We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment. ~ Hilaire Belloc
Our Wind Turbine and Air Actuated Turbine Mast
In four years on the road, with the majority of those years spent boondocking or dry camping, Cindy and I have seen a total of two other RV'ers who have been using wind turbines to help power their bank of batteries.
One of these fellow campers was in Quartzsite Arizona, and as we pulled into the sea of RV's, we could see a turbine spinning up above the campers. I planned on going to find and talk with the person to ask as many questions as possible, but the next morning when I went to find them, they had already pulled out.
Our next run-in with an RV Turbine User was in the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. This guy had a very crude mast to say the least. It consisted of galvanized fence posts that were held together because he had reamed out a few feet of the top of each pipe where he'd slide a few cotter pins through to hold them together. This was bolted to his bumper on the back of his fifth wheel and wobbled quite a bit in the winds.
Despite the crudeness of the mast, he couldn't say enough about the turbine and it's ability to keep his bank of 6 6-Volt batteries fully charged. He was going on his 3rd year owning the Air-X Turbine and said he had never had trouble with it.
This was what started a long road of research for me to find a way to supplement our current solar array with wind power. For those who have done any type of RV'ing while trying to live strictly off of the solar panels to charge your batteries, you tend to find that the days you dont have sun, you have lots of wind.
So the combination of wind and solar just makes sense if you're trying to fulltime in an RV and stay off the grid.
Finding the turbine itself was simple enough. There are numerous companies out there that make turn-key turbines that will more than power the biggest bank of house batteries you want to carry. The turbines also seem to be more cost effective when it comes to their wattage-per-dollar when compared to solar panels. I wont try and sway your decision in either direction, but I'll touch on what most of the arguments consist of.
There are plenty of arguments for either side of this, but most of them revolve around the fact that a turbine is only good when you are stationary, and they usually involve quite a bit of set-up before you're actually generating power.
Solar panels sit on the roof of your camper and they're doing their job whether you're driving down the road or parked at the beach. I'll be the first to admit that one of the reasons we waited so long to finally go ahead with the turbine was because of how easy the solar panels were to deal with.
Once they're installed, you simply forget they're up there and the only times I would bring up the Turbine conversation with Cindy would be on one of those long rainy days where we'd have to really watch our energy consumption even though the wind would be howling the entire day.
The second reason it took us so long to make the leap into the turbine world was the mast. There was only one company we could find on the market making a mast that was RV specific, this is the Sunforce Portable Vehicle Mounting Kit for Air X Turbine.
It looked simple enough and was well thought out. The problem was it cost almost double what the turbine itself did and then you had the hassle of setting it up and taking it down and storing of the contraption while driving.
I'll be the first to admit that if something is a major chore to set up and take down, chances are I'll talk myself out of doing it 90% of the time.
This is where all the research came in. I found myself looking and looking through the internet in search of something that could be mounted on the RV itself and all I had to do was connect the turbine once we pulled over for the night. It had to take roughly 10 minutes time to accomplish or I probably wouldn't do it.
Since most of the nights we are camped in some parking lot or just off the side of the road on some BLM land, I didn't want to go through the monumental task of unloading and setting up something that was a two person job and was just going to come back down the next morning.
There was no way I wanted to set anything up that would need to be guy-wired down or involve multiple mounting points to secure the turbine to the camper, which his something the Sunforce Mount requires.
After years of research, I was confident there was NO ONE who was making a mast that would suit my needs. What do you do in a situation like this? You make your own.
This is where Dave Hoskins from Aluminess Products comes into the picture. Over the years, I had spoken to numerous fabricators about my turbine mast idea, but most couldn't seem to grasp what I was talking about and would blow it off (Pun intended) without giving it too much thought.
Dave on the other hand was the first guy I spoke with who after explaining all my ideas, he said something like "I think you're onto something here and this could be built easy enough."
In the fall of 2009, Cindy and I were headed to California to spend a few fun filled weeks cruising up the Pacific Coast HWY in a Vintage VW bus, and would be leaving the camper at a good friends house in San Diego.
Aluminess Products is just around the corner from where we were parked, so Dave and I made an appointment to meet face to face so I could show him my drawings and we could have a little brain storming secession.
Now I should say that Dave is a very busy man. The few hours we spent with him at his shop, the phone never stopped ringing and his crew of skilled welders never stopped putting together works of art. You know you're getting a beautiful product when you have to be put on a waiting list to have a bumper, a roof rack or a custom aluminum piece built for you from one of Dave's fabricators.
With drawings from years spent doodling on bar napkins, make shift blue prints and crude schematics, I showed Dave what I had in mind and asked him what he thought of my ideas. The original idea was an aluminum mast that was attached to the rear bumper that was as tall as the camper body itself. At the top of the camper body would be a heavy duty hinge that would allow the top section of the mast to fold up into the air once we were parked.
