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

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

Kuat NV Bike Rack on back of fifth wheel trailer RV

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

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

Hitch extension with Kuat NV bike rack

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

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

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

Using a shim in a bumper hitch

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

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

JM Custom Welding Blanding Utah

Mark and Jack of JM Custom Welding in Blanding, Utah

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

Bumper hitch tightener for car or RV hitch

Jack put this nifty hitch tightener on our hitch receiver.

Bumper hitch tightener for bike rack

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

Hitch tightener on RV for bike rack

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

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

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

Looking down at both hitch tighteners on our hitch extension.

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

Hitch tighteners on bumper hitch mounted bike rack

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

Hitch tightener for bike rack mounted in bumper hitch

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

Kuat NV BIke rack and bike rack extension and hitch tightener

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

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

Mountain bikes on truck rather than a bike rack

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve got a few more links below.

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Info on hitch tighteners and hitch clamps:

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

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

If you need custom metal fabrication work done:

Related Posts:

Our most recent posts:

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Power Inverters – Exeltech’s Pure Sine Wave Excellence

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS AN INVERTER?

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

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

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

RV FACTORY INSTALLED CONVERTERS

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

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

RV FACTORY INSTALLED INVERTERS and INVERTER/CHARGERS

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

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

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

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

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

INVERTER SIZES

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

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

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

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

RV power inverter with electric razo

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

MODIFIED SINE WAVE vs. PURE SINE WAVE INVERTERS

Inverters also come in two flavors:

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

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

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

Exeltech XP 1100 Inverter

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

WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – DC SIDE

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

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

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

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

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

WIRING AN INVERTER INTO AN RV – AC SIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHICH INVERTER TO BUY for a BIG INSTALLATION?

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

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

Exeltech power inverter manufacturing

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

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

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

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

Power inverter

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

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

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

MORE INFO ABOUT INVERTERS and SOLAR POWER

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

ESCAPEES MAGAZINE and RV CLUB

RV Power Inverters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RV by ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway

RV Alaska by Ferry!
Escapees Magazine Sep/Oct 2016

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

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

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

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

Full-time RV traveler artist

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

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

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

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

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

RVers BootCamp at Escapees RV Club

RVers BootCamp – A training program for new RVers

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

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

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

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

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

Join Escapees RV Club

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

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SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

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How to Defrost an RV Refrigerator in 20 Minutes!

Defrosting an RV refrigerator is a surprisingly easy job. We’ve been living with a propane RV refrigerator for many years now, and they always need defrosting after a few weeks or months. Being meticulous about not leaving the refrigerator door open unnecessarily can help, but when you find yourself living in a hot and humid environment or if you have the refrigerator side of your trailer or motorhome facing the blazing hot summer sun all afternoon, the frost is going to build up over time.

All you need to defrost an RV refrigerator is:

Over the years, we’ve tried several different techniques for defrosting our RV fridge, and in the old days this was a big job that, with some methods, could take well over an hour. We now have it down to a super fast method that makes this pesky job a cinch. The last time we did it, I made a note of the time on the clock as we went through each step. From start to finish, it took 20 minutes.

The first step is to turn off the refrigerator and empty the contents of the freezer into cooler bags or a cooler of some kind. Since these things will be out of the freezer for just 20 minutes, they won’t defrost and the ice cream won’t melt. If your RV is hot inside, covering the cooler bags with blankets for extra insulation can help.

Defrost RV refrigerator remove food from freezer

9:17 a.m. – Turn off fridge and unload freezer into cooler bags

We used to unload the whole refrigerator and empty it out completely, but that isn’t necessary and it takes a lot of time. An awful lot of what is in the refrigerator can handle warming up slightly as you keep the refrigerator door open to defrost it.

Instead, just unload the most temperature sensitive items — milk, yogurt, lunch meats, mayonaise, etc., into an insulated cooler bag or a cooler. Most of the fruits, veggies, bread, cheese, condiments, etc., can remain right where they are in the fridge for the 20 minutes it takes to defrost it.

How to defrost an RV fridge with food in cooler bag

Set the cooler bags aside. Covering them with blankets will keep everything even cooler.

Next, put a super absorbant chamois towel in the bottom of the freezer compartment to absorb the water from the melting ice, and use a hair dryer to thaw the walls of the freezer.

Defrosting RV refrigerator hair dryer on freezer with towels

9:22 a.m. – Use a hair dryer to thaw out the freezer.

