Chinook Power System Upgrades

The Chinook was now comfortably parked in the driveway, awaiting the next adventure.  It was time to evaluate the electrical features of the RV.  I have had bad luck with batteries in the past.  Often it seemed that my rechargeable batteries died from lack of use more often that they were worn out.  So, I assumed I could optimize the battery life by keeping the Chinook plugged into shore power.

Since I don’t have a 30 AMP outside receptacle, I bought this “Camco 55223 15M/30F AMP PowerGrip Adapter” form Amazon, so I could plug the 30 AMP shore cable plug into a regular 15 AMP outdoor receptacle outside the garage.

The next step was to replace the plug on the shore power cable, which had started to separate from the cord, and had electrical tape providing a little extra insulation.  I bought this nice “Camco 55283 30 AMP Mini Replacement Male Plug with PowerGrip Handle” from Amazon:

Replacing the Shore Power Converter Charger with a 3-stage controller

I left the Chinook plugged in, assuming the batteries would stay topped off in good shape.  WRONG!  After about a week, I checked the water in the batteries, and every cell was low.  It turns out the stock Shore Power Converter/Charger (Magnatek 7345) was overcharging the batteries, causing the electrolyte to boil off.  This was a common problem from the RV electronics of that vintage.  Modern charging devices have smart controllers that regulate the charging current to optimize charging and protect the battery from overcharging.  These controllers are “multi-stage” controllers, typically 3-stage.  They sense the battery voltage and regulate the charging current based on the battery needs.  When voltage is low (showing below 80% charge), the charger provides “bulk charging”, which sends the full rated current (45 amps, in my case) at the highest charging voltage.  When the battery is charged to 80%, the charger switches to the “absorption” stage, which provides a steady charging voltage with diminishing current, until the battery reaches full charge.  This prevents the battery from overheating (and boiling out the electrolyte).  When the battery is fully charged, the charger will switch to a “float charge”, where voltage is applied at minimal (trickle) current, maintaining the battery at full level without damage to the battery.  The Magnatek Converter Charger was a single stage charger, with performance comparable to Stage 2, which is not only a slow charger, but overcharges when left on continuously, which is really bad for the batteries long-term life.

After some research on the Internet, I found that there are some relatively easy upgrade options that eliminate the problems of the 2000 era Magnatek charger.  Because these chargers were so common, products were developed that were “plug and play”, so they could be installed in the Magnatek box, without requiring any re-wiring of the circuits or mounting of new hardware.  I chose the Progressive Dynamics PD4645 45 Amp Charger Converter (with built-in Charge Wizard).  The wizard is controller microcontroller circuit that produces the 3 stage charging behavior.  I was able to find an open box PD4645 at Amazon for about $160.  The normal price is about $200, but this is really a necessary upgrade for anyone who still has an old Magnatek single stage charger.  There are other upgrade solutions, but this was the simplest fix that required the least rework of the existing wiring.

Installation of the PD4645 was straightforward with the good detailed instructions provided.  The old 7345 electronics are removed from the bottom of the power box, and the new PD4645 electronics are installed in its place.

Magnatek 7345 Before Replacement

Only slightly more daunting was the replacement of the fuse card for the 12V circuits with the new Progressive Dynamics card.  The only hiccup in my installation experience was the large 12V charging wire and ground needed to be a little longer to connect to the new fuse card.

PD4645 DC Fuse Card Installed


Magnatek DC Fuse Card

If I had known in advance, I would have loosened the strain relief and pulled a couple of inches out from under the cabinet, but I had already replaced the electronics and didn’t want to start over.  Instead, I managed to “stretch” the wire enough that it barely made it to the circuit board terminal.  You can see the red wire barely reaching over the back of the new fuse card.  One other minor issue was the size of the refrigerator DC wire (thick red wire coming up from the bottom.)  This wire was a little too big for the terminal, so I separated the copper wire coming out of the insulation into two twisted pieces and inserted the wires like a fork into the terminal.


Once the new 3-stage charger was installed, my shore power problems

PD4645 Insertion

were solved.  I could new leave the Chinook on shore power indefinitely without endangering the batteries.

PD4645 Conversion Complete

The charging system could be optimized further (e.g. running bigger shorter cables) but the PD4645 is already a huge improvement over the OEM charger.  Additional gains would much less significant requiring a lot more work.

Replacing the Solar Charge Controller and adding Solar Panels

Now that the shore power system was upgraded, I turned my attention to the solar panel charging circuit.  For a test, I turned on the 12 V system with only the parasite loads (LP leak detector, smoke alarm, etc.) and disconnected from shore power.  The batteries tripped the low voltage disconnect within a single day!

