Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Off-Grid Engineering Dual Battery System

I’ve recently added an Engel refrigerator to the collection of stuff I carry with me in the 4Runner and felt the need to provide it with its own source of power. Call me silly, but a dead battery alone in the middle of nowhere is not my idea of a good time. Yes, I know that in theory the Engel will not draw the battery below enough charge to start the vehicle, but theories have to be proven to become facts and I’m not willing to risk it. I also tend to like redundancy in systems that allow for a safe and uneventful completion of my outdoor adventures. Perhaps that trend started after I drove two hours to fly fish the Deschutes River and broke the only rod I had with me while simply stringing it up. Now I don’t leave the house without at least four rods, even for a day trip. 

My first step in the process of adding an extra battery under the hood was to talk to the guys at my local 4x4 shop. The quote they gave me seemed reasonable, but didn’t include many of the parts I would need to complete the project. I would have to supply a battery mount, a replacement washer bottle and misc. kits to move various engine components to different locations. Basically, they would provide a few parts, labor and expertise. 

Digging deeper into this project I discovered that if I continued with this piecemeal approach the costs would nearly double. I decided to do a little additional investigating and perhaps handle the install myself.

One of the many advantages of owning a popular vehicle like the 4Runner is that there are a plethora of aftermarket parts and custom shops available to help you outfit and explore. One such shop popped up on my social media feed and after some additional on-line research I reached out for more information.

The best I can tell, Off-Grid Engineering is a one or two man operation in Colorado that designs, tests and builds duel battery systems for the Toyota Tacoma and 4Runner. Matt Carter, the man behind the brand seems to be a bit of a perfectionist if a close inspection if his work is any indication. With email back and forth completed I was sure that I was going to be happy with his system and placed my order.

In a few weeks a packaged arrived and I immediately put daily work requirements on the back burner and cracked it open. From the beginning I was impressed. All of the parts were carefully package with protective wrapping, with nothing bouncing around loose in the box. Upon inspection I found that my initial thoughts on the lack of complexity of the install were correct. While the install instructions were simple, they left nothing to the imagination and included a photograph for those more visually influenced.

The install took me about two and a half hours, with some of that time spent dodging rain squalls. With my James Baroud tent on the roof, the 4Runner doesn’t fit in the garage all the way, leaving me to wait out the downpours before installing the cockpit switch. All of the engine compartment work was done in the dry and was fairly straightforward. Installing it myself saved me about $400, half the cost of the system. While my local 4x4 shop didn’t get the install business, I did purchase my new batteries from them. 

As mentioned, the attention to detail in the wiring and other components showed the unmistakable signs of an OCD engineer, which in this case is a good thing. All wires are supplied cut to the proper length, with beautifully attached fittings and braided coverings. The battery mounts and switch bracket are engineered to utilize stock mounting studs and pre-tapped mounting points. Installing the secondary battery mount takes only minutes and it is very sturdy. 

The Off-Grid Engineering duel battery system includes a Blue Sea 500 amp, dual voltage sensing relay and pre-wired management switch for in-cab installation. These combined with the aforementioned pre-cut wires makes the install simply a matter of disconnecting the main ground and hooking up the wires to the relay, secondary battery before reattaching the main ground. 

I do have one or two install tips after fighting the wiring passage into the cabin on previous projects. Remove the switch from the harness, photographing the location of the wires beforehand. Then cut off the clips. Feed the wires into the body of a ballpoint pen and use the pen to feed the wires through a small cut in the weatherproof rubber seal on the firewall. Once the wires are run through the firewall, reattach new clips to the wire ends and reinstall on the switch. Note: the pink wires are common so their location is not as critical as the rest. Also, some modification of the switch blank area is required. I used a Dremel tool to enlarged the area and press fit the switch into place. 

Once installed, the Off-Grid Engineering system looks like it was designed by the factory as an option for the serious enthusiast and works without worry. There is no need to manually switch anything, unless you need to compensate for a dead starting battery and want to draw on both units. It is suggested that both batteries in the system be of the same type to avoid issues of one trying to override the other. I chose to replace my stock battery and went with two Odyssey PC1400 Group 35 batteries based on Matt’s recommendation. This system was built around that particular battery, although other batteries will work. Some people have had no issues running non-similar batteries in their vehicles, but since I’m not an expert I chose to go with the recommendation offered by Matt. So far, I have no complaints whatsoever.

If you’re rolling down the trail in a Tacoma or 4Runner and are looking for a little extra power to keep those beverages chilled, this system makes it very simple to add that second battery. While Off-Grid Engineering is a very small company now, I hope to see new stuff from them in the future. They’ve got some quality products to build on and at least one very satisfied customer. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jame Baroud Explorer Evolution Roof Top Tent ~ First Impression Review

While I’ll never admit to feeling my age, the years do catch up on you and at some point things are not as easy as they once were, like folding yourself up into your 4runner for a good night’s sleep. When I carried only a cooler and gear bags the 4runner seemed to have more room, but with age comes required stuff and I carry a lot. To stow my cameras, fly fishing gear and camping accoutrements I have added a TruckVault and custom cooler/stove slide/sleeping platform to the rig. Even with my custom sleeping platform things are a bit tight in the back of my Fly Fishing Assault Vehicle and headroom for sleeping is minimal. Getting into bed is a lot easier that getting out and tucking in at night requires planning. You only want to do it once.

