Solar Tutorial Part II – Small Upgradeable RV Solar Power Systems

<– Solar Tutorial Part I – Basic Concepts
Solar Tutorial Part III – Full-timer Kits –>

Designing a solar power system for your RV depends entirely on how you plan to use your RV.  Are you RVing in summer or winter, or both?  Are you staying in it for a week or two at a time or for several months at a time?  Do you want to use a laptop for an hour or so a day, or do you need to camp out on it for 4-8 hours at a time?  Do you hit the sack after an hour or so of watching TV or do you want to plunk down in front of it with a cocktail and stay planted there until after midnight?

RV solar panel on the ground

We didn’t install the panel on the roof at first. Silliness! Install it on the roof so you don’t have to think about it!

As a general rule, more solar power is better.  It is really awesome to have so much power that you never need to think about it.  If you are planning to live in your RV for extended periods of time, want to use big appliances a lot and don’t want to be dependent on electrical hookups, get a big full-timer’s system right off the bat.

However, if you are just weekending, vacationing, and living largely outdoors, get a small system.  You’ll quickly learn what you can and can’t do.  It is very easy to upgrade if you find you need more.  Upgrading is mostly a matter of adding more and bigger parts.  Not too many parts have to be swapped out.

RV solar panel installation - wiring the panel's junction box

Mark connected the cable to the panel’s junction box before hoisting the panel onto the roof.

This page describes a “starter solar setup” which is good enough for heading off into the woods for a month or two of simple living in the summer.  We used a system of this size for a full year, boondocking (dry camping) for months on end.  We typically used the laptop or TV or stereo just 1-2 hours a day.  We went to bed 2-3 hours after sunset.

In the summer it was fully adequate for those kinds of light electrical needs.  In the winter there was so little sun that we had to be very conservative.  We used oil lamps at night, and we supplied extra charging for laptop, toothbrush, camera batteries etc. by charging them in the truck while driving around, using a portable inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter in the truck.

A Small Solar Setup:  150 watts of solar power with portable 150 & 300 watt inverters

If you are going to dry camp in your RV in the summer, you don’t need an big solar power system.  You will be busy around the campfire at night rather than watching hours and hours of TV.  You will be using your RV when there is abundant sunshine, and you probably won’t spend too many hours on your computer.  Here is a very simple solution that will be sufficient for as much as a few months of simple living in summertime:

1 150 watt solar panel ($220)
1 Morningstar 10 amp charge controller ($60)
1 Portable 150-300 watt modified sign wave inverter ($30)
10 gauge wire that is rated for outdoor use ($150)
2 12-volt batteries wired in parallel ($150 for that second battery, as your RV should have a battery already)

Total cost:  ~$650
Wild guess at an installer’s fee:  ~$400

Installation

RV solar panel installation on a fifth wheel

Cardboard covers the panels (shown here on our big full-timer’s installation) so they aren’t live

Installation isn’t too difficult if you are willing to scramble around on the roof a bit:

(1)  Install the solar panel on the roof.

While working with the panel, keep it covered so it isn’t producing electricity.  One easy way to cover it is to cut part of its cardboard packaging to size and tape it on.

Mark drilled holes in the roof and used anchors for the screws in places where the panel couldn’t be screwed into a roof truss.  He jammed Dicor lap sealant into the holes before putting the anchors in, then ran the wire and then put more Dicor on the whole works after it was screwed down.

RV solar panel installation on a travel trailer

Mark used lots of Dicor roofing lap sealant

If there is a chance you might eventually want to use your RV in winter, install the panel on tilting brackets so you can tilt the panel towards the sun.  It isn’t necessary to tilt the panel in the summertime, but it can be a huge help in the winter when the sun rides very low in the sky and doesn’t shine down on the panel but actually shines kind of across it from just above the horizon.  Tilting the panel towards the sun might give you an extra 25% of total charge for the day in the wintertime.

When you have tilting brackets, you have to climb up on the roof to tilt the panel each time you set up camp — and you have to remember to climb back up again to lower it down before you drive off.  If you don’t think you want to do all that scrambling around on the roof, skip the brackets (and consider getting two panels instead, described in Part III of this tutorial).

(2)  Install the charge controller inside a hatch near the battery compartment.

(3)  Run the wires from the panel to the charge controller

Connect one end of the wire to the panel (there are screws in the junction box on the panel that you screw the wire to).  You can use duplex wire or two runs of single conductor wire for the positive and negative leads. If the refrigerator is not in a slide-out, run the wire down through the refrigerator vent to the battery compartment.  Otherwise, run the wire down along the outside of the grey or black water vent pipe.

Taping the wire to a metal snake and snaking it down behind the fridge really helps.  We snaked ours down inside a piece of PVC pipe that we used as a kind of conduit to keep the wire away from the back of the fridge.  If you do that, make sure the PVC pipe is quite a bit bigger than the thickness of the wire so you can get it through easily.

RV solar panel installation crawling on the roof

Our lightweight Lynx trailer did not have a “walk-on” roof, but Mark used a telescoping ladder and crawled around to install the panel

You can also use the MC4 connectors in the solar panel’s junction box and use solar power cable that has MC4 connectors pre-installed

At the charge controller, connect the wire coming down from the solar panel to the input side.  Run a second wire from the output side of the charge controller to the batteries.  It is best to crimp eyes on the ends of the cables.

(4)  Remove the cardboard from the panel.

 

You should see an LED light on the charge controller turn green to indicate that it is charging.

300 watt inverter for an RV solar panel installation

Use small, portable inverters plugged into the RV’s cigarette lighters for the TV, laptop, etc.

Now your panel will start charging your batteries all day every day.  It might even start charging them before you get out of bed in the morning!  They will charge faster if you are in full sun.  Just a little shade on the panel (like a single tree branch across one corner) will cause them to charge much more slowly.

(5)  Use your AC appliances

Plug your portable inverters into whatever available cigarette lighter outlets there are inside the RV.

Whenever you want to watch TV, DVD’s or use your laptop or charge your camera batteries or toothbrush or whatever, plug the appliance into an inverter, turn the inverter on, and use the appliance as you would at home!!

RV solar panel installation on a travel trailer - completed

A successful morning’s work – the panel is permanently installed!

(6)  Add a second 12-volt battery to your battery box (this could also be Step 1, it doesn’t matter). 

The battery is your energy storehouse.  You add energy to it when you charge the batteries and you remove energy from it when you use your appliances and lights.  Think of your batteries as being a big kitchen sink.  You fill the sink with water (charge the batteries) by turning on the faucet.  You drain the sink (when you use your appliances and lights) by removing the drain plug.  The goal is to keep the sink at least 2/3 full all the time.  After a day of sunshine, as the sun is setting, your sink should be full.  After an evening of watching TV and computer work, your sink should not be less than 2/3 full (batteries don’t like to be drained until they are empty).

Group 24 deep cycle 12 volt battery for use in an RV solar power system

Add a second Group 24 12-volt battery in parallel

So you have to balance the size of your faucet (the total wattage of the solar panels), the size of your sink (the total amp-hour capacity of your batteries) and your appliance usage (how often and for how long you remove the drain plug) to make sure you don’t drain out more than you can fill up on a sunny day.

Most RVs come with a single Group 24 12-volt battery.  These typically store about 70 amp-hours of energy.  Adding a second Group 24 12-volt battery will double the size of your “sink” to about 140 amp-hours of energy.  As a very general rule of thumb, the total watts of your solar panels should be comparable to the total amp-hour capacity of your batteries.  With 140 watts of solar panels in this system, it makes sense to have two 12-volt batteries to give you 140 amp-hours of battery capacity.

Make sure there is room in the battery compartment for a second battery, as some RVs don’t have room for one.  When shopping for an RV, if you plan to dry camp a lot, make sure the battery box can hold two 12-volt batteries.  Wire the two batteries together in parallel.

 To learn more about batteries and battery charging, read this article:

RV and Marine Battery Charging Basics

And that’s it for this whole system.  Very very simple.  The only limitation to this system is that you need to keep your TV/laptop usage fairly light and you cannot use your microwave, toaster, hair dryer, vacuum or air conditioning unit.  However, it is a great starter setup to get your feet wet and learn to live in a solar driven home on the road.

Monitoring Your Batteries

Fluke snap-on multimeter voltmeter

A multimeter can help you monitor the batteries

The easiest way to see how your batteries are faring is to use a multimeter and measure the voltage.  We use a Sperry clamp-on meter that has jaws that can wrap around wire so you can measure the amperage flowing through the wires, if need be. The Fluke meter is an even better unit because it is true RMS.

Monitoring the battery voltage with a multimeter is not scientifically accurate, because batteries have personalities and memories and only tell the truth about themselves when they have not been under load for a long time and have been cleaned of their surface charge.  However, checking your batteries’ health with a multimeter can still give you a good indication of how they are doing.

Early in the morning, before the sun has gotten over the horizon, measure the voltage between the battery terminals.  If it is 12.3 or higher, you’re okay.  If it is lower than that, go outside and play and leave the indoor appliances alone for a day or two (and hope for sunshine).  If that’s not possible, start thinking about finding a place to plug in.

Likewise, check out the voltage sometime right after sunset before you get the TV or laptop going.  If it is 12.6 or more, you are golden.  If not, then rethink your evening’s activities a bit.

A Portable Solution with NO INSTALLATION NEEDED!!

Folding RV 12 volt solar panel suitcase for_

Portable solar panel kit that folds into a hard shell suitcase!

One very slick option for adding a small solar power system to your RV without going through the trouble of installing the panels on the roof is to get a folding portable solar panel kit. These wonderful kits are pairs of panels that are hinged together on the long side, and they fold together to form a hard shell suitcase that has a handle for easy carrying.

The beauty is that the panels are naturally protected when you store them away, and they have built-in stands that support the panels at a tilted angle when they are set up, so you can aim them south for maximum efficiency.

They come with a small solar charge controller so the batteries don’t get overcharged, and they have alligator clips that make it easy to clip the leads onto the battery terminals.

This is not an upgradeable system, but if you are simply looking to enjoy some dry camping and boondocking in your RV and want a little solar boost for your batteries, this is an all-in-one 120 watt system that will get the job done!

Most portable suitcase kits don’t come with an inverter, so remember to buy that too!

Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.

Shown here is a complete "weekender/vacationer" kit (far left), a small charge controller (middle) and a small inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links:

Purchases at any of our Amazon links help keep us going. But don't buy anything yet. Finish the tutorial first!

 

Part III of this tutorial describes ways this starter system can be upgraded to get a little more power. Return to Part I here.

Solar Tutorial Part III – Full-timer Systems –>

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FURTHER READING – RELATED ARTICLES

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

 

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More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!

Solar Tutorial Part I – Understanding the Basics of RV & Marine Solar Power

This page is the first in a series of four posts that explain the nitty gritty details of RV (and sailboat) solar power. The intention is to demystify the subject of marine and RV solar power and make it understandable for all, regardless of how technical you are or how much you know about electricity. The pages are linked together with arrows at the bottom of each page.

Since we started traveling full-time in 2007, we have been living almost exclusively on solar power, first in a travel trailer, then a fifth wheel trailer and also in a sailboat.  We don’t stay in RV parks or campgrounds or marinas, and on the rare occasions that we do, we don’t hook up to shore power.  As of November 2018, we’ve spent over 3,800 nights living off the grid without electrical hookups in our rolling and floating homes.

A solar power installation in an RV gives you the freedom to have full electrical power anywhere and at any time: at a rest area, in a parking lot, or at a National Forest campground.  Likewise on a boat, you can anchor out for an unlimited time in bays and coves.  Solar power runs without using any gas, is silent, doesn’t smell, and doesn’t require any setup (those shore power cords are mighty ungainly).  Although we do have a gas generator in our trailer, we use it only when we want to run our 15,000 btu air conditioner, not for charging the batteries.  It is a Yamaha 2400i.

Wrapping your brain around solar power for a rolling or floating home can be confusing, but it is actually quite straight forward.  Here’s the whole thing in a nutshell (wherever it says “RV” you can also think “sailboat,” as the principles are the same).

RV Solar power instalation on a fifth wheel trailer

Mark finishes three days of installing our fifth wheel’s solar power system while boondocked in Flagstaff, AZ.

There are 2 functions that your rig needs to have if you want to live without electrical hookups:  

  •  A system to charge the batteries
  •  A system to create AC power for the rig so you can watch TV and use a vacuum

There are 3 components (or “parts”) used in an RV solar power installation to accomplish the two objectives listed above:

Now put it all together…

  1. To charge the batteries you need:  Solar Panels and a Charge Controller
  2. To use your batteries to generate AC power for your TV, computer, etc., you need:  An Inverter

That’s it!!   Very simple.  To flush it all out a little, here it is in more depth:

Solar Power Function #1 – Charging the Batteries

When an RV comes from the dealership, it usually has either a Converter or an Inverter/Charger in it so it can charge the batteries when it is plugged into shore power (via “hookups” or gas generator).  Converters are cheaper and are factory installed on most trailers.  Inverter/Chargers are expensive (because they are dual-purpose, see below) and are factory installed on higher-end motorhomes.

These appliances take the AC power coming in from the external source (hookups/generator) and use it to charge the batteries.  They usually have a 3-stage charge cycle that charges the batteries quickly at first and then drops to a trickle charge once the batteries are close to fully charged.

morningstar sunsaver 10 charge controller

A $45 charge controller for a small solar power installation

How do you charge the batteries when you don’t have shore power?  That is where solar power comes in.

When you install a solar power system in an RV, you add two things:  Solar Panels and a Charge Controller.  The solar panels are installed on the roof and they gather energy from the sun and pump it down to the charge controller.  The charge controller keeps an eye on the batteries and takes only as much power coming from the solar panels as the batteries can handle.

Outback Flex 60 MPPT Charge Controller

A $500 charge controller for a big solar power installation

Early in the day, the batteries are hungry and the charge controller passes everything it can to the batteries.  As the day wears on, the batteries become more fully charged and require less and less power.  By afternoon, if the system is sized right for the way the RV is being used, the batteries throw up their hands and say, “No More!!” and the charge controller puts them into “Float” mode, a fancy term for a trickle charge.

None of this has anything to do with running your TV or computer.  It is only about charging the batteries up after they become depleted from use the night before.

The solar panels will charge the batteries no matter where your RV is parked.  If you are out hiking, or shopping at Walmart, or taking a nap inside, the batteries will be getting charged all day long.  If you are at an RV park or marina with metered electricity, you can save a few dollars by not plugging in!!

If you park under a tree, and the panels are shaded, you will get dramatically less power from the sun.  A tiny bit of shade results in a huge decrease in how much the charge the batteries can get.  We always park in full sun.

Sailboats have a terrible time with unwanted shade from the mast and boom.  When at anchor, pulling the boom over with the traveler and forcing it further out with a preventer helps a lot, but the mast is always a problem when the sun comes from forward of the beam.  If you are sailing and heeled away from the sun or the panels are shaded by the sails, too bad!!  So, on a sailboat, install more solar panels (more total watts) than you think you’ll need!

100 watt portable inverter from Walmart

A 100 watt portable inverter ($15). Plugs into a cigarette lighter and has one AC outlet

Solar Power Function #2 — Generating AC Power to run the TV

When an RV comes from the dealership, it usually has a shore power cable so you can plug the rig into electrical hookups or into a gas generator.  The shore power cable takes the AC power from the source (“hookups” or generator) and passes it straight through to your AC outlets. 

In other words, when the rig is plugged in like this, all the AC outlets, including “built-ins” like the microwave, become “live,” and you can run your AC appliances like the TV, computer, toothbrush charger, electric razor, hair dryer, vacuum, etc.

If you want to have AC power without plugging into shore power, you have to have an Inverter.  An Inverter converts the DC power that is stored in the batteries into AC power so you can run your AC appliances like the TV and computer. 

However, the Inverter is not technically part of the RV solar power installation.  That is, it doesn’t connect to the solar panels in any way.  You can use an inverter and not have any solar panels installed.  However, unless you plug into shore power, your batteries will get run down by watching all that TV!  That is why Inverters are lumped into the overall notion of RV solar power installations.  They are a vital component if you want to dry camp.

You can buy small, portable inverters for under $25 that will run your laptop from a cigarette lighter.  These work on the cigarette lighters inside an RV just the same as they work on the cigarette lighter in a car.  No difference.  If you are puzzled by all this, get a little power inverter and try it out.  I was totally enlightened the first time I turned on a small inverter in a car and saw the “charging” light on my laptop light up.

300 watt portable inverter

A 300 watt portable inverter ($20) with cigarette lighter plug and 2 AC outlets

A small 300 watt portable Inverters can run small 19″ LED TV too.  Anywhere from 300-500 watts is fine for pretty much everything in an RV except the microwave, hair dryer, vacuum and air conditioner.  You need an inverter of 1000 watts or more to run a small microwave, hair dryer or vacuum.  You can’t run an air conditioning unit from an inverter unless you have a boatload of batteries, something that few RVs can support because of the weight. To run our air conditioning, we use a Yamaha 2400i generator.

A 2000 watt inverter is fine for most things you might use.  You just can’t run the big appliances (microwave, vacuum and hair dryer) simultaneously.  If you are content using these appliances one at a time, don’t bother with an inverter larger than 2000 watts.  We power everything on the boat except the microwave with a 600 watt inverter.  We power everything in the fifth wheel, including the microwave, with a 2000 watt inverter.

Some higher end motorhomes come with an Inverter/Charger (see above), so they don’t need to have an Inverter installed – they already have one.  Turn on the Inverter/Charger, and shazam – all the AC outlets in the rig are “live.”

Atwood converter

A converter – this was factory installed on our fifth wheel

Most trailers do not come with an Inverter/Charger.  They come with a Converter instead.  So if you have a trailer, you will need to get an Inverter to watch TV.

This terminology is unfortunate, as “Inverter” and “Converter” sound so much the same.  However, they are almost the opposite of each other.

  • A Converter charges the batteries, i.e., it takes AC power from an external source — hookups or generator — and puts that energy into the DC batteries to charge them up.
  •  

  • An Inverter takes the DC power from the batteries and creates AC power so you can watch TV.

 

 

Wait, what was all that, again??

So, to recap:  when you install Solar Power in your RV, you are tackling two problems:  ( 1 ) Charging the batteries, and ( 2 ) Generating AC power from your DC batteries so you can watch TV, surf the internet, and charge your camera batteries.

You need three types of components or “parts” to do all this:

  •  An Inverter to create AC power out of the DC power that is stored in your batteries so you can use the TV and computer.  You can use little portable ones that plug into cigarette lighter outlets and/or you can install a big one.

If your rig came with an Inverter/Charger, you are halfway there and need only to add the components for charging the batteries (Solar Panels and Charge Controller).

Next Up: What you need for a small RV solar installation that’s good enough for summer weekends, vacations, and simple living on an extended tour.

Solar Tutorial Part II – A “Starter” Installation –>

FURTHER READING and RELATED ARTICLES

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

 

Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.

Shown here is a complete "weekender/vacationer" kit (far left), a small charge controller (middle) and a small inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links:

Purchases at any of our Amazon links help keep us going. But don't buy anything yet. Finish the tutorial first!

 

Subscribe
Never miss a post — it’s free!

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts are in the MENU.
New to this site? Visit RVers Start Here to find where we keep all the good stuff!!

Porta-bote Review

This page is a review of the 10′ Porta-bote operated with a 6 hp Suzuki 4-stroke outboard. The Porta-bote’s overall design is terrific, and it worked very well for us as a cruising dinghy during our nearly 4 year cruise of Mexico’s Pacific coast aboard our Hunter 44DS sailboat named Groovy.

We initially posted this review in 2012 after we had owned and used the Porta-bote for a year.

10' Porta-bote with 6 hp Suzuki outboard.

10′ Porta-bote with 6 hp outboard.

Since that time, the Porta-bote design has been completely overhauled and revamped.

The new Alpha series models being sold today are much improved over the older models. Many of the problems we had with our Porta-Bote have been eliminated by the new design.

In the end, we used the Porta-bote as our cruising dinghy for nearly four years and we were very happy with it. This review has been updated to indicate the areas in which the new Alpha series Porta-botes outshine the older models like ours.

The most notable improvements are:

  • The transom is an integral part of the hull and not a separate component
  • The seats have been completely redesigned
  • The plastic that the rub-rail is made of does not leave marks on white fiberglass motherships
The Porta-bote rows beautifully

The Porta-bote rows beautifully

We learned, after the fact, that the design engineers read and used this Porta-bote review to pinpoint aspects of the design that needed improvement when they did the Alpha redesign. I am really thrilled that our notes proved useful to them and gave them some good ideas.

The things we loved most about the Porta-bote were:

  • Easy and swift movement, whether rowing or motoring
  • Enormous capacity for carrying groceries, laundry, scuba gear and propane tanks to and from shore in the cruising lifestyle
  • Incredible ruggedness when dragging it up on shore or tying it to a pier covered with barnacles
  • Imperviousness to tropical UV rays, even when left in the sun for years on end
  • Excellent tracking in the water when towed behind a large cruising sailboat

We made a wonderful system for carrying the Porta-bote along our lifelines while on passage, and we found that the Porta-bote fit perfectly into our sailboat’s swim step.

We created a lightweight davit system to hoist it up out of the water every night.

The Porta-bote was light enough, even with the engine mounted on the transom, that I (an able bodied woman) could hoist it by hand to put it on our swimstep for the night without needing to winch it.

The notes below are offered for anyone considering using a Porta-bote as a cruising dinghy. It details how we used the boat and the custom modifications we made. Any criticisms we had of the boat that have been fixed in the new Alpha series are clearly noted in the review.

Would we consider a Porta-bote for a future tropical cruise? Absolutely!!

The official Porta-bote website is

www.porta-bote.com

PORTA-BOTE SPECIFICATIONS

The Porta-bote has lots of interior space

The Porta-bote has lots of interior space

Length: 10′
Beam: 5′
Weight: ~80 lbs (w/ seats but w/o outboard)
Weight: ~135 lbs (w/ seats & w/ outboard)

Component Parts:

1 Hull
3 Seats
1 Transom (transom is integral to the Alpha series hull)
3 pairs eyebolts/washers for seats
2 pairs wingnuts/washers for transom
1 pair aluminum collapsible oars

10' porta-bote has lots of interior space

There’s enough room to take a snooze!

Following is a summary of what we have found to be Porta-bote’s best and worst qualities when used as a cruising dinghy:

Porta-bote Strengths

  • Lightweight enough to hoist in davits effortlessly, even with the outboard
  • Lightweight enough to drag high onto the beach without dinghy wheels
  • Tows easily, with or without the outboard mounted (best without)
  • Rows beautifully — truly a pleasure to row
  • Planes quickly with a 55 lb. 6 hp outboard and two adults
  • Huge interior volume for hauling stuff
  • No worries about running it up on rocks
  • No need for a sunbrella cover to protect the hull from UV rays
  • Half the price of a comparable RIB dinghy

Porta-bote Weaknesses

  • No built-in system to attach a bridle for lifting the boat in davits
  • No “drain hole” in the hull to drain water when boat is out of the water **
  • Seats take up storage space and the long middle & rear seats can be awkward to carry
  • Black plastic seats get untouchably hot in the tropical sun

** We did not know this at the time, but if you want a drain plug, Porta-bote recommends installing a Ronstan RF294 Drain Plug on the side of the boat just in front of the transom and above the black tube.

Issues with OLDER MODEL Porta-botes (NOT applicable to the new Alpha series)

  • Some of the construction materials are not appropriate for tropical, salt water use
  • Transom is heavy, awkward to carry and takes up a lot of storage space
  • The flotation foam disintegrates in the sun and leaves black flecks on the floor
  • Black plastic seams along the length of the hull leave scuff marks on Groovy’s white gelcoat

Our overall assessment after nearly four years of using the Porta-bote in anchorages from San Diego to Zihuatanejo, Mexico is that it is a great little cruising dinghy, especially once a few modifications have been made.

