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 Never Ending Repair Cycle

*Update at end.

I keep reminding myself I asked for this. I entered into this adventure willingly but I’m reminded daily that it comes with a price.

Living out here away from the cities and towns and utilities is tough. It’s exhausting and I’m pretty sure my blog will someday morph into “Stories Formerly From Off The Grid”. I’m up for that.

I’m also up in the middle of the night again unable to sleep. There’s either an air or water leak in our RV fresh water system and the pump keeps cycling on and off about three times a minute. It’s driving me nuts. I could go disconnect it but that would mean putting my sloggers on and going outside in the rain to disconnect the pump wires from the battery which might wake my husband.

We’ve tried to track down the cause and have repeatedly reinforced the heat hose going from the external water tank to the pump without success. I’ve listened carefully for the sound of running water inside the RV but haven’t heard anything. I’ve crept around the outside underneath of the trailer looking for drips but have only spotted a drip coming from one of the holding tanks.

My next step is to temporarily fashion an intake hose out of garden hose to replace the heat hose. If that stops the cycling of the pump, at least I’ll have isolated the cause. Then we’ll have to get the heat hose back on without issues – somehow.

On top of the leak problem, our furnace has decided to stop working. Sweeps of the online RV forums have given us some clues as to what might be amiss but now we’ll have to open an outside access panel that’s sealed tight with some kind of goo to access the fan reset switch, if there IS one. Sigh.

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But wait – there’s more! We accidentally put bad gas in the smaller of our two generators which effectively gummed it up. In an effort to fix it, I accidentally stripped a mechanism inside the carburetor so it’s JB Weld time. Hope that works. In the mean time we’re using the gas hog generator.

We tried to install a propane refrigerator to replace the electric one but after having it sit in the middle of our fifth wheel kitchen-hall-dining room for about a month while we tried to get the used gas model to actually work, it’s tucked back into it’s nook and suddenly I don’t mind that it’s responsible for about half of our energy consumption.

I’m ready for some amenities…and bed.

Update: We took the face off the water pump and lo and behold: there was a tiny pebble jammed in the intake valve causing it not to close all the way. It sure feels good to solve a problem and not have to listen to that confounded thing go off constantly!

Fixed the drain hose too. I forgot to mention that one. 🙂 Two jobs to go….

 

Featured Image by  Christopher Burns on Unsplash.

 

The Small Small Trailer

An essay in inadequacy.

I’ve been wanting to write more about the vehicle that was our home for over a year after we sold our house back west as it deserves honorable mention. We’ll never forget the time we spent safely tucked behind it’s half-inch walls. The trailer is a 20′ Jayco Lite with canvas pullouts on each end. It was designed as a camper trailer … the kind you take the family for a weekend campout in, not live in for a year. That was not our plan, I assure you.. it just happened as some things do.

When I spotted it in an ad, I was sucked in by the extra amenities and the price. Plenty of room for the job as I saw it at the time. It came with a TV, radio, almost a wood stove (renovations had been started for the project), an air conditioner, central heating and something else so appealing I’ve forgotten what it was. It also came with a badly rotted floor which I didn’t know about at the time. The rest was standard.

We spent a summer living in the thing expecting to find a property with a house. We didn’t, and ended up tubed in for a year too long. The single table inside was only big enough for my son and his computer so I spent a lot of time doing whatever in our bunk at the rear or in the shed we half-built. My husband even moved his TV and Xbox outside during the summer. Just too cramped.

The sink was too small, the bathroom was too small and the hot water heater was glitchy and it became an art form to pull a shower off in the approximately six minutes available if the water didn’t boil over first. The pipes froze solid during the winter and imagine doing dishes outside in zero degree weather at a makeshift table. It happened.

We managed to break not one but two windows and had to tape them up and when the freezing temperatures hit, we had a major problem on our hands what with the canvas walls of the pullouts. We were clearly unprepared. That seems to be the story of our lives.

We ended up putting rigid sheet insulation and plywood around the walls and over the roofs of the pullouts but zero degrees doesn’t care. The rain had a tendency of finding a way through all the tarp we put over it too. Wet mattress pads, sheets and pillows were the order of the day. I don’t know how we survived but we did.

Some time during the summer the rotten floor made itself apparent and we crawled under the contraption to shore up the floor with two by fours to prevent a “yard sale” while driving down the freeway at sixty-five miles an hour.

