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Thursday, 3 December 2009

TURNING GAS INTO ELECTRICITY - Using a gas powered Generator

I see no hookups!

This article was first published in MMM magazine in May 2007. I have revised it slightly to include further experiences with the gas conversion to our Honda generator and some more photos.

One of the well known challenges faced by motorcaravanners, who like us shy away from the well beaten track, is that of extending battery power to maintain required services, particularly in the winter season.

Until a boffin somewhere develops an inexhaustible 12V battery there will be only four basic options to counter this:

(1) Never camp more than 20 yards from a mains 230v outlet
(2) Weigh down your van with extra batteries, and/or –
(3) Invest large sums in a set of solar panels
(4) Buy a noisy, smelly generator!

The two other options; the wind powered generator and the fuel cell, are not for the lazy at heart or shallow of pocket, respectively. Wind turbines are constantly noisy, difficult to store, require a secure pole to mount them on and lots of attention if it gets too windy. Fuel cells cost upward of £3,000 and require methanol to run, at around £30 per 5 litre can – which of course is not readily available at your local garage.

For us, option (1) is generally a non-starter because we just like to be out in the sticks, though of course some CL’s fit the bill, and also provide a 230V hook-up.

Option (2) is out because we don’t have the room or spare payload. However, there is considerable gain to be had from better charging equipment over and above the standard alternator – Sterling or CTEK Battery to Battery (B2B) charger, for example, and also ensuring that the leisure battery is well insulated from the cold.

Sterling Power - a good source of DC info and products

CTEK - a fine range of 12V chargers and equipment

Option (3) I am a late convert to solar panels, but they are only of significant benefit in sunny climes – a case of diminishing returns when you need them most. For us they are an indispensable aid to autonomy, but not a guarantee of autonomy. When the battery breathes its last on a bitter, snowy night in the French Alps, a solar panel is as much use as a chocolate fireguard!

A solar panel's not much use in this!

Option (4). There are some who say (Sue might be one) that I am just a sad old retired seadog who is lonely without a generator to play with – well, who am I to argue?

Our generator in action in Albertville, France

My vote goes to the little red Honda, the EU 10i, which we bought in 2004. Shop around and it can cost less than a solar panel and installation. If necessary we can run our 500 W fan heater on it and (don’t laugh) our 800W mini vacuum cleaner.

It’s easily handled and extremely quiet – situated underneath the back of our ‘van it is barely audible to us inside when just charging the battery. It uses "inverter" technology which means it outputs a pure electrical sine wave (just like the mains supply) and so can be used safely with modern chargers, TV's and laptops.

Honda Generators

Before anyone pops up and says “what about the poor campers outside having to listen to it”? I entirely agree, which is why I have invested in a solar panel to avoid disturbing the peace on balmy summer evenings. However, when up a mountain it is generally only the wild life we are disturbing, and as they are used to cars and ski buses all day long, piste bashers at night and avalanche blasting in the early morning, it's unlikely they are going mind too much.

There's nobody else here but the animals

On the other hand, on a popular winter aire you just have to put up with the noise as everybody is at it (running generators, that is).

A crowded aire at La Rosiere - my generator's bigger than yours!

One more thing. I wanted to avoid carrying a third fuel, i.e. petrol (as well as diesel and gas) around with us. It is illegal in some countries to carry loose containers of petrol (that could include the generator), and always on a ferry. That it because is potentially dangerous to our own health and safety, as well as others. Petrol under the bed? No way.

So began the investigation into gas powered alternatives. I discovered that these fall into two camps, the replacement of the existing petrol jet with a gas jet “spud adaptor” (the Brown Power solution) or the fitting of a venturi flange or collar into the air intake (used by Edge Technology and others). The advantage of the venturi is that the engine can instantly be changed back to run on petrol and is effectively “dual-fuel”.

The disadvantage, so I was told, is that the little Honda engine doesn’t run as sweetly with this conversion – though this is the method used for vehicle conversions. As I had no intention of running on petrol, I played safe and opted for the replacement of the petrol jet with the gas version.

