the same, I recommend you choose a dealer who will be there, available to help, when you need help. (Here's the benefit you gain from stable pricing: They have to compete with one another. If they can't do it with $, they can do it by offering service.) You might have to pay for a telephone call. It'll probably be worth it. And you might get referred to the manufacturer if necessary. The manufacturers mentioned (and some others) will help you. They'll talk you through a trouble shoot. If that doesn't work, they'll have you send it back. Failure Rates run less than 1% among major inverter manufacturers. Almost unheard of in any other product.
Buying A Used Inverter can be a very good way to go IF you deal with a reputable dealer. The reason for this is that people don't usually trade in an inverter because there's something wrong with it (like they do cars). They trade them in to upgrade to a bigger one or one with different features. Some dealers will work with you, like RV Solar and BackWoods.
This can't be all inclusive because inverters vary. All quality manufacturers include detailed instructions. Many good dealers add to these with booklets or extra poop sheets of their own. These are based on the questions/problems their customers have come up with and can be most valuable.
Your first step in installing an inverter is to: RTFM (Read The * Manual)!
• Installation is electrically simple IF you follow the instructions! Do not just start screwing things together. Some inverters are indestructible. Others aren't. Some are DC polarity protected. If you hook up the cables backwards, it just won't work. Others aren't. If you hook up the cables backward, you'll fry the thing (and they won't warrant your foolishness).
• Spend some time planning the installation. Some people spend as much time planning as they do in the actual installation. It usually pays off.
• Locate large inverters as close to the batteries as you can, but not in the same compartment (unless you construct a shield or mini-compartment). Battery gas "eats" electrical components (and inverter sparks can ignite battery gas).
• No large inverter should be more than about 10 feet from the battery connection. DC voltage drop from battery to inverter is critical. On the other hand, the AC line from the inverter to appliances can be about as long as you like.
• Follow instructions as to size cable manufacturer recommended for your inverter and its distance from batteries. You can increase the size of the cable, but do not decrease it. (That's size of thickness--not length.) Use the same size cable to connect from battery to battery as you use from battery to inverter. Using a nice, big #4/0 cable from battery to inverter isn't going to do much good if the batteries are interconnected with the skimpy crap found in most RVs.
• Clean and maintain your batteries and use silicone dielectric "grease" (not caulking) on battery terminals and all electrical connections. Vaseline will work, but not as good. If you're spending several hundred $ or more on an inverter, what's $4 more? Dielectric grease available at about any auto store.
• Cable terminals must be properly attached. Don't economize by getting some cheap, stiff, household-grade cable and just crimping or hammering on cheap copper terminals. Use good welding cable. Measure distances carefully and have a welding supply store or similar attach the terminals if you don't have the proper tools. Best of all, measure carefully and order the best cables anybody can buy (for little more than the cost of auto store junk) from "Wrangler Power Products NW" (SOURCES at last page).
RADIO FREQUENCY INTERFERENCE (RFI)--is produced, to more or less an extent, by all inverters. Some brands have less than others, but all have it because it's the nature of the task they perform. (Almost all fluorescent lights create the same interference. So do some TVs.) You may eliminate all or most of it by:
• Locating inverter away from TV, radio, etc. This is usually all that needs to be done. It works well in most RVs since batteries and inverter are in some underneath compartment. (As an aside, fluorescent lights can often be relocated if they interfere. Sometimes, just a few inches or pointing them at a small angle away from TV is enough.)
• Twisting the big cables from battery to inverter. This is a pain in the ass, and can reduce the 10' distance from inverter to batteries since twisting reduces overall length of cable. What twisting does is allow the radiating field from cables to oppose each other and, at least partly, cancel each other out. You might not have to do this if inverter is properly located. A test is to temporarily hook up inverter with a set of automotive jumper cables. Turn it on. Attach a light to medium load and see what happens. You shouldn't get lines, sparkles or red stuff on TV. You might still get some buzzing on AM radio. If no interference, congratulate yourself and don't bother twisting. (Here's a good example of how you can gain by buying from a good inverter dealer. He'll be able to temporarily cable up an inverter and help you find a suitable location for it. It's a service that the good guys provide)
• Covering the cables with a sheath can help. I use a stainless steel braid (expensive). Some people report good results with copper foil.
• "Boxing" the inverter in with a cage made of copper window screen has also helped some few people.
• Using co-ax shielded cable for all antenna lead-ins (instead of 300 ohm twin lead) helps and is something you ought to do anyhow. Similarly, use high-quality, shielded cables to attach TV, stereo, VCR, etc., to one another (not the cheap junk that came with it).
