Definition of Boondocking – completely self contained and completely off the grid, no hookups for water, sewer or electricity.
Boondocking with the Entegra Aspire can be somewhat more challenging compared to its more expensive siblings, particularly when it comes to battery capacity, but it also has some advantages (like the water conserving manual flush toilet in the bath and a half models). We have put together some tips and ideas to help other Aspire owners enjoy an extended boondocking experience. Please note that while some of these tips will be specific to the Aspire, many will also apply to the Anthem, Cornerstone and virtually any other rig.
We lived full time aboard a 2006 Fleetwood Discovery for 2 years, a 2013 Aspire RBQ for 3-1/2 years and since 10/2016 we now live full time on our 2017 Aspire 44B. We don’t boondock the majority of the time because we like our creature comforts and conveniences, but we have done it enough to get to know our Aspire(s) and its somewhat unique personality. We also have been cruising sailors for for about 4 decades and when away from the dock (which we do for weeks at a time) practice many of the same power and water conservation procedures.
Let’s start with the battery capacity as this will be the biggest challenge.
A stock Aspire, of any year including 2017, comes with half the battery capacity of the Anthem & Cornerstone. This is a non issue if you never boondock, however it creates some inconveniences when you do want to boondock. Boondocking overnight is generally not a problem, but boondocking for several consecutive days tends to have a cumulative effect and will require a bit more insight and planning.
So the simple fix for an Aspire would seem to be just running the generator more often. One could probably surmise it will need to be run twice as often [as an Anthem or CS] since we have half the battery capacity but consume power at a similar rate. That sounds not too bad – that is until the generator kicks in at 3AM waking you from a nice sound sleep in a most inelegant manner. Also, sometimes it is not permissible or feasible to run the generator when you need to run it. For example during quiet hours imposed by most federal and state parks. It is my understanding that the official quiet hours on the BLM land at are 10PM-6AM, an 8 hour period.
Amp-Hours and Battery Capacity Summary:
Bottom line is on a stock Aspire you will probably only get at best 5-6 hours of of battery usage between generator runs unless you can reduce consumption.
What follows is how I came up with that number, but it is also based on experience, so feel free to skip the techie talk and move on the the next section. The below info involves a lot of estimating and each coach will be different both in usage patterns of the owners and equipment condition such as battery age and possible previous battery damage.
I’ll try to be as non technical as possible but there is one technical term I want to get you familiar with; amp-hours. Don’t worry too much about what it actually means, I will use this to describe how much power we have stored in the batteries and how much each of the systems on our coach consumes. Once you are familiar with what you have available for amp-hours and then realize how much you use, the picture will start to come into focus. Also if you are thinking of solar down the road, understanding what you consume for power will help clarify what kind of solar installation would be required to meet your needs.
All Aspire’s will have more or less about 400 amp-hours of battery capacity when they are new (the 2017’s come with batteries that have a 390 amp-hour capacity). As a general rule, to help prolong battery life (and reduce generator run times), we don’t want to drain the batteries below 50% of their capacity (this is also known as Depth of Discharge or DoD)*. So that leaves about 200 amp-hours for us to use – that is, IF the batteries are new and were fully charged to begin with! They may be close to fully charged when you arrive at your boondocking site, but after the first generator run cycle they won’t be. The generator would need to run almost constantly to “fully” charge the batteries and 80% charged is a more realistic objective. So taking that 80% into account, between generator runs you may only have about 150-160 amp-hours of useful power.
Now, based on measurements I and other owners have observed, our Entegra’s consume on average about 25 amps/hour or more when all systems are running normally. This will vary based on owner habits, but in theory that means on average a fully charged battery will give us about 8 hours before it’s time to start up the genset. Assuming though we normally only get to 80% charged (it may be less), the next cycle will only last about 6 hours.
That’s all in theory, it gets a bit worse. We have not accounted for things like temperature, battery age, other inefficiencies and something called Puekert’s Law. Basically what it says is the faster you discharge a battery the lower its capacity becomes. The capacity of our batteries is normally specified at the “20 hour rate”, but since we are discharging them faster than that, the actual capacity is something lower than what the specs say – in the case of the 2017 Aspire battery that will be reduced from 390 amp-hours to about 378 amp-hours (using this calculator). Also note that very high consumption items such as the microwave or a hair dryer, even if only run for short periods, will have an additional and noticeable impact on capacity.