Both systems require a gas demand valve or fuel controller which, it has to be noted, are smaller than a can of petrol. You may baulk at his extra bit of kit as being too much hassle, but I have a stainless steel snap connector fitted to the hose, so I can quickly connect it to the BBQ connection under the ‘van.

Note the aluminum mounting plate to keep the demand valve upright

The under-the-van connection might seem a bit of a fiddle, but in snowy/icy climates it avoids the danger of the connectors getting frozen up in snowy/wet conditions. I have never had any problems despite repeated connections and disconnections at well below freezing – keeping them dry is the answer.

The priming pin is in the middle of the face of the valve

The generator also has a snap connector fitted to its hose. Setting up is therefore just a case of plugging the demand valve into the outside BBQ connection and plugging the generator into the demand valve – quicker and less hassle than getting the petrol can out really. A couple of squeezes to the pin on the demand valve are required to prime the system, then a few pulls and it’s away. The choke is not used, nor do I bother with the fuel shut off.

To shut down, a valve on the BBQ connection is closed. Then the hoses are swiftly separated, the generator goes under the bed and the demand valve into the gas locker.

Storing the geny under the bed next to the heater – something I wouldn’t dream of doing if there was a trace of petrol in it – means that on a typical Alpine night of minus 10º C, I can lift the machine out of its nice warm refuge and have it up and running outside before its had a chance to protest, though the air intakes did frost up a bit at 6500 ft and minus 15ºC!

I have no experience of the Edge Technology conversion, I can only say that our set up  has been 100% reliable and worked very happily.

Minus 15 C and altitude 6500 ft - still purring sweetly

One other issue which should be mentioned is running at altitude. I raised this question before purchase, as obviously for a given jet size the mixture is going to get richer as the air gets thinner. For a standard petrol machine, the Honda manual recommends that you change the carburettor jet at altitudes higher than 1500m (5000 feet) and you could consider buying a special jet for this purpose. Without the correct jetting, fuel consumption will increase and the engine will smoke.

However, the prospect of changing jets as we went uphill and down dale would, for me, put an end to it, and no doubt I would do as other winter campers seem to do – put up with the extra fuel consumption and pollution. The manual also points out that even with the correct jetting, the engine horsepower will decrease approximately 3.5% for each 300 metre (1,000 foot) increase in altitude, so if the output from your machine is intended to run heating or other high current device that is a factor you need to consider.

When I mentioned the altitude conundrum to the technician at Brown Power, he confessed that, for a gas powered machine, no one had asked him this before. He promptly came up with the solution of fitting a small globe valve after the supplied demand valve, to throttle in the gas supply as required. Some gas converted machines have a tendency to run unevenly on light load (mine is one), and this extends into rest of the power band as the mixture gets richer. To alleviate this problem, I just take a coin out of my pocket, put it in the slotted spindle of the globe valve and tweak it until the geny sounds sweet. It seems like a crude solution but it works.

I raised my concern that I could damage my machine by running it too weak (a hazard if you changed jets on a petrol machine up a mountain and then returned to a lower level) but he assured me that the fuel/air ratio is so critical for a gas powered machine that if it is too weak, it just won’t run.

Bearing in mind that Autogas (LPG) contains a mixture of Propane and Butane, the blend of which varies according to your country of location and even the season, it is perhaps remarkable that a unit designed to run on bottled propane can be persuaded to run as happily as it does, never mind at high altitude.

One last point, the length of the hose between the demand valve and the generator is critical to performance and should not be altered.

Running on gas: Advantages

Safer – no need to store and handle another volatile and toxic fuel.
Cheaper to run – even more so if you use refillable bottles and Autogas.
More reliable, can be stored indefinitely – no need to drain tank and carburetor to avoid a build up of fuel residue.
Environmentally friendly – no danger of fuel spills, and cleaner emissions.
Extended running times without refueling – 24 hours or more.
Cleaner exhaust, plugs and oil – hence maintenance periods can be extended.
Tuning for running at altitude can be simply accomplished.

