Then the lights went out

By | 16 January 2016

The lights went out just before dinner time. The house was dark, the streets were dark, the houses all around were dark. And I confidently said, it’s a good thing we have the trailer in driveway.

We have propane. The furnace was repaired just last week. All the lights are LED. The TV is 12-volt LED. We could just go out to the trailer and carry on while everyone else has to put up with the darkness.

So, I went out to the trailer when the lights went out …

In hindsight, I’m glad the city power failed and the lights went out. Otherwise, I would not have known that anything was awry in our travel trailer. I mean, there it was, sitting in the driveway, purring contentedly, ready to head south to warmer climes on a minute’s notice.

Except that when I went out to the trailer and turned on the overhead lights they only came on a little bit. 

They came on enough to see that they were still in the ceiling where I had last seen them.

By instinct, I pushed the little button that reports the battery condition. You know, the four little red lights come on when you push the button.

How did I find the little button in the dark? Easy, I check it everyday. My finger knows exactly where it is.

“only one little red light came on”

Who knew?

We’re parked with family for a month for the Christmas season between trips to Arizona. We’re plugged in to 15 Amp shore power – more than enough.

Every day I push each of the little buttons: battery, fresh water, grey water, black water.

Every day, the battery button has lit up all four little red lights.

Who knew that when the shore power is on the four little red lights are not telling you the condition of the batteries?

I didn’t. Lesson learned.

Immediate actions …

What are the consequences of this little discovery and what do I have to do … immediately?

With no shore power and no battery power, the refrigerator had switched to gas – automatically – but, the furnace that had just been repaired a week ago cannot run without power. Period. And this time, a plug-in portable electric heater was not going to work.

There was nothing to be done except gather up the portable lights and head back into the house to cook supper. Fortunately, the kitchen stove in the house is fuelled by natural gas. All I needed was a working BBQ lighter. Four BBQ lighters later … we were cooking with gas.

One hour and forty minutes later, after dinner, the power came back on. So this wasn’t going to be like the eight days that we had endured in the ice storm of ’98 that hit Eastern Ontario.

Well, that is good news.

The next morning … deal with the 12 Volt problem

A week ago when the furnace was being repaired at Kelowna RV the trailer had not been on shore power. It operated just fine for the entire four hours at that time. The batteries must have been good enough for that at that time.

Since then, temperatures had not been low enough to freeze a battery and we have been on shore power.

A month ago when we were coming up from Arizona, during our overnight stop in the casino parking lot in Pendleton I had noticed that there were only two lights on the battery reporter so I didn’t operate anything but the furnace that night.

I also didn’t think that there might be a bigger problem. I missed the signal.

In the light of day, I began the troubleshooting.

Troubleshooting the problem …

Step One: send an e-mail to David at Kelowna RV with as much factual information as possible and see if he has any suggestions.

Step Two: check the battery isolation switch

Step Three: cycle all of the circuit breakers

Step Four: grab the combination fuse tester / fuse puller and check all of the fuses

Nothing obvious.

By now, David has replied with some of the same suggestions and more. We exchange e-mails. I’m using an iPad so I can be in touch and keep testing.

Step Five: grab the multi-meter and head for the battery boxes out near the hitch

Here’s the definitive test given that the twelve volt system – just like your car – is a negative ground:

  • with the battery isolation switch ON, test from positive to frame (ground) on each battery
  • with the battery isolation switch OFF, test from positive to frame (ground) on each battery

The results:

  • with the switch ON, both batteries show more than six volts
  • with the switch OFF, one battery shows 6.5 volts and the other shows 1.9 volts

Diagnosis: the charger is working but there is one bad battery.

Confirmation and conclusion …

I ended up at the NAPA dealer and was pleasantly surprised with his concern, his generosity, and his willingness to help.

He loaned me his battery lifter. I appreciated the gesture, but on my trailer it turns out that the only way to remove the battery is to remove it in the battery box. There is not enough room to do anything else.

When I got the battery (and box) down to NAPA, he tested it (about 3.5 volts post to post) and also tested the specific gravity in each cell. All three were the same and in the green.

He put it on the charger for a half hour. At the end of the half hour it was up a bit and the cells were percolating.

He put a load on the battery. It went pretty much to zero – instantly.

Confirmed. One bad battery – dead within three years.

Conclusion. Buy and install one new battery.

As it turns out, RV batteries don’t come with long warranties like my truck battery. A one-year warranty is typical.

All said and done …

In four hours start to finish, I had diagnosed the problem (with David’s help), using tools that I already owned, removed the suspect battery, had it tested to confirm (with NAPA’s help), purchased and installed a new replacement.

Problem solved. Let the lights go out. I’m ready. Thank you David. Thank you NAPA.

Lessons Learned

1. Don’t ignore the warning signs. I saw the warning. I ignored it.

2. Don’t test the batteries while on shore power. Who knew? It is not displaying the battery condition.

3. Keep the fuse tester and multi-meter handy. You can’t just lick the terminals.

4. Write down the steps to troubleshooting a battery issue. Lists are good. Checklists are better.

 

 

 

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