One concern that many people have about life on the road is this – how will you handle things if your ‘house’ breaks down?
This particularly comes up when considering the ‘towable vs motorhome’ question for the ideal full time RV to live in.
We’ve had both towable trailers and now a bus conversion motorhome. And we’ve had our share of breakdowns and trips to the shop in both.
Regardless of what form your home-on-wheels takes, needing extensive repairs is frustrating.. it abruptly changes your plans, usually takes a bit out of the savings fund, and generally just isn’t fun.
But it is all part of the adventure of this lifestyle.
So, we thought we’d share a bit about the trade-offs of each style of RV.. and some tips we’ve learned about living in a shop’s parking lot.
Towables vs Driveables
If you have a motorhome, and something with the drive train needs repairs – your whole house is immobile and potentially stuck ‘in the shop’.
The common perception is that being in the shop automatically means you’re kicked out of your house.
And while not every shop will let you continue to live in your home while they work on it, in our experience we’ve found this is more an exception than a rule.
So far there’s only been one time that we couldn’t overnight in our bus while it was undergoing work – when we were changing out our tires & wheels, and the shop ran into a problem that left us immobile and required a part being overnighted.
No problem, we just got on Hotwire.com and snagged a last minute affordable room in the area. Besides, it was 120 degrees out, and they didn’t have enough power to run our AC anyway.
So far however, all of our other overnight bus repairs & maintenance stops have been in locations where the shop was happy to toss us a power cord and let us live onsite.
In particular with our current extended repair, we specifically asked potential shops when we called around if we could do so. We knew that we were facing a multi week repair to get back on the road, and didn’t want to add a motel bill to the cost. Thankfully, not a single shop we asked had a problem with us being onsite.
On the other hand – when we had a Jeep or truck pulling our trailers and we broke down – never once did we encounter an auto service shop that allowed us to park the trailer in their lot while they did the work. That’s not to say there might not be shops out there that would allow it, but I’d say this is a rule that may have some exceptions (opposite of truck repair places).
We had to find a way to get our house relocated somewhere to live at while repairs are done, and we had to rent or borrow a vehicle for the duration, or rely on public transit. Our Jeep’s transmission in particular had to be rebuilt twice during our travels, each time taking a week or more.
In our experience, it’s ended up being much less inconvenient living in a motorhome and needing drive train work than it was when we were in a trailer. We’ve also been blessed that, so far, all of the diesel shops we’ve stopped in have also allowed us in the shop to observe and learn from our mechanics.
Now, if you need extended RV system repairs – it may be a different story all around. Depending on the work and the shop, regardless if you have a motorhome or a towable – you have similar odds of being able to continue living onsite or needing to make other arrangements.
Another concern we often hear with having a motorhome is that you probably also want a towed behind vehicle (aka ‘toad’) for local transportation – which means maintaining two engines. For reference, we tow a MINI Cooper.
Let me tell ya, after breaking down in the middle of nowhere far from cellular signal we could utilize – we find the investment in maintaining two engines absolutely worthwhile. We never felt truly stranded and had our own power to get to where we could orchestrate help and make a rationale plan of action.
Had we still had a towable setup and our tow vehicle broke down similarly – we would have been far more dependent on the generosity of others to help stranded travelers. Not impossible, but it definitely would have required a whole other level of manifesting solutions.
Living in a Parking Lot
For the past two weeks, and probably for the next couple of weeks – we have been living in the parking lot of the shop doing our engine rebuild. When we called around shops, Interstate Power gave us directions on exactly where to have our wrecker drop us off at so that we could reach a power outlet.
While not the most scenic of places, it’s been wonderful being onsite – especially as we’ve been invited to shadow our techs. It’s allowed us to check in on the progress, compare research notes, learn about our engine and more – all with no commute, and being able to stay on top of our work and cat worshipping responsibilities.
And, our view is changing regularly despite us not moving – every couple hours a different truck, bus or fraking machine is pulled in next to us waiting to be worked on. It’s also fascinating to be exposed to such a large facility servicing oil field machinery, ranch equipment and more. We’re learning a lot.
Not to mention a heck of a lot cheaper than trying to find a weekly rental or motel in the area that would allow pets.
But, as we’re not at a full hook-up campground, it’s definitely not without livability compromises.
