Friday, July 27, 2018

The Heartbreak of Automotive Obsession (or, how I wound up owning 11 BMWs in 3 years)

I have a theory about how people form the close, sometimes fanatical relationships they have with their automobiles: As adolescents, we are imprinted with the indelible impression of the first car that kicks us in the pants. Imprinting is followed by acute automotive obsession and seems correlated with periods of intense hormonal activity. Adolescent males often imprint on things like Camaros and Firebirds, resulting in large numbers of 17 year olds with swollen adenoids driving oil-burning, tire-squealing monsters that give motorheads a bad name. Middle-aged males seem especially susceptible to a virulent German strain that the Center for Disease Control now believes may be passed through contact with leather seats. In my case, it was initially misdiagnosed as a glandular condition. 

The carrier was a red 1971 2002 with a license plate that read GEIST (German for spirit). It was owned by a friend who took me blazing along the back roads of Amherst, MA, impressing me with what this little car that looked like a Datsun 510 could do, and scaring the hell out of me. Before the 2002, he had an E-type Jaguar which, for some reason, I didn't imprint on as strongly (maybe I did; my first car was a Triumph GT6. Boy, did I learn my lesson, as well as lots of bad Lucas jokes). The imprint was completed when I graduated college and started working for the person whose 2002 had bitten me. He had moved up to a 530i which I got to drive over hell and creation. Hooked for life.

When I moved down to Austin, Texas for my first real job, I decided to buy a 2002. The bout with having owned a Triumph had left me mechanically (not to mention electrically) inclined, so I looked for something that needed work. I found a '71 2002 for $1000 that had a cracked transmission end cover. The body was Colorado (how that disgusting shade of orange ever became associated with such a lovely state is beyond me) with large patches of bondo and surface rust from the previous owner's aborted attempt at bodywork. It also had the prerequisite missing front bumper and punched-in kidneys, giving it that distinctive toothless shark look. My then girlfriend (and now wife) who had heard me yammering about BMWs for years could scarcely believe her eyes. "You bought That? Oh my God it's hideous!" Well, it did have alloy wheels and a sunroof. With much help, advice and moral support from Terry Sayther at Phoenix BMW (one of our TIPS representatives), I rebuilt the transmission and began to exorcise the car of its myriad of idiosyncrasies.

After about a year, the expense of replacing alternators, starters and rear ends began to get to me. I tried to find a parts car, but Terry consistently beat me to the punch. One day, a stranger walked up to me as I was getting into my car (which was still seriously ugly but in excellent mechanical shape) and said "I have a parts car for sale. Interested?" His parts car turned out to be a slightly neglected rust-free maroon '72 2002 with a sunroof and air conditioning, (this was Austin, 'member?). I bought it for $650 and sold my orange one (after paint and bodywork) for $2700.

Then things just started coming at me. There had been a 1971 2002 with dents in every body panel sitting 100 yards from my house for almost a year. I tracked down the legal owner who was all too happy to transfer the car into my name, since he was receiving parking tickets incurred by 3 people who had bought his car without ever legally taking title to it. Before rolling it to my house, I thought that I'd try to start it, just for laughs. It started.
The next day, a rather large young man appeared at my door proclaiming that he'd been out of the country for 10 months and came back to find I'd stolen his car. I explained that it legally wasn't his and that I'd gotten clear title to it from the legal owner, but he was a lot bigger than I was so for $100 we considered the matter settled. It was soon turned into a parts car: A previous owner must've done something very funky to the wiring, because one day I accidentally left the lights on and within 30 seconds every bit of insulation was burned off the wiring harness - a stench I won't soon forget. I bought a cherry 1600 for $300 that had been run over a small embankment by an overzealous Brake Check mechanic. It looked a lot worse than it was, needing mainly a fender, subframe, and some front end parts. I put $350 into it and sold it for two grand. Every bit of this profit was lost, however, on a 1967 2000cs. It was a pain in the neck and by the time I sold it, the car was at least half 2002 parts, but it was beautiful: wood dashboard, Nardi wood steering wheel, power windows and those baaaad looking Euro headlights.

