Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Search This Blog


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Cabinet Improvements

RV designers face a difficult task of balancing available space, cost, and usability.  You can't usually do much about the overall floor plan, but you can sometimes make smaller improvements to existing closets and cabinets to improve convenience and usability.

Adding lights to dark closets or cabinets is a fairly easy and inexpensive upgrade.  Automatic lights in closets are particularly useful.  They can be hard wired into the vehicle's 12-volt electrical system or battery powered.  They are usually controlled by a plunger type switch that turns the light on when the door is opened and turns it off again when the door is closed.  Closet light kits are sometimes available from RV stores.

Battery powered LED lights are really easy to install in just about any closet or cabinet and do not require any wiring.  They can usually be attached using double-sticky tape so you don't even need a screwdriver.  My preferred choice are "tap lights", which are turned on or off by simply tapping the lens but switched versions are also available.  The only down side to tap lights is that shifting contents inside the cabinet could turn them on during travel and run down the batteries.  Fortunately, LEDs don't draw a lot of power so if they do get accidentally turned on occasionally it probably won't be much of a problem.  Mounting the lights high in the cabinet minimizes the chances of contents striking them and turning them on accidentally.  You usually get best coverage inside the cabinet by mounting them inside the front of the cabinet.

Deep cabinets can benefit from the addition of sliding drawers or shelves.  Some luxury RVs come with sliding shelves or drawers in outside cabinets.  This is especially useful since these large spaces tend to accumulate a lot of stuff and it can be difficult, frustrating, and time consuming to have to dig through multiple layers of stuff to find what you're looking for.  Another good candidate for sliding shelves are the deep, narrow "pantries" in some units.  Having the space to store canned goods etc is a real boon -- until you have to try to grab that can of chili from the very back of the top shelf!  Adding sliding shelves to these cabinets is fairly easy and not too expensive, unless you opt for fancy self-closing slides.  Simply cut a shelf just wide enough to fit through the open door and slightly shorter than the depth of the cabinet.  You will sacrifice about 1" of height for each shelf, but the gain in access and convenience is well worth it.  To make it easy to pull the shelves out, drill 3/4" or 1" hole in the middle at the front of the shelf or cut the shelf short enough to add a handle.  You may be able to find prefinished shelves that closely match existing wood or stain common pine shelving to match.  You might want to add a not-slip shelf covering to help keep contents from shifting and rattling.  You could also add plastic bins to further contain small items or group like items for convenience and containment to prevent shifting during travel so cans don't fall out the back when you slide the shelf open.

Speaking of plastic bins, they can be used to good advantage in just about any cabinet to group and contain items.  Translucent bins or baskets with holes you can see through will let you glimpse the contents without having to remove them from the cabinets.  Bins can sometimes be stacked which gives you more options for organizing and accessing items.  Instead of having to move a half dozen bottles to get to what is behind them you can just move one bin, get what you need, then put the bin back in place.  Another benefit of using plastic bins is they will often capture spills to they don't spread throughout the cabinet or drip out the door.  I wish I had been using plastic bins when a bottle of green food coloring tipped over and spilled in one of my galley cabinets.  It leaked out and left permanent streaks down the face of  the otherwise pristine and beautiful oak cabinet.  It is also a lot easier to clean sticky spills from a plastic bin than it is to scrub them from a cabinet shelf.  Being able to take the bin out and thoroughly wash it with hot water is much nicer than scraping and scrubbing in the confined space of the cabinet.  In the worst case scenario you can always throw the contaminated bin away and replace it with a sparkling clean new one.  Plastic bins are almost essential for storing extra motor oil and other automotive chemicals in your outside compartments.  The bins make getting things out much easier and they are much easier to clean when something spills.  Confining spills will help prevent contamination of other contents.  It can be really nasty if your fresh water hose gets soaked in spilled motor oil or antifreeze, but storing potential offending liquids in plastic bins can prevent this from happening.

Cabinet hardware (hinges, latches, and pulls) do eventually wear out or break down or may be damaged by accidents or abuse.  This is especially true of the light weight plastic catches often used in RVs.  They are pretty easy to replace, if you can find an exact replacement.  Finding and exact match for cabinet hardware on older units may be a problem and you may have to adapt new hardware to solve the problem.  Avoid damage in the first place by NOT slamming doors or otherwise abusing the hardware.  Store heavy items only on bottom shelves where they can only slide against the door and not catapult into it.  Using not-slip shelf lining will reduce sliding too.  Take a second or two to make sure there is nothing in the way before closing the door.  Anything that interferes with the door closing completely and smoothly could damage the hinges, latch, or the structure of the door itself.  That includes things that protrude past the shelves or get caught between the door and the frame.  As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Some extra large cabinets may benefit from adding more shelves.  Make sure you don't create small spaces that will be difficult to get things in and out of.  Shelves may be added permanently or installed so they rest on rails and can be easily removed if you need a taller space.  Wire racks can often be found in houseware departments that can be used for temporary shelves.  I've even seen folks make shelving from styrofoam to hold light weight items like clothing.  Adding a shelf to a very tall cabinet can often double the usable space.

Non-slip shelf lining can help keep items from moving around during travel and reduce rattles.  Keeping things from sliding around as the vehicle moves will help prevent damage to the contents and the cabinets and minimize unwelcome noise.  Be creative in protecting and securing your items.  One woman used colorful socks around glassware to prevent them from constantly banging into each other during travel.  Another cut holes in styrofoam blocks to anchor her fancy glasses.  Non-slip shelf lining can also be cut into smaller pieces to pad cookware to reduce rattles and prevent damage to the Teflon coating on pots and pans.