Here are some details about its strengths and weaknesses along with descriptions of the upgrades we did to make it work better.

PORTA-BOTE STOWAGE LOCATIONS on a CRUISING SAILBOAT

The Porta-bote is not as compact a boat as you might think because it is not just a folding hull. It is a hull, three large seats and a big transom Note: in the Alpha series the transom is not a separate component as it was in the older Porta-botes.

The 8′ version is a hull, two seats and a transom, and is reportedly “just as difficult to set up” according to a singlehanding friend of ours who has cruised 10,000 miles, first with a 10′ Porta-bote and then, after he lost it, with an 8 footer. “I liked my 10 footer better,” he claimed. “Smaller doesn’t mean easier, and you lose all that interior space with the 8′ model.”

The Porta-bote planes easily with two adults on board

The Porta-bote planes easily with two adults on board

All the pieces of the Porta-bote are big and awkward to carry. For longer passages we disassemble the Porta-bote and store the hull in kayak-style racks outboard of Groovy’s starboard deck, so it is tucked out of the way without having to hang in davits off the back or lie upside down on the foredeck as most cruising dinghies do. Because of their length, we store the longest seat and the transom in the master stateroom (ugh!). We store the other two seats in our big cockpit locker, standing on end for easy retrieval.

For overnights at anchor we lift the dinghy in retractable davits that are built into our solar panel support arch. The Porta-bote fits perfectly into our sugar-scoop transom, resting neatly on the swim platform and held in place by the shape of Groovy’s hull.

We leave the outboard mounted on the Porta-bote. The boat and outboard are light enough that each of us can hoist the dinghy unassisted (our davit system has a simple 4-to-1 purchase and no winches). Splashing the boat in the morning is just a matter of lowering it a foot or so back into the water, which each of us can also do unassisted.

PORTA-BOTE SEATS and SEAT STOWAGE

The seats on the new Alpha series Porta-botes have been completely redesigned, and the transom is integral to the hull and not a separate component, so the following notes pertain strictly to older Porta-botes.

Porta-bote hull mounted on the lifelines of a sailboat

Porta-bote hull mounted on the lifelines of our sailboat

The three seats and transom are all large, heavy components made of plastic and metal. Each one has some swinging legs that hang off of it, making each piece quite a challenge to carry on a pitching boat. Each of the three seats has two (or three) metal U-shaped rods attached underneath that flip out and become the seat legs once the seat is installed in the Porta-bote. These metal loops are only loosely attached to the seats, relying on spring tension to keep them in place.

The first time I carried a seat forward on Groovy’s deck, one of the metal pieces detached itself from the seat and vanished over the side, never to be seen again. Fortunately Porta-bote replaced the piece free of charge. We now use duct tape to keep tension on the open part of the U-shaped rods so these crazy loops don’t fall off when we carry the seats to and from the foredeck. The metal loops fold back against the bottom of the seats.

Porta-bote rests on foredeck of a 44' Hunter 44DS sailboat

Porta-bote rests on foredeck of our 44′ Hunter 44DS sailboat

Actually, they swing freely and independently of each other, flopping all over the place. However, with some coordination they can be held against the seat while carrying it, still leaving a hand free “for the boat.” Unfortunately the loops don’t fold flat to the seat and there are no clips to hold them in place, so they flop around until you get a grip on them as you carry the seat. Also, when folded, at least one of the loops on each seat sticks out an inch or two beyond the end of the seat. So in the stored position the seat becomes even longer due to this metal bracket sticking out the end.

The design of the seats and legs could be infinitely improved. The seats could be designed to fold in half, shortening them considerably for stowage. The legs could fold into the seats and clip into place so they don’t flop around.

There is a myriad of possibilities for designing solid functional seats that are easy to carry and store. However, the current seats are very awkward, and the black plastic will singe your hand when you touch it after the boat has been sitting in the tropical sun for a few minutes. Simply making the seats of white plastic would be an immeasurable improvement.

We use towels to cover the seats, or in very hot places rely on flotation cushions (which slide around under you). We have heard of cruisers making sunbrella seat covers for the seats too. In the hottest places a towel is not sufficient and you will still burn your backside while sitting on the seats.

The biggest problem with the seats, besides being so difficult to lug around on a rolling boat, is that they are too big to stow easily. Some cruisers lash them on deck, but we have neither found a good place on deck for them nor come up with a quick way to tie them down securely. Many cruisers simply tow their Porta-bote instead of hassling with assembly and disassembly.

2008 Hunter 44DS Sailboat Groovy in Tangolunda Bay Huatulco Mexico

Groovy in Tangolunda Bay (Huatulco, Mexico)
The porta-bote is snug in its perch on the starboard side.

We met a couple that towed theirs thousands of miles up and down the Mexican coast. I consider this risky if the seas get out of hand, and it also seems to defeat the purpose of the folding “portable” nature of the boat.

On our boat the transom and middle seat are too long to fit in a cockpit locker in a way that is easily accessible, so we store them alongside our bed.

The other two seats fit in our large aft cockpit locker standing on end. In order to get a grip on these big floppy seats, we use several large Navy-issue canvas bags, storing two seats to a bag and putting a second bag over the other end so the whole seat is covered (they are salty and dirty when removed from the boat, and who wants that next to their bed?).

A tidier solution would be to have custom canvas bags made to fit the seats with a large rugged handle on the side. It would be awesome if these bags came with the Porta-bote right from the factory!

PORTA-BOTE TRANSOM and TRANSOM STOWAGE

The transom on the new Alpha series Porta-botes has been completely redesigned and is integral to the hull rather than being a separate component

The transom is not only long, wide and heavy, it has a big flopping plastic piece that folds over the hull when the transom is installed in the Porta-bote to provide a support for the outboard to clamp onto. This heavy piece is held to the transom by a thin piece of plastic that acts as a hinge and looks very prone to tearing.

Porta-bote transom on foredeck of sailboat

Transom lies on the foredeck

When we tow the Porta-bote, we remove the outboard, and then the plastic outboard support piece flaps as the Porta-bote goes over the waves, threatening to rip the hinge piece. To stop the flapping and wear and tear on that thin hinge, we use a large clamp to clamp the outboard support piece to the Porta-bote’s hull.

The transom also has two long metal L-brackets along each side. These are the supports that hold the transom in place: two pairs of wing nuts and washers secure the metal L-bracket to the side of the hull. These L-brackets are major ankle-biters and interior cabin wood-gougers when carrying the transom around.

Therefore, we load the transom and the longest seat into a canvas bag before lugging them anywhere — the flopping legs on the seat are held in place, the flopping outboard engine mounting piece is held in place, and the sharp metal edges of the L-brackets are somewhat protected by the heavy canvas.

Some clever engineers at Porta-bote could surely devise a way to secure the transom without requiring large metal L-brackets (or tiny wing nuts and washers, for that matter), and the outboard engine mount could definitely be designed to fold into the transom so it lies flush and is held in place with a clip system that keeps it from flopping around.

Please note that the new Alpha series Porta-botes have the transom integrated into the hull which eliminates the problems associated with carrying the transom around and attaching it to the hull!

PORTA-BOTE ASSEMBLY

Porta-bote assembly on the deck of a sailboat

Step 1: The hull is opened

We have tried several methods of assembling the Porta-bote on Groovy’s deck, and the best system we have found is described below. It takes us about 15 minutes, including retrieving the many parts from the cabin and the cockpit locker.

When the hull is in its stowed position, it is folded lengthwise twice: first the sides fold into the middle, then the (new) sides are folded in towards each other.

The end result looks like a small surfboard, 10′ long and about 4″ wide. Our first task is to remove the hull from its stowed position outboard of Groovy’s starboard side deck. Then:

    Center seat of porta-bote is installed

    Center seat is installed

    1. Carry the hull to the foredeck and open it up. The plastic is rigid and you have to use a lot of force to get the sides to open.

    Porta-bote provides a specially cut board to assist with this: you stand on one side of the hull and push against the other, wedging the board between the two. Eventually the board is positioned to hold the hull open.

    2. Insert the middle seat. The ends of the seats are inserted into metal supports that are riveted on either side of the interior of the hull.

    The seats don’t fit in the supports all that well. There is some wiggle room up and down and the angle of the supports is perpendicular to the hull, which is not ultimately in line with the seat’s horizontal orientation, because the hulls’ sides flair outward.

    Note: The seats have been totally redesigned in the Alpha series!

    Eyebolt / wingnut / washer combo for attaching the seats to the Porta-bote hull

    Eyebolt / wingnut / washer combo for attaching the seats to the Porta-bote hull

    3. Secure the middle seat with wing nuts and washers. The Porta-bote ships with long thin cotter pins that are tied to the seats with thin string so they don’t get lost.

    The cotter pins are intended to hold the seats in place against the metal hull supports, however they fly all over the place when you are carrying the seats, and they don’t hold the seats securely.

    Bolt-wingnut-washer combo for attaching the Porta-bote transom to the hull

    Bolt-wingnut-washer combo for attaching the transom to the hull

    Therefore, we replaced the cotter pins with long stainless steel eyebolts held in place with large stainless steel washers, both above and below the seat, and with a stainless steel lock washer underneath to keep everything tight despite the jiggling and jostling of the hull when the Porta-bote is driven over the waves.

    The eyebolt is slid through a hole in the upper part of the metal support, then through a hole in the seat and then through a hole in the lower part of the metal support, and a wingnut is screwed on from underneath.

    Note: The mechanism for attaching the seats to the hull has been upgraded in the Alpha series of Porta-botes, however we found the eyebolts useful…

    Bolt/wingnut attaching Porta-bote transom's L-bracket to the hull

    Bolt/wingnut attaching transom’s L-bracket to the hull

    The eyebolts also come in very handy for holding the dink in place behind Groovy’s swim platform. We have two lines rigged on either side of the swim platform with clips on the ends that clip into the Porta-bote’s eyebolts on the forward and aft seats. This keeps the Porta- bote parallel to Groovy’s transom and keeps it snug to the swim platform for easy boarding.

    4. Install the transom. The outboard mounting flap goes over the hull, and the metal L-brackets are attached to holes in the hull using bolts, wing nuts and washers.

    The Porta-bote ships with non-stainless bolts, nuts and washers, which are probably fine for the once-in-a-while lake fishing that the Porta-bote is built for. We replaced all these little pieces with stainless steel bolts, nuts and washers and added a lock washer to the set.

    The sizes of these pieces that Porta-bote ships are non-standard (I searched high and low for stainless components that would match the originals). Instead, we simply used replacement bolts, washers and nuts that would fit the holes rather than trying to match the thread pitch, bolt length and width of the ones from the factory.

    Attaching the Porta-bote transom to the hull with wingnuts

    Attaching the transom to the hull with wingnuts

    The lower wing nut / washer set on each side of the transom includes a rubber washer to keep that part of the boat watertight since that part sits below the waterline. The rubber washers last about 6 months in the salt water environment.

    We keep several spare rubber washers to use as replacements each time they wear out. In addition, we have a complete duplicate set of all the eyebolts, straight bolts, wing nuts and washers that we use for the Porta-bote, as it is all too easy to drop one of these tiny pieces overboard while assembling or disassembling the Porta-bote on deck.

    Porta-bote is hoisted on spare halyard

    Porta-bote is hoisted on spare halyard

    The worst aspect of the Porta-bote design for use as a cruising dinghy prior to the new Alpha series, is that you are fumbling with the very large pieces of a 10′ long hull, several wide seats that don’t fit into their supports very well, and a big heavy transom, all while screwing the whole thing together with tiny wing nuts.

    The bottom of the boat is a black plastic “hinge” that acts as something of a keel, so the boat doesn’t sit flat on deck but pivots about on this round tube of plastic.

    So when Groovy rolls in the swell, the porta-bote pivots on its keel, and you are hanging onto the boat in one hand with a fist full of wing nuts and washers in the other, all while trying to mate the threads of the wing nuts to the bolts.

    Porta-bote is lowered into the water

    Porta-bote is lowered into the water

    5. Raise the Porta-bote up and over the lifelines and lower it into the water using the spare halyard.

    We have an electric halyard winch that works really well but also works quite hard during this process (of course it would be a great upper body workout to winch it by hand).

    When the boat rises up in the air, the outboard mounting bracket flops down unless we clip it in place with a large clip before raising the boat. Note: This has been remedied in the new Alpha transom design.

    This part of the process can be tricky in a large swell or in high winds, as the boat is difficult for the guy on deck (Mark!) to control as it swings around on the halyard.

     

    6. Move the boat to the swim platform, clip middle and rear seats’ eyebolts to two lines on Groovy’s transom to keep the Porta-bote parallel to Groovy’s swim platform for easy access, and install the other two seats.

    7. Lower the outboard engine onto the mountain bracket on the transom (using one of the dinghy davits) and secure it in place.

Porta-bote is brought back to sailboat swim platform for the rest of the assembly

Porta-bote is brought back to the swim platform
for the rest of the assembly

Porta-bote front seat is installed

Front seat is installed

Porta-bote rear seat is ready for installation.

Rear seat is ready for installation.
Note the 3 u-shaped metal legs.

Porta-bote rear seat is attached using eyebolts and  washers.

Porta-bote is clipped to swim platform
to keep it parallel to Groovy.

Porta-bote Suzuki outboard is installed on transom

Outboard is installed on transom

TOWING the PORTA-BOTE

Porta-bote being towed by sailboat

Painter is tied at two points on Groovy’s transom to create a 3-point bridle. A second line is tied to Groovy’s transom “just in case.”

The Porta-bote tows beautifully, and we have towed it (without the engine mounted), for hundreds of miles, a few times in some rather large and lumpy seas.

We have towed it with the outboard mounted too, and that works just fine, but we wouldn’t want to go more than a few very sheltered miles towing it that way.

We tie the Porta-bote’s painter to two points on Groovy’s transom, making a bridle. We usually tie a second line to Groovy as well, just in case. There’s nothing like trying to find and retrieve a lost dinghy in big seas (been there, done that!).

We have tried towing the Porta-bote far behind Groovy, but have found it behaves much better when it is snugged up close behind.

We keep it about a foot or so off of Groovy’s transom. Sometimes when we are sailing slowly in lumpy, following seas it has a tendency to run into the back of Groovy.

HOISTING the PORTA-BOTE in DAVITS

We had a custom made stainless steel arch extension built for our boat to support our 555 watts of solar panels and to provide telescoping davits to hoist the Porta-bote.

We drilled two holes on the stern end of the Porta-bote just forward of the transom, one on each side of the hull. We had four stainless steel plates made to reinforce these holes, and those are bolted in place (with stainless bolts), one plate on the inside and one on the outside of each hole, sandwiching the plastic hull in between. To create a davit bridle, we simply run a line between those two holes in the hull’s stern and run another line between the two factory-installed holes in the bow of the boat to make a two-point hoisting system for our davits.

Because the lifting points are at the top of the hull, it is not possible to snug the Porta-bote tightly into the davits. Instead, it always swings a little, no matter how high you hoist it. If the lifting points were in the bottom of the boat, the top edges of the hull could be pulled flush to the davit arms. However, I am not sure how to install lifting points in the boat’s floor. So we don’t travel with the Porta-bote in the davit system.

Porta-bote sits on sailboat swim platform

We raise the Porta-bote out of the water onto the swim platform at night.

The davits are ideal for getting the boat out of the water at night when we are at anchor, as the Porta-bote sits snugly on the swim platform and we secure it with lines tied to the seats’ eyebolts to keep it perfectly still.

Porta-bote in Mexico

Also, if it rains (which it doesn’t do in Mexico’s winter cruising season) or if there is a lot of dew, the boat doesn’t have a drain hole to release the water. Water also collects in the bottom of the boat when we drive it hard, as waves splash in and water jumps over the transom. So there is occasional light bailing to be done, but not more than a sponge or towel can handle.

One thing we discovered is that the Porta-bote’s black plastic seam tubes that run along the length of the hull are made of a plastic that leaves scuff marks on Groovy’s white fiberglass gelcoat.

When we hoist the dinghy in the davits, it invariably bumps along Groovy’s transom a bit, and over time it leaves a lot of marks. They come off with a little elbow grease and polish, but there are plastics out there that are non-marking, and if Porta-bote used that kind of plastic it would be a huge improvement.

Note: The black plastic seam tubes in the new Alpha series does not leave scuff marks

FLOTATION

Just beneath the black plastic lip at the top of the Porta-bote hull there is a strip of foam rivited to the hull. This provides enough flotation to keep the boat afloat if it fills with water — as long as there is no outboard engine mounted on the boat. The foam material deteriorates in the sun and flakes off, constantly leaving little black flecks all over the Porta-bote’s floor. I have heard of cruisers covering this foam with Sunbrella to keep it intact and prevent its total disintegration. I haven’t gotten to that project yet… This foam provides a little flotation, but the Porta-bote will definitely sink if it is swamped while an outboard engine is mounted on its transom.

Note: The flotation material in the new Alpha series Porta-botes does not disintegrate in the sun

USING the PORTA-BOTE

A lot of this description so far includes many negatives and short-comings of the Porta-bote, simply because [the older models were] not designed to be a cruising dinghy and is rather carelessly engineered and cheaply manufactured. However, the great qualities of this dinghy show up once it has been assembled and is out on the water. We have found ways to work around its portability limitations, and feel that because of its good traits on the water it is an excellent choice as a cruising dinghy. We would buy it again, and here’s why:

Porta-bote beach Manzanillo Mexico

Our Porta-bote lines up with inflatable dinghies on wheels
in Santiago Bay, Manzanillo, Mexico

The interior volume is enormous. We have packed it with a month’s worth of groceries (at the supermarket the provisions were mounded way above the top of the shopping cart) along with three weeks worth of laundry (in two huge laundry bags), plus ourselves, and we still had space leftover.

We have also loaded it with five adults and putted along at a good clip. I think six adults would be pushing it. There is plenty of space on the seats for six adults, but the boat would sink too low in the water. It is a fast boat that planes easily with both of us aboard using just a lightweight 6 hp 4-stroke outboard. We raced a traditional RIB dinghy driven by a 15 hp outboard and carrying two adults. They barely pulled away from us as we reached about the quarter mile mark.

The Porta-bote is lots of fun.

The Porta-bote is lots of fun.

I love rowing, and the Porta-bote is a lot of fun to row. It tracks well and moves nicely through the water. For the passionate rower the oars are totally inadequate and should be replaced.

The oarlocks in the hull also seem a little flimsy to me and I wonder how long they will hold up, as they flex ominously with every pull on the oars. The oars themselves are made for very light, occasional use. They are aluminum and they split into two halves for stowage, the handle half and the paddle half. The two halves are joined with a plastic pin-through-a-hole system, but the pin doesn’t actually go through the hole very well because the plastic spring mechanism is flimsy and weak.

So, the oars are prone to coming apart if you don’t keep an eye on them. Each oar has an aluminum pin that fits into the hole in the Porta-bote’s oarlock. The pin is held in place on the oar with a sleeve around the oar that is fastened with an aluminum bolt and wing nut.

On our fifth time out rowing, the bolt on one of our oars crumbled mid-stroke. We replaced the bolts and wing nuts on both oars with stainless steel, and they have been fine ever since. Over our four year cruise, we did not end up rowing the Porta-bote but used the outboard all the time instead.

Whether rowing or motoring, it takes a while to get used to the Porta-bote’s flexible floor. You can feel every wave and bump under your feet, and it is a very moveable platform, nothing like a hard dinghy or a RIB. However, the movement is just part of the package, and once you are accustomed to it, it’s kinda neat.

Porta-bote motoring away from sailboat

The Porta-bote is a great cruising dinghy.

All-in-all we are very happy with the Porta-bote. No cruising dinghy is ideal, each type being a pain in the neck in at least a few ways. We like the lightweight nature of the Porta-bote and being able to get most of it off the deck and out of the davits and out of the way while on a long passage.

We like its good manners while towing, its speed under power and its voluminous interior space for provisioning runs. The compromises and required upgrades are okay with us in return for its many good qualities. If Porta-bote ever went back to the drawing board and studied its plans and re-engineered the boat for use as a cruising dinghy, they could create a truly superior dink that surpassed everything else on the market.

As noted above, Porta-bote did just that, and the result is the new Alpha series!

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Trailer Disc Brake Conversion – Electric Over Hydraulic Disc Brakes – WOW!

There are several types of braking systems available on bumper pull travel trailers and fifth wheel trailers today. Two of the most common are electric drum brakes, a less expensive system, and electric over hydraulic disc brakes which are a bit more costly. We recently converted our 36′ fifth wheel trailer’s braking system from factory installed electric drum brakes to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. What an incredible improvement this upgrade has made in our stopping power and personal safety. The difference is like night and day!!

This page outlines our reasons behind doing this upgrade and the components we chose for our brake conversion. It also gives a pictorial overview of the installation process.

Trailer hydraulic disc brake and caliper installed on an RV wheel

The disc (or rotor) and caliper with red brake pads peeks out from inside our trailer wheel.

This is a long post. You can skip down to the different sections using the following links:

HOW TRAILER BRAKES WORK

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Electric drum trailer brakes and electric over hydraulic disc brakes function very differently.

To engage electric drum brakes in a trailer, when the driver depresses the brake pedal in the tow vehicle, an electrical signal is sent to the trailer’s brakes via a brake control unit in the truck. The brake control may be factory installed or it may be an external unit that is installed by the owner. The electrical signal engages an electromagnet on the trailer’s wheels that expands the brake shoes as the current gets stronger, creating friction on the wheel and slowing it down.

Brake Pedal -> Electrical Signal via Brake Control -> Trailer Brakes

To engage electric over hydraulic disc brakes on a trailer, when the driver depresses the brake pedal in the tow vehicle, an electrical signal is sent to a brake actuator unit in the trailer via the brake control unit in the truck. The brake actuator in the trailer then pumps hydraulic disc fluid through a line to the disc brake calipers on the trailer’s wheels. The build-up of fluid pressure actuates the brake calipers which, in turn, squeeze the brake pads against the disc, slowing the trailer down.

Brake Pedal -> Electrical Signal via Brake Control -> Brake Hydraulic Fluid Pumped by Brake Actuator -> Trailer Brakes

Drum brakes are an older technology. However, RV trailer manufacturers continue to install electric drum brakes to this day because it is far less expensive than installing electric over hydraulic disc brakes. The highest end full-time fifth wheel trailers are frequently offered with an option for electric over hydraulic disc brakes, but they are rarely provided as standard equipment.

Besides greatly increasing overall braking power, one of the biggest advantages of hydraulic brakes is that it is much easier to modulate the brakes for smoother stopping. In contrast, electric drum brakes on trailers can be very jerky, as the brakes are either ON or OFF. We often used to feel the trailer bump into the back of our truck as we stopped, hitting us with a jolt.

TRAILER ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES versus CAR HYDRAULIC BRAKES

Cars are manufactured with hydraulic brakes, sometimes with disc brakes in the front and hydraulic drum brakes in the back. Many high end bicycles are even built with hydraulic disc brakes! Electric over hydraulic trailer disc brakes are slightly more complex than car hydraulic brakes, but they provide trailers with the same smooth stopping power that we enjoy in our cars.

The difference between the way hydraulic disc brakes on cars and electric over hydraulic disc brakes on trailers function is that there is no electrical signal involved in a car’s braking system. This is because the car is a single vehicle. No signal needs to be passed from one vehicle to another, as it does with a truck and trailer combo. The tricky part about a truck/trailer is that the brake pedal is in the front of the truck by the driver’s foot while the trailer’s brakes are way behind the driver at the back end of the trailer. Also, in a car, the hydraulic fluid is located under the hood in a master cylinder which performs the same function as the brake actuator that is located in the trailer.

