Carl Isner tells us about his off the grid systems and components in his Alaskan truck camper.
Carl Isner: Off the Grid Systems and Components
Four years ago, I was sitting in my first real truck camper thinking of what my ideal camper would be. I had a many scattered ideas. I knew it would be a hard-sided pop-up with solar power and more storage. It was going to be exactly the way I wanted it and not a cookie cutter camper. Life is too short and work is too long to be using a camper that was a compromise.
We currently had a soft-side pop-up sitting on a 2004 Ford F350 diesel. The truck had been slowly upgraded over the four years we had it. We upgraded to Bilstein 7100 shocks and ProComp springs in the front and added Firestone airbags in the rear. We also installed an array of seven Autometer gauges for monitoring the vehicle’s performance. After hitting a deer at highway speed we upgraded our bumper to a Buckstop and put in a Warn 16.5ti winch. Recently we added 19.5 inch wheels with commercial Goodyear G-124 tires and that made a significant difference in both ride and handling.
Choosing An Off the Grid Camper
There are very few choices when it comes to a hard-side pop-up camper. We wanted a hard-side for the insulation and reduction of noise compared to the soft-sided pop-up we were using. When we would pull into a noisy campground with our soft-sided pop-up, we would hear all of the traffic and neighbors. At twenty below or one hundred degrees above, the soft-sides just don’t insulate that well. My wife and I can attest to this as we have experienced both extremes.
That left us with Alaskan Campers, a company that was willing to customize whatever we wanted. We ordered a custom 9.5 foot Alaskan camper built to mount on a flat bed truck and proceeded to put the “options” on.
Off the Grid: Plumping and Tanks
One of the frustrating things we have always experienced with all our campers before our Alaskan is that we’ve have always been tied to services. Either the holding tanks needed to be emptied at a dump station or we needed to plug in to recharge our meager batteries. One of the standard features of the Alaskan that we were excited about was the Thetford cassette toilet.
At first you think it is nothing but a fancy porta-potti, but it is one of the keys to being able to free yourself from looking for dump stations along the road. The cassette can be emptied in almost any location from a pit toilet to a hole in the ground in a pinch. These toilets have been popular in Europe for years and are just beginning to catch on in the North American market. After using the Thetford toilet for a few months now, we can honestly say it is essential for our style of camping.
To further the same concept we decided to do the same thing with a small five-gallon gray water tank for the times we can’t just run a hose into the bushes. It is nice not to need a dump station when we travel with our camper. This is especially nice when heading south into the back roads of Mexico. The only thing we added to the gray water tank was quick release fittings with a one-way valve that keeps the line from dripping when emptying the gray water. We will never go back to large holding tanks again.
Off the Grid: Power Systems
Besides the disposal needs, there are the power needs. We wanted to go with a larger battery bank and the ability to be self sustaining with power while sitting for extended periods of time. With this in mind, we started to explore the options.
Most truck campers use a very basic charging system for the house batteries. It is a single stage charger that simply brings power in from the outside source, be it the alternator from your truck, plugged into 110 volt, or other outside sources. When the batteries are charged to capacity the charger continues to push the power into the batteries and they have a tendency to boil over if they are standard batteries. In addition, most are not set up for the needs of the AGM (absorbent gas mat) batteries that are being used for their flexibility. The problem being that AGM batteries need to be charged at a slightly lower number of volts.
This is where we did our research and came up with the Outback FX2012MT sealed charger/inverter that is typically used in high-end sailboats. Not only does it not overcharge batteries by using a dual stage charging system, but it can be set up to charge at a rate suitable for AGM batteries. In addition, the system can be monitored via a separate screen with the Outback Flexnet and Hub controller that tells you amount of power in and out, as well as the exact number of hours left. The final cool thing about this unit is that it is also a 2000 watt sine wave inverter that can power your 110 volt items and is suitable for picky equipment like your laptop that should be on a sine wave type inverter.
