Home Life on the Road Bus Projects

Our Propane Free Goal

We are deep in the midst of a kitchen remodel this week, and we’ve been posting progress photos on our Facebook page as we go. We’ll do a post with better photos of the completed project later.

But because the remodel has involved us permanently pulling our propane powered range / oven, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about our goal of going propane free – and specifically, how we’ll cook.

We haven’t really written much about our propane free goal, because frankly, we’re not necessarily advocating the choice. We think it’ll be the right choice for us, but we have some specific circumstances that most folks won’t ever have to contemplate.

For most RV setups, propane when done right is likely still a good default choice, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a RV without it already installed. Propane is a very dense energy source, it’s readily available, affordable, portable and fairly efficient. It is undeniably a great way to provide for basic household functions like hot water, heating, cooking and refrigeration while boondocking.

So why are we ripping out all of our propane appliances and standardizing on electric & diesel? It’s a multipart answer.

Influence #1: Safety

Despite its convenience, propane has its share of risks. There’s a reason there are codes around it, requirements for proper ventilation, rules around tank placement, and leak detectors. When things go wrong with propane, it’s a very bad day.

Our bus conversion was done back in the late 80s – and either the codes weren’t what they are today, or our converter ignored many of the basic guidelines, as is actually quite common in non-professional conversions done by hobbyists. The biggest oversite was placing a 50 gallon propane tank in a poorly vented bay with no separation other than physical distance between the propane and an electrical panel.

This is a no-no that someday might result in a big kablooey.

So we started off our bus ownership knowing that if we wanted to keep our propane systems, we either needed to find a way to isolate the tank and properly ventilate it, or re-locate the propane tank to another bay. Either way, it would be a big project.

Removing the 50g Propane Tank

To make things immediately safer, we removed the huge 50 gallon tank, and replumbed our remaining propane appliances to a small 20 lb tank in a properly vented bay. This system is workable for now, but not an ideal long term solution.  A 20 lb tank is not enough to rely on for any length of time, and there’s not room for more without lots of modifications.

Influence #2: Old Appliances

And, as all of the propane appliances were 20+ years old.. we knew that we would need to be replacing or refurbishing every appliance relatively soon anyway. And we knew from the beginning that every single one of the appliances that came with our bus had problems.

  • Our fridge works on electric, but is finicky about lighting on propane. It also doesn’t currently have a working thermostat – meaning that if we leave it unattended for a weekend, the entire fridge begins to turn into a freezer.
  • The furnace that came with our bus looked as if it had never even been used, but though the blower worked the ignition during our tests would never engage. We’re pretty sure a $15 part and a few hours grunt work would have solved the problem, but since the furnace was located under the dinette we were ripping out to put in our desks, a repair didn’t make sense since we were already needing to find another heating solution.
  • The hot water heater needed some work to come back to life, and it did – but the tank sat partially filled for 15 years and has seen much better days. We know it’s living on borrowed time.
  • The bus’s stovetop just needed some cleaning to get it to light, but the oven (which looks like it has never been cooked in!) burner has resisted all attempts at lighting. It probably just needs a part replaced, but it’s primarily been a storage cabinet for us.
Add this to our safety concerns, and we were looking at replacing our entire RV appliance suite including the fuel source. This gave us a pretty clean slate to consider all our options, instead of just patching an existing system.

Decision Point 1:  Energy Source Simplicity

In our past RV setups, the choice to use propane was an easy one. We were designing for primarily off-grid boondocking, and we also just didn’t have the physical space for hefty battery banks or for alternative energy sources like solar panels. Going all-electric just wasn’t an option – even with solar we still needed propane for some of the heavy lifting.

With the bus, we have a lot more space to play with, and that gives us many more options.

We’re designing our bus to be flexible & comfortable for a variety of situations – from boondocking to RV Parks.

One of the reasons we were ready to move to a larger unit than our Oliver was that we were finding ourselves staying in campgrounds and RV Parks more often. As much as we like being out in the boonies, we also like being close to friends, family, professional networking, attending conferences, etc. The bus makes this so much more comfortable.

Since we anticipate having access to shore-power far more often than we were used to and we wanted to retain ability to be off-grid via solar and large batteries… it just didn’t make sense to us to try to optimize for propane too.

We also already have another fuel source onboard – diesel. We have a 140 gallon tank of it that fuels our bus and our generator. Why not rely on that, instead of an independent propane system?

Decision Point 2: Newer technology

Propane is a tried and true technology. There haven’t been many recent advancements with it, and we don’t see many coming down the line.

But alternative electric energy is another ball game, and is much more our technomadic style. Solar keeps getting better and better. Battery technology is finally advancing. And as we were already investing in things like Lithium Ion batteries and researching the latest solar tech for our other electric needs – it is appealing for us to look towards optimizing all of our appliances to match.

