I am married to an Englishman who just can’t fathom why anyone would want to hang around in the desert in an off-grid camper van. But he makes up for it with advanced degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering and an insatiable appetite for tinkering with vehicles.
So when little Buffalo Soldier, my Sprinter van, was having a hard time lasting through a weekend unplugged in the desert, Andy sprang into action.
First he sketched out a whole new electrical plan involving removing my coach’s AGM batteries and substituting a powerful Lithium Ion battery, as well as a best of breed inverter and instrumentation. I noticed the difference immediately on the few trips I was able to take before the Covid lockdown. But I was still so used to having to husband my batteries to the nth degree that I didn’t entirely trust that my battery could actually last through a few days of unplugged use. Andy tried to explain all the Physics, including adding up all the amperage of anything I might possibly use and explaining how much draw there would be and how long I could run them. But still, I clung to all my back-ups which included only cooking over a fire or charcoal (or living on non-cook items such as cheese and crackers and salad.)
So paranoid was I still that my battery couldn’t handle a week in the desert, that Andy bought me a small generator with a pigtail cord that will let me charge up my RV’s house battery. That’s in addition to the fact the engine in my Sprinter chassis acts to charge up the house battery when it’s running. I insisted that I didn’t need that generator because the van is my car. And there is seldom a day where I don’t drive to a trailhead or historical site, which will fully recharge the battery in about 20 minutes. But if I’m just hanging out for a few days in one spot, I didn’t want to idle in a campground to top off the battery. That can be obnoxious, especially since the headlights stay on during that process.
Now nearly two years later, after all these improvements, I’m on the road and cautiously moving into the testing phase. The main thing I wanted to test was my Instant Pot. Previously, I’ve only used it RVing when I’ve been plugged in. Which is a bummer because I never want to cook in the RV itself, especially when I’m out in the wilderness. First of all, something this tiny will constantly smell like whatever is cooked in it. And the smell of food is irresistible to rodents. Believe me, a desert mouse can get into an RV within twenty minutes after you park in your camp spot. So I always strive to cook outdoors. Given that I’m not entirely a great hand at starting a wood or charcoal fire, and that many places where I camp have periodic burn bans, that has been a problem. I see the propane stove as an emergency back-up, but it’s seldom used for anything but heating water,. Whenever I can, my cooking, eating and washing up are all done outdoors. If I could use the Instant Pot off-grid, that would be an answer to a lot of prayers.
In my initial menu planning, I was going to make polenta and meatballs in the Instant Pot. At the last minute, I chickened out and bought a tube of that ready-made polenta that I could eat as is or grill. The meatballs were vegetarian from Beyond Meat, so worst case, I could quickly sauté them on the propane stove if my fire-making skills, such as they are, failed me. But SURPRISE, I quickly and efficiently started a charcoal fire thanks to my new folding charcoal starter. (More later on how every single RV thing I own folds up flat for my minuscule storage space.) So, a semi-gourmet dinner was made, but no proof-of-concept performed for my new systems.
Then in the fourth day of my trip, I did a complete circuit of Joshua Tree, sightseeing and charging my battery. So I decided to flip on the Inverter which takes my rig from the usual off-grid 12 volt system and on to 110. Previously, this had been such a drain, there was no question of running the convection oven, the air conditioner, and certainly not an Instant Pot. Perhaps foolishly, I had brought a duck breast and some celeriac for an Instant Pot meal. Just to give myself lots of options, I started my cooking early, so I could switch to a charcoal fire if it all went pear-shaped.
I flipped on the inverter and watched the amps (or maybe it’s watts?) pump out, but I bravely plugged in my Instant Pot to the outside outlet and started heating the olive oil. More amps pumped out. Then I sautéed the duck breast in the pot and watched more amps pump out. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I was running in and out of the RV checking the volt meters every minute. Finally, it was time to pressure cook. I put on the lid and watched more amps pump out as the pot came up to pressure. I was starting to get a little worried. But I figured, I could put the engine on at some point or drive down Pinto Basin Road to recharge the house battery.
Then something very interesting happened. The pot came up to pressure. And the charge in my battery started increasing. INCREASING! I don’t have a good head for amperage and electrical theory, despite Andy’s best effort to explain it all to me. But how could my pot be pressure cooking and the charge in my house battery increasing? Then I vaguely remember reading somewhere that one of the ways that an Instant Pot cooks so efficiently (energy-wise) is that it uses the most energy sautéing and coming up to pressure. But once at pressure, it draws very little current. It seems that once my duck breast was under pressure, the pot was using so little current, that the solar panels on top of my van were able to outpace the draw and top up the battery. Note to self: always cook early in the desert so that still hot and direct sun can give some battery juice. I’m sure it helps that I have the teeny 3 quart Instant Pot that draws only 750 W, presumably at its highest. The rest of the time it must pull well under that. I was also, foolishly, camping in the desert when the sun is high in the sky for a long period of time. I’m wondering if, in winter, when the sun is hitting the panels at an angle, and therefore charging less, if I’ll be able to pull this off.
With dinner done and washed up, I was still obsessively checking my battery meter. But all seemed okay. Then again, I use very little amperage at night in my van. About the only thing pulling from the battery is the little 12 volt fridge which is very efficient, at least when it doesn’t have to work against 112 degree noon desert heat. I have some solar lights that I charge up during the day and I’m writing this on my computer which is being charged up by a little portable Lithium battery unit that seems to last forever. I also have a USB charged fan to cool things until the temperature drops.
This first shake-down experiment I’d have to call an unqualified success. Unless I wake up tomorrow with a flat house battery. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
Again, I’m not really sure how this all works, and in my uninformed state, I still think it’s some kind of magic and not the watts and amps Andy keeps trying to explain to me. But I’m okay with seeing Buffalo Soldier as a kind of magic bus. Meanwhile, a whole new world of gourmet camping meals is opening up to me.