Monthly Archives: May 2016

Photo showing the galley with stove and beer cooler

A Solar-Powered Beer Cooler

Jim, May 31:

Photo of a Tiny, Solid-state cooler

Tiny, Solid-state cooler

We were recently invited to the Southwest Teardrop & Vintage Trailer meet-up at Krause Springs and knowing there would be some cool trailers there, I wanted to add something unique to ours. Solar power is that not that common on teardrops yet, so it seemed a possibility. A couple of years ago, we purchased a little solid-state cooler from The Home Depot. It cost less than $30, and was shaped like an old Coca-Cola Machine. A similar product is available from Amazon, but without the Coke branding. Best of all, it could run on 120-volt or 12-volt power. Would our solar panel power it for a day?

Photo of the interior of a beer cooler with bottles and cans

Cools a 6-pack

We’ve traveled with the little cooler several times, and I routinely use it in my shop. It will hold a 6-pack in cans, or 4 short glass bottles. I’ve always got it filled with “cool ones”. I had never tried it on 12-volt power though. We also have a solid-state ice chest from Igloo, and it’s always in the car — perfect for keeping groceries cool during the hour-long trip out to the ranch. It draws about 6 amps at 13 to 14 volts (car running), so it’s not super power efficient.  We once drained the car battery by forgetting to unplug it while the car sat in a parking lot for several hours. I guess that’s why I hadn’t ever tried the beer cooler on solar. Didn’t want to drain the battery.

Photo showing a removable solar panel

Solar panel is removable

This was a different situation. Although the rig would be sitting idle for several hours during the meet-up, we would have sun available, and that might make it practical. I designed the solar panel to be removable, so it can be located in full sun while connected to the trailer electrical system (sitting in the shade) via a 20-foot cable. That should be sufficient to power the cooler and a a few other accessories during the day.

Well, long story short, it worked. Since we weren’t staying for the night, the Lady and the Ambassador stayed hitched and I located the solar panel on her windshield. The extension cable just made it to the normal panel connection on the trailer, and the cooler was plugged into the galley. By the afternoon, I had cold beer. The solar panel kept up just fine in spite of the partially cloudy day and occasional rain. Hmmm, now what else might we be able to power?

Photo of the Current Galley

Current Galley

Photo of The Visitors Center

A Close-up Look at the McDonald Observatory

Teardrop Trail Log: March 29, 2016

We headed south to the McDonald Observatory, located in the mountains of West Texas. At an elevation of 6719 feet, it is under some of the darkest skies in the continental United States.

My introduction to the Observatory came through the StarDate radio broadcasts on Public Radio. At last, we were driving up Dark Sky Drive on Mt. Locke towards the Visitors Center. We had reservations for a 2:00 pm solar viewing and tour. We met our tour guide and enjoyed the solar program in the visitors center for an up-close look at the large research telescopes. We took the shuttle to the top of Mt. Locke and the overlook of the 107″ dome.

A photo of Our guide at the top of Mt. Locke

Our guide at the top of Mt. Locke

After sharing the history of the Observatory, the guide took our group to the lobby and we climbed the four flights of stairs. He described the parts of the telescope, the functions and how the astronomers use it.

The most exciting parts of the demonstration were when he showed the telescope’s motions and then rotated the dome. We felt the power of the motors that moved the large structure. 

Photo of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The next part of the tour continued at the summit of Mt. Fawkes and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The guide explained that an amazing collaboration between four universities allowed this telescope to be built at 80% of the cost of an optical telescope of similar size. The primary mirror is the largest yet constructed making it one of five biggest telescopes in the world. Renovations have just been completed for a new cutting-edge research project, Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). It is the quest to understand dark energy, the mysterious force that makes up 70 percent of the matter and energy in the universe.

We were hoping to attend one of the “Star Parties,” later that evening but the forecast called for cloudy skies so we headed back to Balmorhea and our teardrop.

photo of a Cienegas (Desert Wetland)

The Animals of Balmorhea

Teardrop Trail Log: March 30, 2016

Balmorhea is a unique desert environment because of the San Solomon Springs. Currently flowing at the rate 15 million gallons per day, this artesian spring is fed by an underground aquifer and rainwater from the nearby Davis Mountains. At a constant 72ºF – 76ºF, it makes for a brisk swim in the nearly 2-acre pool before flowing through a series of canals to the restored 3-acre Cienegas (spanish for wetlands). Then it’s on to irrigate a variety of crops from cotton to cantaloupes in the over 10,000-acre project. Chlorine-free, its crystal-clear 25-foot-deep central pool is a favorite with divers.