Running on gas: Disadvantages

Initial additional cost of conversion.
Cost of installation of BBQ gas point or dedicated supply.
Demand valve/fuel controller must be carried, though smaller than a petrol can.

What price being independent to enjoy mornings like this!

System types: Carburettor gas jet (Brown Power)

This replaces the original petrol jet, removing the float chamber and other parts, and once converted the engine can only run on gas. (These parts are retained and can be refitted in a few minutes if you want to run on petrol). The petrol pipe should be blanked off to prevent accidental flooding.
The demand valve uses a reduced (regulated) supply so the BBQ point can be used for both purposes.
Available from:

Brown Power - dealer and conversion specialist

PetePower - conversion, repair and useful, humourous info!

System types: Carburettor gas venturi (Edge Technology)
This is an aluminium plate or collar which fits between the carburettor air intake and the air filter, requiring some extended mounting bolts. The engine can now be run on gas and petrol (but not both at once!)
The combined fuel controller/regulator requires an unregulated supply, hence you cannot use a standard BBQ connection, you will need a dedicated, unregulated (high pressure) supply.
Available from:

Edge Technology - dealer and conversion specialist

Postscript: We recently returned from a two month trip to the Western Isles. October and November not being the warmest and/or lightest of months I anticipated that the generator was going to get a good deal of use. The snag for us was that Autogas (our usual fuel) is only available in one location, in Stornoway, hence we were going to have to use the vastly more expensive and still less readily available Calor gas.

So, I gritted my teeth, bought a 10 litre plastic jerrican in the motor accessory shop in Oban and converted the geny back to run on that smelly, splashy, toxic (to us and plants) liquid fuel.

The jerrican found a home strapped to the frame on the bike rack, but the geny, as always, had to live under the bed. Obviously I allowed the geny to run the tank dry each time, but this still leaves a spoonful or so of petrol in the float chamber. This was quite swiftly decanted back into the jerrican by taking off the inspection cover and slackening of the drain screw with a stubby screwdriver (a plastic hose fitted by Honda directs it out through the bottom of the casing).

However, despite these precautions and the additional task of allowing the open petrol tank to vent and dispel vapour before closing it up, we still got the odd whiff petrol from the machine, particularly when it was warmed up by the Truma heater next to it.
Not dangerous from an explosive point of view, or probably from the toxic, but not pleasant just the same.

I was glad to convert back to gas!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


This article was first published in MMM magazine in August 2006. On our travels we have met a few couples who remembered the article and cut it out to keep, so I figured it might be of use to a wider audience.

A serious road traffic accident in a foreign country is an event that one really doesn’t want to think about, particularly when you are dreaming about your next adventure. The odds are that you will shunt it off to that part of your brain labelled: “Won’t happen to us.”
What follows is the tale of what did happen to us and what we learnt from it – some of it the hard way.

Our bad dream started in the Savoie region of France, 5 weeks into what was planned to be a six month trip, taking in the French Alps for some skiing and then down to Spain and Portugal for some sun.
We were in the busy evening traffic leaving Bourg St Maurice, on the RN 90 towards Aime, en route to meet up with some friends on the L’Eden campsite at Landry

The impact came out of nowhere, unseen, on the passenger side door. The car, glimpsed only as a blur, disappeared like a bullet ahead of us.
It’s at times like this that one’s brain goes into slo-mo, freeze frame mode. My brain was already trying to compute the extent of the damage on the passenger side when an invisible giant hand pushed us up the rock strewn roadside embankment. More terrible noises and I realised that the side was being ripped out of the ‘van. To compound my disbelief that this was happening I could feel that the van was about to turn over on its side. The van didn’t want to steer, one of the wheels wasn’t in contact with the road at all. Somehow we landed back onto the road with an almighty crash.

At this stage I was definitely in shock and I started to do irrational things. Seeing that Sue was physically OK, I legged it after the car, phone in hand, desperate to get his registration number. The Seat Ibiza had come to rest in a lay by, about 200 metres ahead. Panels were ripped off both sides, a tyre had come off and both air bags inflated. There was no driver. The traffic was milling slowly by us. It was getting dark.

