Internet access from an RV?

A lot of friends have asked us how we are able to access the web while we’re traveling around in an RV. When we started, this was a major concern for us. We booked our “break-in” trip at a local park in San Antonio, and learned the hard way that RV Parks do not typically offer great wifi.

Cell Data on our phones

We tried using the cell data from our Google Fi phone plans, but we chewed through the 20GB of data that came with our plans. After you use 20GB of data on Google Fi, they throttle you down to 256kbps. This is incredibly slow compared to typical 4G/5G speeds, but was surprisingly good enough for my development work. (logging into remote servers and working on the command line) Video calls were definitely out though.

Why are cell data plans still so expensive?

Aside from the bandwidth cap, we also had signal problems with T-Mobile anytime we left town. Most of our campsite destinations have been out in the boonies, so I set out to do more research. It turns out there’s really not a single great solution to this problem. AT&T and Verizon appear to provide the best coverage, but in different areas of the country. Verizon seemed to provide stronger coverage in the areas that we wanted to travel so I dug into pricing and plan details and was blown away. Anytime you see the word “unlimited” on modern cell phone plans, just pretend an asterisk is missing. Much the same as our Google Fi data plan, Verizon offers plans up to 30GB of full speed data transfer and ten throttles connectivity to 600kbps. The throttled speed is far better than Fi, and the network coverage is also waaay better, but the cost is 2 to 3 times what we’ve been spending.

Reseller plans FTW!

So we know there’s a better option, but there’s a cost problem. I started considering that there are a lot of MVNOs reselling larger cellular networks under a different brand and found Visible. We would have to buy new (compatible) phones though. What seemed more ideal would be to get some hotspots that we could plug some antennas into. Visible is definitely still on our radar, but I need to look into them further before switching away from the Google Fi goodness.

Things looked a little shady (too good to be true) on ebay when I found some truly unlimited Verizon data plan offerings from resellers for $60 per line per month. We would have to purchase our own hotspots and then plug in the sim and hope that it all worked. I’m working to be more optimistic and I figured it wasn’t a huge amount of money so I took a gamble and signed up! I bought some Verizon 8800L hotspots used on ebay for much less than retail. The sims arrived quickly and I was able to follow the simple instructions from the reseller to configure the hotspots. Here I am 6 months later with the same setup and we’re pretty happy with it.

Better signal

These Verizon 8800L hotspots have TS-9 antenna connector prongs. This allows us to connect to MIMO 4G antennas (like this one from Netgear) to improve our line of sight to close cell towers. Opensignal makes a great smartphone app that points the direction to the nearest cell tower. There’s also https://www.cellmapper.net/map that displays cell towers on a map so you can try pointing at other towers if the closest one doesn’t pan out.

Pros of using this setup:

  • This has been significantly cheaper than using Verizon
  • We’re able to use this hotspot setup to provide internet to all of our devices
  • Sharing internet from phones over wifi drained our cell batteries really quickly. The hotspots seem to last the majority of the day before needing a charge

Cons:

  • It’s not always convenient to carry arround and keep an extra device charged
  • Even with all of this setup, we still have internet connectivity problems at certain locations. Depending on what our work schedule looks like, we’ve needed to skip some of the better looking options and relocate to areas with better cell coverage.

Improvements; “one day we’ll….”

We have a Weboost 4G cell signal booster with an omnidirectional OTR antenna, but it honestly only works well when we’re driving over flat terrain. We’ve not had as much luck with it in the mountains. And of course, if you’re out of range for cell tower connectivity, there’s not much you can do except relocate. We’re considering getting a Weboost antenna pole that would attach to the side of the RV when camped out, to improve our signal in very remote places. If we go this route, I believe we’ll end up getting a stronger MIMO antenna (like a Poyning XPOL) to mount. (These would be a significantly larger investment than we’ve made so far though)

The Anne Pro 2 mechanical keyboard is awesome

Santa brought me an Anne Pro 2 keyboard for Christmas, and it’s awesome!

