Updating our power system, pt. 2

We had now successfully installed and run our new solar panel for a week or so, it was working well to the limits of the old charge controller. Our current controller was rated at 10 amps and reckoned it would power a panel up to 130w, so now it had to deal with a 405w panel, it was obviously not able to maximise it. We needed at least a 30A controller. Even with this limitation, it still meant that we had a steady 10amps of charge current for nearly 10 hours of the day, and this alone was just enough to keep us going without the generator. We did have a few mornings where the fridge refused to start up until the sun was high enough, but we scraped by. 

We were still waiting for the rest of our system to arrive. Several frustrated emails later, I phoned the company demanding to know where my order was. The man on the other end of the line was sympathetic and also spoke excellent English, he blamed two things. Covid, for slowly down delivery times across the world and also the fact that the batteries I had ordered were lithium and classified as a hazardous material. This meant they could not be sent by air, and the land delivery was much slower. While I understood these problems, it was still frustrating as I had specifically asked them before ordering whether there delivery times we effected and they assure me they were not. Having sent them over £2000, I had little choice but to wait. Another two weeks went by, and finally, after one last angry email, I was provided and tracking number and assured that they would be ready for me to collect on Saturday. Finally, a month later they were here. Not however on Saturday, but on Tuesday, still after waiting this long, what’s another few days?

This conveniently coincided with the expiry of Hanno and Kiki’s tourist visas. Due to the current circumstances, it was rumoured that you could get a second tourist visa for free, on the basis of humanitarian reasons as it was not possible to leave by land. There were however many accounts of people being denied their visas, and it was clear that doing this process in La Paz was easier as they were accustomed to dealing with gringos. It was also necessary to let your current visa lapse, before applying for a new one. A process that feels a little wrong for us, being used to countries were leaving your visa to expire is a very bad idea. In order to get the new visa the same day, you had to be at the office before 11am, so to give themselves plenty of time, they decided to leave the campsite at around 7.30am. I would be accompanying them to pick up the new batteries.

Leaving the campsite this early, meant that we would be able to stop at the Correos de Mexico, the Mexican post office, and see what was happening to the parcel my parents had sent me from England over a month ago. It was only open between 7am and 9am, meaning it wasn’t normally possible by the time we got to town. Arriving here, I was lucky that the friend of the person in the office spoke English. He translated for me as I tried to ask what was happening. Apparently, this was very common, he said normally it takes a month for a parcel to arrive from the US, I could expect at least two months for something from the UK. He passed across my tracking number, and the said that the other guy would phone me with an update. Back in Bruno, we started the hour drive north to La Paz. I decided to check the parcel’s tracking, which I hadn’t bothered to do in a month as it never did anything. Funnily enough, the day before it had updated for the first time. Confirming that first, my package was indeed in Mexico and also that it had not been lost. We planned to spend another month on the ranch so that we could also renew our visas before moving on, so hopefully, that lone Mexican who seemed responsible for the entire countries postal system could encourage his old and possibly lame donkey, to cross the border into our state before then. 

Now I focused on the exciting part of today, which was the collection of our order. Much awaited, I was very excited to go and collect it. First though, was a visit to the immigration office. I decided to wait in Bruno while the other two went in, thinking that maybe having an extra irrelevant person might confuse matters. It wasn’t too long before Kiki returned, she confirmed that they were able to get new visas and just needed to get the paperwork processed. 

It was now late morning, and above 40 degrees inside Bruno, so I sat on the step and made the most of having internet while I waited. In fact, it turned out not to be a long wait. Within the hour they had returned and said they had to wait a further hour for the paperwork to be processed. So we sat in the car park, eating sourdough bread and waiting. Sure enough, an hour later we were back on the road, they not only with their two new visas but also with refugee status. Something I think it is fair to say that no one planned on achieving on this trip. 

Having had a fairly successful day so far, things took a turn in the opposite direction. A week or so ago, Lee and Hanno had gone to Cabo. Lee needed to collect his iPad, which was having a new screen. When they had gone to pick it up, it turns out the guy hadn’t even started it yet, despite the fact it was supposed to be ready several days before. Another fine example of things being done on ‘Mexican time’. It is no surprise, therefore, they decided to sample the local brewery while they waited and on leaving inadvertently drove the wrong way down a one-way street. Unfortunately, straight past a police car. The officers in question wanted to fine them nearly 4,000 pesos, that’s about £140. This is probably what you might expect in England, except that it would be from a camera and you’d get a ticket in the post a week later. Here in Mexico, that is a ridiculous amount. They wanted them to come back to the station the next day and pay the fine, in the end, they drove down a side road and made them pay 2,000 pesos. On another occasion, they might have negotiated further, but after having gone down the street the wrong way, and having had a few beers while driving a vehicle with no insurance, it was probably a good idea to get out of there as quickly as possible. 

