Off Grid Goodness

I really need to just unplug for a while. Maybe forever.

I will be out in the bush, but I don't want to go back to the stone ages! I like my toys, but I feel like I need some time to decompress.

I will be taking digital pictures, so will need a laptop. Everything needs power. Sometimes I'll camp in camp sites, or maybe even hit a motel now and then, or a hostel. But I really want to get off the path now and then, and kind of explore what I can do with out plugging in.

I bought a motorhome a couple years ago, and was in the process of refurbing it when I kind of lost interest, and came up with the motorcycle trip idea. It might have had something to do with remembering the motorhome got about 7 miles to the gallon... Anyway!

While doing the motorhome, though, I was looking at how much electrical power I'd need. Could I go all solar, or would I need a generator? You can start with the formulas, and reading the back of a product to see how many watts or amps it uses, but at some point you just need to actually test it, just to see. What I realized is with a few good Deep Cycle batteries, I could charge while driving, and run a lot of stuff before they ran dead.

One example I was testing, is using a solar trickle charger to run a laptop. Rather than powering the laptop directly from solar which wouldn't be very practical, I was running the laptop with an inverter. An inverter takes the 12 volts DC from your car battery, and converts it to 110 volts AC, like what you'd get when you plug into the wall at home.

Then I'd have the solar trickle charger topping off the battery when ever there was enough sun. For testing, I had the laptop in my Porsche, to play MP3 music through the stereo. I had the laptop powered from a spare battery, and the solar into that. At the time, I lived about an hour away from work, and when I was driving I'd listen to music on the laptop, and also had the GPS running. Rough guess, I used the netbook 2 hours a day, and probably had 6 hours per day of peak charging. The battery never did run down, so I guess it worked!

Side note, GPS on a laptop screen, even my little Netbook at 7", is MUCH nicer than a 3 or 4" hand held GPS or smart phone.

For the motorcycle, what I'm going to do is use a couple "Gel cell" batteries that I aleady have. They're about the size of a motorcycle battery, about 6" x 4" x 2", probably a few pounds. When I'm riding the bike, they will be connected to the electrical system so should be fully charged when I park. When the bike is shut off, they will automatically disengage (use a solenoid or relay, wired to the headlight circuit is simple enough... key goes on, it makes the connection, key goes off, batteries are isolated. Common circuit.) That way I can power all kinds of things off a 12 volt system, and not run my motorcycle starting battery dead. And I'll have a couple solar panels plugged in to keep things topped off. In case you think I'm talking huge solar, the ones I have are only 14" x 5" x 0.5" and weigh next to nothing. I'll probably just velcro them to the top of one of the cases or something. Leave the bike parked in the sun, put the tent in the shade!

If I ride every day, even a couple hours, that should be plenty to recharge all the batteries. And if I'm parked, the solar should keep me powered up at least a couple hours a day. Simple elegance right?

As a quick test, as I'm typing this, I have a 6" fan that runs on 12 volts, that I'd bought for the motorhome, for just a few dollars. On its low setting, which is still blowing a lot of air at me, its been running for over 3 hours now on one of the batteries, and only lost about a volt so far. Based on that, I'll bet I could run a fan all night in the tent. And then solar charge it during the day! If you've ever been in the tropics, you know how much nicer life is with a fan!

So I'd have a fan, some LED lighting, and the laptops powered up.

Laptops... plural! The military taught me that if something is worth having, you should have a back up! A few years ago I bought one of the little Netbooks. Its small enough that its actually worth bringing along, it doesn't need much power, doesn't take much space... unfortunately its also not very powerful! But its handy for checking email, and I could see taking it into a coffee shop, rather than digging out a bigger one.

For digial photo editing, burning disks, planning routes with GPS software, and over all world domination, I bought a Panasonic Toughbook CF-74. There are Toughbooks that are full Mil-Spec, they show pictures of Hummers running over them, etc. The CF-74 is slightly less tough, but still probably 100 times tougher than the average laptop. Metal case, day light readable screen, waterproof keyboard, all the ports and connections are covered by waterproof covers, its got an integrated metal handle, so you don't even really need a case, just pick it up and go! Because I was a bit concerned about the hard drive (which is actually in a foam padded container, inside the laptop!) I bought a SSD drive for it. Plus it only came with an 80GB drive, and now I have a 256GB drive that is faster, and has no moving parts! I also got a USB connected BluRay recorder. That way I can burn back up disks of the hard drive, as well as back up 25 GB of digital photos at a time. That seems a lot, but when you realize I now have 32 and 64 GB SD cards for the cameras, it goes pretty fast. My plan is to burn a disk for each country, perhaps, and mail copies home to my Mom in Canada, and my Dad in the US, that way if I get robbed or what ever, I won't lose all my pictures. I'll also upload them to my website whenever I have good internet connection. Laptops and cameras can be replaced. Pictures, not as easily!

YAY :) I think I'm just about caught up now!
Thanks for reading!

By Carlin Comm posted on 2012-06-22