There isn’t much between the outdoors and the humans either in a canvas pullout. One night the roof caved in on my face. I could feel paws on top of me as my husband half slept. When I screeched at the cat, he said “are you sure it’s the cat?” Helpful. One night shortly after we’d set up camp on our new property, we heard something that sounded big scrape up against a trash barrel outside just feet from our heads. My husband continued to take the outside position in the bed.

Last fall we got a fifth wheel for a temporary upgrade, not knowing for sure when we’d be able to build a real house but our fifteen year old insisted that he didn’t want to see the Jayco go to waste. He’s a teenager and still occupies it’s space.

We were quite happy to say goodbye and move next door forty feet away. At least we no longer have to worry about Mr. Foot reaching his hand under the canvas wall and making away with my husband.

 

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 an adventure – sort of.

When we bought our fifth wheel RV it had been 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.

When the UPS guy dropped off it off, we eyeballed it with suspicion.  We wondered if we’d just come into possession of a device capable of launching into the stratosphere as we’d recently watched an episode of Mythbusters featuring an experiment with hot water heaters.

The team on the TV show had disabled all of the fail-safe measures on several tanks then set the temperature dials to maximum. Upon overheating to the point of exploding, they blew open at their weakest points – the bottoms – launching them hundreds of feet into the air.

We wondered how far our mini-rocket might be capable of traveling under the wrong circumstances.

We wrestled the device into its compartment on the side of our RV and hooked up the gas and water. We checked for leaks then lit her up.

We turned the bathtub spigot on to check the temperature of the water but it got hotter and hotter then stopped flowing altogether. Clueless and sure the heater was nearing ignition, we turned it off and called it a night.

The next day we changed out the faucet and the water ran fine but continued to overheat. We shut it down again.

Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

It was time for a professional. Enter Norstar Heating and Cooling, Inc.

We made an appointment for an onsite visit.  By now, we’d come to see the repairman as a potential hero and his status grew with every day we were unable to take a hot shower.

Then the day arrived and the repairman showed up – armed only with a notepad and a toolbox.  Wringing our now filthy hands, we recounted our misadventures as he stole sideways glances at the beast that waited behind the access panel that said “hot”.

Finally, he adjusted his collar, turned, and approached his foe with a swagger that would have made John Wayne proud. He opened the hatch, squinted into the darkness and went to work.

We stood back and watched nervously. What if he couldn’t fix it? What if we had to send it back for another? What if this cost us an arm and a leg?

Finally, we heard the rocket-like swoosh of propane igniting as the man cocked his head and made his final adjustments. We tried in vain to read his poker face as he turned and walked back our way to give us the news.

Suppressing a grin, he told us “I turned the heat down.”

Art and a Hack

One of my hobbies.

Try to find a Dorodango ball for sale on the internet. I dare you. Good luck.

Dorodango means mud dumpling in Japanese (I think). It’s literally dirt formed into a ball then dried and polished over a period of time (everyone has their own technique), to become something pretty impressive.

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My first semi-successful Dorodango ball.

I’ve been trying to successfully make one for about a month now. It takes practice. They tend to crack and the outer shell tends to nick during polishing depending on how you do it.

I’ve tried and tried to finish one over the past weeks. I threw a few. I wrote a poem about them but deleted it because my son was silent after I read it to him. Maybe I’ll rewrite it from memory.

I finally successfully made one today. I want to sell them. Especially after I discovered I couldn’t find but one on the entire internet for sale. I couldn’t believe it. There’s a vacuum in that market. Maybe Etsy,  maybe here.

This last year has been very difficult. Very. We’ve had some really hard times and one of the things that helped me through it was my various art projects. I had to use what we had on hand most of the time and dirt was readily available. This is a fun activity and I highly recommend it but it takes patience. Just hit youtube for some tutorials if you want to give it a try.

Onto a couple off the grid self described hacks.

I came up with an ingenious idea for keeping the hoses and water filter from freezing this winter. The spring and holding pit never freeze even in extended zero degree temps. We learned that last year.

Why not mount the filter under the water line and just keep the hoses in the water also when not in use? Theoretically it makes sense.

We hit some items on the monumental To Do list today also.

We pulled the RV’s water tank out today. Had to pull out a small part of the structure in the RV basement to get it out. We’ll replace it of course.

We put it on a couple of barrels so we could fill it up to see if the bottom really leaked and filled it with water. No leaks on the actual bottom but both inlet/outlet receptacles leak around the edges. I sprayed a coat of Flexseal on it and am letting it sit overnight. Will do again tomorrow then fill again to see if the leak is fixed.