While we would be moving, the top section of the mast would fold down and lay along the top of the camper roof.
In my mind, this would be simple to build and be super simple to set up.
Dave has years of fabricating very custom products under his belt, so his skilled mind said "Sure that will work, but its specific to your camper and your camper only."
He went on to say "If we want to make this and make it simple enough that anyone who wants to install this type of mast on their vehicle, whether its on a Travel Trailer, a Class A Motorhome or the back of a Pick-Up Truck that is just out for the weekend camping trip, then we need to make it more versatile."
One of Dave's main customers he builds products for is Sportsmobile. This company manufactures custom vans set up for off-road travel, yet still allows you to live in absolute comfort no matter where you drive the thing.
One of the designs that makes the Sportsmobile Vans so unique is their Pop-Up Roofs that offer more head room inside the van once your parked at your camping spot. Dave had designed an air actuated lift system that would allow a Sportsmobile owner to lift the roof with it fully loaded down with kayaks, camping gear or those extra things we all like to bring with us while Overlanding. This would be a back-up system for a electrical lift, but the design never took off and Dave kept it sitting around for a future application.
Dave brought out a few of these lifts he had built and showed them to me. I liked what I saw right away and this changed everything when it came to the design of the Turbine Mast. We then went back to the drawing board with some of my designs mixed with the air actuated lifting mechanism he had designed.
An hour later we had a prototype mast we both were happy with and an agreement that we'd build one up to see how it would work on the back of our camper.
Fast forward a few months later to current day 2010 and it's like Christmas all over again when I get a large tube delivered to me in the mail.
What Dave and his team of welders designed is truly a work of art. The powder coated aluminum mast is a 3" diameter piece of aluminum that has a few gaskets on the inside. Inside the 3" tube is a smaller diameter tube that lifts up when air is supplied to the larger cylinder. A simple valve at the bottom is where you hook your source of air which then lifts the smaller cylinder.
I was worried I would have to go out and purchase one of those expensive compressors that is really small, but able to produce a high volume of air from a 12 volt power source. I first thought I'd try and raise the mast with my very cheap, $15 compressor I keep in the truck to air up my tires.
My smile was ear to ear as I watched the turbine raise into the air from this dinky little compressor I already owned. Anything that can save me money makes me smile, and this situation kept getting better and better the more I played with it.
The base of the mount is a wide plate that is 10 inches long. This gives the cylinder a stable platform to sit on the RV's bumper. Dave made two pieces of angle iron that go below the bumper and sent two large C-Clamp's with extra supports welded onto them to hold the base securely to the square bumper.
On the backside of the base of the turbine cylinder is a pressure relief valve that allows the pressure to be released out of the mast. This allows the turbine to lower back down to its small footprint and you're then ready to travel. I like that he put it on the backside against the back of the camper to keep it out of harms way from someone bumping it or anything knocking into it.
If I passed you by on the road with the turbine mast in the down position, you probably wouldn't even take a second look at the gloss white cylinder mounted to the back of my trailers bumper. Except for the wiring, that the local dealership wrapped in black spiral loom (I'm planning on changing that over to white) you would think it came from the factory that way.
But once we pull into camp, all I have to do is hook up the air compressor, raise the turbine mast up a few feet so I have working room above the roof line, and mount the turbine. I would then crawl up on the roof, pull the Air-X Turbine out of the roof top carrier, tighten the four allen head screws that hold the turbine to the top of the mast head and plug in the quick release electrical connection. I then crawl back down the coach ladder and add more air to the cylinder and the turbine raises up into the air all the way to its highest point of 15' above the ground.
The main cylinder is only 7' in height, and the smaller cylinder is only 6' in height. This makes for a 13' total height, but my bumper is 2' off the ground, so the way I sit right now, I'm right around 15' total. We'll play with this for awhile to see if it's enough to have sufficient wind speed. Obviously the higher we go the better, but that also means the more stout everything has to be built and the heavier it all becomes. Something we were trying to stay away from.
The top of the mast head is beefed up for the clamping mechanism of the Air-X and has a slot for the wiring to slide through the center so the turbine can spin freely without tangling the electrical wires that have to run down the mast, under the camper and connect to the bank of batteries that are in the front.
To make sure the mast doesn't work itself down from all the spinning and constant vibrations, once the mast is raised up to the highest position, you simple slide a small pin through a hole in the smaller section of aluminum which acts as a safety pin to hold it in place.
When it comes time to lower the mast, you air up the cylinder which lifts the top portion up a few inches off the safety pin, pull out the pin and release the pressure relief valve back down at the bumper. This allows the top section to slowly slide into the main cylinder and brings the turbine back to a workable level so you can unbolt the four allen screws and put it away in the roof top storage bin.