• Electronics stores ("Radio Shack" and others) carry better-shielded audio/visual cables. They also have a variety of line filters, electronic traps and similar gimmicks for audiophiles. If you can find a knowledgeable Rad Shk guy you might get some good advice. "Home Power" magazine has had several articles on defeating RFI.
TRANSFER SWITCHES AND SIMILAR. Some form of insuring that your inverter cannot be "on line" feeding 120VAC into the system while a generator or commercial power is attempting to do the same is essential. This is true for inverters and for people who don't have an inverter, but only a generator--or who have both.
The simplest (and most reliable) transfer is the style found on older RVs. A receptacle in the RV (usually in the power cord compartment) connects to the generator. The RV main power cord (umbilical cord) can only be plugged into one receptacle at any one time. With this system, you can't connect to one AC source without first disconnecting from another. It's as close to idiot proof as you can get, but can still be defeated by the truly stupid. Earlier, under Do's and Dont's I mentioned never using a simple jumper cable with a male plug on both ends to connect an inverter AC output to a handy wall receptacle in an RV. Some people insist on doing this and eventually will see their inverter fry.
The manual plug-in works, but some people don't want to go outside and change plugs. Manual switches (called disconnects) make it easier. They can be mounted inside, with AC sources wired to them. Moving a lever, that disconnects from one source before connecting the next (electric people call them "make after break" or "break before make"), does the same thing easier. These switches are, of necessity, large and still require that the RVer get up off his butt and do something physical.
Electric transfer switches with relays can do the same thing and can do it automatically. If the inverter, for example, "senses" that there is 120VAC on the line, it won't come on. Sounds perfect? Not so. Electric relays, like anything electric, can fail. I've seen two RVs catch fire when the relay "hung up" and allowed a conflict. In one case, where the transfer switch was mounted on the floor under a cabinet, serious damage resulted. In the other case, the relay was mounted in a converter by the converter manufacturer, easily viewed, and the RVer was able to (panic) and pull the plug in time when smoke was first seen.
Suppose the RVer hadn't been home?
I prefer not use an electronic transfer switch in my own RV. Some of the best inverters have them built in and dealers who I greatly respect use them. This is strictly my own opinion. Quiz your dealer about this and decide for yourself.
FUSING and SWITCHING. (Not transfer switching, but switching the whole system off when something goes kaputt.) This is important and often ignored in RVs. If you attempt to install an inverter in a fixed home, the building inspector will demand fused disconnects. Not using them, in violation of the National Electric Code, will result in your insurance company voiding your claim when your house burns down. RVers seem to think none of this applies to them. They're wrong. The RV insurer can also void your claim if you've done something stupid. ANYTHING connected to a battery must have a fuse in the circuit (the only exception being the "break away" switch on trailers). Fusing inverters used to be a big problem because the line loss when going through available fuses and connectors was so great it interfered with inverter efficiency (and the disconnects could fill a coffin they were so big). No longer. "Ananda Power Technologies" developed a realistic, 400 amp, disconnect. (See "REAL GOODS" and other suppliers in Home Power magazine.) I highly recommend these. They're expensive, but the individual components and others as good are readily available. Someone building a house or starting an RV from scratch should definitely consider the whole "APT" load center. In an existing RV, though, you can buy just the fuse, its terminal blocks and its top-quality switch. This is not an ordinary fuse. It's a Class "T" type fuse. Expensive, reliable, all sorts of good features. (See "Wrangler" for details.)
The Catastrophe fuse--is a good idea and highly recommended. We usually think of fuses as being in the positive (+) line. A catastrophe fuse, though, is mounted in the negative (-) cable that goes from the battery to the RV frame (the RV's common ground). In the case of a catastrophe (or major meltdown) in the electrical system, this fuse will (almost always) blow. When it does, all "hot" lines have no ground, thus no complete circuit, thus the catastrophe stops. (RV Solar Electric has been a key innovator in these and has the best details.) These are large fuses (300 amp and more) mounted in special fuse blocks. I recommend Class "T" fuses for this also.