So now the game becomes how do we reduce that 25 amp-hour drain rate? How can we conserve enough power to increase the time between generator runs?
You will need to learn some new procedures, and some new ways of doing things. Some of you will consider these inconveniences – or worse – but most will eventually adapt. Consider it a challenge. One of the benefits of going thru the process will be learning what we all mostly just take for granted in regard to power and perhaps provide some insight into the little things we can do to be “greener” and reduce our carbon footprint.
Power saving tips:
Many of these tips might save just a small amount of power, but all those small savings add up! The number in parenthesis for some items are the amount of power in amps/hour (from readings taken on my 2013 Aspire).
- Those of you with a propane cooktop, USE IT instead of the microwave (unless the generator is running).
- If you have a gas grill, USE IT instead of your microwave.
- Whenever you need to run a high power consuming device like the microwave or a hair dryer START UP THE GENERATOR. No exceptions! The microwave or a hair dryer will draw 150-200 amps from your batteries and you will probably trigger the AGS anyway (remember Peukert?). It is much better to just let the generator handle those high loads. Plan your usage of these high power devices outside of quiet hours.
- Set the SHORE setting on the magnum panel to 50 Amps to ensure the batteries charge at the maximum rate possible when the generator is running.
- Minimize all lighting to just what is absolutely needed, particularly incandescent fixtures of which the older coaches may have several. For example our dinette light on our 2013 consumed over 4 amps/hour.
- The Microwave cooktop light on most of the older coaches is a high wattage incandescent – keep it off. (3.5 amps/hour)
- Dimming any lights you are using will save power.
- If you only have incandescent reading lamps, consider purchasing a battery powered LED book light to use instead.
- Shut off the Aquahot “Electric” switch unless the generator is running. This switch runs a 12 volt relay so uses battery power even if the shore power is off (0.2 amps/hour).
- If you are not using your TV’s or audio equipment turn off the breaker that powers them to eliminate the “vampire loads”. These breakers are in the forward most of the two AC breaker panels above the driver seat. During the day when away from the coach, we usually turn off all of them except the “Inverter Main” & “Refer”. Since all the AC outlets will now be dead, any mobile devices that need charging should be plugged into a 12v receptacle at the dash. (3.4 amps/hour and that’s with all this stuff OFF, TV’s when on for example will consume 4-8 amps/hour).
- Turn off the Aquahot burner switch when it is not needed (propane 375LP – 2.6 amps/hour)
- Put your fridge in “Energy Saver” mode and/or turn off the “Humidity Control”. This varies by fridge model but generally disables heating elements that keep condensation at bay and/or reduces the defrost cycles. (1 amp/hour)
- Shut off your ice maker (alternative suggested below). Believe it or not the ice mold has a heater in it and will draw substantial power every time it cycles. The more ice you use the more power will be consumed.
- This one may be a shocker, but in our experience it is going to give you the most power conservation and will likely be your best hope of making it thru quiet hours. TURN OFF THE FRIDGE. Yep, not kidding, have done it often. Better yet, turn off the INVERTER entirely (from the magnum panel over the door). Turning off the inverter is the same as turning off the breakers as mentioned above, plus it also kills the fridge and saves a good deal of additional power that the inverter consumes just being on. Best time to do this is right before bedtime, but if the weather is cool you can do it for longer periods. If you do not open the fridge doors after it has been turned off, in our experience the temp in the morning will only be a couple of degrees warmer, worst case. We use this wireless thermometer with alarm to keep tabs on the fridge and freezer temps and can recommend it highly (if you do get one, buy four lithium AA batteries for the sensors as Alkaline won’t work well at the low temperatures in the freezer). The actual fridge power consumption will vary by make and model but roughly will be about 13 amps when it is running, if it runs 40% of the time that’s about 5.2 amps/hour savings, PLUS with the inverter off it’s self-consumption is another 3.5 amps/hour. Now add in all the audio/video gear (3.4 amps/hour), microwave clock, etc. and the total savings will be about 12 amps/hour. That cuts “normal” consumption almost in half and you should easily make it thru quiet hours, plus your batteries will not be as deeply discharged and it will take less generator run time to recharge them. The next couple of tips will help the fridge stay cold.