When I knew I was moving back up to Massachusetts, I decided to look for a rust-free big-bumpered 2002 that might fare better against Boston drivers. I found a '75 with a sunroof and a/c. for $2500. I eventually turned this car into a faux tii by buying a Colorado orange '72 tii with a quarter million miles for $650. I rebuilt the tii engine, swapped it and other parts with my '75, drove the tii as a winter car and sold it in the spring for $1700. In the interim, there was a running 2002ti with Weber 40DCOEs on it for $225 (more tii conversion parts) and a $100 1600 parts car that I put some time into and sold running for $175. Currently I also own a fairly clean '73 tii that I bought as an insurance total for $1200 (not even hit hard enough to push the radiator into the fan) and a 72 Bavaria that, like the 2000cs, I completely misjudged as a possible money-maker but have grown remarkably attached to.

Four 2002s, two tiis, one ti, two 1600s, a 2000cs and a Bavaria makes eleven. I hadn't realized the extent of my affliction until a friend asked me how many I'd owned. "Something like five, right?" "Well, let's see. There was the orange one with all the bondo, then…" I figured that I should start to chronicle my obsession now before I lose count. When I tell people I've bought another car, they react in hushed tones to the news of the advanced stages of my disease: "My condolences," they say. "Have you told your wife yet? Break it to her gently."

[Ed. note: the author's name was not on the submitted text tor this article. If he'll contact us, we'll be glad to give him much-deserved credit.]

[BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, March 1986]

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Father's Tools

My father, who passed away in 1968 when I was ten, wasn’t a car guy. He was an electrical engineer. While of course those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, I definitely did not inherit my car guy tendencies from him (although, according to my mother, I did inherit his rationality and Zen-like repose, at least on my good days).

I mention the electrical engineer thing because it explains his tools. These weren’t car guy tools—no ½” ratchet sets or big wrenches or timing lights or anything. Owing to his profession, they were mostly small hand tools and electrical tools.

Of course, "small" is a relative term. There was a soldering iron nearly the size of my forearm—laughably large compared with the pencil-sized tips on modern irons. I vividly remember the black-and-white braided cloth that covered the plug-in cord. When, years later, I learned how to solder and tried to use it, I was astonished that my father actually employed it to build the Heathkit amplifier that graced our living room. But the cord had become badly frayed, and I believe that, at some point, I considered it a fire hazard and threw it out, a decision I now deeply regret.

There was also a pair of wire strippers, the old-school ones with two jaws, one of which grabs the wire while the other cuts the insulation. As you squeeze the handle, the jaws separate, which strips the insulation off. I used to love playing with them when I was a kid, thinking that they looked like a two-headed monster out of a Japanese sci-fi film, and making the heads separate and the jaws open and close as if they were talking with each other.

I didn’t really treat these tools with any particular reverence, and so, fifty years after my father’s passing, nearly all of them are gone. On the one hand, it’s surprising, as I am an inveterate pack rat who sentimentally fills boxes with life’s mementos. But tools are different. As soon as they’re in a toolbox, they no longer have any special dispensation. They’re just tools, there to do the job, and suffer the same fate as other tools, be it loss or breakage.

I have a particularly fond memory of one specific tool and a rather creative crossover application into the BMW world. My father had a set of nut drivers, which are screwdriver-handled sockets. Since they don’t have a lever-arm, they don’t generate as much torque as a ratchet handle, but they’re perfect for things like assembly and disassembly of electronics, which is what he used them for. All the ones you find nowadays have plastic handles, but his set had wood handles. During my brief sojourn in Austin in the early 1980s, one of the 2002s I looked at was a car whose gearshift lever had snapped off very close to the ball that sits in the shift platform, making it un-drivable. A small nub remained of the snapped-off lever that was still proud by perhaps ¼” of the ball. I thought for a moment, drove the mile back to our apartment at the intersection of Speedway and West 35th, grabbed the nut drivers, went back to the car, and, sure enough, found that a 7/16” nut driver fit perfectly over the snapped-off nub, thus allowing me to test-drive the car. With its wood handle, it felt like it had found a home there in the 2002, even if it was a temporary one. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the car, but I made a snap decision and donated the nut driver so others could drive it. Oddly enough, I don’t regret the decision, but if I ever see a 2002 with a wood-handled nut driver as a gearshift lever, I’ll probably break down in tears.

Nothing in my garage is well organized, and the tools are no exception. I have a large, two-level Craftsman tool box against the wall, but the tools I use the most often—sockets, ratchets, wrenches, screwdrivers—are in smaller plastic containers that I can grab and put next to a car. So, over time, what’s in the big toolbox has become an odd collection of tools I don’t use frequently. Like driving through your old hometown and looking for something familiar amidst the generic American sprawl, I can now identify only a tiny handful of my father’s tools. There’s but one wood-handled nut driver left (a small one, ¼”), a wood-handled file, and oddly enough, a center-punch. Three things. That’s it. It’s odd that these are the tools that survived, but this sort of random self-selection is often beyond comprehension.