GROUNDING. This can get confusing because of the varying methods used by inverter manufacturers. Some use a case ground (the case of the inverter is grounded) some don't, but use a separate ground connector. Further, there's a difference between "houses" and RVs in the way the AC systems are grounded. A permanent house has the AC neutral (white) wires connected to a terminal strip in the load center. The bare/green ground wires go to a similar terminal strip. Both strips (in a house) are then bonded together and a heavy ground wire goes to a ground rod or water pipe. Obviously this won't work in a mobile RV. In an RV, the neutral wire's terminal strip remains isolated. Only the bare/green ground wire's strip is wired to the vehicle frame. Wiring an RV the way a house is wired will result in you sometimes becoming the path to ground. Occasional small shocks when standing on the ground and touching the RV metal frame? More severe shocks when standing in a puddle of water and touching RV? Pets chained to an RV flailing around wildly? All indicate this fault. You avoid it by paying attention to what you're doing and by making sure that anyone who helps you install an inverter (or any other electrical equipment) understands this. It's not unusual to find professional electricians, RV technicians and installers of alternative-energy equipment (to say nothing of RV manufacturers) who don't understand this (or forget because they're in the habit of doing "house" installations). Reading the installation instructions carefully usually solves all this.
It would be nice to come up with a comprehensive guide on the grounding methods used by various inverter manufacturers. Transfer switches also vary, with wiring on some having to be adjusted for RV use. The problem is inverters keep changing. In the meantime, I recommend you buy an inverter from someone who knows exactly what, if any, modifications need to be made. Should you buy from anyone else, quiz them about this. Don't let them sluff you off. The dealer should be able to tell you if the inverter conforms to the National Electric Code (NEC) standard, The Underwriter Lab (UL) standard (used in most RV/Marine units) or some oddball standard the manufacturer dreamed up--as well as tell you how to wire things properly. Major manufacturers should furnish the same information in their installation instructions. Those instructions, in the best units, will include very detailed wiring instructions. Some inverters have the neutral and ground wired together inside the inverter. Do not open the inverter to correct this. You can hurt yourself, the inverter and void the warranty. Instead, make sure that the AC circuit from the inverter, at the first connection point to your RV electric system, separates the neutral and ground. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS.
PHANTOM LOADS. The big inverters, as mentioned earlier, have an "idle" state--i.e., when turned on, but not operating a load, they revert to a very-low, energy-saving current. As soon as you turn on a load, the inverter immediately comes up to full power. Many appliances, though, are always "on" to some extent, even when turned off: Microwave clock. Instant-on TVs that have remotes that remember channel settings. Many radios and stereos. These always draw a trickle of power. In some cases that draw is enough to make the inverter come fully on and stay there (a phantom load). Some inverters have an idle current that can be adjusted to correct most of this. In other cases, people find it necessary to put an on/off switch at the outlet the appliance plugs into. There are other phantom loads: Nightlights. Clocks. Any rechargeable item that runs from one of those little power-cube transformers you plug in. Electric toothbrushes, shavers, etc., that also run from plug-in power cubes.
Look at it this way though: When on the road, with or without an inverter, your micro wave, AC, TV, etc., are "off" and you usually reprogram when you stop and plug in to commercial power. No real difference with an inverter. Most people find they don't need to reprogram all that automatic stuff anyway. Individual channel numbers can be keyed into a TV remote. Microwave clock isn't really needed, just used as a timer when the thing is on.
Rechargeables can be better recharged with those that plug into the 12VDC, rather than 120VAC, system (Real Goods, Rad Shk, etc., have them). Similarly, power cubes that run off a wall socket (no recharging taking place) also are available in 12VDC versions. The little cubes that run things or recharge them from 120VAC are notoriously inefficient anyway. Any time you change from AC to DC or DC to AC, there's an energy loss (a law of physics). In some cases, it's an acceptable trade-off (as when running a battery charger). Similarly, if when running an inverter, you change DC to AC, that's also an acceptable trade off. But, to then take the inverter AC and change it back to the DC you started with, is not. It's unnecessary and a waste of power. 12VDC versions are much more efficient. Also, the power-cube device, say a rechargeable shaver, might consume only one-tenth of a watt; however, the inverter is using perhaps 3/4 watt to provide that one tenth. Not too swell. Phantom loads can be a nuisance, but I've found it no more so than the usual plugging and unplugging.
Finding/Fixing Phantoms. With commercial power, generator and inverter off, unplug (don't just turn off) every AC-powered device/appliance in the RV. Don't forget anything. Turn inverter on. It should remain in "idle" state. (If not, you forgot to unplug something.) One at a time, plug an appliance/device in. Does inverter come up to full power? You have a phantom. Attempt to adjust idle current on inverter to avoid this. Unplug the device, make a note of what you did and plug in the next one. Repeat as needed. Once done, if you kept notes, you'll know what the phantoms are. Some phantoms (mainly those little power cubes) can be dealt with by changing them to DC as mentioned earlier. Clocks won't usually start an inverter--but won't run either. Replace them with battery-operated clocks. Night lights are likely culprits, but can be turned off. Consider using DC Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) as night lights. Wired into the DC system (with a resistor to reduce voltage) the yellow (or newer white) LEDs provide enough light to keep you from falling over your shoes on the way to the john. LEDs use so little DC you can leave them on all the time. Big appliances might need On/Off switches where they plug into a receptacle. You could insert a plug-in switch at receptacle, attach an in-line switch on wire to appliance, or put common items like TV, VCR, etc., on a receptacle strip. These are nice because one switch shuts off everything plugged into the strip and most strips include a circuit breaker.
