Thursday, December 3, 2015

5 Tips for a Cozy Winter RV Home (plus the conclusion of my electrical saga!)

As darkness descends on the Chihuahuan desert at our 4500-foot elevation, it can get pretty cold here on a winter night in central New Mexico…especially if the winds are blowing. 

Sunny mornings are now starting to show the evidence—frost on my skylight!

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Even though I’ve experienced a couple cold nights while traveling (rapidly) from Chicago to warmer destinations in previous years, I’ve never spent an entire winter season in a location that gets below freezing nearly every night.  So, I’ve recently had a lot to learn about making my RV comfortable for winter living. Fortunately, fellow volunteers here at the Refuge have provided some excellent tips!

If you might be RVing in some cold and remote places this winter, here are 5 ways to keep your RV home comfy and cozy:

1. Preventing Frozen Water Hoses

There are a few different schools of thought amongst the volunteers on winter water hose management.  Since our days here are often well above freezing, some just keep their RV fresh water tanks filled, and only connect the hose (during the warmest daylight hours) when the tank needs refilling.  Not a bad idea at all (I do indeed keep my water tank filled in case of emergency), but for routine daily use, since I have the benefit of hookups anyway….might as well use ‘em!

The second school of thought suggests buying a dedicated winter water hose (with integrated heat element built into it).  About 1/3rd of the volunteers here use this kind of Camco heated hose and seem very happy with it.  It’s a simple and good-looking solution.


But, as you can see above, heated hoses can be pretty expensive!  Plus, you need to have the cargo space to stow them the rest of the year (when it’s not freezing).  Not an ideal solution for my small RV with limited cargo capacity.  Also, a few commenters on Amazon mentioned that if the heating element or thermostat in these kinds of hoses ever fail (which they often can do), you’re out a pretty substantial cost to replace the whole hose again.

Thankfully, there’s a third solution available, and for me at least, it’s seemed just right—less expensive, and multi-functional!  It involves a regular water hose, a separate electric heating cable, a bag of foam pipe insulation tubes, some aluminum foil, and some duct tape (apart from the hose and heat cable, you can probably buy these items at your local big box or hardware store for less than Amazon sells them). 


A little more work to set up, but less than half the cost of the all-in-one Camco hose, and when winter is over, I can throw away the foam insulation and tin foil, stow the small heat cable, and continue to use the water hose year-round.

In my haste, I forgot to take step-by-step installation pictures, but after watching this RVGeeks video on YouTube, it was a very simple and straight-forward task to get this solution up and running.

  1. Lay out the water hose and heat cable straight on the ground between your connection points.
  2. Wrap the hose with one layer of heavy duty aluminum foil (this allows the heat from the electric cable to distribute more evenly around the hose).
  3. Open the slit of a foam pipe cover and tuck a straight line of heat cable and the “foiled” hose into it.  Remove the adhesive strips from both slit sides and squeeze them together to seal the foam tube closed.  Repeat the process with the next section of foam tubing until all exposed hose is insulated and covered.
  4. Finally, use the duct tape to cover the foam pipe slits and segment joins. In wet climates, it may be best to tape the foam completely (all the way around), but here in dry New Mexico, I just taped the top of the tube (where the slits were) to keep moisture out. 

Here’s the finished product coming from the underground water spigot (beneath the green door), to my utility bay (beneath the gray hatch).

winter utility setup

At the spigot end, rather than connect my insulated, heated hose directly to the underground spigot, I decided to add some versatility.  I put a short 4-foot hose underground and connected it to my heated hose above ground with a brass shut-off valve.  I ran some of the heat cable beneath the valve and covered it with black, non-sticky insulated foam Duck tape (bought locally from Wal-Mart for way less).

On the utility bay end of things, I had a dilemma. I wanted to still use my “whole house” Camco EVO water filter and needed a way to keep it from freezing.  The RVGeeks video offered a great solution—put it inside the utility bay and add a work light to let its light bulb warm up the bay.  Perfect! Rather than manually turn the light on/off each night, I bought a temperature-activated plug to automatically activate the light bulb based on temperature.  My particular plug turns on when temps fall below 35F and turns off when temps rise above 45F.

