Why the battery charging problem is so hard to fix

Our frequent dead starter battery problem seems like something we should have addressed right away, with the apparent worsening over the last month emphasizing the point.  Believe me, we have tried: two different mechanics took a look and reported that since the symptoms were so inconsistent it was near impossible to trouble shoot down to the bad component.  After our battery troubles going to Carmel Valley, however, I assumed that the problem had worsened to the point of consistency.  Thus our decision to forgo Yosemite and head straight back to the Coach Maintenance Company.  Imagine our surprise when, after thee hours of driving, we pulled over at Wal-Mart with the intention of recharging the certain-to-be-low batteries with our Honda generator while we bought groceries and ate lunch, only to find this:

What the?

What the?

That’s right, fully charged,100% ready starter batteries.  This is doubly surprising: not only were they not depleted after a drive that, based on our Carmel Valley experience, should have shown them well below half, but for the past month I have not seen the batteries above 67% even after a full night of trickle charging!  I was not sure if that 67% max charge was a result of using a smallish 12V charger on these big bus batteries or if it had something to do with the way they are wired in series, but I was becoming concerned that in addition to whatever problem I had with the alternator and associated charging system, I might also have to replace the less-than-one-year-old batteries themselves.Big ole bus batteries

Big ole bus batteries

So this is one of those good news bad news situations: the batteries charged up while driving, allowing us a smooth run to the mechanic, but now we are right back to the inconsistent symptoms problem that prevented repair the last two times.  Adding to the stress, Ted has not been able to look at our bus since we arrived two days ago.  He has moved us ahead of another bus job to the “on deck” position, but he encountered significant problems with the job in front of us, which he originally expected to be complete yesterday.Wiring panel beside the driver seat.  Pretty simple, right?

Wiring panel beside the driver seat. Pretty simple, right?

There has been one shining spot of progress, though.  During his breaks we have talked extensively about the bus, with special emphasis on indicators and warning symptoms.  Some of you might recall my complaints about all the unlabeled warning lights and switches we inherited from the previous owner, most of which we have figured out through trial and error.  One indicator has been particularly difficult to sort out.  A little red light below the speedometer has, as long as we can remember, sporadically illuminated during drives.  During the course of the last few months it has become more frequently lit, to the point that it has been solid red the last week or so.Unlabeled indicator lights: Two greens are turn signals, Blue is high beam head lights, Top left red is low air pressure, the other three reds are unknown...

Unlabeled indicator lights: Two greens are turn signals, Blue is high beam head lights, Top left red is low air pressure, the other three reds are unknown…

Originally I suspected it had something to do with our long standing transmission problems.  Once those were fixed I thought it might be related to our unusually low oil pressure reading that Ted pointed out last week.  But after a conversation yesterday with Ted, I learned that one of the core indicator lights on the original driver panel was a generator (alternator) circuit failure light, and it hit me.  Though the light has been near solidly illuminated the last few weeks, the exception was our run from Monterey to Williams the day before yesterday: the light was off pretty much the entire trip, which was surprising and rare enough that I mentioned it to Rosemarie.  The same run where the battery system charged.  Doh!  Finally we have not only the answer to an indicator light mystery, but a clear way of knowing when to expect a dead battery after driving.  Progress!

Monterey Pines RV Campground: another prime RV spot for military, retired, and their guests

It’s hardly a secret that the military owns some of the choicest real estate in the country, just look at how much of Waikiki is taken up by the Hale Koa resort and Fort Derussey.  Some of these prime locations also have campgrounds on them with subsidized prices for military and retired personnel.  We took advantage of this in Key West, staying on the Naval Air Station blocks from Mallory Square for $13 a night.

Spacious and attractive site, golf course behind the tree line

Spacious and attractive site, golf course behind the tree line

We did it again in Monterey, stopping at Monterey Pines RV Campground, one of the annex properties owned by the Naval Postgraduate School.  Prices depend on your exact status and site selection, but we paid $26 per night for partial hook up (30 amp power and water, dump station nearby).  Nearby private RV parks cost two to three times as much for what the reviews suggest are far less attractive and poorly maintained spots.  Additionaly, Monterey Pines recently upgraded their wifi, which we found surprisingly fast and reliable in the spots near the repeater towers, though a bit iffy further down the way.

When you stay as close to the downtown action as Montery Pines allows, you can’t expect a great deal of solitude and nature, but this campground does a pretty good job of providing a beautiful view of a lightly wooded and tree-lined golf course with an abundance of bird and ground squirrel activity, and we even witnessed the final stages of a successful hawk attack on a local bird.  Unless you are there for the golf, and it did appear to be a very nice course with prices just as subsidized as the RV park, the real draw to this place is it’s proximity to the Monterey harbor.

On our first full day after arrival we took a stroll towards the beach, only 1.6 miles walking distance from the park, ending up on a huge sand dune overlooking the bay.  From this point you could walk along the Monterey Coastal Recreation Trail or the beach towards the wharf and downtown areas.  We chose the latter, heading another mile or so along the water’s edge towards Old Fisherman’s Wharf, frequently seeing sea lions and harbor seals.

Once there we walked the length of the pier, with about a dozen restaurants trying to lure us in with free samples of clam chowder.  Since we partook in half a dozen of these, by the time we reached the end of the wharf we were nearly full and only had a small appetizer and a couple of local craft beers.  Unfortunately this was the only restaurant or bar we escaped from without a significant bill.

We went searching for the wine tasting bar that we had found a couple of years ago with former boss, drinking companion and certified sommelier, Paul.  Instead we found one of their direct competitors, Wine From the Heart, transitioning to Sovino Wine Bar, and had flights of half a dozen reds, which were comped after we bought three surprisingly affordable bottles from local vineyards Joyce and McClean X.  Our wine stock is back up to preferred levels now that we have picked up stock here and at Heller Estate in Carmel Valley, but I doubt having a full bar will prevent us from threatening the budget with further purchases as we head north through the rest of California and Oregon wine country.