Once you've gone through this drill, plug everything back the way it's supposed to be. Leave any AC night lights off and turn important things on one at a time. If you're lucky, everything will work. Sometimes, if you have a very low amp draw appliance, it won't come on if you have adjusted the inverter's idle current so that it can't detect the thing. The simplest way to get one of these low-energy users to start up the inverter is to turn on one of those AC nightlights. That will usually "kick" the inverter on. When you're done with whatever task the thing was doing, shut it and nightlight off.
MEASURING AC FROM AN INVERTER. If you measure the AC output from an inverter with a standard volt meter, you'll get a surprise (if you didn't read all the instructions) because you won't read the usual 120VAC. For economy, standard voltmeters are set up to read the "average" of a true sine wave. Meters capable of reading the "true" voltage of any AC wave (like the quasi-sine wave of most inverters) called "Root Means Square or RMS" (which we needn't get into here) cost almost $300 (yikes!). You don't need one. Once your inverter is installed and properly operating, read the AC output with a standard meter and record it. In the future, if you suspect something is amiss, measure it again (under similar load, etc.,). If OK, the readings should be similar. Some inverter instructions list the approximate reading obtained from a standard volt meter. Some don't but your dealer or the manufacturer can tell you. (One of my inverters measures a normal 84VAC, another a normal 104VAC. I know of one model that measures 145VAC.) Don't panic. Incidentally, commercial power isn't really the "110" or "115" or "120" we refer to anyway. It's (ideally) 117VAC±5%. Further, that's just an average of the voltage. The actual range of volts of a true sine wave of commercial AC is about 175. Interesting, useless information for around the camp fire, but it explains the variations in "normal" voltage readings from an inverter.
If running a computer from a large inverter that feeds other circuits, do not turn on an additional heavy load while the computer is running. The momentary surges/variations can mislead the computer's sensitive protective circuits and cause a "crash." (This is a good reason for using multiple inverters.) This same thing often happens in a regular house on commercial power, where repeated computer crashes are often found to be caused by a refrigerator, air conditioner or washing machine on the same circuit. (Amazing how long it takes some people to figure this out.)
Most computers work well on the "quasi-sine wave" output of inverters. Some, few, have ultra-sophisticated protective circuits built in (the newest "Macs" for example). These devices "see" the slight irregularities in power as an indication of trouble and may crash or refuse to operate.
As mentioned earlier, many laser printers will only operate on a "true" sine wave. Before you spend big $ on a true sine wave inverter, consider: Do you really need a laser printer? Unless you're doing professional graphics to make a living, you probably don't. Quality ink jet printers easily produce "camera-ready" quality printing. Another reason to consider not using laser printers is that they're enormous energy hogs. The intense heat used to bond the print media/toner to paper uses a LOT of electricity.
Some very-high quality stereos and TVs suffer inverter interference that's hard to defeat. This is really a credit to their manufacturers (some SONY models are an example). They've produced the best in audio/visual quality. That "best quality" though, means they're super-sensitive. They'll pick up the slightest "glitch" and put it on screen as a sparkie. Here's yet another good reason to work with a knowledgeable dealer who can tell you of many appliances that can be interfered with. Actually, there are so many RVers using inverters, that you can usually find neighbors willing to let you run an extension cord over, plug in and try their brand of inverter out on your TV or such.
• A Note on Using Inverters with Medical Equipment. No inverter manufacturer will recommend running "life support" equipment from an inverter. This is the 24hr a day stuff that keeps people alive. It needs lots of hospital equipment with backups. However, as mentioned several times earlier, there's medical augmentation equipment like breathing machines that aren't so critical. Perfect for inverters. Don't get confused.
• A Special Note on Generators--With or Without an Inverter. Many of the problems that can surface with inverters are common to generators. Wiring and grounding, as discussed above, are typical. All too many RV generators have (inside) the neutral and ground wires bonded together. Why? Beats me. In any case, check this out. I suspect that one of the "transfer switch" hangups I mentioned was due to this. "Onan" is known for this. It's easy to correct. If you don't know how, go to an independent service tech since most RV shop techs won't know what you're talking about.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Opposed Piston Opposed Cylinder, 2-Cycle Diesel Engine