We live exclusively on solar power, and our 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter is what powers all our AC appliances, including the hair dryer. So, we have a low wattage travel hair dryer that draws just 800 watts (available here).

We put it on the high setting and keep a distance of about 8″ between the hair dryer and the walls of the freezer. A higher wattage hair dryer may need to be put on the low heat setting. Hold your hand about 8″ from the hair dryer and see how hot it feels.

Be sure you keep the hair dryer from heating up the plastic walls or they will crack from being cold and then getting hot. Keep the hair dryer moving and test the temp of the plastic walls with your hands.

After thawing the walls of the freezer a little, move down to the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment. Keep the hair dryer in constant motion, sweeping it back and forth from side to side.

Defrost RV refrigerator hair dryer on cooling fins

Slowly wave the hair dryer in front of the cooling fins.

Alternate working on the freezer compartment and the refrigerator compartment.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator hair dryer in freezer

Alternate between the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment and the freezer compartment.

Defrosting RV refrigerator hair dryer on fridge cooling fins

At the beginning, when the cooling fins are caked in ice, the hair dryer can be closer to them.

Little ice sheets will begin to fall off the refrigerator cooling fins into the drip tray underneath. As the thawing process continues, increase the distance between the hair dryer and the cooling fins.

How to defrost an RV fridge melting ice with hair dryer

As ice drops and the cooling fins thaw, move the hair dryer back a little.

Don’t chisel the ice off the fins or the freezer walls with a tool. If you pierce the metal base behind the cooling fins or the walls of the freezer, the refrigerant (ammonia) will leak out. We don’t use any chiseling device. We simply assist the thawing process with the hair dryer.

Check beneath the cooling fins and you’ll see the bits of ice dropping into the drip tray.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator ice dropping from fridge cooling fins

Check below the cooling fins where the ice drops off in chunks.

If you go outside, on the back of the RV you’ll see water seeping out of the refrigerator vent.

How to defrost an RV fridge water dripping from refrigerator vent on outside of trailer

Outside the rig, water will be seeping from the refrigerator vent.

How to defrost an RV refrigerator water dripping down fridge vent outside trailer

A little trickle of water flows down.

Once all the ice has fallen off the cooling fins, pull out the drip tray and dump the ice in the sink.

Ice in RV refrigerator drip tray

9:34 a.m. – Once all the ice has dropped off the cooling fins, empty the tray of ice into the sink.

Up in the freezer compartment, the chamois towel is now fairly wet with water that has dripped down off the walls. Wring it out and use it to wipe down the freezer and the fridge.

Wet Chamois towel from defrosting RV refrigerator

9:35 a.m. – The chamois towel in the freezer is pretty wet. Use it to wipe down the fridge and freezer.

Load the food from the cooler bags back into the refrigerator and freezer compartments, and you’re done! Put the fridge at max temp for a few hours to help it cool back down, and then set it to the temperature setting you normally use.

Defrosted RV refrigerator

9:37 a.m. – After loading the food back in the refrigerator, turn it back on. Done!

Other RV Refrigerator Tips

The key to having an RV refrigerator work optimally is having the air circulate inside well. Overstuffing the fridge with food makes this difficult for it. We have used a little RV refrigerator airator fan that’s designed to keep the air flowing. We’ve had mixed results with this, and when it died we didn’t replace it. I think this would work well if there were space between all the food, but our fridge is usually packed (the turf wars between the beer and the veggies can be brutal…sometimes we can hear them battling it out in there!).

As a maintenance item, we keep the door seals clean, wiping them down periodically.

We use simple refrigerator thermometers to monitor the temperatures in the fridge and freezer. It has a built in hook, and we hang it from one of the rungs in the top shelf in the refrigerator. The one in the freezer rests against one wall.

We were surprised to learn that RV refrigerators have an expected lifespan of about 8 to 10 years. A classic sign of impending failure is the appearance of yellow dust in the refrigerator vent area behind the fridge (go outside and take the vent cover off and look around with a flashlight). Click the following link to read the funny story of our RV refrigerator replacement and see how an RV fridge replacement is done.

Because of the shorter lifespan, higher price, and use of propane in RV refrigerators, many (most) “full-time” level fifth wheels and motorhomes are now being built with residential refrigerators that run on AC power only (a dedicated inverter is installed so it can run from the batteries while in transit). For folks that have plans to dry camp and boondock a lot in their RV life, a residential refrigerator will require a much bigger battery bank and solar panel array than would otherwise be needed. We discuss that in more detail at this link in our introductory solar power article.

