What’s A Girl To Do at the RV Dump Station?

Dumping the RV holding tanks is a nasty little job, but it’s part of the fun of traveling around in an RV, and we’ve all gotta do it. It’s really not all that bad when it’s a shared job, but of course that’s easy for us gals to say, because it’s usually our male partners-in-love-and-life who get to do the bulk of the dirty work.

RV dump station tips for women RVers-2

Despite lots of progress over the years for the types of work women can do, emptying an RV’s waste water holding tanks is a job many women are just as happy to leave to their better half.

Sometimes, when we go to an RV dump station, I am amazed to see a woman remain in the passenger’s seat of her truck or motorhome for the whole duration of the job. I’m not sure how these women have negotiated that arrangement with their significant other, but I figure they must be incredibly good cooks to be able to chat with a friend on the phone or check the latest on Facebook while their hubby is grinding it out with the sewer hose, the splashing water, and all that muck and mire.

RV dump station tips for RVing women

Mark looks like he’s having so much fun. Can I get away with doing nothing?

I wish my skills were so awesome in the kitchen that I could be exempt from doing anything at the RV dump station. But alas, in our marriage, I need to be a participant in this dirtiest of deeds to win brownie points for other aspects of our life together. Nonetheless, it took me a few years to find things to do while we were at the RV dump station that were truly useful and helpful.

We have a full set of “blue” RV dump station procedural tips below — but they don’t say much about the “pink” side of the job:

Dirty Little Secrets from the RV dump station

Too often at the beginning of our RVing lives I found my best efforts to help with setting up the RV sewer hose or screwing in the water hose ended up with me underfoot and in the way of the general flow of things. Mark had his methods, and I couldn’t read his mind as to what came next.

Few people are in truly sunny and radiant moods when they don their rubber gloves at the RV dump, and too often I found that my most valiant attempts to be helpful resulted in tensions rising between us.

RV dump station tips for women RVers

I think he’s trying to tell me something.

Then one day I discovered a way that I can be of significant help and get some important jobs done at the same time.

GIVE THE BLACK TANK A BOOST FLUSH

For starters, I fill two 5-gallon water buckets with water and carry them into the rig to dump them down the toilet after the black tank has been emptied. Even if an RV has a black water flush system like ours does, it is still surprising just how many little bits of gunk and human waste solids get flushed out when two 5-gallon buckets of water are poured down the toilet.

I fill the buckets while Mark gets the sewer hose out and attaches the clear elbow so he can see when the holding tanks are fully drained. Then I can scoot out of the way and carry the buckets around to our RV’s door before he begins attaching the black water flush hose between the rig and the water spigot. This way we don’t end up stepping on each when we first start working at the RV dump station.

RV dump station tips flushing black tank with buckets of water in toilet

We have two buckets and I fill each one with water to give the toilet and sewer pipes an extra flush.

The buckets are heavy to carry around to our trailer’s front door, but I don’t mind a little bit of a shoulder and arm workout, and I take them one at a time. Maneuvering a heavy bucket of water up stairs is excellent exercise for both balance and strength.

I grab the inside of the doorway with my left hand for extra balance, tighten my abs so I don’t throw my back out with the uneven weight distribution of carrying a heavy bucket, and I leverage myself up and set the pails down inside in the kitchen.

RV dump station tip flush black tank with buckets of water in toilet

The buckets are heavy, but I take my time and grab the door frame to keep my balance as I go up the stairs.

For those who can’t carry the buckets, your partner will likely be happy to carry them for you since this really helps ensure the black tank and toilet get a complete flush. Also, filling the buckets only half way or three quarters of the way can help not only lighten the load but keep the water from splashing all over the place and all over you.

CLEAN THE BATHROOM

The other task I tackle is cleaning the toilet room from top to bottom and cleaning the bathroom vanity and kitchen sink. I figure that if my sweet hubby is dealing with the darker side of RVing outside at the RV dump station, I can deal with the same stuff on the inside..

This insures the bathroom gets cleaned on a regular basis and also means that when we arrive at our next campsite not only are the holding tanks empty but our bathroom is sparkling clean and smells fresh.

So, once I get the water buckets inside the rig, I begin assembling the things I will need to clean the toilet and the bathroom. When I hear Mark’s knock on the wall, I know he has finished emptying the black tank and it is time to dump the buckets of water down the toilet.

RV dump station tips flush black tank

I pour one bucket at a time and Mark watches the flow in the sewer hose to make sure the water eventually runs clear.

Since the buckets are just inside the RV door, it takes me a minute to grab one and empty it. Then it takes a few minutes more to go grab the other one and empty it too. Having a few minutes between flushes is helpful because then Mark can monitor whether the water from the second bucket is running clear or is still flushing solids out. If there are still chunks coming out, then, depending on whether anyone is waiting to use the RV dump after us, I’ll fill another bucket or two with water and dump them down the toilet.

Sometimes I have the water pump turned on as I dump the buckets of water down the toilet and sometimes it’s turned off. Having it turned on means even more water flushes down, which is great, but it also uses up water from the fresh water tank. So, whether or not I have the water pump turned on depends on whether there are people waiting behind us at the dump station, as it will take a little longer for us to fill the fresh water tank if we flush a few extra gallons down the toilet as part of the dumping process.

Now that the black tank is completely flushed, Mark begins emptying our kitchen gray tank. We have two gray tanks, one for the kitchen and one for the shower. We empty the kitchen tank first because it is dirtier and has more things in it (like broccoli bits) than the shower gray tank which is just sudsy water.

While he works on emptying the two gray tanks, I get to work cleaning the toilet.

RV dump station tip woman cleans toilet and bathroom

If Mark is mucking around in gross stuff outside, the least I can do is muck around in gross stuff inside. This also gives us a clean bathroom when we set up camp.

Since we have a hatch in the toilet room that we leave open a lot, the toilet lid and the floor often get dusty in just a few days. So I remove everything from the toilet room and clean everything, including the floor.

Over the years we’ve found that the toilet bowl — more so than the black tank itself — can be a big source of foul odors. Unlike household toilets, RV toilet bowls are basically dry except during flushing, so urine can end up drying in the bowl and producing an odor.

Also, the flow of the flushing water doesn’t necessarily rinse every inch of the bowl, so some areas simply don’t get rinsed all that well, even when using the toilet’s spray nozzle. So, I go to town on the inside of the bowl as well as everything else.

We use two enzyme/bacteria based RV holding tank treatment products: Happy Campers RV holding tank treatment has worked best for us in extreme temperatures (very cold and very hot) and for controlling tank odors. RV Digest-It holding tank treatment has worked best for us in moderate temperatures to break down the solids in the tank.

Because these are both basically solutions of living critters, the toilet cleaning products we use can’t be too toxic or the colonies of feces-eating bacteria can’t get established and become self-perpetuating. I’ve been using Murphy’s Oil Soap for the last few years with good results.

This is the soap that is recommended for cleaning the rubber roofs on the tops of RV’s, which is why we had it on hand to try on the toilet a few years ago. In addition to being biodegradable, what we like about it for cleaning the toilet is that it assists in keeping both the seals in the toilet bowl and on the black holding tank valve lubricated. I used white vinegar for cleaning the toilet for a while, and after a few months the black tank valve got really sticky. Since switching to Murphy’s Oil Soap a few years ago, that valve hasn’t gotten gummed up.

Periodically, we’ve found the seals in the toilet bowl have stopped holding water which meant the bowl drained completely dry between flushes. This allowed foul odors to come up from the black water tank. This problem is usually due to mineral and gunk build-ups on the seal.

So, I give that seal a really good cleaning too. The critical areas are on both the top and bottom surfaces of the rubber seal, that is, between the seal and the toilet bowl (the top side) and underneath the seal where the dome flapper (the “waste ball”) closes up against it.

RV toilet assembly and flapper valve installation

A disassembled RV toilet shows what the rubber toilet seal looks like without the toilet bowl sitting on it. To prevent it from leaking and draining the toilet between flushes, I scrub both top and bottom of the rubber seal.

I make sure the water pump is off at this point and hold the toilet flush lever down so I can get at the underside of the seal.

Often, the build-up is due to having hard water in the fresh water tanks which is very common in Arizona and other western states where the fresh water comes from deep, mineral rich aquifers.

RV toilet flapper cleaning tips

The seal needs to be completely free of mineral deposits on both the top and bottom, so I clean the area between the seal and the bowl on the top (red arrow) and below the seal on the bottom (the backside of the seal in this view).

At this point, depending on what Mark is up to outside, I’ll move on to other cleaning projects. If we have nearly emptied our fresh water tanks prior to coming to the RV dump station, it may take 10 minutes to refill them. Also, sometimes the potable water spigot is a little ways beyond the waste water dump area, requiring Mark to move the whole rig a few feet forward.

So, if there is time, I will clean the bathroom vanity sink and then move on to the kitchen sink. Depending on our plans for the next few days and depending on how much time I have at the RV dump, I may also add the holding tank treatment to the black tank, via the toilet, and add it to the gray tanks via the bathroom sink, shower and kitchen sink.

Sometimes, however, I prefer to wait two or three days until those tanks have some liquids in them before adding the holding tank treatment. And sometimes I add just a half tank’s worth of holding tank treatment at the RV dump station and then add the other half a few days later once the holding tanks have become partially full.

Of course, we add a capful of bleach to our fresh water tanks every few months, and that totally obliterates any colonies of anything that have started to grow in any of the holding tanks (including the fresh water tank) as the bleach water works its way through our plumbing system from the fresh water tank to the gray and black waste water tanks.

So, for us, creating fully self-sustaining communities of healthy organisms in any waste water tank is not 100% doable. But by using non-toxic cleansers we can help them along in between bleach blasts.

So, all in all, there is a LOT a girl can do at the RV dump station. We find we are both much happier about the whole process when we each have a set of tasks to do when we get there that are not only similarly grungy but are equally important and that take place in different parts of the RV.

The best part is that when we leave the RV dump station to go set up camp in a new, beautiful location, not only do we have empty waste water tanks but our bathroom is clean and fresh too.

Happy cleaning!!

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Hitch Tighteners – Anti-Rattle Hitch Clamps Stop the Creaks & Wiggles!

We carry our bicycles on the back of our 36′ fifth wheel trailer with a Kuat NV bike rack inserted into the trailer’s hitch receiver (we reviewed the Kuat bike rack here). We installed this bike rack in 2012 and it has been great for the past five years of our full-time RV travels.

Kuat NV Bike Rack on back of fifth wheel trailer RV

We carry our mountain bikes on the back of our 5th wheel with a Kuat NV Bike Rack

To keep the bike rack from dragging on the ground in crazy places like steep gas station ramps or deep gulleys on small roads, we had a “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser made. This raises the rack up quite high, so now the first thing to hit the ground is the hitch receiver itself rather than the bike rack.

Hitch extension with Kuat NV bike rack

A “Z” shaped “hi-low” hitch riser raised the bike rack so it can’t drag on the ground in a gully or dip.

As is often the case with hitch receivers, the bike rack isn’t a perfectly tight fit in the hitch receiver riser, and the bottom of the riser isn’t a perfect fit in the trailer’s hitch receiver either. So, the whole bike rack tends to wiggle.

