Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Diane Lane Incident

From: Rob Siegel <robbysiegel@yahoo.com>
Subject: Kayaking under the full moon on Morrow Bay with Diane Lane
To: Maire Anne Diamond
Date: Sunday, May 10, 2009, 11:12 AM

My darling:

Good morning and happy Mother's Day.

I'm so glad I followed my impulses and went on the night kayak trip in Morrow Bay (my impulses seem to be very good recently). I arrived there early and had dinner at an informal little cafe overlooking the bay. Then it was time to queue up for the trip. Meeting time at the dock was 7:15. The sun was still up but a breeze was blowing. I went down to the dock, met the young man heading up the trip, and found him dressed head to toe in wind gear. "I have a Gore-Tex shell in the car; should I get it?" I asked. "That might be good," he said.

What I thought was a squeeze-me-into-a-full-trip-because-I-called-at-the-last-minute thing was, instead, a very small excursion. He said "it's just you and a mom and daughter." We waited for them to show up. Finally I saw them walking toward us along the dock. From a distance they looked like two young women; it wasn't obvious they were mother and daughter until they got closer. And, as they did, I realize that the mother looked familiar.  It was the actress Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun, Must Love Dogs, Infidelity, The Perfect Storm, and, more recently, Superman's mother).



So, yes, I went kayaking in the moonlight on Morrow Bay with Diane Lane and her daughter. I trust our marriage can survive this little indiscretion. 

Initially, as we were standing on the dock, we were all getting pretty cold with the wind blowing up a bit of chop on the bay. The guide said "we'll paddle up the bay -- into the current and into the wind -- and then just drift back. We'll warm up as soon as we're paddling and underway. Besides, the wind dies down after the sun goes down."

He was right. We saw a gorgeous sunset from kayak-level right over Morrow Rock. It took quite a while for the moon to come out, but it did, and we kayaked around on the bay in the moonlight, pausing for hot chocolate that the guide had brought. Very memorable.

On the kayak excursion company's web site, they talked about the evening kayak rides as letting you see more wildlife, but the guide said that this time of year there's less of it in the bay. We did see flocks of cormorants bringing flotsam and jetsam to their nests, a handful of seals, and big white pelicans. 

And the star of the show... Ms. Lane's daughter asked about sharks (I don't think she really was serious; just the kind of joke you make when your ass is separated from the ocean by only a quarter inch of fiberglass). The guide said that in fact it's breeding season for some harmless kind of shark, and many do find their way into the bay, and in calm still water you can see them. This engendered many shark jokes and "da DUM... da DUM" sounds

So we're paddling along, the sun's down, the water is dead calm and glassy, with the light reflected off it so you can see anything break the surface, and we see... a fin. "There's one," the instructor says. "Just stay still, it'll swim right past us. And all the little action on the surface -- that's small bait fish escaping from it." But this fin isn't consistently and monolithically staying proud of the water Jaws-like; it's changing angles and flopping around. As it comes closer, we realize it's not a shark -- it's a bat ray, a small one, maybe two feet across, and we're seeing the tips of its wings as they break the water. Very cool.

Ms. Lane -- who introduced herself as "Diane" -- was very down-to-earth. I didn't let on I knew who she was; I allowed her the dignity of just being a mom on a kayak trip with her daughter. We small-talked and unearth the fact that we were both originally from NY. At one point she accidentally bumped my kayak and said "yeah, this bay's not big enough for the both of us." Eventually I relaxed enough to be my wise-cracking self. Her daughter at one point said "I like him. He's funny like dad." 

The whole trip took about two hours. Near the end, I could see she was shivering and blowing on her hands. "I'm going to pull up next to you and hand you a pair of gloves," I said (I had them in the pocket of my shell). She said "thank you so much; I didn't think I'd accept them." I said "that was why I didn't ask." (And I thought of COURSE you're cold; you probably don't break a hundred pounds soaking wet.)

On the dock, as we were putting away life jackets, we were chatting with the guide. Somehow the subject of dogs came up, and the guide said he owns a dog, half shepherd, half rottweiler, that weighs about 120 lbs. I nearly said "wow, you MUST LOVE DOGS," but decided to leave well enough alone.

I constructed a nice fantasy where this was our meet-cute, she invited me to dinner with her daughter, then a drink afterward, with me spurning her advances and professing my undying love for you, and the rest of it spinning out like one of her movies, but it never happened.

And so, I remain, eternally yours, unsullied by cheap encounters with lonely movie stars in coastal California resorts.

--Rob

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Love Letter to Tom Petty



First, let's get one thing clear: I love Tom Petty more than you do (unless, of course, you're from Gainesville, in which case I totally cede to you, your love of Tom, and your sense of loss). I'd heard "Breakdown" on the radio in 1976, but it was what I would've sworn was his first SNL appearance in 1978, during which Petty and the band pounded out the Byrds-esque "Listen to Her Heart" and the power-pop masterpiece "I Need to Know," both from the second album "You're Gonna Get It," that nailed it for me. The guitar hooks. The Hemingway-esque lyrics. The "WAAAAAAAAAH!" No one could go WAAAAAAAAAH like Tom Petty. I bought it all.

No. Really. I literally bought it all. Over the ensuing 40 years, I ponied up for every Tom Petty album the moment it came out (except the live ones; I preferred going to live shows instead). There's no other musician or band for whom I did that over that long a time frame. Especially considering that, these days, no one pays for music, this by itself is pretty astonishing. Sure, I own every Beatles album, but who doesn't? They only had an eight-year run. I have every Bottle Rockets album, and still buy every new one without fail, but they only formed in 1994.

Now, it's natural that either you grow up and your tastes change, or the same thing happens to a musician or band you like, or both, and the trajectories of your purchasing patterns and their artistic endeavors diverge. I think about my relationship with artists I loved with all my weeping pimply adolescent heart back in junior high and high school, folks like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Paul Simon. Their music reaches back into that special teenage space that nothing else can touch, and I will always be transported back there when I hear that music, but I didn't keep buying their albums. Maybe it was the fact that I was a young adult when Petty's music hit me that made the difference. Or maybe it was just that he was simply amazing, and amazingly simple, and his music reached a special place of its own--not the singer/songwriter place, but the place where people pound on electric guitars and go WAAAAAAAAAH! (Wait a minute... that's almost the lyrics to "Anything That's Rock and Roll's Fine" :^)

Maire Anne and I took Tom Petty's passing pretty hard. He was closer to being of our generation (I'm 59) than the big icons of the 60s and 70s. And, more to the point, his music was a more consistent soundtrack to our life. I believe that, when we met, we both owned copies of "Damn the Torpedoes." Or maybe she heard mine and then bought her own. I'll always remember the release of "Hard Promises." I was not the stable faithful loving partner I am now, and our relationship had run aground because of it. I begged her to take me back. "The Waiting" and "You Can Still Change Your Mind" seemed like they were written for me.

There was, and is, a lot to like about Tom Petty. That first TV appearance I saw showcased perfectly the jangle and the snarl that would become the twin peaks of his music. His chord changes were ones that any new guitarist could play. They were never jarring or even overly clever, but they frequently made the songs sound like instant classics the first time you heard them while also managing the trick of sounding fresh and original over time. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was a freaking genius at crafting iconic hooks that went over those changes like they were born there, which they probably were. And of course Petty's unique voice, all nasal and twang and drawl while never being something as simple as Bob or Byrds or "Southern." This all comes together on a song like "Here Comes My Girl" where the bridge consists of a single chord, a guitar hook with six notes, and the spoken three-word line "watch her walk," and, instantly, in your mind, that's what you do. Fucking miraculous.

And those lyrics. Look at a refrain like "Good loving is hard to find / You got lucky babe / When I found you." On paper you wouldn't think it's anything, but add those to simple chords and a simple hook, and boom. I loved the way that Petty could sometimes rhyme like Robert Frost (read the lyrics to the first verse of "The Waiting") but never let rhyming get in the way of what he wanted to say.

There aren't many big sprawling songs in the Petty catalog; most are compact and concise, about small moments and little things. Yes, "You Don't Know How It Feels" has the unbelievably catchy line "Let's get to the point / Let's roll another joint" that you'd think would make it damned close to a novelty song (and which caused MTV to fuzz out the lyric, which of course only made it more compelling), but the genius is in the simple refrain "You don't know how it feels / To be me." Is there any lyric, ever, that has ever been more universal? The fact that the rock star singing it presumably has all the women, fast cars, and cocaine he could possibly desire doesn't add a hint of artifice or irony because we believe him. We don't know how it feels to be him. We don't even care if he's writing and singing it as Tom Petty, Rock Star, or as everyman. It doesn't matter. He's not freaking Loverboy blathering and swaggering about how he's got to do it his way or no way at all. He's Tom and we believe him. His experience is every bit as real as ours.


He and the band were remarkably consistent over their 40-year run, both in their recorded products and their live performances. They produced song after song that sent you running to the volume knob to crank it up. He never went jazz like Joni, or went world beat like Paul Simon and David Byrne, or went "fuck you, I'm an artist, I'll do whatever I like" like Neil Young. (And that's not a knock against any of those people doing any of those things; as artists, you do what you gotta do.) His inter- and intra-album musical variety wasn't perhaps quite as big as Neil Young, who would swing from solo acoustic to proto-punk in the space of two adjacent songs, but damn it was close, and by the time he reached "Wildflowers" in 1994, it was almost that varied.

The point is that, in a world where musicians and bands are damned if they stay the same and damned if they change, Petty walked the wire of honesty and simplicity, put out a body of amazingly high-quality material that connected with a broad audience, and did it without being a one-note wonder. He.richly deserved his 40-year career. Not too god damned bad, Tom.

I'd also add that there are very few people who play rhythm guitar as well as Tom Petty did. It is an unheralded skill. John Lennon, Tom Fogerty (John Fogerty's brother in Creedence), and Tom Petty. I do a pretty fair job of it myself. The idea that you could write songs like that and pound them out onstage like that was a dream that took me years to shake.

