Electrical Refit in Central America: Part 1 – $5,000 Cooked

From the beginning of MogTug’s design, we knew electricity would be at the foundation of our build. As filmmakers we have batteries, cameras, lights, drones, computers, etc to charge. So from the beginning we tried to select the best components possible, and learn from all of our experiences in SyncroBo  Despite our homework, we still found ourselves in a major refit project in Panama.  Here is what went wrong…

Cooling fans failed on Magnum Inverter/ Charger… then a DOA replacement

Our trusty Magnum was giving us an odd flashing light sequence one day, and we realized that it was derating its output. When we investigated further, we realized that the cooling fans weren’t functioning. Despite this, the unit was working just fine. The only clue was that it would charge our batteries around 80 AMPs, instead of over 100 AMPS.  Despite the piping hot temps in El Salvador the unit was still performing well, even running the AC system from the batteries! But given my cautious nature, we decided we wanted to repair the unit. Magnum Energy were great and they sent replacement fans to a US address, and we got the parts down in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, something went wrong in the install, and when we fired up our inverter after replacing the fans, the unit refused to function. After, a series of additional trouble shooting we decided to RMA the entire unit. This was a major pain, because the inverter is the heart of the AC system. Without it, none of our devices can receive AC even when shore power is available, and we lose our main battery charger. Luckily, we did install a second battery charger just in case, and that allowed us to keep going while we were sorting this, as the bulk of our devices are DC. We took to the project of removing the magnum, and i took it back to the USA when on a work trip, and brought down a replacement unit.

Getting the replacement unit into the country (nicaragua), was a major hassle. I ended up having to pay a bit of a mordita to get it through customs 😦 We were super excited to put the new magnum in and put this several week ordeal behind us. After installing the replacement (refurbished) unit, it refused to output more than 500W of power, whether passing through or inverting. This was a huge blow. This had taken weeks for us to resolve, and throughout this we were regretting even messing with it. It was working fine, (though slightly debated), but now we were stuck with a broken inverter that we had to send back again. We had spent $100’s to resolve this, and it still wasn’t fixed.

System in Process

Unfortunately, Magnum Energy, didn’t have any dealers in all of central america. So every service request, meant a round trip back to the USA to get it sorted.

Auxiliary Atlernator Malfunctioned & Fried Lithium Batteries

With our inverter/charger down, we became even more focused on using our auxiliary alternator for charging. One day while driving we experienced a brown out in our cab 12v power. Having experienced this in Baja, we immediately shut off the auxiliary alternator, and pulled over. This wasn’t good. When we went to the back, we could smell the unique odor of electrolyte from our lithium batteries. The packs were reading 16v ! NOOOOOO Not again. For two of the large packs, it was game over. The batteries were piping hot.  We waited a few hours for them to drop in temperature, and we began draining power off of them. But we knew they were damaged. The question was how bad. When you take lithium batteries over say 14.5 volts, you cause irreparable damage to the cells, the chemistry changes, and they can’t store nor release the same quantity of energy. After several days of testing, we found that the two large batteries were holding only 50% of their capacity (still better than nothing), and the slightly smaller pack, around 70% of it’s capacity. So now we had severely limited battery capacity, AND a broken inverter. Life was really fun during this time. The issue is that with the batteries this diminished, we couldn’t effectively camp any longer, and film. It was one or the other because of the amount of power we used. We either could camp and not use the camera, or we could camp someplace with electricity, and film all we wanted. This sucked, and had a huge impact on our experience in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

This was a big blow to our morale, and pocket books. That battery bank cost over $5,000, and now we were staring down a replacement before incurring another $4-6,0000 to ship to South America.  So all in, we were going to have $10k of expenses to cover.  Secondly, where and how would we secure replacement batteries in Central America that would work for our application.

These inverter and battery drama, almost brought our journey to a permanent halt. We openly discussed driving back to Mexico and Baja, and spending some time spear fishing and enjoying the water again; ignoring our troubles for a while. We discussed, briefly, just ending the trip and project, because we weren’t excited to spend a ton more money on repairs. This is after we did our Solar Upgrade project!

After a few days of self pity, we decided we would do what we always do, figure it out and move forward. We started sketching out a list of design parameters/ key learnings to be sure we didn’t forget moving forward.

  • All new gear must have a world wide dealer network – When you travel far and long from home, you need to know your manufacturers have your back wherever your will be.
  • All critical components will be backed up with inline replacements – Parts will break, when they do, be sure you have an easy reroute, splice, or otherwise get systems up and running while you fix the part.
  • Redundancies on all protection systems – Automated protection systems DO fail, be sure you have a way of testing them regularly, and secondary levels of protection should the worst happen

Part 2 will cover how we managed to no.t only fix but improve our electrical system in MogTug to V3.0 🙂 !

Categories: Machines, MogTug, Panama

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