Here’s the bay “in action” during the night:

Utility Bay w warming light

I wrapped the extra 3 feet of heat cable loosely around the un-insulated hoses in the bay to provide some added heat.  There is no dedicated hole in my bay for the water hose (it must run thru the open hatch door), so I left the foam insulation off of this section to keep the air gap from the open bay door as minimal as possible.

hose wrapped in alum foil with heat strip

The utility lamp’s temperature plug and the heat cable are plugged into a short extension cord next to the electric post.  To keep these plugs from getting wet, I tuck them inside a concrete block that the Refuge has provided.  So far, the system is working great!  No frozen water lines!!!

temp activated electric plugs

 

2. Keeping the Critters Out

Another common winter battle for RV volunteers at many wildlife refuges is the battle against little critters seeking shelter in your warm and cozy RV—namely, mice and pack rats!

One prevention method some of us use is to keep areas beneath the RV lit up at night.  I already had a long string of rope lights, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to put them under the RV.

rope lights under rig

The lights get turned on/off automatically at dusk and dawn with this cheap and handy little sensor/timer switch:

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The preferred method of pack rat nest prevention (that the Refuge uses for all its vehicles) is to leave all engine hoods open.  When my View engine hood is open with its normal prop, it blocks my view out the front window, so I discovered that one of my spare yellow leveling ramps makes a perfect-sized prop stick alternative!  So far, so good—no pack rats!!!

keeping packrats out of View enginekeeping packrats out of Tracker engine


3. Connecting to External Propane Tanks

Winter RVing can require a lot more propane than other times of the year.  Here, the Refuge provides free propane (and 100 lb. tanks) to all of its winter volunteers.  What a great deal!  But, how best to connect this tank to the Winnie?

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I originally had bought this Camco Propane Tee to insert between my Winnie propane tank and its connections.  The tee allows the addition of an external LP tank hose hookup, and/or a hose hookup to common LP appliances such as grills and lanterns.

Unfortunately, I did not try installing this tee before I arrived to Bosque.  My existing propane connections would not push far enough back for this tee to get inserted (not without some professional tools and modifications).  So, I moved to “Plan B” – a down and dirty method to connect the external tank hose directly to the Winnie.  Here’s what I bought:

It was a bit more difficult to tighten all these connectors (vs. the Camco tee), but it will get me through the season.  I’ll get the Camco tee permanently installed the next time my RV is in for service.

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4. Heating up the Inside

Having abundant propane was sure a Godsend when my 110 electrical was out!  Normally, running the furnace full-time on just battery power would have exhausted most of my battery capacity each day.  Fortunately, I had my favorite cold-weather boondocking solution to keep the View’s interior warm and cozy—an Olympian Wave 3 Catalytic Heater

Wave 3 LP fittings

Last year when I was in California, I had a tee and shut-off valve installed on the LP line running to my water heater (in the louvered door utility bay beneath the clothes closet in my J-model View).

LP Tee with shut off valve

I had this flexible LP hose with quick connector installed to the new tee.  This hose easily stows in the utility closet when not in use.

LP Hose with quck disconnect

When wanting some nice radiant heat when boondocking, I unwrap this hose and quick-connect it up to my Wave 3 heater.  As the heater is mounted on legs, I can move it around the RV to point it to the front or rear, and when not in use, the Wave 3 is small and lightweight enough to stow in my front overhead cabinets (with its dust cover on to keep it clean).

Wave 3 in action

Last winter, I had originally bought a KozyWorld LP heater to go with this flexible hose.  But I quickly discovered that it was just too big and powerful for my small 23’ RV.  I could never set it low enough for those nights when there was just a modest chill that needed a bit of heat.  It also was comically too large inside the RV and a pain in the butt to stow.  So, I sold the KozyWorld to a friendly rancher here in New Mexico last Spring and replaced it with the smaller Wave 3 that I was familiar with from my old Tab Trailer days.

Many View owners opt for the larger Wave 6 unit, but after my KozyWorld experience, I decided stay on the small side and supplement it with the furnace whenever needed.  So far, this solution has worked great!  On nights when it dips down into the low 30’s or high 20’s, the Wave 3 keeps the rig warm until about 4 a.m. When inside temps fall below 63 degrees, my furnace kicks on to prevent inside temps from falling any lower.

When using a catalytic, I keep the kitchen window and bathroom roof vent cracked open to provide the necessary fresh oxygen flow.  While this reduces heating effectiveness slightly, the Wave 3 uses no battery power and uses far less propane than the furnace or a “Buddy”-style heater.  It also works at higher elevations (unlike the Buddy), so overall, I’m very satisfied with it.

