Hello All, John here again.
Been a while since I posted so I figured I needed to get Derek’s keyboard good and greasy for him. Not a whole lot going on here, so I am going to do something a bit different in than we normally do and post some information we have gained through experience, advice of others, and lots of reading through the RV internet forums. What really prompted this posting was an email from fellow full-timer and blogger Rene, from www.liveworkdream.com.
So, The topic is Winter Camping, or RVing to be more specific. What do we do to survive the winter in an RV full-time? Derek nor I don’t claim to be winter experts, but we do have some experience with cold weather. Most full-timers have the luxury of escaping the cold, and heading somewhere warm for the worst months. I would advise that if you have that option, it is far easier, and usually much more fun, but we don’t. Now, we started to full-time almost 3 years ago, and we are now half way through our third winter. One of those three we were lucky to scurry off to Tampa, and didn’t have to worry about much of this. The other two we haven’t been so lucky. We started off just after we sold our house in Milwaukee, WI, then half way through a Saint Louis Winter, and off to New York City, till Spring. Then after our stint in warm weather, we hit STL again, and are braving a pretty mild winter so far. I want to convey that Winter Camping is doable, and really isn’t that big of deal with the proper preparation.
So, it’s cold out and you want to camp… Really we need to focus on three areas: keeping warm, keeping water from freezing, and controlling moisture. So, lets look at heat first. If your living on the grid, this really isn’t a big deal. You have plenty of power and propane. Run your furnace and most RV’s that are winter capable will be ok down to about 20 degrees. If you’re camping in colder weather you may need to supplement some. The RV Furnace is probably your biggest consumer in the RV, in both 12 volt electric, and in propane. So, you will need to address both of these if camping off the grid. We are fortunate right now to have a 50 amp site with free electric right now, so the obvious choice is to take as much advantage of that electricity as possible. We use two 1500 watt oil filled radiator style space heaters. I like these best of all the space heaters we have looked at because they are silent, they have no moving parts, and appear to be the safest space heater on the market. Of course with any supplemental heat you need to keep an eye on them, and certainly keep combustibles away. They do work well, but there is an inherent problem with using space heaters. They keep the “Cabin” warm, but as with most RV’s the underside is heated by the furnace, which directs hot air to the freezable parts.
If the “Cabin” is warm, the thermostat won’t call for heat, and those parts won’t get warm. Remember, heat rises, it doesn’t sink. A solution to this would be to somehow wire the furnace fan to come on without the furnace, but this is a modification I haven’t done yet. Don’t be confused by the ‘Fan On’ switch on your thermostat, that is most likely for your air-conditioner, which is vented differently, through the ceiling. I’ll cover more about this in a few minutes, I want to stick with space heaters right now though… I know a number of people who use Ceramic heaters for supplement, and they work well, I don’t like the noise, but we do have one for when it gets really cold. With any electric heater you will need to make sure your not overloading a circuit. These aren’t a particularly good option if your off the grid with no electricity, or even if your paying for it. Some of the campgrounds we have been in have a charge for the electricity you use, normally this comes with the monthly rate, and a metered site. I have no problem paying my fair share, but I do have a problem with campgrounds gouging the customer with the electric rate. The last metered site we had we were paying $.13 a KW, which even in in moderate temps resulted in $100.00 plus bills monthly. There is one other option for space heaters that are favored by boondocker’s and those that spend time without a power hookup. Those are propane catalytic heaters. They come in several forms, one of the most popular being the Olympian Wave series of heaters. These hook into your on board propane system usually with quick disconnect fittings. They are powered solely with LP, and are very efficient. One HUGE caution though, they BURN LP. This is an open flame in your camper. Which means they consume oxygen, and emit carbon monoxide. Please make sure to have enough vent opened to fresh air when and if you choose this route. This also goes for burning your range burners for an extended period of time. Open flames consume oxygen, emit carbon monoxide, and also burning propane gives off water vapor, which I will cover later also.