The single panel was not even supplying the needs of the parasites.  Clearly some improvement was needed.  The Chinook was very high-end in its day, and was an early adopter of solar panel power.  The only problem was the limited technology and high cost of solar components back in the year 2000.  A solar panel was an option on the Concourse, and consisted of a single 50 Watt panel with a single stage charge controller.  The circuit was rated for about 7.5 Amps, but 2 or 3 Amps on a good sunny day was more likely.  The good news was the size and shape of the Siemens 50 Watt panel was ideal for the roof of the Chinook.  I saw an example on the Internet of a Chinook with two panels instead of one, which was probably a special order option.  Since many owners were converting and upgrading their solar system (not the planetary one), I reached out to see if anyone wanted to sell their old panel.  I found a seller and paid about $150, which I thought was a reasonable cost to double the solar capacity without too much fuss.  I installed the second panel directly behind the first and wired it in parallel to the first panel.

The upgrade worked so well, I looked for a way to increase capacity more, without sacrificing roof access.  I found a small flat 50 Watt panel that fit nicely on top of the air conditioner.  Adding the third panel in parallel gave me 150 Watts, without restricting access to the usable roof space.

Solar Panels Installed


The three panels together can produce enough amps to overload the 7.5 Amp fuse in the original wiring so I replaced with a 20 Amp.  The system could be optimized by running bigger wires, but in real life, the existing wiring is adequate for the three relatively inefficient panels.

The last problem with the original solar design was the stock solar charge controller.  This charger was even less efficient than the Magnatek shore power charger.  It provides only a steady trickle charge which came on when the batteries were low and turned off when the battery was charged, if ever.  I searched far and wide for a replacement controller that would fit in the same location without messing up the wall.  Lo and behold, a controller now sold by Coleman was a perfect fit and costs less than a hundred bucks.   (Perfect fit on the outside, that is.  I did have to grind the cutout about 1/16″ to make the opening big enough.) Here is a link to the Amazon item:

New Coleman Solar Charge Controller

The new controller provides a full 3-stage charging algorithm, along with a readout of current and voltage, so you can monitor the input of the solar panels.  The improved controller was just as important as the additional capacity in terms of upgrading the solar performance.

After adding the panels and replacing the controller, the Chinook is now self-sufficient in the driveway for indefinite periods.  I now leave the 12 Volt system switched on continuously, with the solar panels continuously topping off the batteries with absolutely no fluid loss.

This setup also works well for us on the road.  We tend to drive most days, so the batteries get a recharge from the alternator, in addition to the solar panels.  We put the refrigerator in DC mode for driving so we don’t have the propane active for safety reasons.  The additional solar panels help keep the fridge going while we are parked for a while.  We have sufficient power to get us through a few nights without hookups.  We could probably go for longer periods, but we like to hook up periodically so we can dump and replenish our water supply, and it’s nice to have the coffee maker available in the morning.









Continuing the Renovation – Interior upgrades

Now that the Chinook was home safe, the coming winter provided a window to prepare her for trips after retirement in a couple of months.  We bought the RV at a very good price, but that’s because she was something of a “fixer-upper”.  Time to fix-up.

At this time, I still wasn’t sure how committed we would be to the RV lifestyle, so I was concentrating on cost for the needed improvements.  Sweat-equity was cheap, so I did everything myself, and did some bargain-hunting for solutions.  I wasn’t concerned with restoring the Chinook to a brand-new state.  Rather, I wanted to repair the obvious flaws and make her presentable.


Refinishing Wine Rack and Dining Table in Garage

The interior woodwork was in obvious need of refinishing, especially the wine cabinet/dining room table.  The top surface and cork coasters were weather-worn, and the varnish was peeling.  Fortunately peeling varnish is easy to strip, so I was able to restore the table by stripping, sanding, staining and varnishing, back to its original luster.  I found some new cork circles on Etsy to replace the nearly disintegrated originals.  I attached the new coasters to the refinished cabinet using rubber cement.  The remaining woodwork did not need to be stripped, all they needed was some new coats of varnish.

Restored Dining Table
Restored Dining Table
Restored Wine Cabinet and Coasters
Restored Wine Cabinet and Coasters

For some reason, one of the original spice rack shelves was removed by a previous owner.

New Spice Rack Shelf
New Spice Rack Shelf

From pictures on the Internet and finish marks in the remaining shelf, I was able to determine the size and shape of the missing shelf and I was able to build a replacement, using a red oak project board from the hardware store, and some oak trim left over from a previous shelf project.  I purchased some pre-made wood spindles on-line for the rail mounting.


The rest of the woodwork was pretty straightforward.  I removed the closet door, and most of the lower cabinet doors and stripped the varnish, sanded if needed, and re-stained and re-varnished.