A passing ambulance summoned the Gendarmerie and Sapeurs-Pompiers and they arrived in minutes. We spent a surreal hour on the roadside. The Ambulance wanted to take us to hospital, but we had to fill in a form in order to refuse. Sue had got our hi-vis jackets out, but we were the only ones wearing them – the Gendarmes in their dark blue uniforms came in and out of view, virtually invisible on the dark road.

Finally we drove to the local Gendarmerie. The other two drivers involved had what was left of their cars lifted onto trucks and went with the Gendarmes.
As there were three drivers involved, two sets of road accident report forms were filled out, the guilty driver filling in part A of both forms. I had to draw a sketch on the form and the police added details. These were signed by all involved. Then, still in a bad dream, it was “Bon Soiree” to everybody.

My sketch on the accident report form

The young driver who caused the accident and the driver of the car he hit first were lucky to be alive. We were lucky to escape serious injury. Now we were on our own to pick up the pieces.
We drove to meet our friends, who did their best to restore us with large glasses of Jameson’s and plates of Thai chicken curry.

In the morning, out came the digital camera and we started to record the damage. It was both better than we thought and worse than we thought. Although the main walls of the van had remained intact, there was damage to the valances on both sides and rear, the exhaust, waste tank and step underneath, and the interior. The tracking was out and the tyre scuffed. However, we could still use all services and still drive – just.

The first point of impact, deflecting the wheel and forcing us off the road

Damage to the front bumper and wheel arch

There were now three options – we could claim we were a basket case, get the insurance company to ship the van back to the UK and go home. We could get the vehicle checked out and repaired mechanically, and then drive home for the rest of the repairs. Or, we could try to get the van repaired entirely in France and continue on our trip.

The gas locker door wouldn't open properly

The electric step was hanging off, the alarm sounding constantly

We have a French built Rapido van, there was a Rapido concession and a large FIAT agent nearby, so it seemed to make sense to go for the last option.
On reflection, (Technicolor hindsight, in fact) I would say that this decision is not for the faint hearted. We have only limited French language and certainly not enough to win an argument. We have an English specification vehicle and this can cause problems with spare parts. We were foreigners, in a part of the country where life is hard and unforgiving and we were not therefore natural candidates for oodles of sympathy and service from the native French.

The exhaust was bent right back, torn off its mountings

The waste tank drain was twisted and broken

However, we pressed on, desperate to continue our holiday. Besides, I told myself, anyone can eat an elephant; you just have to do it in small chunks.
To cut a long and arduous story short, we arranged, with the help of the Norwich Union office in Paris and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, for all repairs to be carried out. First of all the van would go to a FIAT main agent (with its own body shop) for the steel and mechanical repairs, then to the Rapido concession (Curioz Loisirs) at Balme de Silingy, northwest of Annecy.
The hire of a motor home from Curioz Loisirs, whilst the repairs were being carried out, was arranged with the help of the RAC office in Lyon – cheaper than a hotel and a car.

The bike rack had buckled down into the rear bumper

We fell at the first hurdle. Namely the FIAT garage, who having taken a booking to start the repairs, backed out with a torrent of flimsy excuses and a great deal of discourtesy. Norwich Union in Paris pulled the plug and arranged for the repatriation of our battered home. C’est la vie.

The bed had bounced out of his mountings

We felt gutted, all that effort, an unhappy month of stress and setbacks, literally hundreds of pounds worth of mobile phone calls (enduring “call centre” hell) and now we had it to do all over again in the UK. Our holiday was well and truly down the Suwannee.

But our bad French dream was not over yet. Getting a suitable low loader to us (from Seville) would take the best part of a week, meanwhile the insurance company didn’t want us to drive the vehicle. We couldn’t possibly leave it by the side of a main road, in front of a garage with which we were not on speaking terms. Plus we had to return the hired motor home in which we now were living and contained lots of our kit. We took a deep breath, transferred all our goods and chattels back again, returned the hired ‘van and holed up in an aire de service near the pick up point in Albertville.

