Breaking our new power system

Over the next couple of days our new solar system shone. We could now make coffee on a little coffee machine we had bought, as well as run the fridge easily and charge the laptops to our hearts content. We even discovered that we could run our Remoska, this looks a little like a pressure cooker but is basically a mini electric oven, off the new batteries. This meant I could make bread without the generator, what a luxury! Everything was going rather well, and I only wished that I had installed the system a bit sooner. That is, until we all drove into town one day. 

We rattled our way down the dirt road when Hanno shouted from the back that the battery monitor was beeping. We figured it was probably just a loose wire and after completing our trip and returning to the campsite I got everything out to check the system. Nothing appeared loose and the battery monitor was working, but had reset itself. The solar however was not putting out any wattage, just displaying the voltage. This was a tad weird and Hanno pointed out that I hadn’t wired the negative of the charge controller to the incorrect side of the shunt, causing the monitor to display some slightly odd results. This was quickly fixed and now made more sense, but the solar controller still refused to put out in power. I did a bit of online googling, which didn’t help much. There was a few people with a similar issue, mainly because they had wired the controller backwards and fried the internal fuse. Soon the sun set, and I left the diagnostics to the next day, who would know if a solar problem was fixed if it was dark anyway. 

The following morning, Hanno and Kiki headed up the hill to help out with some more jobs that Dane needed to get done. Their departure to Canada was imminent and there were several jobs on the ranch that needed doing prior to them leaving. Lee stayed with me while we tried to figure out what had happened. Fortunately, in one respect, we still had the old system. That meant we could connect the old charge controller and quickly rule out any problem with the panels. This left us with a problem with the controller, it appeared that somehow it had been subjected to a short. Having removed everything again, we set about wiggling some wires. It wasn’t too long before we were rewarded with a blue flash, and the problem became apparent. Ironically, the insulation tape had come of one of the fuses and created a short. Not enough to blow that fuse, but presumably enough to blow the one in the controller. 

As annoying as it is for a fuse to create a short circuit, we now at least knew why. We disconnected everything, removed the batteries and cables. Lee went about cutting a larger hole in the floor of the cupboard so that we could line it with some foam and prevent any more chaffing. I decided to take apart our two day old controller, considering that this was our fault it wouldn’t be covered by warranty anyway and we needed power. Now we had lithium, we couldn’t use our other controller as it wasn’t suitable for this battery type. This means the only way to charge was the generator, and we had had quite enough of running that in the camp already. 

The charge controller was not built to be taken apart, but eventually after removing a lot of silicone I got to the internal fuse. A quick check determined that it had blown. There was still hope, Hanno had a spare fuse that would do the job and all I needed to do was swap it on the circuit board.

There was another component on the board that looked decidedly burnt, I just hoped the fuse had managed to blow in time and save it, despite its appearances. 

Soon enough the controller was ready to test. The lights blinked promisingly, but it still refused to put out any wattage from the panel. That was that. $200 gone and no power, I was not a happy person. If that wasn’t bad enough, last time we had waited a month for our new setup to arrive, that just wasn’t feasible again. 

Lee got on the phone to the supplier, and fortunately he had a new one in stock unlike last time. Needless to say neither he nor I were impressed that the fuse inside the controller hadn’t done it’s job, but there wasn’t much he could do other than offer us a discount on the shipping. Perhaps its something I shall complain about to Victron directly in the future, why fit a 50A internal fuse on a 30A controller, clearly it’s rated to high to protect the circuitry rendering it a pointless thing except for fire prevention. Unhelpfully, proper fusing is somethig Victron only do the there very heavy duty controllers. The good news is that as it was in stock and as its just a regular product, this time it could be air freighted. This meant it would arrive in only a few days once sent. The other sticking point was the international payment, which can take several days to clear. Credit to the stockists here, Poder Azul, for being reasonable. As I was a returning customer and considering the circumstances, they agreed to dispatch it immediately rather than wait to receive the money as long as I sent a screenshot of the ‘payment processed’ page when I paid. 

This meant that by the next morning, our item was already on a plane heading for Mexico City. Hopefully we would have it in two days. In the meantime we inflicted our generator on the rest of Rancho Pacifico, it seemed the short had drained the batteries somewhat and without being able to accurately see the state of charge anymore as the monitor had reset, I didn’t want to risk any damage to our nice new batteries. So the generator ran all day. 

Delivery times for once were in our favour, and the next day we are on our way to La Paz yet again, to pick up the new controller. 

