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

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 with no utilities is exhausting and I’m pretty sure my blog will someday morph into “Stories Formerly From Off The Grid”.

I’m 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 disconnect it but that would mean putting my boots and coat on and going outside in the rain to disconnect the pump from the battery – which might wake my husband.

If an RV water pump is turning on and off by itself, it’s either an air pressure or water leak or the pump is bad.

We’ve tried to track down the cause without success. I’ve listened carefully for the sound of running water inside the RV but haven’t heard anything. I looked underneath the trailer for drips but have only spotted a small one coming from one of the holding tanks.

My next step is to replace the heat hose going into the pump to see if the system is losing pressure there.

On top of the leak problem, our furnace stopped working. I browsed the online RV forums for clues but we’ll have to open an outside access panel that’s sealed shut in order to check the fan reset switch, if there IS one.

20191207_053622

We accidentally put bad gas in our small generator and broke it.. Then I accidentally stripped a bolt inside the carburetor while I was trying to repair it. JB Weld didn’t work so now it has to go to the shop. Thankfully we have another larger generator but it’s a gas hog.

We tried to install a propane refrigerator to replace the electric one that was using seventy percent of our electricity but after a month of trying we couldn’t get it to work. The extra fridge sat in our living room for a month but now it’s tucked back into it’s spot. The RV seems suddenly spacious.

It seems like after we fix one problem, another one pops up or we cause another one until we’re back at the beginning. Like a wheel, it goes round and round – never to end.

Update: We bought a new water pump – problem solved.

 

Featured Image by  Christopher Burns on Unsplash.

 

Ant Invasion – A Poem

One, two, three…..thousands…

Crawling on my countertop
Sugar ants they just won’t stop
From the ground they formed a line
Up the stairs they climbed and climbed
In the door across the floor
Saw them, freaked, and slammed my door
Didn’t work they went beneath
Thousands marching past my feet
Mix the borax, sugar, water
Ant buffet go get the swatter
On the glasses plates and pans
Swarming on my noodles, cans
Every bit of food’s a target
Vacuum over under carpet
Vinegar is my new friend
Bring their ant trail to an end
In the bedroom gone too far
Me and them it’s time to spar
To the store for some more bait
Set it out and sit and wait
Bare no grudge against the mass
But it’s them who did trespass
They’re a part of nature’s order
But my doorjamb is their border

The Small Small Trailer

An essay in inadequacy.

When I bought our twenty foot Jayco Lite travel trailer before our house closed in the spring of 2017, I figured we’d be living in it for a few months while we looked for a new home.

I was wrong.

We lived within the confines of it’s half-inch walls for almost two years.

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, 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 crammed in for much longer than we expected. The single table inside was only big enough for my son and his computer so I spent a lot of time in our bunk at the rear or outside in our half-built shed. My husband even moved his TV and Xbox outside during the summer. It was too cramped in the tiny house on wheels.

The sink was too small, the bathroom was too small and the hot water heater was glitchy. It became an art form to take a shower. We had to set the timer for twelve minutes exactly from the time we turned the hot water heater on. Whoever was taking a shower had to be ready to jump in at the mark or the water would boil out of the tank outside within a couple of minutes.

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 with the canvas walls of the pullouts.

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 the tarps we put over them 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 wasn’t much between the outdoors and us in a canvas pullout.

One night shortly after we’d set up camp on our new property, we heard a distinct scraping sound against a trash barrel outside just feet from our heads. We’ll never know what was out there. I took the outside position only one time and ended up on the inner side within minutes.

Last fall we got a fifth wheel, 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 he still lives in it.

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 a story.

When we bought our RV, it had been refitted for use with city hookups 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 as we’d recently watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters featuring an experiment with hot water heaters.

They had disabled all of the safety 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 high our mini-rocket might be capable of traveling under the wrong circumstances as we wrestled it into its compartment on the side of our RV and hooked up the gas and water. We checked for leaks then lit it up.

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

Our luck was no better the next day so we decided to call a professional.

Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

Enter Norstar Heating and Cooling, Inc.

They don’t normally do work on RV’s but they agreed to send someone to come take a look. For two weeks we waited – without hot water.

By the time he arrived, the repairman had attained hero status in our minds.

Armed only with a notepad and a toolbox, he listened with concern as we told him our plight. 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.”