Again, in a car, when the brake pedal is depressed, hydraulic fluid flows directly to the brakes to engage them. In a truck and trailer combo, an electrical signal has to be passed from the truck to the trailer to activate the hydraulic disc brakes in the trailer via the brake actuator.

ON THE ROAD COMPARISON OF TRAILER BRAKING SYSTEMS:
Electric Drum versus Electric Over Hydraulic Disc Brakes

Our fifth wheel trailer, a 36′ 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker II, came with factory installed electric drum brakes. We towed it, with that braking system, behind our 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 truck for the first six years we owned it, for a total of about 40,000 miles. When we upgraded to electric over hydraulic disk brakes, we were stunned by what a massive improvement in braking power and safety that simple upgrade provided!

We have now towed our trailer over 1,200 miles since the brake system upgrade, traveling on interstate freeways, maneuvering around tight gas stations and campgrounds, and driving in gnarly stop-and-go-traffic in slick, rainy weather. All we can say is:

“We should have done this a long time ago — probably on Day 1!”

The differences we experienced between the electric drum brakes and the electric over hydraulic disc brakes can be summed up as follows:

DRIVING AND STOPPING COMPARISON

Electric Drum Brakes Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brakes
The truck felt like it was stopping the trailer The truck and trailer stop together evenly without one stopping the other
Braking was either ON or OFF, resulting in a jerky motion Braking is proportional to your speed and is very smooth
Had to mess with the brake control every time we changed between highway and gas station speeds Haven’t touched the brake control since the upgrade was installed
As brakes age, braking power decreases As brakes age, braking power does not change

 

MAINTENANCE COMPARISON

Electric Drum Brakes Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brakes
Have to remove wheel and brake hub to inspect brake pads
  • Easy to inspect disc pads without removing the wheels to see if they are worn (use a mirror if they are hard to see)
  • Periodically have to adjust the drums Never have to adjust the discs
    Have to have drums turned OR replace the drums and backing plate with magnet, shoes, springs and cables Easy to replace brake pads with standard GM brake pads from an auto parts store if rotors are okay
    Removing trailer tires to grease the wheel brearings

    Mark removes the trailer wheels to grease the wheel bearings.

     

    DECIDING TO UPGRADE THE TRAILER BRAKING SYSTEM

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    We decided to do this brake system upgrade after Mark inspected the condition of the electric drum brakes that had been factory installed on our fifth wheel when we bought it new seven years ago. He was greasing the trailer’s wheel bearings, and while he had one of the wheels disassembled, he inspected the brake assemby inside.

    Greased wheelbearings on a trailer

    Mark used a Zerk gun to grease the trailer’s wheel bearings.

    He was dismayed to find that both the magnet and the braking surface were basically shot. He completed the wheel bearing lube job, but after he got the wheels mounted back on the trailer, we weighed our options for the brakes.

    Inside a trailer brake drum

    The inside of the trailer wheel and electromagnet at the bottom.

    Electromagnet inside an RV trailer brake drum

    Lots of wear on the electromagnet that controls the electric drum braking mechanism.

    As mentioned above, besides providing inferior braking power all together, one of the disadvantages of electric drum brakes is that, as the brakes age, the braking power gets progressively worse. Not only does the braking surface wear down but the electromagnet gets worn as well.

    In recent months, Mark had been noticing that the trailer brakes were not working as well as when the trailer was new, although he was shocked to see just what poor shape they were in when he disassembled the wheels!

    It is possible to have trailer brake drums turned. “Turning” involves putting the brake drums on a lathe and grinding the surface down to get rid of ridges and make it smooth. However, while a car’s drum brakes can be turned at an auto parts store, trailer brakes need to be taken to a machine shop. This is because they have to be turned not only on the braking surface that the brake pads ride on, but on the electromagnet surface as well. One of the disadvantages of turning the drums, however, is that it makes the braking surfaces thinner and weaker.

    When we began investigating the cost of having the drums turned, we found that it would not be that much less than the cost of replacing the brakes all together which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500.

    An alternative to turning the drums or replacing the brake assemblies would be to upgrade the trailer’s entire braking system to electric over hydraulic disc brakes. This is an expensive endeavor, on the order of $3,200, but the more we thought about our personal safety on the road, the more it seemed like it was a wise choice to do the brake conversion.

    THE COMPONENT PARTS OF AN ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKE SYSTEM

    There are three components involved in the installation of electric over hydraulic disc brakes:

    • Brake Control in the truck
    • Brake Actuator in the trailer
    • Hydraulic Disc Brakes on the trailer wheels

    In between these components there is both wiring and high pressure line:

    • The Brake Control must be wired into the truck (late model trucks have factory-installed brake controls).
    • The Brake Actuator must be wired into the 7-pin connector on the trailer that the truck plugs into.
    • High pressure lines must be installed between the Brake Actuator and the Disc Brake assembly on each wheel

    Our first job was to determine which components to install. Reading many reviews and talking at length with each manufacturer and visiting several booths at the Quartzsite Arizona RV Show, we chose:

    Kodiak Hydraulic Disc Brakes

    The heart of the electric over hydraulic disc brake system is the disc brake assembly itself, and Kodiak makes superior quality brakes.

    Kodiak has been making disc brake assemblies for over twenty years and is very highly regarded. Kodiak originated as a parts manufacturer for boat trailers, and their brakes are extremely popular in the boat trailer market.

    Kodiak dIsc brake rotor and caliper assembly for RV electric over hydraulic disc brakes

    Kodiak disc brake assembly
    Rotor and caliper installed on the axle.

    Since many boaters launch their boats in the ocean, Kodiak hydraulic disc brake assemblies are offered with dacromet coating and stainless steel options so they can withstand the continuous and highly corrosive drenching they get when boaters launch their boats on and off their trailers in salt water.

    Kodiak disc brakes are also very popular in the horse trailer industry, especially on the largest, heaviest horse trailers that carry multiple horses and have living quarters as well.

    To see the parts included in a Kodiak disc brake assembly, click here.

    Hydrastar Brake Actuator

    The brake actuator is the key middleman in the trailer braking system, and the Hydrastar Electric over Hydraulic Disc Brake Actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions has an excellent reputation as being extremely durable and rugged, even when mounted on the tongue of a travel trailer.

    The role this unit plays is vital, as it is the part of the system that receives the electrical signal coming from the brake control in the truck and, in turn, pumps the hydraulic fluid out to the disc brakes on the trailer’s wheels.

    Hydrastar electric over hydraulic disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    Hydrastar electric over hydraulic disc brake actuator.

    Like Kodiak, the the Hydrastar electric over hydraulic brake actuator is engineered for the salt water boat trailer market where water and corrosion are everyday challenges. The Hydrastar brake actuator is sealed extraordinarily well so it can be mounted on the tongue of a travel trailer. The whole circuit board is covered in epoxy and can function perfectly well when submerged under water. One of their most popular trade show demonstrations is to show the Hydrastar brake actuator working while suspended inside an aquarium full of water.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control

    We have had an older generation Prodigy brake control in our truck since we purchased our first 27′ 2007 Fleetwood Lynx Travel Trailer, however, it does not work with electric over hydraulic disc brakes. We were delighted to find that there is a much better Prodigy brake control on the market now.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Controller

    Tekonsha Prodigy P3 Brake Control

    The Prodigy P3 is portable and has been designed for people who use many different tow vehicles to tow many different trailers. Not only can it be moved from truck to truck easily, it can memorize its programmed settings for different trailers. It can even be programmed for one trailer that has different characteristics at different times, for instance, a 7-horse trailer that may be loaded with 7 horses or may be empty.

    Best of all, we could swap out the old Prodigy for the new P3 easily because the new unit used the same wiring harness as the old one.

     

    INSTALLING ELECTRIC OVER HYDRAULIC DISC BRAKES ON A TRAILER

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    Mark was confident he could do the upgrade himself. However, he was not sure he wanted to tackle running the high pressure hydraulic lines. He did that kind of work when we installed the engine-driven ocean water desalination system on our sailboat, and it was challenging getting the lines cut and getting the fittings installed on the cut line. He decided he would prefer to have professionals install this system, and we did a search to find a company that has done hundreds of trailer brake system upgrades.

    Trailer brake upgrade at Zanetti Trailer Repair

    Our buggy gets set up in a repair bay at Zanetti Trailer.

    Zanetti Trailer Repair is located just west of Fort Worth, Texas, in the town of Weatherford, and they do this kind of brake conversion frequently. Considered a horse trailer guru, Pete Zanetti started the company in 1980, and it is still a family operated business.

    Texas doesn’t have the best winter weather, and when we arrived after driving through the remnants of a horrific ice storm, our trailer was covered with a thick layer of road grime, but our gleaming new parts were ready and waiting.

    Electric over hydraulic disc brake upgrade parts

    The disc brakes, brake actuator and brake control are ready to be installed on our trailer.

    A team of three mechanics jumped on the job. To our amazement, within three hours they had completed the entire installation!

    Below is a summary of the steps they took to do the brake system upgrade.

    First, after jacking up the trailer, the wheels were removed.

    Removing wheels from a 5th wheel trailer

    Our buggy’s wheels are removed once again.

    Wheels removed from fifth wheel trailer RV

    Right down to the axles and spindles.

    Then the backing plates for the disc brakes were installed on the axles.

    Disc brake backing plate on a trailer axle and spindle

    The disc brake backing plate is mounted on the axle.

    On a table to the side, the four sets of brake assemblies and bearings were laid out, ready to be greased and put together.

    Hydraulic disc brake components- calipers, rotors and bearings

    The four rotors and calipers will be put together in assembly-line fashion.

    Here’s a closeup of the brake calipers with the red brake pads inside. The red brake pads will need to be replaced when the indented brake surface material wears away.

    Kodiak disc brake caliper with brake shoes

    The Kodiak disc brake caliper.

    Kodiak trailer disc brake caliper with brake shoes

    The brake pads are red, and when worn down to the indent, they will need replacing.

    The wheel bearings and seals were laid out, ready to be inserted in the brake rotor.

    Wheel bearings for Kodiak trailer disc brakes

    New wheel bearings ready to be lubed up and installed.

    Mark had just finished greasing the old wheel bearings on our trailer using a zerk gun. What a surprise it was to see a huge trash barrel filled with wheel bearing grease!

    Barrel of wheel bearing grease

    A Barrel O’ Grease — wow!
    They used an extremely sticky grease.

    The rotors were greased and then the new bearings were pressed in.

    Greasing the rotor on RV hydraulic disc brakes

    Greasing the inside of the rotor.

    Pressing the wheel bearings into the rotor on trailer disc brakes

    Pressing grease into a wheel bearing.

    Then the brake rotors were installed on the axles, and the brake calipers were installed on the rotors.

    Trailer disc brake rotors installed

    The brake rotors are installed on the axles. A brake caliper waits its turn on the ground.

    Kodiak dIsc brake rotor and caliper assembly for RV electric over hydraulic disc brakes

    Kodiak disc brake assembly with rotor and caliper mounted on the trailer’s axle.

    Outside (in the rain!) the old brake hubs had been discarded.

    Old trailer electric drum brakes in the trash heap

    We won’t need these any more!

    Meanwhile, the installers got busy installing the Hydrastar brake actuator in the trailer and wiring it to the fifth wheel pin box. To test the installation, they used a special electronic unit to simulate a person pressing on the brake pedal in the truck.

    Installing the Hydrastar brake actuator on a fifth wheel trailer

    Wiring the Hydrastar brake actuator into the
    fifth wheel pin box.

    Then they unrolled and straightened the stainless steel brake line tubing…

    Measuring and cutting electrical wire for trailer disc brake actuator installation

    Unrolling and straightening the stainless steel brake line tubing.

    … and ran the electrical wires from the pin box into the fifth wheel basement

    Wiring in electrical cable for disc brake actuator in a 5th wheel trailer RV

    Feeding the electrical wire through to the fifth wheel basement.

    The Hydrastar brake actuator unit found a home just inside one of the basement side access doors.

    Hydrastar disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    Hydrastar disc brake actuator installed in the fifth wheel basement.

    Hydrastar hydraulic trailer disc brake actuator from Cargo Towing Solutions

    The Hydrastar disc brake actuator is close to a side hatch for easy access.

    On the underside of the trailer and along the trailer axles, they did a superior job of dressing the hydraulic brake line and connections.

    Hydraulic brake line dressed on bottom of RV

    Looking up at the bottom of the trailer, the hydraulic lines run underneath the trailer, neatly dressed.

    And then they bled the brake lines.

    Bleeding the hydraulic brakes on an RV

    Bleeding the hydraulic brakes. A special box simulated a person depressing the brake pedal in the truck.

    Then it was time to put the Prodigy P3 Brake Control into the truck. This is a portable unit that comes with a carrying pouch. We have only one truck, so we won’t be carrying the brake control from one truck to another. Mark later found the little pouch was perfect for his pocket camera!

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control from Tekonsha

    The Prodigy P3 Brake Control is a nifty portable unit that can be moved
    from one tow vehicle to another.

    The brake control is on the lower right side of the dashboard under the steering wheel.

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control installed on a Dodge RAM 3500_

    Prodigy P3 Brake Control mounted below our Dodge RAM 3500 dashboard

    We were astonished that all this had taken just under three hours, and the installers were almost finished. Wrapping up the job, the wheels were mounted back on the trailer and the trailer was taken off the jacks.

    Replacing the wheels on a fifth wheel trailer

    The wheels get mounted back on the trailer axles.

    The new disc brakes looked very spiffy peeking through our dirty wheels!

    Dirty Wheels and new electric over hydraulic trailer disc brakes

    Oh gosh — sure wish we’d cleaned those wheels before this installation!
    But the brand new disc and caliper look great in there…

    It was time to hitch up the trailer and hit the road with our new brakes. I loved the little painted stone outside the office door.

    Zanetti Trailer - We'll Fix Your Wagon

    Zanetti Trailer’s motto is “We’ll Fix Your Wagon” !!

     

    SUMMARY

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    Mark was blown away when we got the trailer out on the highway. On the Prodigy P3 Brake Control, he experimented with a few settings and settled on a boost of “B2” and 8.5 volts. As we eased onto the highway, he commented, “It feels like I’m driving a car!”

    During the next three weeks we made our way from central Texas to the Florida coast, driving in all kinds of conditions, from remote back roads, to many miles on the I-10 Interstate freeway. We sat for hours in massive stop-and-go traffic jams around big cities, and Mark coped with tricky driving situations on small downtown city roads with lots of stop lights.

    In the past, if a traffic light turned yellow at the wrong moment as we approached, we just had to keep going and cross our fingers that it wouldn’t turn red while we were crossing the intersection, because we just couldn’t stop the trailer in such a short distance. No more!! On many occasions, as we came to an intersection, the light turned yellow on our approach, and Mark was able to stop the truck and trailer in time in a nicely controlled manner.

    In Fort Worth, TX, and again around Baton Rouge, LA, we found ourselves in amazingly congested traffic. Mark was able to relax in the heat of the battle, completely confident that he could stop the trailer in a very short distance if need be.

    Fifth wheel trailer RV in Florida at sunset

    Sometimes the best improvements are not something you can see on the surface!

    When we got into Sarasota, Florida, we came across some astonishingly aggressive drivers. One driver cut us off with just an inch to spare, instantly coming to a complete stop directly in front of us. It was a heart stopping moment that all RVers dread. Mark slammed on the brakes with a force I have never seen him use, either in a car or in our truck pulling our home.

    All the tires of the truck and trailer squealed as we came to a shockingly abrupt stop, leaving lots of rubber on the road behind us. We were both stunned that the trailer stopped in such a short distance. There is no doubt that if we had had our old electric drum brakes, we would have rear-ended the car in front of us and had a really bad — and possibly life threatening — accident.

    Believe me, the irony that we had just replaced our brakes, and had jokingly said we needed to test just how good they were, was not lost on us. But we never would have lurched our house like that just to see if the brakes worked!!

    This brake conversion is an upgrade that Mark dreamed of doing for ages, ever since our RVing mentors Bob and Donna Lea had told us about how differently their electric over hydraulic disc brakes performed on their 33′ fifth wheel compared to the electric drum brakes they’d had on other trailers.

    In the end, it was totally painless and very easy to do, and looking back, we realize we should have just bitten the bullet the first year we owned our trailer and gotten it done right away.

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    Edge Evolution CS Tuner Review – Peak Truck Performance!

    The engines in most cars and trucks are computer driven these days, but the installation of an engine tuner puts the driver in the driver’s seat instead. An engine tuner, or programmer, gives the driver the ability to fine tune the engine’s efficiency and performance by manipulating the computer’s input parameters to suit the driving task at hand.

    Since 2007, we have lived year-round in a 14,100 lb, 36′ 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer. For eight years, the truck we used to tow this big trailer was a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel Long Bed truck. Half of our miles driven, we towed the trailer. The other half, we drove it around town with nothing in tow and a few hundred pounds of cargo the bed of the truck. Once in a while we threw in an off-road adventure just for fun.

    2007 Dodge RAM 3500

    Our 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 single rear wheel truck

    When the truck had 85,000 miles on it, we installed an Edge Diesel Evolution CS tuner, and what a world of difference that made to our driving experience, not only when we were towing but also when we were driving the truck around without the trailer attached.

    In a nutshell, it has:

    • Increased our truck’s power
    • Improved our gas mileage
    • Given us a readout for the transmission temperature.

    And it was an easy installation to boot.

    We also installed an optional companion product, the Edge EAS Exhaust Gas Temp sensor which gives us another piece of crucial temperature data when we are towing under heavy load. This is not a mandatory installation.

    We couldn’t be more pleased with these upgrades!

    Big Bend Texas Bound

    Our truck with our fifth wheel trailer attached.

    This is a long post, and you can skip down the page to the following sections:

    1. Why Install an Engine Tuner?
    2. Edge Evolution CS Tuner – Tested and Validated
    3. Installing the Edge Tuner
    4. More POWER Driving in the Rocky Mountains
    5. More TEMP DATA Towing in the Rockies
    6. Better MPG – Fuel Efficiency Improvements, Towing and Not Towing
    7. Additional Exhaust Gas Temperature Sensor Installation
    8. Other features of the Edge Evolution CS tuner

    1. Why Install an Engine Tuner?

    We first became interested in the idea of installing the Edge Evolution CS tuner when Mark saw an article in the October 2014 issue of Diesel Power Magazine (“Tested, Proven, Validated — Edge’s DPF-On Tuner Walks the Walk”). This article discusses the improvements the tuner had made on our exact model truck (well, a 2009 rather than a 2007, but with everything else virtually the same, including the mileage!).

    The Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner works on Ford, GM/Chevy and Dodge RAM.

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner mounted on the dashboard of a Dodge RAM 3500 truck

    The Edge Tuner is mounted on the windshield, low enough not to restrict visibility but still easy to see.

    Why install a tuner? It lets the driver fine tune the engine performance and boost power when needed

    The beauty of the Edge programmer is that it doesn’t change anything in the engine permanently. It simply gives the driver the ability to fine tune the engine for its specific job at the moment, whether that is towing a big trailer, carrying a heavy load in the bed, racing off-road, or driving around town.

    Light duty diesel trucks (i.e., Ford 250/350, Chevy 2500/3500 and Dodge RAM 2500/3500) are built for many uses, from towing heavy horse and RV trailers, to off-road racing, to driving across town and across country carrying big loads.

    The on-board computer of every model truck is programmed at the factory to be able to do each of these things pretty well. However, it is impossible to program the computer to operate the engine at peak performance in all conditions. To make things worse, the truck manufacturers don’t provide the driver with a way to optimize the engine’s performance or to monitor some of the data the computer has already gathered.

    Much of the truck computer’s capabilities and data remain inaccessible to the driver.

    This is where the Edge tuner comes in, because it allows the driver to fine tune the engine for the immediate job at hand.

    The idea behind the Edge tuner is to put the programming power into the hands of the driver, and to provide gauges for monitoring much of the data that the engine’s sensors detect. The Edge tuner can program the truck’s computer to maximize towing power or maximize non-towing fuel efficiency, depending on the kind of driving you are doing that day. It can also set the truck’s computer back to the stock factory settings, which is important if the truck is going into the shop for repair.

    Because nothing mechanical is modified or tampered with, this means that nothing whatsoever is lost by installing the Edge tuner, but a whole lot is gained.

    Why install a tuner? It gives the driver more detailed engine & transmission temperature data

    We were intrigued by the Edge tuner because the installation appeared to be very easy, and the results were absolutely terrific. We tow our big fifth wheel trailer over huge, nasty mountain passes in the western states on a regular basis in the summertime, often tackling 10% and 15% grades on secondary roads. A little more towing power would be awesome!

    What’s more, the tuner displays temperature data that the truck’s computer already has but that the truck manufacturer doesn’t display on the dashboard gauges. All this data is readily available via the OBD-II port (“On Board Diagnostic”) under the dashboard, you just have to plug into it. This is what the Edge programmer does — it is totally “plug-and-play.”

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner programmer for diesel trucks

    In this image, the tuner is set up to display three different types of temperature data:
    Engine Coolant Temp (left), Exhaust Gas Temp (middle bar), Transmission Fluid Temp (right).
    From the factory, most trucks display ONLY the Engine Coolant Temperature.

    So, the Edge tuner would allow us to monitor the transmission temperature as we drove over mountain passes. This is vital data that is not accessible with our standard engine temp gauges.

    Installing a companion product, the Edge Products EAS Exhaust Gas Temp sensor would let us monitor the exhaust gas temperature as well. Data from this optional sensor is shown in the middle gauge in the above image.

    Having this extra information would allow us take action if something other than the engine coolant temperature overheated. It would also keep us better in touch with what was going on in the engine, in the event that the engine coolant temp was within an acceptable range but some other part of the truck’s propulsion were overheating. That scenario doesn’t seem possible, but read on…

    You see, the factory installed engine coolant temp gauge in the truck cab tells only part of the story!

    Why install a tuner? It improves the truck’s Fuel Efficiency (MPG)

    We’ve always wished for a little better fuel mileage, both towing and when we are driving around town without our house attached. The tuner’s Level 2 programming mode promised improved fuel efficiency in non-towing conditions.

    As it turned out, the tuner has increased our truck’s fuel efficiency in all situations.

    What about the truck’s warranty?

    A tuner (or “programmer”) does not permanently modify the truck’s computer or engine. There are “chips” on the market that make a permanent modification, but tuners and programmers don’t fall into that category.

    We have called a few Dodge dealerships, and they have all assured us that if we had a truck that was in warranty (ours is not), they would service the truck even if it had an Edge tuner installed in it. Their recommendation to us was to reset the Edge tuner to “Stock” and then unplug it from the OBD-II port under the dashboard before bringing it in for service so they could properly analyze the engine (they use OBD-II port for their diagnostics).

    The dealerships did say that if they found service was needed because of the presence of the Edge tuner (for instance, the tuner failed and shorted something out), they wouldn’t warranty that work, but they said the Edge tuner itself would not void any warranties.

     

     

    2. Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner – Tested and Validated!

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    It’s easy enough for manufacturers to offer a bunch of sales hype and fake claims about a product like this, but the aspect of the magazine article that really got our attention was that the folks at Diesel Power did a controlled experiment to measure both the horsepower and torque that this tuner generates. First, they put a stock 2009 Dodge RAM 3500 on a dynamometer and took horsepower and torque measurements. Then they installed the Edge tuner on the same truck, put it back on the dynomometer, and did the measurements a second time.