There’s a wistful part of me that would want to take the ¼” nut driver, open up the old Heathkit amplifier my father built, and touch the driver to a nut he and it might have installed 60 years ago, but, sadly, the amp was thrown away several years back in a basement-cleaning episode due to a misunderstanding with one of my kids who thought he was being helpful. I had to keep my emotions in check, but that’s nothing new. I am not going to poison one father-son relationship over an accidentally-discarded artifact from another.

I could pull these three remaining tools from the entropic environment in which they sit, and put them in a box, either physically or spiritually labeled “my father’s last three surviving tools,” but what would be the point? Let them continue to be tools, not pampered mementos. I actually used the file just last week. I recognized it instantly when I grabbed it, and smiled.

Besides, you never know when I might find another car with a snapped-off gearshift lever. Though, since all I have left is a ¼” nut driver, it’d better be a really small car.

(BMW CCA Roundel Magazine, July 2018)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reflections on Vinyl and Other Obsolete Analog Entities

I’m about to release a new CD, my first in nearly 15 years. When I did my first CD in 1999 and my second in 2004, I followed what my singer/songwriter friends did and pressed a thousand, as that’s where the big price break was and still is (it costs perhaps $150 more to press a thousand than five hundred). Plus, at that quantity, if you keep the artwork modest, you can get the cost down to about a dollar per CD. While the economy of scale may have made sense, I still have boxes of hundreds of both CDs in my basement. For do-it-yourself singer-songwriters, this is pretty much the norm.

Now, it's 2018. The CD has lost massive ground to digital sales. And the culprit isn't even mainly digital downloads. Napster may have started that bandwagon rolling in 1999, but these days it's streaming. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reports that, for 2017, streaming constituted 64% of sales, with downloads 20% and physical sales 16%. And why not? When ten bucks a month will get you streaming of most popular music, why blow it on a single download?

So, for those of us roll-your-own musicians trying to push our stuff out there into the cruel world, it makes even less sense to press a thousand CDs than it did 15 years ago, price break or no. If you have 300 of your last CD in your basement, you'll have 900 of this one. 

Unfortunately, the reality of it appears to be that, at least in the folk world, if you want your music played on the radio, you still need to put out CDs. DJs want a physical product, with artwork and a spine they can read when it's on the shelf, and ideally with a lyric sheet inside. Folk music may have a higher Subaru-and-kale quotient than other musical forms, but to be taken seriously, you're still expected to put out a professional-looking product.

It's ironic. When the ability to plug a microphone into a computer, play and sing a song, record it to a wave file, and burn the result to CD ramped up in the late 1990s, it seemed that the barriers to entry had fallen completely and anyone could make a CD. This was something you never could do with a vinyl record. But there's a world of difference between home-recording and home-burning a collection of songs for your family and friends as opposed to developing a professional product for airplay and sales. You can buy a high-quality microphone and use free or inexpensive PC-based software to record tracks on your computer, but there are very few people who have the ears, the expertise, and the experience to be able to make the end-product sound remotely as good as professionally-recorded music. If you estimate the cost of producing a professional-sounding and packaged CD as ten grand (which, by the time you pay the recording studio, the musicians, the producer if there is one, the person who masters the disc, the photographer, the graphic artist, and the promoter, it may well be), and if you figure that, when you pay for radio promotion, the CD is going out to perhaps 200 radio stations, much of that ten grand is being paid to get the product in a form that those 200 people regard as credible, and any remaining copies just come along for the ride on the tail of diminishing returns.

Now, obviously, art doesn't respond well to this kind of harsh-light-of-day analysis. Artists make art because, ultimately, they're unhappy when they don't (ask me, who didn't put out a CD or book gigs for 15 years, about that). It's really challenging to draw a line on one side of which is money that's clearly well spent and on the other side of which is only ego, vanity, madness, and creditors calling you up.

In this way, recording and releasing a CD is similar to writing a book. Sure, anyone can sit down at a computer, fire up Word, and bang out a book, or at least a book's-worth of material with a title on page one, but sending that Word file, or a printed copy of it, around is highly unlikely to get you squat. Even if you want to self-publish your manuscript (and there's no value judgment to that; that's what I do these days), you need to turn it into a book in order to have a hope that anyone will read it, and that means having a book design (typography and layout) for the inside, and a professional-looking cover for the outside. Just like with a CD, if you have some graphic skills, perhaps you can do the artwork yourself, but most professionals can tell in a second if you did, and unless your graphic skills are up there with your musical skills, you may be dinged for it. 