Pay close attention to this design, and note how the connecting-rod thrust against the crankshaft is cancelled. This is much more efficient than the designs we currently use in that forces that are normally wasted as heat and contribute to wear in the engine, are harnessed and used as motive force.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Day To Remember

This day will be remembered in history as the day the people prevailed over the government. When the people of Egypt demanded that Mubarak relinquish his office, he initially refused. He attempted to convince the people that the government rules the people and that they must listen to him, not the other way around. When that didn't work, Mubarak resorted to threats. But the people of Egypt stood fast and refused to leave until he stepped down. Finally today, February 11, 2011, Mubarak gave in and complied with the people's demands to step down.

What will happen now is anybody's guess. The end result will not necessarily be good. It won't necessarily be bad. That remains to be seen. But regardless of where Egypt goes now, today is a good thing, because the will of the people prevailed. A regime cannot be allowed to ignore the demands of the people of its country. No matter how bad things may get if Egypt takes an unfortunate direction from here, it will not be as bad as it could have been, had they allowed their government to ignore them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Packet Radio: App For The Apocalypse

In "Apps for the Appocalypse" (sic), Bre Pettis says this:

"Local wifi IRC: I want an app that creates a localized IRC channel that anyone within wifi range can join. The idea here is that wifi can't be jammed locally, so it would be nice to set up a localized network to chat with your neighbors without leaving the house. Bonus points if it can act as a node. This may already be possible, but it's definitely not easy. I'd like to just open my phone, turn on wifi, run the app and see IRC chat rooms within wifi range of my device. Bonus points for being able to make the nodes into a network. Extra bonus points for sending a message chained via wifi devices across a continent."

That sounds a lot like packet radio, to me. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either: in "Get Internet Access When Your Government Shuts It Down," Patrick Miller and David Daw have this to say:
"Given enough time and preparation, your ham radio networks could even be adapted into your own ad-hoc network using Packet Radio, a radio communications protocol that you can use to create simple long-distance wireless networks to transfer text and other messages between computers. Packet Radio is rather slow and not particularly popular (don't try to stream any videos with this, now), but it's exactly the kind of networking device that would fly under the radar."

It actually takes very little time, and doesn't require any pre-existing networks. A packet modem connected via three wires to any radio transceiver instantly becomes a stand-alone BBS, and is capable of connecting with any other such BBS it hears on the frequency, thus becoming the start of a network. It's not limited to ham radio, either; any radio transceiver will work. Its use on CB and FRS is not currently legal in the US, but I have heard of people doing it regardless. In a societal breakdown, such statutes would be irrelevant anyway.

Back in the early to mid '90s, I progressed from dial-up BBSes to packet radio on the 2 Meter ham radio band. What drew me to packet radio was that it worked from anywhere and was completely libertarian in nature. That is, it didn't rely on any paid or public-served networks, such as the utility grid or telephone lines. I don't have anything against the telephone lines, but they can be cut and at any rate must be paid for. Besides, I have spent large portions of my life without access to a landline. Right now, for instance.

Packet radio doesn't even require a computer. A packet TNC (terminal node controller) is a smart modem, with a built-in processor, memory and firmware. All you need is a two-way audio and keyline connection to a radio; and a terminal of some sort when you wish to log on. That terminal can be any old computer or even a dumb terminal. I used dumb terminals that I got for free, and also TRS-80 aka Trash-80 Radio Shack computers that I also got for free. I picked up a half dozen of the latter from the side of the road where they were being thrown away. They had one major advantage over the terminals: they allowed me to store emails and text files after I downloaded and read them. I even had a portable packet system consisting of a TNC, 2 Meter HT (walkie-talkie) and an HP100LX (later upgraded to an HP200LX) palmtop computer. Because 2 Meter networks are accessible just about everywhere in North America (much more so than cellphone networks), I could log on and send and receive email even while backpacking.