Some catches and latches aren't up to the task of resisting the forces of contents shifting during travel and pounding the door.   Weak latches will allow stuff to fall out during turns.  You can restrict movement inside cabinets using spring-loaded braces like those designed for refrigerators.  Sometimes you can tie adjacent door handles together with mini-bungee cords to keep both cabinets closed.  Another option are the "baby-safe" devices used to prevent little children from opening cabinet doors at home.  Of course proper loading of cabinets to minimize weight and possible shifting is always a good idea.

Make it better!

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Boondocking is usually used to describe camping "off grid".  While technically you are "off grid" when stopping in a rest area or Walmart parking lot, the term normally conjures up visions of remote, unimproved campsites.  Boondocking requires greater care in conserving resources than is needed when camping in developed campgrounds that offer at least some services.  Many basic Forest Service campgrounds at least have toilets and community water faucets and often have a dump station nearby.  When you go completely "off grid" in dispersed camping areas offered by the Forest Service and the BLM you are totally dependent on the self contained features of your RV.

The major requirement for successful boondocking is conservation of resources.  You will need to conserve,water, battery power, and fuel and minimize filling of holding tanks.   There are many ways to conserve water, which also helps minimize filling of holding tanks.  Some common examples are reducing waste by saving the water you run while waiting for the shower to warm up and use it for other purposes, such as pre-rinsing dishes or pre-washing extra dirty hands.  You might also use it for washing camping equipment as needed in camp.  Another trick is to use paper towels or old newspapers to wipe dirty dishes instead of rinsing them.  At home you probably leave the water running while you're scrubbing your hands, washing your body in the shower, and brushing your teeth.  To save water, turn the water off except when you are actively using it.  Rinse off, then turn off the shower while you're soaping or shampooing, then turn it back on to rinse off the suds.  You'd be surprised how much water you'll save by simply turning it off when you're not actively using it.  If there are restrooms available anywhere near your primitive campsite, take advantage of them whenever you can to reduce filling of your black water tank.  Yes, I know some of the pit toilets in remote areas are really nasty, but tolerating a few minutes there can avoid long term exposure to really foul odors you will encounter in your RV if your black water tank overflows.  If you are germophobic, carry some hand sanitizer to clean the toilet seat.  Battery power will be another critical resource, especially in cold weather when you;'ll need it for your furnace.  Match your schedule to the rising and setting of the sun to reduce your dependence on artificial light and use lanterns or flashlights after dark whenever possible to minimize battery drain.  Replacing general power hungry incandescent bulbs with LEDs in as many fixtures as possible will reduce power consumption.  But be aware that LEDs may not be suitable for all locations.  You may need brighter light for reading and other work areas, but they are ideal for RV porch lights and general interior illumination.  Bright, good quality LEDs still tend to be somewhat expensive, about $10 per bulb, but inexpensive alternatives are showing up.  I recently purchased 20 LEDs made in China for about $20.  Turns out they are not bright enough to replace ALL the bulbs in my RV, but even replacing half of them will make a difference in battery drain.  I've seen a single 12-volt incandescent bulb completely drain an RV house battery in just an afternoon when it was inadvertently left on in a bathroom.  Conservation of fuel is another consideration.  Topping the list is propane, used for heating and cooking.  Minimize your needs by designing menus that require little cooking or cook on your campfire.  Reduce heat loss to keep furnace consumption as low as possible by eliminating drafts in your RV, keeping doors and windows closed as much as you can, and using insulating bubble foil on all the windows.  Your furnace may blow cold air if you run out of propane or if your batteries get low.  Be sure to check both propane and battery gauges so you can identify the problem and take appropriate action.  Either motor fuel or propane may be used to power your on board generator, depending on the configuration.  You may be able to increase your propane supply by using an "Extend-a-stay" kit that allows you to attach an external tank to your motorhome.   Note:  Extend-a-stay kits will provide vaporize propane for appliances but NOT liquid propane for a propane powered generator. Since most travel trailers already have removable tanks, they only need bring along extra tanks to swap out.  Many travel trailers and some diesel powered motorhomes use propane powered generators.  In either case you'll want to minimize generator usage.  That doesn't mean avoiding it altogether because you will need it to run the A/C in hot weather and to recharge batteries in any weather.  But don't leave the generator running when it isn't needed.  And make sure to keep it properly tuned and adjusted.  A clogged air filter or worn spark plugs can significantly affect both performance and fuel economy.

An often misunderstood requirement for successful boondocking is choosing a good location.  Location can affect many aspects of camping.  For example, a shaded campsite can reduce A/C needs in hot weather and a sheltered location can reduce heating costs in cold weather.  Even more important is whether the campsite meets your camping and other recreational needs.  We developed a list of several good staging areas for our dirt bike outings in the Mojave Desert.  Each one was conveniently located to give access to a number of possible trails while providing sufficient space for our Desert Rat group, an unofficial organization of family oriented, recreational riders.  You will also want to consider environmental factors such as proximity to land fills or feed lots that could contribute unpleasant odors or being downwind of agricultural fields or construction sites that may yield blowing dust.  If anyone in your party has specific allergies you may want to avoid locations where plants that might trigger their symptoms are plentiful.  Access to the location is sometimes assumed or overlooked -- until you find yourself stuck or trapped and it is too late.  So seek locations that are easy to get in and out of.  Using campsites that have been previously used often yields several advantages.  One is that they most likely have good access if they are often used.  Another benefit is that they often have existing fire pits, which reduces your level of effort in building a safe campfire and minimizes environmental impact on pristine natural resources.

While I've recently seen several claims in RV magazines that the majority of RVers stay in developed, often full hookup campgrounds,  I personally find boondocking to be a more authentic form of camping.  Camping on a paved parking area with water, electricity, and sewer connections is convenient but, at least to me, it somehow lacks the adventure of camping in the open desert or remote forest.  Of course,  our affinity for dirt biking also pushes us toward dispersed camping areas since there are very few full hookup campgrounds with direct access to OHV trails.