    With the Edge tuner set to its lowest setting (Evolution Level 1), the results were:

    Stock (no tuner) With Edge Tuner
    Horsepower: 321 @ 2,900 rpm 362 @ 2,900 rpm
    Torque: 605 ft-lb @ 2,350 rpm 711 ft-lb @ 2,300 rpm
    Peak Exhaust Gas Temp: 1,266 degrees 1,200 degrees

    So, they saw a jump of 41 hp, 106 ft-lb torque and a drop in peak exhaust gas temperatures. Wow!!

    The Edge Tuner suddenly became a “must have” for us.

    3. Installing the Edge Evolution CS Tuner

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    The installation took a total of 90 minutes, from opening the box, to sitting down and reading the manual, to getting the unit installed in the truck. Very easy. In fact, it was so darned quick that Mark had completely finished the installation before I got my camera out to get pics of the unit going in.

    Edge Products Diesel Evolution Programmer Package Contents

    Edge Diesel Evolution Tuner Package Contents

    The package contents include:

    • The user manual
    • The display unit
    • A windshield mounting bracket
    • Two wire/plug assemblies
    • Tie wraps

    You just mount the display unit on the windshield with the suction cup mounting bracket, plug the unit to the OBD-II port, use the tie wraps to dress it all up, and you’re done. So I guess I didn’t miss much!

     

    4. More POWER!! Driving in the Rocky Mountains

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    15 mph grade in the Colorado Rocky Mountains

    The switchbacks are 180 degree
    hairpin turns

    When we installed the Edge tuner on our truck, we just happened to be staying at the base of one of the biggest mountain passes we have ever traversed with our truck and trailer, the Million Dollar Highway that runs through the Colorado Rocky Mountains between Ouray, Silverton and Durango, on US Route 550.

    This hair-raising, 70 mile stretch of road winds through dozens of 10 mph, 15 mph and 20 mph hairpin turns, going up and down grades that the Colorado Department of Transportation rates at “7% or more,” with some folks claiming a few are in the 9% range.

    To add a little excitement to the drive, this is a fairly narrow two lane road with steep, unprotected drop-offs.

    The views are divine, but it can be a white knuckle ride. The drive begins in Ouray at an altitude of 7,800′ and then climbs and descends over three major passes:

    After finishing the Edge tuner installation, we took the truck up and down the first part of this road between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass about a dozen times. Mark set the tuner to Evolution Level 1, and he felt the difference in performance immediately.

    He hit the gas pedal on a steep incline and his eyebrows shot up as he said to me, “This feels like a race truck!”

    Steep 10 mph switchback on Red Mountain Pass on Route 550 the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton Colorado

    Steep 10 mph grades climbing Red Mountain Pass

     

    5. More TEMP DATA!! Towing in the Rockies

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    Once he was comfortably familiar with the road and the mountain passes, and once we were ready to leave Ouray, we hitched the trailer to the truck and drove the entire Million Dollar Highway — Route 550 — over those three mountain passes from Ouray through Silverton to Durango.

    20 mph grade on the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado's Rock Mountains

    20 mph switchback ahead.

    Mark was impressed that the truck had plenty of power at all times and made it up and over the passes without straining. He kept the engine torque in its power band of 2,200 to 2,600 rpm, and he never had to depress the gas pedal all the way to the floor to maintain a safe speed.

    You can set up the Edge tuner display to show whatever data interests you most.

    On the CS model (which we installed), there are two large analog displays with accompanying digital readouts and a smaller digital display in between them.

    The CTS model (which is slightly more expensive) has three analog displays with accompanying digital readouts.

    Mark had set up our tuner to show the Engine Coolant Temp (ECT) and the Transmission Fluid Temp (TFT) on the two large semi-circular analog gauges to the left and right.

    The ECT is a measure of the antifreeze temperature in the radiator, and is the “engine temperature” reading that is given in an analog gauge on the truck’s dashboard. It is also the temperature that most manufacturer’s use to indicate that the engine has overheated, usually displaying a big red light on the dash.

    Fifth wheel trailer in the Colorado Rocky mountains_

    Despite the hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs, semi-tractor trailers and RVs traverse this highway all the time.

    The TFT is a measure of the transmission fluid temp, and it is not a value that is tied into any of the dashboard instrumentation on most trucks.

    In general, both the ECT and TFT temps should be kept below 225 degrees, although newer trucks can run slightly hotter than older trucks.

    The digital readouts on the Edge tuner display unit are big numbers that are easy for both the driver (and passenger) to read.

    Getting into the Red Zone

    What a shock it was to begin our first big ascent on Red Mountain Pass and to see that while the Engine Coolant Temp was in the normal range, according to both the factory-installed in-dash gauge and the Edge tuner (which showed 215 degrees), the Transmission Fluid Temp went into the red zone, climbing past the safe zone of 225 degrees up to 237 degrees.

    The ascent was almost over when we hit this max, and both temps quickly dropped back down as we descended towards Silverton. The ECT cooled down to 198 degrees and the TFT cooled way down to 163 degrees.

    On the next ascent, Molas Pass, (10,970′), the Engine Coolant Temp climbed back up to 215 degrees (still in the safe zone) while the Transmission Fluid Temp topped out at 244 degrees.

    Edge Diesel Evolution CS Tuner showing high transmission fluid temperature

    The truck’s temp gauge (and Edge ECT data) said we were not overheating, but
    that’s just the antifreeze. The transmission fluid temp (right) was 19 degrees too high.

    In the next valley, the temps dropped back down again, and on the last ascent, Coal Bank Pass (10,640′), the temps climbed again, but this time the Transmission Fluid Temp stayed below 235 degrees.

    Insights

    We were both amazed that the truck never overheated, according to the dashboard Engine Temp gauge, but in fact, the transmission had exceeded its limits by as much as 19 degrees, or 8%. We never would have known that without the Edge tuner, and it made us wonder just how hot the transmission fluid would be in the event that the engine coolant temp actually went into red alert.

    If the transmission stays over 225 degrees for too many minutes, the transmission fluid breaks down permanently, and the transmission can be irreparably damaged.

    10 mph grade on steep Red Mountain Pass switchback on Route 550 the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

    Steep grade ahead — prepare for a 10 mph turn

    You can set up alerts in the Edge tuner display so that buzzers sound and/or the display flashes when any of the data being monitored exceeds its maximum. However, by default, the alert system is turned off. This makes sense, as it could be annoying to have a buzzer going when you are already nervously looking for a way to safely pull over to let the engine cool.

    For anyone installing the Edge tuner, just keep the magic number 225 in mind, and you will easily see when you have exceeded that value on the tuner’s display, as the numbers are nice and large. There is also a “red zone” on the analog display, but we found it was so faint that we did not notice it until we studied our photos of the gauge afterwards!

     

    6. Better MPG – Fuel Efficiency Improvements

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    When we tow, we set the Edge tuner to Level 1.
    When we are not towing, we set the Edge tuner to Level 2.

    Increased MPG – Towing – Improves by 2 MPG!

    Before we installed the Edge tuner, we typically got somewhere between 9.7 and 10.5 mpg while towing for long distances, according to the electronic gauge in the truck. This gauge has its limitations, because it is somehow averaging the most recent miles driven, but I have not been able to find exactly how the average is calculated or how many miles back it goes — is it the most recent 100 miles? 500? 1,000?

    Measuring the MPG from one full tank of diesel to the next is a more accurate method, but it is still fallible because one tank may be filled slightly more than another, and if the tank of gas includes both towing and non-towing miles, then the numbers are thrown off.

    So, I can’t offer scientifically collected numbers here, but I can say that after we installed the Edge tuner, the gauge in our truck now typically shows numbers between 11.7 and 12.5 when we are towing consistently for distances of 250 miles or more.

    In essence, the truck is saving 2 miles per gallon while producing more power. Very impressive!

    Increased MPG – Not Towing – Improves by 3 MPG!

    Our truck always used to get somewhere in the 16-18 MPG range when we weren’t towing, better on highways and less in town.

    Now, if we travel 100 miles or more without the trailer, we see an MPG in the 19-21 range. That is an improvement of 3 MPG!

    What a shock it was the first time we drove 130 highway miles at 65 mph and saw 21.6 MPG on our truck’s mileage gauge!!

    Return on Investment

    If this fuel savings alone were used to justify the cost of a new Edge Evolution tuner, how many miles would we have to drive for the unit to pay for itself?

    If we assume the tuner costs ~$450 and diesel costs ~$3/gallon (both rough but reasonable estimates given prices in the last year), and we assume a conservative savings of 2 MPG, whether towing or not, and we tow for half the total miles driven, we will have saved approximately $450 in fuel once we have driven about 15,500 miles.

    Of course, the tuner does a lot more than save a little fuel…

     

    7. Additional Exhaust Gas Temperature Sensor Installation

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    A month after installing the Edge Evolution CS tuner, Mark installed a companion product, the Expandable Accessory System (EAS – product #98603) Exhaust Gas Temperature sensor. This product measures the temperature of the exhaust gases in the exhaust manifold, giving the driver yet more insight — beyond just the antifreeze temp and the transmission fluid temp — into how hot the engine is running.

    This was an optional installation, but after seeing the value of knowing the transmission fluid temperature, we wanted to be able to monitor our exhaust gas temperature readings as well.

    This installation was quite a bit more complicated than the Edge programmer, as the probe had to be inserted into the exhaust manifold. This required drilling a hole in the exhaust manifold, tapping the hole, screwing the probe into the newly tapped hole, and running the wires through the engine firewall back to the Edge Evolution tuner where they plugged into the back of the display unit.

    The hardest part of this installation was drilling and tapping the hole, in part because the exhaust manifold is not super easy access to with a large drill, and in part because the metal of the exhuast manifold is very thick and hard.

    The instructions in the manual called for:

    The most important thing is that the tap handle be big and solid to give you lots of leverage, because the solid cast iron on the exhaust manifold is very thick and very hard. This will make the difference between an easy installation and a miserably hard one.

    As always, Mark got the project underway before I got my camera going, so I don’t have a “before” photo. However, the “after” photo below shows what you’re gunning for and what stands in the way between you and the exhaust manifold.

    Edge Products Evolution Programmer Installed on a 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 truck

    Completed installation with only the braided stainless cable for the probe showing.

    First, unscrew the bolt holding the two black tubes in place so they can be pushed aside.

    Remove the bracket for access to the exhaust manifold

    Remove the bolt to free up the tubes that are blocking the exhaust manifold

    The probe will be inserted here.

    Location for inserting the Edge Products EAS Exhaust gas temperature probe in the exhaust manifold

    Location for the Edge Products EAS Exhaust gas temp probe in the exhaust manifold

    Space is tight, so a 90 degree right angle drill is necessary. Drill a pilot hole first. Then drill the real hole for the probe.

    In order to avoid getting metal filings in the wrong places, grease the drill bit first. Drill a little, then wipe the drill bit down, re-grease it, and drill a little further. Do this for both the pilot hole and the real hole.

    Use a 90 degree right angle drill

    Use a 90 degree right angle drill

    Hole drilled in the exhaust manifold

    Hole drilled in exhaust manifold

    Now the hole is ready to be tapped. Grease or oil the tapping tool well, and work it in and out a quarter turn at a time. As before, after a few turns, back it all the way out and wipe off the metal filings, and re-grease it.

    As mentioned above, a small tap handle will not give you enough leverage for the thick, hard cast iron of the exhaust manifold.

    Preparing to tap the hole in the exhaust manifold

    An undersized tap handle will make the job very difficult. Get a big, sturdy one!

    Once the hole is drilled and tapped, the probe can be screwed in. Grease the probe’s threads with <strong>Permatex Anti-Seize Lubricant first. Then, a cable connecting the probe to the Edge tuner is run from the exhaust manifold back through the engine firewall between the engine and the cab, and on up to the tuner.

    Edge Products EAS exhaust temperature probe screwed into the exhaust manifold

    Edge Products EAS exhaust temperature probe screws into the exhaust manifold

    Wires run through the engine firewall between the engine compartment and the truck cab

    Wires run through the engine firewall between the engine compartment and the truck cab

     

    Mark opted to put the display for the exhaust gas temperatures in the middle display area between the Engine Coolant Temp and the Transmission Fluid Temp. Of course, you can choose to display any data in any of the three display areas, and Mark experimented a little before settling on ECT on the left, EGT in the middle and TFT on the right.

    Edge Evolution CS Tuner programmer for diesel trucks

    Engine Coolant (left), Exhaust Gas (middle bar), Transmission Fluid (right)

    The more expensive Edge Evolution CTS tuner has three large displays with both analog and digital readouts rather than the two large displays and one small one on the Edge Evolution CS tuner.

    Results

    We installed the Exhaust Gas Temperature probe after we had done all of our mountain driving for the season, so we have yet to test it in the mountains. The “overtemp” magic number for the EGT is 1350. Typical temps we have seen driving around town are in the mid-900’s, and climbing a long 5% grade while towing our fifth wheel, we’ve seen the mid-1100’s. However, these have just been the long, gradual grades of Arizona and not the steep switchbacks typical of Rocky Mountain passes.

    We will report our findings about the exhaust gas temperature readings once we have taken our RV over a big mountain pass!

     

    8. Other Features of the Edge Tuner

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    The Edge tuner has a ton of other things it can do, because it essentially opens up the truck’s computer so the driver can access the data and temporarily modify the input parameters for the current driving conditions. (Obviosuly, you must be parked to mess with the menus on the tuner.)

    Our only interest in the tuner has been the improved power while towing, improved fuel economy while not towing and the additional temperature data that is made available when towing over big mountain passes.

    Maintenance and Diagnostic Trouble Codes

    There is a Maintenance Manager mode where you can establish a reminder system for standard maintenance items like changing the transmission fluid, checking the trans case fluid level, inspecting the brake pads, lubing the tie rod ends and rotating the tires. Simply get it started with your current odometer reading, and the reminders will alert you at your chosen intervals.

    If you are really concerned about fuel economy, there is a Mileage Coach that can show you how to vary your foot’s pressure on the gas pedal to maximize fuel economy as you drive. You can also find out the fuel cost per mile of a particular trip if you enter the price of the fuel you buy!

    In addition, the Edge tuner can reveal the Diagnostic Trouble Codes that are present when the truck’s Check Engine light goes on. Most codes can be looked up on the internet, so this might save some head scratching before heading off to a mechanic to get the problem looked at.

    For racers

    We have used only Levels 1 and 2 (for towing and around town driving), however there are two more levels beyond that for increased power performance, if you find your truck on the starting line of a racecourse. These modes adjust the fuel injection and timing to be more aggressive. In addition, the CTS model can be interfaced to a backup camera and it can also monitor the pitch, roll and G-forces!! For those with racing in mind who find themselves at a drag strip, there are also 0 to 60 mph performance tests and quarter mile tests, and the record highest values of these tests are maintained.

    Studying the Data

    You can also connect the Edge tuner to a computer using the USB port. You can retrieve all the data from the Edge programmer into an Excel-readable .csv file. using the downloadable Windows software called MyStyle (instructions given in the manual).

    For us, however, we are content with just the basics!

    Product info:

    For fun:

    After 20,000 very happy miles with this engine tuner, we replaced our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 with a 2016 Ram 3500 dually. A detailed description of our buying process and options on the new truck can be found here: Which Are the BEST Ram 3500 Options for Towing a 14K lb. 5th Wheel Trailer? A fun story is that rocker Alice Cooper Sold Us Our Truck! For those that are curious, we put a fabulous “puck” based B&W Fifth Wheel Hitch in the bed of our new truck, and we’re getting another Edge tuner!

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    2007 36′ Hitchhiker 5th Wheel Trailer for Full-Time RV Living

    In May, 2008 we went to Chanute, Kansas, to do a factory tour of the NuWa Hitchhiker 5th wheel manufacturing plant. We were so impressed that we bought a new fifth wheel trailer right then and there. This 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker II LS 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel trailer was the third RV we had owned and was our second full-time RV home.

    Ever since that time, other than a nearly four year cruise of Mexico on our sailboat from 2010-2013, during which time we alternated between cruising and RVing, this fifth wheel trailer has been our only home.

    Fifth wheel RV at sunset with full moon

    It is a 36′ long fifth wheel with an open floorplan that includes three slides and offers 360 square feet of living space. It was designed and built with full-timing in mind, so it is more rugged and better insulated than almost any other brand on the market.

    RV Flooplan for NuWa Hitchhiker LS II 34.5 RLTG Fifth wheel (5th wheel)

    The floorplan is open and spacious.

    For us, the two recliners and the desk were the major reasons for our move from our smaller travel trailer into this bigger fifth wheel, as those features make life infinitely more comfortable. We swapped the position of the sofa and recliners, and put one of the four chairs at the desk and the other in storage so there are just two chairs at the dinette table.

    The specs for our 5th wheel are:

    • 70 gallons of fresh water
    • 78 gallons of grey water
    • 50 gallons of black water
    • Dry weight 10,556 lbs
    • GVWR 13,995 lbs (which we reached with the cabinets only 1/3 full)
    • 15,000 BTU air conditioner
    • 40,000 BTU furnace
    • 8′ Dometic fridge

    The upgrades we did on it are:

    Before we bought this 5th wheel trailer in 2008, we already owned a 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 long bed single rear wheel truck which we had purchased brand new the summer before. It works a lot harder pulling this trailer than it did the Lynx travel trailer, which was our previous full-time RV, however we could still get up and down the big mountains out pretty well..

    We used to get 8.5-10.5 mpg while towing, but since we installed an Edge Tuner on our diesel engine in October 2014, we now get 10.5 to 13 mph while towing.

    To learn more about the upgrades we have done on our truck and trailer, visit these pages:

    2007 NuWa Hitchhiker 34.5 RLT 5th wheel RV trailer

    The dining room table and chairs and the sofa are in the big slide-out on the curb side.

    RV - 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker II 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel (5th wheel)

    We love the big picture windows along the side and back of the trailer – they let in light and give us views!

    RV living room in 36' Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer

    Most modern trailers have short (60″ or 66″) sofas. This one has a 74″ sofa, long enough for Mark to stretch out on.

    RV Living room area of 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker 34.5 RLT fifth wheel

    The recliners are very relaxing. We found we weren’t as comfy without them in our old trailer.

    RV Kitchen 36' 5th wheel trailer by NuWa Hitchhiker

    The kitchen is open and easy to work in.

    5th wheel RV Kitchen NuWa Hitchhiker 36' fifth wheel

    A big window and expansive counter tops.

    RV Desk slide-out in 36' 5th wheel trailer by NuWa Hitchhiker

    The desk was a nice addition and gets the mess off the kitchen table!

    RV bedroom slidout fifth wheel trailer

    The queen bed has a window for each occupant — a nice feature if you want a light breeze on you at night.

    Fifth wheel bedroom slideout NuWa Hitchhiker 5th wheel RV

    The dresser and wide closet allow enough space for all our clothes for all seasons.

    Unfortunately, the economic downturn in 2008 shook up the RV industry right to its core, and many excellent manufacturers of full-time quality RVs went out of business. NuWa ceased building fifth wheel trailers in 2014. Their outstanding RV service center in Chanute, Kansas, is still in operation, however. Their manufacturing plant has been replaced with an RV dealership called Kansas RV Center.

    Ram 3500 dually diesel truck and 14,100 lb. fifth wheel trailer

    Dodge Ram 3500 Dually Long Bed Truck to tow our 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker 34.5 RLTG Fifth Wheel Trailer

    As for towing this trailer, after towing it over 50,000 miles with our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel Long Bed truck, in December, 2015, we replaced that truck with a much more powerful 2016 Ram 3500 Dually Long Bed. The difference in power is staggering. We have a very detail post explaining the differences between these two trucks and why our new truck is so superior here:

    Dodge Ram 3500 Dually Truck – Best Truck for RV Fifth Wheel Trailer Towing

    We had a blast buying this truck when we found out that our dealership had a marketing relationship with Alice Cooper, one of Mark’s rock star idols since his teenage days:

    Alice Cooper Sells Us a New Truck

    We decided to add some really awesome bling to this truck by outfitting it with a new B&W Companion Fifth Wheel Hitch. This hitch is unique because it takes advantage of the Dodge Ram fifth wheel hitch in-bed puck system. It took just one hour to install this hitch, and we have a step-by-step pictorial installation guide with instructions for how to install it:

    B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch – Installation Guide with Step-by-Step Instructions

    Dodge Ram 3500 Dually Truck towing a 36' NuWa Hitchhiker Fifth Wheel Trailer RV

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    Making Money RV Workamping with Amazon CamperForce

    One of the most interesting booths at the RV Show in Quartzsite, Arizona a few weeks ago was Amazon CamperForce, an RV workamping program designed by Amazon specifically for full-time and seasonal RVers. We spent some time chatting with a delightful CamperForce veteran, Nancy, and were very intrigued by the program.

    Amazon has been an unusual and forward thinking company since its inception, and this program has taken the RV workamping world by storm. Nancy and her husband have been a part of Amazon’s CamperForce for several years now, and they have found it is a fabulous way for them to pick up a cool $10,000 each year between October and Christmas!

    Amazon CamperForce booth at the Quartzsite Arizona RV Show

    Amazon CamperForce veteran Nancy explains the program at the Quarzsite RV Show

    Every fall, Amazon needs extra labor in their shipping warehouses to get products into boxes and out the door in time for Christmas. Full-time RVers love to make money on the road without making long-term time commitments. So there is a perfect employer/employee match between the two.

    Nancy explained that from September until December 23, Amazon hires RVers at a rate of $10.00 – $11.25 an hour to work 40 hours or more per week, starting on the date of their choosing. There are opportunities for bonuses and wage perks too.

    The work ranges from receiving to stowing, sorting, shipping and picking, and is physically very demanding. As Nancy said with a laugh, it’s a great workout program and she always drops a few pounds! For those that want to fill up their RV travel kitty quickly, she says you can work as much as 60 hours a week. She also mentioned that CamperForce employees are guaranteed work, so even if things get slow for a day or two, full-time employees are sent home while CamperForce workers are given things to do.

    There are RV parks in the communities where Amazon has its warehouses, and workers’ RV sites are free. Nancy talked of how a whole community spirit envelops the CamperForce workers each fall, and how they look forward to seeing each other from season to season. A neat benefit for the communities where the warehouses are located is that a big group of RVers shows up every fall, contributing to the local economy and giving them a boost!

    Their warehouses are located in the following locations, and they start hiring as early as February the year before:

    • Campbellsville, Kentucky
    • Haslet, Texas
    • Murfreesboro, Tennessee

    I was really surprised when she mentioned that last year there were 800 applications for 500 positions, and that all the positions were filled by March!!

    I had heard of this program before, but didn’t know a whole lot about it, so I was excited to be able to learn a little at the RV show. What a cool gig for full-time RVers!

    Several full-timers have written about their Amazon CamperForce experiences on their blogs. Here are a few links from folks who have really been there and done that, as well as Amazon’s official CamperForce link:

    There are more links below!

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    RV Boondocking – Tips for Living Off the Grid in an RV

    Camping out in nature on beautiful public lands and living off the grid in our RV are the very foundation of our lives today. Other than the weeks we spent transitioning on and off of our sailboat during the years we sailed Mexico’s west coast, we have lived exclusively on solar power and self-contained plumbing in our trailers and sailboat since we started this crazy full-time traveling lifestyle in 2007.

    Free camping in an RV in Utah

    Enjoying nature out in the boondocks

    Since we started in 2007, as of November 2018, we have spent nearly 3,800 nights living off the grid in our RV and sailboat. We’ve lived within the electrical constraints of a house battery bank and dealt with funky RV and marine toilets that flush into holding tanks.

    In the process, we have learned a lot about “dry camping” (or “boondocking” or “wild camping” or “free camping” or “dispersed camping”) as well as “anchoring out.”  And we’ve figured out how to do it comfortably.

    Is it fun to live this way, even though there are limits on electricity and water consumption? OMG – yes! We have no plans to return to a life on the grid anytime soon.

