Surviving Winter In An RV

How To Stay Warm

We currently live year round in a fifth wheel trailer. They are notoriously under-insulated for winter because they are just that: recreational vehicles designed mainly for summer camping. We have plans to build a real house but for now, staying comfortable in frigid weather requires a lot of effort.

We broke the central heater in our fifth wheel when we tried to install a propane fridge a couple of months ago (don’t ask) so we’re left with space heaters and the fireplace we installed last year to keep warm.

Earlier this month, an arctic front dipped into the northern United States from Canada. Next thing you know, it’s zero degrees and our pipes are freezing despite our anti-freezing protocol.

The area under and near the front of a fifth wheel is often referred to as “the basement”. It took me a while to figure that one out when I couldn’t find the stairs going down (ha ha). It’s the compartment where all of the water tanks, the pump, and the water pipes reside. You have to keep the vulnerable complex of Pex pipes that wind throughout from freezing. Most people add extra insulation and incorporate some sort of auxiliary heating system. The central heating ducts go into this compartment in our “home” but that’s out for now.

We put a couple of small desk-sized heater fans near the water pump and we use a heat hose to go between our 400 gallon external water tank and the trailer to keep the lines clear. Unless it’s ten degrees below. In that case, we have to remove the heat hose and bring it inside to thaw before hooking it back up. Coffee water comes from dipping the pot directly into the tank on those mornings.

We also leave the cupboard doors open between the living space and the basement to equalize the temperatures. It’s all about strategy out here. Thick dark curtains and/or shrink-wrapped plastic on windows help cut drafts.

Skirting is a standard protection used to keep wind out and stabilize the air temperature beneath a trailer. It’s a barrier running the circumference of the rig from the ground to the body. Everything from expensive kits to straw bails can be used for the purpose.

We installed a fireplace last year. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. We used the correct components and installed it to the letter of the instructions for safety. We got a fan that is activated by the heat on top of the fireplace which blows air throughout the living space quite effectively. A bellows is mandatory for getting fires started.

We couldn’t afford a cord of wood this winter so we’ve been harvesting it from around the property. Storms have brought branches down and there are three huge trees laying on a hillside that we had to have felled in order to get an internet signal. Those have provided us with a seemingly endless supply of wood but the work: chopping, cutting, sawing the stuff to fit the fireplace – its exhausting.

We also pick up wood pallets from around town when we go down the hill. Most of them fit comfortably into the back of our SUV and they are free and plentiful.

The first thing I do every cold morning is make the fire in the fireplace and it’s the last thing I do at night. Keeping warm is so much work. I’m glad we are on our way towards spring and summer so I can complain about the heat.

The Amazing Miracle Pallet

Never seen on TV

Free wood!

If you live off the grid or just have a lot of projects requiring wood, pallets are perfect.

They are a great choice for many reasons:

  • They’re free
  • They’re already nailed together
  • There are plenty of them
  • They have a billion possible uses
  • You can find them EVERYWHERE

Where can you find them?

  • Behind grocery stores
  • In the alleys behind hardware stores
  • In the garbage/recycling areas of businesses
  • On Craigslist

What can you do with them?

  • Make furniture for your house.
  • Craft projects: Signs, decorations, hangers for jewelry, etc.
  • Shop uses: shelves, tool holders, work tables.
  • Dismantle them and burn them
  • Build a shed or even a house out of them.

To cut them up or dismantle individual planks use:

  • a jig saw
  • a circular saw
  • a pry bar
  • a nifty tool we bought at an Ace Hardware called The Wrecker (a fancy pry bar with extra “bars” for whatever leverage you need
  • a hammer and a chisel for working the nails out
  • a hammer to just whack the slats free (might break it)
  • a couple of two by fours to remove individual planks without breaking them

For assembling various projects use:

  • A drill and drill bits for pilot holes through thick boards
  • A screw guide for the drill (a MUST)
  • Wood or deck screws of varying lengths
  • Nails
  • Brackets made by screwing two pieces of wood together or metal ones from the hardware store to add extra strength at attachment points
  • Circular saw for cutting leg lengths and larger straight surfaces
  • Hand saw
  • Hammer
  • C-clamp for holding pieces together tightly (the third arm) while installing screws
  • Jig saw
  • Tape measure
  • Wood router
  • Wood pencil for marking (works even on wet surfaces)
  • Other hardware such as hooks and hangers
  • Varnish

 General tips:

  • That screw guide for your drill makes sinking those long screws SO much easier
  • C-clamp for securing pieces – night and day
  • Pilot holes for those thick pieces. You’ll strip the screws otherwise
  • Pilot holes to prevent cracking. You don’t always have to but if the wood is prone to cracking or on the thin side, it’ll help
  • Look for the better specimens in pallets. There are some shitty torn up ones you just pass up
  • If you do end up with a shitty pallet, you can add slats from another shitty pallet to make one whole shitty pallet

Here are some photos of things we’ve done so far:

 

 

 

HUGE Industry-Wide Problems With Solar

This and some other issues need to be addressed.

It’s been a couple of months since we bought our solar power system and we’ve noticed a big problem that seems to run across the DIY industry: the kits don’t have a built-in low voltage disconnect (LVD) for the AC part of the set up.

Solar kits run both AC and DC loads. The AC is the one you would use for your home. It’s strong enough to run the big appliances. The DC is stuff you run right off of your batteries like when you go camping.

With batteries, if you deplete them too much, they become damaged and their lifespan is shortened significantly.

Our solar power kit came with charge controllers that have a low voltage disconnect (LVD). It cuts the draw from the batteries at a certain voltage to protect the battery but ours only turns off the DC load – the part we don’t use.

The inverter that came with our solar kit turns off the load at 10.5 volts – way too late.

Because we thought everything was being monitored, our batteries ran well below fifty percent many times. We wonder if they’re ruined.

I bought a generic LVD from another company and installed it but it stopped working, possibly because it couldn’t handle the amount of amps going through it. I was warned that might happen.

We had to remove the relay so the inverter would work again but now we are back to square one. One option we have is to buy an inverter that is programmable but they’re super expensive.  We now have no way to monitor the batteries but we kind of don’t care. I’m tired of messing with this stuff for now. I need a break so we’re back to using the gas generators until everything is running smoothly.

Here’s another thing to be aware of if you live in an RV: when you’re adding up how many watts the various appliances use per hour, don’t forget  you’re charging the RV batteries also.

I had a ball trying to figure out how many watts it takes per hour to charge fifty percent of two batteries. I’d share the formula but I lost the paper with my notes on it.

The solar kits come with a battery thermometer that plugs into the charge controller. The temperature probe gets taped onto the side of the battery to let the charge controller know how much energy to use to charge the battery, depending on whether it’s super cold or hot. They’re not mandatory but they make charging more efficient.

There are a lot of variables that impact the functioning of a solar power system. If one part isn’t running or working well, there goes the whole thing until you track down the problem.

I believe a low voltage disconnect is the most important part by far. Batteries are expensive. Every DIY kid should have one built into the AC part of the system.

I love having solar but the truth is it’s been a huge pain in the but to set up properly.

This poem says it all:  Rant Poem On DIY Solar