If we can use that tank, we won’t have to wrestle with keeping an exterior water tank from freezing. Crossing fingers. One thing at a time.

We called the manufacturer of the dreaded and cherished gas hot water heater and asked them why the thing isn’t turning off. The water is getting super hot. Not safe. We’re just turning the gas off after about a half hour of heating for the time being.

They said it sounds like a thermostat. 10.00 on Amazon. It’s under warranty but why bother for such a small amount?

Incidentally, Atwood is now Dometic (maker of RV appliances and maybe other things).

One item at a time off of the check list.

But wait, there’s more. There’s always more. We believe the front right hydraulic jack sheer pin sheered. It is a sheer pin after all. The jack won’t move up or down. We’re trying to finish leveling the trailer still. Everything on the bathroom counter roles towards the rear of the trailer. Driving me nuts.

We added 2 more batteries to the solar power system this afternoon. We’re going to try the TV for a little while. I think it’s charging fine after all. Added 4 more 100 watt panels to the system yesterday. It was a challenge to figure out the wiring. It’s still really rough looking mounted on two sheets of plywood. We need to secure the panels better before a windstorm hits.

Now to reap the rewards of siphoning the water from the top of the property from the well we dug, installing a new hot water heater, removing and reinstalling the shower faucet approximately 6 times as a result of the overheated water, and installing a new water pump.

I think I deserve a hot bath.

Hack: You can use one little microfiber rag to dry off your entire body after a shower. Just keep wringing it out as you go. They work great. I’ve had to do it more than once upon realizing no towels were available.

Realities

You have to want something to get it out here.

I woke up at 4:00am this morning when the inverter to our solar power system shut off. At this point, it does that early every morning because we did the classic underestimate of power consumption needs. More on solar later. It get’s it’s own post.

I spent about an hour up anyway running on our RV’s batteries with  LED lightbulbs. I had to use my phone’s hotspot because we forgot to hook up the inverter to the RV batteries so we could run a cord inside to plug the modem into.

After going back to bed and waking up about 20 minutes ago, the husband’s still asleep so I got to instruct my son again, on how to turn on the gernerator but he forgot to unplug us from the solar system and into the extension cord he plugged into the generator. We have the modem for internet over here. That was why he was so helpful.

I then had to plug the fridge back in because we’re getting a propane fridge because the electric is a gas hog and when we’re on the inverter, we turn it off for a few hours and keep the door shut.

I also checked the level of our water supply and will have to go up to the top of the property to “turn on” the water. I siphon it all the way across the property to our temporarily outside 55 gallon water tank that holds water for our trailer.

Tired yet? I’m semi used to this but when my threshold for stress is down, I break down also. Most of the time I’m OK but it takes a lot of effort to live out here. I have problems with depression and when that kicks in, it weakens my emotional immune system and makes effort difficult.

My husband is front and center to help and we make a great team but I tend to mentally take on a sense of responsibility for the load. I don’t have to. It’s just habit, I suppose. I’m trying to learn to ask for help and to know that I don’t have to do it alone but when I realize how much there is to do before the snow hits, I get overwhelmed.

I’ll show you what I mean.

To do before the snow hits:

  • skirt both trailers
  • replace our water tank (we found out our water tank has a massive leak after we got it home)
  • seal all panels around the RV basement
  • insulate all pipes and the inside of the basement
  • finish foam insulating the small trailer and do the pipes
  • figure out why the hot water heater is not turning off (we never called someone about that)
  • return the faucet we bought when we thought the old one was broken because the hot water made it work weird
  • come up with a plan to keep the outside water barrel from freezing if we can’t replace the inside water tank
  • figure out how to keep the outside water filter from freezing
  • figure out why the solar panels we added don’t seem to be helping
  • buy more batteries for solar system
  • make sure we have a heating system in place for the basement of the RV
  • finish cleaning up the property
  • finish the roof on the shed when the truck gets home from the shop
  • pack the rest of the garbage to the dump when truck available
  • finish installing miscellaneous hardware around the inside of the trailer
  • finish the laundry (happy thought! I have a washer/drying combo in the trailer!!!!)
  • Work on blog which has become a very happy thought to me

As I said, I suffer from depression. It’s been all of my life give or take a year or two and of course I get treatment for it but it’s especially bad right now. Luckily, I’ve discovered blogging. 🙂 I can now “talk” to people about how I feel and bitch about all of the hard work I have to do living out here.

I know this has all been a choice and I would do it again. Zero regrets. But that damned to do list…..