Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Onan Tale... In Two Part Harmony - Part 1

This is the tale of my Onan generator - the generator built into my RV. Onan is the name of the company that makes it - known fully as Cummins Onan. I will tell you right now that this is a long and harrowing tale.

It is a small generator (2800 watts) but it has enough power to run just about all of the 110 volt needs inside the RV, including the air condition - which is the most important thing to run on some hot nights inside the RV. The generator is underneath the rear of the van - between the bottom of the chassis and the road and it hangs down there exposed which is fine and as it is supposed to be. I shall share its saga here that starts a little more than two years ago - well we have to go back longer than that.

The generator is an gasoline motor. It gets its gasoline from the gas tank of the van. It also has motor oil running through it as all gasoline motors do. There are a specific number of hours that the generator may be run before it needs to have its oil changed. If those hours are not reached within a year, then the oil should be changed anyway. This is what we do. The oil is changed every year. The generator also must be run regularly - and the minimum running is two hours continuously every month with what is called "half load" being run by the generator. In our RV that "half load" is the air conditioner. In the winter it is an electric heater. (I am telling you all this so that the Onan tale will make sense.) Changing the oil is just like oil is changed on a vehicle engine. There is a screw in plug at the bottom of the oil pan and when that is removed all the old oil pours out. Then the plug is secured back in place and the new oil is added - in the case of my year and model Onan generator that is just one quart of motor oil of a specific weight. Now, for reasons unnecessary to specify here, I cannot go under the van and do the oil change myself. Many do. And no it is not that I am too fat to fit under the van - I can fit under the van easily. That is not the reason. And while Meryl can fit under the van and has been willing to do the oil change, I don't want her to have to do it. So, who does the oil changes? Since the first oil change the year after we got the RV, we have been traveling to the dealer/service where we bought the RV to have them change the oil. In the beginning, there have been other things for them to do also so it was OK to make the 150 mile trip each way with two bridge tolls and turnpike tolls, two states away. And up through 2014 they have done a good job. Our tale now starts at that 2015 oil change.

I had wondered when we were at the service desk and paying the bill why I was being charged for two quarts of oil. As I say, this generator has a one quart capacity for oil. They have always been nice and have always been honest with me so I did not question it - and we paid the bill and took the RV and went off. When we got home and then on a few trips after that the generator started having trouble. It would not start or it would start and then shut down. Sometimes it would run for five minutes and then shut down. This was not good. This was a problem - and I did not want to make a trip back two states to have them look at it. I searched for the local authorized Onan repair shop and found two that service RV generators. The rest service boat generators - when you live on an island boats are common - RVs are not. I called one the one that was closest and they told me that to diagnose the problem it would cost $400! OK. No, not OK. Was I stuck or was there an alternative?

I was at the car mechanic that works on our cars and also has done oil changes and tire rotations on the RV for me - mostly as a favor since he does not work on RVs. I told him about the problems I was having and he told me that his partner - both are great mechanics - likes to work on small engines and he will take a look at it for me. Great. He spent most of an afternoon looking at it as much as he could from the bottom of the van - taking this off the van is a big deal - and part of the reason for the $400 that the service center wanted. He was not finding anything. I stopped over while he was working and asked if he checked the oil - maybe there was a problem there? The generator is designed to stop running if the oil is low to prevent damaging the generator. He opened the oil cap and pulled up the little dip stick. He asked me how much oil should be in there. I told him one quart and he told me that there was a LOT more than that in there. Too much oil can be just as bad as too little oil. He drained the oil out until he reached the proper fill line on the oil stick. We then pushed the generator start button and it started to run. I said, great but wait five minutes to see if it shuts down. It just kept running. I turned on the air conditioner and it still kept running! Perfect. I thanked the man and paid him for his trouble doing this for me - as he could easily have said no.

I had no more problems starting the generator from then until the end of June 2016. It would run rough sometimes. It might take a few tries to start it, but it ran - and the air conditioner ran and the electric space heater in the winter ran - while the generator kept running.

And then it was time for another oil change.

I decided to have not only the oil changed but also the air filter which was not due for enough more hours of run time that it could have waited until next year - and also the fuel filter which is not to be changed for a good amount of time to come but since there had been some rough starts, I felt that this would be best changed now. There is no oil filter. Of course, I did not even think about going anywhere else to have this done - I went back to the RV dealer/service. In advance of my going - when I made the appointment I gave them a list of what I wanted done - and said very directly that the year before too much oil was put in and that it caused problems and to make a note that ONLY ONE QUART IS TO BE USED.