I’ve managed a few excursions over the years on the back roads of Oregon before deciding to upgrade my off-the-beaten-path sleeping arrangements and researched RTTs or roof top tents. While a travel trailer would provide more living space during explorations of Oregon and beyond; I wanted to be able to tow one of my boats and still get a good night’s sleep. Sleeping off the ground was also a requirement I added to my list, as was ease of set up and take down. I wanted to be mobile, but comfortable.

With more enthusiasts seeking the creature comforts too heavy to pack on their back, Overlanding or vehicle based camping/travel is becoming extremely popular here in the US. To surf the wave of this popularity manufacturers around the world are going mainstream with equipment once only sought out by outback bush guides or safari hosts. It’s become quite common to see SUVs, trucks and even compact cars rolling around town with tents mounted on the roof as they head for their favorite camp spots. While I’m sure some of the “Mall Crawler” crowd might not even know how to deploy their mobile hacienda, most RTT owners are trying to drive the cost-per-night down by camping at every opportunity.

The growing interest in this form of camping brings competition and with that too many options for the average brain to sift through. It is easy to be overwhelmed and confused by the claims of makers and resellers. At some point you have to just go with what feels right to you.

To start my search I listed the things I needed. A place to sleep in comfort, meaning dry, bug free and away from rattlesnakes. Then I looked at set up and take down time. Many of the fold out tents have a larger footprint for more family room, but do have extra steps that must be taken before climbing into bed. Rain covers, door and window flies sometimes need to have rods and supports installed before the tent is ready to occupy. This is not a big deal, but it was something to consider. The other thing I looked at was aerodynamics. Being an ex-amateur race car driver I know how the shape of the vehicle effects the way it drives. Starting with a 4Runner that is just slightly more aero than a brick, I didn’t want to reduce it’s slipperiness by adding an additional brick to the roof. Thus, the stage was set for a “hard-top” tent.

Now, it gets interesting. With the line between cheap off-shore junk and quality equipment separated by a few thousand dollars, it would be easy to say, “Oh, I’m sure they’re all made in the same factory.” Then buy the cheap one. Well, I’ve been in retail long enough to know you get what you pay for. When visiting a regional RTT dealer I overheard a conversation about the warranty issues on the models they carried and decided to steer clear of the imported “Custom Labeled” units produced in China. While providing a significant dollar savings, the features and quality issues make the money spent on a better tent seem very reasonable.

Two brands popped to the top of the list after research on customer satisfaction and build quality, Autohome (made in Italy) and James Baroud (made in Portugal). Both offered promises of comfort and durability, but in the end my decision was based on features that seemed innovative and added value. I went with the James Baroud tent.

Initially I placed an order for a Discovery Extreme in black based on my desire to minimize set up and take down time. Most of my travel is done solo and added space is not a requirement. I just wanted a dry, soft place to sleep. This model only required releasing two latches and deploying the ladder before calling it a night.

In hopes of testing out the tent before the snow blew into the Northwest I ordered the tent in September with the idea of a late fall fly fishing excursion to the east side of the state. I didn’t take into account that Portugal takes all of September off and that would delay delivery significantly. When finally I received a call from Adventure Ready saying my tent was in, Santa Claus was just packing up to head back home. The tent arrived in the New Year.

Even then, the arrival was somewhat in question as our area was hit with a little snow storm that paralyzed the city for a week, shutting down most of our local delivery services. Add to that the call from Tom at Adventure Ready informing me the tent I ordered was not in the shipment from the east coast distributor. He kindly offered an upgrade to an Explorer Evolution. While more tent than I originally wanted, the dimensions and weight are very nearly the same. In addition, both models feature a molded in cargo area for gear that you don’t want, or won’t fit inside the vehicle. This was a feature I wanted as I currently carry TREDS, water and gas on the roof rack.

Mounting the Explorer EVO is relatively simple, if you have four fairly tall, strong relatives. I don’t, so a call was put out to my customer base and a group of volunteers arrived for a “tent raising.” I had previously mounted the removable crossbars from my Gobi Rack to the track on the bottom of the tent. This minimized the encroachment on my friend’s free time and allowed me time to customize the mounts. The tent mounted up perfectly and with a little adjustment was square to the vehicle.

The mounting brackets for Baroud tents slide into a track on the bottom of the tent. These brackets can then be bolted to a variety of racks and crossbars. As mentioned, my 4runner has a Gobi Stealth rack with removable crossbars which I hoped would facilitate easy mounting and removal of the tent. These bars are round and the brackets for the tent were designed for flat or square crossbars. A quick trip to my local TAP Plastics with an idea and a $20 dollar bill improved the mounting stability and raised the tent 1/2 inch to allow for easier mounting and removal of my CVT awning to the Gobi Rack. It is my belief that without at least a 1/2 lift on the tent brackets the tent will bang on the Gobi Rack itself making for an unnerving racket while bouncing off-road. 3/4 of an inch might even be better. Much depends on the crossbars your rack has.