New Spice Rack installed

The upper cabinet doors, and trim were still in pretty good shape, so I added a coat of varnish where it was needed.


The original Mr. Coffee under-counter coffee maker was missing, but the previous owners left a similar Black and Decker unit in the cabinets.  It turns out to be quite difficult to find similar new units or parts, so I searched far and wide for the mounting brackets for the Black and Decker coffee maker.  I eventually located them in an appliance part warehouse online and mounted the coffee maker in place of the original.  Coffee is an important part of my retirement life and our camping trips, so this particular feature was important.  After we “ejected” the glass coffee pot from the coffee maker during some hard braking, I installed a safety rope for the decanter.  I screwed in two small cup hooks on either side of the coffee maker and cut a small piece of 1/8″ nylon rope with loops on each end.  The rope goes around the coffee maker and through the handle while driving and the loops connect to the hooks on the sides, holding the pot in place.  Since the coffee maker requires 120V power (shore power or generator), we purchased a glass stove top tea kettle and a French press for making coffee when 120V power is not available.

TV and Sound System Upgrades

The original Chinook TVs (13″ CRTs) may have been a luxury feature in their time, but are hopelessly outdated today.

New TV Back Panel and Mounting Bracket

Flat screen 12v TVs combine high-definition quality with low power consumption, which is ideal for an RV application.  Still operating on a budget, I chose a 15″ Axess HDTV with a built-in DVD player.  The 15 inch screen was almost equivalent to the original 13″ CRT.  In hindsight, I would probably have gone a size or two higher, but the small size makes the TV very light weight and does not need any extra securing during driving.  This TV also has a narrow viewing angle, so we have to tilt it down a lot when we watch from the sofa bed at night.

New TV installed and tucked back for travel.

In order to mount the TV, I built an oak-finish panel from an old cabinet board and filled in the opening, and covered the border with the original frame, so it maintains the built-in look.  I bought a small folding TV wall bracket and mounted it to the back board, which allows the TV to be tilted and swiveled depending on where we are watching from (sofa, or club chairs).


A major drawback of the original TV was that it did not have a stereo sound output, so the TV did not use the very nice built-in speakers in the coach.  I did a fair amount of research into various options for getting the TV on the speaker system, and found a JVC car stereo which had auxiliary microphone inputs on both the front and rear of the unit.  This gave me a way to hook the TV into the rear of the stereo without exposing the cables.  By running a headphone cable from the TV to the rear of the new stereo, the TV and DVD player were now hooked into the coach sound system, using all four speakers!  What an improvement.  The old Kenwood stereo had a broken display so you could not read the front panel.   The new JVC unit took care of that problem as well.

Ironically, the mono TV actually came with an enhanced sound controller of its own, which featured a wall mounted “equalizer” and an amplifier behind the VHS player.    I removed the “enhanced sound system” from the original TV and ran new stereo cables from the VHS to the rear of the TV, so we now have four-speaker stereo for all the audio/video components: TV, DVD, VHS, and Radio.

I found a “refurbished” deal for the JVC radio on Amazon for less than $50.

New JVC Stereo with aux TV input in rear

(Refurbished-like-new items at Amazon are usually open box new items, so you can save quite a bit and still get a new item.)  The TV was about $130 and the mounting bracket was about $15, so the whole upgrade only cost about $200.  As a bonus, a lot of space was freed up in the upper cabinet when the original TV and amplifier were removed, so there is a lot of extra storage we use for pillows, towels and other bulky light items.

Since the new TV came with a built-in DVD player, I decided to leave the original VHS player in place.  Amazingly, the player still works pretty well, and the VHS picture on the HD TV is much enhanced over the old low resolution TV picture.  We have maintained a tradition on our camping trips of watching a movie almost every night, and we have an unlimited supply of VHS tapes available at the thrift stores for about 25 cents each.  Many of these shows become “one and done” and find their way to the trash after viewing, but it’s cheap entertainment.  We also watch some movies on DVD and occasionally “binge-watch” a TV series on DVD as well.


New Monitor Panel (Clock, Indoor/Outdoor Thermometers and Battery Voltage

I removed the old now useless audio control panel in the wall, and used the hole to mount a new monitoring device.

Indoor Outdoor Thermometer and Battery Voltage Monitor

The monitor includes a digital clock, indoor and outdoor thermometers and a battery voltage readout for monitoring battery charge.  This unit was a near-perfect size for the opening and has a selectable backlight in blue or orange (or off if you put the switch between.)  The outdoor thermometer has a probe, which I mounted in the outside shower compartment.  I spliced the battery monitor 12V (previously a cigarette lighter-type power cable) into the 12V feed used by the TV.