Now, just an aside before we move on with this tale. Why would they put in too much oil? I know why. My Onan is a Microlite 2800 KV - KV being the specific model Microlite that it is. It was manufactured and then installed in my RV in 2011. In 2012, Onan came out with a new version of the Microlite 2800 - no longer KV. This new model takes over 20 ounces of oil. Whoever put the oil in my generator did not look to see what model it is - they should know - and put oil in for the new model. This is no excuse. And no one has offered me this explanation for why too much oil was put in - but I can see why it could have happened. It could have cost me $400 to find out about their mistake.  By the kindness of my mechanic, it cost a lot less. Now back to our tale...

We got down to the RV dealer/service for our appointment and the lady that we have come to know well who runs the service desk was off for the day. Everyone is nice there so it did not matter. They knew we were coming and they had the parts for the job I had asked them in advance to do. I said again - and told the whole story why - that the generator ONLY TAKES ONE QUART OF OIL. We went off and wasted several hours walking to a nearby supermarket and Home Depot shopping center - as we generally do when we go down there - while they worked on the RV. When we went back to pick it up, we learned that they did not do the fuel filter change saying that it is in the back of the generator and can not be reached without taking the generator down off the van - and they did not do that. Had they asked if I wanted them to I would have likely said yes. BUT - in the back of my head I was sure that the generator manual said that this routine maintenance item was right in front of the generator right at the access door to the inside of the case. It was too late then to say - do it - and we took the RV with a generator with an oil change and a new air filter - and no new fuel filter. They did make an emphatic point to let me know that they only put ONE quart of oil in.

When we were home I checked the manual for where the fuel filter is - and yes, it is right in front. I even crawled under the van to look to see it - much to my regret going under the van which I should not do - and there it was just like in the picture in the manual. I sent an email to the woman that we know in service asking why they did not do the fuel filter as it is NOT in the back of the generator and that the manual says it is a simple replacement right in the front. The answer I got back was that they were concerned that they would not properly reach the connecting clamp at the bottom and that if they tried and did the replacement it might dangerously leak gasoline inside. OK - but this could have been said while I was there.  She suggested that I take it to an authorized Onan service center to have it changed.

When we were home it was time to do the monthly running of the generator for June. I went out and started the generator, waited the several minutes for it to warm up and then went to turn on the air conditioner. Nothing. The generator kept running. It was then that I noticed that the display panel on the microwave was not lit - this lights up when there is 110 volts running inside the RV. It was dark. I went in the house and came out with an outlet tester, plugged it in and there was no power in the electric outlets. This should not be - the generator was running!

A lot of panicked and fast research both on the internet and in the Onan manual and I discovered that inside the generator there is a circuit breaker that controls if the electric current that it puts out. If the circuit breaker is off there will be no power in the outlets from the generator. This time I asked Meryl to go under the van, reach in and feel - you can't see it lying under the van - to find out if the circuit breaker as off.  I showed her a picture - thanks to one of the good people on one of the groups I am on - of exactly where the circuit breaker is. The generator had been shut down, of course. She went under, and could not reach with her hand to get to the circuit breaker. OK - I got down on the ground, crawled under, reached in and it was off. I managed to get my finger under the switch and clicked it on. Again, to my shortly after regret of having gone down to do this. My Adrenalin was pumping and that was keeping me going. I went into the RV and turned on the generator. Immediately the microwave panel lit up. There was power coming through! The A/C started when I turned it on. It ran for two hours as it should before I turned it off. For the moment I was relieved. BUT how did the circuit breaker get put off to begin with. The circuit breaker is on the side of the section that the air filter goes into and right behind the fuel filter that did not get changed. Ah ha! Someone in there had to hit it while moving around and clicked it off. Certainly, it did not trip. There was nothing to trip it. And it was not tripping now - it was running.

The tale has only begun. There is a lot more and we will take up right here in Part 2 which will be right here - same time, same place in two weeks...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Plugging into an Outlet that is Not 30 Amps

We have been contacted a number of times and also have answered this question on several forums and this article will put it all out as to what and how when you need to plug your 30 amp RV - Roadtrek or any other - into an 110/120 volt electric outlet that is not 30 amps. This might be at home - the most common application of this - when needing to plug in and all that is at your house is an outdoor 15 or 20 amp outlet. Then there is also situations at campgrounds where you find yourself faced with plugging your 30 amp RV into a 50 amp outlet. When you plug in your RV into an outlet whether at home or in a campground no matter how many amps the outlet in the world of RVing you are plugging into "SHORE POWER".