Here’s some of the things we’re doing to make this a more sustainable situation:
While the shop has an outside power outlet we can run our heavy duty extension cord to, it’s just a standard household style outlet with a 20amp breaker.
Definitely not enough to run everything in our bus, especially during the heatwave that has hit us the last few days. The temps have been rising into the lower 90s (I know I know, folks in the southwest would consider that a chilly day right now), which makes living in a metal tube on an asphalt parking lot with no shade extra challenging.
But thank goodness for our boosting inverter and 500AH lithium ion battery bank! We are definitely basking in the power independence of that investment.
We specifically setup our house energy system to be versatile for a variety of situations. The large battery bank & our Victron MultipPlus 3000w inverter can run an air conditioner, and all household basics, for a couple of hours while completely off grid.
The boosting feature of the inverter allows us to take advantage of external power sources (such as a regular wall outlet) and boost from the battery bank to supplement… allowing us to thrive off a limited power source, without blowing the shore power breaker when demands spike.
When the load isn’t there, the inverter goes back to recharging up the bank.
The result? We can keep a single roof air cranking all day long while only very slowly draining our battery bank. Supplement that with a small floor fan, and we’re keeping Kiki nicely chilled.
This has come in so handy so many times – such as being able to park the bus for the best view instead of where we could reach our 30a or 50a hookup with our big power cord. Or driveway surfing with friends & family who didn’t pre-think installing a RV plug in.
We however can’t run multiple high loads at once without exceeding our inverter’s capacity, so we do have to consciously manage our usage – such as only running the hot water heater (we are propane free now), AC, microwave or induction cooktop one at a time.
But, that’s not too much of a problem. Sure, it means to prepare a warm meal we have to turn off the AC. But at least with our awesome induction cooktop, it doesn’t add heat to the environment and cooks really quickly – making it so much more tolerable. (One of the many reasons we love love love our induction cooktop!)
Note, since we wrote these articles – Magnum has now also released their boosting inverter, adding another option to the mix to check out.
Water & Sewer
Water hasn’t been much of a problem for us. We’re within 75′ of a water spigot source in the shop – so with enough hose we can reach that to keep our freshwater tank filled. We have a brand new water pump installed, that is happily keeping the shower, sinks and toilet flowing with great water pressure while not hooked directly up to a city water source.
If water was much further away, we’d consider adding more hoses or getting some larger containers that we could then manually suck into the tank (a feature we built into our pump setup.)
However, sewer is a problem.
If there was a sewer clean-out or access point anywhere nearby – we might be moving ahead with our plans to install a macerator setup which would allow us to pump our waste water further away. But one can’t be found within a few hundred feet of where the bus is parked. And certainly not anything close-enough to consider using our standard stinky-slinky setup.
For more fascinating (really!) reading on sewers and using a macerator, check out our friend’s Sean’s post on this – the man knows his, um, shit.
So instead, our options are to try to minimize our tank usage and/or finding a pump out service to come handle our tanks.
The initial service the shop referred us to quoted us $200 to come dump our tanks. Ouch.
And, since their industrial geared pump motor was so powerful it would likely implode our tanks and they are thus afraid of RVs - we’d have to personally drain our tanks into a bucket first while they suck from that. Icky. What exactly are we paying $200 for – to have a truck driven out?
This option had us considering workarounds to minimize our need for the expense – such as getting a weekly rate at the motel next door at over $300/week – but at least we could have unlimited showers. Or, getting a no-contract membership to the gym down the road for access to their showers (if only they had a pool or hot tub on site!)
We put out some feelers, and received the tip to keep calling around – specifically to port-a-potty service companies and residential septic services. A couple calls, and we had a construstion site service company lined up, who was setup for RVs – at a much more reasonable $44 per pump out rate. We can handle that, and that leaves us feeling like we don’t have to be in ultra-conservation mode.
But, we are being somewhat more conservative than we normally would be… mostly so we don’t get caught off guard with full tanks and needing to wait up to 24-hrs to be worked into their schedule.
Our freshwater tank is 90 gallons, plus 10 in the hot water tank. Our black is 45 and our grey 100. Very ample, and without even thinking about it – we regularly go 10+ days between dumps. If we go into more conservative mode, we can extend that even more.