Monitor Panel Orange backlight
New monitor panel next to TV

I cut the external thermometer wire which was too short and difficult to route outside, and spiced the cut ends to a small section of phone cord with modular connectors.  This allowed me to use the original Chinook telephone jacks in the outside shower compartment and inside the overhead compartment to connect the outside thermometer sensor to the wall mounted unit without running a new wire.

Front Cab Electronics Upgrade (new all-in-one head unit)

Our initial driving experiences illuminated a desperate need for a backup camera and display.  Blind spots on the sides are one thing, but the backing up view is non-existent below the rear door window.  I also wanted a reliable GPS navigation system which also had a display requirement.  After a lot of thought and research, I decided that an “all-in-one” head unit could provide a common display unit for all of our needs, as well as provide a radio, CD and DVD player, and future needs as well (Bluetooth, XM radio, etc.).   Heading back to Amazon, I found a few choices, but settled for a Pyle PLDNV78I head unit for under $200.  This head unit has inputs for a backup camera, and auxiliary audio/video, and incorporates AM/FM/CD, GPS navigation, and MP3/USB/IPhone and other features.  There are many similar units available today and I probably would have gone with a better unit, but it actually does everything I wanted for a great price.  The built-in GPS uses a probably pirated copy of the IGo Prime navigation software, but they worked out a deal, so you can get updates from Pyle, but not from IGo.   This is a little annoying but not a big deal.  The navigation software is actually quite powerful, but like any GPS system, it may lead you astray if you are not vigilant.

I coupled the head unit with a $20 Pyle backup camera which I mounted underneath the rear step.  I tapped into the backup signal from the left rear taillight in the cabinet behind the rear tire.  I drilled a small hole through the carpet in the cabinet to run a signal wire from the backup light wire to the new camera.  I ran a CAT-5 (4 twisted-pair Ethernet cable) from the transmission hump to the rear bumper, along with a single wire for power and a video extension cable for the backup camera.  The video cable was too small for its length and there was not enough signal for the camera display, so I abandoned the cable.  Instead I was able to splice into some wires the CAT-5, which carried the video with plenty of signal.

Original Radio Removed

I drilled a hole in the cab floor where the rubber gasket of the engine cover sits, for the wires to come into the cab.  The I ran them behind the driver dash into the radio cavity for hooking into the new head unit.  I used a video splitter cable for the rear view camera video, and connected one signal to the rear view input of the head unit, and I connected the second feed to the Aux Video input of the head unit.  This allows the rear view camera to come on automatically when the transmission is in reverse, and also allows me to select the rear view display at any time using the touch screen to select the aux video for display.  Wiring the backup camera was definitely the hardest part of this do-it-yourself installation, but it is working.

The Ford E350 from that era has a radio that is close to, but not exactly a double-DIN form factor.  I found a you-tube video of a double-din installation in a Ford truck, and it is actually not too difficult.  The Ford opening is a little wider, and not quite tall enough.  A Metra 95-5817 Double DIN Installation Dash Kit provides an attractive frame, and some dremel trimming of the bottom plastic surface inside the opening makes for a “factory-installed” appearance of the new double-DIN head unit.

New Head Unit (Radio/GPS/Backup Camera) with Sun Shade

Once installed, the new display suffered from a lot of glare interference.  This is mainly due to the angle of the dash and any display is likely to have the same problem.  I found a “glare-stomper” sun shade on Amazon for about $20 which provides shade for the display, and the problem was solved.  The glare shield attaches to the dash with some high-bond tape, and is adjustable with Velcro straps.  The readable display obtained is well worth the cost and inconvenience.

Off-the-shelf bathroom improvements

I continued searching for ideas on the Internet and found a couple of bathroom ideas.  World Market sells a bamboo bath mat that is the exact size of the shower floor.

Bamboo Bath Mat from World Market

The mat makes a more attractive and comfortable surface, and allows dust and dirt to wash down the drain below without sticking to your feet in the shower.  The original plastic shower curtain was also replaced with a simple cloth one, mainly to eliminate the “clammy” feeling of the plastic in the confined shower space.  The cloth absorbs the moisture rather than repel it, but we wring it out and it dries fairly quickly in the RV environment.



A second simple upgrade was an Oxygenics BodySpa”  shower head, designed to create additional pressure from air flow.  This shower head provides better performance when using the relatively low pressure RV water pump.

Oxygenics BodySpa Shower Head

The new shower head was also much more attractive than the original yellowed shower head.  I was concerned at first that the RV shower heads do not shut off the water flow completely when the flow at the shower head, but I found out this is a “feature” not a bug, so that the water maintains the desired hot and cold mixture while you are soaping up between rinses.  The original shower head worked the same in this regard.