I was told that we would pick it up directly from the airport, so that’s where we went. The address was a little misleading, stating that the depot was at km 13 on the highway, when in actual fact the airport is a km 8. Nevertheless, we headed down to the terminal. Nothing looked like a cargo facility though, just a standard airport terminal. Thinking that maybe we should go to the actual marked address, we turned around and headed back out to the main road. Keeping our eyes peeled at the 13 km marker we were rewarded with a dilapidated grocery shop and a garage, definitely not an airport cargo facility. We headed back to the airport, driving several laps and looking for any kind of building with the right logo on in. Lee was driving, so while after unsuccessfully searching the car park while some security guards watched us, he loitered outside in the airport drop off while I went in to ask. Due to the pandemic, there was a guard on the door checking who was going in. I told him that I needed to collect a parcel. He nodded and pointed inside the building and towards on end, “Paquetaria”, he said. Walking down the end I was greeted with a standard looking airport check in desk. Nothing that remotely looked like I could collect post from it. I wandered around the building a bit, check the map and then went back and told Lee I had no idea where it was. It was decided I should ask the person on the check in, so feeling rather stupid for asking one of the check in crew where the post office for their air line was I went inside again. The guy behind the desk was very helpful however, in my limited Spanish and his limited English he showed me where to go on the map. He explained how to drive there too, so knowing that the office was indeed in a completely different building, we lapped the car park once more and set off. We ended up at the dead end road as instructed, ironically just where we had parked the first time we came here, and were about to set off down an unofficial dirt track when I spotted a very rusty and slight overgrown sign in the bushes saying ‘Aeromex Cargo’. A short way down this tiny road and we finally found the correct place. Then it was a simple enough matter to go in and collect the new controller. Mission finally accomplished, we headed back to our favourite haunts, Home Depot and Walmart. 

Lee popped into Walmart for a few bits for that evening, while I headed to Autozone. We suspected our gearbox oil was low, it had been leaking a bit on the floor, and not wanting to damage a brand new box we wanted to check. I had previously bought the right tool to do it, and left Lee to check the oil level while I was in La Paz the previous time. However, after a day of unsuccessfully try to undo the nut, it transpired it was because the socket was the wrong size. They had put the wrong set of tools in the right packaging for what I wanted. Unfortunately I didn’t have the receipt, so I prepared for an argument. I also needed an inline fuse for the new charge controller, that was not a mistake I was prepared to repeat. 

After much deliberation, Autozone flatly refused to exchange the tools without a receipt. They would have done it if the phone numbers on the system had matched, but our phone number has more numbers than a Mexican one and consequently can’t be input into computer systems. In the end I got an apologetic shrug and had to buy the new tools, after double checking they were actually the right ones this time. That’ll teach us not to keep receipts I suppose. They also didn’t sell the right gearbox oil or an inline fuse, but I figured a cartridge fuse wired in line would do the job and as for the oil, we needed to check if it was even low. All this means I returned to the van sometime later, to find Lee waiting for me. While not perfect, we now had what we needed. 

The shopping was now completed and that evening we decided that instead of trying to drive back to the ranch, we would attempt to camp near Tecolote beach, as we had done previously. This would break up a monotonous three hour round trip and also give us an idea of what the camping was like on the beaches. It was around a 40 minute drive north out of the city out past the ferry terminal which we soon hoped to be using, so we headed off. Previously, when we had camped here in the lockdown, there had been a barricade just before the main junction that is the difference between going to Tecolote beach or Balandra beach. However, there is a small dirt road before this, which allows you to cut around the other side of the hills and access the neighbouring beach and the back of Tecolote. This is what we aimed for. Clearly the local authorities were more wise to this route now, and the barricade had been moved further down the road meaning we had no way to get anywhere near the beach. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, these beaches are incredibly popular, and were actually shut down before the main lockdown even happened. This left us with little choice but to turn around and head back to the ranch, driving past all the sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters that we weren’t allowed to swim in on our return route. 

Aimee was now getting seriously hot, to the point we were a little worried about her. So we pulled over at the side of the road and turned the cool box into a cat cooler. Laying her cool mat inside on a layer of ice and pointing a fan at her she seemed much happier, so we relaxed knowing we had an emergency cat cooling plan we had never planned to stay somewhere so hot for so long after all.

As we had only got a few small bits from Walmart, thinking we would be returning the following day, we headed back to get the rest of the shop. Lee went inside again, while I stayed in the car park to keep an eye on Aimee and fit the new charge controller. No time like the present. I wanted to make sure our batteries were fully charged this evening. Fortunately it was a simple job to fit the new controller and fuse, and Aimee remained happy in her box of ice, occasionally flicking her paws in disdain as an errant ice cube dared to touch her. 

It didn’t look like leaving the ranch was going to be an option anytime soon, but at least on our long drive home we could get our batteries up and running properly again. Hopefully no more dramas from that aspect of our lives. 

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