Here are some of the things that are helping us extend our waste tank usage:
- We use the facilities in the shop whenever we can during their open hours. They even have a shower in the locker room that we’ve been invited to utilize if we want a long shower. (And of course by ‘we’, I mean Chris – the locker room is all male, and I strongly prefer using non-public facilities whenever possible.)
We have the awesome Oxygenics Spa showerhead – that uses a minimal amount of water, but creates an amazing amount of water pressure and volume by mixing in air pressure. A 1-2 gallon shower feels absolutely invigorating. (And of course, we turn OFF the water when we’re soaping up.)
- We capture unused clean water into a bucket to use for flushing the toilet. Such as the cold water that comes out the shower head while waiting for the hot.
- As we’re both been no-poo for many years (that’s no shampoo, not poo-poo – which would solve the black tank problem) – we don’t need to use lots of water to wash our hair. Just a little baking soda and apple cider vinegar from time to time keeps our hair feeling fresh and clean, and quick rinse other times.
- While we generally try to avoid using disposable products to cut down on what we send to the landfill, we did pick up some paper plates to help reduce the number of dishes we need to wash.
We use a spray bottle with diluted dish soap to pre-soak our dishes. This saves a lot of water in the pre-soak process before scrubbing. We then use a minimal amount of water to rinse our dishes. It takes a little more time in the scrubbing and rinsing, but worth it to extend the time on our tanks.
- We’re very conscious about how far we open any faucet, and try to not keep them open a second longer than needed.
- Kiki is sacrificing too. She loves to drink straight from the under counter filter water spigot. For now, we capture her regular bowl water from her ‘left overs’ instead of filling her bowl separately. She’s not terribly happy that her water has cat-spit in it.. but hey, our drinking water usually does too thanks to her indulgent habit! And instead of dumping her hours old stale water down the drain – that now goes into our clean water reclamation bucket.
For more ideas on conserving water in a RV, here’s some tips we wrote during our trailer living days – where we had only 32G of freshwater on board!
One of the reasons we preferred Billings to other options was for the solid 4G signal – and that has been working out very well.
We also noticed upon being pulled in here that there was an Interstate WiFi hotspot. The shop was happy to give us a password to it. However, it seems to only work reliably during normal business hours, and mostly goes offline in the evenings and weekends.
Which isn’t so bad – it’s allowed us to do tons of bus engine research during the day and keep up with our daily needs. And we’re able to manage our evening usage between our Millenicom Verizon plan and our AT&T hotspot plan without exceeding our caps. And for our major downloads (such as iOS developer releases), some of the new local friends we’ve made have loaned us a giant cup of fast bandwidth.
Access to ‘Stuff’
Another consideration when selecting which shop to go with for extended repairs, is investigating how close dining, shopping and things to do are. This stuff is stressful, and also time consuming if you are taking control of the situation and needing to do lots of research and hands on work yourself. Having to go afar to get a quick meals or pick up a few groceries just adds to the stress.
Thankfully, Interstate is on a main road in the Heights of Billings, and we have walking distance access to almost every imaginable fast food joint, several restaraunts, two coin laundromats, a froyo bar, a Walmart, a Target, a grocery store, 6 Redbox kiosks and at least a dozen casinos (?!?).
It’s not as ideal as being in the middle of a mecca of awesome locally owned healthy restaurants & shops, microbreweries and yoga studios (more our style). But, it is nice to have things nearby that don’t take a lot of effort to get to, and Billings is large enough to have a couple Thai & Indian restaurants & large movie theatres across town for when we do have the extra energy.
There’s also fun things around to explore – plenty of hiking trails, the only zoo in Montana, some community theatre and musical events. Yellowstone National Park is also a pretty short drive away, and we’re looking forward to doing some motoring!
Quick Bus Update: Full details coming soon, but the engine is now pretty much disassembled. Two cylinder liners in the lower bank were brittle and cracked, and the rest are showing mild signs of scoring from heat and/or debris. On initial visual exam, the heads, block, cam shaft and crankshaft are all looking intact… more detailed investigation to come this week.
As this week will involve several critical decisions, we’ve decided to forfeit our World Domination Summit tickets and not try to squeeze in a 1800 mile road trip this week to/from Portland. It’s a shame to watch $500/each tickets go to waste like that and we do wish the organization had more flexible ticket transfer policies so we could allow someone else to go in our place.
But sometimes life has other ideas – so in Billings we will stay…