Let's start with the more common - plugging into a 15 or 20 amp outlet. Before we go into details of how you do it, there are a few things to understand and one of what seems to be the most confusing concept involves the limits of a 15 or 20 amp outlet for a 30 amp RV. To start off I would like you to watch this short video clip from a classic television show that has nothing to do with RVs but everything to do with the situation we have here. Watch and laugh - and then we will continue explaining why you watched it. (The video quality is not great - it is not my video but I did not think you wanted to watch the entire episode (which is better quality) for this one scene.)

OK- I find this scene the easiest and funniest way to understand what happens when you plug a 30 amp capacity RV into an outlet that is only 15 or 20 amps. In the scene the magic number is "7". With your 30 amp RV the magic number is "15" or "20" depending on how many amps the outlet is. Home outlets may be 15 or 20 amps. (More on this will come.) In the show if Lisa plugged in a "5" and a "3" the generator would blow - in this show that generator would literally blow (for the sake of comedy) when this would happen. If you plug your 30 amp RV into a 15 amp outlet you can plug in an appliance that uses 6 amps and an appliance that uses 9 amps and (basically - again more on this coming) all will be fine, but plug in a 6 and a 10 and as Lisa would say, "Blooey!" - you will trip the circuit breaker or blow the fuse that is connected to that outlet in your house!  Why? You only have an outlet with the capacity of 15 amps (in this example) and if you start appliances inside your RV that use more than 15 amps - either singly or together - you overload the circuit and as a safety precaution the circuit breaker trips or the fuse blows out. This is better than the alternative of an overloaded circuit where it bursts into flames and burns down the house.

Another extremely important thing to know when plugging into a house outlet is if there are any other outlets inside or outside the house that are on the same circuit breaker or fuse in the house circuit breaker or fuse box. The fast way to find out is shut off the circuit breaker or take out the fuse on the outlet you are going to plug into and then check to see if any other outlets no longer work (or lights or whatever electric in the house no longer work). IF there is another outlet or circuit on that house breaker, you are SHARING the total amps of that outlet - either 15 or 20 (you will know this by looking at the circuit breaker itself - it will be marked 15 or 20 - or on the glass fuse which will also be marked with its amps). If you are sharing the amps with other outlets, if those outlets are in use you must subtract how many amps are plugged into those outlets (or on that circuit in the case of hardwired lights or appliances in the house) from what you have available in the RV. So simple example. Lets say that you have two outlets on a 20 amp circuit and one of those outlets already has 10 amps plugged into it and in use. The outlet you are about to plug your RV into only has 10 amps for you to use. Plug in 11 amps and "Blooey!".

If you have all of this well understood - and not only by you but also anyone who is going to be in the RV with you - kids especially - you will have no problems plugging your 30 amp RV into a 15 or 20 amp outlet at your (or anyone's) house.  SO - just to ask you a question to make sure you understand. You are plugged into a 15 amp outlet. Can you turn your Air Conditioner (high amp appliance) and your Microwave (high amp appliance) on at the same time? If you answered "NO!" you will be fine.  If you answered "Yes" then go back and watch the video and read this all again. I would also not try this on a 20 amp outlet.

Now, that all out of the way - here is how you do it. I plug my Roadtrek into the house twice a month every month to charge the batteries. It works with no problems. You will need a couple of things. Your 30 amp RV has a 30 amp plug on its power cord. A 30 amp plug does not fit in a 15/20 amp outlet. It is too big and the position, size, of the three prongs will not fit. You are going to need a 30 amp female to 15/20 amp male adapter. They are not hard to find and you can find one at many Walmart stores in the RV section of the auto department. They may have two types. Do not buy the one that is a single unit with a plug on one side and the 30 amp socket on the other side of one rubber cylinder. These will work but can be hard to pull apart from your power cord. Buy what is called a "dog bone" adapter. This has a whole 30 amp socket on one end of a thick wire - the same size as your RV's power cord - and on the other end of that wire a whole male 15 amp three prong plug. These are less than ten dollars. They usually have a pull handle on the 30 amp socket (not as pictured here).

 IF your RV power cord will not reach the outlet you want to plug into you also need a 30 amp RV extension cord. Never use a household extension cord - even if it is labeled heavy duty - even if it is 10 gauge wire. Compare that to your RV power cord and you will see that the wire is much thinner. You want to get every amp you can and you do not want an extension cord that could overheat - or worse cause a fire while connected to your RV. Spend the money for an RV 30 amp extension cord. They cost more but will keep your house, your RV, and you safe. The wire on the extension cord should be as thick as the power cord on your RV.

