Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Extreme Winter and Charging the Roadtrek Batteries

This winter has been extreme all over the country. In the west there are droughts, in the mid-west, central and eastern states there is extreme cold and deep snow. This has is the worst winter that Meryl and I have experienced with the Roadtrek. Since we got her it has been cold and it has snowed but there has been nothing like this. As a result the temperatures are taking their toll on our Roadtrek's batteries.

I wrote in a recent article, "After Winterizing", I spoke about our schedule to keep the batteries charged. I have a schedule to plug the Roadtrek into shore power at our house on the 28th of every month (28th chosen because of February) and I exercise the generator for two hours on the 15th of every month. This schedule has been fine until now. With single digit and below zero temperatures day after day, and wind chills that bring those down even lower, I have been going out at least once a week to check to see that the battery level is still on the green LED on the monitor panel inside the Roadtrek. Suddenly with these temperatures combined with what seem like regular snow storms, a once a week check is not seeming to be enough.

I looked at the battery monitor panel a week ago before a snow storm and everything looked fine. The 28th came on the day of another snow storm and when I was able to get into the Roadtrek to check the batteries the level had dropped to the red LED second from the bottom. This one is labeled "F" for Fair which is an indication to me that the batteries are getting too low and need to be charged as soon as possible. You really never want that monitor to read at the bottom red LED - "L" for Low.

Had this been an ordinary, no snow, normal winter temperature day - normal being upper 20's into the mid-30's or higher - I would have pulled out the RV extension cord, plugged that into my Surge Guard Power Protector, and connected that to the Roadtrek's cord - which needs to be pulled about four feet out for the two electric cords to reach the outside outlet in the rear of my house. This would have been plugged into that outlet and the Roadtrek would have charged for 12 hours. That is our usual routine.  But the snow was coming down and would not stop until the next morning. The night temperatures were going into single digits. And the forecasts for the coming days were as uncertain as they always are. All of this and the Roadtrek's batteries needed to be charged.

Let me stray a moment to talk about Roadtrek 190 Populars from 2011 on and why I have to rely upon the Roadtrek's battery monitor LED panel which I know some of you will say is highly inaccurate and does not provide a much needed digital reading of the battery voltage. In 2010, the Roadtrek 190 came with two coach battery compartments. All were outside - one was located behind the rear passenger wheel on the side of the van and one was located on the same side in front of the rear wheel. The one in front of the wheel contained a tray on which the battery slid out. The one behind the wheel opened with clear and easy access to the battery that was there. In 2011 for some reason, Roadtrek changed this design. For one thing, they changed from using wet cell batteries to AGM batteries for 12 volt coach power. The new design put both batteries into one battery compartment located where the former compartment was in front of the rear wheel. From the outside you see the same compartment door as before, but once you look inside the compartment, there now sit two batteries on a fixed platform that no longer slides out for access to the batteries. Without getting deep into this compartment there is no access to the battery terminals and therefore no convenient way to touch the test leads on an electric voltage meter to the terminals and read what the actual voltage is. There are also no 12 volt outlets inside the Roadtrek (not since several model years earlier) to be able to use that to connect a voltage meter to - another way that many with such outlets read the actual voltage of the coach battery(ies). So what I am stuck with are the LEDs on the battery monitor panel. There are estimates of the battery level and the LEDs - this is from the Notes for the Roadtrek Electric Simulator - "The “C” light will be on if the voltage is above about 12.7 volts, the “G” light comes on at about 12 volts, the “F” light comes on at about 11.3 volts. The “L” light will come on with less than 5 volts." Notice that the "L" is less than five volts. This why you never want the battery to fall that low - it will potentially damage the battery and charging the battery(ies) back will take much longer.  I know that one Roadtrek owner with a much older model was able to wire a small digital voltage meter into the back of the monitor panel and have the reading show on this meter affixed to the wall adjacent when pressing the test switch. This is not something that I am confident in doing myself. It has been suggested to tap into an empty fuse spot in the fuse box, but when I looked there are no accessible empty fuses spots and certainly no ground wire that is accessible - and I am not about to remove the fuse panel to look for what may be available inside. So, again, I rely on the LEDs which under ordinary circumstances - in that normal winter world that may or may not exist any more - the future will tell.

So - here I am, in the snow and I am not sure how close to that second LED going out and the bottom LED remaining the Roadtrek actually is. I had to charge as soon as possible.