Love this mechanical keyboard!

This is my first 60% keyboard, and I’m really liking it so far. Most the keys I use on a regular basis are either directly available. There are a few keys that require an FN key combo though, so a little bit of muscle memory touch up. Overall, I think it’s well worth the saved space while we’re travelling. I opted for Cherry MX brown switches + some rubber o-rings to quiet some of the mechanical noise while not sacrificing the tactile feedback.

Bonus: I’ve been using it with my ipad via bluetooth also. <3

new mattress on the cheap!

We’ve been full time RV’ing for about 6 months now and found ourselves in need of upgrading our bed. The cushions that came with the RV quickly deflated and even the mattress topper we setup was simply not offering enough cushion. We started looking around and found plenty of options on Amazon….and then I rememebered that Costco sells mattresses in store. After doing some research online, we finally made a trip to Costco for a serious sleep upgrade!

https://www.costco.com/simmons-8%22-medium-gel-memory-foam-mattress.product.100535894.html

In store it was was $199 minus a temporary promotion $40 off. When we factored in how great Costco’s return policy is, it was a no brainer to give them a shot before ordering anything from Amazon.

We’ll see how it turns out.

pretty printing xml

tidy is a nice CLI tool that can be used to pretty up some XML

I was interested in reviewing the raw format of CNN’s rss feed. tidy made it a lot easier to grok the structure of the XML:

curl http://rss.cnn.com/rss/cnn_latest.rss 2>&1 | tidy -xml -iq
  • -xml — specify the input is well formed xml
  • -i — auto indent
  • -q — quiet: don’t display tool comments

before
after

squirrel sql client and jdbc drivers

I started by downloading the squirrel sql client installer as a jar file from the project homepage. (http://squirrel-sql.sourceforge.net/#installation)

I already had java installed on my ubuntu system, so I was able to run the installer jar with:

java -jar installer.jar

So at this point, we have the Squirrel SQL client installed, and we can launch it. I ran into a problem though, in that I wasn’t able to connect to my database.

I didn’t have any Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) drivers available for my newly installed database client to connect to my database.

I set out to find find my missing SQLLite JDBC driver. It looks like squirrel was configured to pull the missing JDBC driver from a public bitbucket project, but that url was no longer working. I instead found the project had a fork on github (Or maybe the project was relocated to github?) I was able to find the current release of the JDBC driver as a jar file here: https://github.com/xerial/sqlite-jdbc/releases. So I downloaded this file and then copied it into my squirrel sql client’s `lib` directory.

With the JDBC driver in place, I was able to connect to my sqllite db!

Getting more battery from Windows

With CPU clock speeds and core counts both reaching new highs, everyone seems to want more performance out of their PC. I set out to do the exact opposite today: I want to get bettery battery life by killing off some of the performance. I’m attempting to tune the performance of a gaming laptop so that I can use it while on the go and away from the wall.

For the past 8-ish years I’ve been using Linux distributions on my daily driver laptops for development purposes. I find myself doing less and less directly on my local machine and more in the cloud through command line terminal sessions. There are a bunch of different reasons for this, but I find that my local OS doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. On our last trip to Mexico, I did the majority of my work in a terminal on my iPad Pro 11″. I’m looking to cut down on what I carry as we continue our RV travels, so let’s see how we can dial up the battery life on a gaming laptop.

Tweaking Windows performance settings

If you have a Windows laptop, you’ve likely seen the battery icon in the bottom right corner of your screen. If you click it, you can drag a lever back and forth to choose which “Power mode” you want to use.

Select a “Power mode”

Inside each of these Power modes is a LOT of settings that you can change to tweak how your machine will behave when A) your machine is configured to use that power mode and B) when your machine is either plugged into the wall or running on battery power.