Go off grid!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

RV Porch Lights

Most RVs come from the factory with at lest one outside light near the entrance.  Some may have integrated switches so you can turn them on as needed, like for finding the right key and the key hole in the dark and finding the step so you don't fall flat on your face!  If your RV doesn't have a convenient porch light, one can be added fairly easily.  You can usually mount the light at the same level as the bottom shelf of an inside cabinet.  This allows you to tap into power already supplied to the under cabinet lights and to hide the new wire you run outside for the porch light.  The bottom shelves of most RV cabinets are hollow. You gain access to the hollow space by prying up the top of the shelf inside the cabinet.  Take care not to damage the paneling, which is fairly thin and easily crushed.  Once you have the panel off you can see where to hook up the wiring for your new light.  You can drill a hole through the back of the hollow space inside the shelf all the way through the outside skin to run your wire.  Most porch lights are designed for surface installation.  You will want to run a strip of butyl tape ("dum dum" tape) around the outside edge of the fixture before you screw it to the outside wall.  A bead of Dap or silicone caulk will provide further protection once it is fully installed.  Also squirt some sealer into the hole around the wire.  This both prevents air and water intrusion and helps keep the wire from chafing on the rough edges of the hole.

The porch lights on some RVs are controlled by a switch inside the RV.  This makes it convenient to turn off the lights at bedtime, especially in bad weather, but it leaves you in the dark when you approach the unit at night.  A really convenient and fairly inexpensive (under $20) solution to this problem is to install a battery operated, motion sensor LED security light near the door.  You can even get solar powered versions, but be aware that installing them in the shade of an awning (which may shade the solar panel even when the awning is rolled up) may make reduce the effectiveness of the solar capability.  LEDs draw little power so you shouldn't have to change the batteries in a battery powered unit very often.  There are also 12-volt versions, but they require running power from somewhere inside the vehicle whereas the battery powered lights can be easily mounted anywhere and are self contained.  They don't have to be very bright or provide the kind of broad coverage you might want for other lights that you would use to illuminate the patio area for night time activities  They just need to give you enough light to find the right key and the key hole and to make it so you can see the step.  Once you have the door open you can always turn on the regular porch light if you need things brighter.  A motion sensor light is kind of a friendly "welcome home" when you approach your rig after dark and can provide a level of security by illuminating the area when someone else approaches.  Would-be burglars are often deterred by lighting that might reveal their activities and identity and send them seeking a more secluded target.  I found one on sale at Harbor Freight.  The bracket installed easily with 2 screws (provided) and the fixture can be quickly removed to avoid losing it while traveling or having branches knock it off in close quarters.  Having that light turn on to greet us as we approach the door a night feels very friendly and is very convenient.  If you want to leave your porch light on while you're away, consider changing the incandescant bulb to an LED replacement which will draw considerably less current from your batteries.

You may find it useful to install outside lighting at other locations besides the entrance, and few RVs have secondary lighting as original equipment.   You can use the above procedure to install outside lights just about anywhere you find it useful.  Some typical places are on the front of trailers to assist in connecting up to the tow vehicle in the dark, near water fill and other utility locations, and near an outside shower.  Extra lights under the awning can make outdoor might time activities more practical.  Lights for general camp ground illumination can usually be tapped into wiring for existing under cabinet lights as described in the first paragraph above making installation fairly simple.

A few RVs have extra outside lighting but this is usually something that is left to the owner to install since individual needs can vary dramatically.   I added a couple of high intensity lights salvaged from an ambulance to my enclosed motorcycle trailer, one at the rear over the ramp door and one on the side under the awning so I have good illumination for after dark dirt bike repairs.  Such lights would not be necessary or appropriate for all users.  The biggest downside I've found with these lights is replacing the bubs.  They are very specialized and rather expensive but, fortunately, are very well made and designed for years of high stress use.  If you are inclined to cook on the outside BBQ you might find it useful to install an extra exterior light over the area where you will be cooking.  If you like to play games on the "patio" in the evenings you might benefit from various kinds of awning lights.  Extra porch lights along the side of your RV can provide additional campground illumination.  I have a 500-watt Halogen flood light I can mount on my RV ladder when I need to light up a lot of campground, but big lights like that often intrude on surrounding camp sites so be careful about using them.  My 40' Holiday Rambler had a pair of bright 120 volt lights on the curb side that did a good job of illumination our campsite.  I added the sockets and bulb from a pair of 12-volt, 55 watt driving lights in the same housings so I didn't have to run the generator just to light up my campsite.

Installing wall mounted lights to illuminate outside cabinets is pretty much counter productive.  The light around the open door will just make it seem darker and harder to see inside the cabinet.  If you need to see inside cabinets at night and your cabinets are not lighted, it is really easy to install LED "tap" lights.  These are small, battery powered lights that attach with double sticky tape and are turned on and off by tapping the lens.  Or just use a flashlight.  Some of the higher end rigs have automatic lights in the outside cabinets like the ones in the closets.  Automatic lights can be added, but it may take some ingenuity to find a way to run the wiring and the switches can be temperamental.  Doors that are hinged on top sometimes use mercury switches, which can be difficult to find these days due to the environmental concerns about mercury poisoning.  Plunger type switches can be used on just about any door, but getting them properly adjusted can be tricky  If just one isn't adjusted right, the draw from an incandescent bulb can drain house batteries in surprisingly short time -- and you probably don't have any way to see if the light is on inside a cabinet.  Using LED replacement bulbs is one way to minimize current draw but LED replacements are still fairly expensive:  around $10 per bulb for good quality.  You can find less expensive LED bulbs on the Internet but reports and personal experience have shown they don't live up to expectations.  Users have reported early and frequent failures (one even said NONE of the bulbs in his shipment worked!) and insufficiently bright lighting.  All the ones I've tried worked, but I fond that incandescent bulbs provided much brighter illumination.  I even bought a few of the more expensive LEDs and found that the blue-white light wasn't very appealing and they failed to match regular bulbs for overall illumination.  However, the power consumption and the heat generation of LEDs are indeed far less than incandescent bulbs.  Using a combination may be the best solution:  LEDs where nominal illumination is adequate to save power and incandescents in work areas where you need good lighting to save your eyes.  A really easy solution to cabinet lighting, both indoors and outdoors, is an LED "tap light".  They typically run on 3 AAA batteries and attach easily with double-sticky tape.  Simply tap the lens to turn them on or off.

Light 'em up!

Monday, November 17, 2014


Most camping is done in the summer time, or at least spring or fall, but there are sometimes good reasons to use your RV in the winter too.  An RV makes an excellent chalet or base camp for skiing, snowboarding, and other snow based activities -- if is is properly equipped.  Most RVs made and used in the U.S. are not designed for winter use and most owners who live in cold country have to winterize their rigs and retire them until warm weather returns.  However, it is possible to upgrade many RVs for winter use.

While the comfort of the occupants is, of course, the major function of an RV in winter, the biggest problem is usually protecting the plumbing against freezing.  Sometimes an RV furnace may not be adequate to maintain a comfortable temperature inside.  If that is the case you either need to reduce heat loss or increase BTUs.  It usually isn't very practical to increase the insulation factor in an RV, but a lot of heat may be lost through drafts and through insufficiently protected windows.  I once had a Class B van conversion that, I found, had NO insulation at all and it was fairly easy to remove wall and ceiling panels and cut styrofoam panels to fit each space, significantly improving insulation.  But it is usually too intrusive and too expensive to increase the insulation in standard RVs. What you can improve fairly easily and cheaply is the insulation value for the windows.  First of all, make sure you take advantage of whatever window coverings you have -- close the curtains, drapes, or shades.  You can add reflective foam insulation similar to windshield sun screens between the window coverings and the windows.  Also install a cover or foam pillow to block the loss of heat through the roof vents.  Even when they are closed, the thin cover allows a lot of heat to escape.  Search for and seal off any drafts where cold air enters through the firewall of a motorhome or around plumbing and power cords or around doors and windows of any RV.  If after doing all of this your furnace still doesn't keep things warm enough, you may need auxiliary heat.  Options include electric heaters if you stay in campgrounds with electric service, a catalytic heater, adding another furnace, or upgrading the existing furnace to one with a higher BTU output.  Upgrading or adding a furnace can be an expensive proposition and is likely to require significant modifications for installation.  Catalytic heaters don't use any battery power since they have no fans and portable versions attach to 1-lb propane cylinders to they don't require any gas line attachments.  Keep in mind even heaters rated for indoor use will consume oxygen even if they don't release any toxic fumes, so proper ventilation is critical.

Electric heaters are an easy way to get extra heat -- if you have shore power or when you can run your generator.  A popular option among many RVers is an "electric fireplace" that not only provides heat but adds a kind of cabin-like ambiance.  I even have a small, 300 watt heater that runs on 12 volt DC I can use in my motorhome in a pinch, but I'm sure it would drain the batteries pretty quickly.  Auto parts stores sometimes offer 12-volt powered heater/defroster units that plug into the 12-volt receptacle (i.e., cigarette lighter) and can help clear fog or frost off the windshield.  These units will provide a small amount of auxilliary heat but would not be very effective in as room heaters.

Protecting exposed plumbing from freezing can be an onerous task.  Keeping the inside of your RV at 40° or better will normally protect all the inside plumbing, but exposed holding tanks, valves, and pipes are still vulnerable.  You will need electric heating pads and or heat tape to protect these components if you are camping in sub-freezing weather.  Heating pads for holding tanks are available in both 12 volt and 120 volt versions and some include dual power sources.  With dual power you can use your 12-volt system while traveling and power is available from the vehicle alternator.  120-volt operation requires shore or generator power.  You might run your generator while traveling to operate 120-volt heating pads.  It wouldn't consume any more energy than running your A/C on hot days.  If you have 12-volt heating pads you will want to carefully monitor your battery status.  They could easily run batteries down if they kick in at night when you turn off the generator.  One way to protect holding tanks for occasional winter use is to add enough antifreeze (marine/RV grade for potable water systems) to at least protect the dump valves and lower the freeze point within the tank contents.  If you rely on warm blankets or sleeping bags instead of your furnace to keep you warm at night, dump a cup or two of antifreeze into each drain to prevent the P-traps from freezing.  You don't need antifreeze in the P-traps if your furnace keeps the interior above freezing.  If your RV has enclosed holding tanks and he dump valves are in a cabinet instead of hanging exposed beneath the vehicle you may be able to keep the valves from freezing by placing a 100-watt incandescent light bulb in he compartment.  Finding a 100-watt bulb these days might be difficult as they've been phased out for environmental reasons.  Using a 60-watt bulb might be sufficient, but using two 60-watt bulbs would be more than equivalent to a 100-watt bulb.  Or you might use special reptile heat lamp available at pet stores.  In any case, if the compartment isn't insulated, insulate it.  Outside compartments often have aluminum doors that allow a great deal of heat to escape.  Glue some styrofoam panels inside or even use reflective foam insulation like Reflectix.  Check for drafts around electrical and plumbing connections or around the door.  Random openings can be filled with spray foam insulation or stuff with fiberglass batting.  Poorly fitting doors may benefit from the addition of weatherstripping.

Resource conservation will be more difficult when it is cold.   You ARE going to use more propane and use it quicker than in warmer months.  You might reduce how much you use for heating by dressing warmer so you can be comfortable at a lower temperature.  Sweaters and thermal underwear can increase you comfort level in a cooler environment without being too cumbersome.   But your furnace isn't the only appliance that will use more propane in colder times.  Your hot water heater will need to work harder to maintain normal temperatures when it is cold outside and you are likely to use more gas for cooking simply because you will want more warm foods and drinks in cold weather.  The one appliance that might actually use less propane in cold weather is the refrigerator, but probably not significantly less if you are keeping the interior around a comfortable 72°.  Always make sure your propane tank is full when you leave on a trip.  For extended cold weather outings you may want to invest in and "Extend-a-stay" system that allows you to connect to an external propane tank to supplement your on board supply.  For trailers with removable propane tanks you can just bring a long a couple of extras.

Winterhoming is cool!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our Involuntary Downsizing

We recently experienced an accident that resulted in our 1986 Holiday Rambler being declared a total loss by the insurance company.  I spent a couple of months searching  the Internet for a replacement and couldn't find a single similar unit for sale anywhere in the U.S.  I found two in Australia, both had been converted to Australian Design Rules and completely renovated.  While that speaks highly of the quality of the original unit, it doesn't lend itself to replacing a wrecked motorhome in Utah.  Once we knew it was going to be totaled we began looking for an alternative.  We quickly realized that the 1986 HR we'd had for about 10 years was an incredible find when we bought it and that we weren't going to be able to replace it with anything even close.  So we reevaluated our needs and adjusted our expectations.

We looked at literally hundreds of online listings, inspected at least a half dozen local units, and visited about a half dozen dealers looking for something that would meet our needs -- and satisfy at least some our our wants -- and staying within a reasonable budget.  I found that lacking an exact replacement, getting anything close in terms of size, features, and quality, would cost 2-10 times the insurance payout!  A careful evaluation of our current needs showed we really didn't need such a big unit and that we'd be able to go more places and do more things in a smaller one.

We ended up downsizing from a 40' diesel powered luxury Holiday Rambler motorhome to a 27' gasoline powered Class A.  It is a 1984 Southwind Eagle and, according to the dealer, was purchased from a legendary "little old lady" (which was confirmed by the current registration certificate found in the vehicle).   Given the condition of the unit, the story is believable.  It has slightly less than 42,000 miles on it.  The appliances (stove, refrigerator) are like new.  The water heater was replaced just a few years ago and is also like new.  It has all brand new carpet.  Obviously it lacks the spaciousness and many of the luxury features our Holiday Rambler had, but it will be a very fun rig to use.  My initial intention was to purchase from a private party to get the best price but this little Eagle was advertised by a small local dealer, and at a surprisingly good price -- about 1/3 the average retail shown in the Nada Guide.  Moreover the dealer was exceptionally good to work with.  It is a small, family run lot in American Fork, Utah:  RVs of America.  It has been my experience that large dealers with a large sales force have a lot of overhead and there is usually lot of competition between the salesmen, often resulting in higher pressure selling than I like.  We found the folks at RVs of America to be genuinely interested in  helping us find the right motorhome for our needs rather than selling us what they wanted to move.  By selecting a unit that was basically kind of underpriced (buying in the November-December time frame might have had something to do with it) we had budget left over to add some of the premium accessories we'd come to enjoy in the big motorhome.

By carefully researching the available options we were able to find a unit that had at least some of the luxury features we'd become accustomed to in our Holiday Rambler, specifically, hydraulic levelers and an electric step.   I doubt if we'll miss the washer and dryer in the big Holiday Rambler which seldom if ever got used.  One of the conscious tradeoffs we made was whether to buy newer unit with fewer amenities or an older one that was better equipped.  Given our current station in life (semi-retired) we opted for more amenities.  When we were younger I probably would have favored newer units with higher potential resale or trade in value, but at this point I'm not planning to make many more trades -- and I've come to like my creature comforts.

Downsizing of this magnitude necessitates a reappraisal of what supplies and other items are really necessary.  With cavernous basement storage on the Holiday Rambler, we had room for lots of niceties that don't fit in the smaller motorhome.  I've even had to sort through and re-think my on board tool kit and buy a smaller tool box that would fit one of the compartments.  Fitting what you really need into less than 2/3 the space means reducing things by at least 1/3.  That means starting with the idea of setting aside one out of three kitchen items, one out of three extra items of clothing, and one out of three cleaning supplies.   The reduced basement storage on top of the significant reduction in overall length adds up to a lot more than a 1/3 reduction in cargo capacity.  Here is where selecting and stocking items with multiple uses will REALLY come in handy.  For example, bringing along a 3-in-1 shampoo/conditioner/body wash instead of separate solutions will save space in the limited bathroom medicine cabinet.  While the 3-in-1 may not yield quite the same results as more expensive individual products, it is adequate for occasional use for a few days in camp.  In removing all our stuff from the "old" motorhome, I found that I had on board cleaning supplies that I only use during winterization or spring cleaning.  It was convenient to have them on board when there was plenty of room.  However, those now become candidates to be left on the shelf in the garage since they aren't normally needed in camp.  Closets revealed even more stuff that didn't really need to be there.  Over the years we had accumulated clothing for multiple seasons, often carrying around parkas and a whole box of winter gloves when it was 90°+ outside.  Things like that can be easily added as needed instead of occupying a permanent spot in limited real estate.  Gadgets are often a source of a lot of fun for RVers and other campers, but when space is at a premium, it is worthwhile to only bring along what you actually use.  I am certain there were a lot of nice gadgets I had squirreled away in the big motorhome that I seldom used that will not migrate to the "new" smaller unit.  The late RV great Gaylord Maxwell described his downsizing from a 40' monster Class A to more modes 30' Class C.  His rule for the big motorhome was "If you think you might need it, bring it along."  The smaller rig requires a different mind set.  The new rule is "If you're not sure you're going to use, leave it home."

There were a lot of difficult decisions to be made as we tried to find space for all the "stuff" we'd gotten used to packing around.  It is amazing how creative you can become when you have to.  The more than ample cabinets in the big Holiday Rambler allowed us many options for dinnerware.  Realizing we no longer had to regularly accommodate a family of 8 let us significantly reduce the number of table settings and we decided we really didn't need Melmac, speckleware, AND stainless steel plates, but we still managed to find a place under couch to squirrel away some trays in case we join a potluck dinner somewhere.

Unfortunately, we took delivery just after winter arrived with sub-freezing temperatures and had to have the dealer winterize the rig even before we brought it home so we haven't been able to take it out yet.  It is tucked away in our covered RV storage where we slowly take care of a few enhancements we wanted to make and go through all the stuff we took out of the "beast" and figure out what will fit and where in the smaller rig.

We are expecting our "new" and smaller rig will be less expensive to drive and will definitely be more maneuverable and will fit in Forest Service campgrounds that were off limits to the big, luxury motorhome.  Hopefully that means more chances to go camping and more choices of where we can go.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!

Friday, October 17, 2014


There are many tradeoffs to take into account when considering a camping lifestyle.   One of the first decisions is whether you like any kind of camping.  Next is whether you want to tent camp or camp in some kind of RV.  While cost is often a major factor in deciding between tent camping and buying an RV, it certainly isn't the only factor.  Tent camping can be done in a wide variety of locations.  It also gives a more primitive, adventurous spirit to outings which can be very satisfying.

If you choose tent camping, one of your biggest choices will be what kind of tent to buy.  If you have a large family you will need a large tent.  If, on the other hand you plan to do a lot of backpacking, you'll need a very light weight, compact tent.  I've used 10'x14' cabin tents for family camping and a tiny little back packing tent that is really little more than a sleeping bag cover for solo back packing.

If you decide you'd like the additional creature comforts and security of camping in RV, you'll need to do some research to figure out what kind of RV will work best for you.  There are many options, ranging from relatively inexpensive tent trailers with minimal facilities to huge luxury RVs with amenities that rival high-end residential homes.  Budget may be a significant factor for most people, but intended use and desired lifestyle will also play an important role.  You will need to decide if you want a self-propelled RV (motorhome) or a towable (trailer).  Another option is  truck camper.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each type.  Trailers are usually less expensive, but you also have to consider the cost of a tow vehicle unless you already have a vehicle capable of towing your chosen trailer.  There are many tradeoffs in choosing between the various options within each category.  Motorhomes range from Class B van conversions that are essentially the same size as a regular full size van, to Class C's, built on a cutaway van or truck chassis, to large Class A units that resemble large buses and, in fact, are sometimes built on bus chassis.  Trailer options begin with small tent trailers and can range up large fifth wheels measuring 35' in length or more.  In between are a variety of "bumper pull", goose-neck, and fifth wheel trailers. Bumper pull trailers use a standard trailer hitch that is usually mounted below the bumper.  Goose-neck trailers have a trailer ball mounted in the middle of a pickup bed.  Fifth wheel trailers connect via a special hitch similar to those used by large semi-trailers, which is also mounted a pickup bed.  The towing characteristics of each type of hitch will be somewhat different so you'll want to research the handling and load capacities and, if possible, try out any options you want to consider BEFORE you buy.  Truck campers allow you to remove the camper from the truck when it is not in use and use the truck for other tasks.  Truck campers tend to be less spacious than motorhomes or trailers and are usually more top heavy.  If you live in a state where there is a lower speed limit for vehicles towing trailers (such as California), you may want to consider whether you can live with longer travel times.  The argument for differential speed limits is based on the assumption that large vehicle are safer at lower speeds and ignores the more pragmatic and scientifically proven "85 Percentile" approach, which recommends universal speed limits should be set to the speed 85% normally driven on a given stretch of road.  Consistent traffic speed has repeatedly been shown to be safer than situations involving "traffiic sheer" (different speeds in different lanes, known to be one of the most dangerous practivies), yet many states continue to post differential speeds.

Once you have decided on what type of RV you want, you're likely to face many more tradeoffs before you finally select a specific vehicle.  Some of the normal issues you will face will include new versus used (usually determined up front by budget), age or mileage versus luxury features (you may be able to get luxury features you want and stay within your budget by buying an older model), power versus fuel economy (if you need to tow a boat or OHV trailer  you'll want more power and will probably have to sacrifice fuel economy to get it).  Whether you opt for an older model to get more features or a newer one to minimize mechanical risk and potential maintenance cost, will depend on how badly you want the features and what resources you have (skill, tools, money) to handle additional maintenance.  Some other considerations may include intended use:  do you plan to stay mostly in campgrounds with full hookups or will you be doing a lot of "boondocking"?  Class A motorhomes generally have larger fresh water and waste water holding tanks than Class B or C units and allow you longer boondocking stays.  Class C motorhomes, oddly enough, often offer bunkhouse configurations that provide more beds and may be better suited for large or growing families.

Where you are in your life may be a signficant factor in making tradeoffs.   Having a young family will obviously swing things in favor of "bunkhouse" motorhomes with lots of sleeping capacity and room for growth.  And older couple may favor more conveniences and more luxury.  RV manufacturers know this and you'll find that those huge, high end, luxury coaches are often designed mostly for two people.  A young family may want to favor a late model low mileage unit.  An older couple may choose to spend the same amount of money to get an older coach with more amenities.  The longevity and resale value may be more important and of more use to a younger user while comfort and convenience may be more appealing to an older couple.

You may want to consider whether certain accessories or features are essential in your initial purchase,  or whether you can add them on later.  Some features, such as slide-outs, are not practical or cost-effective to add on to existing vehicles.  Things like hydraulic levelers are pretty costly and usually require expensive professional installation.  If you're a moderately good handyman and have the rigth tools and equipment, you may be able to install awnings yourself and anyone with basic mechanical skills can add wheel simulators to improve the appearance of a rig with uncovered steel wheels.  Likewise, you can probably add or replace a microwave oven or TV without too much expense or difficulty, but replacing a refrigerator is a much bigger job.

Let the trading begin!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

RV Batteries

RV batteries are an essential part of making RVs convenient and comfortable.   On motorhomes there are two separate battery systems:  a starting battery, and deep cycle coach batteries.  The starting battery functions just like the battery in any other motor vehicle, providing power to start the engine and operate lights and other 12-volt features, like radios and power windows.  The battery is charged by an alternator driven by the engine.  Deep cycle coach batteries are used to supply power for lights, fans, furnaces, and some electronic devices in the RV.  There may be one or more 12-volt batteries or two or more 6-volt golf cart batteries .  12-volt batteries are connected in parallel to supply higher amperage.  6-volt batteries are connected in series to create 12 volts.  Golf cart batteries are usually stronger, more durable, and can be recharged more times than 12-volt deep cycle batteries.

Batteries are a critical component of the 12-volt electrical system that powers most RV lights and fixtures.  Not only do they provide power for the lights, but they also power control boards for furnaces, refrigerators, and hot water heaters.  Most modern furnaces also have a 12-volt fan.  Some older furnaces worked by convection only.  A convection furnace doesn't have a fan but it doesn't distribute the heat as well as a forced air model.  Anomaly of 12-volt furnaces is that when the batteries get low, the fan keeps running after the burner has shut off.  If you wake up in the middle of the night and your furnace is busily blowing cold air, your batteries are low.  If that happens occasionally, you probably aren't charging your batteries enough during the day.  If it happens frequently, you probably need new batteries or a larger battery bank.

Pretty much all of these batteries are some form of lead-acid batteries.  Lead acid automotive batteries have been around since Cadillac introduced the first electric starters way back in 1912.  The basic design has not changed much in over a hundred years, but there have been some improvements.  Basic batteries use lead plates submerged in a solution containing sulfuric acid and are known as "flooded cell" batteries.   They have removable caps so you can check and replenish the water level as needed.  So-called "maintenance free" batteries are sealed don't require the frequent addition of water in normal use.  Absorbed Gas Mat (AGM) batteries use saturated mats between the cells instead of liquid, reducing the chance of spillage.   Another option are gel cell batteries, in which the electrolyte, instead of being liquid sulfuric acid is a gel.  Gel cells are usually lighter than other batteries and very unlikely to spill.  By the way, it is best to only add distilled water when batteries need more liquid, but, in an emergency, ordinary tap water can be used.  The damage caused by conataminates in the tap water will do less damage than allowing the plates to be exposed.  Distilled water isn't very expensive.  It would be a good idea to carry a gallon jug of distilled water in your RV to top off your batteries as needed.

If your batteries need water frequently, they are probably being overcharged or charged at too high a voltage.  I once had the charging circuit in a converter go bad and found it was blasting the batteries with 18+ volts, which boiled out the electrolyte every few days!

Many RVs, (motorhome, trailers, and campers) have a single 12-volt deep cycle battery to provide power for all coach needs.  If you do a lot of boondocking you may find a single battery doesn't have enough reserve capacity to meet your needs.  When that happens you may be able to find a location where you can install a second battery.  Replacing a single 12-volt deep cycle battery with a pair of matching 12-volt batteries in parallel will just about double your reserve capacity.  Replacing a single 12-vole deep cycle battery with a pair of 6-volt golf cart batteries in series will usually result in greater reserve capacity and longer battery life.  When installing 6-volt batteries they must be connected in series in order to produce 12 volts to run RV fixtures.  6-volt golf cart batteries are usually larger so you may have to enlarge the battery tray or find extra room someplace else if you want to convert to golf cart batteries. Make sure all connections between batteries are heavy gauge battery cables and that the 6-volt batteries are wire in seriies to create 12 volts.  Motorhomes will have a separate automotive starting battery.  This should not be a deep cycle battery but in an emergency you may be able to borrow one of your coach batteries ro replace a dead starting battery or use it to jump start your engine.  Some motorhomes have a switch on the dashboard that activates relays to connect the coach batteries with the starting batteries when you need extra starting power, precluding the need for jumper cables.

There is a growing trend to large battery banks and inverters in large luxury rigs in order to handle a demand for quiet, portable 120-volt power anywhere.  An inverter is a device that changes 12-volt DC power into 120-volt AC power.    This is convenient for running entertainment systems and microwave ovens.  Some large luxury motorhomes even have large enough battery banks to run residential style 120-volt refrigerators full time, but that takes a lot of batteries and frequent recharging.  Keeping the batteries charged becomes a primary concern.  They can be charged from shore power, an on board generator, or from solar panels.  Solar systems can be expensive but once they are installed you get free power from the sun.  Some RVs have inverters built it.  If yours does not, they can usually be added (if you have sufficient battery reserves).  For small 120-volt devices you can often use a fairly inexpensive inverter that plugs into a cigarette lighter style 12-volt outlet.  Large inverters, say 1500-2000 watts, need to be hardwired with large gauge wire and the output can be routed directly to dedicated outlets.  Some RVs have an option to switch selected outlets from shore/generator power to inverter for added convenience.  But unless you know for sure you have plenty of reserve battery power, running 120-volt appliances on the inverter can draw you batteries down rather quickly.  120-volt appliances will consume power at 10 times the rate of 12-volt appliances of the same rating.

Proper maintenance is essential for good performance and long life for all batteries.  Some components of proper maintenance include avoiding excessive discharge, correct charging, maintaining tight, clean connections, and maintaining proper electrolyte levels as necessary.  Try not to let your batteries be drawn down until they are "dead" before recharging them, then use the right charging system to restore them to full charge as soon as possible.  Frequently check all battery connections to make sure they are tight and are not becoming corroded.  The terminals that connect the large battery cables to the battery posts are especially susceptible to corrosion and when they get corroded should be remove and cleaned.   The electrolyte levels in all but maintenance free batteries should be check frequently and kept at about 1/2" above the plates.

One sure sign that your battery capacity is insufficient, is when the furnace fan continues to run after the burner has shut off.   That can also happen if you run out or propane, so be sure to check both battery and propane gauges before deciding what to do.  You may wake up cold in the middle of the night and find the furnace blowing cold air.  It is ironic that when the batteries get too low, the circuitry that shuts off the fan fails and the fan continues to run, further depleting the batteries.  If this happens with an old battery it may just mean it is time to replace it.  But if it happens often, you probably need to increase your reserve capacity by installing a larger battery, multiple batteries, or converting to 6-volt golf cart batteries.  Of course, make sure you have been keeping your batteries properly charged before running of and blowing a lot of money or new batteries.  If you try to run your furnace for several days and nights without charging your batteries, you can pretty much count on it blowing cold air sooner or later.  If you don't run your generator enough each day  or your solar system doesn't get enough exposure (shade or clouds for instance), your batteries are going to suffer.  You can check the state of charge using a voltmeter if your RV doesn't have a battery meter.   A fully charged 12-volt battery should normally read about 12.7 volts.  Be sure to test it without any charging voltage.  Charging voltage is often around 14.2 volts; "float" or maintenance charge should be about 13.8 volts.  Higher voltages will overheat the battery.  I once had a charger board in a converter that went bad and was putting out 18 volts.  It "fried" batteries like crazy!  I had to add water to my coach batteries a couple of times a week until I found out what was causing the electrolyte to boil away.

Here is a table of voltages and what they mean:

     12.7 = fully charged
     12.5 = 85% charged
     12.4 = 65%
     12.3 = 50%
     12.2 = 35%
     12.1 = drained

Battery indicators on the monitor panel don't usually give actual volts, but are calibrated to reflect approximate percentages, usually indicating 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and full.  Checking the actual voltage at the batteries will give you a more accurate reading.  For best performance and longer battery life, avoid letting batteries get below 50% charge before recharging.

Charging your batteries.   The alternator on motorhome is usually wired to both the starting and coach batteries so it charges them all whenever the engine is running.  It should be connected through a battery isolator that prevents drawing down the starting battery while using lights and appliances in the coach.  A charging circuit can be wired from the alternator through the trailer connector to charge trailer batteries.  If your vehicle and/or trailer doesn't have this circuit it can usually be added at a nominal cost.  Be sure to include a battery isolator so using power in your trailer in camp doesn't run down your starting battery and leave you stranded.  There is often much discussion among RVers about whether charging batteries with the vehicle alternator or the on board generator is better.  If you need a quick charge, using the vehicle alternator is probably your best bet and the engine at idle will most likely not consume much more fuel than the generator.  In camp, coach batteries are usually charged by the the convertor whenever you run the generator.   If you use the generator enough, like to run the A/C for several hours on hot days, it will usually be enough, but in cooler weather you may have to schedule some generator time just to keep your batteries charged.   But be aware that the battery charging capabilities of most converters is limited.  Newer "smart" multi-stage converters like Progressive Dyanmics "Intelli-power",  have more efficient battery charging systems.  Multi-stage charges usually sense the battery condition and select one of four modes as necessary to maintain batteries in optimal condition.  The four modes are and their functions are:

     Boost Mode - (14.4 volts) to rapidly bring the battery up to 90% of full Charge.
     Normal Mode - (13.6 volts) to safely complete or maintain the charge.
     Storage Mode
- (13.2 volts) to maintain charge with minimal gassing or water loss during                                    periods of  non-use.
     Desulfation Mode - (13.2 volts with 15 minute 14.4 volt burst every 21 hours)

Compare that with the charging circuits on older converters that typically supply a constant voltage of 13.6 volts.  Some may sense when the battery is fully charged and reduce the amperage to maintain a "trickle charge".  The different voltages are required to provide proper charging and maintenance.  Boost mode helps recharge batteries quickly; Normal Mode tops off the charge; Storage mode provides a "trickle charge" to compensate for normal voltage drop of batteries that are not in use; Desulfation mode provides a high boost during storage to "burn off" sulfation of the lead plates to maintain electro-chemical efficiency.

An easy and fairly inexpensive alternative to smart converters is to install an automatic automotive battery charger connected to the coach batteries and plugged in so that it charges them whenever there is 120-volt power -- from shore power or from the generator.  Another way to "quick charge" your RV batteries is to run the vehicle engine.  Estimates show it will use only slightly more gas than running the generator since the alternator is far more efficient at charging the batteries than converters and even auxiliary battery chargers.  Of course, solar panels are also a good way to keep your batteries charged -- if you have a large enough array and sufficient sunlight.