Plan, Prepare and Enjoy
What I am about to say here is not a sure-fire way to survive when the temperatures dip below freezing, and rain turns to snow, or, worse, freezing rain. What I tell people when they ask is that I can only suggest things. I do not know their RV, or their lifestyle, so I cannot design a way for them to live in their RV when temperatures turn cold.
I have survived a few winters at Grand Canyon South Rim, a couple of springs at Bryce Canyon, two seasons at Grand Tetons, and one partial winter in Kentucky, not to mention the cold December in Kansas. All of these adventures have caused me to add to this list. Whenever I’ve found myself above 7000’ in spring and fall (sometimes summer, too) I’ve had to prepare for something like pictured above. This is looking out my front window one day in May, 2008 in Williams, AZ. It was a bit chilly that day.
This list is a short summary of things that work for me. I add to it occasionally and sometimes have to alter what I’ve done in the past. But, at least it might help you get started so that you can enjoy Old Man Winter and all the pleasures he can deliver.
- Know your RV. They are not all built the same. Especially know where your water lines are and where your water pump is located. Trust me on this. Frozen water lines are no fun.
- Keep a watch on your levels of propane, fresh water (even if you are running off city water you will want some water here for an emergency), sewage tanks, and fuel for your generator (if you have one). If you are going to be living in a cold climate for an extended period of time, consider having the propane company deliver a large tank to your site (there’s a fee, of course) and hook it up to your rig. That way you won’t have to worry about when and where to fill up your tanks.
- Even though you may be staying in a place that pays the electric bill you need to run the propane furnace from time to time. Three and four season coaches have heated compartments and/or have the water lines running next to heating conduits. It’s very important to keep these lines above 32 degrees. Those that do not have the lines running in this fashion, you need to locate them and insulate them, or find some way to keep them above 32 degrees. What you do may not keep them from freezing when the temperatures dip down into single digits or below zero, but it will help.
- I like running electric heaters inside the house to supplement the propane furnace (especially when I am not paying the electric bill). The only problem with that is that my rig operates on a 30 amp circuit. This creates an issue when I run two heaters. I can’t run much of anything else; like the hot water heater on electric, or the microwave, or, heaven forbid, the coffee pot. The solution I’ve found is that I run a line from the 20 amp circuit at the pedestal to an area inside the house so that I can run one of the heaters without worrying about what else I have turned on. This allows me to run two heaters and all of my other appliances without an issue. The problem comes when I have to put a heater in the basement storage compartment where the water pump is (this only occurs when the temperature is in the negative range at night, and do not get much above single digits for days on end). Since it is run off the house circuit, I have to eliminate the heater in the bedroom, but I still have the electric blanket. You will find your own combination of hooking up electrical devices. (Remind me to tell you the story about the night outside Austin, NV when I was not hooked up to electricity and the temperature fell to three degrees. Electric blanket does not work well when there is no electricity. But, the generator does.)
- If you have any exposed water lines (like I do) a heat lamp and/or heating unit of some sort (AC or DC) will be needed to supply warmth to these lines. I run a heat lamp (soft white bulbs do not work–learned that the hard way) where the dump valves are located (yes, they can freeze shut), and, coincidentally, my city water connection is here (important fact a bit later). I also have a drop light in the compartment where the water pump is located. Sometimes all these things are all in one place, but mine is not (opposite sides of the coach). You do not want your water pump to freeze, or the lines connected to it. The gaskets tend to disintegrate. Been there, done that. Sometimes replacing a water pump is quite a hassle. Fortunately, mine is in a place that is easy to reach. Not every coach is built with accessibility in mind.
- You will need warm temperatures (32 degrees or above) in the area where your fresh water tank is. Freezing this baby can have drastic affects on future living. If it freezes, it may rupture. Not good. Same goes for the sewage tanks. You sure don’t want those to crack.
