Balancing on Ice

Well… no ice yet, but it sure has been cold.  And the forecast is for at least another week of temperatures dipping below freezing at night.  I suppose I should be grateful I haven’t headed south yet because it snowed in Georgia and the Carolinas earlier this month and is snowing in the Texas Panhandle as we speak!

I’ve researched how best to help my little house on wheels and its plumbing system survive the cold, and have learned a lot.  Most of what you find online about RVs and cold involves winterizing the unit, including transfusing antifreeze into its pipes in place of the water I am so fond of using for keeping dishes clean and the toilet flushed.  So I dug a little deeper, including asking questions on RV forums and calling my house’s manufacturer for tips specific to living in a Class C mobile home with its plumbing intact, safe, and usable (as opposed to a towed trailer, which is a different animal entirely, or a large bus-style Class A, which usually is blessed with heated storage bays for all tanks).

I have a nicely built rig with its plumbing lines running above the floor.  If I leave the kitchen and bathroom sink cabinets cracked when the temp drops below freezing, that helps keep those lines safe.  My propane furnace resides under my bed, along with my fresh water tank, so I use the furnace once the thermostat hits the mid-30s.  The furnace has three ducts running along the baseboard from the bed about half-way up the coach on the kitchen side.  An obvious but critical note on using the furnace is to make sure you get your tank filled before it gets too low.  Obsessive as I am, I don’t let it go much below a third.

I could survive just using the propane furnace, but I have more options when I have access to electricity, too, so I am staying at a campground and am hooked up to 30 amp service.  This way I can conserve propane and use the A/C’s heat strip during the warmer part of the day (upper 30s on up).  Why not use the heat strip all of the time?  Because they aren’t very effective once the temp approaches freezing and the heat is blown down from the unit in the ceiling and will not do as good a job as the furnace in reaching all those pipes running along the floor, beneath cabinets, and under the bed.  Plus it is loud and annoying, blowing on my head.

My third heating option is a small oil-filled radiator that I can easily move around.  At this moment, it is next to the dinette, warming my footsies and legs.  At night, I put it towards the front of the cab, warming the air that comes in through the drafty front which, unlike my house portion, does not have double-paned windows or insulation (remember to turn off the cab vent feature once parked, as outside air will leak in through that).  It also helps warm Dawny through the night until I let her join me an hour or two before we rise and shine.  I love the total silence and gentle warmth of the radiator, and it is far enough away from the furnace’s thermostat that it doesn’t prevent that from switching on when needed.

Each unit will have points that are more vulnerable than others to freeze damage.  Here are some of mine:

  • I have been advised to leave my water heater on anytime the temp drops below freezing, as it is very expensive to replace and it’s location is vulnerable to the cold.
  • My outside shower connections are also vulnerable, as they sit behind a flimsy access door with no insulation.  I removed the shower head, shook all the water droplets out of the tube, and stuffed washrags all around the faucets and on the access panel side.  Fortunately, there is a cut-out under the bathroom sink for those pipes that feed the outside shower, so the house heat will reach those pipes if I keep the cabinet door open.
  • My waste tanks are below the floor and vulnerable to the cold, but they have manufacturer-installed heating pads between the tank wall and insulating material.  When it drops below freezing, I just turn on the heat pads.  I understand these may not be real effective in prolonged periods of sub-freezing temps, though, so I also make sure there is some antifreeze in the black and gray tanks.  As they fill during camping, I add more antifreeze.
  • I use a macerator to dump my waste tanks, and any water left in there after dumping can freeze.  When I have finished dumping both tanks, I pour about a quart of antifreeze down the toilet, open the valve for the black tank dump, and run the macerator very briefly to get the antifreeze into its connections.

The balancing act for all of this tiptoes along the power cord.  As I mentioned earlier, I like being hooked up to electricity because of the flexibility it offers.  Without either electrical hookup or running my generator, I cannot even use my A/C heat strip (or the microwave).  Even with electrical hookup, I only have 30 amps to play with.  Running the A/C heat strip or my portable radiator on high each takes 12-14 amps (more when switching on or off).  The water heater takes another 12 amps.  Simple math and the lack of desire to run around in the dark and cold looking for blown fuses dictates that I must be careful to not turn all three on at the same time.

The beauty of the propane furnace is that it only draws 1 to 2 amps to power the blower when it is running, making it ideal to run at night and still be able to have the water heater and tank heating pads on, and even be able to heat a bowl of soup in the microwave (although I would turn the water heater off while using the M/W).

Simply put, when on 30-amp service, never use three high-draw items at the same time, and be very careful when using two.  These include the A/C heat strip, portable heater (when on high), water heater, and microwave.  If I am going to microwave something, I turn off any of the other three items that may be on during that brief time.  If I am using the propane furnace as opposed to the A/C heat strip, I can also use my portable radiator.  At night, though, I turn the radiator to low or medium so that I can also turn on the water heater.

More simply put, dress like an onion, keep your head warm, wear heavy socks and fluffy slippers, and don’t forget to keep your four-legged companions comfy as Father Winter teases us with his not-so winsome ways.

(Dawny feels silly in her sweater, but without it she can’t stay out for nice long walks.  She has decided to bite the biscuit and make the best of it.)