Since Petty's death, I've re-listened to every album in order. To be sure, some albums are stronger than others--the last six songs off "Let Me Up" are pretty weak, the swerve into synth-land on the collaborations with Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics aren't my taste (and don't get me started on the horn section on "Southern Accents"), and the blues-based stuff on "Mojo" doesn't do a lot for me--but on hearing a song I'd forgotten about, my reaction was "What a great song!" far more often than "Well, that one was basically album filler."

Initially, upon reading through the discography of the sixteen studio albums, it seemed curious to me that thirteen are listed as TP/HB albums, and "Full Moon Fever," "Wildflowers," and "Highway Companion" are listed as Tom Petty solo albums. I'm a diehard fan who bought these albums when they first came out, and I don't recall even being aware of the "solo album" distinction then. After all, it's not like Springsteen whose albums "Nebraska," "Tunnel of Love," and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" have a distinctly different, more singer/songwriter-based sound than his E Street Band records. Petty's three solo albums pretty much sound like Heartbreaker records, and songs off the three were staples at most every live show. Because of that, I'd assumed that The Heartbreakers essentially were the backup band on Petty's solo albums, but according to Wikipedia, that's less true than I'd thought. HB guitarist extraordinaire Mike Campbell plays on all three, but only "Wildflowers" has the full slate of Heartbreakers on it (it was drummer Steve Ferrone's first record with the band after drummer Stan Lynch's departure). Interestingly, although I don't hear a big distinction between the solo albums and the HB records in terms of either material or sonic contour, the Wikipedia page on "Full Moon Fever" says that the other three Heartbreakers didn't like playing FMF songs at live shows, and that Stan Lynch said that, when playing them, he felt like he was in a cover band.

To me, although the second album, "You're Gonna Get It," will always be special (I've played "Magnolia" for years), my long-held feeling that "Wildflowers" is Petty's masterpiece only grows stronger. First, I should candidly admit that I am no fan of Jeff Lynne's production on "Full Moon Fever," "Into the Great Wide Open," and "Highway Companion." The snare sounds like a wet noodle hitting a damp sponge, and the trick of multi-tracking the acoustic guitar part until it sounds like a percussion instrument gets right tiresome. In contrast, Rick Rubin's production on "Wildflowers" is spare, clean, and perfect. "Wildflowers" is also the record with the greatest variety, combining flawless rock anthems like "You Wreck Me" and the aforementioned "You Don't Know How it Feels," stupid-silly-catchy stuff like "Honey Bee" ("She gives me her monkey hand / In a Rambler sedan / I'm the king of Milwaukee / Her juju beads are so nice / She kissed my third cousin twice / I'm the king of Pomona"), and lighter more acoustic fare like "Time to Move On." Plus, there's not a bad, or even a mediocre song, on the album. I love all of them.

But the real reason I love "Wildflowers" is that, on repeated listenings, I realize that it is, in a sense, Petty's singer/songwriter CD. Listen to "Don't Fade on Me." It's basically just Tom on acoustic, with only the lightest accompaniment during the eight measures of lead by Mike Campbell." And although the refrain is simply the four-word song title, the lyrics in the verses paint a fairly full personal and detailed story, and, unlike nearly every other TP song, there's no bridge. I can't think of any other song in the catalog that's like it.

There are other songs on "Wildflowers" that, like "Don't Fade on Me," are what you might almost call "sprawling." Length-wise, the album contains only one sub-three-minute song. There are four that clock in at over five minutes. "It's Good to Be King" and "Crawling Back to You" are both sonically gorgeous and use the time to stretch their legs beautifully.

But it's the last song, "Wake Up Time," that, 23 years after "Wildflowers" was released, absolutely blows me away. It's the only TP song I know of that has no guitar on it, letting the piano occupy the center instead. I assume it's Petty playing it. Read the lyrics below carefully. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of songwriting, particularly what he does with the trees in the first and last verses. To anyone who has stumbled while trying to navigate life's path, or who has a loved one who has stumbled, it is achingly sad, yet ultimately hopeful.

You follow your feelings, you follow your dreams
You follow the leader into the trees
And what's in there waiting, neither one of us knows
You gotta keep one eye open the further you go

You never dreamed you'd go down on one knee, but now
Who could have seen, you'd be so hard to please somehow

You feel like a poor boy, a long way from home
You're just a poor boy, a long way from home
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

You spend your life dreaming, running 'round in a trance
You hang out forever and still miss the dance
And if you get lucky, you might find someone
To help you get over the pain that will come

Yeah, you were so cool back in high school, what happened
You were so sure not to have your spirits dampened

But you're just a poor boy alone in this world
You're just a poor boy alone in this world
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

Well, if he gets lucky, a boy finds a girl
To help him to shoulder the pain in this world
And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Yeah, you'll be alright, it's just gonna take time, but now
Who could have seen you'd be so hard to please somehow

You're just a poor boy a long way from home
You're just a poor boy a long way from home
And it's wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

I am not aware of an official video of "Wake Up Time," but a fan put together a very moving and evocative one at this link here on youtube. It draws heavily on the fan's interpretation that the song is about Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein, who died after prolonged heroin abuse ended his tenure with the band, but the fan freely agrees that he does not know whether Epstein was actually the inspiration for the song.

I think about other artists and bands whose seminal albums occurred early on in their career. And, really, that's most of them. With most of the folkie artists I mentioned above, I was out after the first few albums. In the rock and roll world, David Bowie's best was "Hunky Dory," #4 out of his 25 studio albums.  I stayed with Neil Young longer, and he certainly had credible albums later in his career (1991's "Harvest Moon" is great), but Neil is famous for not giving a shit about what fans want or what critics think, so it's not surprising that his output is, shall we say, inconsistent. Had any other artist/band released "Damned the Torpedoes" in 1979--a tough year, with the apparent sun-setting of traditional mainstream rock and the rise of hair metal and "New Wave"--it likely would've been steadily downhill from there. In contrast, that was near the beginning of Petty's arc. A quick look down the Billboard hot singles list from 1979 doesn't show many other artists who are still successful. Sales-wise, Petty didn't top "Torpedoes" for ten years, not until "Full Moon Fever" in 1989. By my count, "Wildflowers" is #10 out of the 16 band and solo albums. When measured in time, that's just under halfway through TP/HB's 40-year career. In terms of longevity and maturation, that's amazing. And then to cap the career off with killer singles from the last two albums--"I Should've Known It" ("the last time you're gonna hurt me") off "Mojo," and "You Get Me High" off "Hypnotic Eye"--is nothing short of remarkable. I'm hard-pressed to come up with anyone else who has done anything remotely like that.

This past weekend, Maire Anne and I went up to Vermont to hang out with the former guitar player in our band, Jon, and his wife Eileen. Jon built a bonfire and we sat around it playing guitar under a nearly full moon. There is a canon of songs that guitarists of my age swap while banging on acoustics. Everyone knows what these are--Beatles, Eagles, CSN and sometimes Y, etc. Tom Petty has been creeping into this canon for quite some time. It is, of course, the dream of any artist to affect people and to have their art live on. As Jon and I banged off one Tom Petty song after another, I thought that, while I don't believe in any of that "he's looking down and smiling" stuff, the fact is that we were smiling. It felt good to be agents of Tom's immortality.

And if you follow your feelings
And you follow your dreams
You might find the forest there in the trees

Now there are words to live by. Thanks, Tom.

--Rob Siegel, 10/10/2017

(Note: I apologize if anything above seems derivative with respect to the dozens of pieces from media outlets. I read many of them in the days after Petty's death. It would be hard not to have absorbed a few words and observations. I've ordered "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes, but have not yet read it.)

(Note: I would've laid money that the first TP/HB appearance I saw on television, in which he played "Listen to Her Heart" and "I Need to Know," was on SNL in 1978, but the SNL Wiki shows that the band didn't play until '79, in support of "Damn the Torpedoes" ("Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That"). A little research shows that it's likely that what I saw in '78 was a performance on The Midnight Special, as he did play those two songs. It's an early enough performance that Tom doesn't look into the camera or mug or sneer. He learned quick :^) Here is "I Need to Know."


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Notes from a Novice RVer, Part IV: To Keep the Beer Cold, the Rig Goes Solar

In order to have a working refrigerator in the RV (the 1996 Winnebago Rialta), I wound up going down the rabbit hole and installing a low-current (Danfoss compressor) refrigerator and a solar panel. Here's the story.

Blame it on the Three-Way
The whole solar thing began with the refrigerator. The 20-year-old Norcold 3163 in the Winnebago Rialta, a "three-way" fridge that runs on 120 VAC, 12 VDC, and propane, worked on the first two power sources but not on the third. Initially it wouldn't light. I replaced the burner, and then it would light but not stay lit. It turned out that the vent pipes were clogged with rodent debris. Once I cleaned them, the fridge would stay lit, but for reasons I never figured out despite much help from the Rialta Tech Forum, it wouldn't cool on the propane setting. This was a mystery, as a "three-way"fridge doesn't have a compressor and instead relies on the heating and cooling of ammonia. It cooled fine on electric power, and it really shouldn't care whether the ammonia is heated by its 120V / 12V electric heater or by propane. After weeks of working on the fridge, I cried uncle and looked at replacing it.

One of the dozen or so times I had the Norcold 3163 "three-way" refrigerator in and out of the rig while I was trying to get it to cool on propane.
The Three Sources of Power in an RV
Understanding the logic behind the "three-way" refrigerator is a great entry point for understanding the basics of the electrical systems in an RV, which in turn is necessary to understand how solar gets used in anything from an RV to an off-the-grid cabin to a house. Anything that calls itself an RV has three power sources:

1) There is 120 VAC (household electricity), which is usually supplied in two ways. Any RV has a "shore line," a fat extension cord that allows the RV to be plugged into "shore power" and supplies 120 VAC to the RV to run its integrated high-demand appliances such as the rooftop air conditioner, the microwave, and the refrigerator. Connecting to shore power also makes 120 VAC available at the RV's electrical outlets where you can plug in computers, hair dryers, or just about anything else. A campground that lets you plug in your shore line and connect your water hose is said to have "hook-ups," and yes, when you combine that with having a "three-way," taking your RV to a campground sounds like a swinging good time. If instead you are "boondocking" (meaning using the RV off the grid at a site without a hook-ups), most RVs have an on-board generator that produces 120 VAC. Generators are loud, though, and many campgrounds have generator-quiet hours between 10pm and 7am. From a power standpoint, the RV doesn't care whether the 120 VAC is coming in via the shore line or is produced by the generator. In fact, on my Rialta, to use the onboard generator, you literally plug the shore line into it.
The Rialta's shore line snaking into my house
Where you plug the shore line into the Rialta's generator output.
2) There is 12 VDC. An RV has a sett of "coach batteries," a bank of dedicated 12V batteries (that is, they're separate from the vehicle battery) used to run things in the RV that must have access to power if the vehicle doesn't have shore power. This includes the fresh water pump, coach interior lighting, and, most important, the refrigerator (we'll get back to that). When the RV is being driven, its alternator charges the coach batteries. And when the RV is plugged into shore power or when the generator is running, typically an integrated battery charger coverts the 120 VAC to 12 VDC and charges the coach batteries as well. But at a campground with quiet hours, the coach batteries must have sufficient capacity to run whatever needs to be powered at night (*cough*refrigerator*cough*).