The next day when the storm was over, the temperatures were not much better and they would remain that way for at least two days with maybe or maybe not a rise after that. First I had to shovel the path out of the house, the driveway, the sidewalk, and attempt to shovel a path to the rear of the house that had not really been shoveled since the last storm a week before. I got enough cleared in the back of the house to get to the outlet, but all the while I was realizing that I would have to deal with the other problem of charging the Roadtrek in the cold - the lack of flexibility of the Roadtrek's power cord and the RV extension cord. The RV extension cord was secondary. I could just drag that into the house after use and warm it up to put the long, wild snake of a cord into a store-able condition. The Roadtrek's power cord is located in the lower outside storage compartment and comes out through what has been called a "mouse hole". The mouse hole is located on the rear side of the compartment and comes out into the next covered section where the city water connection is. The "mouse hole" is made up of a flex opening - a round of plastic that is cut like a pizza in the middle. The Roadtrek plug is pushed through this plastic with the flex fingers holding it on place and not permitting any little critters to crawl in around it into the storage compartment. On the outside of the "mouse hole" is a flip cap with space inside the "mouse hole" outer cup for the plug to sit in. We learned the hard way that getting the plug through those so-called flex fingers and into that cup section looks a lot easier than it actually is - and this is in the heat of summer - and you never want that plug to pull back into the storage compartment. In the winter there is no flex. And in just regular winter cold, the cord is difficult to pull out and even more difficult to push back in. Now with this so-called Arctic Vortex this cord if it came out too far from the opening was going to be a problem getting back in - and with this weather, I was not going to let this plug just hang out after the charging was finished. There was no way that I was going to pull it out enough to meet up with the RV extension cord to reach the backyard outlet.

I have two outlets outside and one outlet inside a small porch where our house's side door is. The second outside outlet is in the front of my house - close to the Roadtrek, but to get to it one must go into the front garden and the front garden is where two winter storms' snow was put when shoveled. This outlet was not an option. The outlet inside the porch would work - as long as it was not connected to any wiring for other electric service inside the house, and I had to check the circuit breakers to see if it was - it wasn't and surprisingly it was a 20 amp outlet. The only thing that shared that line was the porch light which does come on with an electric eye but that would not be a problem with 20 amp service.

I don't really know how much amperage the Roadtrek's charging system uses. Once the Roadtrek is plugged into shore power and nothing else is turned on inside the only thing that comes on other than the Tripp-Lite 750W Inverter/Converter/Charger is the microwave (at least the microwave display panel lights up). In my Roadtrek with the all electric refrigerator the fridge turns to 110 volt power automatically but the dial inside is turned to Off. I tried looking at the Tripp-Lite specs but did not see this listed.

When we were finished shoveling and after a short break in the house for feeling to return to our fingers, we went out to charge the Roadtrek. My first thought was to charge for a several hours into the early night and then charge again longer the next day with hopes that maybe it would be warmer. Our usual routine of charging twelve hours straight involves a trip outside at about 2 am to shut it all down and put everything away. With our late night schedule this is not a problem normally. Yes, we are late night people and 2 am is not an issue for us at all. But at 2 am there were temperatures in the low teens predicted and that would be a problem. After we got it all going we decided together that we would just leave it charging overnight until the next day and let it charge for 24 hours - no problem with AGM batteries and no problem with the Tripp-Lite that would allow the charging to continue without a problem is the Roadtrek was always plugged in.

We decided to forget for this time plugging in the Surge Guard. The power from our house should be fine without it. We worked the Roadtrek power cord less than a foot out of the "mouse hole" pushing out from the inside. The cord was very cold and very stiff.  The RV extension cord is kept on a reel inside the porch an while it was cold in there, the cord did roll off the reel to the floor of the porch - maintaining the coils which it does not do when it is warmer. We got out the Plug Dogs - the pull handles for RV plugs. These are one of the BEST things that we have bought for the Roadtrek. Over and over they prove their extreme value and benefit! We also got out the 30 amp female to 15/20 amp male adapter plug cord. I went inside the Roadtrek and turned on the battery switch - necessary before plugging into shore power. A Plug Dog went onto the plug of the extension cord and one went onto the female socket of the adapter. The adapter has a plastic pull on the socket but with this cold I was not going to trust that not to break if pulled on. Two more Plug Dogs were used between the Roadtrek plug and the RV extension cord socket. I am so glad that I ordered four Plug Dogs when I got them. The Roadtrek plug was hard to get into the extension cord socket and I was afraid to force it as I did not want them to be stuck together due to the extreme cold. I managed to get them together and the adapter plug was plugged into the wall outlet in the porch. The porch door when closed would have to sit on the cord and the door would sit out about an inch open as a result - letting a lot of cold into the porch. I went  into the Roadtrek to check that all was well and the batteries were charging (shown as C on the panel monitor when the test button is pushed). I pushed the test button and... Nothing. Oh boy! Now we had to troubleshoot.