photo of the Comanche Spring Pupfish in Balmorhea pool

Comanche Spring Pupfish

Image of a Camanche Springs Pupfish

Camanche Springs Pupfish

Originally dredged to improve irrigation flow in the 1936 Civilian Conservation Corps project that created the park, the Cienegas were partially restored in 1995 and then enlarged in 2011 in order to protect habitat for endangered species.

photo of Pecos Gambusia

Pecos Gambusia

The Comanche Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia, both listed as endangered, make Balmorhea their home. The Pupfish can be found in the pool, while they both can be found in the restored marshland.

photo of an American Coot (Fulica americana)

American Coot (Fulica americana)

Many other species make their home here, including the American Coot, Red-eared Slider turtle, Texas Spiny Soft-shell turtle and a variety of other fish and birds. The Cienegas are quite special. A large, covered wooden deck overlooks the marshland, and there is a lot to see. With the crystal water, you can see all the way to the bottom, and watch the fish and turtles motor around the pool. Not a bad way to spend an hour or two. There is also an underwater viewing port, where you can watch the proceedings from an underwater perspective.

photo of a Cienegas with Red Eared Slider and Texas Spiney Softshell Turtle, and Pecos Gambusia

Cienegas with Red Eared Slider and Texas Spiney Softshell Turtle, and Pecos Gambusia

Some of animals are quite bold, and we had frequent visits from a Greater Roadrunner and several Desert Cottontails. I guess regular exposure makes us seem benign, and the roadrunner spent time with us each morning, looking around as if to say: “What’s for breakfast?”

photo of The Pool at Balmorhea

Balmorhea, A Cool Oasis in the High Desert

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We headed north from Fort Davis to Balmorhea State Park. The park’s name comes from four men’s surnames: E.D. Balcom, H.R. Morrow, Joe Rhea and John Rhea – Bal-mor-hea. They formed an irrigation company in the early 20th century.

The park is located on the San Solomon Springs. In 1849, the springs were known as Mescalero Springs for the Mescalero Apache who watered their horses here. The 1.75-acre pool with 3.5-million gallons of crystal-clear freshwater was built around the springs, one of the largest artesian, spring-fed pools in the world. It’s now considered one of the best swimming holes in Texas. The water is 72 to 76 degrees year-round and the constant flow of water means no chlorination is required.

photo of Spanish Revival Archecture

Spanish Revival Architecture

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the pool during FDR’s New Deal between 1936 and 1941. In addition to the pool, they built barracks, a concession building, two bath houses and San Solomon Courts using local limestone. They also made adobe bricks for the construction.

photo of Our campsite

Our campsite

I’d spoken with several folks from the park while we traveled and it was nice to put names and faces with the voices. They were very welcoming. The campground is a small jewel with only 34 sites. We backed the Ambassador into our site and began to settle into the magic that is Balmorhea. We took a stroll around the pool. There’s a high diving board and the shallow end has a concrete floor. We forgot to bring bathing suits on this trip so we will be coming back to Balmorhea.

photo of a Camp Inn Teardrop

Camp Inn Teardrop

The next day we headed off to the McDonald Observatory, another must-do on anyone’s West Texas visit. Our return to Balmorhea was like coming home. It’s always fun to check out the other campers and trailers in the campground. There was another teardrop, a Camp Inn.  We also caught up with another couple we’d met in the campground outside Big Bend. We noticed their distinctive Scamp trailer with its unusual aerodynamic design near the showers. On our last day, Moth Man and his wife, the couple we met in Seminole Canyon, stopped by to Balmorhea for a short visit. We have made many good friends on the Teardrop Trail.

photo of sunset over Balmorhea campground

The magic …

photo of mounted solar panel

Solar Power on the Teardrop Trail

In an earlier post, we described a simple solar system for the our teardrop. With only a 15-watt capacity, we needed to upgrade and did so last year. We’ve gotten some questions about our solar power installation on the teardrop, and I wanted to share what we’ve done. This a work in progress, but during our recent Big Bend trip, we never hooked the trailer up to shore power (aka 120 volt hookups) and used solar power almost exclusively. It’s important to state our goals however, we didn’t intend to replace shore power. Instead, we wanted to extend the practical range of our trailer, making it possible to use primitive campsites for days at a time. This is where solar power can really shine (pun intended) on a small trailer.