Holed up in Annecy awaiting news

Now we had to sort out our own repatriation. The RAC (in Lyons) was called to the rescue - our luck was in this time and we got a native English on the phone (Emma, you are a star), and a car was arranged for the day before the low loader arrived. The haulage company informed us that the bikes would have to come off the back of the van or they would disappear in Calais, if not before. To put them inside the van was unthinkable, especially if the Customs gave it a thorough going over, so they went into the car.

Au revoir, the dismal day matched our mood

Once at Calais, we would have to leave the French hire car, reassemble the bikes, board the ferry as foot passengers/cyclists, then reverse the procedure in Dover with the English hire car. (We had hoped that an English hire car would be available in Calais, but it rarely happens now.)
We finally arrived home late on a Sunday night. On Monday the gremlins were out in force again – the English haulier’s truck had broken down and return to our local nominated repair centre would be delayed. “Scottie – is your beam working?!”

Below is a distillation of what we learnt and our advice derived from that experience.

Before you leave home

Test drive your emergency phone numbers.
Call and ask if you are ringing the right number to report an accident abroad – you might get a surprise! Check that your insurance cover remains comprehensive where ever you intend to travel.

Get RAC and Uninsured Losses cover
For a combined outlay of £70 for this cover, we have the potential to save ourselves thousands of pounds. Plus you have informed, knowledgeable, English speaking people on the end of a phone – and that can be precious in itself.

Make a list of all your (checked) emergency numbers
Keep it with your vehicle details and policy document. Include the details of the dealer/repair garage of your choice should your ‘van have to be repatriated. Check that it is approved or acceptable by your insurer.
NB. If the cost of repatriation exceeds the value of your van, your insurer will not pay. In which case you face “digging deep”, completing the repairs abroad or writing off the van!

Essential items to have on board

Mobile phone.
Everybody has a mobile phone – but do you have a spare, and have they been “unlocked” to accept a foreign SIM card? This could save you a lot of money (and stress). Don’t forget the hands-free earpiece, it really does help to make long and difficult calls easier.

Laptop Computer
Many of us carry these – but do you have it set up to send and receive emails? Language translation software can be a godsend for understanding and preparing documents. Autoroute is a popular mapping program, extremely useful for finding locations and planning routes. Sat Nav is an alternative but the larger laptop screen makes life very much easier.

Smart Phone
Very useful if you are used to one, and can perform most of the functions of the laptop. (These days you can get them with a GPS receiver and Sat Nav included.)

Digital Camera
Get one. They are now so small, so cheap and so good that you’d be crazy not to. Most phones now have cameras but the extra definition and ease of use of a dedicated digital camera can ensure better results when you are under stress and in a hurry.

Spiral wound notebook
Sounds basic, and that’s its strength – you can fold it back on itself and shove it into other peoples hands for addresses and directions. You can tear out pages to pass on the same. Try that with a Smartphone. Store your pen in the spiral and you are ready for that incoming phone call. Ours formed the cornerstone of our recording and documentation. A refinement would be an A5 or A6 ring binder or filofax.

Pocket printer
Nice to have this – and I don’t. I made do with floppy discs and writeable CD’s (CDR) and got other people to print documents and pictures for me. (These days USB memory sticks are so cheap, most people with a laptop have one).

Fold flat luggage holdalls
When the game is up and you finally have to abandon your ‘van (even temporarily) you will be glad of these.

Hi-Vis jackets
They could save you life. Plus you could be fined for not wearing them, which adds insult to injury.

After the impact

We were so lucky to escape serious injury. Everything I say here is on the assumption that you should be equally fortunate.

Remember you are in shock
The adrenalin will be pumping, urging action. Be aware that your body’s response to what has happened will affect your ability to think and act in a cool and rational way - especially when your beloved home is in pieces.
Running along a busy road, in the dusk, without a hi-vis jacket, (as I did) in search of a fleeing driver, is not a sensible thing to do.