We’ve used various shims to make it all tight, but too often they would wiggle loose over time, and eventually the bikes would be jiggling all over the place on the rack again.

Using a shim in a bumper hitch

We wedged shims in to tighten things up, but it wasn’t an ideal solution

Last fall we stopped in at JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah, to talk with Jack, the man who had made our “Z” hitch riser (more info about it here). We wondered if he had any tricks up his sleeve for making our bike rack arrangement less wobbly.

JM Custom Welding Blanding Utah

Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah

It turns out that he had solved this very problem for other customers by making a hitch tightener. This is essentially a hitch clamp that fits over the end of the hitch receiver and snugs up whatever is inserted into the receiver with some lock washers and nuts.

Bumper hitch tightener for car or RV hitch

Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.

Bumper hitch tightener for bike rack

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So, we got two of them, one for the top and one for the bottom of our “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener on RV for bike rack

He put a second hitch tightener on the trailer’s receiver as well.

The difference in the amount of movement of the bikes was absolutely astonishing. They were rock solid now!

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.

After installing the hitch tighteners, which was just a matter of tightening the nuts, Mark drove the rig around the JM Custom Welding dirt lot while I walked behind and watched the bikes, and they were steady as could be.

Hitch tighteners on bumper hitch mounted bike rack

Hitch tighteners at the top and bottom of the hi-low hitch riser extension.

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

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But unlike the shim solution we’d used before, these hitch tighteners have stayed tight without needing any adjusting or fuss for several months and several thousand miles of driving on all kinds of roads.

Kuat NV BIke rack and bike rack extension and hitch tightener

The whole system is completely rigid now and has not needed any adjustments in six months of use.

The hitch tighteners do make for some extra steps if we want to move the bike rack from the hitch receiver on the trailer to the hitch receiver on our truck. However, we’ve started hauling our bikes in our truck in a different way using a furniture blanket, so there’s no need to take the bike rack off the trailer any more.

Mountain bikes on truck rather than a bike rack

An easy way to get the bikes from the trailer to the trail head!

Jack makes these hitch tighteners in batches, so if you are passing through Blanding, Utah, perhaps on your way to or from the beautiful Natural Bridges National Monument, just a mile or so south of Blanding you can stop by JM Custom Welding and pick one up! In 2016 the were $38 apiece.

We discovered later that hitch tighteners of various kinds are also commercially available. So, if Blanding, Utah, isn’t in your sights, you can choose from many different kinds of hitch clamps online.

However, a visit to Jack’s welding shop is very worthwhile, especially if you need any kind of custom metal fabrication done on your RV. He is very creative and does excellent work.

While we were in Jack’s office, we noticed a display of his for a folding storage solution for the beds of pickup trucks he’s created that fits right behind the truck cab. He calls it the “Jack Pack” and it is essentially a framed canvas storage bag the width of the truck bed that is easily opened to throw your bags of groceries into and then easily folded away when you need to haul lumber or fill the truck bed with something else.

If we didn’t have that part of our truck filled up with extra water jugs, we would have snagged one of those from him at the same time!

We’ve got a few more links below.

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Info on hitch tighteners and hitch clamps:

There are many brands of hitch tighteners on the market. These are a few:

There’s also a “Z” shaped hi-low hitch riser available:

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“Wild Camping” & RV Boondocking Tips – Escapees Magazine

The winter RV boondocking scene was well underway in Arizona when we flew halfway around the world to explore Thailand for a month. But even though we weren’t a part of the groovy RV gathering in Quartzsite this season, an article of ours offering a few tips we’ve learned about how to boondock in comfort and style appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Escapees Magazine.

Wild Camping in Comfort and Style in Escapees Magazine by Emily Fagan

Escapees Magazine – Jan/Feb 2017 Issue
Article by Emily & Mark Fagan

Whenever we find a gorgeous campsite, we’ve gotta take pics. There’s something very satisfying about seeing our beloved buggy in really picturesque locations!! Writing this post seemed like a great excuse to share some pics from our favorite campsites during our travels in 2016. We don’t get to have views like these every day, but when we do, the cameras come out!

Many years ago, we started our RVing lives by dry camping in public campgrounds in a popup tent trailer. When we moved into our first big trailer to RV full-time nearly ten years ago, we assumed we would be dry camping most of the time.

So, we put a solar power system on our trailer and quickly learned the art of boondocking.

This is a really fun way to travel in an RV if you are into nature and solitude and quiet nights.

It’s not something that appeals to everyone, but we enjoy it immensely and have written about it on this blog:

For us, half the fun of boondocking is finding really great campsites, and that is a treasure hunt we undertake every day (we even caught ourselves pointing out to each other an “ideal boondocking spot” while on a tour in Thailand!!!).

Many people assume that “boondocking” means “roughing it,” but that doesn’t have to be the case. I had to laugh when I invited a new RVer into our rig last summer and, as she followed me up the stairs, she said, “I can’t believe you boondock all the time and you have shaved legs!!” Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, whether camping in the wilds of nature or staying at the Four Seasons!

If your RV is outfitted well and you are willing to conserve your water and electricity a little bit, boondocking can be very comfortable, and of course, you can shower every day and shave your legs too!

Since we began living in our RV and boondocking every night all those years ago, the term “wild camping” has become popular, although I’m not sure that living in a luxury RV can be considered either “wild” or truly “camping.”

But the term does have a really sexy ring to it, so the Escapees Magazine editors used it in the title of our article. They posted the article on their website and you can read it here:

Wild Camping in Comfort and Style – Escapees Magazine

The Escapees RV Club has always encouraged its members to try boondocking, as it is the way the Club’s founders, Kay and Joe Peterson, liked to camp in their Airstream when they were full-timing as young working adults in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Escapees offers super cheap dry camping sites at most of their RV parks ($5/night for members) and they provide dry camping options at all of their rallies and functions too.

The Advocacy arm of Escapees RV Club also keeps tabs on changes in public land management and goes to bat for RVers when our camping options on public land are threatened in a big way.

Escapees RV Club has many other facets to support and educate RVers, from bootcamp programs for new RVers to rallies offered by various chapters nationwide that bring both inexperienced and seasoned RVers together socially.

On March 19-24, 2017, Escapees will be holding its 57th Escapade rally in Tucson, Arizona. This is a big rally and the schedule is absolutely chock full of informative seminars, social gatherings and fun entertainment.

Before Escapade begins next month, there will also be a 3 day Escapees Bootcamp training program for new RVers, March 16-18.

The schedule of Bootcamp seminars is eye-popping, covering everything from RV systems to Safe Driving to Specifics on Towable RVs to Specifics on Motorhomes to RV Weight and Load Management and Fire Safety.

They’ll also have their professional SmartWeigh Weighmasters available to weigh your RV. Our rig was weighed by a Smartweigh Weighmaster, and it was a very helpful and informative process.

Unlike most truck scales that weigh each axle of the rig individually, this weighing system weighs each wheel. This helps you figure out where the heavy spots are (all on one side or on opposite corners or in one particular corner) and find out whether your rig is limping a bit as it goes down the road.

This 57th Escapade in Tucson will also have a two-day program specifically for kids so parents or grandparents can drop their kids off while they attend seminars.

For folks that love to ham it up and perform, there is also an event called Escapade’s Got Talent where members can entertain their fellow RVers with whatever singing, dancing, music, skits or poetry they’ve got up their sleeve. For cowboy poets, there will also be a Cowboy Poetry contest.

There will be lots of great food too, including a chili cook-off, and on the last day there will be a 90th birthday party for Escapees Club Founder Kay Peterson.

We discovered Escapees RV Club back in 2008 through our love of boondocking when some fellow boondockers outside Death Valley National Park showed us the Days End Directory of boondocking locations and encouraged us to join.

If you are interested in joining, you can call 888-757-2582 or use the link below. If you mention that you heard about Escapees through our website, Roads Less Traveled, they will put a little something in our tip jar. We’ve been recommending Escapees to RVers for years, tip-free, so that is not our motivation at all. We simply believe in the Club and all the work they do to make RVing easier and more fun for everyone.

Join Escapees RV Club

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Things we’ve found helpful for boondocking:

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Our New Column in Trailer Life Magazine – Roads to Adventure!

We are very excited to announce that we are going to be writing and providing photos for a regular column in Trailer Life Magazine!

Trailer Life Magazine January 2017

Our column debuts in the January issue of Trailer Life Magazine.

For many years, the back page of Trailer Life has featured the unique stories and insights of RVer and writer Bill Graves.

Bill’s unusual tales from the less traveled roads of America have been such a delight to readers that we’ve heard people say that the first thing they do with Trailer Life is to flip it over and read Bill’s column on the back page.

I admit that I have done the same thing!

His stories provided a wonderful glimpse of life in America off the beaten path, and he ended each column with a fun tag line: “Welcome to America’s Outback.”

Bill has decided to retire from writing his column, and Trailer Life has asked us and travel writer Lisa Densmore Ballard to take turns luring readers to the back page.

We are thrilled to have been given this honor.

Trailer Life has named the new column “Roads to Adventure,” and we’ve come up with a new and different format for the column that will highlight our love of photography.

Each column will feature a beautiful photograph from a special place we’ve seen in our travels and will include a brief description of our experiences there.

Photography and RV travel Horshoe Bend Arizona

Our “Roads to Adventure” columns will bring you a stunning photo from an enchanting place.

We will be writing this column every other month beginning with the January, 2017, issue. Our first column is about the wonderful sweeping bend in the Colorado River that RVers can see when they make a trek to Horseshoe Bend, Arizona.

Photography at Horseshoe Bend Arizona

Horseshoe Bend is a fantastic place for RVers to do a little photography.

This is a gorgeous spot that is well worth making a detour to see. We wrote in detail about our experience at Horseshoe Bend and shared lots of photos in the following blog post:

Horseshoe Bend Overlook in Arizona – Stunning!

We were utterly smitten when we visited, both by the immense size and scale of the cliffs and by the crazy antics tourists did on out on the hairy edge. We took endless photos, and one of Mark’s finest is the one that Trailer Life chose for our debut column.

Sunset was a wild time at Horseshoe Bend with hoards of people taking selfies and photographers lining up at the edge, tripod to tripod, watching the sun slip away on the horizon. Sunrise, however, was peaceful and still and hauntingly beautiful.

Even though the sun rose at our backs, it was a thrill to watch the shadows disappear down the rock walls under the pink sky in front of us as it climbed higher and higher in the sky.

Sunrise at Horseshoe Bend Arizona

Although famous for its sunsets, our favorite moments at Horseshoe Bend were at sunrise!

We captured many wonderful images at Horseshoe Bend, and one of Mark’s just won the Photo of the Day at Steve’s Digicams a few days ago. This is the fifth photo of his that has been featured on that website.

 Horseshoe Bend Arizona

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona – What a place!

Both for seasoned RVers and for those that are new to the hobby, Trailer Life is an informative magazine that offers lots of RV tech tips, overviews of major RV upgrade projects as well as enticing travel destination features.

You can subscribe to the print and digital editions at these links:

We have lots more fun destinations in store for Trailer Life readers from the many places we’ve visited over the years, and we hope that our spot on the back page will be one that readers turn to.