My first impressions of the tent are very favorable. No damage occurred during shipping as the tent was well packaged. In addition to foam padding and plastic wrap, it was shipped in a “dust cover” that can be used when storing the tent to keep it looking new while awaiting it’s next adventure. The tent seems to be very well made throughout and attention to detail is evident in the solar powered fan and removable/rechargeable LED light. While these items do not in themselves justify the additional costs over an off-shore manufactured tent, the materials and workmanship do. This seems on first impression to be a very well made and engineered tent. Time will tell if that holds true.

Deployment of the tent is a simple matter of releasing the four latches, allowing the struts to lift the tent. Once the ladder is removed from inside the tent, you can climb up and fully extend the struts with a simple push. Set up time is measured in seconds. This is a key feature in hard-top tents and should not be underestimated.

As mentioned, my original order was for a James Baroud Discovery model, but after crawling into the Explorer EVO I’m pretty sure I will be happy with the extra room. Especially when my wife joins me on the road. The tent feels very roomy and is nicely appointed on the inside. There is a ceiling net for shoes, clothes and other gear, plus mesh pockets for cell phones, alarm clocks or whatever else you wish to have handy in the night. The mattress is firm and comfortable and features a removable cover for easy washing. Interior lighting is handled by a rechargeable LED light that can be used to find your way to the cooler for a late night snack. I will admit that the feature that drew me to the James Baroud line of tents was the solar powered fan that is designed to vent the tent while traveling. There are intakes on both sides of the upper shell that allow “filtered” air to enter the tent and be exhausted through the roof mounted fan. This helps in keeping the tent from getting musty while it is closed and baking in the sun. The fan blades can be swapped out to draw air into the tent while camped to provide additional cooling. The solar power/battery unit is said to run the fan for 24 hours when charged.

Ventilation isn’t a problem when the tent is deployed since most of the wall panels can be opened and are meshed to keep bugs at bay. When all the doors and windows are zipped closed the dark interior allows for sleeping well past sunrise and provides excellent privacy.

The Explorer EVO is slightly more complicated to pack away then the Discovery model because you are compressing two ends of the tent instead of just one. My first solo attempts to pack away the tent was not what I would call easy. With time and practice, in short order I have developed a system and it has gotten progressively easier. I would suggest checking out the various YouTube videos out there for tips on stowing the tent. Even then, expect to practice a few times before you master it. I’m sure you will come up with the system that works for you and your vehicle.

The only thing to do now is test this puppy out. Since we’re still dealing with winter here in the great Northwest, I plan on waiting a little before heading out for any overnight adventures. I intend to keep the tent mounted in the meantime so I can comment on the effects of having 175 pounds strapped to the roof for everyday driving. So far, there is only a slight hum at freeway speeds as the air finds new ways around the 4runner. I may make some adjustment in the fore and aft position to test the change in airflow over the tent. For now I’m designing a lift system in my boat barn to hoist the tent off the vehicle for storage when I don’t need it. That will be easier that finding four tall friends when I have a sudden urge to hit the trail.

UPDATE: We've survived winter here in the Great Northwest and I just returned from a hosted event on the Deschutes River. We invited friends and customers to join us for a weekend on the river to chase away the cabin fever blues and maybe catch a fish or two. I tested out the new tent and simply fell in love with it! Set up takes about 20 seconds and you're ready to nap. The mattress is very comfortable for both back and side sleepers. I tend to be both and was very well rested when I slid down the ladder in the morning. While designed for two campers, I love the spaciousness as a solo traveler. It will be cozy when my wife joins me, but it should be just fine.

According to the propaganda from the factory the tent has been tested in winds up to 70 mph. While I cannot attest to those wind speeds, the Deschutes canyon does get windy and hit gusts to 45 on my second night. The tent proved to be up for the challenge, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

The solar powered ceiling fan kept condensation away in spite of temps in the 30s. I did not employ the insulation kit on this trip and didn't really need it. My sleeping bag and wool blanket kept me very comfortable throughout the chilly night. The two down pillows might have been over the top, but what the heck.

I've got about 5000 miles on the rig since adding the James Baroud Explorer EVO to the roof of the 4Runner so will speak here about the effects on highway driving. There is a little additional wind noise, but the 4Runner isn't a Royals Royce and the Gobi Rack alone adds significant wind noise. Now there is just a different tone at 70 mph. I just turn up the tunes and keep it pointed down the road. Wind buffeting is minimal compared to pre-tent driving.  Mileage has dropped about 2 MPG average on a mix of hwy/city driving.

I was going to add comments on the changes in driving characteristics with the added weight on the roof, but overlanding vehicles are normally carrying plenty of extra weight and are not expected to handle like a sports car anyway. Yes, the tent changes the handling characteristics of the 4Runner somewhat, but so does all the other stuff I carry with me. My 4Runner came equipped with KDSS and paired with my Stage 2 Icon suspension I have a very capable vehicle that fits my driving style and needs. Now I also have a very comfortable place to sleep with views that are ever changing as I Navigate the Northwest.