So, we have discussed space heaters for supplement, but what about the big furnace? I highly recommend you have your annual check up of your main furnace(s). Just to be safe, as you would do with any house furnace. They are amazingly simple, but when they don’t work, or work improperly, you will be without heat, which could mean far more disastrous things, or it could be spewing CO into your camper. Along with that, and not just for winter camping, make sure you have a working CO detector, smoke detectors, and LP detector. The sensors do age, and you should replace them every 5 years from what I have read. Back to the furnace. We have two units in this motor home, one in the bedroom, which is 25k BTU, and the main house one which is 35k BTU. Some systems tie them together, others like ours are separate. It is important you know what heats what, and where the ducts are. A major cause of furnace failure or inadequate operation is obstruction of the air ducts, essentially the furnace overheats and shuts down prematurely. I started this entry with the statement that the furnaces are the big consumers, but we also need to use them to keep certain things from freezing. We need propane in the winter, which in a motor home can be a challenge since I don’t like moving all the time to go get it. Some Campgrounds do have delivery (for a price) but my solution I think is better since I can shop around if I want, and it extends my range form having to move. We installed a device called an “Extend a Stay” which is essentially a T in the propane line just before the regulator which allows us to hook a external tank up. This tank can be any bulk tank from 10 to 100lbs. We normally carry a 30lber for our grill, which is what I started out with, but the owners at the park here sell 100lber’s at a discount, and it works out cheaper for us to use that. This year we have so far been through 230lbs of propane, which is more than we have ever used. Electricity is another big concern for the furnace. Most run on 12 volt, which means it is either converted, or comes from the battery bank. Off the grid, you need to make sure you have enough power for your furnace.
Besides those couple things, winter living inside really isn’t any different than in a house. We tend to dress a bit warmer, there is another blanket on the bed, and I try to conserve by turning things down when we are away or off to bed. We did install a digital thermostat on our bedroom furnace. This allows us to program it to kick up just before we get out of bed and warm the bedroom and bath area. Some people like electric blankets, I really don’t care for them, but I know a lot of people who use them, and they work well. Just again be cautious with the electricity load.
Moving on to keeping water flowing… In a stick house you don’t worry much about that. The furnace is working and the water works. Here it isn’t as simple, but again nothing to be afraid of. If your far north in super cold weather your going to be lucky to find a park that doesn’t shut off the water in the winter time. This means you will have to operate self contained, meaning you will need to fill your water tank, and stow your hose. If this is the case, make sure you fully drain your hose so when you want to use it again it isn’t a big block of ice. We are hooked to city water. It doesn’t get THAT cold in Saint Louis, and a bit of heat tape works wonders. We wrap a pipe heat tape around the water hose and cover it with pipe insulation. Then duct tape the whole thing and make it look as pretty as you can. I try to find the UV resistant duct tape. I know, most heat tapes tell you not to use it on a garden hose or anything less than metal pipe. They also tell you not to Coil them around the pipe.
Whatever… I relate that to people not having enough common sense to know that if the heat tape is plugged in, the hose needs to be full of water. It is kinda like when you went ice fishing, and built a fire on the ice. It never burns through. Why? The water under the ice draws the heat away. It is the same principle with the hose. If you want, you can call up the goof that advertises in Family Motor Coach Magazine selling heated hoses, but I don’t want to spend $300.00 for a hose I can make for less than $50.00. If the campground has water still on chances are they have taken steps to keep their side from freezing, you may see heat tape or an electrically heated hydrant, generally that isn’t your problem though, if they keep the water on, they don’t want it to freeze either. Hook your hose up like any other, but your going to want to ensure your “Wet Bay” stays above freezing. Like I said earlier, most campers are good down to 20 degrees as long as the LP furnace is running. We stash a wireless thermometer in the bay so we can check it frequently. When the temp isn’t holding 32 in the bay, then I break out my trouble lights (mechanics lights) with 75 watt bulbs in them. I have two bays that house water components. I put one in each. The 75 watt light bulb gives off plenty of heat to keep the bays well above freezing even on 0 degree days.