All smiles at Horseshoe Bend Arizona

Look for us on the back page of Trailer Life Magazine!

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A Visit to the Dentist in Mexico

Dentistry is really expensive these days, and RVers that make their way south in the wintertime can take advantage of the good quality dental care that is available just over the border in Mexico.

The November/December 2016 issue of Escapees Magazine features our article about some of the great experiences we have had with dentists in Mexico just across the border from Yuma, Arizona, in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.

Mexican Dentistry Escapees Magazine Nov-Dec 2016

Escapees Magazine Nov-Dec 2016
Article by: Emily and Mark Fagan

Escapees has posted the article on their website at this link:

The Affordable Alternative of Mexican Dentistry

Our dentist, Dr. Sergio Bernal, is a general practitioner in San Luis Rio Colorado just over the border from San Luis, Arizona (south of Yuma).

Last year he coordinated and oversaw a root canal I had done in a tooth that already had a crown on it (described in detail here).

Eight years ago, Dr. Bernal put a porcelain crown on a baby tooth of Mark’s that had never fallen out. It was an exccellent crown and very easy procedure.

The crown was fabricated by the lab and ready to be installed within 18 hours of us arriving at Dr. Bernal’s office for the very first time. It fit perfectly and cost just $130.

Mark always said it was the best crown in his mouth.

Unfortunately, the baby tooth under this crown came loose this past October, and Mark was suddenly in a lot of pain. He needed another solution.

Ironically, this happened just as the issue of Escapees Magazine with our article about Mexican dental care was being mailed out to Escapees members.

Because we lived on our sailboat in Mexico for the better part of four years, we have enjoyed top notch dental care all over Mexico, from the Arizona border to the beautiful Bays of Huatulco very near the Guatemala border.

We have always been very satisfied with both the dental care and the price.

With Mark’s tooth aching, we dashed to Yuma and then zipped across the border from San Luis, Arizona, to San Luis, Mexico, on our bikes (you can learn more about doing this as well as walking over the border in our blog post about Mexican dental care here).

Even though dental care in Mexico is excellent, the upscale frills that Americans are accustomed to are not necessarily a part of the deal.

For starters, dentistry in Mexico is usually handled on a walk-in basis rather than making an appointment in advance.

Some people have read my writings about dentists in Mexico and have tried to find these dentists on the internet. Well, most Mexican dentists don’t bother with the expense of setting up a website, as they rely more on word of mouth and patients showing up at the door when they need care.

So, we got psyched up for a day of dentistry, rode the 1/2 block from the border to Dr. Bernal’s office, leaned our bikes against the wall and peered in the door. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there.

Rather than wait, we decided to ride over to visit the endodontist, Dr. Horacio Avila, who had done such an excellent job on my root canal last year. I needed to see him for a follow-up on my root canal anyway, and we figured he might have some thoughts about Mark’s aching baby tooth. We each took a quick turn in his dentist’s chair and looked at our x-rays with him on his computer screen on the wall.

My root canal was doing great, but Mark’s situation was more complex. The adult tooth was present but was lying sideways, which meant there was no option for an implant. Instead, Dr. Avila felt he probably needed a bridge.

Mexican dentist San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Mark and Dr. Avila check out his tooth on an x-ray.

Being an endontontist and not a general practice dentist, bridges are not his line of work. So, he handed us the x-rays and sent us on our way.

The bill for our five x-rays at Dr. Avila’s office was $50.

We biked back to Dr. Bernal’s office and found he had returned from his errands and was happy to see us.

Mark got in his dentist chair, and Dr. Bernal had a look at his tooth and Dr. Avila’s x-rays. Of course, Dr. Bernal has an x-ray machine too, but there was no need to duplicate the x-rays. He agreed that an implant was out and that a bridge was probably the best way to go.

He pulled Mark’s tiny baby tooth out of his mouth with a quick yank and explained that a bridge involves grinding down the two adjacent teeth, putting crowns on them, and then suspending a false tooth in between. Egads!!

Sadly, the two teeth on either side of Mark’s (now absent) baby tooth were 100% healthy. Mark felt really badly about grinding those teeth down to support two crowns and suspend a false tooth in between.

Dr. Bernal scratched his head for a while and studied Mark’s teeth for a while and then suggested he consider a different option: grinding a tiny channel on the back side of each of the two healthy teeth and suspending a false tooth in between on wings that were inserted and glued into the channels.

This sounded intriguing.

He suggested that Mark try a temporary solution like that and see how it felt before committing to a permanent solution. So, we hung around San Luis for about three hours while Dr. Bernal’s lab technician across the street fabricated a plastic temporary tooth. In the middle of the afternoon, Dr. Bernal inserted it and off we went back over the border.

He charged us $20 total for all of his work and the lab’s work.

Mexican Dentist San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Dr. Bernal goes over Mark’s options with him.

Mark liked the idea of being able to keep his healthy teeth mostly intact and not crown them, so we returned a few weeks later to get the permanent work done. Again, we showed up unannounced around 8:00 in the morning, and by late afternoon Dr. Bernal’s technician had fabricated a permanent false tooth with wings and Dr. Bernal had prepped Mark’s teeth and installed it.

The cost: $250.

Mark absolutely loves this tooth. He’s had it for a few months now and doesn’t even notice it’s there. It chews fine, looks fine, and the teeth on either side of it are totally intact except for a tiny indent in each one to support the wings of the false tooth. A retired dentist friend of ours said similar dental work in the US would have cost over $1,000.

Besides the high quality workmanship and low cost, the best thing about all of this was the back-and-forth conversation we were able to have with Dr. Bernal. Rather than the brusque manner of many dentists, he took the time to consider other options besides a bridge and to listen to our concerns about destroying two perfectly good teeth. I was in the room with Mark the whole time, and I liked the feeling that we were participants in Mark’s dental care rather than being just recipients.

Next door to Dr. Bernal’s office there is a hair cutting salon. Both times we visited Dr. Bernal, we dropped in on the hair cutting salon to get haircuts. The most delightful stylist named Amber works there, and for just $3 for men and $5 for women, she does a great job.

To find her shop: as you walk into the alcove where Dr. Bernal’s office is, the hair salon is on the right side before his office. For both of us, these have been the bests haircut we’ve had in over a year!

Barber next to Mexican dentist San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Next to Dr. Bernal’s office there is a great little hair cutting place.

Getting a haircut in San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Amber gives me a haircut

Another thing that’s great about going to Mexico for dental care — besides receiving excellent care at a fraction of American prices — is that it’s an excuse to enjoy a daytrip to another culture and eat some really wonderful Mexican food.

In San Luis there is an absolutely fantastic restaurant called El Parianchi that serves incredible food, complete with fun entertainment. We’ve now eaten several lunches there and a breakfast too, and we have loved the experience every single time.

El Parianchi Meal San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

The first course of a feast for two for $13 (pancakes and omelette not shown) at El Parianchi restaurant.

We’ve gotten to know several of the waiters as well as the harpist, Elias. Mexicans enjoy listening to folk songs played by various kinds of musicians while dining, and the harp music adds a special something to the ambiance at El Parianchi.

Mexican restaurant El Parianchi San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Elias entertains us with his harp.

El Parianchi also has a stash of huge sombreros, and sometimes the waiters bring them out and put them on their guests as a gag. We ended up wearing these crazy hats on one of our visits for my root canal last year (see this post). On one of our visits this year, a group celebrating a 26th birthday ended up in the hats right behind us!

People in sombrero hats El Parianchi Restaurant San Luis Rio Colorado Mexico

Sombreros for everyone at the birthday party!

For lots more details about dental care in Mexico, including directions to our dentists’ offices, check out this link:

Mexican Dentists – Finding Affordable Dental Care in Mexico

Basic info for our primary care dentist. He’ll set you up with specialists in town as needed:

Dr. Sergio Bernal

Call him directly from the US by dialing this number: 011 52 653 534 6651
Address: First St. #118-9 San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico

Open Monday-Friday 9-5, Saturday 9-2, Sunday 9-11

For first timers, walk 100 yards from the border to Dr. Bernal’s office (detailed directions at this link), and then take $2-$3 cabs to visit other dental specialists, if needed, and be sure to enjoy a meal at El Parianchi! Here is a map showing the locations we visited:

Locations of Dr. Bernal’s Office, El Parianchi Restaurant and Dr. Avila’s Office – Interactive Google Maps

On the above map, the locations are labeled as:

  • Dr. Bernal = “Calle 1 115”
  • Dr. Avila = GPS 32.477776,-114.766224 (Calle 13 & Madero)
  • El Parianchi is in between them at Calle 10 & Captain Carlos Calles

When we crossed the border for our first visit with Dr. Bernal this past October, we were alarmed to see a huge group of illegal immigrants waiting to cross into the US. On our return visit a month later, Mexican authorities had removed them from the sidewalks and placed them in shelters. The sidewalks near the border were empty as they always had been before.

So how do you get hooked up with a good dentist in Mexico?

We first heard about Dr. Bernal from fellow Escapees members at the Escapees Kofa RV Park in Yuma. For new RVers, we highly recommend joining Escapees RV Club, as it is little tidbits like getting the name and address of a trusted Mexican dentist that are the unsung benefits of being part of this club.

Escapees is known for its fabulous magazine, its many member parks, its discounts on RV parks across the country, its workcamping job board, its massive database of boondocking locations, its bootcamp training for new RVers and its incredible mail forwarding service and RV advocacy work.

But sometimes it is the little things that are passed on member to member, like dentist and doctor referrals, that make the club particularly helpful for folks living on the road in their RV. Lots of people go RVing, but there is a comaraderie among Escapees members that is unique.

To learn a little more about the unusual history of Escapees, check out our links:

If you think you might want to join Escapees RV Club, you can become a member at the link below…and if you mention that you heard about Escapees from this blog, Roads Less Traveled, they will put a little something in our tip jar as a thank you (and thank YOU!!):

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We’ve been members since 2008!!

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Lumintop SD75 Flashlight Review – A Car Headlight In Your Hand!

We’ve been doing a lot of night photography lately, catching the Milky Way at Waterton Lakes National Park in the Canadian Rockies and hiking in the dark out onto a rocky point to catch sunrise at Deadhorse Point State Park in Utah. We even hiked the Fairyland Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park after midnight.

Stars at Fairyland Point Bryce Canyon National Park Night Sky

The Lumintop SD75 flashlight brightens the rock formations at Fairyland Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

We’ve also played with creating ghostly images by doing Light Painting in old buildings in Ouray Colorado.

Ghostly image in a ghost town

Mark gets a selfie of his own ghost.

A key piece of gear we have relied on for all of this is a Lumintop SD75 4,000 Lumen flashlight.

In the past we used Maglites and smaller LED flashlights to find our way in the dark and to cast light on the surroundings during a long exposure of the night sky. However, even the best of these flashlights was hopelessly dim.

Lumintop SD75 LED flashlight

Our Lumintop SD75 flashlight next to our Maglite.

Mark is a huge flashlight junkie, and he searched for a long time for a big and powerful flashlight to use for our nighttime photography excursions and to use when we roam around our boondocking spots at night.

He decided on the Lumintop SD75 flashlight.