Tinkham Campground

The last stop on our journey to a new life.

The summer we lived in a travel trailer between homes was memorable.

We spent the first month up the Middle Fork county road outside of North Bend Washington but there’s a two-week limit on how much time you can stay in the national forest. As a result, we were under pressure to keep moving. The county Sheriff patrolled the area regularly and didn’t hesitate to tell people to move on if they exceed their limit. It was tricky to keep two paces ahead of them and we became forest outlaws for overstaying.

One day the sheriff told us to move so we had to spend a week at a hotel at the pass to burn up the prescribed amount of time before we could go back. It cost us an arm and a leg but it was nice to be able to shower and the beds were comfortable.

When we returned, we opted for a pay campground to take off the heat. Denny Creek near Snoqualmie Pass was a nice place but the caretaker was anything but.  He was an older gentleman who took his job way too seriously. He would literally look at his watch when we came to pay.

After that, we camped in an undesignated area before checking into Tinkham Campground – another pay site. We lived there for almost a month before we closed on our property and left for our new home.

Tinkham was a breath of fresh air. The hosts were super friendly and didn’t run the place an internment facility. It was located halfway between North Bend and the pass. As we were still living and working near our old home, we could commute back and forth to Snoqualmie with relative ease. It was a beautiful drive.

Our spot was on the river side of the campground with our own semi-private trail to the river. Denny Creek fed into it a mile or two up the road and was known for having gold.

I spent a lot of time at the beach. We got our water there, prospected, or just played around. The leg-breaking terrain was littered with giant rocks that were difficult to walk on but someone had begun to build a trail from the tree line to the river’s edge.

I seized upon the idea and spent many hours over the following weeks adding to the trail. It was like building a patio. I would find the flattest rocks, dig shallow holes for them, lay them in, dump sand between them and pack it down. It looked pretty cool in the end.

Working on “my” trail became one of my favorite pastimes. It was symbolic to me. The flattened walkway that threaded its way to the water might save someone a broken ankle and was an invitation to enjoy the river. I hoped people would use it for months –  maybe years ahead. I wondered if others would help to maintain it. I’d like to go back someday and see if it’s still there.

The great solar eclipse happened while we were at Tinkham. When the sun fell into darkness, the shadows on the ground deepened in a surreal fashion. The light dimmed, and we headed to the beach. I took my camera and my husband brought three pairs of sunglasses to watch. I teased him about it.

I couldn’t get a good shot with my camera but the multiple pairs of sunglasses my husband brought allowed us to see it clearly. Go figure.

We went prospecting at Denny Creek but had the usual bad luck in finding any gold. By that time, I was beginning to realize gold is heavy.  It sinks to the bottom of the gravel and sand till it hits either bedrock or clay. You have to have the right equipment and experience to know how to get to it. Lesson learned.

We were able to stay for the rest of our time in the mountains at Tinkham because the hosts were cool. Being an older couple, they suggested we clean up the fire pits in exchange for some extra time. We spent three days cleaning up fifty or so campsites.

In mid-September, we closed on our property. Winter was approaching and we now had somewhere to go – somewhere to call home. It was time to go.

On the evening of September 17th of the year 2017, we loaded up the trailer and hitched it up to the truck in the pouring rain. We pulled out of our spot and stopped on our way out to say goodbye and thank you to our hosts.

We pulled onto I-90 knowing western Washington was now a part of our pasts, most likely for the remainder of our lives – but a new adventure awaited us ahead.

 

DIY Solar – A Poem

A venting I must go

Bought a freakin’ solar kit

Thought it’d really be a hit

Catch the sun rays from the sky

Found out different tell you why

First you have to wire it right

Clamp them hard and do it tight

If you don’t they break in two

When you strike them with your shoe

Get it all set up and goin’

Plug it in and nothin’s showin’

Check it all with a volt meter

Skip a wire and you’re a cheater

And when you still don’t get power

Throw a wrench go take a shower

Next day when you’re at it still

Find out your controller’s ill

Then redo it put together

Hope that rain’s not in the weather

Find out that your cable’s wrong

Wow this’ now taking too long

All I want is my TV

Tools all over skinned my knee

Cables came redid them all

Will my power come on at all

No of course not that’s too easy

Batteries fried and I’m uneasy

Check the RV for the problem

Breakers sockets test all of ’em

Turns out that we’ll be just fine

Only use it at night time

What to do now what is next

Send the comp’ny email text

Hit the troubleshooting checklist

At the bottom and now I’m pissed

What the fuck did I do wrong

That I can’t turn my lights on

Feel so mad like I’ve been jerked

Bought a gas gen cause it works!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overwhelmed

Trying to keep up.