There are several elements to a solar system. At minimum, a solar panel, a storage battery and some kind of charge controller are needed. Additions include 120/240-volt capabilities like battery chargers and inverters. Our system is almost exclusively 12-volt. With it we run lighting and have the ability to charge multiple devices such as smart phones, tablets, a laptop and digital cameras. We even have the ability to run a few high current 12-volt appliances like an electric tea kettle intermittently. Our trailer has a 7500 BTU air conditioner (this is Texas after all), but that must be run on shore power.

photo of battery, charger and charge controller

Charge controller in place

Broadly speaking, there are two types of charge controllers: Maximum Power Point Transfer (MPPT) and Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). Both have their advantages, but a PWM controller won in cost and efficiency for our particular application: hot, sunny climates and systems of 170 watts or less.  An article with a more complete comparison may help with your decision.

Here’s what we ended up with:

  • Renogy® 100-Watt Monocrystalline Bendable Solar Panel (update: no longer available, but this panel is similar)
  • Renogy® 10-Amp PWM Solar Charge Controller (update: no longer available, but this controller is similar)
  • Interstate Group 27 Marine Deep Cycle/Starting Battery (available from Costco)
  • Jensen JMP-800 75-Watt Power Inverter (plugs into a 12 volt outlet for occasional use)

Fortunately, our trailer was built with dual wiring: 12 and 120-volt. There is 120-volt power in both the galley and interior, and a 12-volt outlet is available in the interior. I added a 12-volt feed into the interior cabinets to power a Ten-Tec Triton II amateur radio. Most of the installation work involved mounting the solar panel on the trailer’s roof. The charge controller was mounted in the galley storage adjacent to the battery. The trailer was already equipped with a small charger, and it charges the battery when we’re hooked up to shore power. The solar panel can be removed from the roof and located away from the trailer using an extension cord. This way, we can park the trailer in a shady spot while the panel is located in the sun. The photos show the mounting screw installation process.

photo of Incandescent Bulb

Incandescent Bulb

The trailer came with 12-volt automotive light fixtures and incandescent bulbs.

photo of LED "corn" lamp

LED “corn” lamp

These were replaced with LEDs resulting in a 75% power savings. As I mentioned, it is a work in progress, and I would like to add a second panel. There’s room on the roof, and that would double our capacity.

photo of Mounting the panel

Mounting the panel


photo of trailer front with box mounted

More Storage – A Trailer Tongue Box

Jim, May 17:

photo of the bare trailer tongue

Bare trailer tongue

During the Big Bend trip, I started to think about refining our trailer and realized that storing jacks and other trailer equipment in the galley complicated our setup. A second storage area would make the galley more convenient and allow Marilyn to start our evening meal while I was setting up camp. I had seen boxes that mount on a trailer tongue, and thought that might be the answer. They aren’t hard to find, and I soon had one on order. Made by Better Built, and 34-inches by 19-inches and 18-inches high, it looked like it would just fit on our teardrop’s small tongue.

The new trailer tongue box

The new trailer tongue box

In hand a few days later, it looked great and didn’t weigh much — welded aluminum construction with a locking latch and power-assisted top hatch. Our trailer has a single rail for the tongue however, and it looked like the box was better suited to trailers with a “y” front hitch. Mounting the soft aluminum box on a single rail seemed like a problem — the first time it was leaned upon, it would bend. I decided to get some help from my friends at Vintage Motor to make a stout steel mount. Jason and I quickly decided  to cradle the front and back bottom edges with 1 1/2-inch angle iron. These would be welded to other angle iron and attached to the 2 by 3-inch trailer tongue with bolts.

We set to work. After measuring the front and back box edge, Jason cut 16 and 34-inch pieces of 1 1/2-inch angle iron on a chop saw. By placing them under the front and back edge, we were able to mark the precise size and angle using a sharpie. Using these marks, he was able to trim the rails with a pneumatic cut-off tool, and round the rough edges with an angle grinder.

Next, we cut brackets and holes and drilled them to accept the tongue bolts. They were then welded to the rails. There was one bracket per rail, and they were placed so that the rails would be centered on the trailer tongue with a bracket on each side. Finally we drilled four holes on the long rail, and two holes on the short one to mount the box.