    Is it hard or primitive? Not at all. We don’t feel we have to compromise any aspect of our lives to live this way.

    This page explains the techniques behind we live this very independent and free spirited lifestyle.

    For tips on how to find free camping spots, see our page: Boondocking – How to find Free RV Campsites.

    This is a long post and you can use the following links to skip further down the page:

    1. Electricity Basics
    2. How to Conserve Electricity
    3. Water Capacity and How to Conserve Water
    4. Waste Water Tanks, Propane and Communications
    5. Safety

    ELECTRICITY BASICS

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    Solar Power – The Foundation of RV Boondocking

    In order to boondock efficiently, you need to equip your rig to supply its own electrical power for extended periods. A generator is okay if your stay is going to be just a few days or even a week or two once in a while. However, generators require fuel, and it won’t take long to run up a big fuel bill. They are also noisy, they require maintenance, and they insist that you stay home when you operate them. We carry a Yamaha 2400i portable gas generator, but we use it only 5-10 times a year, if that.

    00 601 Motorhome with four solar panels on the roog

    Solar power makes it easy to life off the grid in comfort.

    A solar power system is silent, doesn’t need expensive or messy fuel to run, doesn’t need any kind of maintenance, and works all day long, whether you are out sightseeing or shopping or hiking or at home taking a nap. Solar power is also very affordable, and for the same approximate cost as a similarly sized generator, you can put solar power on your rig.

     

    We have lots of pages on this site that explain the components and parts that make up a solar power system. We show you how to design a system to suit your needs, and offer pointers on installation. These pages are all accessible at this link:

    Solar Power Articles for RVs and Boats.

    For an easy-to-read overview of how to install solar power on an RV, visit this link:

    RV Solar Power Made Simple!

    Understanding Electricity – Counting Amps

    Before we get into the details of how to conserve electricity, it helps to understand just a little about terms like “amps” and “bulk charge state.” This section and the next cover that. You don’t have to know anything about electricity or weird terms like these to conserve and live off the grid. However, I reference them a few times in this post, and I don’t want to lose you, so here are some quickie notes.

    • An “amp” is a measure of electrical current flow
    • An “amp-hour” is one amp of current flowing for one hour
    MacBook Pro at the RV window

    Picture in a picture on the laptop!

    As a reference, here are the approximate amps required to run some common appliances.  For more specific numbers, check your owner’s manual spec sheet for the number of watts an appliance uses and divide by 10 to get the approximate number of amps the batteries will have to deliver to run the appliance.

    Some of these appliances fluctuate or turn on and off as they operate, so these numbers are very rough.  Multiply the amps by how many hours you use each item to find out how many amp-hours the batteries will have to provide for them each day:

    • Laptop running => 3 to 6 amps
    • 36″ LED TV => 5 to 7
    • RV furnace blower => 10
    • Coffee maker => 10
    • Microwave (small) => 10

    But who wants to do all that math? Here are two more little facts:

    • Most full-time RV off-the-grid households use 80-200 amp-hours per day
    • It is possible to live on much less (we lived on 30 amp-hours per day for a year)

    Understanding Batteries – Battery Charging Stages

    When living off the grid, it helps to know a little about the stages the batteries go through as they get charged.

    Starting with tired, worn out, “discharged” batteries, a solar charge controller (or a generator or a converter or an inverter/charger or an alternator) gets things rolling by putting the batteries into a Bulk charging state. In the Bulk state, the charge controller allows a maximum amount of current to flow into the batteries (from whatever source — from the solar panels, from shore power, from the motorhome engine).

    This slowly raises the battery voltage up to 14.4 – 14.8 volts (the amount depends on the type of battery; more sophisticated charge controllers let you program the value, otherwise a default of 14.4 is typical).

    Once the batteries reach that voltage, they enter the Absorption charging state, and the charge controller changes its charging strategy. Rather than allowing a maximum amount of current to flow into the batteries, it allows just enough current to flow to keep the batteries at the Absorption voltage for a specified amount of time (usually 3 hours by factory default — again, sometimes programmable).

    During this Absorption period, as the voltage is held constant, less and less current needs to flow into the batteries to keep them there while they slowly get charged.

    At the end of the specified Absorption time, the charge controller enters the Float charging state. Now it holds the batteries at a lower voltage (13.3 – 13.8 volts, depending on battery type), gradually reducing the amount of current flowing from the panels into the batteries even further. When the batteries are in the “Float” stage, they are considered to have become fully charged.

    For more details on battery charging, click here:

    RV and MARINE BATTERY CHARGING BASICS

    Free camping in Utah

    Enjoying the views in Utah

     

    HOW TO CONSERVE ELECTRICITY

    Return to top

    If your battery bank and solar power array are big enough, you don’t have to scale back at all in your use of electricity. However, there may be times when you need to conserve a little if you don’t have a generator for backup, or if you don’t want to drag it out and set it up. When a big storm rolls in and darkens the skies for a few days, or in January when the days are short and the sun is low in the sky, you may decide to conserve a bit for a day or two.

    Monitor Your Batteries

    There are many ways to stay on top of how your batteries are doing, and there are all kinds of price tags for getting this info. At the cheap end, for a few dollars, you can get a simple car battery volt meter that plugs into a cigarette lighter in the coach. We have one of these and it’s a good quick-and-dirty way to see what’s going on. Ours reads a consistent 0.1 volts low, compared to a better quality meter, so we just keep that in mind when we use it.

    Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT Charge Controller Display

    Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT charge controller on our RV
    Batteries at 14.5 volts with 28.7 amps going to them.

    Another method is to look at the battery voltage being reported on your solar charge controller, if the display shows it.

    Our Outback FlexMax FM60 MPPT charge controller in our trailer has a four line LCD display that shows the battery voltage and current going to the batteries from the panels.

    Our Xantrex XW-MPPT60-150 charge controller in our boat has a one line display you can scroll through.

    The Morningstar TriStar TS-60 solar charge controller doesn’t have an LCD display on it. However, you can purchase an additional display module for it which has 2 lines of text.

    Xantrex XW MPPT 60-150 Solar Charge Controller in a sailboat

    Our Xantrex XW MPPT60-150 charge controller on our sailboat

    Another method is to get a clamp-on current meter. We use ours from Sperry Instruments all the time.

    The most elaborate method is to install a dedicated battery monitor in the coach somewhere so you can see what’s going on without making too much effort.

    [As a side note, although some folks consider a battery monitor mandatory equipment for boondocking or anchoring out without shore power, we have never installed a battery monitor in any of our rolling or floating homes.]

    All of these are valid methods that get you an approximation of what’s going on with your batteries. But none are scientifically “perfect,” because the “real” state of charge of the batteries is not indicated by its current voltage.

    Sperry Clamp-on current meter

    Checking the DC current flow on our new LED light bulbs.

    For instance, when the panels are charging the batteries, they are held at an artificially high voltage of 14.4 to 14.8 volts during the Absorption stage. Even after the sun goes down, if there’s nothing using electricity in the motorhome or trailer, they have a “surface charge” that keeps them at an elevated voltage. Likewise, at night, when the TV is blaring, the computers are going and a bunch of lights are on, the voltage will be drawn down artificially low because of the temporary load from all these appliances.

    If you really care about the exact status of the batteries, and you have wet cell batteries, monitor them with a battery hydrometer.

    But scientific precision doesn’t really matter. You just need to know if you’re okay or not.

    We simply check the batteries in the morning before the solar panels start raising the voltage. If they are on the low side (12.2 – 12.3 volts or less), then we check again in the afternoon to see if they are in the Float stage.

    If they are really low in the morning and clouds are predicted, or if they don’t reach the Float stage for a few days in a row, then we think about using the generator to get them fully charged up again.

    Can a Generator Work with Solar?

    Utah camping in an RV

    A summer storm rolls in

    We have used solar power in conjunction with both our generator and our boat’s engine 100 amp alternator, and in both cases, the two charging systems worked fine together and shared the load.

    On our boat, we used our clamp-on current meter to measure the current going from both the solar charge controller to the batteries and from the alternator to the batteries. As soon as we turned on the engine, the current from the solar charge controller dropped from 20 amps to 6, while the current from the alternator jumped from 0 amps to 14. So a total of 20 amps was still going to the batteries, but the solar system backed off and let the alternator do the lion’s share of the work.

    Similarly, on our trailer we have seen the generator and solar panels trade off the load as heavy clouds came and went..

    Bottom line: They work it out between themselves.

    For a detailed explanation of how a solar charge controller works in conjunction with shore power, see this link:

    Solar Power and Shore Power Combined – What Happens?

    Pick the Best Time to give the Solar Panels a Generator Boost

    When the solar panels aren’t quite keeping up with their task of charging the batteries, you’ll have to use a generator to get the batteries back into a fully charged state (or go to an RV park or campground to plug in). You can run the generator at any time, but if you are looking to run it as little as possible, running it in the morning is best.

    Why? Because first thing in the morning the sun is very low in the sky, greatly limiting the panels’ ability to produce power. So, even though the charge controller puts the batteries in a Bulk charge state at dawn, the panels just can’t deliver.

    A generator, however, can. It will produce maximum current flow to the batteries as soon as it is plugged in. In our case, we’ll see 20 amps going from the generator to the batteries at sunrise. After a little while, sun will be higher in the sky and the solar panels can take over and bring the batteries all the way through the Absorption stage to the Float stage by afternoon.

    If you wait to use the generator until the end of the day, however, the batteries will already be fairly well charged from the panels working all day. When you turn on the generator, it will quickly switch from the Bulk stage to the Absorption stage and begin reducing the amount of current it puts into the batteries.

    In our case, it will drop from 20 amps to 10 or less in about 5 minutes, and it will then slowly drop (and “trickle charge”) for hours as it wraps up the Absorption stage and goes into Float.

    RV camping in Utah

    Beautiful afternoon light

    To make this clearer, say the ticket to getting the batteries fully charged on a given day is about 20 amp-hours.

    If you run the genny at dawn, they’ll get that in an hour. If you run it in the evening, it may take two or three hours. That’s wasted fuel — not a huge amount, but it’s still wasted.

    How do you know you need another 20 amp-hours to get to full charge? It doesn’t take long to get a feel for what your daily consumption is. On the days the batteries reach full charge, you’ll see how much the solar panels delivered for the day. Then you’ll be able to compare one day to the next as you use your favorite appliances more or less.

    We have an entire series of articles that covers every aspect of BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING:

    Replace incandescent and halogen bulbs with LED bulbs or fluorescent lights

    New rigs are being built with LED lighting, however in older rigs, it is helpful to swap out the most frequently used bulbs for modern, efficient ones. Both fluorescent and LED lights are energy efficient. Fluorescent lights are cheap. LED bulbs can run from $6 to $18 apiece, so pick and choose which ones to replace.

    Fluorescent overhead light in a fifth wheel RV

    We use our fluorescent lights overhead lights the most.

    Our 2007 Hitchhiker fifth wheel came with three very large fluorescent lights in our kitchen and living area, so we did not replace any incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs for the first six years we owned it. We boondocked all that time with no problem.

    We did replace a few 120 volt AC sconce bulbs with LED bulbs early on, but the light was so dim and cold that we ended up never using those lights!

    The technology has come a very long way since then, however, and we recently swapped out those old LED sconce bulbs for new ones that cast a wonderful warm light. Now we use those sconce lights a lot for soft evening lighting!

    So, think about which lights you want to use and where it makes sense to spend money on LED bulbs. There’s no no need to drain your bank account replacing every bulb in your RV with LEDs!
    .

    Choosing the Right LED Bulb

    There are a gazillion LED lightbulbs on the market, and it is dizzying to figure out what to buy. In the end, there are just 3 things to consider:

    LED lights

    Different types of 12v LED bulbs

    1. The style and base of the bulb
    2. The brightness
    3. The color (warmth or coolness)

    A great resource for buying LED lights is superbrightleds.com, but you may be happiest buying from a place where you can take your old bulbs in for comparison and keep trying different bulbs until you get the exact kind of lighting in your RV that you want.

    Bulb Base Type and Shape

    120 volt AC bulbs have either a standard screw on base or a narrow one like you find in chandelier and sconce bulbs.

    12 volt DC bulbs come in more shapes and sizes. There may be two long prongs, or a bayonet mount with two nubs sticking out of a cylindrical base, or there may be a “wedge” base.  Most incandescent DC bulbs have a number on them, and you look for an equivalent replacement LED bulb that references that number.

    Besides the base, the other consideration is the overall shape of the bulb. If the light fixture casts light 360 degrees around it, then a cylindrical shape is good. If it is an overhead light that only casts light downwards, then a flat panel with LED pads only on one side makes more sense.

    Brightness

    Historically, light bulbs have been rated in terms of watts, and we all have a “feel” for what kind of light a 25 watt, 40 watt or 60 watt bulb produces. LED bulbs are rated in terms of lumens, which is a measure of brightness. Where it gets confusing is that both incadescent bulbs and LED bulbs require a certain amount of watts (power) to run. The difference is that incandescent bulbs require many more watts than LED bulbs for the same degree of brightness.

    So, for a given amount of brightness (lumens) how many watts does an LED bulb require versus an incandescent bulb? We haven’t found a strict mathematical relationship given anywhere.

    Ceiling Fan LED Lightbulbs

    We put LED bulbs in our AC (120v) ceiling fan.

    The Department of Energy has a Lumens and Lighting Fact Sheet that shows:

    Incandescent -> LED
    60 watts -> 800 lumens
    40 watts -> 450 lumens

    Manufacturers put widely varying claims on their packaging about incandescent bulb watts and their own LED bulb equivalent. But all that really matters in an RV is how much light you get per amp of drain on the batteries.

    In terms of brightness, we have found:

    • A single 300-350 lumen bulb is “mood lighting” or “accent lighting”
    • A pair of 300-350 lumens bulbs generates enough to “see well”
    • A total of 800 lumens or more is what we want for bright overhead lighting.
    Double 12 volt light fixture

    For overhead lighting, two 400+ lumen LED bulbs (or one 800 lumen bulb) works well
    in this fixture.

    We measured the amps used by both the DC and AC LED bulbs we have installed in our trailer. The very rough relationship we found between lumens and amps turned out to be:

    It takes ~1 amp DC to get ~1000 lumens of light

    So, a 300 lumen bulb will use roughly 0.3 amps DC, and a pair of bulbs totaling 700 lumens will use approximately 0.7 amps DC.

    Color (Warmth)

    Perhaps the most important factor with LED bulbs is the color, or warmth, of the light they produce. There is nothing worse than that harsh blue-white light so many LED bulbs generate.

    The warmth is is given in degrees Kelvin. Higher numbers are cooler. We’ve found the following:

    • 2700-3200K is a good number for a bulb that will match the warmth, or yellowness, of an incandescent bulb
    • 4,000 is just a little too white for our personal taste (although we have a few)
    • >4,500 starts getting into the glaring blue-white range

    Use LED Rope Lights

    Another fun lighting idea is to use LED rope lights. A bright white variety can be strung across the ceiling for overhead lighting. A warm white variety can be strung behind the crown molding on the slide-outs to create indirect mood lighting (great for watching TV).

    More Mood Lighting Ideas that don’t use the House Batteries

    There are several ways to get wonderfully romantic mood lighting at night. During our first year of minimal solar power in our travel trailer, we relied on hurricane oil lamps at night. We hung them from the slide-out trim molding using long decorative s-hooks. I loved those!

    A sailing friend of ours introduced us to an even better idea using LED Pillar Candles that are flame free. These are made of wax and they flicker, so they look and feel like a real candle.  She places them in teak drink holders that gave her boat’s cabin a fantastically nautical flare.  I’ve used mine every night in our boat and trailer for five years! The batteries in them last about two years.

    I place them on the tops of our window valences and carry them around. If one of us goes to bed before the other, we leave this flameless LED candle flickering in the bedroom to make it easier for the other person to find their way into bed without tripping in the dark! They also work really nicely as background lighting when we’re watching TV/videos or are on our computers at night.

    Use lights only where you need them

    The more lights you have running, the more juice you’re using. The pesky ones are the ones in places you can’t see. Make sure you turn off the lights in the basement areas and closets. We’ve accidentally left lights on overnight. It’s not a big deal, but it is wasted electricity!

    Operate laptops on their own battery power. Charge them when not in use.

    We each have a 13″ Macbook Pro laptop that uses about 1.6 amps when turned off and charging. However, these laptops use anywhere from 3 to 8 amps apiece when they are turned on and running, depending on what applications we are using and whether we are accessing large, powered external hard drives.

    Laptop

    Run laptops on their own batteries.

    They average about 5 amps or so when in use, and they can run for 3-5 hours on battery power before they need to be charged up again.

    It takes the same length of time to charge up the laptops whether they are closed and turned off or turned on and actively in use. So, it is more energy efficient to charge them when they are turned off and to run them on their own batteries.

    For instance: if one laptop runs on battery power for 3 hours and is charged later, it uses a total of 4.8 amp-hours for that 3 hours of use (3 hours x 1.6 amps).

    However, if it is plugged in for 3 hours as we use it, it gobbles up around 15 amp-hours (3 hours x 5 amps)!

    Multiply that computer activity by two people using their laptops for 3 hours, and the consumption can be as low as 10 amp-hours if we’re conservative, or 30 amp-hours if we’re not. That’s a huge difference!

    Make coffee manually

    Making coffee by hand with a Melitta coffee filter

    Great coffee without a coffee maker.
    (Mug: “Home is where the Heart is!”)

    Rather than using an electric coffee maker, which can draw 10 amps or more, we use a plastic Melitta coffee filter with cone filter inserts to brew coffee. Coffee aficionados actually consider this method to be the best way to make coffee!

    The overall process is similar to a coffee maker, but you manually pour near-boiling water over the grounds to make drip coffee rather than relying on a machine to do the work for you. There is no mess, and it is very easy and quick.

    If you are patient, the best method is to moisten the grounds with the hot water first, and let them soak up the water for a minute. Then pour the rest of the water over the grounds slowly. A lot of times, though, I’m not that patient, and I just pour and go!

    Mark doesn’t drink coffee, so I use a single-cup Melitta coffee filter (and paper cone insert) to pour my own drip coffee, one fresh cup at a time.

    A bigger version of this filter (and cone inserts) is perfect for brewing two cups of coffee at once.

    Another non-electric alternative is a French Press. This method has the advantage of preserving the bean oils in the coffee. The only difficulty in the RV lifestyle is that you have to dispose of the grounds before washing the French press so they don’t go down the drain. It can be a challenge to get all those tiny grounds out with limited water. I used a French press when I lived on a boat at a dock in New England years ago, and it was easy to rinse out the grounds over the side of the boat in the ocean (brrrrr in January!). But that’s not possible in an RV. I find it’s much easier to lift out the paper cone filter and toss it.

    Keep the volume down on the TV/DVD and stereo

    We don’t watch much TV, but we’ve found that the volume makes a huge difference in the amount of current it draws. We measured a difference of 1.5-2.0 amps on a 19″ LCD TV if we turned the volume way up. A TV attached to a large sub-woofer and a four speaker surround-sound system is going to have an even bigger difference at high versus low volume.

    Free camping on the beach in Floria

    Life’s a Beach in Florida

    Of course, you’ve gotta be happy too, and watching an action flick at low volume just doesn’t cut it. That’s where more batteries and more solar power makes life better.

    Use small inverters, and charge more than one item when you turn an inverter on

    150 watt inverter

    150 watt portable inverter

    Inverters convert 12 volt DC power (battery power) to 120 volt AC power (like the power in a house). They come in all sizes. Most RV boondockers have one big inverter that supplies power to all the AC outlets in the rig. We also have a few small portable inverters.

    All inverters use battery power just to run. This is noted as the “no load draw” on the specs. A few examples of small portable inverters we’ve measured:

    Our Exeltech XP 1100 watt pure sine wave inverter that powers all our AC outlets in our RV uses 2 amps to run!

    Some of the larger pure sine wave inverters, like the Exeltech XP 2000 and Xantrex ProWatt 2000 have a “no load” draw of less than an amp. This must be due to an increased efficiency in the design of the larger size inverters. Check your specs!

    As long as any inverter is on, you might as well make the most of it and charge everything up at once, from toothbrushes to power tools to cameras and phones, so you don’t have to keep it turned on for as long.

    For an amusing tale of inverter use gone awry, check out our post, How Much Inverter Is Enough?

    Charge laptops and other devices in the car or truck when you do errands

    If you really want to conserve, another option is to plug a cheap, small inverter into the cigarette lighter of your car or truck and to charge everything up as you drive around town doing errands or going on sightseeing excursions.

    We don’t do this any more, because we don’t have to be that frugal with our electricity, but during our first year in our travel trailer we had a small solar power system — 130 watts of solar power and 220 amp-hours of battery capacity — and we frequently chauffeured our electronic devices around town as we did errands so they could get charged up! (See our page RV Solar Power Made Simple to learn more about the solar power installations we have done on our RVs).

     

    WATER CAPACITY and HOW TO CONSERVE WATER

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    Holding Tank Capacities

    Larger rigs can carry bigger holding tanks, making boondocking easier. Our fifth wheel trailer’s tank capacities are the following:

    Holding tanks in a 5th wheel RV frame

    Holding tanks in a 5th wheel frame at the factory.

    Fresh Water: 70 gallons of water, including the 10 gallon hot water heater
    Gray Water: 78 gallons
    Black Water: 50 gallons

    Plus:

    4 6-gallon jugs of fresh water in the bed of the truck.
    10 1-gallon bottles of filtered drinking water under the kitchen sink.

    This gives us a total of 106 gallons of fresh water capacity.

    How Much Do You Have To Conserve Your Water?

    The thing to keep in mind with water conservation is that you can be as conservative or wasteful as you want, depending entirely on when you next plan to dump/refill. The day before a dump/refill run is a great time to take a long shower. If we arrive somewhere and stay for two days days and then decide to leave (and dump/refill) in two more days, we no longer need to conserve. Bring on the long showers and truck washing project! We typically dump/refill about once every 7-10 days, but we’ve been known to do it after just 2 or 3 days too.

    Driving – Tanks Full or Empty?

    Camping in an RV in Utah

    We love camping in the red rocks.

    We like to arrive at a new location with everything ready to go so we can enjoy our stay and not have to look for water right away.

    When we leave a place, we dump the waste water tanks and fill the fresh water tanks. We do all our towing to new locations with full fresh water tanks and empty waste tanks.

    At 8.3 lbs per gallon, that is about 900 lbs of water — quite a drag on our gas mileage! But that is one of the trade-offs we are happy to make, as it means we can always begin enjoying our new location without worrying about the status of the tanks.

    Topping off the Water Tanks

    If we stay in one spot for a while, we top off the fresh water tanks using the 6-gallon jerry jugs. We keep a drinking water hose in the back seat of the pickup so we can refill our water jugs any time we find a spigot, if we need to. We refill our fresh water tanks whenever we go to an RV dump station, which is usually once every 3 days to 3 weeks (we don’t drink the water from our fresh water holding tanks).

    Pouring water into the RV

    Adding water to the trailer is a good upper body workout!

    We used the Reliance water bottles for years. Other water jerry jugs are made by Igloo and Scepter.

    We replaced these bottles every other year because they deteriorated from the sun’s UV rays as they sat in the bed of the truck. The plastic seams would split.

    In February, 2016, we switched to Reliance Rhino 5.5 gallon Bottles. The spout is the same, but the plastic on the body is thicker, so they are much more rugged and should last longer. They have a better air hole for breathing as they pour, and they lock together when standing side by side.

    Some people get a huge 55-gallon water tank (or even larger) that they keep in the bed of the pickup. They use a12 volt water pump to pump the water from the tank to the fresh water intake on the trailer.