The Rialta's two coach batteries.
3) There is propane that typically is used for heat and to run the stove.

If you think about it, it's funny that the refrigerator allows a choice of all three sources of power. I asked myself why. Nothing else on the RV does that. The heat, for example, is only propane; it's not propane and 12V in case you run out of propane. The microwave, for example, is only 120 VAC; it isn't 120 VAC and propane (though the idea of a propane-powered microwave is inherently funny).

It's not that the three-way fridge is giving you a Swiss Army Knife-like choice of all three sources of power to be flexible. It's meant to be run in a very specific way. Three-way ammonia absorption refrigerators don't get things as cold as quickly as your household refrigerator. You need to think of them as maintaining cold rather than producing it. Here's how you're supposed to use a three-way fridge. You're supposed to plug your RV into shore power at your house for 24 hours before a trip, set the fridge to run off 120 VAC, get it nice and cold, then transfer food and drink that you've already chilled off in your household fridge into it. Then, when you leave on your trip, you unplug the shore line and set the fridge to run off 12 VDC (the coach batteries). When the fridge is running this way, it draws a lot of current, about 15 amps, which is okay while you're driving because the alternator is keeping the coach batteries charged, but that amount of current can drain the coach batteries if you try to run it that way overnight. For this reason, when you arrive at your destination, you set the fridge to run on propane and light it. Propane is an incredibly efficient method of off-the-grid refrigeration. You can run a three-way fridge for days on a small propane tank. That is, if it works, if the RV is absolutely level, and if it's not too hot inside the RV.

If you think about it, the fridge is unique among the things in the RV that require power. Other devices like the interior lights or the fresh water pump or the water heater only need to spring to life when you require their services, but the refrigerator has to have power all the time so the beer stays cold (or, as Maire Anne says, so the chicken doesn't spoil and make you violently ill, and so there's half-and-half for the coffee in the morning). Without the propane setting working in my three-way fridge, it was only useful while the rig was plugged into shore power, while running the generator, or while driving. During generator-quiet hours, there was no way that the coach's two batteries could support a continuous overnight 15-amp drain from running the three-way on 12 VDC. So, really, it was useless.

Obviously, I was not the first one to have this problem. Three-way refrigerators have a mixed reputation. Propane refrigerators work great for applications like off-the-grid cabins, but don't play well in the RV environment due to motion, jostling, moisture, and high interior temperatures. Many RVers report that, when their three-way died on the road, they ran into Walmart and bought a $100 dorm refrigerator to get by. As long as you have 120 VAC, meaning shore power or the generator, that'll work fine, but if you don't, you have to create 120 VAC by hooking up an inverter (a device that converts 12 VDC to 120 VAC) to the coach batteries.

The problem with inverters is that they're inherently inefficient. It's always preferable to find a device that runs directly off 12 VDC than to use a device for which you need to convert 12 VDC to 120 VAC. So when trying to run a refrigerator through an inverter overnight, you run into the same issue that you'd have trying to run the three-way off 12 VDC--that the current requirement is enough that it can drain the batteries.

Danfoss Compressor Low-Power Refrigerators
The solution to this problem appeared to be two-fold. First, select a refrigerator that uses a recent breed of compressor called a Danfoss compressor (also called a Secop compressor, as Secop purchased Danfoss). Unlike compressors in household refrigerators that are designed to run off 120 VAC, Danfoss compressors are designed to run directly off 12 VDC. They are used in many RV, boat, and camping refrigerator and freezer configurations, including both flush-mount refrigerators and top-lid coolers. Most of the spec sheets claim power requirements at around 3 amps, which is low enough that two fully-charged coach batteries should be able to support it running overnight, especially since the fridge isn't running constantly; it cycles on and off.

But the second part of the solution is to keep the coach batteries fully charged. As I said, the coach batteries are charged by the vehicle alternator while driving, and by the onboard chargers when they receive 120 VAC either from shore power or from the generator. But the key is to keep charge flowing to the coach batteries, while parked, with no 120 VAC. And that's where solar comes in.

Solar Panel + Controller = Battery Charger
A solar panel together with its controller acts as a battery charger, taking whatever amount of sun is hitting the panel(s) and using it to charge the coach batteries. It's just like an alternator. It's just like an external battery charger. It's really that simple. In addition, if you like, you can power devices directly through the controller or hook up an inverter to generate 120 VAC from the coach batteries (and we'll get back to that), but fundamentally, solar charges the coach batteries.

The Appealing-Sounding Inexpensive Renogy Packages
For me, the whole solar thing started when I read on the Riata Tech Forum that a company called Renogy sells a package on Amazon with a 100-watt panel, a controller, and all cabling for $189. That was an eye-poppingly appealing price. Why, I thought, wouldn't I want to install that in the RV? Well, because it's not quite that simple.

Let's start with the whole issue of capacity. How much solar do you need? There are entire web sites devoted to this calculation. It starts with Ohm's Power Law:

Power = Current times Voltage (P=I*V)

Or, solving for current,

Current = Power divided by Voltage (I = P/V)

So, if you have a 100-watt panel supporting a 12 volt system, the most current you can expect out of it to charge the coach batteries is 8.3 amps.

Now, since what I was trying to do was charge the coach batteries during the day so they could run a 3-amp refrigerator overnight, this actually sounds pretty good on paper. But that's assuming that you have full sun shining on an optimally-angled panel, with no losses in power generation, all the time. You're never going to have that ideal case.

Remember: The solar is only being used to keep the batteries charged. Stepping back for a moment from the calculation, when you take solar out of the picture and look only at battery capacity, there are three main factors at work:

1) The total electrical load you need to support. This was well-defined and pretty modest: I needed to charge the batteries during the day to run a 3-amp refrigerator overnight.

2) The number and size of the coach batteries. My Rialta has two marine-quality deep-discharge batteries, each with 125 minutes of reserve capacity. That's the number of minutes a battery can support a 25-amp load before being discharged to 10.5 volts, which is the absolute lowest voltage you'd want to run a battery at without damaging it. I prefer not to run batteries that low; 11.5 volts is a number I'm more comfortable with. Reserve capacity is usually printed right on a deep-discharge batter, but for this and other reasons, it really isn't a terribly useful number except for comparing batteries to other batteries.

3) The age and health of the coach batteries. The receipts from the Rialta show that the coach batteries were replaced a few years ago, but battery health is a funny thing. Age is important, but a few deep discharge events can kill a battery. If they seem like they are discharging quickly and are unable to support the production of a certain amount of current over a certain amount of time, then they're probably bad, regardless of their age.

With that in mind, you can begin to consider how much solar you need. Basically you want as much as your roof and your battery stack can support, but it is possible to have more than you can use. Let's put the problem this way. If you put ten 100-watt panels on the roof and sides of the RV to generate a thousand watts of power (or 83 amps of charging capability), and if you only have two batteries, the effect would be that the system could charge the batteries quickly (indeed, too quickly; batteries can't absorb 83 amps, and much of that would be wasted), but it would have no effect whatsoever on how much reserve power you had in your two batteries once the sun went down. To increase the amount of reserve power, you need to first make sure that your batteries are in good shape, and if that's not enough, increase the number of batteries. Larger RVs routinely support four batteries. But in my little Winnebago Rialta, there is only space for two batteries in the coach battery tray. I could jury-rig more batteries on the floor of the RV, but even the safety issues notwithstanding, the floor space is very small. So that's what I've got.

So, at some point, you guess on solar wattage. I took the 100-watt 8.3 amp numbers, and figured that there's no way I'd ever get 100% efficiency out of the system. Figuring, heuristically, 50% efficiency, that would get me 4 amps. That was uncomfortably close to the 3-amp requirement for the refrigerator. Again, this is all heuristic because you're not running the fridge off the solar panel; you're running it off the battery stack and using the solar panel to keep the battery stack charged. But still, it's a good way to wrap your head around the numbers.

What this meant to me was that 100 watts probably wasn't quite enough.

Now, the inexpensive Renogy systems claim to be expandable--that is, you can hook an additional panel into the controller. The cost of the panels themselves are about $1.30 a watt from Renogy, and about a dollar a watt if you shop around. Or you can buy a 200-watt bundled package from Renogy for $340.

So, either an inexpensive 100-watt system to which I could later add another 100-watt panel, or a 200-watt system Why wouldn't I want to pull the trigger on one of these options?

I nearly did. But I needed to first be certain that, mounting one of Renogy's 100-watt panels on the roof, I'd be able to mount a second one, and that turned out to be a problem.

Location, Location, Location
I began carefully examining the roof of the Rialta. It's a small RV whose roof is obstructed by the cut-outs for the air conditioner, the vents for the shower and the water tanks, the skylight, and the TV antenna, though this latter obstruction could be removed. Further, the Rialta's roof isn't flat; it's curved toward the edges on the side. There was basically one sweet spot, near the center of the roof, in front of the air conditioner and behind the skylight. It turned out that I could fit one of Renogy's 47"x21" 100-watt panels in that spot, but not two, and that, in fact, due to the curved roof, there was no easy way to fit a second panel anywhere else.
The Rialta's roof is small, curved on the edges, and has one sweet spot in the middle. In terms of sizing a panel to fit there, you need to make it count.
As someone who was an engineer for 35 years, I can get fixated on problems. But once a problem is defined, one can search for a solution. So this was perfect. I'd defined the problem. I needed to configure a system that would give me enough power to run the fridge (with a fudge factor for efficiency), that would optimally use the one sweet spot on the roof of the Rialta, and that was expandable if I needed more panels.

