Two Idiots, A Water Heater and a Hero

Most people probably don’t give a second thought to their water heaters but ours came with a story.

We are afraid of it as we’re unfamiliar with it’s inner workings and are concerned it may blow up at any moment. It’s not the heater’s fault nor that of anyone involved with it’s design or installation; they’re just suspicious-seeming by nature. It doesn’t help that we’re ignorant of such things despite over a year of living off-grid in an RV.

When we first got the thing, we had recently seen an episode of Mythbusters wherein the guys purposely removed all of the fail-safe measures on some water heaters and cranked the heat up. The tanks shot hundreds of feet into the air after smashing through mock ceilings without effort, giving my husband and I pause as to what our own rocket/heater might be capable of. But let’s back up.

When we came by our fifth wheeler it had been gutted and refitted for use with city hookups such as electricity rather than for it’s original purpose of boon docking. The electric water heater that had been installed was gobbling our energy so we ordered a propane model. It arrived promptly and we managed to get it nestled into the side of our RV without much ado. We carefully hooked up the gas, checked for leaks and lit her up.

Everything went fine as we turned the bathtub spigot on and off to check the rising temperature but the water got hotter and hotter and stopped flowing altogether. Clueless and sure the heater was nearing ignition, we turned it off and called it a night.

The next day we exchanged the old faucet for a new one and the water ran fine but continued to overheat. We shut it down for a second time to save our very lives lest we recreate that episode of Mythbusters.

Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

We needed a professional. Enter Norstar Heating and Cooling, Inc.

We gave them a call and explained the strange behavior of our water heater and made an appointment. Although they didn’t normally deal with RV type systems, they were willing to come take a look. We kept the unit shut off while we waited for our savior- his elevated status growing every day we went without the ability to shower.

Then the day arrived and “he” showed up. He didn’t have six-shooters on his side but he came with a notepad and a toolbox.  Wringing our now filthy hands, we recounted our misadventures as the repairman stole sideways glances at the beast waiting silently in it’s hole on the side of the fifth wheel.

Finally, our man adjusted his collar and approached the offender with a swagger and a coolness that would make John Wayne jealous. He stared at his foe for a moment or two then reached out confidently and began to manipulate the dials with the authority of a….well…appliance repairman. We stood a good ways back and watched with mixed fear and excitement at the prospect of being able to resume our personal hygiene routines.

Then we heard it; the rocket-like flame of the gas feed shot to life as the man cocked his head and squinted suspiciously at the device while he made his final adjustments. With a satisfied nod he turned and walked back our way to give us the news.

His words will haunt us forever; “I turned the heat down.”




Our Home On Wheels

If we could just get it up the driveway.

We debated for months about what our next step up would be from our little 20 foot Jayco Lite we’d been living in for much longer than we’d anticipated. We’d packed ourselves into the tiny thing like sardines and wanted out. Not that we didn’t love each other. Two adults with a 15 year old. We’d forgotten how to be intimate, even.

Me and my husband would spend most of our free time in our half-built shed out of necessity so our son could use the table for his computer time and such. The shed had a tarp for a roof and when it rained, it would sag with hundreds of gallons of water in between each set of supports and we would have to drain each pocket individually with a homemade snow scraper I’d made. We would have to position everything, including ourselves just so to avoid the cascade of water that would spill out when we dumped. So much of our property got damaged but more on the shed in another post.

In a nutshell, we had cabin fever and were waiting for some financial matters to resolve before we could upgrade.

We finally made the choice to go with some sort of larger RV for the winter for several reasons. We didn’t have the money or time to build a real structure and we needed something with the amenities already there. So another trailer it was, for the time being.

We scanned craigslist for something suitable. We needed something that would have a chance of withstanding the winter better than the Jayco. We looked for pre-winterized units and researched exactly what winterized really meant. We also looked for RVs that had solar systems already built in (we’d already decided at that point that we were going solar). Not much out there of either but finally we found something interesting.

It was a slightly older model Royal Voyager fifth wheel. It had been completely remodeled to be more like a real home. The cupboards were better quality, it had a regular toilet, and the black water system had been completely redone to resemble that of a real house. In short, it had been totally gutted and refitted to be more like a regular house than an RV. It fit our needs almost perfectly except that we realized after we bought it that we would have to go back in the opposite direction and re-rig it as more of a camping vehicle again.

Our first clue about that was when we turned on the water for the first time. Nothing came out. We inspected the whole trailer for the problem. No pump under the sink like our old trailer. We looked everywhere. Nothing. We eventually came to the realization the pump had been removed altogether. We ended up buying and installing a brand new one which took a couple of weeks to get to work properly and seal up the leaks.

The water heater was electric and practically killed the generator when we turned it on. Forget using solar power with it. We bought a gas heater. That little issue took weeks to finally resolve and now we have the luxury of hot water.

The propane fridge is on it’s way in the mail. Brand new models were over 1,200.00 on average and there isn’t a used propane fridge to be had in the whole of Washington state from our shopping experience. We decided to buy a tiny little one to put in the old trailer and we’re stealing that one for the fifth wheel. We now feel pretty confident about moving and installing it because of our newly acquired experience working with appliances (hot water heater exempt).

We’ve done all of the insulating for winter (and summer) by ourselves in addition to fixing various issues with the plumbing. I think this has all been pretty good for us and our life experiences. We’re doing things we never would have done back in the days of living on the grid.

Our truck didn’t have a fifth wheel hitch adapter so we paid a guy to bring our new home to us. We were worried it wouldn’t fit going around a sharp corner coming up to our property so we measured the opening and sent a diagram with measurements to the driver. He drove like a champ and pulled the behemoth deftly around the corners, not quite dodging all of the over hanging branches that were never in the way before. We had to cut several heavy branches down to prevent losing our porch light and other accessories mounted to the outside of the trailer before our driver pulled it into it’s final “resting” place.

We’d already dug ruts into the higher points of the ground in preparation but weeks went by before we finally had the rig leveled properly. Lots of digging and one broken landing jack later, we were able to put things down inside without them sliding towards the back and to the right side of the rig.

What have I forgotten? We made many trips to Walmart to furnish on the cheap. A dish drainer, towels, silverware; a push vacuum. We now had two households as our son decided to stay in the old trailer for privacy’s sake. He’s a teenager after all.

Oh, then there’s the fireplace. That’s for another blog. 🙂