There are electric options for most things that are traditionally propane powered in a RV. In fact, most propane appliances are dual mode – supporting both electric and propane. But rarely are propane appliances at all energy efficient on electric – just take a look at a dual or tri-way absorption fridge. It’ll drain a battery in no time flat if you turn off the propane while not plugged in. But there ARE options for electric-only compressor fridges for RVs and boats that are quite efficient.

Decision Point 3: Our Cooking Style

But what about another critical component of living – cooking? If we got rid of our stovetop and oven, how would we cook?

Spend a summer in the 120+ degree heat of Arizona with just a propane cooking solution, and you’ll understand why a flame sucks inside a tin can. It’s already fricken hot out and air conditioning is struggling to keep it even reasonably tolerable. Turn a stovetop on to heat up a meal, and in seconds flat you’ve lost the battle.

The day our induction cooktop arrived, was a ray of sanity. It’s so fast and easy, and it doesn’t heat up the space around you – just the pan & food inside it. And pretty darn power efficient (at a medium setting, draws 70 amps). Sure, it uses power… but it doesn’t need it for very long since it is very targeted. Boiling water takes less than 5 minutes.

Aside from that, we don’t bake much at all.. we haven’t had an oven in years. Having a microwave is a new thing for us, and something we only use sparingly or when electricity is abundant. We figure we’ll eventually replace that with a convection oven combo so we can bake in small servings on occasion too.

Not to make this a discussion about diet choices (a topic we generally avoid here), our household is gluten free and mostly vegetarian ….  we’re simply not doing things like thawing chickens and baking pies. Most of our food prep is either stovetop, grilled, blended or raw. As a result, we use a lot of small kitchen appliances for our cooking.

A big oven is just not our style. Since we’re using it now primarily to hold our portable induction cooktop and rice maker, we might as well optimize the storage space.

So what’s the plan?

We removed the furnace when we installed the new floor way back when we first got the bus, and now the stove / oven has been removed too. We still have the fridge to replace (with probably a Nova Kool), and then the hot water system.

The fridge and cooking will be electric powered (aside from occasional outside grilling with independent propane bottles).

To power our electrical system, we’ve already installed a 500 ah Lithium Ion battery bank, and anticipate we’ll double that sometime this year. We also intend to maximize the amount of solar we can get on the roof. We’ll obviously be looking to make every electric component in the bus as energy efficient as possible – such as converting most our primary lighting to LED.  We hope to tackle the solar project this year, and research is well underway.

Our intentions is to create an electric solution, like our past RVs, such that the solar is enough to keep up on most days … and we hope to only rely on our generator occasionally.

Hot water and heating will eventually be addressed by installing a diesel burner hydronics system, which will also serve to pre-heat our engine on chilly days. That’s a project we aim to tackle before winter rolls around again, as we’re currently getting by with just an electric space heater. It’s working fine for our Florida winter this year, but we don’t want to plan our winters around having to stay south.

We’re making progress towards our goal!

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35 Comments - Still Plenty of Room for Yours!

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  1. I am pulling out my original refrigerator and stove from my vintage airstream and replacing with shelves and storage. In place of the fridge will be my filtered water cooler with both hot and cold tap, freeing up living floorspace. I primarily use the microwave, keurig, toaster oven, and crockpot for cooking as I grill outside or eat out most of the time. I am boondocked at my lake property where I have built a large utility shed for full size stove, deep freezer, sink and washer and dryer so the kitchen in the airstream ikitchen is essentially for coffee, snacks and leftovers. Plenty of good things can be cooked with hot water and the mix.

  2. I know this is an old thread, but I just survived a winter in Virginia that was fairly freezing cold! We have an ongoing bus conversion that suffered the dreaded hidden by previous owner and newly discovered poorly done roof leak repair failure. What a mouthful. We have propane, but due to similar safety concerns I do not turn it on, and we did fine with only a total of a few nights where we could not keep it 70 degrees. So, don’t feel like you have to stay south when the projects aren’t done. I love your site!

  3. I am building a bus camper right now and plan to spend the summer touring the country. It also is Propane free. I have the option of shore power. I have 520 watts of solar panels on the roof and will add more, and an 800 AH bank of AGM batteries. I also will be linking the battery system to the alternator to charge while driving. We will be moving almost every day. That along with the solar panels should let us do alright with the power. We will see. I have made some different choices than you – mostly microwave, toaster oven, electric grill, and slow cooker. I have an on-demand hot water heater which we will use sparingly as it sucks power. we will see how it goes. The panels should give us around 300 watts of power when the sun is shinning, maybe more if the angles are right. I love reading about what other people are doing with regard to no propane choice.