This quickly settled into three issues. The first was designing a system that would be expandable, where I could spec out one panel for starters but where the rest of the system would support several more panels. The second was finding the first panel that was the right size for the sweet spot on the roof. The third was finding the right controller. Together, these required walking away from the idea of buying an inexpensive bundled package from Renogy. As a result, the cost increased sharply from the original $189 for a 100-watt Renogy system, but it satisfied my requirements.

I should also note that another option is to buy a portable folding panel setup like this. The upside is that no permanent rooftop panel installation is required, and you can orient the panels optimally at the sun to increase their output. But the downside is that you have to deploy the panels. For solar to work best for something that always needs to be on, like a refrigerator, you want the sun hitting those panels as often as possible, not just when it's convenient for you to put the panels out. You want the sun hitting them first thing in the morning, when you have the RV at the beach, when you're running into the convenience store to buy firewood, when the rain is clearing, etc. Plus, knowing me, who has, in fact, driven off once with the the shore line still attached, I was likely to drive off with the panels precariously perched on the roof. I concluded that portable panels would be great for on-demand charging, but that I wanted fixed panels.

Expandability
The expandability requirement meant coming up with a total maximum wattage. This would affect both the controller and the size of the cabling. I figured that, as an upper limit, I'd assume one 160-watt panel (see below) plus the option of two additional 100-watt panels, for a total of 360 watts. Using the I=P/V formula, that meant buying a controller and cabling capable of supplying 30 amps.

The Right-Sized Panel
With a little searching, I found that there was another common form-factor for the panels--58"x26". These had two advantages over the 100-watt 47"x21" panels. First, they output not 100 watts but 150 or 160 watts. And second, they optimally fit the sweet spot on the roof, though the right edge of the panel would clearly be over the roll-off on the side of the roof and I'd need to figure out how to mount it securely there. Renogy didn't sell panels this size, but they were available through several other vendors on Amazon. Although none of them had Renogy's history of thousands of reviews, I was comfortable enough to pull the trigger. I found one for $165 (still about a dollar a watt) on Amazon from "Eco-Worthy," clicked, and waited for it to arrive.

As I said, I figured that, if necessary, the Rialta's roof space could support two additional panels on the sides of the air conditioner, though their long axis would be hanging off the roll-off on the sides of the roof. I learned that, in addition to the traditional rigid panel I'd bought, there are flexible panels, sort of like floor mats, that are popular with owners of Airstream trailers with curved roofs, and that might make for an easier installation. The flexible panels are more like $1.60 per watt, but can reportedly be installed quickly and easily with Very High Bond (VHB) tape. They also reportedly aren't quite as efficient as traditional rigid panels due to the increased temperature they run at because of the lack of air space beneath them. I mentally filed all this information in case I needed it down the road.

The Right Controller
People fixate on the panels, but the controller is really the heart of the system. It's like a car's alternator or a battery charger. It takes the input from the one or more solar panels, each of which might be outputting between 8 and 20 volts, looks at the state of charge of the batteries, and figures out how much current and voltage to send to them.

One of the advantages of breaking off from buying a package from Renogy was that I could select the controller a la carte instead of being forced to accept only the ones that they offered in their package. However, there was hit in cost from this, as I was losing a package discount. This was traded off against the fact that Renogy's controllers had mixed reviews on Amazon. Of course, I soon found that any controller except the most expensive ones had mixed reviews on Amazon.

You can spend whole evenings reading up on controllers. They divide up into two main categories: Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) controllers and Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controllers. You can read more about both of them here and any number of other places.

PWM controllers are inexpensive; you can find them on Amazon for $15. As with anything inexpensive and Chinese-made, though, you get what you pay for, and reviews of inexpensive controllers often have a "bump in the tail," meaning that you see a bulge in "1"-category reviews caused by people reporting that the product failed after a short amount of time.

MPPT controllers claim to do a better job charging the batteries in a larger variety of conditions, and are substantially more expensive. When you find ones that are inexpensive, you can sometimes follow the web trail and find reviews from engineers who have taken them apart and say that they're not in fact MPPT controllers at all (e.g., fraud is being committed).

Now, the web is a big wonderful place, and you can find all sorts of opinions and decide which ones you want to listen to. There are websites for boutique solar installation companies who sound highly passionate and reputable and say that all Chinese-made panels and controllers are garbage and that what you want to do is select from only these three Japanese-made panels and these five American-made controllers. It all depends what you're comfortable doing. For a solar package in a lightly-used RV, I had nothing against buying inexpensive Chinese-made panels, but I did want an expandable MPPT controller. I smiled when I found several videos from Australian electrical engineers with a lot of sunshine and time on their hands who opened up a few moderately-priced Chinese-made MPPT controllers and, in one of the videos, commented favorably on the size of the inductor and the wiring.

The other requirement for a controller is a display. You need to be able to look at the controller and know what it's doing--how many volts the panels are producing, and what voltage and amperage are being directed into the battery. You also need to be able to configure the controller and select between options for charging the different kinds of batteries. Some controllers have a simple integrated LCD display, but some literally have no display at all, and instead require you to purchase a separate display unit.

For these reasons, I bought a SolarEpic 3210A 30-amp MPPT controller for about $120 on Amazon. It offered the headroom (30-amp capability) I wanted for expandability, it was reviewed by the Austrailian gentleman on youtube as being a well-built MPPT controller, and it had a simple integrated LCD display.

Cabling and Breakers
Cabling is required between the panels and the controller, and between the controller and the battery, and we're not talking spagetti-thin speaker wire. This is a substantial amount of current we're talking about. You can buy cables with ready-made ends, or you can roll your own. As with the panel wattage, there are web-based calculators you can use to determine the wire gauge you need to carry a certain amperage over a certain distance with a certain loss. With wire gauge, smaller numbers represent thicker wire. For a 100-watt (8.3 amp) system and short (20-foot) cable runs, 12-gauge cable is probably sufficient, but because I wanted the system to be expandable to 30 amps, I stepped it up a size or two.

I elected to buy Renogy cables for the panels, as they already had the MC4 connectors needed to connect them to the panels, but I bought the 10-gauge instead of the standard 12-gauge cables to enable the possibility of adding additional panels. I kept the cabling short, ordering the 10-foot cables rather than the 20-foot ones, to hold down power losses. This was a gamble, as I hadn't yet scoped out exactly where the panel or the controller would go, and hadn't run a rope or anything to be certain that 10 feet of cabling were sufficient.

For the controller-to-battery cables (what are sometimes called "tray cables"), Renogy sells a 10-gauge tray cable set with pre-crimped ring terminals for the battery connections very inexpensively (like $13) on Amazon. It would've been fine, but for reasons of expandability (more panels means more wattage going from the controller to the battery stack), I elected to go with 8-gauge. I bought the cables and crimped on the ends myself.

The inexpensive bundles that Renogy sells have the panel wired directly to the controller, and the controller wired directly to the battery, without breakers or fuses of any kind. You really want, at a minimum, a switch to be able to disconnect the panel feed from the controller, and a fuse on the feed to the battery. I bought two Anjoshi inline circuit breakers from Amazon for about $13 each, as these function both as a switch and as a fuse. I wired one on the positive lead from the panel, and the other on the positive lead to the battery.

Mounting the Panel
Mounting the solar panel on the Rialta's roof was a carefully-planned, nerve-wracking experience. First I needed to figure out exactly where it needed to go. Before the panel arrived, I cut out cardboard of the proper dimension and verified the candidate mounting area in the roof's sweet spot.

Planning the installation of the 58"x26" panel.
I did it again with the real panel just to make sure I hadn't screwed up, and I hadn't.
Test-fitting the panel.
The standard feet used to mount a solar panel are called Z-brackets. They're available from any number of sources. Renogy's Z-brackets are inexpensive and appear to be of very high quality. They hold the panel about an inch above the roof, giving it the airspace needed to help keep it cool. For a 47"x21" panel, four Z-brackets are sufficient, but because of the 58" length of my panel, I needed six brackets. However, because the Rialta's roof is curved and rolls off on the sides, it was clear that Z-brackets alone wouldn't work, and that I needed adjustable height brackets.

Due to the roll of the roof, it was clear that the right side of the panel  (at a minimum) needed adjustable-height brackets.
Also, there was the question of how to hold the brackets in place. Drilling holes in the roof gave me the heebie jeebies, so I became quite interested in the use of Very High Bond (VHB) double-sided tape. Multiple web sites claimed that, with proper installation, panels installed by using VHB tape on the mounting brackets were every bit as secure as those that were screwed down.

I knew that there would be no substitute for having several mounting options in my hands and trying them out, so I ordered four types of feet--Renogy's Z-brackets, RVSC adjustable smart feet, RVSC adjustable sticky feet with pre-applied VHB tape, and ZAMP solar adjustable mounting brackets, verifying first with the vendors that I could return what I did not use.

Clockwise from upper left: Z-bracket, RSVC smart feet, RSVC sticky feet, ZAMP adjustable bracket.
For a number of reasons, what worked best was using two Z-brackets in the middle of the panel, and two RSVC adjustable smart feet at both ends. This both handled the roll-off of the roof on the right side, as well as giving the panel a slight boost in height on the left side, tilting it slightly to the right so rainwater would roll off it. The ZAMP adjustable brackets were incredibly sturdy and well-made, but their minimum height adjustment didn't go low enough. The RSVC adjustable smart feet were smaller and overall less substantial feeling, but adjusted to the height I needed.

RSVC adjustable feet used on the ends of the panel to take up the difference in height caused by the roll of the curved roof.
However, an unintended consequence of this was that the RVSC smart feet had a small footprint which, unlike both the Z-brackets and the ZAMP feet, only had one screw hole, and I became uncomfortable about it. I adopted the "belts and suspenders" approach and used VHB tape and proper zinc-plated screws with rubber washers (McMaster-Carr part number 94058A125, like the ones that came with the Renogy Z-brackets, but a little shorter as the 1 1/2" ones from Renogy seemed a bit long).