Get out the digital camera
Take pictures of the other cars involved, particularly the number plates, the damage and the position on the road. The damage to your own vehicle can wait, but try and get a general view of the scene, particularly the road markings.

Independent witnesses
If anyone comes up to you and says “I saw what happened” or similar, get their name, address and telephone number pronto. An independent witness can be very valuable.

The repair process

Take a break
For a few days after the accident, rest up and get your head together. If you decide, or have no other choice, than to have repairs done locally, don’t go rushing into them. You will have to wait for an assessor in any event, and you have the right to choose, within reason, when and where you have the vehicle repaired.

Don’t underestimate the emotional stress of the accident – seeing your beloved home damaged, and living with that on a daily basis is a continuing strain.
We all love the freedom of being able to move on when we feel like it. To have that denied is a much harder blow than we imagined.

Decide your objectives
Whether you are ready to embrace the fact or not, you are now a project manager.
Consider your options carefully. Try and make your head rule your heart.
A crucial objective could be to get the van driveable – then you are not faced with repatriation on a truck. Other damage could be considered merely cosmetic or inconvenient and you could continue your holiday – but get it properly recorded, assessed and accepted by the insurance company now.

Find an interpreter you can trust
Unless you speak the language fluently and know the culture intimately, a vital requisite is dual language speakers who are on your side, or who at least are willing to offer help over a sustained period of time. We got help above and beyond the call of duty from the Paris office of NU and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, but the RAC office in Lyon was also wonderfully helpful - providing you have cover they have your interests at heart and enormous knowledge resources to call on.

Select your repairers with care
If alarm bells are ringing, ask to see their workshops, confirm every stage and item, until you feel as confident as possible. Try elsewhere if necessary. The RAC will not get involved in accident damage unless instructed to do so by the insurance company, but they may be able to direct you to a competent repairer.

Nurture the experts
Try and persuade the motor home concession to take charge of the entire repair, nominating their own body shop. If not, insist on the assessor examining the ‘van at both body works and motor home concession. This is important in two ways – it convinces the repairer that you mean business and that they will get their money, secondly, the input from a skilled repairer on how to go about the repair can be crucial.

Communicate, communicate
Don’t expect anything to go according to plan. If someone says they will phone at a given time, or call you back, allow them half an hour’s grace and no more (it’s your blood pressure remember). Try your best to maintain politeness and your sense of humour. Ring to confirm again if you have the slightest doubt about an arrangement or agreement. Try and share the telephoning load between you. Remember, call centres were put on this earth to reduce the population – deaths from stroke, apoplexy, suicide etc!

Surviving repatriation

Do you fit?
Make sure the haulage company knows the exact dimensions of your van, to the inch - did you include the awning? Remember the vehicle will rock on the trailer when under way - is there sufficient clearance?

Have you, er, put on weight?
Give a realistic estimate of your all up weight - if the haulage company is under the impression they are repatriating an empty panel van (ours were) there may be a drastic change of plan!

External additions
Any bikes, skis or storage boxes will have to be removed - the haulier will not accept responsibility for damage or loss to any of these.

The Customs are likely to inspect the interior of the van - looking for persons, drugs, cigarettes and booze. They may not leave the place tidy or close cupboard and locker doors or drawers - move all fragile or heavy kit down low or in open topped boxes on the floor. The haulier will not accept responsibility for any interior damage.

Take pictures of the van before it departs on the trailer. The driver will ask you to sign a damage inspection form, but your pictures can be conclusive.

Registration Document
The driver will also require this for Customs, better to have a copy ready.

Don’t forget to phone your tracker HQ!

Postscript: Little did we imagine that repairs to the van would never be satisfactorily completed, or that it would take the best part of two years to get to a stage where we could draw a line under this painfull saga and walk away - from Brownhills at Newark (never to return!)

In fact, on the reccomendation of our Insurers (Norwich Union) we accepted a pay off of over £2000 for outstanding work, their view being that it was unlikely that Brownhills would ever complete the work to our satisfaction and we should engage another repairer of our choice.