March comes in like an (expensive) lion

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... > >  **Charles Dickens, **A Tale of Two Cities

It’s been a rewarding month, but an expensive one due to happenstance, my own errors, and willing choices. I’ll be ok; that’s what emergency funds are for. I’d be grateful if things settled down a bit so I can lick my emergency-fund wounds.

In roughly chronological order:


Before moving to Yuma I dropped my (fully loaded) Alpicool C15 on the ground while doing a clean-out/rearrangement. It was profoundly broken. I’d bought it in June of 2018 so I got 2.5 years out of it for $200. I think that compares favorably to the more $$ fridges, and it would have amortized further had I not physically damaged it.

Walmart used to carry them so I could ship-to-store and pick up a replacement, but when I checked they’d stopped carrying it. Arghhh!

Amazon carried them, but they were too big for delivery to lockers and too heavy by a few pounds for delivery to a counter (20lb max?). Since I had (had, read below) extra solar power I picked up a cheap peltier cooler as a stopgap, powering it via a thermocouple-relay to keep it from running 24/7. Worked fine, but used an inordinate amount of power.

I got news that I was eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations at the El Paso VA, so I arrange to have a replacement Alpicool shipped to my mail forwarder there for in-person pickup. I had been slightly frustrated by the low height of the C15 (15L) so I spent $20 more on the C20 version (20L). It’s the same unit but with about 2.5” more headroom due to the higher/recessed lid. The difference is amazing, and I’d recommend everyone with the vertical space to get the C20 over the C15. I’d also recommend not dropping compressor fridges: don’t be me!

I set the working cooler next to a dumpster in an apt complex so someone else can get use out of it.

Cost: $200.

bike rack

This is one of several errors caused by my operating outside my usual pattern. I unlocked and removed the bike rack and set it and the hitch lock behind the van to get something out of it. I drove off the next day. Yay, me.

I haven’t had a bicycle since late 2019 but I was using the rack for conveniece to hang trash, bucket, etc while camping. I don’t think I’ll be replacing it for those reasons, but if I get another bike I’ll need another rack.

Cost: $133 (rack) + $16 (lock), should I choose to replace them.

van repair

I failed to put the van in the dealer shop to get the oil pressure servo sensor thing fixed in Yuma/Phoenix/wherever or I would have learned a useful info: the servo and several other bits were not covered by the 5yr/60k powertrain warranty. I could have done that replacement at a normal mechanic much cheaper. Note: the van is now at 58k miles.

But since I didn’t it gave the van time to drop a fuel injector in Albuquerque. At that point the van was in limp mode and I nursed it to a dealer.

  • good news - the dealer actually had the cooling fan recall parts
  • the bad news - the injector and sensor were not covered by the warranty

At first I balked then I re-read the powertrain warranty and they were right. I would have taken the van elsewhere but by my math the recall labor reduced the other labor by about $500 making it less egregious. And it’s hard being mad about the repair since it was the first repair in 3 years of ownership.

They couldn’t finish in one day so Muffin and I checked into a dog-friendly La Quinta ($70). That broke my 953-day streak of living in the van. I did enjoy the shower but would rather have been in the van with $70 in my pocket.

To add insult to injury, the sensor code started back up immediately but I needed to get to ELP for my vaccination. I’ll put it in a shop here to have that addressed; there is a 2yr FCA warranty on work performed but it will be another PITA and maybe another hotel room.

Cost: $1380 + $70. (goodbye, stimulus!)

solar damage

Normally I stay put in high winds but I was co-traveling with a deadline.

I set forth in 50-70mph (!) gusts, keeping my speed down to 60mph to help reduce stress. There were plenty of signs I was in over my head, as it was a full-time job keeping the van between the lines. I would fully expect to see semis blown over in those conditions. Perhaps I could have noticed there were none on the road there?

A vicious gust twisted the DIY aluminum rack and broke one of the 190w panels. So I now have only 2x190w (380w) working on the roof. The panels were NOS at the time and no longer available so I won’t be able to find a physical or electrical match easily. The upside is this gives me an opportunity to upgrade to the 750w-800w range I’ve been considering for a while in order to increase harvest under poor insolation.

Luckily the insane winds ceased. I braced the existing rack and improved the mounting hardware as a stopgap while I decided what to do.

  • leave 2x 190w on an improved steel rack. I don’t like this, as I was already considering upgrading from 570w
  • find another panel of the same size and parallel or serial the array, hoping to minimize losses from the mismatch - no likey
  • same as above only with a separate controller == another hole in the roof, or increase the size of the existing one
  • replace with bigger panels that more completely fill the roofspace and plug in

I’ve already bought steel ($160) for the new rack; it should be hurricane-proof. Heavy mounting hardware ($20).

Leaning toward maxxing out the panels. I found some used 250w panels in ELP and three will just fit. That’s 750w, a +180w bump for $237. For reference that’s $0.32/watt and my original NOS panels were $0.63/watt. How prices have dropped!

Since my interest is in greater harvest in poor conditions instead of max optimal power I will leave the new panels on the existing 150v / 40A mppt controller. There will be clipping at 484w - 584w (depending on Vbatt), but EpEver controllers are extremely tolerant of overpaneling. The 90v units can take 1.5x rated and the 150v ones 3x. The manual specifies up to 1560w of panel for this model.

40A is just about all my FLA bank will take anyhow, and if I did splurge on 100A of LiFePO4 then 40A charging would work fine there too. If I find I want to capture more peak power I could drop in a 50A controller.

After the first covid shot I will retreat to BLM land in NM and hopefully get the solar upgrade done out there.

Cost: $160 + $237.

mechanical keyboard

I knocked over a bunch of water into my beloved mechanical keyboard and it stopped working. I set it outside to drain and we’ll see if it comes back to life. Presently using a $2 thrift store usb kb. In addition, the chromebook went swimming in coffee. It’s acting a little funky (especially the microsd reader) but I’m hoping both of these survive long enough for me to break them in other ways.

Possible replacement cost: $46 + $200


The month involved much more driving than I usually do. I didn’t keep track.

I did make an elective purchase, a heated mattress pad. I had one before but the power consumption on that one was excessive, peaking over 300w (!) as measured by the kill-a-watt. The new one is listed as 100w and it pulls just under 90w on the kill-a-watt on the highest setting of 8. At lowest level it spikes to 36w, then drops to 9w, then 0w for a few beats. I think it’s at least 2 seconds at 0w (probably 3-4) which would put average consumption under 13w.

I like the control which defaults to 10hr, but also has 1hr, 2hr, and “always on” settings. Nitpick: it starts on 8 (highest) which isn’t optimal for me. Luckily the temp setting “wraps around” so one button press drops it to 1 (lowest) where I will likely run it. It was 40F inside this morning so I briefly tested it on 1 and 2. The 2 setting was comfortable with only a thin fleece over me so I think 1 will be fine in freezing weather with the sleeping bag on top.

Overall my March expenses were about $2000 more than usual. Doh!