Rails and brackets complete, it was time for a test fit. Everything seemed to work, so I set about drilling bolt holes into the trailer tongue. This is very tough steel, and it took awhile — even with the help of my grandad’s 1/2-inch drill. Now we could bolt the rails on, and set the box into them. Last, we drilled holes from the bottom, through the rails, and into the box. It was secured with six bolts as well. We’d had to “fudge” the fit to straighten to box and allow for lid clearance with the trailer, so the front rail was a little off-center. A trip back to the shop to adjust it’s length, and we were ready for paint.

Now painted, it was time for the final installation. To protect the bottom from being dented, I’ll cut a piece of plywood to fit the inside. The box size seems proportional to the trailer — a lucky break. I was also pleased to see that the diamond plate on the trailer matches the box, both in pattern and rising to about the same height as the diamond plate on the trailer. Looks like a custom fit!

photo of the entrance of the Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We left the county seat, Fort Davis. Debating whether to stop by the McDonald Observatory or not, and saw a sign announcing the Fort Davis National Historic Site. With plenty of time for the hour or so trip to Balmorhea, we decided to stop.

I wasn’t prepared for what we discovered. The site is far enough away from the road that we didn’t see it’s expanse. Billed as the largest partially restored historic fort in the United States, it is immense with a variety of historic buildings in various states of preservation. We stopped in the visitor’s center and spent a few minutes looking through the exhibit. With a nice overview, and interest whetted, we went on to the main event.

Founded in 1854 by Lieut. Col. Washington Seawell, six companies of the eighth U.S. Infantry, and named for the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, it was abandoned by federal troops in April 1861 at the outset of the Civil War. It was one of many posts along the San Antonio to El Paso Road, a 600-mile journey along the southern route to California. It helped bring peaceful settlement of the region between it’s reoccupation in 1867 and it’s deactivation in 1891. One surprising fact: Except for a mainly white officer corps, the post was largely manned after 1870 by buffalo soldiers.

First stop, a restored enlisted barracks where we met one of the site volunteers. This was fortunate, since the restored interiors are normally viewed from glassed off entrances. He offered to show us around the barracks. What an amazing step back in time. The building had been carefully restored, complete with period furnishings, weaponry and personal effects. The buildings take advantage of cooling afforded by the adobe brick construction and natural ventilation. Uniforms were a mix of the practical and fanciful. The parade dress uniform was patterned after european models and worn regularly — even in the heat of summer. More practical uniforms were worn for the more mundane work details including  the construction of 91 miles of telegraph line west from the fort.

The Commissary served as the local grocery and general store. Supplies for the 500 or so military and their families, as well as other nearby military posts had to be freighted by wagon train from San Antonio. The 400-mile trip took between five and six weeks, so careful planning was essential for the post’s safety and effectiveness. The commissary has been partially restored with example goods lining the shelves, and first-person descriptions of daily fare.

Several interesting exhibits are in the Post Hospital where care for sick and injured soldiers and family members was provided. The building has been partially restored, with examples of the ongoing archeological work visible within. Behind the post hospital, foundations from the original, 1854-1861 fort are visible. It was more modest in scope, and dwarfed by the later version.

Officers and their families were housed in a variety of single and shared quarters along Officers’ Row. One shared quarters building has been stabilized with a restored wooden porch — from there it is possible to peer into the unrestored interior. A couple of single family officer’s quarters have been fully restored with furnishings and personal effects similar to the enlisted men’s quarters mention earlier.

In total, Marilyn and I spent several hours touring the grounds and enjoying the exhibits. The frontier and late nineteenth century and very real here. In the gallery below, I’ve included several of the exhibit signs — they recount the history better than I can. If you’re in West Texas near Marfa, Fort Davis or Balmorhea, this is a worthwhile stop.

photo of Married officer's quarters interior

Married officer’s quarters interior

photo of bachelor officer's quarters interior

Bachelor officer’s quarters interior

photo of exhibit case of Civilan contractors

Civilan contractors

Photo of Village Farms

On the Road to Fort Davis

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

Our next stop was the town of Fort Davis. On the way, we passed several giant greenhouses. I had purchased cherry tomatoes a few weeks ago in Austin and the package said these tasty gems were from Village Farms in Marfa. Tomato farming in Marfa? Yes, hydroponic greenhouses on a huge scale. Who would have known? You just never know what you are likely to see on the teardrop trail.