If our hair dryer method of defrosting an RV fridge seems unorthodox to you, believe me, we have tried many other methods. We tried opening the fridge and freezer doors and letting the fridge thaw out on its own. We tried doing that and “helping it along” by chiseling the ice off with a small plastic scraper. We tried putting a bowl of hot water in the fridge to help it warm up.

All of these methods were adequate, but they were time consuming. We’ve been using our current method with the mini travel hair dryer for a few years now and really, really like it.

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RV Storage Tip – Making Space & Getting Organized in an RV

No matter how big an RV you get, if you live in it long enough, eventually you will begin to fill it up with stuff. This has happened to us and our 36′ fifth wheel trailer. When it was new and we first moved in years ago, it was so big that half our cabinets were empty.

Since then, especially after consolidating back into our fifth wheel after living on our sailboat for nearly four years of cruising Mexico, our lives have changed a lot. We have found a new passion — photography — and all that camera gear has wound up taking over our living space.

Fifth wheel RV dinette with table and chairs

Our old dining area – no storage and seating for two.

We began storing lenses in a drawer with dish towels (soft padding) and we had four camera bags that lived on our desk and under our dining room table. Camera bodies were always strewn across the sofa, fanny packs got piled on the desk, and tripods often got stuck on top of the subwoofer under our TV. Tucking everything away for safe passage while driving was a real pain. We needed to get this stuff organized!

Mark had a brilliant idea one morning — replace our dining room chairs with big storage ottoman benches!

Storage benches in RV dinette

Our new dining area – lots of storage and seating for four.

We began researching storage benches and ottomans and found the perfect thing from Simpli Home Furnishings. They are made of a nice faux leather, and there are no decorative buttons on the top, so the plush, padded top is very comfortable for sitting on (here’s more info).

Simpli Home Furnishings rectangular storage ottoman

These storage ottomans are 36″ wide by 18″ tall and 18″ deep.

The outside dimensions are 36′ long by 18″ high by 18″ deep. The inside dimensions are 33.25″ long by 11.5″ high by 15.5″ deep.

Simpli Home Furnishings storage ottoman

Our new storage ottomans have voluminous interior space.

We bought them sight unseen from Amazon and couldn’t be happier. They come with four short legs, with three screws each, which were easy to attach.

Attach legs to Simpli Home Furnishings storage ottoman

The only assembly is attaching the four legs.

Some customers have complained that the screws are too long and coming up through the floor of the box, but the legs simply need to be oriented correctly with the three screw holes aligned with the outside edges of the ottoman.

Ottoman leg assembly

Be sure to align the screw holes with the outer edges of the ottoman.

The legs were attached in just a few minutes using our cordless drill.

Screwing legs into ottoman with cordless drill

A cordless drill makes this a quick job!

The end result is much more comfortable seating at our table and a whole bunch more storage space for our camera gear.

RV dinette with storage benches instead of chairs

Ta da!

The tricky thing about storage space in an RV is that anything located behind the coach’s rear wheels is going to bounce around a whole lot as you drive down the road. That’s why most RVs don’t have the kitchen in the rear.

Our new storage ottomans sit just slightly forward of the trailer’s axles.

Increase RV storage with ottoman bench storage in dinette

The box tops easily clear the table when they open.

Another tricky thing with storage space in an RV is that in many coaches, like ours, the shelving is very flimsy. We prefer not to put anything heavy into the wall cabinets (except in the kitchen where our cabinets are more sturdily built). But it doesn’t take long to run out of storage space down near the floor.

This new storage space is solid.

RV dinette storage bench ottoman

A few throw pillows makes these pretty darn comfortable for lounging!

We put some throw pillows on our new benches and now we’ve got not only a great place to keep our camera gear organized and a nice, new, clean look to our dining area, but we can kick back after a meal, prop our legs up on the benches and chit chat for a while. It’s fun to sit there together and get a new perspective on our little rolling home and on life!

Sitting on storage ottoman benches in RV dinette.jpg

We never used to hang out after meals on our old chairs… but this is fun!

The storage ottomans we bought are the Dover rectangular storage ottomans from Simpli Home Furnishings.
We bought them from Amazon at this link HERE.

These benches are ideal for us, but Amazon sells lots of other similar storage ottomans of different sizes and shapes too and you can find all kinds of storage benches for sale at Amazon at this link HERE).

If you find the benches are a little low, one good way to raise them up is with the plastic rug protectors made for furniture legs. We also removed the feet from our table to bring it down a smidge.