- If you have empty space in your freezer fill it up with bags of ice cubes (to use while that ice maker is off) and/or bottles of water. The fuller the better. This is an old sailors practice, the frozen water will act as block ice and keep everything frozen when the fridge is turned off. Modern fridges have pretty good insulation. Make sure you do this well before arriving at at your site so everything has time to freeze.
- If you have empty space in the fridge, fill it up too. Again bottles of water, food or whatever. The larger the cold mass in the fridge the better it will hold its temp when the compressor is off. Again be sure to do this at least a day or two ahead of arrival at your site.
How long should the generator run?
It has been calculated and/or observed that an Aspire (which has one battery charger, the Anthem & CS have two) will put back roughly 75 amps per hour, so must of us will need to run it for about 2 hours every cycle to put back the 150 amp-hours we used up. This time will vary depending on how good (or bad) you are at conserving and a number of other factors.
What should I set my Auto Generator Start (AGS) Start@ Voltage?
You may need to experiment a bit with this. There are a lot of variables including firmware levels on the AGS that come into play. I would start with the recommendation Don made in his 12/5 email of 11.9 volts or 12.0 volts for pre 2017 Aspires (wet cells) and 12.1 for 2017 models (AGM). The problem I had with those values is nuisance starts if I was not taking any power saving measures. The battery voltage tends to get depressed well below it’s “at rest” value when under load and that issue is magnified by the smaller Aspire battery. I had to set mine down to 11.6 or lower to keep the genset from kicking on every hour or so. However, once we started shutting down the fridge/inverter overnight, the 11.9 setting worked pretty well for us.
Water conservation tips:
Most of us will have no problem with our black tanks for a week or so. The grey water tank however is a different story and will fill the quickest. The fresh water supply will go fast too, so bring supplemental drinking water in bottles (and fill up that fridge!).
- When filling your fresh water tank before arrival, keep filling even after the Sea Level gauge says 100% – the tanks have an irregular shape and there is plenty more room in there after the gauge says 100%. When you start to see water trickle out of the overflow/vent (passenger side of wet bay under the coach) the tank is really full.
- If you have a bath and a half floorplan your half bath toilet is probably a manual foot pedal unit and is very economical and controllable in regard to water consumption. On the other hand, the Techma toilet in the rear bath is a total water hog – designate it for “emergency use only” and you will greatly extend your fresh water supply and available black water tankage.
- Dump clean water (say from cooking) outside on the ground instead of down the drain.
- Buy some of collapsible water containers like these to transport water from the BLM water spigots back to the coach. They fold up after use and can be stored easily. You can add water to the fresh tank from these using the gravity fill on the passenger side wet bay door (if you have one) or via the “Country Fill” at the wet bay driver side. “Country Fill” is basically the same process as winterizing. Find the clear pickup tube that would be used for antifreeze, set the valve where the clear hose attaches so the lever points toward the hose, now set the “Tank Fill/City Water” valve to “Tank Fill” and turn on the fresh water pump – the water should be pumped into the tank. To me this is a lot easier than trying to pour a 40 pound container of water into the gravity fill. If you have never used the country fill, you may want to try it out before arrival. I also recommend you sanitize the pickup hose by feeding some bleach water thru it. For that matter, since you will be depending exclusively on tank water, it may be prudent to sanitize the tank and your entire plumbing system at this time as well.
- When showering, take “navy showers”.
- When showering we find we use more water waiting for the water to get hot than we use to take the shower! To mitigate this put aside a clean container to collect the shower water while waiting for it to get hot. Later, pump it back into the fresh tank as described above, or dump it outside if you are concerned with sanitation. If you shower every day this will greatly extend the grey tank capacity.
- Most of us will probably use disposable dinnerware and utensils, but still generate items that must be washed. Consider that the dishwasher (if you have one) uses only 2 gallons of water on the Normal-Eco or Fast-Eco cycles. This is much less water than it would take to wash dishes by hand (equivalent to running the faucet 1-2 minutes) and the results are better. We will probably run the dishwasher every 2nd or 3rd day. Of course the generator should be running during dishwasher operation so plan to use it during a charge cycle.
For more boondocking tips these folks are experts and have lots of good general advice, here are a couple of relevant posts: