Saturday, April 14, 2012

Meet the Beast: Winterizing An RV You Live In

For those of you who have followed Walt and I on Facebook and Twitter over the last three and a half years, you know that we nicknamed our motor home "The Beast".  This was after many months of failures and breakages of key equipment and appliances in the motor home.  It would be like a drunk-a-log to list everything that has gone wrong and then fixed, but suffice it to say - almost all of the appliances in the RV have broken and fixed while we've had it.  That Good Sam's Continued Service Plan (CSP) coverage we pay $151 a month for?  The best investment we have ever made.
It is an older RV so these failures aren't to be totally unexpected.  What has been unexpected is the groupings of these failures at extremely stressful or financially strained times.  It is almost as though The Beast is feeling our stress and this is then transferred into a motor home illness called appliance and/or equipment failure.  We have an empathic motor home that just can't handle stess without getting physically ill.  And I am like that too.
Part 1 - One of the challenges we have had is dealing with the air conditioning situations during hot weather.  This wasn't an issue the first 18 months because we were in Bend, OR.  Our challenge there was to keep things from freezing as it froze in July three weeks after we arrived and got down to 17 degrees in August. We had to quickly invest in RV winterization which ended up in a fancy, stryofoam skirt that cost about $800.  Here is what The Beast looked like when it was skirted (notice the green grass - this was done while it was still summer):

The fancy wooden stairs we had built by master carpenter and handyman Cy Smith. We had these built because it snows in Bend and the regular RV stairs can be treacherous in the snow.  Cy also did the skirting work. I found Cy on Craigslist in Bend.  In addition to these jobs he built a fold-down extension on the side of our kitchen table and a shelf over the top of the built in TV in the dashboard. He is fully equipped to do all his work onsite.  He'll do any job from small to large, with very fair pricing and excellent attention to detail.  His number in Bend is (503)348-1346 and his email is

There isn't a picture of it, but on the other side of the RV we have a twelve foot slide out.  We were worried about snow collecting on the top of it and putting too much weight on it through the winter so we had Cy build a wooden brace under the slide before he skirted.  Another factor we had him cover was a quick release of the skirting around the slide.  We didn't know what would warrant it, but we wanted to have the option to bring the slide in if we were looking at a huge snow storm.  As it turned out we never needed to bring it in because we never had more than about 6 inches of snow at a time, but it was nice to know we could bring it in if we needed to.

On that other side in the sewer compartment (commonly called the sewer boot) we lined it with fiberglass insulation; installed heat tapes on both the water and sewer lines all the way up into the connections in the boot and all the way out to the connections in the ground.  Then we insulated the water line - which was an RV water hose cut to fit to the water connection without touching the ground.  The insulation we used for this was the round foam type that is meant to go over pipes. We secured it with electrical tape placed at 3 inch intervals.  We insulated the sewer line as well.  We used the fiberglass insulation that comes in rolls about 4 inches wide and meant to wrap around pipes. We wrapped it around the traditional, flexible RV sewer hose with the length cut to fit so that as little as possible was touching the ground and to reduce low spots where water would pool.  We secured it with duct tape, but if I were to do it now I would use Gorilla tape. We purchased an expandible sewer hose support to keep it up off the ground.  (It is very important to keep the lines off the ground because if they are touching the ground they are more likely to freeze) We started putting 1 cup of rock salt in the black water (toilet) tank as soon as it started freezing outside.  We let the water trickle in the bathroom sink at night.  And, last but not least we installed two aluminum clip lamps with 100 watt incandescent light bulbs in the sewer boot.

The two most important features that we installed:

1 - Sensors on each extension cord where they plugged into the outlet that put power to the cord when the temperature dropped below 38 degrees outside and turned off when it reached 54 degrees.  This saved a lot on electricity and lengthened the life of the light bulbs and heat tapes. 

2 - We installed a digital weather station inside the RV with the exterior sensor in the sewer boot. This way we could visually monitor the temperature daily without going outside to detect if one of the light bulbs had burned out.  The boot wouldn't freeze with one or two light bulbs on but it would freeze if they both decided to burn out at the same time.  We really wanted to get an alarm for when the temperature in the boot dropped below a certain point but we never did find anything that would work for that.  It just became a habit to check it often especially before going to bed and in the middle of the night if we got up to go to the bathroom.