Once I got my 110 electric running again, I decided to put the Wave 3 away and start using my new Lasko ceramic tower heater

ceramic tower electric heater and wave 3 lp heaterP1080645

As it oscillates and has a fan, the tower heater does a faster job of distributing the heat evenly throughout the rig than the Wave 3.  It also has a nifty remote control so I can even turn it on/off without getting out of bed if I wish!

5. Enjoying More TV Channels During those Long Winter Nights

Here in central New Mexico, our over-the-air TV channels are pretty limited.  Using my RV’s original “Batwing” antenna, I was only getting 2 network stations strongly (PBS and FOX, how’s that for “diverse” programming?!!).  The third network, NBC, was often pixelated and unwatchable.

I decided a few weeks ago that it was finally time for an antenna upgrade.  Initially, I tried the King Controls JACK antenna.  Loved the smaller size and easy installation onto my existing Batwing antenna mast, but discovered a showstopper issue when I tried to lower the mast back to the roof—the new JACK antenna didn’t have enough room to clear my rooftop A/C unit.  It could not be lowered all the way back down to the roof!  Thank goodness for Amazon’s no-hassle returns policy.

So, on to the Wingard options.  I could have just purchased the Wingman piece that snaps onto an existing batwing antenna, but the product photos looked a bit cheesy and less-polished than an entire replacement head, so I spent the extra $20 bucks on a Sensar IV replacement head.

It was a 5-minute job to remove the old batwing and install the new Sensar IV.  Surprisingly, even though the JACK antenna seemed to have more positive Amazon reviews, I’m getting a few more channels and slightly stronger signals with the new Sensar IV.  So, a very worthwhile and easy upgrade!

new wingard sensar 4 antenna 
To read more about how I use my 27” LED computer monitor (and Mac laptop) to watch TV from the comfort of my View’s front swivel/reclining seats, scroll down to the TV section of my RV Gadget Favs page.

The Conclusion to My Electrical Saga

Speaking of getting the 110 running again, lots of comments from my past post seemed to be amazed that I’d take on the job of replacing my Parallax power center myself (its 110 neutral buss wires had fired to a crisp when my 30 amp shore power plug failed a few weeks ago). 

While, yes, I’ve done some mild electrical projects in the past (i.e. installing my solar panels and replacing an occasional 110 outlet or switch in my past houses), I would not consider myself an electrical wonder woman!  Just a gradual process over the years of becoming more comfortable and familiar with AC and DC electrical systems.

For the power center/converter replacement project, as my original Parallax 7345 power center was now discontinued, I could have switched to something entirely different.  But the alternatives were all very different dimensions (or else made out of plastic).  So, I decided to stick with a more “fire-proof” metal box and go with a same-sized Parallax unit, the 7155

The replacement wasn’t rocket science-- I basically just had to move all the wire connections from one box to the other.  With proper labeling of each wire, it was really a very straight-forward task—just time-consuming.

In the end, most of the work just involved cutting back and re-stripping about 10 wires that had charred, and adding new wire extensions and butt connectors to 2 wires that had to be trimmed back too far to reach the connectors.  To be fully on the safe side, I also decided to replace all the original circuit breakers with new ones—one 30/15 breaker, and two 15/20 breakers.

Before:

orig 110 wiring 

and After:

new 110 wiring

On the 12-volt side, rather than use the “dumb” 1-stage converter/charger that came with the new Parallax box, I just transferred my upgraded “smart” 3-stage Progressive Dynamics PD-4645 converter/charger (and its 12-volt fuse panel) from the old Parallax box.  This unit (the bottom half of each photo below) looks furiously complicated, but it was all just 1 assembly that easily slid out of the old box and into the new.  The most time-consuming piece was disconnecting and reconnecting all the 12-volt wires to migrate the fuse panel (upper right corner).

So, it was out with the old--

old power center

and in with the New!

new completed power center wiring 
Once the new box was screwed back into the wall and cover panels were in place, everything was now back to normal again and looking as if nothing had ever happened!  To my great thrill and delight, when I first re-powered the unit, every single 12-volt and 110 item inside the RV worked perfectly again with no further troubleshooting required!  What a relief!

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Now that I’ve spent so much “quality time” with my converter/power center, I feel so much more knowledgeable and comfortable at being able to troubleshoot and fix these sorts of problems in the future! 

I encourage all RV owners (especially solos who like to camp in far-off places with few RV repairmen nearby) to start learning more about your RV electrical systems (and propane systems too!).  Watch YouTube videos, buy books, talk to old-pro RVers, peruse the online RV forums and ask lots and lots of questions.  You might not want to tackle every repair or upgrade yourself, but you’ll hopefully be able to do the more straightforward stuff yourself, and be a much more educated consumer in your future dealings with RV repair shops.