We've only had this a week so far, and I've set it up and taken it down a few times just to see if I would run into anything that I might find complicated or in need of change. So far, it takes me about 15 minutes total and the longest part of the set up is putting the blades on the turbines body.
I'm trying to figure out how to store it so I dont have to take the blades off each time. If I could find a tall Pelican Case or some sort of box I could line with a cut-out foam, this would hold the turbine securely without having to break it down completely every time we move.
This would bring the entire set-up process to under 10 minutes and I'd probably be able to set it up faster than Cindy could make margaritas once we pull over for the nightly Happy Hour.
Another item that I'm in search of is an attachment harness to secure the top of the main cylinder to the camper. I've just ordered some Cushion Clamps that are stainless steel clamps that have a heavy duty rubber gasket around them.
I figure this will take out any wobble at the top of the mast due to high winds and the rubber gasket will help tame any noise that might be transferred into the camper.
We've had strong winds blowing all day today and the only thing I have holding the top of the main cylinder to the camper is a thick wrap of Velcro which is wrapped around the cylinder and the luggage rack. There is very little wobble and the entire thing is basically being held by the bumper plate.
Speaking of noise, one of the big complaints about turbines is always the noise they'll make. I'd like to talk to anyone who has actually used one or lived near one that is permanently mounted and complains about the noise level? Over the weekend, we were full at the Low-Key Hideaway where the camper is currently parked.
While I was hooking everything up and working on the turbine mast, I was talking with the guests who were camping here for the weekend. Once we got everything hooked up and the turbine was spinning like mad, all of us could stand around talking to one another and not one of us could hear it spin.
Unless you walk to the bottom of the mast and the wind catches the blades in just the right angle, the turbine gives off less noise than the sound of the wind blowing through the palm trees all around us.
The only noise you can actually hear is if you step inside the camper. Once inside, you hear a faint hum that is being sent down the mast cylinder that is sitting on the bumper.
Over the next few weeks, I'm going to experiment with different types of rubber pads or materials that I can place between the base plate of the mast and the bumper to see if I cant get rid of the hum completely.
Not that its even enough to warrant a complaint, it's just something to tinker with to see if I cant resolve this one issue. If you cant tell, tinkering is something I enjoy doing.
Dave had made up some really nice U-Clamps with extra little tabs welded on them to help spread the load on the base plate which is holding the mast to the bumper. I made the mistake of putting everything together without applying a coat of paint to these U-Clamps, so they've already acquired a bit of surface rust.
I'm going to take them off this week, sand them down and paint them a gloss white so they match everything else on the mount. The pieces of angle that they grab ahold of on the bottom of the bumper have the same high gloss Powder Coat finish as the cylinder, so there is no need to have anything not looking top notch on the mount.
One other thing I'll do when I have the U-Clamps off is run up to the hardware store and swap out the standard bolts for some Stainless Steel Nylock versions so once they're clamped down, there is no worrying about them every coming loose from road vibrations.
I'm also planning on making up some white Velcro straps that will hold the wiring to the side of the mast so in the event of strong winds, I wont hear the wiring knocking off the aluminum.
I'll be sure to keep this updated as I figure out more ways to perfect this set-up, but for now, I'm as happy as could be.
Just to show what type of power the turbine is capable of generating, I was able to keep our batteries between 13.5 and 14 volts for the last two days with the Xantrex 2000watt inverter charging our battery for our mower.
Cindy and I bought a Newton Battery Powered Lawn Mower, and in the event of trying to stay as green as possible, we only charge the big Duracell battery off the inverter in the camper. It usually takes a day or two to fully charge the battery after an hour or so of running it to mow the lawn.
With the inverter on and the battery charger plugged it, the battery levels have yet to come down off of full power even though we had a major thunderstorm all night last night and for the majority of today.
Looking outside and seeing the turbine spinning is a cool way to know that even though my solar panels aren't making any power, the wind blowing through with the passing storm is being used to charge my lawn mower battery.
We're also planning on using the camper to power the tiki bar once we get that up and running, so this little set-up will make our water front tiki bar 100% green. That should make those beers taste so much better, if that's even possible.
Stay tuned as we fine tune this Air Actuated Turbine Mast from
Products. I'm hoping it might take off and bring wind power to
the RV world.
Tool Kit List - We've had a bunch of emails asking what tools and items first timers should bring, so I went ahead and made a list of what we bring with us. By no means is this gospel, but it's a good start. Feel free to copy it and add or delete anything you need.
Solar Tips, Fact's and Trick's we've learned while on the road. Fell free to send any tips or tricks of your own that might help us along.
Photo Gear We Use - List and description of our photo gear for those who enjoy our photos