We stayed in on our third day, as much to get our budget back on track as anything else, and took advantage of the high speed free wifi to catch up on a few of the television shows we used to watch.  On our last full day, Cinco de Mayo, we headed back into town to find a Mexican restaurant for a few margaritas and food.  Among the four to five options within walking distance we selected Lopez Restaurante y Cantina, which had the advantage of having a full liquor license, which meant real tequila rather than the flavored syrup some places use, as well as delicious entres .  It did not disappoint, and the service was excellent.

Horatio inspects our drink and appetizer choices

Horatio inspects our drink and appetizer choices

We woke at a leisurely hour, did a load of laundry ($1 wash, 75 cents dry, very cheap for an RV park) and broke camp after confirming our starter batteries were holding at 2/3 charge.  Four hours of driving with a stop at WalMart for resupply and we arrived back at Coach Maintenance Company in Williams to deal with the battery charging problem and a few other repairs.

On the road again: Nursing the batteries and changing plans on the fly

We departed Concord on Friday and headed for Carmel Valley, a fantastic and beautiful little town with 19 wine tasting rooms.  We stayed there for a couple of nights at the tail end of a business trip to Monterey a couple of years ago and loved it.  Unfortunately we did not get away from Concord until nearly 6 pm, and since we had not charged up the batteries fully before departing, we noticed that our headlights were not working properly as darkness fell.  We were looking to stop at boondocking site near Hollister, but the bus decided that Gilroy was far enough, and we pulled into the parking lot of a tractor supply company behind a Sonics to recharge using our generator.  By the time we got charged up enough to continue on we realized that none of the owners or managers in the adjacent businesses seemed concerned enough about our presence to bother us, so we decided to stay the night right there.

Who would have thought that a road named "Laureles Grade" would have significant grades?

Who would have thought that a road named “Laureles Grade” would have significant grades?

The next morning we continued on to Carmel Valley, experiencing the usual excitement on a significant downhill grade the last few miles.  The name of the road, Laureles Grade, was a pretty big clue that we were going to have some steep climbs and significant downhill runs, and it did not disappoint in that regard.  Fortunately it was not a particularly long run, and we proceeded with caution and at a very slow pace, pulling over frequently to let the brakes cool.

A beautiful but tension filled downhill run into the valley

A beautiful but tension filled downhill run into the valley

We made it safely into Carmel Valley only to have the Kahuna stall completely in an intersection, perhaps the down hill run had been more electrically demanding on the system, but we suffered the embarrassment of having the fire department show up and direct traffic around us for the 45 minutes it took us to get charged up enough to move into the parking lot of the Running Iron Restaurant.

We have broken down before, but this was the first time we actually blocked traffic

We have broken down before, but this was the first time we actually blocked traffic

Since we had partially blocked one of the entrance to the restaurant, we felt obligated to eat there, and over a late morning drink and delicious breakfast we began adjusting our plans based on the reality of our bus’ lack of readiness for long distance travel.  We would head 20 miles down the road to Monterey, stay at the military owned RV park near downtown for a few days, cancel our plans to go to Yosemite, and head straight back to the mechanic in Williams to address the battery charging issues along with some other items we had previously agreed upon.

Still smiling, though perhaps through gritted teeth

Still smiling, though perhaps through gritted teeth

Both Kevin at Bay Cities Diesel ad Ted at Coach Maintenance Company had taken a look at the charging issue, but since the symptoms were not consistently showing up they had not had the time to solve it.  Based on the last couple of days, we are pretty sure the symptoms are now ever-present, and we are confident that Ted will solve it next week.  It is a bit embarrassing to write yet again about our ongoing mechanical problems, but we are trying to “keep it real” as the kids no doubt stopped saying years ago, and will share the good with the bad.  Besides, if you have to be broken down somewhere, you could do worse than Carmel Valley, surrounded by 19 wine tasting rooms, including one of o favorites, Heller Estate.

Making the best of our situation by picking up wine at Heller Estate

Making the best of our situation by picking up wine at Heller Estate

The Bus is Back!

Not gonna lie, with regard to our blogging activity here, its been a bit demotivating not having our bus, thus the relativity paucity of posts of late.  But now we have him back and we are rolling, so expect more frequent entries.

We picked up The Big Kahuna from Ted at Coach Maintenance Company a couple of day ago and parked him in front of Rosemarie’s sister’s house in Concord while we made preparations for continuing our journey around the country.  Ted had repaired our reverse gear transmission problem by replacing the nearly stripped reverse clutch gear, and dealt with a number of other maintenance issues for us as well.  He switched our the transmission fluid from ATF to 10W40, apparently a much better option for the Allison VS2 transmissions, but warned us that we need to keep a better eye on the fluid level.  He also suggested that the change in fluid at the proper level should eliminate the long standing and very aggravating difficulty of getting Kahuna to transition into top gear on anything other than a down hill grade.  Sure enough, we had no problem at all during the 95 mile return trip to Concord.

Unfortunately Ted did not have time to trace down the charging failure issue that keeps killing our starter batteries, but we have made arrangements to return next week for a full line up of repairs and improvements, which we will get into on a later post.  In the meantime we wanted to hit a couple of places here in central California, so we are nursing the batteries along until we get back to Ted’s shop.  That is proving a bit more challenging that we anticipated as the charging failure seems to have gotten worse, or at least it is now consistently failing to charge rather than just occasionally failing to charge.  Ah well, we will lick it eventually.