Photo of Jeff Davis County Courthouse

Jeff Davis County Courthouse

Fort Davis was originally a frontier military post on the Old Overland Trail. This small community has 23 historic sites on the 1 1/2 mile walking tour that starts and ends in the town square which seems to have changed little since the early Twentieth Century. Jim enjoyed photographing the Jeff Davis County Courthouse that was completed in 1911. Unlike the courthouse in Marfa, this one was surrounded by a fence with turnstiles to keep out the donkeys that had been set free after wagons became more prevalent.

photo of Hotel Limpia

Hotel Limpia

Hotel Limpia, built in 1913, from locally quarried pink granite is named for a nearby creek. This 31 room, historic hotel has forty rocking chairs on the expansive porches that invite guests to relax after a day of hiking or visiting the McDonald Observatory. Next time we will make a reservation.

photo of Fort Davis Drug Store

Fort Davis Drug Store

The Fort Davis Drug Store was built in 1913 inside the Hotel Limpia and became a gathering spot for locals to get newspapers, visit the doctor and fill a prescription. It was relocated across the street in 1950. It offered a step back in time with a traditional 22-foot soda fountain, much like the one in the West Texas town I grew up in – a true old fashioned Texas experience.

After looking at the guide to Fort Davis, we know a repeat visit is in our future, especially when the brochure promises that it’s cooler in the summer in the Davis Mountains than anywhere else in Texas. Our next stop was the town’s namesake, Fort Davis Historical Site.

photo of Classic Soda Fountain

Classic Soda Fountain

Photo of Farma Coffeehouse

Bidding Marfa Farewell

Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016

We went in search of breakfast. On the teardrop trail, we try to avoid chain restaurants and convenience stores. We explore the local spots. We often rely on the Internet, an app or just exploring.

Photo of Jim and a breakfast taco at Farma

Breakfast taco at Farma

The day before, we found Farma (an anagram of Marfa) at the Tumbleweed Laundry where Jim had gotten his daily mocha. A uniquely quirky Marfa combination of lattes and laundry. The menu is spelled out in Scrabble letters. We returned, grabbed breakfast tacos and beverages. The bulletin board offers a listing of the happenings around Marfa, an interesting introduction to local goings on.

Photo of The Get Go

The Get Go

Next – resupply provisions. I’d heard about The Get Go. “Small desert outpost delivering natural and gourmet foods, wine, beer and a friendly attitude.”  The offerings were amazing. A great selection of cheeses including Marfa Maid Goat Cheese. Local products and produce amongst hipster treats. Such a wonderful assortment stuffed into a convenience store size space in this tiny West Texas town. We will eat well!

While visiting Marfa, we enjoyed KRTS Marfa Public Radio, the NPR-affiliated station at 93.5 FM. I had discovered it when working in West Texas. The station was founded in 2005. They combine NPR with local news and programming, a very Marfa-centric mix. The station recently won every category in the regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. It has the smallest listenership of PBS stations in the lower 48.  It has a geographic coverage about the size of South Carolina but a much greater reach through partnerships and live-streaming. We continued to enjoy the variety of offerings until we lost the signal after we left Ft. Davis heading north.

We found boomer heaven in Marfa and know we will return….

Photo of Hotel Paisano Lobby

Dining — Marfa Style

Photo of The Buffalo

The Buffalo

Teardrop Trail Log: March 27, 2016

We treated ourselves to dinner Jett’s Grill in the Hotel Paisano, located just one block from the courthouse. We entered through the historic hotel. The lobby is appointed with a beautiful tan and brown tile floor and ornate wrought iron light fixtures with mica panel inserts around glass globes, remnants from the past. Buffalo and longhorn trophies gaze down from the white washed walls.

Photo of Jett's Grill

Jett’s Grill

Described by Vogue Magazine as the place for a proper sit-down meal, Jett’s offers patio dining in the picturesque courtyard complete with a four-tiered fountain. Our reservation was for inside. While cooking in the galley of the teardrop and eating in the great outdoors is an adventure, we welcomed the chance to relax with a white table cloth and a littleTexas flair.

Photo of Grilled Salmon over Asparagus and Pasta

Grilled Salmon over Asparagus and Pasta

We had in a lovely sauvignon blanc. I enjoyed grilled salmon over asparagus and pasta. Jim indulged his culinary wild side with

Photo of Chile Rellaño

Chile Rellaño

Chile Rellaños, long green chili peppers stuffed with Asadero cheese coated with a tortilla chip crust. Avocado cream sauce. Topped with Pico de Gallo. Served over rice.

We splurged and split a Crème Brŭlée.

Photo of Crème Brŭlée

Crème Brŭlée