Back in La Paz, as we drove down a side road, we drove past a police car puled over at the side of the road. It then pulled out and started following us. Kiki was driving and well aware of the police car right behind her, so made sure to stop at each stop sign. Something the police are known for doing is pulling you over for not stopping completely at the stop signs, it had happened to Dane and Sabrina only the week before. They followed us for several blocks, before the inevitable siren came on and we were pulled over. An office appeared at the window, comically short next to Bruno. He stood and stared at us in silence. We stared back. The silence grew lengthy and rather uncomfortable as he looked around trying to find some reason why he had pulled us over. He said something. We shrugged. “No entiendo”. Then he started doing a rather odd mime that none of us understood. Another officer appeared at the other window and attempted English without much luck. They asked for 500 pesos for some unknown law that we had supposedly violated. Again they wanted the same thing, come to the station tomorrow. We explained we didn’t live here, grinning to each other they said we could pay now. In fact, it was cheaper to do it this way! So 200 pesos poorer, we sat in the truck and waited for them to leave. There’s not really much you can do when faced with corrupt police except try and reduce how much they are trying to screw you for being foreign. 

The last thing now was to collect the post. I was not the only one with a parcel to collect, Hanno had ordered the next instalment for his desert brewing company and was hoping that it would arrive today at the same warehouse as my order. However, the tracking had not yet updated to show its arrival, so in the meantime, we went to do the obligatory Walmart and Home Depot shop. then, good news the parcel had arrived, so we headed back into town to go to Paquet Express warehouse. After a little bit of a language barrier and a bit of rummaging, we had got both our parcels. After the police incident, we were all ready to get out of La Paz and to the relative coolness of the Rancho again. On our drive back, we were greeted by torrential rain for the first time since we had been here, hurricane season is coming and we should be leaving… The next day would be a busy one, installing our new system.

I was very excited to be putting in our new batteries. I imagined a life where I could charge the laptops whenever I wanted. The fridge could be run on max power and the Wallas could be turned on without running the generator or the engine. We could run a fan at night. Charge our electric toothbrushes! The options were endless and thrilling. 

The new system is made of a few new components. Having dealt with shitty power for so long, I may have gone a little overboard now. Not only did we have an entirely new solar system, but we also had a B2B charger as well as an extra usable 70a.h. of power. I decided the first job would be the charge controller just because it was very easy. The cabling already in place, it was a simple matter of screwing the new one into place and setting the correct program. This small job accomplished, I turned my attention to the batteries. It’s not too hard to get to them, but after several hours of sitting in the back, things got a bit uncomfortable.

The two old AGM batteries sit in the bottom of my wardrobe and it wasn’t long before they were removed, along with their cabling. 

Here you can see the main power feed wires that run across the van, suppling the amp, inverter, fuse board and solar system. 

The new lithium batteries have screw terminals and there are also three, not two so the wiring needed redoing. I also needed to fit a new way to hold the batteries down as the old clamps did not fit the new batteries. The batteries themselves fitted in perfectly with space left to mount the B2B charger and shunt next to them.

After fixing some racket straps to hold them in place, I made up some new cabling and fitted the shunt to the earth side of the system that would be used for giving accurate information to the battery monitoring system. This was not something we had on our old batteries as it is possible to tell the state of charge of a lead-acid battery fairly accurately by its voltage, this is not possible with lithium and it is a good idea to have a proper monitoring system so you know exactly what’s going on. 

With the batteries, shunt and charge controller fitted, I turned my attention to the B2B charger. for those that don’t know, there are a few ways that you can charge you leisure batteries using the vehicles alternator while driving. The most common is probably a split charge relay or a voltage-sensitive relay, which are two slightly different things that do the same job. These are cheap systems and will never fully charge your batteries as the output of the alternator is not designed for this application, If you want a full charge from your alternator, you will need to install a battery-to-battery charger which can adjust and boost the alternator output to fully charge a secondary battery. The downside is the expense, but I had gone all out on our new system.

A simple enough thing to install, Lee was back from helping Dane out up at the top and so began removing the old split charge circuit. The one thing with working out here was the lack of supplies. You really don’t want to cut a wire wrong or run out of connectors, it’s a long drive to get another one. We reused the old wiring where possible and had just enough connectors to complete the heavy-duty wiring. The B2B charger was probably the most complicated thing to install as it had to be mounted vertically with good ventilation, this meant creating some custom brackets out of our old battery holders to keep it in place. Here you can see the mounted charger with the shunt for the battery monitor behind it on the wall.

Finally, we ran the wire across the back of the engine bay for the battery monitor and connected this. Our new system was live and running. It was now the end of the day, but I was pretty happy we had managed to complete our entire system upgrade in a day. Tomorrow would be exciting to see how the whole system worked. We also needed some sun to charge our batteries, as they were not fully charged. However, the battery monitor isn’t able to calculate the capacity until the batteries have been charged once. Once it knows they are full, it calculates the power consumption in order to give a percentage of the state of charge. It seemed unlikely the batteries had been sent fully charged, so we would need a good day of sun to allow the system to calibrate itself. That shouldn’t be a problem out here. 

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