A Vehicle to Help Adjust Your Thinking, by R.V.

We bought a travel trailer. Our first trip took us from Georgia to North Dakota and back. The unit is built to handle changing sources of energy and limited sources of energy. It is designed to leave no trace other than tire prints. My primary motivation was to be able to join our family together on outings and make camping easier on my wife. I encourage camping and hiking. God will find you and/or you will find God in the wilderness.

Our trailer was built by Grand Design. It is a 30-foot model, without slide-out extensions. (I am disclosing the name only because I am impressed with the thoughtfulness of the design. I have no financial link.) We did not buy a version with the slides because we do not want to spend more than the minimum time inside the camper and the implied additional maintenance.

Minimalist Thinking

Operation of a camping trailer forces you and your family to face and reckon with limited resources.
Water: We must flush, wash, cook, and drink. At home, our unlimited household supply has made it easy to let it run while doing these things. Habits are hard to break. But the holding tank appropriately called the “black tank” only holds 32 gallons. Gray water tanks are the same size. Dumping the holding tanks is nasty disagreeable work but it makes you think. The fixtures in a camper make it possible to limit use. A lot of the lessons learned in operating a camping trailer have applicability in increasing the efficiency of how you live at home.

Maybe the house you live in should have those fixture options. The most significant is the wand type shower head with a button to shut it off. Second would be to get rid of the 5 gallon a flush water closet. Personally, I resented the mandate of lower-use toilets. But in the context of hauling water up from a lake or creek it is pretty darn sensible. How much you run your water pump on the well is also a resource issue. And, you can flood out your house’s septic system and make it back up. I know that some of you are astonished at that.

Similarly, I resented the plunge forcing us into LED lighting. Well, there are a few applications where the heat from an incandescent bulb is useful but that is about it. LED saves money and labor. Switched my store from T-12 to T-8 fluorescents to save on my electric bill. Shortly after LEDs became prevalent. While I have changed out a third of those T-8 bulbs over the last 10 years none of the LED replacements have failed and the LED bulbs in the track lights have been on an 8-year run. Yes, incandescent bulbs used to be replaced a couple times a year. Using LED lighting is the key to economy of resources.

Alternative Electricity: I researched solar pretty thoroughly. The conclusion was that in my home’s present state [living on a city lot] I would have to cut down all my neighbor’s trees and entirely cover every roof surface of my house in panels. That is not feasible, as half of the panels would face north.

Starting With Insulation

The beginning of a solution was to improve the heat exclusion or retention properties of the house. New windows with an excessive (in the eyes of most contractors) effort to seal between the window unit and the frame along with the outside edges and inside edges. I used that roll of 3.5 inch fiberglass that you are supposed to use on pipes along with a foam rope intended to fill a gap too big to caulk. The rope was pressed against the outside trim from inside the wall. The fiberglass went behind it. Then more rope. The rope acted like a gasket. Gas and electric bills dropped 15%, just with that added insulation. By the way, that IR scope you snuck into your gun safe works great in an effort to figure out where the insulation was skipped in your house. You can tell where the studs are and where each nail is as they conduct heat at different rates.

That camper has R40-rated insulation in the roof and floor. But just R7 in the walls. Heavy duty tarps from Arcturus with the reflective surface out will help you with the sunny side of that camper and worked wonders stretched atop my canvas wall tent at Boy Scout Summer Camp. As a scoutmaster, I nap at summer camp. You must be photographed by your scouts snoozing in different places to earn your Scoutmaster Merit Badge. I have clusters pinned to mine. Back to the point, you have a limited amount of electricity and propane so things you can do to prevent heat absorption and loss can cut your percentages of use.

Thinking About Electricity Consumption

You also have to reckon with limited amps in a camper. The input is 30 amps and not 200 amps like at a house. You are forced to give one thing up like the microwave while you are using a hair dryer or a toaster. And that is the capacity side of things when you are connected to “shore” power. There is also a supply issue in the form of the amp hour capacity of the battery or after you have modified your RV. batteries. It is as simple as amps drawn by this equipment or light times the number of hours it is running. You can only use 25% of the amp hour capacity of a lead acid battery and last 5 years tops. They are labeled in minutes to dress it up so grab your calculator. Also, Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries which I substituted for the lead acid that came with the RV provide 80% of their rating as useful, last 10 years and weigh 40% less. Weight matters in an RV. There is a circuit in there that shuts the battery off when the 80% limit is reached. You shorten the service life of batteries when you go past that mark. (“Deep cycling.”) I wonder how that will fair in an EMP. Just saying.

I looked up circuit diagrams and bought electronic components. I’m still drowning in the math,  however. PV power system components are really inexpensive. Reading articles at EEPower.com can help you understand some of it. Also, getting your ham radio license can shed some light.

With that goes the solar panel and charger. It looks sexy from the trailer manufacturer but it is lame. It can keep the lithium batteries topped off but if you really cut into their capability the solar cannot catch up. To remedy that I am adding a second panel. It will still not be enough but it does maximize the charge controller capability. The trailer manufacturer’s choice of solar panel was $2.50 a watt and on backorder. I am electing to change out the charge controller and panels to get 400 watts of panel charging with panels acquired for $1.00 a watt and rated for vehicle installation. Which is an important point.

Lastly then is the generator. I picked the EU2000 which is now reincarnated as the EU2200 from Honda. They are quiet and you can carry one. Get two and a parallel harness and you can run the AC and boost those batteries back up. I am wondering if converting to propane would be an economizing option. One less type of fuel to carry.

Propane: It is your backup when electricity is running low. It can heat your water, heat your camper and run your cooktop. Some RVs also have a “run on propane” option for their refrigerator. Dual 20# tanks with a switch that flips to the full tank when the first is empty allowing change out and refill. Unless a family member turns on the wrong tank. Who knows then… I will eventually substitute two 30# tanks just for the sake of longer duration. They will fit without much alteration.

After the lithium battery substitution, the next improvement was what is known as a soft switch. I am told there are three components to an air conditioning system. Normally all come on at once creating a spike in power draw which shuts down most small generators. The soft switch turns on the components in succession holding down the amperage draw allowing you to operate on a couple EU2000s in parallel. The 30 amp plug and 20 amp over-current device are enough when you have the soft switch. I have seen videos where they take apart the parallel harness and create a 30 amp connection with separate plug and fuse. Not necessary with the soft switch however there is an argument for setting your generator up for full utilization of its capabilities.

As you prep, you accumulate supplies, knowledge, skills, and tools. But how do you keep your stuff? At some point, you may have to move. Is a bug-out bag enough? Nope. You can buy property further out of town but how do you secure it? I say, improve the dirt and make a pad for your camper. A pad for the camper means an electrical connection and a septic system for the black tank and a dry well for the gray tanks. Improving the dirt means adding organic material and planting nitrogen-fixing plants like beans and clover. It will be there when it is time. Perhaps garden tools stored in a self-storage nearby would be the other thing.

So using an RV for travel, family fun, and relaxation is an excellent exercise in limited resources and steps that must be taken and habits that must be adopted. It gets your mind on the right track.