One piece of overkill that we did do that was eventually scrapped was to put two lamps underneath the RV.  We put one under the black water and gray water tanks which are about 2/3 of the way back and then one lamp closer to the front.  These were great until the lights burned out and then we just never could talk ourselves into sliding under the RV in the freezing cold to change the light bulb.

The water and sewer hoses were purchased at an RV supply store.  Everything else that we used and everything that Cy used was purchased at either Home Depot or Lowe's.  The one question is the Weather Station. I'm not sure if we got that at Walmart, Home Depot or online.

The other winter modification we did was to have the propane company deliver a small external propane tank.  We did the math and calculated we would have to get our 12 gallon onboard propane tank filled twice a week if we had 7 days in a row of below freezing weather.  The external tank got filled once a month.  Propane was a major expense in the winter. I did not track what we were paying or how much propane we were actually using.  I think I'll call that propane company and see if they have our account on file still.  If I find anything out about it I will update this Post.

We started heating with the onboard forced air propane heater as soon as it started freezing.  We did this to keep the floor and subfloor warm.  Our RV is not a four season motorhome but it does have the black water and gray water tanks and the heater vents all contained in the subfloor in a metal crawl space.  You always run the risk in a non-four season motorhome of freezing your kitchen or bathroom pipes because they run right out to the outer walls usually behind cabinets which are not open to benefit from the heater airflow.  We kept the RV warm for this reason too.  Comfort-wise we could have gotten by with a space heater in the spring and fall but we didn't want to risk letting the outer walls and subfloor getting cold and then not warming back up enough once the heater started running in the middle of the night.

We figure we spent about $1100 winterizing.  Of that $800 was for the skirting project that Cy did and that included his materials and then we spent another $300 on supplies and technology.

On the first freeze in September we were the only ones in the RV Park that didn't freeze and we never froze up after that either.  Even the permanent mobile homes froze because noone was expecting to have to deal with freezing that early in the winter.

When we found out that production of incandescent light bulbs had been legislated away we went out and bought 3 cases of them.  We were living in Las Vegas at the time and didn't need them but we wanted to have them for heating purposes if we ever ended up somewhere cold again.  During that first winter in Bend we went through 6 light bulbs in the sewer boot.

How did we figure out how to do all this stuff you might ask?  A lot of I knew from living in a mobile home in Wyoming when I was a kid.  I respect the cold because I spent just a few nights helping thaw well pumps, water lines and sewer pipes when the power would go out. I knew about the critical importance of heat tapes and insulating pipes.  I looked online and found lots of information about how to winterize an RV for storage.  I never did find anything about how to winterize an RV that you live in.

My dad, Gary Dotson, was a constant source of information and ideas.  The heat lamps and sewer boot insulation were entirely by his design. I am relatively certain he drew a sigh of relief when we finally had the winterization done because it was all we could talk about when he called for two or three months.

Cy and his brother-in-law designed the styrofoam skirting which was held together and connected to the RV with silver HVAC tape.  We had originally planned to put a layer of vinyl on the outside of the foam for aeshetic purposes only but once I saw how the silver aluminum foil looked I decided to forego the vinyl.  This made Cy happy because fitting that foam was the job from hell and the vinyl would have been worse.  It also reduced the price of the job by $300.

Walt was absolutely new to the RV world and winterization world when we got to Bend.  He did the work and I supervised.  We had some arguments because he thought I was doing some overkill but after we got done I think he felt pretty confident we weren't going to freeze.  He is the technology geek in our family so the temperature sensors and Weather Station were totally his idea.  I can't imagine what our electricity bill would have been like if we would have had those lights and heat tapes on 24/7.  I know the whole system would have worked without them but they really made the whole thing worry free.

We made it through one and a half winters in Bend without freezing anything.  We never experienced any power outages - thank heaven - but one great benefit about living in a motorhome is that you usually have an onboard generator and we do.  You just have to make sure you have enough fuel in your gas tank to run it.  Had the power gone out we could have sustained our winterization system with power from the generator.

So, that is Part 1.  I had originally planned to make this post about our air conditioning drama that we had two days ago here in Florida but once I started writing I thought that the magnitude of planning for the climate when you live in the motorhome fulltime is a bit more involved than people realize.  The summerization (not sure if that is even a word - if not I just invented it) is much more profound when preceded with a description of the winterization.

If you have any questions about how we did things, the products we used or other suggestions just post them below and I will respond as best I can. 

Free-wheeling and loving it.


Copyright 2012 - Chardale Irvine.  You many not publish or reprint this article without the permission of Chardale Irvine.  Thank You.

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