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July 26, 2012 | Our own fault

We had finished writing the last blog entry just before the rain ended – and unbeknownst to us, disaster had struck in the meantime. We would find out soon enough…

As soon as the rain stopped, we left our tent and started to gather our belongings. Then, while inspecting the bikes, we found something suspicious: Felix’s MTSE charge regulator‘s LED was blinking instead of giving a steady light. A blinking LED indicates an undercurrent, and no batteries were being charged.

Felix got out the voltmeter and started checking the connections. All cabling seemed good, and the Panasonic batteries and panel worked fine. And yet, the regulator did not charge the battery with the energy it got from the panel! Maybe the problem was with the regulator itself? We looked closer, and soon found the root cause: The heavy rain had found its way inside, and the regulator board was sitting in a puddle of water. Uh oh…

This one was clearly our fault: We should’ve bought an outdoor-rated regulator instead (they exist), and failing that, we should have shielded our non-outdoor regulator more adequately against rain. Among the many details that needed consideration, this was one – and a pretty important one at that – that we had missed. We also had not brought a spare regulator, considering it a part that was extremely unlikely to break. Probably true given adequate care…

The next hours were spent drying the regulator, dissasembling it, and trying to get it to work again – to our despair, to no avail. There was no visible problem with the board, but the water had short circuited several parts of it, and many components might be broken without visible damage. At some point, we needed a break and started to prepare a meal – and became even more frustrated as our brand-new cooker didn’t work at all. The fuel pump seemed broken and wouldn’t work despite our best efforts. Gah – was there really nothing that would be easy on this tour?

At this point, our spirits were as low as our stomachs were empty. Luckily, after several complete dissasemblies and inspections and two different repairs, we finally managed to get the fuel pump to work. At last, we could eat something! Morale immediately went up. The food didn’t help with our other problem, though – the charge regulator was apparently beyond repair despite hours and hours of trying. We really had managed to get ourselves into big – and unnecessary – trouble.

Still pretty frustrated, we packed our stuff together and started driving, in order not to fall too far behind our schedule. It was already late, so we managed only 60 km before nightfall, far too little. We stopped at a roadside cafe where several trucks had also parked for the night – mainly to put plan C into action. After all, one thing we had managed in advance was to perform a decent contingency planning – and for this case, there was a plan B and C and even D. Plan B had been to load both sets of batteries, via a single charge regulator, from both solar panels when the sun was shining brightly, and then to drive when there were clouds or little sun. However, when we had tried this earlier, it had not worked, and we had not been able to figure out why, so plan C it was.

This one was simple: Drive normally, and then try to charge the batteries via outside power supply overnight. And it worked: We explained our problem to some truck drivers with the help of my rudimentary Russian, and soon enough, we were connected to the power grid through the window of a local security service building. Nice!

The next day, with full batteries, we first drove for a few hours, then stopped. We wanted another look at the non-working regulator, and we needed time to organize an emergency replacement from Germany. Yesterday had been a Sunday, so no chance to organize anything then. These activities, again, cost us several hours. We drove on, and for the night found a similar arrangement to yesterday, albeit this time for 100 rubels (~2.5 Euros) – we considered that acceptable!

Tuesday started similarly: We drove until noon, then stopped to finalize shipment arrangements from Germany. It turns out it’s by no means simple to send things to Russia. One needs not only a recipient and address, but also a customs broker – a specialist for the arcane rules and regulations of Russian custom offices. Without one, shipments are guaranteed to take months, with one, they might only take weeks…

Freshly motivated from the huge costs associated with any shipment, we took one last look at our broken regulator before sending the “Go” to Germany. And now, Felix’s talent for engineering shone again: He noticed a tiny, loose resistor in one corner of the board! Not twenty minutes later, this resistor was solded back into place. And, to our huge amazement and relief, the regulator worked again!

All that was left to do was to wheather-proof our regulators (and the rest of our electronics). This was relatively easy, and with some small repairs completed as well, for the first time in days we had no major open issues left! We drove on elatedly, but not a full day went by before things took a major turn for the worse… and then for the better.