Our battery needs are taken care of by a pair of Energy 1 batteries. Heavy at 125 pounds each, Energy 1 batteries hold 210 amp hours each and can be discharged below fifty percent more than 500 times. These are probably the best AGM batteries available to civilians today. We mounted the AGM batteries inside the camper so that in the winter the batteries stay as warm as the camper and are much more efficient.
To further augment our battery life we added two Kyocera solar panels to the top of the camper that are regulated by the Outback system. On a sunny day, we can draw in as much as 11.5 amp hours of free electricity. The whole system then shows up on the monitoring system for quick and accurate information on the exact power in, out, and expected length of battery life at the present state of use.
Off the Grid: Efficient Components
You can have as sophisticated system as you want, but if you are not energy efficient you will draw too heavily on your batteries and eventually you will run your system down. We had taken steps in the past to reduce our draw such as using a stove-top coffee maker instead of an electric, but we wanted to go longer without having to recharge.
To this end, we had all ABI Marine LED lights put in and out of the camper. They draw minimal power compared to the halides we had previously and are cool to the touch.
We have always loved to watch a movie once in a while, so we went with a LCD TV that draws 65 watts of power and there is 13 volt coming out of the TV which is then converted to 12 volt with a DC to DC converter. The DVD player itself is a car deck that also is 12 volt and has a built in amp to run the automotive style speakers.
There are certain items that will always draw power and you have to take these into account. Figure how much power you will draw on an average day and then add in a twenty percent fudge factor.
The fridge is a Nova Kool 5.7 cubic foot run by a Danfoss 12 volt compressor. The Nova Kool is always drawing when cycled on.
The CO detector, water pump, furnace draw intermittent power. So now, calculate your needs and go from there. As you can see, keeping everything low power and 12 volt is paramount in an efficient system. To help keep our power needs down in the winter we had a Olympian Wave catalytic heater installed that draws no electricity when producing heat and feels nice on the toes.
For our cooling needs, the PetCool air conditioner unit is a 12 volt compressor driven by a 110 volt motor and produces 2500 cfm of cooling power at about a 3.5 amp draw. It will work off the batteries for several hours or continuously when driving down the road running on the trucks alternator.
The PetCool is nice, but it’s not yet working as intended. It is not cool enough and thus is a work in progress. I’ll be venting it to the outside and adding a drain plumbed into the fresh water drain for evaporation next week. That’s not a big deal, but the person who sold it to us really didn’t understand the application it was going to be used in. They forgot it needed venting and drainage like any other air conditioner when used inside an enclosed space. I wondered from the beginning, but my rose colored glasses kept fogging up. I called up the manufacturer’s tech support of the unit and they were extremely helpful in diagnosing and then brain storming ideas on how to make it work.
In conclusion, in this age of high priced energy, it is very nice to be able to sit with your camper and not use up precious fuel to charge your batteries. An efficient and well designed system will allow you to boon dock for extended periods and, in the end, make your camper something that will save you money and time down the road.
Carl’s Truck Camper Rig
Truck: 2004 Ford F-350, flat bed truck, extended cab, single rear wheel, long bed, 4×4, diesel
Camper: A custom 9.5 foot Alaskan camper
Tie-downs and Turnbuckles: The camper is bolted through the floor of the camper.
Suspension Enhancements: Bilstein 7100 shocks, ProComp springs in the front, Torklift Stable Loads in rear, and Firestone air bags in the rear
Gear: Seven Autometer gauges for monitoring the vehicle’s performance, Warn 16.5ti winch, 19.5 inch wheels with commercial Goodyear G-124 tires, ABI Marine LED lights, three solar fans, two 85 watt solar panels, Olympian Wave catalytic heater, MightyKool portable swamp cooler, Nova-Kool 12 volt refrigerator, Yaesu 7800 ham radio, Torklift SuperHitch, Engel 45 fridge/freezer, Buckstop bumper in front, Dual Viair compressors and tanks, Procomp springs in front are a leveling kit