This is a “search” flashlight similar to the ones used by law enforcement.

There are three power levels, and at max power it is a whopping 4,000 lumens.

The light it throws at max power is astonishing — it goes 0.4 miles!!

Walking in the dark with this flashlight is like holding a car’s headlight in your hand!

Lumintop SD75 flashlight low power

Low power.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight medium power

Mid Power.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight high power

High Power.

  • At low power, it can run for 50 hours
  • At mid power, it can run for 8.33 hours
  • At max power (4,000 lumens), it can run for 2.68 hours

Fairyland Point Bryce Canyon National Park Night Sky

Light painting the rock pinnacles at Fairyland Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

There is a strobe mode as well, and at max power strobe, it can run for 50 hours!

The Lumintop SD75 is made of heavy duty aerospace aluminum and has a hard-anodized anti-scratching HAIII military grade finish. The LED bulbs are the latest CREE XHP70 LED technology.

This is a serious piece of gear that comes in an equally serious suitcase!

Lumintop SD75 flashlight suitcase

The flashlight has its own suitcase. Don’t worry, it’s about the size of a very very big lunch box.

This aluminum suitcase has foam cutouts inside for all the goodies that come with it.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight suitcase open

Foam cutouts for all the extras.

The flashlight comes with four lithium-ion batteries that are rechargeable. It also comes with a wall charger as well as a 12 volt car charger.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight parts

The flashlight packs into the suitcase in two halves. The battery pack is shown in the middle.

So, we can charge the flashlight batteries either in our RV or in our truck, whichever is more convenient.

Lumintop SD75 flashlight charger

Wall charger and 12 volt charger.

There is a battery charge indicator light on the back end of the battery, so we know exactly how well charged the batteries are.

There are also two USB connectors for charging cell phones or other devices FROM the flashlight battery! That’s how much charge these batteries can hold!

Lumintop SD75 tactical flashlight back end

Cap off: Battery indicator light, 2 USB ports + slots for a strap.

There are also two slots on the cap that covers the back end of the flashlight that can be used to attach a carry strap or piece of line.

One very handy feature for when we are setting up our tripods and camera gear in the dark is an LED taillight that attaches to the back end.

Standing the flashlight on end, this taillight illuminates the area all around the flashlight. This would be ideal in a tent or doing emergency truck or RV repair work in the dark too!

Lumintop SD75 Flashlight with LED taillight

LED taillight
Handy in a tent, setting up photo gear or working on the RV.

There is a quarter inch tripod socket on the side of the flashlight so it can be mounted on a camera tripod as well.

Lumintop SD75 tactical Flashlight tripod mount

Unscrew this cap to access the standard 1/4″ tripod mount.

One feature we haven’t taken advantage of — because we haven’t been caught out in the rain or gone swimming with this flashlight just yet — is that it is water resistant to 2 meters!! It comes with extra O-rings to help keep it watertight as well.

Overlook night stars North Rim Grand Canyon

My camera aims at the stars at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

I wish we had had this flashlight when we cruised Mexico with our sailboat. We had a 12 volt “4 million candlepower” spot light that we kept on deck during every overnight passage just in case one of us slipped overboard.

Of course, we wore harnesses and clipped ourselves to the boat at sunset and stayed clipped in until sunrise as long as we were outside the cabin. But there was always the chance that the quick release mechanism on the harness might accidentally undo itself or some other catastrophe might happen that would send one of us into the drink.

Milky WayLodge at North Rim of the Grand Canyon starry night and fifth wheel trailer RV

The Lodge at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Frankly, there is no way in any conditions but the calmest seas that our spot light would have been bright enough to illuminate a bobbing head in the water.

This flashlight is so much more powerful, we both would have felt a lot more comfortable it we’d had it aboard with us!

Milky Way and fifth wheel trailer RV

The Lumintop SD75 flashlight brightens up our buggy.

If you are looking for a high quality flashlight for walking around your RV campsite at night, or for hiking in the dark, or for light painting old ghostly buildings in the wee hours of the morning, the Lumintop SD75 is a terrific choice.

It’s also a neat gift idea for that sweet hubby who loves gadgets and is so hard to buy for!!

If you purchase the Lumintop SD 75 flashlight at Amazon through this link here, you can get a 20% discount if you enter this code at checkout: DY7LBH7G.

Added Later: We have also begun using the Lumintop EDC 25 flashlight, a pocket flashlight that packs a whopping 1,000 lumens into a tiny package. We will have a review of this flashlight soon. But for now, we want you to know that this flashlight is just as amazing the class of pocket flashlights as its big brother is in the class of full-size flashlights.

You can buy the Lumintop EDC 25 1,000 Lumen Pocket Flashlight HERE. For a 20% discount, enter this code at checkout: 62Q8JKKA

And thank you for using any of our Amazon links immediately before loading up your shopping cart, because we then receive a small referral fee for every item you buy at no cost to you!!

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Immigrants Flood California’s & Arizona’s Borders – Surprise in San Luis AZ!

This blog post is a departure from our normal fare of cheerful travel stories, but as documenters of what we see in our day-to-day travel lives, it is something we encountered that we believe is worthy of sharing. This is not intended to take a political side or offend anyone.

A few days ago, we crossed the border between the US and Mexico at San Luis, Arizona. We were returning to the fun, small town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, for checkups with our dentist and endodontist whose excellent work we describe here.

After quite a few visits to this Mexican border town, we now know it pretty well. We like to make this border crossing by bicycle, because that gives us great transportation around town in Mexico. It also makes it super easy to return back across the border into the US, because bicycles bypass all the lines and go straight to a gate set aside especially for them and for holders of the US Sentri pass.

After wrapping up our dentist appointments, we rode our bikes back to the border to cross back into the US. As we approached the border gate, we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw dozens of people sitting on the sidewalk right outside the US border gate on the Mexican side.

Illegal immigrants waiting in Mexico to cross the border in Arizona

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How bizarre! We’ve never seen anyone sitting on the sidewalk in this area before.

Pedestrians always simply walk up to the border crossing gate, show their passports and walk on through into the US. Often there’s a line of people, but everyone stands in the line, rather than sitting on the ground, and the line keeps moving.

These folks appeared to be settled in for a while. They were leaning against the fence in the border crossing zone that separates the US and Mexico. They had hung some blankets up to shade themselves from the intense sunshine, and they had bedding and luggage around them.

What the heck was going on?

800 Undocumented migrants wait to enter the United States in Arizona

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Two US border patrol agents in front of the gate asked us for our passports before we even got to the actual US Immigration booth. That was weird too. Usually you present your passport to the agent in the booth, not to agents standing in front of it on the sidewalk.

We asked them who all these people were and what was going on.

“They are from Haiti, Africa, Central America, Asia, even Russia — lots of different countries — and they’re waiting to come into the US,” he told us. “But they don’t have any documentation, so they are waiting for an appointment with an agent.”

He went on to explain that his job was crowd control. Fortunately, this was a quiet crowd. On the other side of the street several Mexican soldiers in camo gear held rifles and stood watch as well.

He told us there has been a huge increase in migrants since last spring, and there had been so many at the San Ysidro/Tijuana crossing in recent months that the area in front of the US border there was quickly turning into a Tent City.

So, the migrants were moving to other, less crowded border towns in Mexico at the California and Arizona ports of entry. More and more were coming to the San Luis port of entry on the Arizona border.

“But this is nothing,” he said, sweeping his hand in the direction of all the people. “You should have seen this place a few days ago.”

721 Illegal immigrants wait to enter the United States in Arizona

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We have crossed the border between the US and Mexico many times. We spent the better part of four years cruising Pacific Mexico on our sailboat, and we have crossed the border at least 25 times, by car, on foot, by bicycle and by boat.

We’ve crossed at the massive San Ysidro/Tijuana border crossing south of San Diego, the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere. It resembles a mammoth freeway tollbooth plaza: 25 or so regular booths and perhaps 10 or so other booths for buses, commercial trucks and “Sentri Pass” holders who cross the border frequently.

And we’ve crossed at the smaller border crossings in Tecate (in rural southern California), Nogales (south of Tucson, Arizona), Los Algodones (western Yuma, Arizona), San Luis (south of Yuma, Arizona) and Boquillas del Carmen (at Big Bend National Park in Texas). At sea, we crossed just off the Pacific coast of southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Going into Mexico is always very simple, and when on foot or bicycle, no one ever checks out passports. Returning into the US, however, is always an adventure. The wait in line to get into the US by car is usually at least an hour and is generally closer to two hours. It can be as much as four hours.

771 Undocumented migrants wait to cross from Mexico into the United States in Arizona

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The fun thing about this mind-numbing wait in an idling car, creeping along inch by inch, is that entrepreneurial Mexicans make the most of their captive audience. They walk up and down the road between the cars and provide crazy entertainment for tips, and they sell things, from food to cold drinks to trinkets of various kinds.

Crossing into the US from Canada with an RV at Calais, Maine, and Chief Mountain, Montana, in the early morning avoids the lines, but you don’t want to have any fruits or veggies in the RV’s refrigerator!

Sailing across the border from Mexico into the US was quite different. Helicopters buzzed our boat and border patrol boats zoomed out to get a good look at us through binoculars. US Customs and Immigration came down to inspect our passports, boat documents and the boat itself when we tied up at the dock in San Diego.

But we’ve never, ever seen people hanging out on the sidewalks a few feet from the border gates setting up tent cities.

What had brought all these migrants here in such huge numbers? Even the agents themselves expressed shock at what was going on!

Illegal immigrants wait to enter United States from Mexico

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Researching things a little bit, we discovered that after the big earthquake in Haiti in 2010, many Haitians moved to Brazil and stayed there for a few years. Many worked in construction-related jobs in the lead up to the 2016 summer Olympics. Unfortunately, Brazil’s economy has gone into a deep recession, so the Haitians began leaving Brazil this past year to come to the US.

It is a long journey to get through all of the Central American countries and Mexico, and without documentation, they can’t cross the borders in these countries legally. So, they pay smugglers to get them from one border to the next. The cost for them to get from Brazil to the US has been estimated to be at least $2,350.

When they reach Mexico’s southern border, many claim they are from Congo or other countries with which Mexico has diplomatic relations. This allows them to get a 20-day permit to remain in Mexico, which gives them enough time to get to the US border and wait for admission.

Illegal aliens wait to cross the border from Mexico into America

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Haitians aren’t the only immigrants that are arriving in large numbers. Central Americans, Africans, Asians and others are taking this same route to America’s southwestern borders too.

Apparently 5,000 have arrived, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña says 40,000 more are on their way. This movement of so many people is putting huge pressure on the Central American countries and Mexico as they try to find places to sleep and eat along the way.

Will they be deported?

Would they make this long journey and pay all that money if they knew they had no chance?

People arriving at the US border can ask for asylum. Held in detention for a short time until their request to apply for asylum is approved, they can then file their actual application for asylum.

Once this application for asylum has been filed, they can legally live in the US while their case goes through the court system until they are either granted or denied asylum. The time period is generally three to five years, and if asylum is denied there is an appeals process which allows them to stay longer.

This is different than people who are outside the US that are classified as refugees before they arrive. Both refugees and people granted asylum status are eligible for the same cash and medical benefits.