33 comments:

  1. Great job! I'm like you I tackle things that most don't think they can but I think MOST people are very capable and can do it once they get beyond the fear of trying.

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    1. So true. My first inclination was to find an RV Mobile Repair Tech, and when I wasn't successful, started calling Albuquerque dealers (who had 2-week waiting lists). Between my work schedule and lack of available techs, I was pretty forced into doing it myself. But as I progressed thru the project, my confidence increased. What a feeling to have everything work again on the 1st try at the end of it all! I will indeed try to take on more projects myself in the future!

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  2. When I was in pack rat country, I also put a light in the engine compartment of the rig and the toad. Worked for me.

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    1. Thankfully, the little buggers have not bothered us too much here, but better safe than sorry!

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  3. You have been busy, sure is nice to be handy.

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    1. Indeed! It felt really good to save a few hundred dollars by doing it myself!

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  4. Your cold weather suggestions remind me of one great addition to our rig -- a heated mattress pad. Cozy, cozy,cozy!

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    1. Great suggestion for others! Since my new IKEA mattress is foam, it actually warms up pretty quickly (sometimes too warm-- I might need to figure out a solution for that next summer). I'm loving my Primaloft (down alternative) comforter. It's the same lightweight stuff as they put into Patagonia winter jackets! http://amzn.to/1Nd2cds

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  5. I stumbled on this blog and started reading, and then - wonder woman! - wow didn't know that :) Good for you. And thanks for the tips, which we will need once we start on a similar journey.

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    1. Ha! Well, Wonder Woman I'm not, but it's always nice to have something to aspire to!

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  6. I am impressed! great job. My wife and I don't full time, but we do spend 6-8 weeks in the south western US during the winter, and your hints about the critters and heating the water hose are very helpful to us. Thanks much

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  7. Sigwal would be so proud of you!

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    1. I did think of our dear father fondly when I screamed out a few obscenities while fighting to remove/reinstall the "strain relief" connectors on the back of the electrical box. It always worked for him....and it worked for me too :-)

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  8. Over the summer and fall I have caught 3 mice, 2 in the rv engine and one in the toad engine. Never heard of the hood up trick. Will give that a try. Thanks for the great tips.

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  9. Great info, most of which I hope never to have to use:)

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    1. Well, I think I'll draw the line at Black tank repair-- I'll leave that to the professionals and gladly pay them!

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  10. Good info on the critter control measures. Will have to try them. And congrats on all that work. Great job!

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  11. Just goes to prove that if you aren't handy before you get an RV, you will be after you get one. Outstanding job! :c)

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    1. Yes, the more time I live in my RV, the more I'm convinced that you indeed need to become handy to best "enjoy" your RV!

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  12. Fantastic detailed explanation and great pictures. thanks for taking the time to write this

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  13. I'd suggest a filter for your black propane line. I just read that the interior of the lines rot and that is what causes failures in appliances.
    You could probably moonlight as an R.V. tech with all you have learned.
    Great Work!
    Upriverdavid

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  14. Hi Lynn!
    While I always enjoy all of your posts, I have to admit that I love these detailed 'fix it up' posts! Thanks again for always taking the time to share your info.

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  15. New reader here and I just want to say thanks, your blog has a lot of useful, detailed info. a bit overwhelming for a newbie who has so much to learn, but hey, ya gotta start somewhere! :)

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  16. As part of our upgrade plans, I too replaced our converter with a more modern Progressive Dynamics multi-stage unit. Unlike yours, although the upper half of our Parallax unit was the same as yours, the converter was a much larger separate unit than the new one. Other than the fact that the old one was a behemoth, buried behind various harnesses, once out and replaced, the wiring was straight forward. I probably saved 15 converter pounds in the process. I'm no electrician, but I'm becoming one. :)

    Ed@ Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets
    wwww.sunrisesandsunsets.us

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  17. Amazing Lynne...your initiative and the modifications you have done to your rig. Unless you have full-timed in constant cold weather, you just don't consider all the precautions needed to protect your rig and stay warm. After reading your post and spending but a few cold mornings in the desert ourselves, I think some new modifications are in order. Thank you for taking the time to feature such a detailed post and offering encouragement to our fellow travelers to learn and understand their rigs operating system. We had an experience where that knowledge was crucial and aided us getting out of a bind until we could get our rig to a service center. Well Done!

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