You are now all set!

1. Plug in the 30 amp socket on the adapter to the 30 amp plug of the extension cord.

2. Plug the RV power cord 30 amp plug into the 30 amp socket on the extension cord.

3. Go into the Roadtrek if your RV is a Roadtrek and TURN ON THE BATTERY SWITCH.
    (If you don't have a Roadtrek you may not have to do this - follow the procedure for plugging your RV into "shore power".)

4. Plug the 15 amp plug of the adapter into the 15/20 amp outlet on your house.

DONE.  You now have 110 volts available for use in your RV (with the restrictions we have discussed above). 

If you have a Electric Management System unit - a surge/voltage protector - you might want to plug that in within these connections to. We do - even at home. This is discussed in other articles on our site about hooking up your RV (Roadtrek).

That is all you need to plug in at home - or at someone's home. There are other situations where you might need different adapters and we will look at those now.

When I first arrive at a campground to "check in" and get my site, the first thing I do when I get to the site is test the 30 amp outlet in the power box.  I do this using a Polarity Tester (about $5 generally wherever electric components are sold including home stores and Walmart) and also a 110 volt (AC) volt meter. The meter I use is a device called a "Kill-A-Watt" that is used to test electric appliances for wattage but also will give you the number of volts in an AC outlet just by plugging it in. This also is sold at home stores. You could also buy an AC plug in volt meter on its own - but when I went shopping for one I was not finding any locally and what I saw at RV shops cost twice what the "Kill-A-Watt" costs. Both of these devices have a standard 15/20 amp house plug. To use these to test a 30 amp outlet I use a 15 amp female to 30 amp male adapter - the opposite of what is mentioned and shown above. This has a 30 amp plug and a 15 amp socket. Plug the device into the 15 amp socket and then plug the 30 amp plug into the campground 30 amp power outlet. These devices used this way will correctly read the polarity and the number of volts coming through the 30 amp outlet in the campground box. If they are not right, we go right back to the campground office and let them know that there is a problem. We first ask for another site. If one is not available we ask that they fix the problem immediately.

If the problem cannot be fixed - and there is no other site - the next thing we carry to take care of that situation is a 50 amp male to 30 amp female adapter.

As you can see in this photo, a 50 amp plug - the one on the right - is larger and very different from a 30 amp plug. The 50 amp plug has three blades and one ground. I am not going to confuse you by explaining how the 50 amp plug works, for your 30 amp RV that is not important. What is important is that when you are plugged into a 50 amp outlet using one of these adapters to plug your 30 amp RV into, you are only getting 30 amps coming into your RV. It is no different than having plugged into a 30 amp outlet. You can plug your 30 amp EMS unit (surge and voltage protector) into the line with no problem - it will work exactly as it does when you are plugged into a 30 amp outlet directly. All you are getting are 30 amps.

So plug your 30 amp RV power cord into the 30 amp socket on this adapter and then plug the 50 amp plug into the 50 amp outlet in the campground box. You are now in business - just as if you were plugged into a 30 amp outlet.

If you find yourself looking at a 30 amp outlet in a campground box that is loose or when you plug into it, it just does not seem right - and there is no other site to be moved to - use the 50 amp to 30 amp adapter shown and described above.

Now - one final word of advice -

When plugging in at a campground into a 30 amp outlet - or a 50 amp outlet - there is usually a circuit breaker in the box over the outlets for each outlet in the box. You will know which goes to which as the breaker will be labeled - 30 amp or 50 amp. BEFORE you plug anything in, switch that breaker to OFF. It is always best to do everything safely. Plug into an outlet that is OFF and you will not get shocked. Check the circuit breaker first - unfortunately, not everyone does what is safe and they often disconnect with the breaker on - which YOU should NOT DO, and you will find the circuit breaker was left on. Shut it OFF. Plug the plug in, and then click the circuit breaker to ON. Done! Safe!

We have been to two campgrounds where there was no circuit breaker in the box for the outlets. I was not thrilled plugging in that way, but there was no choice - just use extra caution.

At home you would have to go inside the house to the circuit breaker box to turn off the breaker and then go back in to turn it on. Since we plug appliances into 15 or 20 amp outlets in our homes every day with the circuit breaker on, it is really no big deal to plug the adapter and power cord of the RV into a live 15 or 20 amp outlet. The more amps the more dangerous. It is the same 110 volts but it is the amps that can kill ya! Heard that in some show or movie about a prison electric chair...

"Shocking, simply shocking."