Navigate to power settings

Navigate there quickly by pasting this into your explorer bar:

Control Panel\Hardware and Sound\Power Options\Edit Plan Settings
My current tweaks to minimize power draw

Graphics related tweaks

I completely disabled the integrated Intel graphics when I bought this laptop. This means that by default, I’ve used the Nvidia RTX 2070 card for everything. It’s no surprise that my battery life took a hit for this. Changing the “Preferred graphics processor” back to Auto-select will allow me to benefit from the integrated card when I’m away from the wall, and the Nvidia card when I need to crank up some graphics.

Allowing the machine to detect which graphics card to use on it’s own.

My laptop also has the ability to change the refresh rate of the screen. I don’t benefit a great deal from the 240Hz refresh rate while I’m hacking around in terminals, so I can swap that backto 60Hz and save some battery life there as well. I wish Razer’s synapse software could auto-tune this setting by power source detection.

swapping down to 60Hz refresh rate

How much does this all really help?

I found a way to determine power draw while on battery power through an app called BatteryBar. This app estimates discharge rate by talking to your battery controller. Before I started tweaking power plan settings, I was somewhere north of 35,600mW (35.6W). After a bit of tuning, I was able to bring my discharge rtate down to ~9.7W – 12.2W, depending on screen brightness settings.

~9.7W discharge

Before making any changes, my battery would only last about 3 hours. If the estimated runtime that BatteryBar is reporting turns out to be accurate, that would be a little over 2.5x my current runtime. We’ll see how it goes!

termbin is neat

termbin is a faster workflow alternative to GitHub’s gists or GitLab’s snippets.

Just pipe your output to termbin with netcat:

cat <some.file> | nc termbin 9999

The command will output a short link to your uploaded content.

example:

$ cat README.md | nc termbin.com 9999
https://termbin.com/xepm2

more info: https://termbin.com/

Apple Mail app stopped working with gmail?!

I’m not a huge fan of Apple gear, but I’m well aware that I’m in the minority. My fiancee practically lives on her Macbook Air though. Recently her email application, the Apple Mail app, stopped logging into her GMail and GSuite accounts.

After digging around for a while on various support forum threads and other websites, we stumbled upon this incredibly helpful advice: https://support.google.com/accounts/thread/3859863?hl=en&msgid=3916465

There were a few modifications to the process that ended up working for us:

  • open safari and visit gmail.com
  • click into your account (upper right hand corner) and then click the button to “sign out of all accounts”
Sign out of all Google accounts
  • for each of your Google accounts:
  • restart your Apple computer
    • note: Simply closing the Mail app (and even force quitting) did not reset the authentication for Mail accessing the Google accounts for us. Restarting the computer was necessary.
  • launch the Apple Mail
  • open Mac Mail’s “Connection Doctor” window:
    • top menu > Window > Connection Doctor
Open Apple’s Mail app “Connection Doctor” window
  • This will provide the connectivity status for each of your email accounts setup in the Mail app
Connection Doctor displaying mail account connectivity

Hopefully this saves you some time! It is not fun circling between support forums between 2 large companies pointing the finger at eachother.

On towing an RV travel trailer

What we tow

We heard from a bunch of folks to, “buy too small instead of risking buying too big”.  We took this to heart! Our Jayco Jayflight 145RB is 16.5 ft long with just enough room for the essentials.

2020 Jay Flight SLX 7 145RB Floorplan

Our tow vehicle

When we started, we didn’t want to blow our budget to see if this lifestyle was for us. We opted to keep our Jeep Wrangler JKU mainly because our light trailer was within the tow capacity. I installed a hitch to the frame under the bumper and a brake controller easily enough. (A HUGE Thank You! to Kenny for the help here)

when she was “new to me”

This worked really well for hopping from RV Park to RV Park. After 3 months, we became bold enough to start exploring mountains and wanting to boondock at >5,000ft elevation. The Jeep could tow well enough on the highway, but it quickly became a struggle to pull uphill on steep grades. Add in some wind while on a steep uphill grade, and you’re in 2nd gear trying to maintain 40mph. Likewise, engine breaking downhill in 3rd gear would rev the engine to 4000rpm. For the peace of mind and safety factors, we decided to made a significant change to our setup.