We don't often use that porch outlet and perhaps it was not working. The light attached on the same line works fine. We found a lamp and plugged it into both sockets on the outlet and the lamp lit. The extension cord and the adapter were tight together. This put the problem either inside or outside of the Roadtrek. I first went to the Roadtrek plug which we had hanging in mid-air plugged into the extension cord. As soon as I touched them, they fell apart. There was the answer - simple but now, to get them together as they need to be I was going to have to push them together hard - which even in the summer means put them on the ground and using a foot to apply enough pressure for them to mate. This is only a problem with the heavy rubber socket on the extension cord. The Roadtrek plug plugs easily in and out of a campground 30 amp socket. OK. If I had to force them together I would have to hope that they would come apart - and hopefully, in this cold the Plug Dogs would work as well as always. I got the plug and socket mated, put it on the ground and gently with my foot pushed them firmly together. Meryl plugged the adapter into the house outlet and I went in again to check. Yes! The test switch showed Charge on the battery LEDs. I decided to unplug the microwave. While the lit display panel should not make a difference I decided that it was easy enough to just have the Tripp-Lite charger circuits running on the 110 volt electric circuit.

We left it to charge for 24 hours. Twice after plugging in I checked that all was well inside and it was still charging. I was. The next day was sunny and felt warmer though the thermometer was not showing any better than the day before. We went out about 2 pm to shut it down and put it all away. The Plug Dogs did their job well on the Roadtrek plug and extension cord socket that sat out all night and with a sharp yank the two separated. Thank goodness! The adapter and extension cord was not as easy and it took several yanks to get these apart even though they had been inside the porch all night. They did come apart and I thought how good it was that I did not rely on just one Plug Dog and the adapter's little plastic pull ring that is screwed like a hinge around the upper half of the socket. With a little effort I was able to get the RV extension cord back on the reel. The Roadtrek plug was pushed reluctantly (on the cord's part) back through the "mouse hole" and into the cap. Done.

Lessons learned. In extreme cold, checking the battery voltage level once every week may not be enough. I will be checking twice a week in temperatures like this. With this weather it may be a good idea to charge the batteries twice a month and will check the level just before exercising the generator and then plug in the next day if the battery is low. The generator does charge the batteries but not enough in the two hour run. With this weather consider moving to a warmer climate - but heck, it snowed and froze over in Virginia, Georgia, and parts of Florida this past week (the week I am writing this).

Asides - you can charge the Roadtrek coach batteries by driving. This is fine for some - maybe many - but we live on a four lane avenue that has steady traffic. It is difficult to pull out in good weather. I am not sure that the area of the cut into the street is even large enough for the Roadtrek to get in and out of - plus I would not want to drive it now on the roads here that are thick with salt - and where would I drive for two hours?

If the coach batteries are too low or dead, the generator will not start - even if you run the van engine as a boost. If you think of the Roadtrek as a shelter in the event of a power outage which can happen during these cold, snowing, and iced conditions, it is no good to you if the batteries have no charge.

When you charge the coach batteries you are also charging the van battery. This is important in the winter as well!

If you have a Roadtrek with the new solar panel option, the batteries will charge in the light of day from the solar panel and inverter charging circuits. This is one big benefit to the optional solar package. 

Well, I had intended this as a short article. It is longer than I anticipated but adding the whys and what happens to this small tale is perhaps more important to you all than the tale itself. Stay warm!


  1. I might have mentioned this before and since I haven't had a battery problem, I just skimmed your article. So if this isn't germane to the issue, I apologize.

    Anyway, I installed a TRIK-L-START unit ( shortly after purchasing our 2008 RT -- the cab battery went dead after about two weeks of sitting idle. Anyway, our RT stays plugged in to shore power continually while at home. Our unit has sat idle since the first of October without being started. I just went out and it started right up. And this is after a week and a half of the high temperatures for the day being in the mid-single digits.

    There is also a Youtube video here on the installation procedure.