The Border Patrol agent commented, “The vetting process starts with figuring out if they are actually from the country they say they are from.”

I asked him how they do that. He said he had no idea.

Undocumented migrants waiting to enter the United Sates from Mexico

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Coming face to face with “the immigration issue” like this was startling and disturbing, to say the least.

For most of us, it is something that’s happening “over there,” beyond our neighborhood, at least for the moment.

I have wrestled with this post for three long days now, unsure if I should share this tale on my usually very upbeat website.

However, I was shocked that the Arizona Republic (the Phoenix, Arizona, newspaper) hasn’t mentioned a thing about it in their online edition and that the Arizona Daily Star (the Tucson, Arizona, area newspaper) has reported it online only once…two days ago. It doesn’t appear to be on the Arizona TV news networks either.

Many Arizonans are unaware that the state of Arizona is taking in more Syrian refugees per capita that any other state in the union. In raw numbers, it is taking in more refugees than all but two other states, California and Michigan!

I think this story is important for people to know about. So here it is.

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Power Inverters – Exeltech’s Pure Sine Wave Excellence

An inverter, sometimes called a “power inverter,” is a piece of electronic gear that converts DC power to AC power, and it is what enables RVers to use regular household appliances in an RV without hookups to an RV park power pedestal relying on a generator.

The September/October 2016 issue of Escapees Magazine features our detailed article about inverters: what they are, how they are sized, what flavors they come in and how to wire one into an RV.

Power inverter for an RV - an Exeltech XPX 2000 watt inverter

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For RVers who enjoy dry camping in public campgrounds or boondocking on public land, an inverter is the key piece of the puzzle that gives their RV traditional 110 volt AC power — like the power in the wall outlets of a house — without plugging the RV into a power pedestal at an RV park or a noisy gas-hungry generator.

WHAT IS AN INVERTER?

For beginning RVers, it is easy to confuse a converter with an inverter, because the words are so much alike. The difference is actually very straight forward:

  • A converter converts the 110 volt AC power coming out of a wall outlet, RV park power pedestal or generator into 12 volt DC power, and charges the RV’s 12 volt battery bank.
  • An inverter converts the batteries’ 12 volt DC power into 110 volt AC power so household appliances like the TV, blender, microwave and vacuum can run.
Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter living off the grid in an RV

Our “house” inverter – an Exeltech XPX 2000 watt inverter.

RV FACTORY INSTALLED CONVERTERS

Most trailers and some smaller motorhomes come with a factory installed converter. Frequently, these factory installed converters are inexpensive units that are not multi-stage chargers. So, for RVers who want to dry camp a lot and keep their batteries in tip-top shape, or charge them up efficiently with a generator while dry camping, it is a good idea to replace the factory installed converter with a better quality converter (we did).

More info on upgrading an RV power converter here: Converters and Inverters in an RV

RV FACTORY INSTALLED INVERTERS and INVERTER/CHARGERS

A few high end trailers and most higher end motorhomes come with a factory installed inverter.

In many cases, especially high end trailers, the inverter is dedicated to powering a residential refrigerator that runs exclusively off of 110 volt AC power (unlike an RV refrigerator that can run on propane). The inverter is there so the fridge can continue to run off the batteries while the rig is being driven from one RV park to another without a connection to 110 volt AC electricity. This inverter is sized to support the refrigerator and is not intended to be used for any other purpose in the rig.

So, for most trailer owners that want to do a lot of camping without hookups, an inverter is an extra piece of gear that must be installed.

In contrast, many higher end motorhomes come with a factory installed inverter/charger that can do two things: 1) provide the RV with household 110 volt AC power at the wall outlets via the batteries while dry camping and 2) charge the batteries when the RV is getting its 110 volt AC power from an RV park power pedestal or a generator. These inverter/chargers essentially do the work of both a converter (charging the batteries from shore power) and an inverter (providing AC power via the batteries while dry camping).

So, for folks with a higher end motorhome, an inverter is usually already installed in the motorhome at the factory in the form of an inverter/charger, and it does not need to be added later. However, it may not be a pure sine wave inverter (see below).

INVERTER SIZES

Inverters come in all shapes and sizes and all price ranges too, from little biddy ones that cost a few bucks to big beefy ones that cost a few thousand dollars.

They are rated by the number of watts they can produce. Small ones that can charge a pair of two-way radios or a toothbrush are in the 150 watt range. Huge ones that can run a microwave and hair dryer are in the 3,000 watt range.

  • Small inverters (400 watts or less) can be plugged into a cigarette lighter style DC outlet in the rig. Mark has one that he uses for his electric razor every morning.
  • Larger inverters (500 watts are more) must be wired directly to the batteries and require stout wires that are as short in length as possible.

Our RV has a “house” inverter that is 2,000 watts. It can run our microwave and hair dryer and vacuum comfortably (we don’t run those appliances all at the same time, however, as that would overload it). Our small portable inverter lives in our bedroom and gets used for a few minutes every day before we head downstairs:

RV power inverter with electric razo

Mark uses this small inverter to power his electric razor every morning!

MODIFIED SINE WAVE vs. PURE SINE WAVE INVERTERS

Inverters also come in two flavors:

Modified sine wave inverters are cheaper than pure sine wave inverters and are the most common type of inverter sold in auto parts stores, Walmart and truck stops. Many inverter/chargers on the market are modified sine wave inverters.

Our sailboat came with a 2,500 watt inverter/charger that produced a modifed sine wave. It was wired into the boat’s wall outlets, including the microwave outlet. We used this inverter when we wanted to run the microwave but not for anything else (we preferred using a pure sine wave inverter instead).

Some vehicles now ship with an inverter installed in the dashboard. Our truck has a small modified sine wave inverter in the dashboard, and I use it all the time to plug in our MiFi Jetpack and get an internet signal for my laptop as we drive.

Exeltech XP 1100 Inverter

Our first pure sine wave inverter: an Exeltech XP 1100 watt inverter. We keep it now as a backup.

WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – DC SIDE

As mentioned above, small inverters can plug into a DC outlet in the RV wall (these outlets look like the old cigarette lighters found in cars).

Large inverters must be wired directly to the batteries. The wire gauge must be very heavy duty battery cable and short to support the big DC currents that will flow through it. If possible, the length should be less than four feet. A wire gauge chart gives the correct gauge of wire to use for the current that will flow and the length the wire will be.

To determine the maximum possible DC current that might flow through these wires, simply divide the maximum wattage the inverter is rated for by the lowest voltage the inverter can operate at. In our case, we divided our inverter’s maximum 2,000 watts by the minimum 10.5 volts it will operate at before it shuts off. This yields 190 amps DC. Our cable connecting our inverter to the batteries is 2 feet long. So the proper wire size is 2/0 gauge (“double ought”) and can be purchased here: High quality Ancor Battery Cable.

Heavy duty battery cable on Exeltech XPX 2000 inverter in an RV

We used 2/0 Gauge Ancor Battery Cable to wire the DC side of our inverter.

WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – AC SIDE

All inverters have at least one household style female 110 volt AC outlet. Usually they have two. These outlets look like ordinary household wall outlets.

One very simple way to wire the AC side of the inverter is to plug an appliance directly into it, for instance, plug the power cord of the TV into the inverter. We did this with a 300 watt inverter and our 19″ TV in our first trailer. The inverter was plugged into a DC outlet on the trailer’s wall, and the TV was plugged into the inverter right behind where it sat on our countertop.

If you want to plug more than two appliances into the inverter at once, then plugging a power strip into one or both of the inverter’s AC outlets is one way to go. We did this on our sailboat. We had a 600 watt pure sine wave inverter on the boat. Plugged into one of the inverter’s AC outlets, we had a power strip supporting our TV and DVD player. Plugged into the other AC outlet, we had a power strip supporting everything else: two-way radios, toothbrush, and laptop charging cords and camera battery chargers.

Exeltech XPX 2000 inverter and Trojan Reliant AGM Batteries in an RV

Our inverter is placed as close to the batteries as possible by being suspended above them.

Obviously, you have to be careful not to run too many things at once, or they will overload the inverter. Most inverters will shut down when overloaded or sound a beeping alarm if your appliances demand more from it than it can give. We ran into that a lot when we lived on our portable inverter for a few days while our house inverter was being repaired.

A more sophisticated way to wire an inverter’s AC side so it supplies power to all the wall outlets in the RV is to wire it into the rig’s AC wiring using a transfer switch.

WHICH INVERTER TO BUY for a BIG INSTALLATION?

Because we live off the grid and never plug our RV into a power pedestal (we’ve lived this way for nine years and hope to do so for many more), we rely on our trailer’s house inverter to run all of the AC appliances we own, every single day.

For this reason, we invested in the highest quality inverter we could find on the market: an Exeltech XP 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter. This is a very pricey unit, but it is our sole source of AC power day in and day out. It is the brand that was selected for both the American and Russian sides of the International Space Station, and its signal is pure enough to run extremely sensitive medical equipment.

Exeltech power inverter manufacturing

We visited the Exeltech manufacturing plant in Texas and saw first-hand how meticulously these inverters are made and tested prior to shipping.

Exeltech is a family run company with electrical engineering PhDs heading up their R&D department. All manufacturing is done in-house at their headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. They have phenomenal tech support and an excellent warranty.

When our beautiful new Exeltech XP 2000 inverter was inadvertently blown up by a welding snafu at a trailer suspension shop during our trailer’s suspension overhual (the plastic sheathing on a bundle of AC wires got melted onto the trailer’s frame, bonding the wires to the frame and creating an electrical short — ouch), they got it repaired and back to us very quickly.

And thanks to our RV warranty, our failing suspension was rebuilt completely at no cost to us, and has worked flawlessly for 12 months now.

Power inverter

This high quality Exeltech inverter is a serious piece of electronic gear!

Many RVers like the Magnum brand of inverters. These inverters have a built-in transfer switch which makes them easy to wire into the RV’s AC wiring system.

There are many other brands on the market from Schneider Electric / Xantrex to Go Power, Power Bright and others. If you are going to dry camp a lot, then installing a high quality and expensive pure sine wave inverter makes sense. But if you are going to dry camp for just a few days, week or month here and there, then a cheaper one may make more sense.

MORE INFO ABOUT INVERTERS and SOLAR POWER

All of this info and more is covered detail in our feature article in this month’s Escapees Magazine. We also have loads of other info about inverters, converters right here on our website. Links to our many RV electricity related articles are at the bottom of this page.

ESCAPEES MAGAZINE and RV CLUB

RV Power Inverters

Inverters – AC Power from DC Batteries
Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016
By Emily Fagan

Our five page article on inverters in this month’s issue of Escapees Magazine is typical of the kind of detailed technical articles the magazine publishes.

I have been publishing articles like this in Escapees Magazine since 2008, and I have written about anything and everything we’ve learned in our full-time RVing lives, from solar power to photography to batteries to the importance of fulfillling our dreams.

What makes Escapees Magazine unique is that it is written by RVers for RVers.

The magazine article topics come from real life experiences that RVers have encountered in their lives on the road.