    The positioning of the fresh water intake on your rig may make it impossible to pour jugs of water into the tanks, so the water pump system may be the best option in that case. For us, so far we don’t mind getting a bit of an upper body workout using our individual water jugs and manual pouring system!

    Drinking Water

    We fill our 1-gallon drinking water bottles at reverse-osmosis water kiosks or water stores. These are usually found outside supermarkets, and the cost is typically 15 to 40 cents a gallon. When we are in areas that don’t have these filtered water stations, we use an inline water filter to filter the water at a regular water spigot.

    Deset camping in an RV

    Reverse osmosis water has been stripped of the trace minerals that drinking water usually contains. We often add trace minerals to our 1 gallon water jugs of drinking water to put those minerals back into the water to be healthy.

    Some people drink the water from their fresh water holding tanks. They may install a water filtration system on the kitchen faucet, and/or use either an inline filter or larger water filter (with cartridges) to filter all the water they put into the trailer’s holding tanks from wherever they get their water (RV dump station, RV park, or city park water spigot).

    For a few years we carried two 7-gallon plastic water jugs to carry filtered drinking water in the bed of the truck. Eventually we stopped using that method, as it was easier just to load up the individual gallon jugs we keep under the kitchen sink.

    Water Usage – Conserving Water

    We use a total of about 9-11 gallons of water a day. The rough breakdown is:

    • Drinking water: 1-2 gallons (I cook with it too)
    • Showers: 4-5 gallons
    • Washing dishes: 2-3 gallons
    • Bathroom vanity: 1 gallon
    • Toilet: 1 gallon
    Rinsing dishes with low water flow while dry camping

    Wash dishes in a thin stream of water!

    Some folks are concerned that flushing the toilet wastes a lot of water, and some even install a composting toilet to save water. We find that our toilet uses too small a percentage of our fresh water capacity (~10%) to warrant such a big expense and installation project. Here are a few more things to consider when installing a composting toilet in an RV.

    Our biggest trick to conserving water is not to run the faucets at full blast and not to leave them running unless we are actively using the water.

    Washing Dishes

    Rather than filling the whole sink with water, fill a bowl or small washtub with water. Make sure the dish detergent is well mixed with the water so no soapy residue is left on the dishes that requires a lot of water to rinse off. Use just a fine trickle of water to rinse.

    We often leave a little sudsy water in the sink so we can wash our hands easily later in the day without turning on the faucet, except to rinse.

    13-03-27

    If you think showering in an RV is tough, try Showering on a Boat…

    Showering

    This may sound silly, but if you’re wondering how to live for years on 2 gallon showers, here’s what we do:

    Since the water comes out cold at first, start by washing your feet and lower legs which can handle the cold. If you and your spouse can shower back to back, the second person gets warm water right away. Then go from the top down, shampooing first. Use the button on the shower wand to turn off the water when you lather up.

    Again, like the other faucets. we keep the water pressure low in the shower. We can hear the surges of the water pump as it cycles on and off, and that gives us a sense of how much water we’re using. If the water pump starts going non-stop, then we know we’re using water up too quickly.

    There are special shower wands that claim to use less water because they infuse the water with air. We tried one and found that it didn’t work well at the low water pressures we use, so it actually forced us to use more water for showering than we usually do.

    Friends of ours who use hookups all the time love that shower wand, so we gave it to them. We use the simple shower wand that came with the rig because it has a nice flow that works well at low pressure.

    If you need a laugh, check out our post on what it’s like to shower on a sailboat at sea!!

    Washing the Rig

    Just like learning to shower in 2 gallons of water, we’ve learned to wash the truck and trailer in about 10 gallons each. We go into a little detail about that in this post: How to wash your RV in the boondocks.

    For a giggle, check out this post: What To Do in the Rain While Boondocking? Wash the Rig!

    Washing your RV while boondocking

    Chores in the boonies! See our posts: How to Wash your RV in the Boondocks and Wash with Rain Water!

     

    WASTE WATER TANK MANAGEMENT

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    If you are dry camping continuously, without going to an RV park in between that has sewer hookups, then you’ll need to empty the holding tanks at an RV dump station. There are RV dump stations in many different kinds of places: state and regional parks, rest areas, truck stops, gas stations and RV parks. Some are free, some cost anywhere from $5 to $10. We find RV dump stations using sanidumps.com and rvdumps.com.

    To learn our secrets for easy and painless RV dumping, click on this link RV Dump Station Procedures and Waste Tank Tips. For hints on what the Wifey can do while the Hubby is fighting with the sewer hose, see our post: What’s A Girl To Do at the RV Dump Stataion?

    Many people ask us about composting toilets. Here are our thoughts about whether you should install a composting toilet in your RV.

     

    PROPANE

    Many things in an RV run on propane, although it varies a lot from rig to rig. The more you boondock, the more you will appreciate the appliances that run on propane, because if those appliances ran on electricity, you would burn through your battery capacity far faster than you could replenish it with solar power.

    Electric refrigerators are the most challenging culprits, because they have to run 24/7. We had an electric fridge on our boat, and at just 3.75 cubic feet, it consumed as much as half of our solar charging capacity each day.

    Propane appliances in a 5th wheel trailer RV

    Propane appliances: fridge, stove/oven & vent-free heater.
    RV furnace and hot water heater not shown!

    The propane appliances in our rig are:

    • Refrigerator
    • Hot water heater
    • Stove/oven
    • RV furnace
    • Vent-free propane heater

    Our fifth wheel has two 7 gallon (30 lb.) propane tanks that are connected to each other with a valve that automatically switches from one tank to the other when one tank is empty. This way the fridge doesn’t quit working whenever a propane tank is empty. We monitor the tanks each day, so we see when one tank is empty and needs to be filled.

    We generally find that in the summertime we have to refill one of the propane tanks every three weeks. In the coldest part of winter, we have to refill a tank once every 7-10 days.

    Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater

    Long-term boondockers usually install some kind of vent-free propane heater because they use propane so much more efficiently than a conventional RV furnace. For more information, visit the page: Vent-Free Propane Heater Installation.

    Insulate the Hot Water Heater

    Cover the hot water heater with insulation and wrap all the hot water pipes with pipe foam (wherever you can reach). This helps keep the water in the hot water tank warmer for longer.

    Turn on the hot water heater only once a day

    Heat up the water in the hot water tank right before you shower. Depending on how hot you like your water, you can turn the hot water heater off before it turns off on its own. We shower in the afternoon which gives us hot water for washing the dinner dishes. When the overnight lows stay above about 40 degrees, we still have warm water in the morning for breakfast dishes.

    Heat Water on the Stove

    If you need to heat water just to wash dishes, rather than heating the whole hot water tank, put a quart or half gallon of water on the stove and heat it for a minute until it’s the right temperature for you. If you use the hot water faucet to fill the pot and there is still warm water in the hot water tank, doing this will skim off the cold water that was in the RVs pipes. You’ll then have warm water from the tank to rinse the dishes without having to let it run first.

    When cooking, put a lid on the pot. Things cook faster when covered. Of course if the recipe says to simmer uncovered, it’s more important to put food on the table that’s cooked right than to mess it up just to save some propane!

     

    COMMUNICATIONS – INTERNET and PHONE ACCESS

    There are many techniques for maintaining contact via internet and phone when you are out in the boonies. For more info, visit our page: RV Communications – internet and phone access on the road.

     

    SAFETY

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    Camping on your own without the company of other RVers or a camp host may seem like it might be fraught with danger. From theft to bears, questions about the safety of boondocking are among the most frequent queries we receive.

    5th wheel RV camping in Arizona

    I dunno, does this look safe to you?

    Crime

    People in this world are nicer than they get credit for, and we have not had any bad encounters.

    That being said, we weren’t born yesterday, and we are cautious. For starters, we travel to places that are not crime-ridden, and we seek out places to stay overnight that feel safe. We follow our hunches, and if a place doesn’t have a good vibe, we don’t stay.

    Once we set up camp, we pay attention to our surroundings. Mark, in particular, is very attuned to the goings-on around us, and he is quick to notice a car that has driven by twice or to recognize a person that he saw in the area three days ago.

    Theft

    Everything in the bed of our truck is locked to the truck with a cable lock. The bikes are covered and locked to the bike rack on our trailer. The bike rack itself is locked to the trailer as well. (Learn more about our bike rack here).

    King pin hitch lock

    A king pin lock prevents the trailer from being stolen.

    We also use a king pin lock so no one can tow the trailer away while we’re gone.

    When we leave our campsite, if we have the barbecue out, we lock it to a fifth wheel leg with a cable lock. The bikes are covered and locked to the bike rack. If we need to use the generator in an area where there are other people around, we lock it to a fifth wheel landing leg with a cable lock.

    However, if we are out on our own with no one around, which is usually the case, we are much more relaxed about these things.

     

    Guns

    For the first ten years of our travels we never carried a gun. Mark used to love target shooting as a boy and often commented that he wished he had something with him for target practice as a pastime. In our eleventh year of travel he picked up a .22 rifle and now gets a lot of pleasure out of plinking.

    We’ve never felt remotely threatened by anything. Most people we meet are very friendly and wild animals don’t approach our trailer.

    RV Camping in Arizona

    Bears

    We have camped in bear country quite a bit, but we have never seen or heard a bear while boondocking. In general, if you keep your campsite clean (no tempting food scraps lying around), bears will leave you alone.

    The Good Stuff

    We find that living off the grid — boondocking and free camping in our RV — is the most fulfilling, beautiful and satisfying lifestyle we have ever tried.

    Rather than being frightened in our rig, we have been enchanted.

    We have been woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of elks bugling as they ran past, by coyotes howling, owls hooting, wild horses whinnying, cattle mooing, and on our boat, by whales singing.

    To us, that is the beauty of living out in nature, and that is why we choose to live this way.

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    RV Budget, Costs & Expenses – What does it cost to RV full-time?

    The biggest question most people have before they run away to live in an RV full-time is: Can I afford it? To help you answer that question, this page outlines our living expenses for six months of RV travel in 2014, and it compares those costs to the costs we incurred during our first year of full-time RVing in 2007-08.

    This is a long post. To read it in sections, the following links skip further down:

    1. Is the Full-time RV Life Affordable?
    2. Fixed Expenses
    3. Variable Expenses
    4. Cost Comparison: 2007 vs. 2014
    5. Capital Costs & Depreciation

    IS THE FULL-TIME RV LIFE AFFORDABLE?

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    People enjoy the full-time RV lifestyle on all kinds of budgets, and the money full-timers have to work with comes in all kinds of forms. Some retirees have big pensions but not a lot of savings. Others have a nest egg of savings but no pension. Many younger full-time RVers work while they travel, either to cover all of their living expenses or to supplement other income streams.

    The form your money is in makes a difference in how you RV and what your expenses will be. If you have a big income that comes from a limitless source (a pension and/or Social Security), then a large personal loan on a new luxury Class A motorhome may be just fine and the nightly expense of high-end RV parks won’t be a problem. However, if you are trying to make a small nest egg last to your dying day, and you are not even retirement age yet, you may be best off spending a portion of it to purchase your RV outright, rather than paying interest on a loan, and you will also be looking to save money on camping and overnight parking.

    If you are planning to work camp in exchange for an RV campsite, or if you will be working part-time jobs as you travel, or working via the internet from your RV, your choice of overnight parking spots may be based more on your job’s requirements than on the whims of your travel interests, and your camping costs and the kind of work you do will subsequently be tightly linked.

    The bottom line, however, is that if you can afford your current lifestyle in a stick-built home, you will probably be able to afford a more mobile lifestyle in an RV.

    Full-time RV Costs are Very Personal, including ours!

    Everyone has different priorities and lives differently, making budgeting a highly personal project. My numbers here reflect who we are. We have been frugal in our choices, and we have adjusted to a simple life.

    In my former corporate life, I hit Starbucks most mornings and ate dinner out almost every night. We owned and maintained two cars, and we each had significant commutes. Now we eat dinner out very infrequently, and we limit our coffee shop splurges. We own just one vehicle and drive much less. Where we used to have property taxes, utilities and HOA fees, we have none of those things in our RV lifestyle. All in all, we spend about $500 less per month in our RV than we did in our house. But that huge savings is entirely a function of what our old lifestyle used to be and what our current lifestyle is now. Other full-time RVers might not see those same savings.

    To cut to the chase, our living expenses for our six months of summer travel in 2014 came to $2,090 per month. But that’s a meaningless number until we uncover where it came from…

    How We Travel

    We have a 2007 Dodge RAM 3500 single wheel diesel truck that we bought new one month into our full-time RV lifestyle. It now has 84,000 miles on it. This truck tows a 2007 NuWa Hitchhiker 36′ fifth wheel trailer that we bought new at the end of our first year of full-timing in the spring of 2008.

    We own our truck and trailer outright and do not carry any debt. This not only helps us keep our monthly expenses down but makes it easier to sleep at night. There is a lot to be said for the budget traveler’s creed: “Go cheap, go small, go now!”

    To save money, we don’t have a cell phone. We estimate that since we started traveling this may have saved us about $50/month or as much as $4,500 all together. We have also equipped our trailer with solar panels and we camp for free virtually every night. These choices make us happy, but may not suit everyone. Here’s a description of our minimalist internet and communications solution and our tips for how to live off the grid in an RV.

    What Will Your RV Budget Be?

    Budgets for this lifestyle are both easy and difficult to anticipate. Your full-time RV lifestyle budget will be exactly what your stick-built-home budget is now, minus the expenses related to living in your current home, plus the expenses of living in your RV.

    It’s that simple.

    You already know what you typically spend at the supermarket, and that will stay the same when you travel in an RV. Look at your current bills and scratch off your mortgage/rent, utilities, property taxes, HOA, house maintenance costs and the gas/registration/insurance costs for your current vehicles that won’t be coming along on your adventure.

    Then estimate your future lifestyle costs that you need to add in (the numbers we share below will help with that). These include your fuel costs and your vehicle insurance and registration fees for both vehicles that make up your rig, whether it is a motorhome/car combo or a truck/trailer combo. If you have chosen your domicile city/state, you can do very specific research to estimate your future vehicle insurance and registration fees. We have some notes on domicile selection on our full-time RVing page.

    There are also maintenance, repair and upgrade costs for the rig and your own personal interests to consider as well.

    Of course, the whims of the economy are beyond anyone’s control. In the spring of 2008 diesel fuel prices soared out of sight in just a few months. Half a year later the world economy fell apart. Yet, the full-time RVers that were on the road then just kept on going — like everyone else — finding ways to make the best of a grim situation. So, once you launch your full-time RV lifestyle, you will find yourself adapting as the world changes around you — just like you did at home.


    A Look at our Expenses, Then and Now

    Mickey Mouse Calculator

    Mickey always makes this stuff more fun.

    My plan before we started in 2007 was to spend about $1,800 per month. I estimated $500 per month for food and household items (which is what we had been spending at home); $500 per month for gas; $500 per month for campground fees; $100 per month for RV and truck insurance; and I left a slush of $200 per month for other things.

    We ended up spending $1,672 per month during our first year on the road, beating our budget by a little. During those twelve months we saw diesel prices jump by almost 90% from $2.75 to $5.16 per gallon (in the places where we were buying diesel). At the same time, we also learned about boondocking and discovered that we didn’t need to spend anything on campgrounds. Those two unexpected events cancelled each other out!

    Seven years later, we are now spending $2,090 a month. This is a 25% increase. Part of that is due to inflation which has raised consumer prices 14% between 2007 and 2014. The other reason for the increase is that we have changed our lifestyle a little bit, and we’ve become less stringent about splurging on things like eating out.

    FULL-TIME RV EXPENSES BREAKDOWN

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    RV Lifestyle expenses can be broken into “fixed costs” that you spend every month regardless of what happens worldwide or to you, and “variable costs” that depend on your activities.

    FIXED COSTS – Six Months – May 1 to Oct 31, 2014

    Our fixed costs for the six months between May and October of 2014 are shown in this chart. There is an explanation of what each category represents below that.

    Expense Category Amount
    Food & Household Items $582
    Vehicle Insurance $135
    Communications $88
    Propane $50
    Laundry $50
    Miscellaneous $40
    Mail & Postage $32
    Vehicle Registration $29
    Hair Care $15
    RV Dumps $4
    Health Insurance
    Total $1,025

    Food & Household Items – $582 / month
    This item covers all supermarket purchases, including groceries, household cleansers, toiletries, laundry detergent, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and anything else that can be found at Walmart, Safeway, Albertsons, Target and other places. Our rig is fully outfitted, but occasionally we get a small kitchen appliance or pick up a DVD. Those things get lumped into this number.

    Vehicle Insurance – $135 / month
    This includes both truck and full-time RV insurance for our 5th wheel trailer. We pay it annually, but the monthly cost is shown. If we had kept our Arizona home address, this line item would have been twice as much. There is more detailed info on the selection of a domicile (home address) and the implications that choice has on your vehicle insurance in the fulltiming section.

    Communications – $88 / month
    After five years of relying on free wifi signals for internet access and using pay phones for phone calls, we got a Verizon MiFi jetpack in 2012, and we now use it for all our communications, including phone calls. This figure includes both our Verizon account with 10 GB of data per month and our $2.99/month Skype account that lets us make unlimited phone calls to the US and Canada no matter where we are in the world (this was very helpful while we were on our sailboat in Mexico). We’ve gotten used to using the laptop as a phone on Skype. It’s a little weird because the person you are talking to ends up on speaker phone, which they may or may not appreciate, and some calls get dropped, but it works well enough.

    Our complete communications strategy is described in detail HERE.

    Propane – $50 / month
    Prices for LP are all over the map, and we haven’t been very diligent about shopping around. We just buy it when we need it from whoever has it nearby. We’ve been paying anywhere from $2.59/gallon to a little over $4.00 a gallon in 2014. We use about 15 gallons per month: a little more in December/January/February when we use our vent-free propane heater to heat the trailer, and less in summer. RVers that stay in RV parks and campgrounds with electric hookups use a lot less propane than this, because they don’t run their refrigerator on propane 24/7. If you have hookups and don’t have metered electricity, you can save on propane costs in the winter by using an electric space heater.

    Laundry – $50 / month
    After a few years of messing with the little single-load washing machines at laundromats, we discovered that it is much better to use the biggest machines in the place because they are generally the newest machines, they do the best job, and they hold a heckuva lot. Dryers are usually 25 cents for a set period of time that ranges from 5 to 10 minutes, and we’ve found that most commercial dryers need about 35-40 minutes to get the job done. Washers and dryers at RV parks are usually much cheaper than those in the local laundromat.

    Miscellaneous – $40 / month
    My mom was a professional bookkeeper, and she taught me never to have a “miscellaneous” category because things get lost in there. However, I can’t ignore the $40 of cash we spend every month that is unaccounted for with receipts — little things like a coke and snacks from a convenience store on the road, or whatever.

    Mail/Postage – $32 / month
    This includes both our mail forwarding service and monthly mail delivery (discussed in more detail in the full-time RVing section) as well as postage we buy to send letters and packages.

    Vehicle Registration – $29 / month
    As with Vehicle Insurance, we pay this annually, but I show the monthly cost here. The cost is lessened by careful selection of a home address, discussed in more detail in the full-time RVing section.

    Personal Care Services – $15 / month
    For us, this is just hair cuts. Other full-timers may have other personal care services to consider like manicures, pedicures, massages, etc. (you never know!).

    RV Dump – $4 / month
    This item is here because it is a regular part of the boondocking lifestyle (you’ve gotta go every two to three weeks at a minimum). Many RV dump stations are free, but if you have to go to an RV park to dump the tanks because there aren’t any free ones nearby, it will generally cost anywhere from $5 to $15. Our RV dump station page has other tips and tricks related to managing the holding tanks.

    Health Insurance —
    Health insurance costs are totally individual, and the coverage for everyone is evolving. We do not have health insurance. Other younger full-time RVers have posted some terrific articles about health insurance and the impact on one’s choice of domicile state. Check out the excellent posts by Wheeling It and Interstellar Orchard. They both reference insurance agent Kyle Henson of RVer Health Insurance who is quickly becoming the go-to agent for all RVers’ health insurance needs.

     

    VARIABLE COSTS – May 1 to Oct 31, 2014

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    “Variable costs” are lifestyle expenses that are essentially optional — at least for a while. They can be deferred to a later month, foregone all together, or can make a fun splash in the current month. The great thing about these expenses is that they are controllable. If fuel costs skyrocket or you are short on funds, then stay put and save money! If you’ve got a more modest budget, consider staying in each location for a month or a full season to take advantage of the monthly or seasonal rates at RV parks. If you really want to skimp, boondock or at least stay in the dry camping sites at any RV park or campground that will allow it and has them available.

    Expense Category Amount
    Diesel $497
    Upgrades* $163
    Maintenance & Repair* $106
    Restaurants $175
    Entertainment $46
    Clothes $37
    Supplies & Tools $26
    Memberships $15
    Camping & Overnight Costs $0
    Hobbies
    Total $1,065
    Grand Total Fixed + Variable $2,090

    *These numbers are averaged since we started traveling. See descriptions below.

    Diesel – $497 / month
    Fuel costs are highly variable, both because they go up (and sometimes down) and also because you may drive more or less in any given month. Fuel can cost as little as $0 per month, if you stay in one place and ride your bike around town. Or fuel costs can dominate your budget if you decide to take your RV from Florida to Alaska and back via the scenic routes through New England and Southern California — in six months!

    The figure here is our average monthly fuel cost for a six month summer season of travel. We drove a loop from Phoenix, Arizona through Nevada to Crater Lake in central Oregon and then went from northeastern Oregon to Sun Valley Idaho and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and finally dropping south through Ouray Colorado and into northern Arizona and back to Phoenix.

    Our stats for this trip were as follow:

    Total Driven: 9,092 miles Loop: AZ-OR-WY-AZ
    Towing: 4,673 (47%)
    Not Towing: 5,267 (53%)
    Fuel Mileage: Towing: 10 mpg
    Not Towing: 17 mpg
    Gas Prices: Low: $3.59 (AZ)
    High: $4.39 (NV)
    Types of Roads: Interstates: 392 miles (3%)
    State/Local: 9,573 miles (97%)
    47 Stops Shortest Stay: 1 night (15 times)
    Longest Stay: 22 nights
    Average Stay: 4 nights

    To show just how variable the fuel cost can be in the full-time RVing lifestyle, during the four months prior to this trip, from January to April of 2014, we stayed in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area and had dramatically lower fuel costs. We towed the trailer very short distances (20-40 miles) every few weeks as we explored different places in a 50 mile radius of downtown. We drove the truck on its own only once every few days. During that time our average monthly fuel bill was $195. Our lowest fuel bill was $112 (in January). Diesel prices during that time ranged from $3.59 to $3.79 per gallon.


    Maintenance & Repair – $106 / month

    This item is hard to predict, but now that we have owned our truck and trailer all these years, we can provide an average of what we’ve spent so far on maintenance and repairs since we started full-timing.

    This figure is an average of all our truck and trailer maintenance costs from 2007 to 2014 rather than being just the expenses we incurred over our six months of summer travels in 2014. We did not use the trailer when we lived on our sailboat, although we did use our truck when our boat was in San Diego and Ensenada at the beginning and end of our cruise, and all that is factored into this average.

    Mark is very handy, and he does a lot of the maintenance work himself (not the oil changes, though). He replaced both of the fifth wheel’s front landing jack legs and landing jack motor while we boondocked in Arizona (absolutely amazing to witness — I will write a post with step-by-step procedures and pics eventually!).