I carefully positioned the panel with the brackets attached, marked and punched their locations, then drilled the holes and cleaned the roof at those locations so the VHB tape would adhere properly. My son Ethan and I then affixed the VHB tape on the bottoms of the feet and very carefully lowered the panel onto the marked locations, taking great care to center the mounting holes. (In retrospect, I should've first applied the tape, set the panel down as close to the marked locations as I could get it, and then punched and drilled the holes :^).

Careful marking and punching
Careful drilling

Using sealant on the screw threads. VHB tape is underneath the bracket.
Once the panel was mounted, I used Dicor self-leveling sealant on the screw heads and around the edges of the feet (belts and suspenders and a second belt?).
Dicor sealant over the screw as well as around the corners of the bracket, itself already adhered with VHB tape.
Ethan and I trying to get the brackets aligned to the already-drilled holes.

Ta-DA!
Mounting the Controller
The controller was, coincidentally, the perfect size to fit above the sink, next to the Rialta's small control panel. I was concerned about splashing from the sink, but a $3.47 piece of clear acrylic (Mcmaster-Carr, part number 4615T92) affixed by a piece of Velcro worked perfectly as a splash guard. This location for the controller also allowed perfectly for...

MPPT controller, breakers, and splash guard.
Running the Cables Down from the Roof
Running the cables down from the roof into the interior of the coach is challenging. There are a variety of small bulkhead adapters you can buy that flush-mount to the roof, but I followed the advice on another fellow's blog and dropped the cable down the vent pipe for the fresh water tank. This required putting a cut-out into the top of the PVC pipe so the cable could enter it at an angle, then drilling a hole in the pipe where it passed through a cabinet in the RV. Again, this is a vent pipe for the fresh water tank (not a pipe carrying water, and not a vent pipe for the sewer tank), so the impact of drilling a hole near the top of the pipe should be minimal.
Panel cables run down inside the vent pipe for the fresh water tank.
Total Cost
Well, it's always higher than you expect and than you'd prefer, isn't it? The big costs were $165 for the Eco-Worthy 160-watt panel, and $120 for the SolarEpic 3210A 30-amp MPPT controller. I spent $146 for four kinds of mounting feet, but got much of it back when I returned the ones I didn't use. Panel and battery cables were about $25 each. Little things like the breakers, VHB tape, Dicor sealant, properly-sized screws for the feet, ring terminals for the battery cables, and other odds and ends added up. The total was probably about $525.

And, So, How Does it All Work?
Perfectly. I think I nailed the proper panel wattage. When it's sunny out, the 160-watt panel keeps the batteries topped up so that, at night, the fridge can run. When I'm not using the RV, I leave it parked in my driveway, with the shore line unplugged, and use the fridge as a solar-powered beer cooler. If there are a few overcast days in a row, the battery voltage will get low (like 11.5 volts), but it bounces back when the sun hits the panel.

Oh. The fridge. Forgot to finish that story. After first replacing the Norcold 3163 with a new eBay scratch-and-dent Dometic CR-1065, having it die, and returning it, we spent real money and bought a Vitrofrigo C90IBD4-F 3.1 cubic foot Danfoss compressor-powered refrigerator (as Maire Anne said, "We have a yacht refrigerator in our RV"). The damned thing cost almost as much as both of our last two kitchen refrigerators combined, but it's larger than the Norcold that it replaced (I needed to cut about 1" into the wood above it), and it even has a little freezer that makes little ice cubes. For right now, the fridge is just sitting in the opening where the Norcold was. At some point I'll frame it in to clean up the installation.

The new Vitrofrigo refrigerator
Yes, it's a solar-powered beer cooler.


If Maire Anne and my RV-related power needs increase (if we begin watching a lot of TV or using our computers a lot at night, or if she makes good on her threat to take her sewing machine with her), I may need to add a panel and a dedicated inverter, but right now the 160-watt panel and no inverter (we try to run everything we can off 12 VDC) seems about right. As I said, if we need more, I may find that the acute limitation isn't solar capacity but battery capacity.

One of the things I always ask myself after one of these projects is "Knowing what I know now, what would I do differently?" And the answer is: Almost nothing. I sized the system well, and am happy with the expandability even though I may not need to take advantage of it. In this case, the only thing I can think of is that, to keep price down and the delivery time short, I bought a polycrystalline panel instead of the slightly more efficient monocrystalline option, but that's a paper doubt, not a real regret.

So The Great RV Solar Experiment has been a resounding success. The beer and the half-and-half stay cold. The chicken won't spoil. And, in addition, I learned a great amount that I can apply when I get around to outfitting the house with solar.

Not bad considering that it all started because the three-way wouldn't cool on propane :^)


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Windsurfing Through Life

About twenty years ago, friends of ours invited us to the Cape with them for the day. Tom brought his windsurfer to the beach. I was transfixed by the way he effortlessly zipped back and forth in the wind and water, and asked if I could try it. He showed me the basics of standing on the board and using the rope to haul the mast, sail, and boom up out of the water, then holding the sail in "the neutral position" (where the wind is at your back and the sail is parallel to the wind without catching it) while trying to maintain your balance. But whenever I moved the sail, it would catch the wind in a way I didn't expect, and I'd lose my balance and fall off the board. Tom would yell sailing things at me like "don't pull it into the wind so much," but never having sailed, I didn't know what that meant.

The next year, we returned the favor and invited Tom and his family down to Nantucket where we rented a place every year. When we met them at the ferry, I saw, to my delight, that Tom had brought the windsurfer. I spent most of an afternoon wrestling with it, and got pretty good at standing up on it, but I never mastered the problem of not knowing what to do when the sail caught the wind and everything started moving.

The following spring, I bought a used windsurfer and resolved that I would crack the nut of getting it moving without losing my balance and falling off it. Before we took it to Nantucket that summer, I did quite a bit of reading. Of course, learning to windsurf by reading is probably like learning to do gymnastics by reading; there's only so much you can learn without doing.

However, I stumbled upon a kernel of knowledge in an on-line tutorial that made sense to me. It said "The neutral position is crucial. You need to learn to return to this position. Learn to live in this position. Lean to read War and Peace in this position. Then, and only then, can you can gradually pull the sail in and orient the mast and boom in different ways to catch and control the wind." It went on to describe how to hold one hand on the boom close to the mast and move your other hand further down the boom. The further down you move your outside hand, and the further in you pull the boom, the more wind the sail will catch. If it catches too much wind, you can always reposition your hands. If you're really perplexed, you can always return to the neutral position and start over.

"Learn to read War and Peace in this position" was the piece of advice I needed. It worked. I cracked the nut. I also figured out the part that you can only learn by doing--the balance part, the small rapid changes in boom/mast/sail/hand position and your weight distribution that eventually become second nature. That summer, I not only got the board moving, I became a credible novice windsurfer. I stress the word novice; I was never launching off waves and catapulting myself twenty feet into the air or doing flips or anything like that. But I did get to the point where I bought the clip-in harness and could hang my weight off the boom, pull the sail in tighter, catch even more wind, and zip along in Nantucket harbor at a pretty good rate. I even once got going fast enough that I accidentally dug the nose of the board into the water and pitch-poled the whole thing end over end, something I regarded as a personal success, sort of like having a car with enough power that you can spin it coming out of an apex and exit the track backwards.

Windsurfing on Nantucket, 2003
I windsurfed every vacation for several years, but then hurt my back (bulged L5 and pinched S1 nerve root) in an unrelated incident. I tried windsurfing the next year, but taking the board, mast, and boom off and on the roof of my Suburban, assembling the system, and especially hauling the wet sail up out of the water, were painful. I described the spate of windsurfing activities to my back doctor and he said "yeah, don't do that."

So, nearly ten years ago, I gave it up and sold the windsurfer. Ah well. As I said somewhere, we measure maturity by how much we can leave behind and still smile.

Fast-forward to last year. My middle son Kyle's in-laws have an off-the-grid cabin on a lake in a very rural part of Maine. Several thousand acres of land surrounding the lake are owned in common by a small number of homeowners. Mountains are close enough to the lake that there are no roads out to the houses; a caretaker has to ferry you out in a boat. No powerboats are allowed on the lake except for the one used by the caretaker. The deed restrictions state that houses can't be visible from the lake. And since the area is privately owned, with very little turnover, rules are actually followed. So when you're on the lake in a canoe or kayak, it's unbelievably pristine.

So you can probably understand why, when last year we first went up to the lake with Kyle, my daughter-in-law, and her parents, the fact that they had not only canoes and kayaks but an assembled windsurfer piqued my interest pretty hard. The sail was already rigged on the mast and boom. I just needed to carry it and the board about 40 feet from the house down to the water and snap them together and leave them on the dock when I was done. It seemed likely that my back could take that.

So I tried it. I gingerly stepped onto the board in light winds and hauled the sail up out of the water. That activity blissfully didn't generate any pain, so I checked to see if I had any windsurfing muscle memory left. I found that I could, to my delight, remain upright, pull the sail into the wind, get the board moving, and exercise some degree of control. I spent a very happy hour windsurfing on the lake.

Now, windsurfers have no rudder (we're talking the equipment, not the people, though the degree to which I have a rudder is a matter of debate as well), so the amount you're able to steer is somewhat limited. You can effect some amount of steering by tilting the bottom-hinged mast, but it's not as controllable as a sailboat with a rudder. And, even if it were, the fundamental problem continued to be that I never learned how to sail; I simply didn't speak wind. So even though I was able to maneuver the windsurfer and come about (falling off the board as often as not), I was largely at the mercy of the wind. I found myself downwind of the cabin by several hundred yards, and try as I might, was unable to get back upwind. Sailing out into the lake and tacking back didn't work, as, due to the presence of the surrounding mountains, in various spots the wind just died.

Fortunately two of my sons were in a canoe fishing. I shouted "Father down! Father needs assistance!" They paddled over, threw me a rope, and towed me back. It was a ignominious finish to the carefree self-image I had of windsurfing on Nantucket when I was younger and stronger.