- If you are connected to city water, make sure that your supply line (including the faucet to just below ground level if at all possible) is wrapped in heat tape (heat cable). If you have an adjustable water pressure valve, make sure it is well wrapped and insulated, too. You don’t want any of this to freeze. If you have a unit that has the water connection inside a compartment, you are better off. It makes it easier to supply heat to the connection. If you do not, you need to find a way to get the heat tape (or heating unit or insulation of some sort) right up to the connection. When I had my trailer the connection was on the outside of the unit. It froze. I wound up running the heat tape right up to the rig, and then wrapping the whole thing heavily in insulation.
- As far as heat tape (heat cable) goes, I have discovered that you do not need to wrap the hose and tape in heavy insulation. The heat tape is designed to come on when the temperature dips down into the 30’s. I wrap my hose (with the heat tape laying next to it) in the foam insulation you can purchase at Wal Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, etc. I use zip ties to hold it all in place. In the past I’ve wrapped it all in duct tape, but that gets messy when trying to separate it all. I’ve used electrician’s tape, but have found cheap zip ties work best for me. Use what you are comfortable with. You just need to keep that water supply line above 32 degrees, and the heat tape will do that for you. Inspect it regularly. They do go bad. I’ve been told that they are only good for a couple years. My first one lasted 10 years before giving up the ghost. I consider myself lucky.
- I like to keep as much of the snow and ice off my unit as I can. This is a personal preference. Some people will tell you that it adds insulation. It might, but I just don’t care for the added weight. And, when it melts, and then freezes, the water forms some pretty impressive icicles hanging from the roof (dangerous when they break free).
- Locate the water lines you can find inside the unit (without tearing things apart). I have discovered that water will freeze at the bathroom sink if I do not leave the cabinet door under the sink open when the temperature drops. So, when the temperature drops done below 25 or 30 I keep the cabinet door open. I’ve even been in places where I’ve had to put a small heater in the cabinet. All of this work will keep the water flowing.
- Watch for the drain line from the refrigerator. Since it drains outside it tends to freeze up. When that occurs the water that forms inside the unit has no place to go except on the floor. Keep a watch on this one. It will surprise you. The same goes for your ice maker, if you have one.
- If you are running off the onboard water tanks, and using the water pump, do not leave it on all the time. Turn it on only when you need to use it. If you leave it on, and something freezes, and creates a crack in one of your water lines, and you spring a leak when you are not home, your fresh water tank will empty–and, it might be all over the carpet. If this occurs the water pump may burn up. Some of these guys are not in places that are easy to reach. You sure don’t want to have to replace it when it is sub-freezing temperatures outside.
- Make sure your sewer hose does not have a dip in it. It needs to flow downward so that you do not form an ice plug in the thing. Trust me here. It will freeze and then split. Not a good thing when you are trying to empty a full tank as the snow falls. You might think about keeping a spare hose with you, too, in case of an unexpected failure.
- Be prepared for moisture build up on the inside of the rig. If you have dual paned windows, the freezing moisture will not be as big of a problem, but the water will freeze on single pane windows on the inside of the unit (front windows of motorhomes are notorious for this). When it gets real cold (like down below zero) the frames around my windows get some ice build up. Just a little something to watch for. Mopping up this water from time to time might make you feel better. I do it when I think about it. To help get rid of the moisture consider opening a window or two when the sun shines (sunny days with the snow on the ground are beautiful–even if the temperatures are freezing or below), or investing in a dehumidifier. It allows for you to get rid of some of this water-laden air. Also, if you travel with pets, realize that you will have more moisture buildup inside your home. Just breathing adds moisture to the air.
- Keep some warm clothing stored away somewhere. It may take up room, but it sure comes in handy when it gets cold outside. If you are like me, you do not like spending all of your time cooped up. I live like this so that I can experience things outside my little home. My guess is that you do to.
This list is not all inclusive. I have probably left many things out and, as I remember them I will add to it. I’ve suggested that folks new to this cold weather living keep a diary (mine has disappeared, so I rely on my memory at this time–probably not a good idea). That way when found in cold weather they can just open the book and refresh their memories. Also, every rig is different, but what works for one will work on almost all units–with small differences and alterations, of course. What is listed here is just what works for me. It will give you a starting point, but keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you (everyone’s lifestyle is different). You will learn with experience, though. Just more memories to tell anyone who will listen somewhere down the road. Providing, of course, you can remember them by then.