    A summary of our maintenance and repair expenditures since we started (totaling $5,830) is the following:

    • Oil changes: $75 or so every ~5,000 miles on the truck
    • New Tires: 2 sets of new tires on the truck, one set on the trailer, $800 per set
    • New Brakes: Replaced front brakes on truck
    • 5th Wheel Landing Legs: Replaced the landing jacks and motor on the front of the 5th wheel
    • Engine Maintenance: We have performed all the maintenance (and minor repairs) required on the truck
    • Wash/Wax: We wash the rig regularly and wax once or twice a year

    For budgeting reference, the maintenance and repairs on our rig have cost 0.128% of the purchase price of our truck and trailer per month since we bought them. That may be applicable to other truck/trailer combos. I am not sure it would be applicable to a motorhome/car combo, as motorhomes are inherently more complicated and expensive to maintain.

    Note: In 2015, although all of our expenses were about the same as in 2014, we had several MAJOR and UNEXPECTED repairs as shown below. Luckily, our RV Extended Warranty covered the repairs:

    Here's a summary of what our four year RV warranty through Wholesale Warranties cost, what our repairs WOULD HAVE cost, and what our warranty reimbursements have been to date:

    Cost of Warranty $1,904
    Total Cost of Repairs we've had done $7,834
    Total Out of Pocket Costs for those repairs $1,145
    Repair Reimbursements:
    Trailer Axle Replacement $1,036
    RV Refrigerator Replacement $1,647
    Plumbing Issues & Window Leak $1,142
    Suspension Replacement $2,550
    RV Toilet Replacement $314
    Total Repair Reimbursements $6,689

    Our trailer warranty has paid for itself 3.5 times over!
    Confused about the nitty gritty fine print buried in RV Extended Warranties? Here's an excellent detailed explanation!!

    Upgrades – $163 / month
    Unlike Maintenance & Repair costs which must be done (although some can be put off until you have the funds to do them), upgrades to the rig are entirely optional. The figure here is the average of all our improvement and upgrade costs on our truck and trailer since we bought them rather than just the upgrade costs we incurred during our six months of summer travel in 2014.

    The upgrades we have done total $8,235 and include the following:

    Restaurants – $175 / month
    This is a hugely variable cost that has changed a lot in our lives over the years. The figure for these six months of summer travel in 2014 is way higher than ever before. Our biggest “eating out” cost comes from getting coffee and muffins at coffee bistros (so nice!). The rest is a combination of beers at cute brewpubs and meals at Subway and other fast food joints. For comparison, in the first four months of 2014 before this trip, from January to April, our monthly restaurant bill was $70. In those months we weren’t camping near many inviting places!

    Entertainment – $46 / month
    We don’t pay for entertainment often because we find so much great entertainment that is free. However, we do miss out on some museums and events that charge an entrance fee.

    Clothes – $37 / month
    We have a two-week rotation of clothes for both warm and cold weather, and since we started traveling we have replaced almost all of these garments. Commercial washing machines are hard on clothes and they wear out. Our biggest clothing expense is shoes. We replace our hiking shoes and running shoes regularly, and we buy high quality, expensive shoes. As a side note, if you get a credit card from Cabellas, REI or another outdoors store, and put all your living expenses on it, and pay it off each month to avoid interest charges, you can use the points each year to get your hiking shoes or other camping gear for free.

    Supplies & Tools – $26 / month
    This category includes all the tools and supplies we use to keep the rig in good shape. Mark loves to try new products and has a growing collection of tools in his toolbox. Before we left, he made the mistake of selling almost all of his tools. If you are handy and can work on your rig, don’t make that mistake too! He tried to “make do” with the bare minimum of tools for the first year, which is why this category didn’t used to exist for us, but now he regularly buys little goodies that make his maintenance tasks easier.

    Memberships – $15 / month
    This includes both annual memberships and magazine subscriptions. We belong to Join Escapees RV Club and Good Sam Club and we purchase an America the Beautiful Federal Lands Pass to the national parks each year. We also subscribe to several magazines.

    Camping – $0 / month
    Camping fees and overnight costs are extremely variable from one RVer to the next, because this is the very essence of the lifestyle. In addition, full-time RVers are a broad mix of people with a wide variety of tastes and preferences.

    From May to October, 2014, we did not pay for any overnight camping, and that is the norm for us. However, although we did not pay for camping over the summer season (or in January, 2014), the months of February, March and April, 2014, were unusually expensive for us. Those three months averaged $83/month because we spent time at three different campgrounds visiting friends and chasing wildflowers at a state park (we were a little late for the flowers — rats!).

    Many people boondock to save money, and we started that way too. However, we have found that it is by far our preferred way to camp. If we couldn’t boondock, we wouldn’t live in an RV.

    That said, it is not for everyone. We have met very few full-time RVers who boondock as much as we do. Most people who enjoy boondocking, or “free camping,” do it from 25% to 75% of the time, at most. For full-timers who work, it is hard to find a boondocking location near most jobs, and you have to pack up and go to the RV dump station every 10 days to 2 weeks, disrupting your life. Even if your work is location independent, and you work out of your RV, finding good boondocking locations that have adequate internet access to do that is not easy. During the summer of 2014 we spent 5 weeks camping in places that were 10 miles or more from the nearest internet access.

    Overnight campsite and RV park fees with hookups typically range from $30 to $50 per night or more. That is $900 to $1,500 per month. However, a lot of full-timers avoid paying anywhere near that much and average closer to $500 to $900 per month. There are many ways to save money on overnight camping costs, and those are covered on our Full-time RV Lifestyle Tips page.

    As a budget figure, if you are a future full-timer, and you are excited by the $0 figure here, and you plan to boondock a lot but haven’t don’t it much yet, include a “slush” camping fee figure of $350 per month in your budget until you find out if you really like it. Some folks plan to “free camp” all the time but find it isn’t practical for their lifestyle once they hit the road.

    Hobbies —

    An area I completely overlooked before we started full-timing was the cost of our personal interests and hobbies. This was an important oversight that we came to recognize only after we had been on the road for a few years.

    Before starting a life of adventure, it may be hard to imagine that you will need or want to have any hobbies. Sightseeing ought to be enough! But it isn’t. After a while, you will want to have pursuits that complement your travels in one way or another or that perhaps are not even related to your travels at all. Our hobbies are photography, writing and mountain biking, and these all cost money.

    Since we started full-timing, we have upgraded both of our DSLR cameras twice and upgraded both of our pocket cameras twice. As for biking, we started out with cyclo-cross bikes but sold those when we found we were almost always camped near very rugged dirt roads. We replaced them with mountain bikes in March, 2014. Bike maintenance isn’t a huge cost, but it’s there. We also upgraded our bike rack a few years ago. And back in 2008 we splurged on a fabulous Hobie inflatable kayak that we loved for several years but eventually sold because we needed more room in the basement.

    Mountain BIking

    All smiles mountain biking in Bend, Oregon

    Even my writing has its expenses. Keeping a blog can be free, but hosting, backup services, firewall services and other things add up. Writing also requires a computer. When we started out, Mark and I shared a single MacBook Pro laptop. After four years, this became impossible because we always wanted to use it at the same time. So, we replaced that one MacBook Pro with two newer ones in 2011 and 2012. Then, in 2014 we replaced the older one of those with yet another newer one.

    All of these expenses hit the bank account with a resounding thwang and can’t be ignored or wished away. You may not know exactly what your hobbies will be when you start full-timing, but put some kind of figure into your budget that allows for replacing your computer and phone as often as you have in the past (if you plan to use them as much) and for buying the various things that will make your favorite pastimes possible.

     

    EVALUATION – COST COMPARISONS – Year 1 and Year 8 – Lifestyle Changes and Inflation

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    Budgets and actual expenditures vary over time. Most fulltimers find that they spend a lot more in the first few months of travel than they do once they have been out for a while. It takes some time, and quite a few purchases, to make an RV a home, and most of those costs come at the beginning. These are things like patio mats, camping chairs and grills, tools your suddenly discover you need, area rugs, throw pillows, kitchen gadgets, campground directories, travel guide books, and all those funky gismos they sell at Camping World that are just so perfect for the RV lifestyle.

    When budgeting for a fulltime RV lifestyle, it is probably wise to assume that the first three months will cost about 50% more than the target monthly figure. Make room in the budget for this, and you won’t panic when it happens.

    5th wheel RV camper in the woods

    Peace.

    Also, it takes a while to figure out how you want to live this lifestyle. What kinds of campgrounds do you like? Are you okay with overnighting in a parking lot? How much do you want to drive each day? How long do you want to stay put in one spot?

    Most new fulltimers dash all over the country in the first year, and we were no exception. The exhilaration of having the whole continent to yourself, with no one tapping their watch and expecting you home, is such a thrill that we all run around and try to see as much as possible. Only when we are utterly exhausted do we start to slow down.

    It also takes a long time to let go of old living patterns and establish new ones. When we first started fulltiming we were accustomed to one- and two-week vacations, and we lived as though we were on vacation. It was only after a few months on the road that we began to realize, deep inside, that we didn’t have to see all the sights in three days. We could stay three weeks and see them only when it was sunny and when we were in the mood for sightseeing.

    This change in the rhythm of life ultimately affects how you spend your money. You begin to realize that this is not a vacation, so you can’t spend money as if it were. You begin to slow down and appreciate the truly priceless pleasures, like a quiet morning reading a book, or an afternoon hike that has no other purpose than to smell the fresh air.

    Over time, both lifestyle changes and inflation have affected our monthly expenses. Inflation has hovered at around 2% a year (which compounds to a gross jump of 14% between 2007 and 2014 — here’s a graph showing inflation trends) and food prices have increased by 20% in the same time period.

    FIXED COST Comparison

    Studying the expenses we published on this page after our first year of RVing as compared to the costs for the current year (2014), it seems that, as expected, our fixed costs were most influenced by inflation.

    Expense Category 2007-08 2014
    Food & Household Items $477 $582
    Vehicle Insurance $108 $135
    Communications $88
    Propane $42 $50
    Laundry $40 $50
    Miscellaneous $36 $42
    Mail & Postage $30 $32
    Vehicle Registration $15 $29
    Hair Care $15
    RV Dump Stations $4
    Total $746 $1,025

    VARIABLE COST Comparison

    Our variable costs have changed more due to changes in our lifestyle than anything else.

    Expense Category 2007-08 2014
    Diesel $482 $497
    Upgrades $140 $163
    Restaurants $175
    Clothes $8 $37
    Supplies & Tools $26
    Memberships $15 $15
    Camping $145 $0
    Total $926 $1,065
    Grand Total Fixed + Variable $1,672 $2,090

    What’s amazing (and a big relief!) is that our “Upgrade” and “Maintenance” costs didn’t bring any unwanted or nasty surprises during the years we have been on the road, and they have remained much the same as they were in the first year, although there were plenty of years without any upgrades or big maintenance projects. As mentioned above, we barely ate out in the beginning and we splurged this past summer. We had mostly new clothes when we started and have replaced almost all of them, and we now see the importance of having the right tools and supplies for little “RV Owner” projects.

    CAPITAL COSTS & DEPRECIATION

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    The biggest difference in costs between living in an RV full-time and living in your own stick-built house is that the RV will depreciate very quickly while the house will appreciate over time. The recent real estate collapse notwithstanding, housing prices always increase as the decades go by. In contrast, RVs, cars and trucks quietly make their way to a value of $0 and eventually breathe their last breath in the crushing facility.

    In a five year period, a brand new rig (that is, a motorhome/car combo or truck/trailer combo) will typically lose 30% to 50% of its value, and by the end of a decade it will be down to 25% to 40% of its original MSRP. The only way to know what the full-time RVing lifestyle really costs is to know both what you paid for your RV at the beginning and what you sold it for at the end. The difference, divided but the number of months you lived in it, is the true cost of ownership.

    That figure doesn’t show up in a regular living expenses budget. However, for a brand new $150,000 rig that reaches the ripe old age of 10 years, you may be looking at “losing” around $75,000 or $625 a month while you own it. Of course, that doesn’t include the additional cost of interest on a loan if you have one.

    I’ve had several eager 20-something future full-timers email me saying they wanted to live in an RV after college because they didn’t want to throw away money on rent and they didn’t think buying a house would be a good investment. Unfortunately, an RV involves “throwing away” lots of money too. In the end, the cost of owning an RV — from purchase to sale and through the thick and thin of all the maintenance and repairs in between, not to mention the cost of campgrounds and RV parks — probably adds up to the same amount as renting an apartment or paying a mortgage/taxes plus utilities.

    No one should ever give up their dream of RVing full-time because an RV is a bad investment. At the same time, no one should go into RVing full-time because buying an RV is a good investment.

    SUMMARY

    I hope all this info helps you out as you plan your full-time RV adventures. Despite all the words on this page, your future full-time RVing costs can be approximated fairly easily, and planning your budget involves just three steps:

    1. Write down all your expenses now
    2. Subtract the ones that won’t apply when you start full-timing
      (property taxes, utilities, car expenses for cars you won’t own and commutes you won’t make, HOA fees, etc.)
    3. Add the new expenses you’ll incur in your new lifestyle
      (motorhome/car or truck/trailer insurance and expenses, camping costs, “fun” – restaurants, hobbies, entertainment)

    Quite a few RV bloggers share their budgets and their thoughts about the costs of the RV lifestyle on their blogs. The following links offer itemized expense lists and excellent insights into creating a full-time RVing budget:

    • WheelingIt – Personal budget and analysis
    • Technomadia – Personal budget and analysis
    • Gone with the Wynns – Personal budget and analysis (reported by quarter — divide by 3 for monthly!)
    • RV Dreams – Three tiers of hypothetical sample budgets

    A final note — I posted this image in a Quick Pic post the other day, but I think it bears repeating here:

    If you are lucky enough to find a way of life that you love, you have to find the courage to live it.

    Words to live by.

    Don’t stress out about the numbers too much.
    Spice up your life, take the plunge, and go have an unforgettable RVing adventure!

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    RV Heater – How to Install a Vent-Free Propane Heater in Your RV

    Installing a vent-free propane heater is one of the best upgrades you can do for your RV if you plan to be spending a lot of time in chilly places. This page reviews how ventless propane heaters operate in comparison to traditional RV furnaces, it discusses the different technologies used in the design of various types of vent-free gas heaters on the market today — including catalytic heaters, ceramic brick and plaque heaters, and blue flame heaters — and it presents a step-by-step guide for installing a vent-free propane heater in your RV or camper.

    You can jump to the various sections of this page here:

     

    This post was first written in January, 2009, but was completely overhauled and rewritten in October, 2014.

    INTRODUCTION

     

    Warming my hands over a vent-free blue flame propane heater in my 5th wheel camper RV

    Happiness is… a vent-free propane heater!

    We froze in our trailer during our first winter in Arizona. Morning temperatures in the kitchen were often 40+ degrees F, and although daytime temps could get as high as 70, as soon as evening came, the temps in our trailer dropped into the the 50’s.

    Brrr! It’s hard to sit around in the evening in those kinds of temperatures. All modern motorhomes and campers (ours included) come equipped with a propane furnace. However, these loud, inefficient beasts use a lot of electricity, and can drain the batteries in one night.

    During that first winter (2007-08) in our 27′ Fleetwood Travel Trailer, we discovered that the more experienced winter desert boondockers (both snowbird RVers and those living the full-time RV lifestyle) installed vent-free propane heaters in their rigs. These are wonderful little appliances that use far less propane than a furnace and no electricity at all. When we upgraded to our 36′ Hitchhiker 34.5 RLTG fifth wheel in May, 2008, we decided we would install one. All summer long we thought about the project, but never found ourselves in a town where there was a good selection of heaters to look at or anyone knowledgeable about installing them in RVs. So we dawdled.

    As the nights got colder in late November, 2008, and we relied more and more on our trailer’s electricity-eating furnace, we found ourselves in the warm company of our good friends Bob and Donna Lea Jensen and their vent-free, electricity-free propane heater. Bob has installed quite a few of these little devils over the years, and he gave us some hints and loaned us two critical tools for the project: a pipe cutter and a flaring tool. We learned a lot through this process, and I thought it might be helpful, along with our other RV tips and tricks pages to include some notes here about our project.

    There are several types of vent-free heaters on the market, and each has its pros and cons. In the end, we opted to buy a 20,000 BTU thermostatically controlled blue flame heater made by Vanguard. The night before the installation we laughed as we bundled ourselves into our recliners wearing multiple layers, buried under blankets for the last time. Mark’s face peaked out from under his hood as he read. The night after the installation, in shorts and t-shirt, I had to poke my nose out the window to get some cool air. In our excitement, we had inadvertently heated the bedroom to 85 degrees.

    We have used and loved this heater year-round ever since, running it near sea-level in the southern states in the winter months and using in the cool mountains during the summer months!

     

    COMPARISON OF RV FURNACES AND VENT-FREE HEATERS

    RV PROPANE FURNACES

    Propane uses oxygen as it burns and gives off moisture as a by-product. Therefore it has the potential to use up all the oxygen in an enclosed space and kill any living, breathing occupants while creating a layer of condensation on the insides of windows. Yikes! To accommodate these unpleasant aspects of propane heating, conventional RV propane furnaces use a large blower system to bring in outside, oxygen-rich air. In turn, they vent the moist, oxygen-depleted air from inside the rig to the outside. Circulating the air this way keeps the oxygen level in the air fairly constant and significantly reduces the build-up of condensation on the insides of the windows, as the moisture gets blown outside along with the exhausted air.

    Atwood RV furnace
    However, by blowing all this warm air outside, the furnace is effectively heating the outdoors. If you stand outside an RV next to the furnace vent on a really cold day, you can warm your hands and body quite nicely. Also, this blower requires electricity to run. RV furnaces are DC, so they do not require an inverter or generator in order to operate. However, the amount of power they use is astronomical (our 40,000 BTU furnace uses 11 amps DC). If you are boondocking, or dry camping in the desert as many winter Snowbird RVers do, you are then faced with a choice of either keeping the RV unacceptably cold, or using a generator to keep the batteries charged (even our big solar power installation on the Hitchhiker 5th wheel was not enough to keep up with the furnace blower during the winter).

    Besides heating the outside air and running the batteries down, a major disadvantage of a standard RV propane furnaces is that the blower is really loud. There is nothing like being deeply absorbed in a really great movie and listening to some very profound dialog being exchanged in whispers, and having the furnace suddenly roar to life and drown out everything being said. Our furnace blower often woke us up out of a sound sleep too.

    VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

    In contrast, vent-free propane heaters are silent and provide heat without using any battery power. This is because they rely on you to give them fresh air: you have to crack open a window while they run. All US-made vent-free heaters are built with an internal oxygen sensor that shuts off the heater if the oxygen level in the room becomes too depleted. In addition, most RVs come equipped with an LP gas detector that will sound alarms if the oxygen in the air drops too low or if an LP gas leak is detected and you can install a combo LP/CO detector as well to detect both LP gas and carbon monoxide. You may also need (or choose) to run a small fan to circulate the air. This will use some battery power, but you can decide how much or how little to use the fan.

    Living without heat in an RV

    Brrr… This was what life was like before we installed our vent-free propane heater!

    So, in essence, when using a vent-free heater, you must find a happy balance between several variables. Determine which kind of heater will best suit your needs (see descriptions below), figure out where to place it in the RV, which window(s) to crack open, and how often to run a fan (if at all), and if so, which kind of fan to use (a little DC fan, like one used in a computer, a large AC ceiling fan that will require an inverter or generator to run, or an optional blower fan that can be purchased with the heater).

    Heat rises, so in 5th wheel campers the heat tends to gather in the bedroom. Simply close the door to the bedroom, or crack it slightly open to control the movement of the warm air into that space. Likewise, if you use a ceiling fan, you can experiment with running it forward or backward, either to draw air up and move it out along the ceiling or to push the warm air down towards the floor.

    Propane has a fixed capacity for providing heat. One gallon of propane contains 92,000 BTUs of potential heat, which means a 40,000 BTU RV furnace running full blast will burn through nearly a gallon of propane every two hours or so. During the coldest periods, it is a real pain in the neck to keep having to refill the propane tanks as you fly through propane trying to heat your rig.

    Our Lynx travel trailer came with a 30,000 BTU furnace, and our Hitchhiker 5th wheel came with a 40,000 BTU furnace, both installed at the factory. These were sized appropriately for the square footage of each camper. However, we have found we can easily heat our big fifth wheel to higher temperatures in less time using our 20,000 BTU vent-free propane heater instead of the factory-installed 40k BTU RV furnace. So, a smaller vent-free heater that burns less propane per hour can effectively heat a given space more quickly than a traditional RV furnace that is twice its size.

    Because of the inefficiency of RV furnaces in terms of propane use and battery power consumption, when we use the RV furnace alone for heat in 30+ degree F overnight temps and 40+ degree daytime temps, we find we have to keep our trailer at 50 degrees while sleeping at night and at just 60+ degrees during the day. Cold as that sounds, this uses up almost a gallon of propane a day and we can barely keep the batteries topped off using our 490 watts of solar panels alone. Worst of all, living like this is really uncomfortable.

    Using our vent-free blue flame heater in the same conditions and burning the same one gallon of propane per day in those conditions, we can easily keep the 5th wheel at 76 degrees all day long. And we use almost no electricity.

    To clarify, we have two 30 lb (7 gallon) propane tanks, and when outside highs are in the 50’s and lows are in the 20’s, we go through a tank of propane each week. When outside highs drop below freezing 24/7, we can go through a tank in 3 days.

     

    WHICH IS THE BEST TYPE OF VENT-FREE HEATER?

     

    When choosing a vent-free propane heater, there are a lot of products on the market. Catalytic and ceramic heaters produce infrared radiant heat which heats objects situated nearby much the same way the sun does. They create a warm, baking sensation on your skin, but if you move away (like moving into the shade outdoors), that sensation goes away. The air in the room warms up over time as the objects in the room warm up.

    In contrast, blue flame heaters heat the air, rather than the objects in the room, providing a more even, uniform warmth. Gradually, the objects in the room heat up as the overall temperature of the air in the room rises.

    All of these heaters come in different sizes, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 BTUs, which are good for heating 100 square feet up to 1,000 square feet. Small ones can be hung on the wall, out of the way, while big ones that appear modest-sized in the show room suddenly become monster heat sources that dominate the floor space when you get them home to your RV.

     

    CATALYTIC INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

    Olympian Wave-8 Catalytic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
    Catalytic heaters were the original vent-free heaters. The major brand is the Olympian Wave, manufactured by Camco, and their primary models are the Wave-3, Wave-6 and Wave-8 heaters. These provide 3,000, 6,000 and 8,000 BTUs of heat respectively.

    Catalytic heaters provide infrared radiant heat by way of a large pad on the surface of the heater. A chemical reaction in the pad causes heat to radiate off the entire pad. If you stand in front of a catalytic heater, your skin will feel a nice baking warmth on it. The closer you sit, the more you will bake. This is a great feeling when you are chilled.

    These heaters have been in use for years, and have an enthusiastic following. They are also quite expensive ($300-$430), often as much as double the cost per BTU as the other types of vent-free heaters. They do not have thermostats, just a “high” setting and a “low” setting, so you must manually turn them on and off or to high or low to regulate the temperature in the RV.

    If the pad on these heaters becomes dirty, it is possible to replace it for about $100. A friend of ours tried to clean his by vacuuming it, and inadvertently ended up destroying the pad. Because the pads had changed slightly since he bought his unit five years earlier, he could not replace the pad and had to replace the entire heater instead.

    You will need a brass elbow fitting from Camco for the installation. You may also want leg stands so the heater can stand on its own two feet and a dust cover to protect the catalytic pads when it is not in use.

     

    CERAMIC (BRICK or PLAQUE) INFRARED RADIANT HEATERS

    Mr. Heater Ceramic infrared radiant heater for use in an RV
    Ceramic infrared heaters are a slightly newer technology that has been warming RVs for quite a few years. The most popular brand on the market is Mr. Heater. Other brands include Kozy World, Empire and ProCom. These are generally offered in one, two, three and five brick configurations providing 5,000, 10,000, 15,000/20,000 and 25,000/30,000 BTUs of heat.