So how does packet radio work, from a practical standpoint? Pretty much the same way a dial-up BBS works, except via the airwaves instead of phone lines. But there's more, too. Every TNC has the ability to digipeat, or act as an automated relay for any signal it hears. That is a function that the city dweller might not enable, because it would really offer no advantages in an area containing many stations; but those in outlying areas would enable, to act as a relay for a station that is out of range of the BBS. And because every TNC also has the inherent ability to function as a BBS, there doesn't even have to be a central BBS in a given area. Of course, in a highly populated area, at least one operator elects to set up a dedicated BBS; but in a sparsely populated area, each station can be a mini-BBS.
The linking technology goes beyond digipeating, too. Most TNCs have the built-in capacity to become a node (similar to the nodes found on Fidonet), thereby automatically making every station it hears part of a transparent, user-friendly network.

Packet is not a replacement for the modern Internet. The basic plug-and-play TNC that is suitable for use with a VHF FM transceiver operates at a transfer speed of 1200 baud. Higher speeds are possible, but are more technically involved and require more radio spectrum, which limits use to microwave frequencies. For that stuff you can still set up a network of wireless routers, but a wireless router will not cover a 3000 square mile area with a simple station. VHF packet will. At 1200 baud, it is pretty much text files only.
In fact, the average person already uses packet radio. It is called SMS. That's right; the text messaging system in your cellphone. The cellphone has a built-in TNC, and it stores messages for you to view later, if necessary. But it has three disadvantages: it relies on a commercial network that may be overloaded or shut down; it is a paid service; and there is no BBS. Packet radio uses exactly the same technology, but without a central network that all messages must be routed through, without the paid access, and with the addition of BBSes. In short, it gives you the technology of text messaging, email and an online bulletin board, but without the middleman.

Packet TNCs have another aspect too, for those who are concerned about an SHTF event: security. Think about SHTF fiction like "I Am Legend" or AMC's recent show "The Walking Dead". One thing the survivors did was to get on the radio on some kind of set schedule, and try to make contact with other survivors. This has a few problems. First, there is the problem of range. It is not like in "The Walking Dead" where somebody whispers into a walkie-talkie from wherever they happen to be, and at whatever time they feel like it, and someone out there will hear them. It just doesn't work that way. Those walkie-talkies work now only because there is a central repeater with a high tower, that hears the weak signal from the walkie-talkie and retransmits it. Without that repeater, the range of that police radio depicted in "The Walking Dead" wouldn't be much over a mile or two, unless you can get to the top of a ridge or tall building. And therein lies the second problem. If I were a bad guy trying to find the protagonist of such a story, I would look around for the best place to transmit from, then I would just hide and wait for the guy to return. That doesn't even require triangulation. A better option for the survivor would be to program a TNC to transmit a short beacon every hour, both as a packet text and a short Morse code message for those who may not be equipped with packet radio. Then connect the TNC to a radio, which can be a simple single-channel, crystal controlled radio. Place this, along with a battery pack, in an ammo can with an antenna mounted to it. Then place the ammo can atop a building, or in a tree on a hilltop. Maybe add a solar panel to keep it charged. Now all you have to do is log on remotely with a portable packet station. You could do this from 50 miles away, by pointing a directional antenna at the hill or building. The Morse code signal could direct listeners without packet capability to transmit from the vicinity of the digipeater at a certain time each day, and you could use the same directional antenna to listen for them.  

A complete packet networking station

Even if you are not a ham, if you include a CB, MURS, GMRS or even FRS radio transceiver in your preparations (and you should), you might want to consider adding a TNC and perhaps a book about packet networking. That way if the Internet gets shut off, tightly controlled, or fails due to power grid problems, you still have the ability to network via computer. Even if the power grid failed, a deep-cycle battery and a single solar panel would keep a system like this on the air indefinitely.
For more information, check out Kantronics. They made the TNC shown in the photo, and packet radio is their specialty.
If you want an even simpler setup, Alinco makes a radio with a built-in TNC.

Friday, February 4, 2011

1911 .45 Carbine Conversion

I have looked at these, and considered buying one. It would allow me to convert my 1911 back and forth between a pistol and a carbine. .45 Auto is cheap to reload, especially with home-cast bullets (which is the way I do it; no expensive jacketed bullets for me when they aren't necessary). It also offers a reasonable power level, and heavy bullets at subsonic velocities probably offers about the best combination of usable power with low noise without doing the whole registered suppressor thing and all that entails.

Besides all that, the narration cracked me up.