Well. We just returned from Lakefest 2017, a reprise of last year's trip. It was delightful in all aspects. All three of my boys were there this year, as were Kyle's wife, in-laws, and other members of their family, all of whom I genuinely like. And the windsurfer was there too, sitting under the porch. The weather was lovely for mid-September, about 70 degrees, oodles of direct sun, and a nice afternoon breeze. To say that the windsurfer and lake beckoned me for Round II is an understatement.

I found that my muscle memory was still pretty good in terms of the mechanics of standing up and catching wind without falling off, but was preoccupied by the idea that I needed to be able to control the rig and sail out and back to the dock. I asked Maire Anne to make sure there was someone on the dock who could act as the family version of windsurfer AAA if it looked like I was repeating last year's performance, but, to my delight, by the end of the first day, I seemed to have that largely under control. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction from how it stranded me last year, and kept sending me into a cove at the end of the lake, but I never had any trouble getting back.

The second day, filled with some measure of confidence, I tried to sail out into the central body of the lake. Unfortunately, on four attempts, the wind kept pushing me into the cove. It wasn't where I wanted to go, but on the positive side, each time I headed back, I was able to come about and wind up directly in front of the dock. I became less concerned with whether there was a tow truck I mean canoe at the ready.

On the fifth attempt, I pulled the windsurfer harder upwind, and smiled as I successfully steered it wide of the cove and found myself heading into the larger part of the lake. I wondered "Should I come about here and make sure again that I can head back?" but the wind quickly made that decision for me. With the wind no longer blocked by the proximity to the mountains ringing the shore, suddenly I was in more wind. A lot more wind. I picked up speed and began heading further out into the lake.

The wind began to pull the boom and sail out of my hands. I compensated, regained my footing, pulled the sail into the wind, started to lean back on it, then the wind died and I fell backwards off the board. Fortunately it was still warm and sunny, so there was little consequence to getting wet. I climbed back on, acclimated to this new set of dynamics, and had at it. Pretty quickly I found myself leaning back on the boom, catching a respectable amount of wind, and shooting across the lake like the borderline-competent novice windsurfer I was a decade ago.

However, the wind out in the middle of the lake, unaffected by the surrounding mountains, wasn't blowing in the same direction as the wind closer to shore. My new lines across the lake bore no resemblance to those nearer-to-shore passes that reliably took me back to the dock. My anxiety about needing to be able to control the windsurfer well enough to get back without an embarrassing "tow" returned.

But here's the thing. A voice inside myself said "You've just been working for an hour to get into this part of the lake. You did it. You're here. NOW ENJOY IT, you overly analytical risk-averse son of a bitch. What's the worst thing that can happen? You beach it on the shore somewhere and walk? It's not that big of a lake."

So I did. Enjoy it, that is. For about twenty minutes, I zipped back and forth in the middle of the pristine lake, without a house in sight or a power boat to mar the ear, leaning back hard on the boom, catching as much wind and speed as I could. September 12th, 2017. The last days of summer. The trees ringing the lake beginning to turn. The sun shining, the air and water warm. It was fucking glorious.

When I began to get tired, I sailed as far upwind as I could, then tried to wrestle the windsurfer toward shore. I wound up several hundred yards upwind of the dock. You can run directly downwind on a windsurfer, but you have to be able to hold the mast up in all that wind, and I couldn't. Fortunately, I found that I could put the mast in the good old neutral position, with the wind at my back and the sail luffing, read War and Peace, and gently tilt the boom to move the sail left or right, having it act effectively as a rudder in the wind rather than in the water. It wasn't pretty, but it was astonishingly precise. I dropped the sail in the water ten feet in front of the dock.

I've often said that I'm where I am in life because I've floated downstream with the river, and that the river has carried me to some interesting places. I never thought I'd spend 33 years doing applied geophysics for the detection of unexploded ordnance, that my automotive hobby would flourish into a profession, that after 30 years I'd still be writing my Hack Mechanic column and have four books published. The windsurfer--the apparatus and the person--could be a better metaphor than the river.

But that's the wrong use of the metaphor. It completely misses the point. It's not that I've been warped by the wind and driven by the sleet (apologies to Little Feat). It's that I've been determined, stubborn, at times obsessed, with obtaining and exercising control over certain situations that I can control. It's that I've recognized when I need to be less conservative and go outside my comfort zone. It's that I've maintained my balance. And it's that, at times, I've actually listened to that voice that says for the love of all that's good an holy, ENJOY THIS, RIGHT NOW.

(If I really wanted to go for the gold and bludgeon the metaphor home, I'd add that I freely admit that, in my life, I overuse the mechanism of "returning to the neutral position," but if I were to say that, I'd need to wrap it up with a bow by saying "Besides, I like reading War and Peace," and, in truth, I've never read it. Why, oh why, didn't the online windsurfing tutorial I read 15 years ago say "Learn to read Ulysess in this position? Damn you, online windsurfing tutorial! Damn you to hell!)

It probably doesn't make sense for me to look for another windsurfer. It's September. I don't currently have a vehicle I can easily mount it on. Even if I did, although my back is better than it was, all of the issues of loading are still in play. It's probably best to simply take the memory and file it under "smile."

But if I'm back up at the lake next year, and the windsurfer is still there under the porch, and there are white caps on the water, my pulse will quicken more than a little. We measure maturity by how much we can look forward to, and still smile.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Notes from a Novice RVer, Part IV: Bauhaus Hits the Road (the first short trips in the 1996 Winnebago Rialta)


In the last installment, I’d just purchased the 1996 Winnebago Rialta with 107k miles on it for three grand and driven it home, and was still pinching myself at my good fortune while waiting for the other shoe to drop in terms of the rig dying or my finding that it immediately needed some crushingly expensive repair. So far, neither of these events has come to pass. So the other shoe has neither dropped, nor is it on the other foot. Which is only worth these two mangled metaphors because later in his piece I mention shoes in the context of how small the Rialta really is.
Let me talk for a moment about price. In the shallow waters of the world of highly compromised vintage BMWs in which I usually swim, I joke that I do my best work around four grand. I was never going to get a Rialta for four grand. It simply wasn't a reasonable expectation. The 2001 and later Rialtas fetch a premium due to their 201hp 24-valve VR6 motor. Low-mileage examples in excellent condition have asking prices of $26,000 and more. The 1998 to 2000 rigs with the 12-valve 140hp VR6 motor are next on the list, with asking prices near $20k for excellent examples, perhaps down to $14k if they have a punch list of needed repairs but still run well and look good. The early (’96 and ’97) 100hp 5-cylinder rigs like mine are the least valuable, owing to their anemic motor and slightly shorter body (21’ instead of 22’). I see asking prices around $14k for those in excellent condition, maybe $10k for a needy rig. Right after I bought mine, I saw one in worse shape—it reportedly had sat for several years and was running rough—sell on eBay for $8500.
So I was stunned when I picked up this Rialta for three grand.
Now, while there is no question that this was a particularly good deal, the vehicle does have a lengthy punch list. I relish the process of becoming interested in a new automotive make and model and learning about it so that, when a smoking good deal turns up, I can act very quickly. That’s what happened here. The seller (Maureen) was scrupulously honest in presenting the punch list of issues and needed repairs, and priced it very aggressively to get rid of it quickly. I do all my own repair work, so, as long as it ran, wasn’t rusty, and didn’t seem to immediately need major work to the drivetrain, the punch list didn’t scare me. I told her I’d buy it on the spot if it satisfied those requirements, and it did, and I did; cash was paid and it was in my driveway by the end of the day. It’s easy to say that she underpriced it, and she probably did, but she very efficiently achieved her goal of a quick sale to the right buyer. And I bought a vehicle that was a great deal, but needed a great deal of attention.
So I began working through the punch list. And I'm still working through it. Fortunately, the rig basically started and ran, and most of the RV systems—the 120VAC shore power and generator, 12V battery bank, plumbing, stove, coach heat, water heater, and rooftop air conditioner—came up running.