As far as waste goes, it is a good idea to hold your black water anyhow to prevent buildup, but certainly in the winter to prevent freeze ups in the dump hose. I also hold my gray water so the trickling stream doesn’t all the sudden become a solid block of ice. Water in general will take longer to freeze if there is more of it, so holding it helps to retain some of that temperature. Just in case we have a water problem in the park, I also keep my fresh water tank full, again with the theory that more of it takes more energy to cool it that far.
All of our water lines do come up into the living area, which helps prevent those from freezing. This is pretty common among newer RV makers, but something you should check. Also, a wrapped or enclosed belly on a trailer will keep a lot of heat in. Our first trailer was completely exposed, and would have never been a good full timer trailer. We did winter camp with this unit, but the unit was winterized, and we used the park’s facilities. Again a reminder to run your LP furnace to heat those tanks. You can also install (but it is a major pain) tank heaters which work off 12 or 120 volt power. They do work well, and if we ever had to remove a tank, I would put them in. I have considered heat taping all the lines that run into the wet bays, but thought that was overkill, and we really haven’t had any problems yet.
On the road, some people traveling might be asking how to keep from freezing on the road… We haven’t really crossed that bridge yet, but I can tell you you most likely will be using your LP furnace to keep heat in the cabin, which should warm everything enough unless it is REALLY cold out. In general the vibration of moving will keep water in your lines from freezing (It’s a long explanation, and I am getting sick of writing, so another time…). Do make sure you open your heater valves if in a motor home that has them. They will provide hot coolant to your dash heater.
Alright, Moisture. This is the forgotten part about winter camping. We all make lots of water vapor, through breathing, sweating, talking, cooking, bathing, etc. This can build up in your coach! It is important to give that water vapor somewhere to go, a fresh air vent, or and open window when making some of it, like when cooking, or showering. If you don’t you will start to see that water condense on your walls, windshield, or other single pane windows. Then it runs down behind the walls, or under the carpet, and rots any wood that is in your camper. Most of our windows are thermo pane, which I again wouldn’t buy a camper that didn’t have, but they are a very costly option when buying a new one. They are worth every penny. We do have some problem areas we watch. The front windshield, the slide out where it isn’t insulated well, the shirt closets in the bedroom, mostly anywhere where the manufacturer hasn’t insulated well, or there is no airflow past. Keep that water wiped up, and inspect it for mildew. Some people put a dehumidifier in there campers for winter time, and I think that is probably a good idea, but I don’t want to deal with the noise or the space constraint. For the most part, fresh air is the biggest help, as the winter air tends to be dryer, and will suck the moisture outside as things try to reach an equilibrium.
We also try to leave our shades up during the day when the sun is out, it is amazing how much the solar energy heats up the coach. Just like in the summer time, keep the awnings down, and the sun off the windows and it stays much cooler. We have thought about putting our summer “Reflectix” windshield blocker up to try to insulate the front window (I think that is the BIGGEST heat loss in a motor home) but I really don’t want it so dark in here, and I think the solar through the window adds more heat in the day than we would prevent from leaking out at night.
In wrapping up, we have found some things work better for us in our situation, others might work better for you. Just be diligent when it comes to open flames, too much power, or anything that might boarder on a safety issue. Some people have no common sense, hopefully if any of you are one of those you will have taken my warnings seriously and question what your about to do, but in reality those of us who have common sense know you probably won’t and will find a way to kill or harm yourself anyhow. I say this because anything said in the above posting is my opinion, and shouldn’t be taken for fact. In other words, don’t sue me because you read this here, and your Stoopid, it isn’t my fault.
All righty then, My post is done, I think. Don’t be afriad to leave comment, or email me with questions. Hopefully Derek will add some pictures to this to make it more interesting.
Stay Warm! John