So you do these things. You record your music and write your book. And you do what is necessary to push it out into the world, including getting it packaged in the way that will best represent it.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that, right now, in 2018, one of those forms of packaging is the vinyl record.

Wait. What?

Yes. Not only does vinyl have a reputation as having a warmer sound than digital (and we'll get to that), it is experiencing a resurgence. According to RIAA, physical sales are down 1% since last year, but vinyl sales are actually up 3%.

So what's going on?

Obviously, there's a lot to like about records. The full-sized artwork. The graphic inserts. The way you could use double albums to roll out seeds (I swear I can still smell certain strains of reefer on the inner spine of Tales of Topographic Oceans). The way that those of us of a certain age can remember what it was like to wait for a record to come out and spend hard-earned money buying it. The way a practiced hand can take a record off the turntable, hold the edges lightly with both middle fingers, flip it over, and slide it back on the platter. The way you can twirl the cover on one finger like a Frisbee. The way that the records became ours like an article of clothing, via owner-specific wear on the cover and pops and scratches in the music that you not only learn to expect but miss them when you listen to someone else's recording. I'm not sure I can hear a recording of Gordon Bok's Peter Kagan and the Wind without expecting the loud pops at the end that accompany my nearly 50-year-old copy.

But let's talk about that "warm sound" issue for a minute. Maire Anne and I have a turntable in the house (the Thorens TD160C I bought in 1976), and it's not a museum piece. It's fully operational, connected to the home entertainment system in the living room. Our albums are right around the corner in the dining room. It helps that we've only lived in two places since 1984 (and in our current house since 1991), so we haven't had to schlep the records through a dozen moves, which I imagine is the event that triggers many folks our age to get rid of them. 

I'm pragmatic about the records, as I am about most things. When CDs came out, the first two I bought were Beatles' Hard Days Night and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, as those records were played to the point of having bad scratches. I certainly replaced a few others. But I never rushed to replace them in bulk, both because of the money involved as well as because many of them still sounded fine.

The Thorens TD160C turntable I've had at the ready for over 40 years. The Lego VW Camper probably tells you something as well. 
From a sound standpoint, I had a hard time understanding the "warm sound of vinyl" movement that seemed to swell up in the 1990s. A friend of mine, the fellow who mastered my first two CDs, explained it to me as follows. 

Actually, since I just used the word "mastering," let me digress for a moment. "Mixing" is the process by which multiple separate tracks--say, guitar, vocals, bass, and drums--are combined. Their relative levels are adjusted and equalized (a little more bass here, a little less treble there), and effects such as reverb are added. The result of mixing is a two-track (stereo) recording. "Mastering" is a set of processes applied to that stereo recording. It's often used on an album's worth of songs to make the album sound uniform. The volume levels of the individual songs are adjusted so that they're consistent song-to-song and are in accordance with the levels of other commercial music. Compression may be added so that no portion of any song is too quiet. Space at song beginnings and fade-outs at the ends may be adjusted. And equalization may be applied to the recording to tighten up the bass or to apply sheen and polish to the high end.

With that background, here's what my friend the mastering professional said. There is zero doubt that the 44.1 KHz digitization rate used by CDs kicks vinyl's ass, making it an inherently superior medium for preserving and replaying music. A CD certainly can get scratched, but because it's read by a laser, the actual act of playing it isn't destructive like it is with a record. However, when CDs started to sell like hotcakes in the mid-1980s and it was clear that they were replacing vinyl, there was a rush to not only release new music on CDs but also artists' back catalogs. Because you had this medium that was scratch-and-pop-free, the assumption was that recordings would sound very clean. So when a lot of music was either first put out on CD or re-released on CD, it was often mastered with the equalization set to provide a fair amount of high end to give people the clean glossy sound they associated the new medium. This, according to my friend, is the root of the misconception that CDs sound "harsh" and that vinyl has a warmer sound. It's not the CD itself; it's how certain material may have been mastered for CD.

Two other layers add to the sound-of-vinyl issue. The first is the compression used on .MP3 files to achieve the magic of reducing their file size by a factor of ten as compared to .WAV files to make them quicker and easier to transfer online. There's a corner of the audio world that says that MP3s (or some MP3s, depending on the bit rate) sound like crap because of the compression. 