Just as my article in this issue of Escapees Magazine is about what we’ve learned about inverters since we started RVing (and believe me, back in 2007, I was the one asking trailer salesmen what the difference was between inverters and converters, and I got some wacky, wild and very wrong answers!), other RVers write articles for Escapees Magazine about things they have learned.

When I sat down to read the September/October issue, I was impressed — as I am with every issue — by the quality of both the articles and the presentation.

Besides including some cool travel articles about RVing Alaska via the Alaska Marina Highway ferry system, and visiting the Very Large Array that listens to the cosmos in New Mexico, and traveling on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, this issue has two wonderful profiles of full-time RVers doing intriguing things as part of their RV lifestyle.

RV by ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway

RV Alaska by Ferry!
Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016

One article this month is about a full-time RVer who lives in an Airstream trailer and has dedicated himself to ensuring that the original silkscreen art prints created by the WPA artists in the 1930’s for the National Parks remain in the public domain, owned by the NPS rather than private collectors. It is a fascinating tale, written by Rene Agredano who has been full-timing since 2007 and writes the very informative blog Live, Work, Dream, a terrific resource for anyone who wants to learn the ins and outs of work camping.

Another article this month shares the stories of three very long term (10+ years) full-time RVers who have flourished as artists on the road. One RVer/artist specializes in watercolors and has held many exhibitions of her work around the country. Another RVer/artist discovered the fun craft of decorating gourds and teaches classes at her home RV park. A third RVer/artist has self-published a photojournal about her travels specifically for her grandchildren. This insipring Escapees Magazine article is written by full-time RVer Sandra Haven who shares the same home base RV park as the artists.

There is also a detailed article written by a lawyer on what it takes to establish a legal domicile and register to vote when you’re a full-time RVer without a sticks-and-bricks home built on a foundation that stays in one place.

These kinds of articles aren’t found in most RV industry publications!

Full-time RV traveler artist

RVers take their art on the road
Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016

And what’s neat for would-be writers and photographers who are Escapees RV Club members is that the magazine’s editorial staff is always eager for new material from members…click here!.

Escapees Magazine is just a tiny part of the overall Escapees RV Club, however.

Founded by full-time RVing pioneers Joe and Kay Peterson, the Escapees Club strives to serve the varied interests of all RVers and to alert RVers to changes in government policies or the RV industry itself that might affect us as consumers of RVs, RV and camping products and RV overnight accommodations.

They also work as tireless advocates on behalf of all RVers at both the local and national levels.

RVers BootCamp at Escapees RV Club

RVers BootCamp – A training program for new RVers

One of the most interesting articles in this month’s magazine alerts members to corporate consolidations in the industry that will affect our choices as RV consumers in years to come. It also reveals that the Escapees advocacy group is investigating possible changes at the Bureau of Land Management that will affect RVers ability to use their RVs on BLM land nationwide.

In addition to the magazine, the Club offers discounts for RV parks, regional chapter groups, national rallies, bootcamp training programs for new RVers, and assisted living for retired RVers who are ready to hang up their keys but not ready to give up living in their RV.

One of the most charming articles in this month’s magazine is about Nedra, a woman in her mid-80’s who was once an avid RVer but now lives at CARE, the Escapees assisted living facility in Livingston Texas. I had the good fortune to meet Nedra when we visited the Escapees headquarters at Rainbow’s End, and she took me on a fun tour of the CARE facilities. Escapees is like a big extended family, and it was very heartwarming to see her story in this month’s issue.

We’ve been members of Escapees RV Club since 2008 and highly recommend joining if you are a current or future RVer, whether you plan to travel full-time or just occasionally. Supporting their advocacy work benefits everyone who owns an RV and ensures we consumers and hobbyists have a voice in this very large industry.

You can join Escapees (or Xscapers, the branch of Escapees dedicated to younger, working age RVers) here:

Join Escapees RV Club

If you mention this blog, Roads Less Traveled, when you join, they put a little something in our tip jar. We began recommending Escapees RV Club to our readers eight years ago, and this friendly gesture from Escapees is a brand new development in the last few months. So, this is not a sales pitch from us to earn tips, by any means. We simply believe in the work Escapees RV Club does to support RV consumers and hobbyists and hope you do too!

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SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

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How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snow Storms

Heating an RV in cold weather during the winter, especially in a snow storm, is quite different than heating a house, and it often requires utilizing different kinds of heaters and a little creativity too.

RV camping and travel in snow in winter

Is that SNOW??!! We sure didn’t expect THAT!!!

A few weeks ago, at the end of September, we woke up to find ourselves in a beautiful snowstorm at 10,000′ elevation in Colorado.

We had to pull out all the stops to make sure we were cozy warm in our RV even though overnight lows were in the 20’s and daytime highs didn’t get out of the 40’s for a week.

Bikes on RV bike rack in snow in winter

We looked out our back window and saw snow covering our bikes!

The first order of business was to go outside and build a snowman, and Mark got right to it.

Winter RV tips for staying warm in cold weather

It’s snowing!!! Let’s make a snowman!!!

While he’s busy getting that snowman together, I wanted to share with you the strategies we’ve used for heating our RV without electrical hookups, because we use different heating appliances in different situations.

For “cool” conditions, like December and February in the Arizona desert or May in the Canadian Rockies, when lows are in the 30’s, keeping our buggy warm is a cinch with our blue flame vent-free propane heater that Mark installed back in 2008.

But in in “extreme” conditions, like this recent snowstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado, we use a different strategy and rely more on our RV furnace that was factory installed in our trailer.

We have tried different strategies in very cold weather at very high altitudes like this in the past, and this most recent cold spell was our most comfortable, despite the wet gloppy mess of snowy covered jackets, hats, mittens and boots and the sullen gray skies that persisted for several days. So, we seem to have gotten it right this time.

Of course, “lows in the 20’s” is far from “extreme” for North Americans living in houses with central heating, but it definitely feels extreme when living in an RV off the grid. In reality, RVs are most comfortable in temperatures that stay above freezing.

Winter RVing in the snow

The snowman gets sticks for his arms…

Even though high end RVs are marketed as being “four season” coaches, boasting high R-factors in the walls, ceiling and floor, you just can’t compare 1.5″ styrofoam walls that have a thin layer of gelcoat and wallpaper board to a residential house wall that’s made of 3.5″ fiberglass insulation covered with a half-inch of drywall, half-inch of plywood, Tyvek and exterior siding.

Besides the skimpy walls, we find that the RV windows are the biggest reasons for the poor insulation. The metal window frames are extremely cold to the touch when temps outside are in the 20’s, and all that metal around our many windows conducts the cold right into the rig.

Some folks like to have thermopane (dual pane) RV windows, but if moisture gets between the two panes, which can happen more easily in an RV that rattles down the road all the time than in a house that stands still on its foundation, the moisture is likely to remain there permanently, no matter what the weather does outside or how many years go by.

RV windows don’t seal all that well either. Our top quality, four season fifth wheel trailer is downright drafty inside, with a definite breeze that can, at times, flutter a tissue by the “escape” windows. You don’t notice it so much when it is 70 degrees both outside and inside with no wind blowing. But when it is a blustery18 degrees outside and we are trying to heat the rig to 65 degrees inside, the breeze by those windows is a shock.

The microwave vent is another drafty spot, and if the wind is howling outside and blowing directly on that wall of the RV, it blows right into the kitchen through the vent holes on the top of the microwave. One solution for that, of course, is to tape over the vent on the outside of the rig and not use the microwave for the duration of the cold snap (we haven’t done that, however).

Winter RV trip in the snow

The snowman gets a hat!

So, in our experience, keeping an RV and everything in it toasty warm when it is snowing out can require a little creativity.

Back in our house living days in snow country, we would set the thermostat to our preferred indoor temperature and keep it there 24/7, perhaps raising it slightly at the breakfast and dinner hours and lowering it slightly while we were at work or asleep.

When a blizzard blows into our RV lifestyle nowadays, we can have that kind of stable heat in our rig if we plug into shorepower with access to unlimited electricity. Portable electric heaters can back up the RV furnace, and RVs that have an air conditioner with a heat pump can use that (ours doesn’t).

We have a portable electric ceramic heater for just such an emergency where going to an RV park and plugging in is our best line of defense for weathering a storm.

However, it is possible to stay warm without hookups, even when it starts snowing.

RV in snow in winter

What fun!!

We rely on our vent-free propane heater for 95% of our heat year round. These little heaters use propane very efficiently, don’t need any electricity to run, and can be installed in an RV permanently to run off the RV’s propane tanks.

There are also handy portable models that can be stored in a closet when not in use and then placed anywhere in the rig where you want a little heat. These run on disposable propane bottles, so it isn’t necessary to plumb the heater to the RV’s big propane tanks.

Animal tracks in the winter snow

We found fresh animal tracks in the snow.

We have a detailed article describing the different kinds of vent-free propane heaters on the market, the pros and cons of each type and the type of heat they generate, plus a step-by-step guide for how to install one in an RV at this link:

How to Install a Vent-free Propane Heater in an RV

These heaters heat the rig amazingly quickly. We find that our 20k BTU blue flame heater warms our rig at a rate of about one degree every two minutes. So, in twenty minutes we can warm up our home by 10 degrees, and in an hour we can raise the inside temp by 30 degrees.

The best part is that we can hover over it and warm our hands, bodies and clothes, just like standing in front of a woodstove or fireplace. We do that a LOT and totally love our little heater for the terrific blast of instant hot air it provides!!!

How to heat an RV in winter and cold weather

When you’re chilled, there’s nothing like hovering over this heater!

We use our blue flame heater year round, and we have used it at elevations ranging from sea level to 10,000′.

This past year we traveled primarily in cold places where overnight lows were in the 30’s and 40’s. We went north through Utah, Idaho and Montana in March and April and spent May and early June in the Canadian Rockies. Consequently, we saw quite a bit of snow and hail, and during those months we used our heater almost every day.

Aspen and pine trees in winter snow

The snow in Colorado fell for hours and gave us a beautiful winter wonderland — in September!

Colorful aspens in winter snow storm with pine tree

Fall colors with snow – Magic!

We thawed out in July long enough to get overheated and write a blog post: “How to Beat the Heat in an RV.” Then it was back to the high elevations of Utah and Colorado in mid-August where we saw more hail and overnight lows in 30’s once again.

Our vent-free blue flame heater has been keeping us warm during all four seasons like this since Mark installed it in 2008!!

Snowy road with aspen for an RV in winter

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Snowy road in winter

It was really cold, but it was so beautiful we didn’t mind!!

The basic difference between an RV furnace and a vent-free propane heater is this:

  • RV furnace – Uses a lot of electricity, uses propane inefficiently, brings fresh air into the rig (because it’s vented)
  • Vent-free propane heater – Doesn’t use electricity, burns propane efficiently, uses up oxygen in the RV

So each has its place under certain circumstances. In a nutshell:

— The ventless propane heater is awesome as long as there is sufficient oxygen for it to run. We like to use it in the mornings and evenings, and since we are in and out of the rig a lot, there is a lot of air exchange inside our RV from opening and closing the front door all day long as well as from all the drafts and breezes that blow in the RV windows and microwave vent.