RVLifer’s that tow, usually do so with a truck.  This is the obvious move for safely towing larger travel trailer RVs.  We decided to shop around for a little quarter ton truck after attempting to tow up a dirt and gravel campground trail in the Jeep. (That ended with us backing out carefully.) Not wanting to give up on boondocking off of some “scary” roads, we ended up getting a GMC Sierra with 4×4 AWD and a built-in brake controller.

2016 GMC Sierra 1500 4×4 AWD

We were fortunate enough to get a great deal on both the trade-in of the Jeep and our new (to us) truck!

Brake controllers

We’re all familiar with the brake pedal for stopping our cars. When you’re pulling something heavy behind your vehicle, it’s very important to have the stopping power to cover both your vehicle and that heavy towed payload. Brake controllers help sync the trailer brakes up with the brakes of your tow vehicle. By pressing the brake pedal, you apply brakes on both your vehicle and the trailer that you’re towing. Some additional features allow you to engage trailer brakes independently of the vehicle brakes (useful in controlling dangerous trailer sway situations).

Our Jeep Wrangler didn’t have a brake controller installed from the manufacturer, so I opted to install our own. We ended up getting a REDARC EBRH-ACCV2 Tow-Pro Elite Controller. Most aftermarket brake controllers are large and blocky gadgets that eat into your dash or leg space under the dash. This unit was largely hidden underneath the dash and I only needed to mount a small button/knob for engaging/tuning the trailer brake power.

REDARC EBRH-ACCV2 Tow-Pro Elite Controller

As we were shopping for a truck, we made sure that it would come with a brake controller installed from the manufacturer. The GMC brake controllers interface has one nice feature upgrade over the aftermarket solution we had on the Jeep: a lever to engage the trailer brakes as heavily as you push the lever. The REDARC break controller offers a simpler solution: a button that will engage the brakes as long as it’s held.

Weight Distribution

What is a weight distribution system?

  • These systems distribute the weight of your tow load across all of the axels of the tow vehicle and trailer. 
  • Folks towing without a weight distribution system, describe their drive as white knuckling it. And after install, they can barely tell they’re towing anything behind their truck.

we were able to transfer some weight to the front axel

Why is weight distribution important?

  • even tire wear
  • better braking power
  • stiffer handling: more control through turns

Before I installed our weight distribution hitch, the front of the jeep sat high while the rear sank down.  This meant I had a lot of wear on the rear tires, my headlights were pointing high into the faces of oncoming traffic, and it felt like a gust of wind would blow me right over.  After this new setup was in place, the drive felt balanced and easier to control.

Sway Control

What is sway?

Have you ever driven down the road on a really windy day and an 18 wheeler passes you and multiplies the wind you’ve been fighting to stay straight on the road?  How about that same situation but towing something just as big as your vehicle?  Towing an RV before using sway control felt like I was dragging a huge sail behind me…causing a constant battle with the wind, the whole drive. You correct one way and that correction is multiplied, so you correct the other way and the same happens; repeat.

Why is sway control important?

Tow hitches

Not all tow situations are the same, and so not all need a weight distribution hitch. As another safety precaution, we picked up Husky’s Centerline 32215 Weight Distribution Hitch.

Centerline 32215 Weight Distribution Hitch

This hitch is a bit more expensive than some other models you’ll find out there, but covers both weight distribution and sway control in a single system.

As we switched from the Jeep to our GMC truck, I did have to re-configure the distribution system slightly to allow more weight to rest on the rear axel of the truck. YMMV

See you guys on the road!

We’ve learned quite a bit about towing a travel trailer. Some will likely find the truck’s towing ability plus the weight distribution hitch w/ sway control as overkill. I do like that the weight distribution bars keep a force applied on the trailer wheels which keep them pinned to the ground in the case we hit some bumps at higher speed. We at least feel much safer towing on the highway, and I suppose that’s all we’re really chasing after!