Immediate Repairs
·        Maureen reported that the roof was leaking slightly and that the upper corners of the windshield gasket had pulled away. I climbed up on the roof and found a split in the caulk next to the skylight and caulked it with silicone. I cleaned and re-seated the corners of the windshield gasket and caulked them as well. For the moment, it appears to be tight.
·        The air conditioning in the cab (the vehicle air you need while driving, not the coach air you need while parked) wasn’t working. I do a lot of a/c work. I hooked up my gauges, and found that the system clearly was low on refrigerant. That generally means it’s leaking somewhere. I hooked up my nitrogen tank and pressurized it to help find the leak, but the pressure reading held steady, and there wasn’t any gushing sound of air. In the morning, the pressure still hadn’t budged. I shrugged, evacuated the system, charged it with the correct amount of R134a, and to my delight, it blew cold and has stayed that way. If it’s got a leak, it must be a small one.
·        Maureen said that, about two years ago, the vehicle died due to a discharged battery, and that the battery and alternator were replaced. I did a health check on the charging system. At rest, the battery should read 12.6 volts, and while driving, the alternator should charge it up to about 14.2 volts, but I found that, when there’s a big electrical load at low RPM (like idling with the air conditioning on), the alternator doesn’t keep up with the electrical load, and the voltage drops as low as 11.8 volts, which will certainly discharge the battery if you run it this way for a while. The voltage recovers once you start driving and the engine RPM is raised. I cleaned every connection to and from the alternator and it made no difference. I’ve bought an inexpensive voltage regulator to have as a spare, and I drive with one of my $6 cigarette lighter voltmeters plugged in to make sure I’m keeping the combination of energized accessories and engine RPM balanced such that they keep the battery charged.
·        The coolant temperature gauge runs hotter than I’d prefer (like, at times, 7/8 of the way up the gauge), but the receipts show a recent water pump and thermostat, the thermostat is opening, the fans appear to be turning on, I can’t find anything wrong, and the Rialta tech forum has posts saying “yeah, they do that.” I’ve got half a mind to spend the $125 on a new radiator and drop it in just so I can cross that off the list. Any vehicle that doesn’t have a good old fashioned mechanical cooling fan and relies on electric fans instead makes me nervous, so I wanted to install a switch and a relay to be able to bypass the sensors and turn on the electric fans manually. I stumbled on a post in the Rialta tech forum describing how to do this by tapping into the existing fan control relay by splicing one wire and running it to a switch. I followed the instructions. Great minds think alike.
·        Maureen reported that the onboard 110V generator would start but not stay running, though she had a suspicion that the problem might be due to a low fuel level (the generator uses the vehicle’s gas tank). I filled the tank and have had no such problem; the generator appears to work fine, and powers the RV’s 110V systems, including, mercifully, the rooftop air conditioning unit.
·        Maureen also said that there was a leak in the fresh water plumbing. I found that one of the drain cocks had been left open. I closed it, filled the system, and the internal plumbing all seems to work. Never having owned an RV, the idea of having a vehicle with running water for a sink, shower, and toilet is still an unbelievable novelty.
·        The side door lock assembly is dying. The handle is extremely loose, and neither the lock nor the deadbolt work with the keys I’d been given, and the central locking doesn’t engage the side door lock. Thus, locking the vehicle requires engaging the side door locks from the inside, then exiting through the front doors, which is a bit of a pain. I pulled the lock out and found that sections are riveted together and not easily disassembled, and that much of the looseness is from a partially cracked piece that eventually will fail. Neither the whole assembly nor individual parts are available from Winnebago. An updated replacement is supposedly available from Trimark, the manufacturer, but it is expensive and the wait appears to be several months. I’m living with it.
·        The coach’s fresh water pump suddenly quit working. It turned out to simply be dirty switch contacts in the outside faucet.
·        I installed the missing leg of the awning that Maureen had bought.
·        The dump valve from the black water (sewage) tank was leaking, so the first time I unscrewed the big quick-release cap to attach the dump hose, there was already sewage present there even before I pulled the lever to open the dump valve. Ick. Even for me who isn’t afraid to tear into things, I didn’t relish tearing into a sewage system. I learned that this leak is a common problem, and fortunately there’s a simple solution—put another valve on the outside, between the release and the cap.
·        Maureen reported that the refrigerator ran on 120VAC and 12VDC, but wouldn’t run on propane. The fridge has been the most troublesome component on the rig and will get its own installment.
·        There is a faint exhaust leak that I'm not going to do anything about until it, um, becomes less faint.
Initial Impressions
When you buy any inexpensive partially hobbled vehicle, there’s a period of establishing trust in it, getting to the point where you feel reassured that when you get in the vehicle and turn the key, there’s a high probability it’ll start, and that it won’t drop dead on you while driving. Initially, the opposite happened: After the vehicle sat in my driveway for a week, it barely started, with symptoms of a partially discharged battery. I, who wrote an electrical book with an entire chapter on how to diagnose this kind of a “parasitic drain,” haven’t had the patience to troubleshoot what’s pulling the battery down while the car sits, and instead took to managing the problem by simply disconnecting the battery while it’s parked. So far, so good, but, combined with the issue of low charging voltage while idling, I keep that cigarette lighter voltmeter plugged in whenever I drive, and I watch it like a freaking hawk.
My first trips in the Rialta were to run short errands. When it didn’t die or overheat running it around Newton, I drove it into Somerville (densely-populated suburban Boston) to buy a mattress. Just like during the test drive when I bought it, I was extremely impressed with the degree to which the rig ran and drove like a big minivan, albeit a more rattly one due to the camper body and the stuff in the cabinets. I easily parallel-parked it on a Somerville side street to load the mattress into it. Try that in a 40-foot Class A.
The trip into Somerville meant taking the rig down the big hill on Route 2 into Cambridge, and then back up the hill on the way home. With the 100 horsepower five-cylinder engine propelling the 7,000 pound vehicle, the Rialta had to be popped into 3rd and my foot mashed to the floor to maintain 45mph up this short but steep incline. On the one hand, with my history of owning underpowered VW busses and Vanagon campers, I felt right at home, but sheesh, I thought; this is going to get old on anything other than level ground. Still, it was one hill, and a steep one, without a running start, and I tried not to extrapolate its entire performance envelope from this single data point.

The Mattress
Ah, the mattress. There are three basic Rialta floor plans. Ours has the one with two twin beds in the back and floor space between them. Maureen included a knock-down pedestal table that allows people to sit on the beds and eat back there as if it’s a dinette (though they’re still beds; there’s no padded back like bench seats).  A hinged board and a small joining pad allow the twin beds to be connected. 
Our rig, with the twin beds separated. The hinged board that flips out and connects the beds is below the right-hand mattress. You can see the connecting mattress on the right, and the knock-down sort-of-a-dinette table that Maureen gave us on the floor.
There’s a different floor plan with an actual dinette in the back, where the table slides away and the dinette bench seats fold flat into a bed.
The dinette floor plan from the brochure.
But there's a third plan with a full-time double bed and a small walkway and counter on its right side. Maire Anne and I aren’t twin bed people. We looked longingly at brochures showing the full-time double bed, but beggars can’t be choosers.
The double-bed floor plan from the brochure. 
It was immediately obvious that our rig's original 3” foam mattresses, whether separate or connected, would be miserably uncomfortable to sleep on. That trip into Somerville in the Rialta was to buy an inexpensive used memory foam mattress to put in the back. This turned out to be a failed experiment, as the mattress I bought was 12” thick, which turned it to be too tall; it practically caused our feet to touch the undersides of the cabinets in the rear.
It did, though, cause Maire Anne and me to think about the mattress configuration more carefully. The full length and width of the connected bed space (with the board flipped over) is about 73” long by 80” wide, which is very close to the size of a king-size mattress turned sideways. We initially thought we’d take out the existing foam mattress sections and replace them with a single 6” memory foam mattress and leave it set up across the entire back. Then we considered cutting up a memory foam mattress into sections so that we could fold the board up and take advantage of the floor space between the twin beds and only connect them at bedtime. One problem with this is that memory foam deteriorates if it’s left exposed. You can’t stretch a sheet across the disconnected foam sections, so that would require putting each piece in a slipcover.
In the end, we wound up buying a new high-quality ViscoSoft 3” thick king-size memory foam mattress topper with its own cover, and laying it on top of the original 3” mattress sections. It is very comfortable. In theory, it still allows the topper to be pulled over to one side, the connecting board folded up, and the mattresses returned to twins with the floor space exposed between them, but in practice, the topper is bulky enough that this isn’t easy to do, so thus far, we've left it in the configuration below, which has had some unintended consequences.
The twin beds connected with the board, and the king-sized memory foam mattress pad on top. Very cozy, very comfortable, but it takes up space and precludes options in ways we hadn't envisioned. 
With the mattress in place, it was time to hit the road. Sort of.

The First Trip: A Simple Overnight
Our first trip in the rig was to the western Massachusetts hill town of Beckett for an evening playing music with some old friends. This was a great easy inaugural jaunt, as all we were doing was driving the rig 130 miles (most of it a straight shot out the Mass Pike) and parking it in a friend’s driveway and sleeping in it; we didn’t need to use any of the RV systems. Two guitars and a small amp nestled perfectly under the board between the connected twin beds. With some pretty good-sized hills on the Mass Pike heading through the Berkshires, we were pleasantly surprised that the rig had no problem maintaining the cruise control’s 65mph. Even on the ups and downs on the local roads through the Berkshires, I felt more limited by the fact that the RV wasn’t one of my BMWs than by its low power. Perhaps this 100hp Rialta wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The big surprise was that, even on this short trip with limited use of the interior space, it became immediately obvious how small the Rialta really is inside. It’s nothing like most RVs where you walk in the side door and are greeted by a couch and two big living room-sized chairs. There’s only 62”—just over five feet—of floor space from the bed bulkheads to the step up for the coach battery compartment in the floor, and some of that 62" is taken up by the 3rd seat. There’s another 18” from there to the backs of the front seats. This proved to be a good place to put our backpacks and a small cooler, because simply putting them on the floor took up a good portion of the tiny available floor space. Cabinet space is similarly limited.
Still, the first trip was quite successful. Nothing went wrong with the rig. Both Maire Anne and I were quite comfortable sleeping in it, and loved having a bathroom right next to the mattress for when we woke up and had to pee, rather than having to go inside and find a bathroom in an unfamiliar house in the middle of the night.
Oh, and the rig averaged about 17mpg on the mostly-highway trip. Not bad.
The Second Trip:  Three Days on the Cape
Immediately on buying the Rialta, a natural division of labor emerged: I worked on the rig, and Maire Anne dove into researching campgrounds at nearby Massachusetts state parks and began making reservations for a number of short stays through the summer and fall. She learned about the distinction between RV sites with hookups (shore power and fresh water, about $30/night) and those without (about $20/night), where we’d need to “boondock” and rely on vehicle power and water. At these particular state campgrounds on the Cape, you’re prohibited from running the generator during the quiet hours between 10pm and 7am. Maire Anne booked us first for three nights in late July at Nickerson State Park in Brewster MA, on the “bicep” of the Cape, with other trips in late summer and fall at Horseneck Beach and Scusett. 
I had several weeks to prepare for the trip to Nickerson. I thought that this was ample time for me to be able to fix the rig’s three-way refridgerator, but despite a lot of work, I was unable to get the fridge to cool on propane. Without that, and without shore power, the fridge couldn’t be relied on to stay cold without draining the coach’s batteries (I’ll write a separate installment on the refrigerator-related trials and tribs). For the Nickerson trip, we kept it simple and used a cooler with ice. This was easy, as there was a store near the campground.
Nickerson turn out to be a great jumping-off point for a variety of day-trips on the Cape. Neither Maire Anne nor I had used our bikes in many years, but I bought an inexpensive bike rack that mounted in the Rialta’s hitch receiver, freshened up the bikes, and away we went.
Leaving for Nickerson
The campground at Nickerson was exactly that—a campground, not an RV park. There was a maximum RV length limit of 35 feet (obviously not a problem for us), and no hook-ups, but there was an RV dumping station. Our camping area was overwhelmingly populated by folks tenting or using pop-up trailers, with a few larger camping trailers. We were one of a handful of RVs. As I said, generator-off hours were between 10pm and 7am. When I did try and fire up the generator during allowable hours, our immediate tenting neighbors took notice. They didn’t complain, but it made Maire Anne and I feel self-conscious, so even though it was allowed, I shut it off. But without shore power or the generator, we had no 120VAC to run the hot water heater for the shower, so we settled into a rhythm where we used the campground facilities in the mornings for showers and, uh, other things.
We’d then head out in the rig to explore the cape, usually taking the bikes with us. We’d come back to the campground in the late afternoon or early evening, unfold the rig’s awning, hang out at the picnic table, cook and eat outside on a Coleman RoadTrip propane grill we’d brought (it was just more camp-y than cooking inside), make a fire in the pit, drink wine, play guitar, crash in the rig, and make coffee in the morning. It was delightful. And, like the overnight in the Berkshires, having the bathroom right there in the rig, and a sink with running water to brush your teeth, was fabulous.
Throwing an inexpensive Craigslist bike rack on the back of the rig, and the bikes on it, worked flawlessly.
Our standard evening libations.
Our standard morning libations.