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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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    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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    RV Tips – Cleaning Tips for Washing your RV

    RV in a car wash

    The simplest method to wash the grime off your RV: take it to a car wash with a big bay!

    The easiest way to clean your rig is to pull it into a car wash that has an RV bay and go for it. But sometimes car washes with RV bays are hard to find, and moving around on a ladder to get to the high spots is tricky. If you boondock all the time, like we do, and don’t stay in RV parks and don’t ever go home to a house with a driveway and hose, you also don’t have access to handy water spigots.

    RV boondocking wash Foam Away

    No water needed

    So Mark has found some creative ways to keep our rig clean while boondocking.

    For a quick job on the truck — if it’s just dusty and not dirty with caked-on mud — he likes to use Turtle Wax Foam Away, a dry wash that doesn’t require water.

    Spray it on and wipe it off, and your truck is nice and clean. Sadly, this product isn’t available any more, but another great alternative is Dri Wash ‘n Guard Waterless Car Wash.

    RV boondocking RV wash Zip Wax

    Add a spritz to 2-3 gallons of water

    RV boondocking wash and wax meguiars quik detailer

    Shine up the rig

    For more stubborn dirt and stains, like the bugs that splatter on the front cap of the fifth wheel and the hood of the truck, or for a more thorough wash, Mark makes up a bucket of sudsy water using a couple of gallons of water and Turtle Wax Zip Wax Ultra Concentrate

    He washes down one area at a time and then wipes it dry. No rinsing necessary.

    Mr Clean Magic Eraser Scrub Pads

    Mr Clean Magic Eraser Scrub Pads

    The neat thing about boondocking is that you have tons of space around your rig, so he drives the truck around the fifth wheel, lining it up to reach the highest spots on the trailer.

    A ladder works too, but the truck gives him a much wider lateral reach as he walks along the side of the truck bed. It’s a little acrobatic, but that’s makes the job more exciting!

    One awesome product Mark discovered is Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Pads. These things do an amazing job of getting rid of the scuff marks on the fiberglass front cap on our fifth wheel.

    Boondocking RV wash use the truck

    Better than a ladder…

    RV boondocking uv protect all

    Sunscreen for the plastic parts

    For quick waxing he prefers Meguiar’s Quik Detailer (others like Mr. Clean’s Spray Wax work too). This is a polish detailer that gives the truck and trailer a nice shine and leaves the fifth wheel front cap and truck hood so smooth the bugs don’t stick (at least not for a while).

    To get a little UV protection on rubber seals and plastic (like the translucent plexiglass hatch covers, a/c unit and fridge vent) he uses Protect All, a UV protectant. He has also used 303 Aerospace Protectant, which seems to work equally well. And of course the truck windshield gets a dose of Rainex every so often.  Rainex makes rain on the windshield bead up and slide off more easily so the wipers can be used a little less — although we’ve found it seems to be most effective at preventing rain from falling all together, that is, until the Rainex has worn off and the windshield needs another coat!

    Boondocking RV wash Meguiars paste wax

    For a more thorough wax job

    Once a year Mark uses Meguiar’s Gold Class Paste Wax on the both the truck and trailer to give them a deeper finish and prevent oxidizing. If there is oxidation or stuck on bug pieces that just won’t come off, he uses Meguiar’s Cleaner Wax, a cleaner/polisher that has a mild abrasive in it.

    Over the years Mark has tried lots of different cleaning and polishing products, and they all get the job done. Far more important than using a particular product is just getting out there and applying some elbow grease with whatever you have on hand. Doing a little bit more frequently is easier than doing a big job all at once…!

    California Duster

    California Duster

    When the rig just needs a quick dusting (the truck especially), Mark turns to his trusty California Duster.

    This thing is amazing because it picks up all the dust and can later be shaken out with a few quick twists of the wrist.

    And that’s all there is to it. Easy peasy — especially for me, since on those rig washing days I always find I am suddenly very busy doing something else!!

    And, ironically, after each of the photos of our buggy getting a bath on this page was taken — in a car wash in Montana and while boondocking in Colorado — it rained for 3 days in each place.  So go ahead — do the RV rain dance and help end the drought!!

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    New to this site?  Check out the RVing Lifestyle and Tech Tips in the MENUS at the top of the page for detailed info about installing solar power, installing a vent-free propane heater, living the full-time RV lifestyle, how to go boondocking, how to find free campsites, the costs of full-time RVing and more.  Please visit our Home page and Welcome page for RVers to learn more about us and discover all the other good stuff available to you on this blog.

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