— The RV furnace is best for other scenarios: in cases where there is a risk of the water pipes freezing (the hot air ducts keep the basement and water lines warm), at very high elevations in extreme cold, and at night, because it is vented and continually circulates the air in the rig. The RV furnace is very loud and tends to wake us up at night, however, so we don’t use it overnight very often.

So, we use our vent-free blue flame heater for 95% of our RV heating, and we turn to our RV furnace on rare occasions.

Aspen and pine trees in snow in winter

Fall colors and snow — a gorgeous combinations!

Dodge pickup truck covered in winter snow

This snowfall was definitely sticking around a while!

Vented vs. Ventless Propane Heaters and Propane RV Stoves & Ovens – Safety Concerns

An RV furnace is a vented system, meaning that it releases warm, moist air from inside the RV to the outside, and it brings cold air from outside to the inside of the rig. This makes it very inefficient in its use of propane, because it is essentially heating the outdoors as well as the indoors. Put your hands by the RV furnace vent outside, and they will get nice and warm and a bit damp too!

While RV furnaces are safely vented yet very inefficient, vent-free gas heaters are very efficient and are required by law to have an automatic shutoff when the available oxygen goes below a certain threshold (there is a built-in sensor that triggers the shut-off). We know when ours is about to shut off because the flame begins to sputter and make noise. Once it has shut itself off, it won’t turn on again until we air out the RV a little by opening the door or windows for a while.

Ironically, propane RV stoves and ovens are not required to shut off automatically when the available oxygen is depleted. To me, this makes them inherently quite a bit more dangerous than vent-free propane heaters.

Of course, an RV fitted with propane tanks is basically a rolling bomb, so it’s a very unsafe place to call home (I say this with a smile, because we wouldn’t trade our 9 years on the road for anything)!

Every time we have seen our blue flame heater shut itself off (probably 30+ times), the RV stove and/or oven has kept right on a-cookin’ without any hint that our supply of oxygen inside the rig was running out. We could easily have baked something in our factory installed propane RV oven and simmered something on our factory installed propane RV stove for hours while camped at 10,000′ with no inkling that the oxygen in our rig had dipped below safe levels!

Winter snow on RV steps

Welcome home…. Brrrrr!

Which Heater is Best Under Which Conditions?

For most of this year as we traveled in cold country, the lowest temperatures we saw were in the low to mid 30’s overnight. Daytime highs were in the mid-60’s to mid-70’s. These kinds of conditions are very similar to what we see in the southwestern deserts in the winter months (except January, which can be colder). These conditions are ideal for a vent-free propane heater.

We usually run our vent-free propane heater every morning until the rig is 60 to 75 degrees inside (depending on our mood) and then again in the evening if the temperature inside has dipped below 65. If the windows have fogged up from condensation (about 5% of the time, usually only in the winter), we run the RV furnace too to help dry the air out.

In general, we don’t heat our RV overnight in this kind of climate. We prefer to bundle up with down comforters instead. If we do run the heat at night, we use the RV furnace and set it to 50 degrees. If outdoor temps drop into the 30’s overnight, the RV furnace will come on once or twice in the pre-dawn hours.

Golden aspen in snow in winter

Golden aspen leaves in snow.

Ironically, if the outside temps dip really low — into the 20’s or teens — and daytime highs don’t get much past 50 degrees, then the RV furnace will start coming on before midnight and will come on every hour for 15-20 minutes as it struggles to keep the rig at 50 degrees.

Since we are light sleepers, this is extremely annoying. So, at the times we would want to run the RV furnace most — overnight when it’s really cold — we opt not to!

On overnights that we don’t heat the rig, when we wake up in the morning our bedroom is around 10-12 degrees warmer than the outside air (bedroom door closed all night) and our living area is around 5-7 degrees warmer than the outside air.

It is routine for us to wake up to temps in our trailer that are between 37 and 42 degrees. For us, that is a small price to pay for living off the grid, however, for many RVers it is good reason to get electric hookups and have more substantial and consistent heat in the rig overnight.

Aspen covered with snow in winter

The colors of Fall in Colorado.

There is a lot of debate about whether you can operate a ventless propane heater at high elevations. By the time we got caught in that September snow storm in Colorado two weeks ago, we had been living at elevations between 8,000′ and 10,000′ for 5 straight weeks, running our vent-free propane blue flame heater every morning and evening without a hitch.

Along with many weeks spent heating our rig at high elevations in previous years, including 8 weeks or so at 6,000′ or higher this past spring, our 5 weeks at 8 to 10 thousand feet this fall kind of proved the point for us: it’s no problem to run a vent-free propane heater at high altitudes in cool weather.

But in sub-freezing overnight temperatures and daytime highs in the 40’s under stormy skies at 10,000′ elevation, we’ve found a vent-free propane heater is best used in combination with the RV furnace.

Bikes on back of RV in snow

Well, we won’t be biking any time soon!!

Until the the snowstorm came to our mountaintop spot in the Colorado Rockies at 10,000′, we hadn’t been using the RV furnace at all. But once the temps dropped to the 20’s (lows) to 40’s (highs) at that elevation, we couldn’t rely on our blue flame heater exclusively any more and had to change our heating strategy for three reasons.

1) There is less available oxygen at 10,000′ than at lower elevations, and once the oxygen in the rig dipped below a certain level, the blue flame heater would shut itself off automatically. Because it was so cold outside, we weren’t thrilled about opening the windows and doors to let in more air just so we could turn on the blue flame heater again. It was time to use the RV furnace.

2) Our RV roof and ladder — along with our solar panels — was covered with snow and ice. Mark wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement to climb up there to clear off the solar panels, and I wasn’t about to get up on that slippery roof either. So, our batteries were no longer getting charged by the sun and wouldn’t have enough juice to run the RV furnace.

3) Vent-free propane heaters emit a lot of moisture. We had just had several days of torrential rain, and everything in our rig was wet. Our shower was filled with raincoats and rain hats hung up to dry, our boots and socks were wet and muddy by the door, our pants were wet and hanging in the bathroom and our bath towels refused to dry. While our blue flame vent-free heater would exacerbate the moisture problem, our RV furnace would help dry out the air inside our buggy.

Doing all these things gave us a nice dry and toasty warm environment to live in during this cold spell in snowy conditions at 10,000 feet.

To implement this heating strategy, we did two things. We stocked up on gasoline and propane and ran our Yamaha 2400i generator and RV furnace a lot. Sometimes we also ran the blue flame heater alongside the furnace.

Yamaha generator in bed of pickup truck in snow

Our Yamaha generator got a good hard workout for over a week.

The generator ensured that the batteries got fully charged. Because we were running our RV furnace so much, which burned up lots of electricity, the batteries were being depleted much faster than normal. So, not only did we need the generator because the solar panels were snoozing under the snow and ice, we also needed it because of running the RV furnace.

RV in snow in winter

A few weeks prior we had been roasting in the summer heat. What a crazy life we live in this RV!!

In general, we ran the RV furnace every morning until the rig was 65 degrees inside and then ran it on and off during the day and in the evening. If the air wasn’t too moist, we also ran blue flame vent-free heater alongside the furnace to warm things up faster. The vent-free propane heater never shut itself off, so the RV furnace was doing its job of circulating the air.

Golden aspen in snow by pond in winter

Getting creative heating our RV made it possible to enjoy views like this as it snowed.

Using the RV furnace also lessened the possibility of the water pipes freezing. The heater is ducted through the belly of the rig, and the warm air passing through the ducts helps warm the nearby water and sewer pipes. If the temps had gotten below 20 degrees, we would have run the RV furnace once or twice overnight as well just to be sure no ice formed in the pipes.

If we had had brilliantly sunny days every day, we may or may not have needed the generator. Our 490 watt solar panel array may have been able to charge the batteries fully, despite the additional load from the RV furnace.

Also, we probably wouldn’t have needed to use the RV furnace so much because the sun would have warmed up our rig and dried it out a bit during the day.

See how flexible and variable all this is??!!

Colorado fall colors after winter snow

This is why we came to Colorado at this season… Wow!!!

We have descended out of the clouds now and have been living at elevations between 5,000′ and 6,500′ for the past few weeks. The RV furnace is back on vacation and our trusty blue flame heater has taken over all the RV heating duties. Our generator is on break for another 6 months or year, and the shore power cord is buried somewhere in the basement once again.

RV in winter snow staying warm in cold weather

Snug as a bug in a rug!!

If you are going to be using your RV in cold weather this winter, we have another post full of tips for keeping warm that you might enjoy:

How to Stay WARM in an RV – Winter RVing Survival Tips

And if you think a vent-free propane heater is something you’d like to get, have a look at our detailed article that discusses the different types of heaters and shows how we installed ours:

Vent-free Propane Heaters (Catalytic, Infrared and Blue Flame) PLUS How to Install One in an RV

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Internet & Phone Communications for RV Living – A Minimalist Solution!

How do you stay in touch when living on the road full-time in an RV? What kind of internet access is best? Which phone plans make the most sense for a full-time RVer? These are some of the questions that RVers face, and there is a huge array of solutions for every need and lifestyle.

Note: This post was updated in September, 2016, to reflect new offerings from Verizon

The gurus on this topic are unquestionably Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard of Technomadia. They have written a fantastic book about the internet for RVers and also created an online community dedicated to mobile internet issues (more about those excellent resources here).

Because we have taken an unconventional route with our own communications solution (as we tend to do with our traveling lifestyle in general), I thought a few notes here might be useful.

What, No Phone?! How Can You DO THAT?!

After several decades of being “on call” in our professions, bound to our customers by electronic leashes, we ditched our cell phones when we started traveling full-time in 2007. In large part, this was a money-savings tactic, but in some ways it was a small act of defiance against a world that is increasingly held in electronic bondage.

We have managed just fine without a phone since we started traveling full-time.  We’ve been able to meet up with friends at appointed hours, find our way to remote and stunning locations without a GPS-enabled electronic map. We’ve even bought and sold large assets like our sailboat and truck, all without a phone.

If you are looking to shave a few dollars off your full-time RVing budget, or if you are just curious how this is possible, here’s what we do.

Internet Access – Verizon MiFi Jetpack

Verizon MiFi Jetpack 6620L

Verizon MiFi Jetpack 6620L

We have a Verizon MiFi 6620L Jetpack hotspot that is the basis of all our communications. It operates on the Verizon cell phone towers, has a cell phone number itself, provides password protected WiFi inside and near the rig, and can theoretically support 15 devices connected to the internet.

A little back-story on this MiFi jetpack — For three years we had a Verizon MiFi 4620 jetpack, but in October, 2014, its tiny charging receptacle broke and it could no longer get charged. Mark tried to nurse it back to life by soldering its lifeless receptacle to the charger permanently, but the problem was internal and it was dead.

MiFi Jetpack Charger solder repair

We tried soldering wires from the MiFi to its charger, but it still wouldn’t charge.

That older jetpack always had problems charging and holding a charge. It could theoretically support up to five devices, but we found our two laptops frequently maxed out its battery, even when it was plugged in and charging, and we sometimes ran the battery down faster than it could charge itself on its charger!

For those that have an older MiFi and haven’t yet upgraded to the MiFi 6620L, this new jetpack has a bigger battery and holds a charge better than the 4620L did.