The second issue is hardware. The '70s was the golden age of hi-fi. Stereo power amplifiers and big speakers had been around for a while, but prices fell and consumer hi-fi stores were ubiquitous in the 1970s. You weren't a dude if you didn't have a big loud stereo in your dorm room with speakers that dwarfed the dresser. Very few people except die-hard audiophiles have held onto this kind of equipment. It's incredibly ironic that, now that we have several sources of clean scratch-and-pop-free music (CDs, digital downloads, and streaming), it's mostly played through earbuds or tiny plug-in speakers. 

The reason for this is that portability has become more important to most consumers than fidelity. Consumers don't want to be forced to only listen to their music in their living room. The cassette tape and then the home-burned CD were revolutionary in their day at allowing people to take their music wherever they wanted, but the iPod blew that out of the water. Now, the assumption is all music should be available anywhere for negligible cost. For decent at-home fidelity, some folks do what I do and play music through a home theater system set up for Dolby Digital 5.1 or some later version. It sounds pretty good, but with the big subwoofer, really it's optimized for theater, not music.

So, at one end of the scale you have folks listening to clean, scratch-and-pop-free music anywhere and everywhere through earbuds. At the other end you have some audiophiles who say that that music sounds harsh and unnaturally compressed, and that to make it sound warm and natural, it needs to be listened to on vinyl over audiophile-quality amplifiers and speakers.

Here's what I think. Rolling these three issues together, I think there's not one person in a hundred who can tell the difference in audio quality between an uncompressed wave file and an MP3 in a blind test, and that, for most people, having access to clean digital music trumps any "warmth" that they may experience from vinyl. 

So, having said all that, you may be surprised that I can completely understand the resurgence in interest in vinyl, both from the artist's and the consumer's side. Here's why.

When you stream music, you're not buying anything. You don't own anything. You're paying for a service that gives you access to most popular music at any moment, and any individual song you stream and listen to is part of that service. It's ephemeral. And maybe that's fine. Of course, not all music is available via streaming.

When you download music, at least you're making a choice and a transaction. You're deciding that that album or song and the musician or band who created it are important enough to you to pay for. But there's nothing unique about the product you're buying; it's just a set of files on your computer. It's not even well-fixed in time; I doubt many people remember the time they downloaded a certain album.

When you buy a physical CD, there's both choice and a physical object involved. These days, most folks I know associate purchasing CDs with hearing live music in clubs or coffeehouses and then buying a CD directly from the artist. But the disc itself is no different from anyone else's. And, these days, most likely you'll take it home, pop it into your computer, and suck it into iTunes anyway.

But a record is different. It resists digitization. Granted, there are turntables you can buy these days that have USB connectors so you can plug them directly into your computer and rip music off them, but if that's the primary reason you have a turntable, you'd probably just be downloading or streaming music. You can't listen to it while driving or walking the dog. It forces you to be in one place and listen to music. How the hell about that.

Plus, these days, a record is like a hand-developed analog photograph shot on film and enlarged from a negative. It's an art object. You're not buying it because its music quality better. You're buying it because it's not. 

And right now, vinyl is hip again. As my friends at Hagerty Insurance who specialize in the vintage car experience would say, it's like crafts such as brewing beer, making cheese, throwing pots, or riding horses. You do these things not only to have the things, but to have the experience that surrounds the things.

Speaking of vintage cars, as many of you know, I'm a vintage car guy. The cheapest new Korean import beats the pants off any of my vintage cars in nearly every way, but that's not the point. I don't love my vintage cars despite their drawbacks; I love them because of their drawbacks.

So I get it.

Just don't talk to me about "the warm sound of vinyl."

One of the duplication houses I'm looking at for my CD also does short-run vinyl duplication. It's $1750 for 300, or about $5.83 a record. (And, interestingly, they offer download cards as part of a package, acknowledging that some folks want the vintage physical object AND the clean digital music they can listen to anywhere.) In comparison, 300 CDs from them is $450, or $1.50 per disc. So you're paying one hell of a premium for vinyl. 

I won't do it, but I have to admit, I find the thought of my CD cover in 12"x12" form irresistible.

And the ability to roll seeds out on it would be... priceless.

Come on--you'd love to use that as a big horizontal surface.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Diane Lane Incident

From: Rob Siegel <>
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.


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.

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.

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 :^)