But the true utility of the RV was shown in a completely unexpected way the day we went up to Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor’s Center in Eastham. The weather was iffy, but we decided to chance it and do a three-mile hike to Coast Guard Beach and back. Unfortunately, when we reached the beach, the skies opened up, and the hike back was in drenching rain. By the time we returned to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, we were soaked clean through. But there, waiting for us, was the Rialta. We got in, drew the blinds, stripped down (without having to lie down on the seats and do that funny horizontal shimmy you have to do to change clothes in a passenger car), toweled off, used the bathroom (in the rig), and put on dry clothes. Then we made coffee (in the rig). Then we made sandwiches, including toasting our buns (the bread buns) on the stove. In the rig. And sat there, happy as clams (warm, dry, caffeinated, well-fed clams with empty bladders), marveling at the experience.
It was an epiphany. Wow, I thought. Of all the vehicles I drop three to four grand on, this one is actually useful. Forget camping. Forget the idea of a big western road trip. Forget the big questions of whether or not we’re “RV people.” Look at what we just did with this vehicle. All of sudden, I realized how useful a vehicle this size with a bathroom, a bed, and a stove could be. Just wait, I thought, until we have a fridge that actually works.  
Highly recommend the hike to Coast Guard Beach, even though we got soaked.

Maire Anne toasting our buns after the great soaking.
There were two other revelatory moments. Our last full day there, we drove up to Provincetown. I hadn’t been up there in over 40 years. I didn’t know my way around. We were following our phone to get downtown. All of a sudden, we were right downtown, driving down a narrow street that wasn’t blocked off to vehicles but clearly should have been, as we were completely surrounded by wall-to-wall people. And we weren’t in a car; we were in an RV. A small RV, but an RV nevertheless. I hung the first right turn out of there, which turned out to take us down a far smaller street. And it was fine, because the Rialta isn’t really that big, and is incredibly maneuverable.
Then, that evening, as we were heading back toward the campground, we made a snap decision to stop at a very well-reviewed restaurant (The Brewster Fish House). I pulled the rig into the parking lot in front and Maire Anne jumped out to ask about the wait. I spied what looked like a parking spot all the way at the end. I drove around, pulled forward, and backed in with little more drama than you’d experience parking a Suburban. Just like when I picked the mattress up in Somerville, try that in a 40-foot Class A. (Note that, bravado aside, this isn’t a minor issue. I just read a post in one of the RVs forums on Facebook I’m now part of from someone who said they were in the Seattle area in their big Class A, and couldn’t find anywhere remotely close to the city to park it so they could go in and see the city.)
How do you park an RV in the tight parking lot of a nice restaurant? Like a boss. (Actually, like any van or SUV. It was trivial, really.)
For the trip to and back from the Cape, we averaged between 14 and 15 mpg, which I suppose isn't bad considering it included all the day-tripping up and down the Cape, and a good deal of stop-and-go traffic on the drive home.

The Downside
The major downside we experienced with the Rialta was that, even more than the trip to the Berkshires, this trip made me palpably aware of how tiny the Rialta is inside—that the small length and excellent maneuverability are purchased with the currency of interior space. When you’re driving, you’re into the vehicle part of RV, and you want it to be as small as possible, but once you’re parked, you’re into the recreation part, and you want the space. The Rialta's driveability is fabulous, but the trade-off against interior space is palpable. This is a bit ironic, as the Rialta’s original brochure touts “more recreation, less vehicle.”
As I pre-echoed in the introduction, take something as simple as shoes. Both Maire Anne and I had brought three pairs of shoes to Nickerson (decent shoes, sneakers, and sandals). That’s six pairs. We found that when you randomly drop six pairs of shoes on the floor of the Rialta, you can’t open the door to the bathroom. And that’s just shoes. You need to be absolutely relentless about not leaving things on the floor. We crammed everything we could in the cabinets, but the cabinet space is pretty limited as well.
Even our precious incredibly comfortable king-size bed created a bit of a problem. Initially we both thought “well why wouldn’t we want to keep the twin mattresses connected all the time with the fold-out board and leave the king-size memory foam mattress topper on them?” The answer is that doing so takes up half the interior space of the Rialta, and because it’s a bed, you can really only use it as a bed. If you want to keep sand and dirt out of the sheets, you can’t throw other stuff on top. And, although we could still use the area between the beds as storage space by sliding stuff under (that’s where we kept the Coleman grill, the beach chairs, the collapsible dinette table we never used, the guitar, the boogie board, the leveling blocks, and the toolbox), it never was available as floor space, which made the interior of the rig feel smaller. And we never could fit as much in there as we would’ve been able to do had it been uncovered. Plus, the vents for the cabin heater are under that board, so when we use the rig in the fall, we probably can't both have the king-size mattress deployed and have the area underneath it crammed with stuff like we did. Plus, without the floor between the beds exposed, in order to put things in the cabinets in the back, we needed to crawl onto the bed, which required taking off our shoes to keep sand out of the bed. This is hardly hardship, but it shows the trade-offs.
After a few days, the idea that we couldn’t put things on the bed because we’d get sand and dirt in the sheets went by the wayside, and we soon began stacking all sorts of things along the periphery of the mattress because, well, there was no other place to put them.
The fact that this Rialta doesn’t have a real dinette area wasn’t too problematic. The front seats turn around 180 degrees, and the 3rd seat swivels 90 degrees, allowing it and the passenger seat to face a small fold-out table. That’s what passes for a dinette in this floor plan. It worked perfectly fine for eating breakfast. 
What passes for a dinette in our floor plan -- the passenger and 3rd seat swung around and facing a very small fold-out table.
During most of the dinners where we were at the rig, we would up eating outside on the picnic table, and that was fine. As I said, we took a Coleman RoadTrip grill, which was nice to cook at out at the picnic table. The grill, though, even when folded up, ate up much of the storage space under the bed. I kept looking for a cost-effective way to mount both a cargo carrier and the bike rack in the hitch receiver so we could put the grill there, but the solutions either were expensive or dangerously extended the cantilevered load far off the back of the vehicle.
The Coleman RoadTrip grill can be seen behind the picnic table.
Another area in which the Rialta’s size is problematic is its lack of the kind of exterior storage compartments other larger RVs have. There are hatches on the Rialta's tail, but one holds the spare tire, the other the shore power line and access to the plug-in for the generator. Neither come close to being large enough for a tool box or a milk crate. This is significant because, at some point, you need to dump the sewage tank in the RV, and to do that, you need an RV dump hose, which is a collapsible accordion-like 3” diameter hose. Needless to say, in the process of doing this, the dump hose becomes, shall we say, fragrant, so you need to rinse it out with clean water, so now you need to pack a garden hose, but you don’t want it to be the same garden hose you use for your fresh water hookup, because, well, even the idea of it is gross, so now you need to pack two garden hoses. And, while washing the dump hose with let's just call it "garden hose number two," you want to be wearing disposable rubber gloves. So any reasonable person would take the RV dump hose, garden hose number two, and a box of rubber gloves, put them in a milk crate, and store them in an exterior storage compartment. But on the Rialta, there is no place to do this. Instead, there is barely enough space to stuff the dump hose in next to the shore power line, and jam both garden hoses in with the spare tire. It is far from optimal, and I find myself looking longingly at the exterior storage compartments on every other RV I see.
One other odd quirk of the Rialta is in its holding tanks. Like everything else on the rig, they’re very small. Unlike most other RVs, the shower doesn’t run off into the gray water tank—it goes to the black water (sewage) tank, and that holds only 12 gallons. If you’re going to have two people showering in the rig every day, you’d probably need to dump the RV every day. So far, Maire Anne and I have managed the issue by not using the Rialta's shower and using campground showers instead. It’s too bad, though. I’d love to test out the shower in my driveway. I’d have no qualms about dumping the shower runoff of soapy water in the driveway, but with it running into the sewage tank, obviously dumping that anywhere other than a dump site is out of the question, and there aren’t any RV dumpsites within 35 miles of my house.
So, for all of these reasons, although I really like the Rialta, and feel damn near blessed that it fell into my lap for the price it did, and Maire Anne and I will enjoy the hell out of it for these quick New England adventures (which, make no mistake about it, was the goal, and which is a great inexpensive way to do some fun things together), I do wonder if it is the right vehicle if we want to head out of state on a more classic RV adventure. The later Rialtas are a tad bigger (22 feet instead of 21), but I think something in the 24-foot range would probably be much more practical, even if that’s a more traditional American Class A or C without the cool Euro Rialta vibe. But I keep combing Craigslist, and have yet to find anything remotely close to making me want to go have a look.
And… Full Circle to Mothing
In my first installment, I described how it was an invitation to Maire Anne to go “mothing” (setting up lights and looking for moths at night) several months back that re-ignited my RV search—that if we had a vehicle we could drive out and sleep in, we might take the mothing folks up on their invitation to camp in their driveway. After we’d bought the Rialta, another mothing invitation came around, so we hopped in it and drove out to Ware MA. We did meet some great folk and see some cool moths, but the evening ended early and we simply wound up driving Bauhaus back home. Maire Anne did get to crash in the back, so the rig showed its utility. A bit anticlimactic, but 90% of life is showing up, right?
What’s Next?
Oh, a lot. There’s the new fridge, and the whole solar installation. So stay tuned.