However, it also has the annoying habit of falling asleep when nothing is happening between you and the internet. For us to resume using the internet after a period of doing nothing, we have to wake it up manually by tapping on its power button. Then the computer has to reconnect to the MiFi.

Some reviews claim that this new jetpack provides a better internet signal than the old one, but in all honesty, it seems about the same. So, the only real difference we can see is in the size of the battery.

Verizon 24GB (XXL) Talk/Text/Data Plan – Usage and Flexibility

As of September, 2016, our MiFi Jetpack is tied to a 24 GB talk/text/data plan with Verizon. When we first got our Jetpack in 2012, we were able to get by with a 3GB data-only plan until I moved this website to WordPress. Then our data usage instantly jumped to 6GB per month.

Over the next three years we gradually increased our plan by 2GB increments until it was 20 GB per month (data only). After a year at that level, we took advantage of the new Verizon plans being offered in the fall of 2016 and got a 24 GB plan talk/text/data plan for less money!

Note: We do not use the talk/text feature of this plan because we don’t have a cell phone. However, we signed up for the 24 GB talk/text/data plan because it is cheaper than our former 20 GB data-only plan and it has several key benefits…

This new 24 GB talk/text/data plan has three huge advantages over our old 20 GB data-only plan:

  • Carryover of unused data from one month to the next
  • The fee for the Jetpack itself is just $10 instead of $20
  • There is no surcharge for using the Jetpack in Canada or Mexico (see below)

How cool is that?

Verizon Talk Text Data Plans

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Changing Plans? Cut to the Chase & Call Verizon!

I always dread calling Verizon (I had terrible experiences with them with a fleet of corproate phones in the mid-1990’s), but in recent years, I’ve found that talking to their sales people has always helped us find a better deal than if I just poked around on their website.

We have changed our plan six times since we first got our Jetpack in 2012, and we have put it on hold or taken it off hold five or six times, and each time we have done it over the phone and been really surprised at how helpful our salesperson has been!

Saving Data by Using Free WiFi Signals

When we want to save data on our plan, we put off our big download operations, like operating systems upgrades that download as much as 1.5 GB of data at once, for when we have access to a free WiFi signal at a library or coffee shop or elsewhere.

We also use Clipgrab on free WiFi signals to download videos so we can watch them from our laptop hard drives later.

Verizon MiFi Jetpack – International Use

The new Verizon talk/text/data plans now allow you to use the MiFi Jetpack in both Canada and Mexico — if you get a 16GB (XL) plan or larger — without paying a surcharge. Using our MiFi Jetpack came in very handy during our travels to the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2016.

At that time, our old Verizon data-only plan charged us $2 per day for the privilege/convenience of using our Jetpack in Canada. So, for six weeks of RV travel in Canada, we paid a $90 surcharge on top of our usual Verizon bill. At the time that seemed like a pretty good deal, because the year before, in 2015, when we traveled in Nova Scotia, the MiFi Jetpack wouldn’t work in Canada at all, and we had to rely on free WiFi signals the whole time we were in Canada!!

With our new XXL 24GB plan, there is no surcharge at all for using our Jetpack in either Mexico or Canada. That’s even better! Yay!! (And what a godsend that would have been during our sailing cruise of Mexico!).

Internet access in the Gulf of Tehuantepec Mexico

Internet access on a boat at sea in a foreign country is a trip!
Here I hold up my laptop to get a much needed internet weather report while crossing Mexico’s notorious Gulf of Tehuantepec.
It took 21 minutes to download a 604 KB file!!

Putting a Verizon Data Plan on Hold

One handy aspect of Verizon’s plans is that you can put them on hold. We used this feature a lot when we spent months at a time sailing in Mexico because Verizon didn’t offer Mexico access for Jetpacks back in those days.

Seasonal RV travelers may find this comes in handy, as they may not want to use the MiFi Jetpack when they are at home and not out traveling in their RV.

You can put the plan on hold for up to 90 days, at no charge. If you call in again before 90 days is up, you can put it on hold for another 90 days, and so on, indefinitely.

All the days that you put the plan on hold get tacked onto the end of your contract. So, for us, a two year contract took nearly three years to fulfill. When you decide to resume the contract, a simple phone call is all it takes and you are back online immediately. There is a nominal charge for re-instating the contract.

Phone Access – Skype

We use a Skype account for all of our phone needs. Skype is best known for making it possible to make free video calls between people who have Skype accounts. Similar to Apple’s FaceTime, this is a fun way to communicate. It also requires a pretty strong internet signal. If the call begins to falter due to a sketchy internet connection, turning off the video will often perk it back up again.

Skype Image

That’s not generally how we use Skype, however. Instead, we use it to call people on their cell phones and land lines. For $2.99 a month we have an annual subscription service with Skype to call any cell phone or landline in the US or Canada for unlimited minutes. These are outbound phone calls only.

To receive incoming calls requires another step: For $2.50 a month, Skype assigned a phone number to our account that accepts voicemail and appears on our friends’ phones when we call them. Skype sends us an email when a new voicemail comes in. If we are on our computer and it is connected to the internet, we receive incoming phone calls just like a regular phone (the computer’s speaker rings, and you click a button to pick up the call). Skype has an app for mobile devices too, so you can do all this with a tablet, iPad or iPod too.

If you don’t sign up for that service, Skype calls will come into your friends’ phones with a mystifying number that is unrecognizable. We did this for four years, and it was okay. It was a little awkward not having a call-back number when calling a business, but we let them know that we checked our email frequently, and most companies were happy to get back to us via email instead of a phone call. Our friends eventually knew that if a weird number came in on their phone, it was probably us calling!

Tricks for Making Skype Calls

Skype is pretty good for phone calls, but the connection is not always perfect. We’ve gotten used to tipping our MacBook Pro laptops so the microphone is a little closer to our mouths than when it’s down in our lap. The person on the other end is on speaker phone, which can be nice for calling family and friends, if they don’t mind. However, when making an important call to a company, using earbuds makes it easier to hear the other person and takes them off speaker phone if you are in a somewhat public place.

In general, our internet download speed is faster and better than our upload speed, and this affects Skype. Oftentimes, we can hear the person on the other end of the phone much better than they can hear us. One way to improve things is to make sure only one device is on the internet via the MiFi jetpack.  So, if Mark wants to make a call, I have to do something local on my laptop and stop using the internet, and vice versa.

It’s also important that no other internet applications are running on the computer that is making the call. That means turning off the email application, shutting down all browsers and quitting out of anything else that might unexpectedly access the internet and disrupt the phone call.

Wilson Booster – Getting More from our Internet Signal – Kinda

We use a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Phone Booster which we have permanently mounted in a cabinet alongside a cigarette lighter outlet.

This connects to a Wilson 800/1900 Magnet Mount Antenna. This combo works okay, however, these signal boosters do much more for 4G signals than they do for 3G signals, and we have 3G signals quite a bit of the time.  One note: according to Wilson, the number of bars on the MiFi unit doesn’t necessarily increase even though the signal is improved by the booster. A fun way to see how fast your internet signal is and to keep track of the speeds in different places is to use SpeedTest.Net.

Wilson Antenna on fifth wheel slideout

The higher the antenna, the better.

The folks at Wilson told us it was very important to have the antenna sitting on a piece of metal for grounding purposes, so we bought their suction cup mounted Accessory Kit for Grounding. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a good place to mount the antenna with this suction cup plate because the wires are so short. Someday Mark might replace our outside (and rarely used) radio antenna with the Wilson antenna, but we haven’t done that yet.

Wilson also told us that simply placing the antenna on a 5″ x 5″ sheet of ferrous metal would do the trick, and we searched around for something and discovered our cast iron skillet fit the bill.

We did tests with the antenna to see how much having a grounding plate seemed to matter. We placed the antenna near the ceiling above our slide-out without a metallic plate under it, then set it on our big frying pan on our kitchen counter, and lastly set it on the roof of our truck.

Wilson Antenna on a frying pan

It’s “grounded” as per Wilson’s recommendation, but the signal isn’t as good this low down.

We found having the antenna higher in the air near the ceiling above our slide-out was much more important than placing it on metal.

Although we used this booster a fair bit in 2014 and 2015, we haven’t used it at all in 2016, and we haven’t missed it!

Internet Portability – Driving Tactics and Electronic Maps

Siri — ahhhh. Although we don’t have an iAnything, I am in love with the little Apple genie, Siri, who lives inside iPhones and iPads. However, after lots of soul searching about whether Siri’s companionship would make me happier in our travels, so far I’ve decided that it wouldn’t.

Instead, I get to be Mark’s Siri as he drives, and that’s not a bad gig. He does all the driving in our family (I did almost all the helmsman duty on our boat, so it’s pretty fair). To help out with the RV navigation, I bring the MiFi jetpack and laptop with me into the truck’s passenger’s seat, and I use Google Maps to figure out where we’re going. I don’t get the nifty icon that shows me where we are, so sometimes I have some frantic moments trying to deduce our exact location, but once I’ve got it, I call out the instructions for how to get from here to there.

Our 2016 Ram 3500 truck has a factory installed dash-mounted GPS, but it user friendliness pales by comparison.

So, the overall functionality of a smartphone or tablet is there for us on the road, it’s just a whole lot more clunky.

Using a SmartPhone or Tablet as a Hotspot and More

When our Mifi Jetpack died, I thought the only solution was to get another one. Not so. I have since learned that we could have taken the SIM card out of our old jetpack and put it into a glistening new iPad. We wouldn’t have had to sign up for another 2 years with Verizon when we replaced our dead MiFi jetpack either (which we did when we upgraded to the new MiFi jetpack), since our contract was tied to the SIM card. We could have simply continued on our old plan until it ran out four months later and then reassessed our situation.

Internet Access Resources for RVers

Mobile Internet Handbook for RVers

The Internet Bible for RVers

For us — for now — we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing since it works just fine. In all likelihood, however, our simplistic and minimalistic methods are not getting you fired up with excitement.

As I mentioned above, the Mobile Internet Handbook (available on Kindle and in Paperback) by Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard is the most thorough resource available and is an absolute necessity for anyone that wants to get technical on the road. Prior to starting their full-time RV adventures, Chris was a mobile technology expert, working as Director of Competitive Analysis for Palm and PalmSource (the companies behind the Palm Pilot and Treo). He studied every aspect of mobile phone and tablet technologies and is using that expertise to help RVers today.

The detail this book goes to is staggering. From explaining nationwide versus regional cellular data carriers to getting into the nitty gritty of what “roaming” is all about, and what hotspots and routers really are, to discussing cellular frequency bands and the all important topic of security, this book covers it all.

What’s better, Chris and Cherie continue the discussion and keep it current at their RV Mobile Internet Resource Center, with an accompanying public Facebook discussion group. They are also keeping a list of RV internet strategy blog posts that describe various real-life technology setups that RVers are using. They even offer personal advising sessions where you can find out what the best solution is for your unique situation.

Of course, all of this technology is changing daily. When we started RVing full-time in 2007, we got by with pay phone cards and free WiFi at coffee shops. We were unaware in those days (although we had our suspicions) that cell phones weren’t nearly as smart as their progeny would soon be, and we had no idea just how far the industry would come.

In just a few scant years everything has changed, and who knows where the future will take us!

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