    Ceramic heaters provide the same infrared radiant heat as catalytic heaters. Across the front of the heater there are small ceramic “bricks” or “plaques” that heat up to a glowing orange/red color. Like a catalytic heater, standing in front of a brick (or plaque) ceramic heater will toast your toes to your thighs on the front of your legs. The heat from the bricks interacts with your skin and you will feel a wonderful tingly warmth.

    These are extremely popular units and can be quite inexpensive ($130-$350). Most can be purchased with or without a thermostat. One big disadvantage is that the area directly in front of the bricks gets hot enough to burn things. Any flammable items that come too close to the bricks could catch on fire. If a cat or dog wanders past and flicks its tail against the bricks, it might get singed. If a toddler sticks its fingers in there, a trip to the hospital might ensue.

     

    BLUE FLAME HEATERS

    Mr. Heater Blue Flame vent-free propane heater for use in an RV
    Blue flame heaters are the newest technology and provide a different kind of heat than the catalytic and ceramic heaters. Rather than radiating heat, blue flame heaters operate via convection (the principal that heat rises), drawing cool air in through vents at the bottom of the heater and emitting warm air out the vents in the top. This is a heating method that is much like central heating in a house. Once the air temperature has risen sufficiently, the objects warm up as well. If you keep your RV at a warm temperature all the time (especially at night), the objects in the room will never get cold.

    Blue flame heaters draw cool air in from floor level through a row of vents at the bottom, heat it up, and emit the warm air out of vents at the top, relying on convection (the fact that heat rises) to move this air instead of using a blower. You can warm your hands and body by standing in front of one, but it is more of a warming sensation than a baking one. The area in front of the blue flame is covered by fireproof glass (it’s actually a ceramic material) and it is not burning hot. So, there is no risk of items immediately in front of the heater catching fire. Blue flame heaters are a good idea for people with pets or children.

    The most popular brand is Mr. Heater. A few others include Empire Heating Systems and ProCom, the same makers of the ceramic brick heaters. These manufacturers produce both blue flame and brick heaters in the same chassis, so other than the appearance of the bricks or the flame, the unit itself has the same look whether it is the brick or blue flame version. The typical BTU range on these heaters is 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000.

    Blue flame heaters are as popular as the brick ceramic heaters, and are in the same price range of about $130-$350. They can also be purchased with or without a thermostat.

    BLUE FLAME FIREPLACES !!

    Pleasant Hearth Vent-Free Propane Fireplace 35 inch

    .

    There are some wonderful blue flame heaters that are designed to look like fireplaces, complete with logs, trim and beautiful wooden mantels. Manufacturers include Pleasant Hearth and ProCom.

    These cost about $200-$300 more than the regular blue flame heaters, but what a beautiful addition to your RV. You can sit and watch the yellow flames dancing around the logs and warm your bones at the same time. I saw one of these units in an old travel trailer and was enchanted. The owner had built his own mantel out of an old coffee table, and it was lovely. I wanted one of those units so badly!!

    The only place for a unit like that in our rig was along the backside of the “L” in the kitchen counter, which is just a few inches from the wall of the entertainment slide-out when it comes in. If we had the carpentry skills, we probably could have slipped a fireplace in there, recessed under the counter.

    The only downside would have been that it might have gotten a little hot under the counter, and we would have had to be extra careful that the heater was fully cooled whenever we brought the slide-out in, or we would have cooked the gelcoat on the outer wall of the slide. Also, as it turned out, that particular location for the heater would not have provided the same warmth when we sat in our recliners as the heater does in its current spot in the kitchen in front of the oven (even though it would have been closer). It’s just the way the air flow circulates in our particular trailer.

    PORTABLE HEATERS

    Mr Buddy Portable vent-free propane heater

    .

    If you don’t want to hassle with installing a dedicated gas line for a vent-free propane heater in your RV, you can opt to get a portable unit instead. The portable ventless heaters are all infrared radiant heaters with bricks (plaques) that have air intake vents in the bottom for convection as well. They have built-in blowers that run on a 6 volt a/c adapter (sold separately) or on 4D batteries. They are very popular.

    They are manufactured by Mr. Heater (with the brand name “Big Buddy”), and they come in sizes from 4,000 to 18,000 BTU. They run on the small Coleman style portable propane canisters but can also be connected to a larger BBQ style propane tank.

    If you plan to run the heater from a large propane tank instead of the little propane canisters, Mr. Heater sells a companion flexible gas hose with a regulator and quick release connector on it for just that purpose. Mr. Heater make nice carrying cases for these heaters as well.

     

    OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT for VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATERS

    Thermostat

    Usually this option is just $30-$50, and it is well worth the cost if you plan to be in your RV for extended periods of time. A manually controlled heater will have several heat settings (usually three), but you will need to monitor the heat in the room and adjust the settings as you get warmer or cooler. A thermostatically controlled heater will cycle on and off as its sensor detects changes in temperature. Ours typically cycles on and off in 5-10 minute increments, keeping the temperature within 2 degrees.

    On our unit, the thermostat has a simple analog dial that can spin from “1” to “5.” These are arbitrary numbers rather than fixed fahrenheit degree markers. However, once you figure out how “1 1/4” or “2 1/2” relates to temperature, you can keep the temperature in the room tightly controlled by turning the dial to the setting you want. This is especially nice if you plan to keep the heater on all night, as the temperature in the RV will remain constant while the outside temperature drops.

    Feet

    Most units are designed to be hung on a wall, however most also have an optional stand so they can be placed on the floor. Most smaller units include the feet as an option (about $25) while most larger units come with the feet at no extra charge. The great advantage to hanging a unit on the wall is that it is always there, ready for use. If you use your RV during all four seasons, it is nice to know that if you suddenly find yourself in a chilly spot, you can simply flip the switch and have your heater working for you, rather than digging it out of the back of the closet (a lesson we learned after the fact!).

    The advantage of having the unit standing on its own two feet is that you can move it around the rig. This is especially true if you don’t use a fan of some kind to move the warm air around the rig. If you go this route, make sure you have plenty of flexible gas hose so you get maximum range for placing the heater in different spots in the rig.

    Blower

    Most ventless gas heaters can be purchased with an optional blower. As soon as you start blowing the air around the RV, you are signing up to use the batteries to keep the rig warm, something the vent-free solution was aiming to avoid. However, the power consumption should be less overall than a furnace. Some blowers are thermostatically controlled, allowing them to cycle on and off as needed. This is efficient, as the blower and batteries won’t be in use all the time the heater is on. Rather than a built-in blower, many people opt to install a small DC fan which uses very little power. If your rig has a ceiling fan, that can also be an option, although it will require the inverter or generator to be turned on. In our case, our inverter is turned on from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, so running the ceiling fan when the heater is on during the day is no big deal.

     

    HEATER PLACEMENT

    When we installed our ventless propane heater, we tried placing it in several locations. We also tried turning our ceiling fan both on and off and running the fan both forwards and backwards (blowing towards the floor and towards the ceiling) before we settled on a final arrangement.

    Kozy World Vent-Free Propane Heater connected to flexible gas hose

    This ceramic heater has a flexible gas hose that allows it
    to be moved around the RV.

    We found that the best setup was to place the heater directly below our ceiling fan (in front of the oven at the base of the stairs in the kitchen) and to set the fan to blow towards the ceiling, drawing the warm air up and distributing it outwards throughout the RV. It was astonishing to find what a difference it made as we moved the heater to various places in the trailer and tried each placement with or without the ceiling fan, and blowing up versus blowing down.

    Our RV is a “rear lounge” fifth wheel
    , and we found that the area around the recliners was a significant cold air pocket. Doesn’t it figure! That’s where we like to be on cold evenings!! There are large windows surrounding the recliners, which make that area cold, while the warm air in the rig congregates high up on the ceiling just in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom (that is, if the bedroom door is closed. Otherwise the warm air settles in the bedroom itself).

    We assumed that facing the heater towards the recliners just 5 feet in front of them would warm up this cold pocket. Wrong! No matter how high we set the thermostat, and no matter what we did with the ceiling fan (which is located 10 feet away right in front of the stairs leading to the bedroom), the recliners were still cold.

    When we moved the heater to the base of the stairs leading to the bedroom, and turned the ceiling fan on “high” and set it to blow towards the ceiling, we could immediately feel the warm air encircling us as we sat in the recliners. Who woulda thunk??!!

    Heater Sizes and Capacities

    Most manufacturers state the square footage their various heaters are designed to heat. We decided that we’d rather buy a slightly larger unit (that is, one rated for a larger space than the interior of our fifth wheel), and simply keep the heater on a lower setting than to find ourselves unable to heat the buggy adequately. Our rig is 360 square feet, which put us somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 BTUs. We ended up buying a 20,000 BTU heater, and we typically keep it set to 50% of maximum during the evenings/mornings and 25% of maximum at night when temps outside are in the 20’s and 30’s. If we had purchased a 10,000 BTU unit instead, I think it would have been cranking at max volume most of the time during the mornings and evenings and on stormy days. As a rough guide:

    Vent-free heater BTU ratings and square footage
    6,000 Up to 200 sf
    10,000 Up to 300 sf
    20,000 Up to 700 sf
    30,000 Up to 1,000 sf

    There are legal ratings for the sizes of vent-free heaters and the rooms they can be operated in. Less than 6,000 BTUs is okay for a bathroom, and less than 10,000 BTUs is okay for a bedroom. These are the ratings that are being referenced when you see a sticker on a larger unit saying “not designed to be used in a bedroom.” The idea is that a large unit operated at max volume in too small a space will use up too much oxygen in the room too quickly. Of course, such a scenario would have the occupants of the room running out the door because it would be way too hot for comfort.

     

    SAFETY OF VENTLESS PROPANE HEATERS

    Some people may worry that these kinds of ventless propane heaters aren’t safe, fearing that it might blow up the RV or suffocate them. These heaters are extraordinarily well regulated by various governing bodies, and designers have to meet stringent guidelines and submit their heaters to a battery of very challenging tests before they can be brought to market. Vent Free is the industry organization for all the vent-free gas heater manufacturers. Their website spells out all the testing, guidelines, state by state requirements, laws and safety record for these heaters. Through September 1, 2005, they claim that there had not been a documented death due to a vent-free propane heater (see that claim here). Visit their website at ventfree.org.

    In addition, at the factory, RV manufacturers install a LP Gas Detector Alarm system (various brands are used) to detect LP gas leaks in the RV and alert anyone inside. These are installed because many RVs come equipped with propane-based appliances, including things like the stove, oven, hot water heater, refrigerator and RV furnace. All RV owners should be aware of where their LP gas detector is located. It is usually installed near the floor, as LP is a heavy gas that settles down low. Propane is found in highest concentrations near the floor.

    Some RVers run their vent-free propane heater overnight as they sleep. We don’t do that. If the overnight low temps will be well below freezing (i.e., 25 degrees F or below), we run our RV furnace, set to 50 degrees, all night long to keep the plumbing from freezing, because the furnace is ducted throughout the basement.

     

    OPERATION AT HIGH ELEVATION

    Most of these heaters are sold with an official limit for operating altitude. The problem at higher altitudes is that there is not enough oxygen for the propane to burn properly. Some units are rated for use up to only 3,500 feet, while other manufacturers have a stated limit of as much as 5,000 feet.

    Our blue flame vent-free propane heater is rated for use up to 4,500 feet, but we have used it extensively at altitudes up to 8,500 feet and have used three times for two week periods at 10,000 feet.

    The key to operation at altitude is the Oxygen Detection Safety-pilot (ODS) sensor which has been standard equipment on all US-made vent-free heaters since the 1980’s. This sensor shuts off the gas to the heater when it detects the oxygen level has dropped to 18% (normal sea-level air is 21% oxygen). We find that whenever the ODS shuts our heater off, our stove and oven continue to run without a hitch. So, in reality, the stove and oven are actually more dangerous, as they do not have built-in ODS units to shut them off when the oxygen in the room gets too low.

    5th wheel camper rv in the snow

    A surprise autumn snowstorm at 10,000 feet elevation in Colorado during a two week stay taught us a lot
    about how vent-free heaters function at high altitudes.

    We use our heater all summer long as we travel through the western mountain states. We find that it works very well at 6,000 to 9,000 feet, taking the chill off cold mornings and raising the temperature inside the RV from a brisk low to mid-40’s to 75 degrees within an hour.

    We have spent months at these altitudes. On occasion, if we have been running the stove and oven as well as the heater, the heater will unceremoniously turn itself off. This is no problem. We simply open the RV door to let some oxygen-rich air into the rig.

    We have also spent several periods of 10 days to two or three weeks at 10,000 feet. Here we had more difficulty with our vent-free heater when the outdoor temps dropped into the high 20’s overnight (and we got two inches of snow on our roof!) and daytime highs were in the 40’s. The heater needed some coaxing to make it work. We tried two methods of combining the RV furnace and the ventless propane heater at this altitude. Neither was ideal, but this will give you a sense of what to expect and what to try:

    1. Run the RV furnace all night long to keep the rig at 50 degrees overnight, and then use the RV furnace to raise the temp to about 60 in the morning. We found that this method used gobs of electricity and propane and didn’t make us very warm. What’s worse, when we tried to use the vent-free blue flame heater after running the furnace, the furnace would not have sufficiently replaced the interior air with exterior oxygenated air, so the vent-free heater could not run very long before it shut off due to having insufficient oxygen around it. So, in essence, using the RV furnace meant we couldn’t use the vent-free heater. We found we could run the RV furnace all day long but the temps in the rig would never exceed 61-62 degrees (the high temps outside were in the 40’s, lows in the mid-20’s).

    2. Leave the furnace off overnight and run the ventless propane heater in the morning to warm up the rig. The temps inside our bedroom typically stay about 10 degrees above the outside temps if we don’t heat the RV overnight, so we woke up on some mornings to interior temps in the high 30’s. (We close our bedroom door at night to help keep the bedroom warm). The vent-free heater miraculously heated our indoor RV temps to 70 degrees within an hour of turning it on. At this point, around 70+ degrees, the heater would shut off. We could coax it to run a little more by opening the RV door and fanning the outside air into the rig, but it would shut off again after another 10 minutes or so. So then we would turn on the RV furnace.

    Any sensible person would have gone and gotten electric hookups at a campground and run an electric ceramic heater, but we aren’t always very sensible. Camping at 10,000 feet in snowy weather is rather extreme. Most of the boondocking spots we stay at in the summer months are down around 6,000 to 9,000 feet, as I mentioned above, and the heater works beautiful at those altitudes. During the winter months we are typically at elevations of under 1,500 feet and the heater works like a champ without missing a beat.

    Note: Since publishing this article, we have enjoyed yet another year of toasty warm heat from our blue flame vent-free heater in the mountains from spring through fall and at low desert elevations in the winter. We were also caught in another even bigger snowstorm on a mountaintop at 10,000 altitude once again and tried a different heating strategy that kept us warmer and dryer. Our article about that experience is here:

    How to Heat an RV in Cold Weather and Winter Snowstorms

     

    WHERE CAN YOU BUY A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER?

    We had the worst time trying to find places to look at these heaters and find people knowledgeable about installing and using them in RVs. In some states it is illegal to sell these kinds of heaters (here’s a link to the state-by-state regulations for vent-free gas heaters from ventfree.org), and in mountain towns they are scarce because of their issues with operating at high altitudes. In four months of summer travel when we were looking to buy, we found just two propane gas companies selling vent-free heaters, one in Jackson, MS and one in Kanab, UT. We ended up learning the most from fellow desert boondockers in Arizona, Nevada and California during the winter months and from salespeople in mom-and-pop hardware and RV parts stores in Yuma and Quartzsite, Arizona.

    If you know what you want, you can get a much better deal buying online, and Amazon sells all the major brands and accessories. We paid $290 plus $25 tax for our heater, a Vanguard 20,000 BTU blue flame with a thermostat and no blower (it came with feet). After buying, we found the same unit online with free shipping and no sales tax for $175 (Vanguard heaters are no longer made). Ace Hardware told us they could order a similar unit for us, shipped to their store in a week, for $215. So we paid a premium for our unit, but we did talk to a lot of sales people in the process and we saw a lot of the units (and warmed our hands over them), and knew exactly what we were buying.

    Cost of installing a vent-free heater

    Our entire project cost $385. The heater was $315 (including tax), and parts totaled $70. We were able to borrow the tools, but found they cost only about $15 to buy. We were quoted between $60 and $100 for the labor for the installation. As stated above, we also could have saved about $140 on the heater if we had purchased it online.

     

    INSTALLATION OF A VENT-FREE PROPANE HEATER IN AN RV

    Following is a pictorial step-by-step guide showing how we installed our vent-free propane heater in our RV.

    Installing fIttings on the vent-free propane heater

    The installation begins with work on the heater itself…

    Working under the kitchen cabinets to install the new gas line for the heater

    …however, the bulk of the installation involves tapping into an existing copper gas line to connect a new flexible gas line that goes to the heater.

    The first step is to do a little work on the heater itself…

    Installing the feet on our ventless blue flame propane heater

    Attach the plastic feet so the unit can be freestanding and be moved around the trailer easily.

    Installing the gas valve on the blue flame heater

    Attach a brass elbow fitting at the base of the heater.
    A flexible gas hose will eventually connect to this elbow.

    Installing the thermometer on our ventless blue flame propane heater

    Attach a thermistor (an electrical resistor type of thermometer) for the internal thermostat. This went on the lower back corner of the heater.

     

    Our heater came with feet so it could be freestanding, and it also came with a thermistor, or resistor based thermometer, for the thermostat. These were attached before beginning the actual installation of the new gas line in our trailer.

    The brass elbow did not come with our unit, but we found one with the right pitch, thread and diameter at the gas and electric supply store where we bought the other fittings for our project.

    Second Step — Turn off the gas and tap into an existing copper gas line

    The gas hose for the heater will tap into an existing copper line in a kitchen cabinet

    The new flexible gas line for the heater will connect into the existing copper line.

    We decided to tap into the copper gas pipe that runs between the refrigerator and the stove at the back of one of our lower kitchen cabinets. Mark measured the pipe and found it was 3/8″.

    The goal was to cut the existing pipe and insert a series of fittings that would allow us to attach a flexible gas hose at that point, effectively creating a new leg of flexible gas line. This hose would then run out through a hole drilled at the base of the cabinet and attach to the heater. All of this is low-pressure pipe and fixtures.

    Layout of all the gas fittings for installing the vent-free blue flame propane heater in our fifth wheel trailer RV

    To create a new leg of flexible hose gas line requires a T-connector (to rejoin the severed pipe), F-F gender changer, On/Off valve and flexible gas hose with a stopper at the other end.

    At a gas and electric supply store we picked up a male-male T-connector that would be inserted into the cut copper pipe.

    The base of the T would connect to a female-female gender changing connector, and then to an on-off valve (which has male fittings at either end), and finally to a female connector on the end of the flexible gas hose.

    Most of the year the heater would not be in use, so we bought a stopper for the end of the hose that goes to the heater.

    pipe cutter for cutting gas pipe

    Specialty tool #1: Pipe cutter

    When the heater is disconnected, this stopper would be screwed into the end of the hose and the heater would be put in a closet.

    However, we later discovered we wanted easy access to our heater during all four seasons, so the stopper never gets used!

     

    The existing gas line is cut

    The existing gas line is cut.

    A universal gas appliance hookup kit manufactured by Mr. Heater includes all these parts except the T-connector!

    Flaring tool showing both parts

    Specialty tool #2: Flaring Tool.

    The first step, after turning off the gas, was to cut the pipe. This requires a pipe-cutter, a small, inexpensive tool.

    Once the pipe was cut, the next step was to connect the T-connector between the two severed ends of the copper pipe.

    practice flare on scrap piece of copper pipe

    Practice flare.

    This would be done by first sliding a female connector onto each of the two pipe ends and then flaring the ends of the pipe with a flaring tool so the connectors couldn’t slide back off again.

    The female connector is slid onto the pipe before the flare is done

    The flare prevents the female connector from coming off the pipe.

    The male-male T-connector would be screwed into this (and its companion) female fitting on either end of the pipe, rejoining the pipe and making a new connection available for the gas hose to go out to the heater.

    flaring tool for flaring the end of a gas pipe

    Flaring tool with scrap practice pipe in it.

    Mark had never used a flaring tool to flare a pipe before, so he wanted to practice it first on a scrap piece of pipe.

    Flaring the real pipe under the kitchen cabinet

    Flaring the real pipe inside the cabinet.

    He made the practice flare by inserting the scrap pipe into the appropriately sized hole in the tool and then screwing down both ends of the tool to snug the pipe into it — as if it were a bad guy in the old days having his head and hands put in the stocks in the town square!

    One flare finished second flare beginning

    One flare done, now do the other.

    Then he inserted the pointed end of the flaring tool into the end of the pipe and twisted the crank, slowly flaring the end of the pipe as the point pressed further into it.

    Two wrenches tighten T-connector in place

    Tightening the T-connector with two wrenches

    He slid the female connector onto a short piece of pipe and felt a snug fit between the pipe and the connector. The flare was just right. Now confident that he could flare a pipe properly, he contorted himself to get the flaring tool set up on the real copper pipe at the back of the cabinet.

    T-connector with F-F gender changer

    T-connector with F-F gender changer ready for the shut-off valve to be attached.

    He began by sliding a female connector onto one end of the severed pipe under the cabinet and flaring the pipe’s end. Then he did the same thing to the other piece of the severed pipe. Then he screwed the male-male T-connector into the two female ends of the pipe to rejoin them, and he tightened the T-connector using two wrenches.

    He attached a female-female connector to the base of the T, making it possible to screw the male-male valve into place. This valve would allow the gas to the heater to be turned on and off. After the valve, he attached the female end of the gas hose.

    Connecting the flexible gas hose to the shut-off valve

    The new flexible gas line connects to the shut-off valve.

    Finally, he drilled a hole in the front base of the kitchen cabinet and ran the gas hose through the hole. The other end of the gas hose was attached to the elbow connector he had placed on the bottom of the heater.

    Tightening all the connections with wrenches, and turning the gas to the trailer back on, the heater was now ready to be used.

    Hole at base of the cabinet for the gas hose

    The new flexible gas line will come through this hole and connect to the heater.

    Mark checked for gas leaks using a tiny spritzer bottle filled with a few drops of Dawn dish soap and water. Spraying this mixture on each connection, he looked for bubbles to form which would indicate a gas leak.

    To give us flexibility in moving the heater around the rig, we originally used two lengths of gas hose: a 3′ length for under the cabinet and a second 12′ length that attached to it with an inline male-male connector.

    Vent-free blue flame propane heater installed in a 5th wheel trailer

    What a great little heater!!

    The idea was that the 12′ gas hose would give us lots of flexibility for moving the heater around the trailer. However, we found that it was too long and too bulky and the best position for the heater was close to the stove anyway. So we replaced the 12′ hose with a shorter 4′ one.

    After the installation was finished, it didn’t seem like such a big project after all, and what a thrill it was to toast ourselves in our warm buggy. Our timing was perfect: the next week brought a big cold front, multiple days of rain, lows in the 30’s and highs in the fifties. We were snug as bugs in a rug while the winds howled outside.

     

    There are tons of choices for installing a vent-free propane heater, but these four are among the most popular. If you buy a heater from Amazon, make sure it is PROPANE and not NATURAL GAS, as the pictures look the same. We receive a 4-6% commission for purchases made through any of our Amazon links (at no cost to you) which helps us maintain this site — thank you!

    Good luck with your project, and stay warm!

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    Disclaimer: This blog post describes our vent-free propane heater installation. We are not responsible for any installation other than the one in our own rig.

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