I feel so overwhelmed right now.

We got our shed about a week ago and I expected to have it up in one day but there it sits. We’ve been working on it but there isn’t enough time in one day and dark coming earlier hasn’t helped.

The matter with the neighbor over the cul-de-sac derailed us for a day and a half. We left a succinct letter for him and his wife on one of his fence posts and are waiting for a response – if any. He’d previously gone onto our property (past well marked posts), and spray painted survey marks on the ground for the cul-de-sac he was planning – for all of us.

We had wood delivered the other day and you’d think we never get visitors by the way we spent an hour showing the guys around the property. We traded some antique ax heads for a discount. One of the guys does handy work so we may have some help with the work around here. The shed might be his first project if he’s game.

I insulated the battery bank tonight. I got a plastic container and we hefted the batteries and about two-million wires and cables into it. It’s now lined on all sides with foam board insulation.

The fire wood is mostly stacked thanks to my husband and son. We’ve been trying to involve him more in chores for the benefits those things offer a young person.

Work in progress photos:

Our sizable new water tank needed to be refilled but alas, the freeze snuck up on us and the hoses froze with water in them. It took us an hour yesterday to drag them all downhill from the spring and get them into a tub of hot water. After soaking them, my husband had to use the pump to force all the ice out. It was exhausting and we’re emptying them after each use from now on.

I moved the ever-growing pile of tools, fasteners, parts, and the propane fridge we got a month ago out of the trailer. We want to put it all in the shed but it still needs to be built!

We need to clean up the messes from all of  our projects too. It never ends around here.

I also have a million administrative tasks to do. I’ve been grouchy from the sheer volume of items. I drew a big mind-map on some card stock and filled it with every item to be done – complete with sub categories. I hope to dispel some stress by getting the morass out of my mind and onto paper.

Writing also helps me to cope when I feel overwhelmed. It’s a little like talking to someone only they don’t talk back. 🙂

 

 

 

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

 

Our Home On Wheels

If we could just get it up the driveway.

We had to get out of the little camping trailer we’d been packed into for over a year.

Early on, we had an opportunity to build a house but the project was effectively scrapped because a grouchy neighbor didn’t want to grant us a short utility easement across a tiny section of their land they never used.

With our plans on hold until Plan B came through, we decided on a larger RV. We scanned Craigslist for something that would withstand the winter better than the little Jayco and had more room.

An older model Royal Voyager fifth wheel caught our eyes. It had been completely remodeled and the interior was of better quality. It had been modified to hook up to regular utilities.

At first this seemed like a bonus but we soon realized we would have to undo a lot of what had been done so we could use it like a camper again.

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 skillfully maneuvered the forty-foot box on wheels around the corners, almost missing all of the tree branches. As it was, we had to cut several down that were overhanging the road to prevent losing parts of the RV along the way although I think we lost a porch light.

We dug ruts into the higher points of the uneven ground in preparation for parking but it took a couple of weeks to get the fifth wheel leveled properly.

Excited that our new home was finally here, I headed to the kitchen sink and turned it on –  nothing came out. We inspected the entire trailer looking for the pump – nothing. We eventually discovered it had been removed altogether because of the remodel. We installed a new one.

The water heater was electric and practically killed the generator when the heating elements would kick on. Forget using solar power with it. We replaced it with a gas water heater Two Idiots, A Water Heater and a Hero.

The propane fridge to replace the electric one is on it’s way. It’s a quarter the size of the one we have but brand-new full-size models were over 1,200.00. Used propane fridges aren’t easy to find. We’ll be putting the small one we bought into the small trailer and moving the one from small trailer to ours.

A couple of trips to Walmart for missing furnishings completed the package. A dish drainer, towels, silverware and a push vacuum, among other things, filled in the blanks to make our home cozy and ready to use.

It was time to enjoy our new-found spaciousness and as I turned out the lights to go to bed, I wondered what we would have done if the driver hadn’t been able to get the house around that corner.