    1. If one has an a 110v outlet adjacent to the Roadtrek outside, plugging it into shore power and leaving it plugged in all winter will keep the coach batteries (and engine battery in models 2006 and newer) fully charged - and this will work even without a trickle charger. The trick to this is having that outlet that will allow you to plug into shore power without the electric cord sitting on the ground between the outlet and the Roadtrek without that cord getting in the way. There is no way that I could do this. The cord would be on the ground on the driveway just where one needs to walk to get from the front of the house to the rear of the house, plus as has been happening with recent storms would be under the snow that will be removed with a snow blower and/or shovels (if not buried in inches thick of ice - as is the condition of that location outside my house at this moment) and a snow blower would tear that cord to pieces and result in a great deal of hazard and damage. So, if you can park your Roadtrek for the winter completely out of the way right next to an 110 v outlet, it is an option. Also, in a 2011 and newer Roadtrek 190, Ranger, and, I believe 210, , the coach batteries' terminals are not accessible to connect a trickle charger to. They are not under the floor as shown in the video link.

  2. Oh! I do apologize. I didn't watch the video before providing the Link. And after further review (as they say): It is a lousy video. I am suitably embarrassed.

    Anyway, I installed mine under the hood. This, IIRC (it was five years ago), was according to the instructions that came with the unit.

    Hmmmm. Simply plugging the house in to 110V did not keep the chassis battery from discharging in our 2008 model. After only a couple weeks -- what I thought was a very short period of time -- the chassis battery would not start the engine. This was solved only by installing the TRIK-L-START. The spec sheet that came with the unit said something about it taking energy out of the house batteries to keep the chassis battery "topped off." And after five years or so, I have not had a single non-start situation even, as I stated above, after several months of storage.

    In any event, I do not profess to understand how it works (in fact, quite the opposite) and only submitted my comment to add a supplement to your article. I do understand why this wouldn't be much of a solution to your situation.

  3. After driving all day I stayed in a motel and was not connected to shore power so turned off the battery to save it and put the fridge on gas so my ice cream wouldn't melt. Now in the morning the battery has no lights showing on the monitor and it will be two more days in motels before I am in a place where I can plug into shore power. Also my generator won't start. Have I ruined my batteries and what should I do about the batteries when staying in a motel?

    1. You have completely drained your batteries. The generator won't start because it needs the battery for its starter - you could try starting the engine to get some power to try to start the generator but more than likely it will still not start. You should not have ruined your batteries - not with this happening only once. You have not said what year or model and that may make a difference in what to do. I will proceed with the idea that you have a Roadtrek past 2006 without any of the new fancy electric system additions. There are two ways to get your batteries charged. To drive - usually two hours at highway speed but with completely drained batteries this will take longer. OR to plug in and with the batteries in this condition it may 24 hours of uninterupted charging to bring them back. Why your battery drained to this point is a question. The only condition that I am aware of for the battery to drain to this extent with the battery switch off is extreme cold over an extended amount of time which is not this time of year OR your inverter switch is ON - which with the Tripp-Lite 750 will cause the 110v outlets to still be live even with the battery switch off. If it was on for some time before you shut down the battery to stay the night in the hotel, it was draining all of that time too. IF the inverter wall switch is ON now - shut it off before doing anything else. My Roadtrek sits on my driveway with the battery switch off for weeks and it will take almost four weeks for the battery to drain to where it must be charged. This should not happen over night. If all is correct inside - your inverter switch was off - the battery switch was really off - and the fridge was not drawing any 12 volt power at all - you need to get your electric system checked out by a service tech at an RV shop or RT dealer service. It is possible that there is a problem with your seperater or isolator - depends on year as to which you have - which is inside the engine compartment and keeps the engine battery and RV battery apart so that one does not drain the other. These do go bad over time and odd occurences with either battery are often a result of this going bad - or your charging system is not working. Ask the motel if there is an outside outlet that you may plug into - you will need a 30 amp to 15 amp adapter - which is something that should be carried in the event you need to do just this. You can buy one in the RV section of Walmart's auto department. Sorry this all happened - especially for having some ice cream...

    2. Please tell me what model 3 way refrigerator you have in your Roadtrek? Dometic three-way model #. Does it have "Auto-Mode" where you select that on an electronic control panel on the fridge and it will select what source to use to cool the fridge - Gas, DC, or AC? OR does it have a manual ignite button that you have to keep pushing to light the propane to run the fridge? I am trying to get help for you to track down what went wrong - but I need to know these things. Also year and model Roadtrek? Thanks!