  4. I just bought an old RV, a 92 Toyota Toye. First thing I want to do is get rid of propane and eventually go solar. Thanks for the info. Who removed the propane system? Was it hard?

  5. We just came across your blog. We will be full timing it this year. Very good writing and your articles are outstanding. We learned so much in just the few hours that we have been reading.

    Thanks

  6. I enjoy reading your posts every week, and getting sidetracked into your back-stories. I appreciate your openness, which brings on a lot of unrequested trivial advice. So as not to be outdone I have thought of a way to make her fly! I understand there are a few C-5s just sitting around in Az….. Anyway it would make a very cool picture with the bus inside one. Perhaps at an airshow all knelt already. Once the crew was home and paid you could show the pics! Wouldn’t cost us taxpayers a dime.
    Very Interesting to me technology wise, is cross-tech of road, marine and aviation. General Aviation is experimenting using Diesel powerplants fueled by Jet-A (Kerosene basically). And of course advances in electrical generation and storage, finding its way into the most energy consuming units of all, our homes.

    • It would be so awesome to take Zephyr on a C-5 ride – I love the idea! I love taking ferries too – there is something so cool about one vehicle moving another. There used to an RV-on-rails trip through the Copper Canyon in Mexico, where each RV was strapped to a flatbed train car for a slow ride through the canyon. Sadly that has been discontinued for years. But such a cool idea!

  7. Hi:

    Thank you for responding. WOW! You cleared something up in one post. For reference, please know I am horrible at fixer up type projects. It just isn’t my thing. But now I understand: The entire RV can be electric through a system somewhat like a home OR certain appliances can be electric (individually/independently). You have elected to independent electricity. Thank you!

  8. Hi: I will be purchasing a fiberglass RV soon and very soon. I have danced with the idea of purchasing a used sticky RV but have not located one with all electric capabilities. So, this leads me to purchase (when I make a decision)–the Egg Camper or the Scamp or the Parkliner or perhaps the Oliver. I actually love the interior of the Lil Snoozy but it appears not to have the height requirements I need. The RV will be occupied by me (solo) and two Persian cats. I work during the day and will be parked in a park. I have given up hope or consideration of purchasing a home in Florida. It just isn’t me. So I was intrigued to read about your going no propane. I love the idea and can’t wait for your updates. I have yet to find any information about the cost of changing a propane RV to electric. I have searched in South Florida but have yet to find anyone who has the expertise to change an RV from propane to electric. I contacted Scamp via Facebook and they have indicated the option is available. I can’t wait. Please keep us posted on the developments as you move away from propane. I am anxious to find out did you DIY or hire someone and what were the costs associated with the conversion. Thanks.KB

    • Hi.. thanks for stopping by. Check out our ‘Bus Log’ up in the menus there for a recap of all of the projects we’ve done on the bus since this post.

      Our costs was basically just replacing the fridge with an electric version (we went with a marine grade fridge). We currently use an electric space heater for heat. And we just use the water heater on electric. We’ll eventually install a diesel hydronic system for those, but for now.. everything functions well.

      Ours probably isn’t a good case to look at tho, as a bus conversion is a bit different than an integrated RV.

  9. Hello!

    Love your site.

    When it comes to heating might aI suggest a small marine wood burning stove like the “Sardine?”

    Also, Morso makes a great tiny woodburning stove as well.(have seen both of these suggestions in successful use in old Airstreams)

    Of course these suggestions are for any future Cold weather living but you would have heat and with a stove top Dutch Oven be able to Bake etc.(I know you are not big bakers but I am a vegetarian and LOVE to eat Roast Veggies)

    Just a thought

    I am in the midst of checking out different “Mobile” options for full time so that I can do “Broadcast Captioning” and provide “CART” services for the Def on the Road.

    Big hugs,

    Alexis
    (who will be traveling with her Rescue Fur Family of one Dog and two Cats.)

    • Wood stoves are cool (err… warm?). But not really a fit for our lifestyle or space available. The hydronics makes so much more sense for us, given how many functions the unit would serve – hot water, engine pre-heating and keeping the bays and living space warm. And it can be run more unsupervised without worry of the cat baking herself.

  10. Hello,
    We have begun renovating a 1979, 31 foot Motorhome and your web site is very helpful. Although we eventually plan to go on road trips with our four legged children, another factor with fixing up this RV is that if there were an emergency evacuation for whatever reason, I would like to bug out in a home. We have been using a propane stove in our house for years and it is very safe. Although I am okay with a 5 gallon tank, I am not very comfortable with the giant bomb looking tank strapped beneath the RV. Our plan is to replace the stove with a gas cook top and take out the furnace. We are going to replace the gas refrigerator with a solar one and the hot water heater with solar hot water panels that look like solar panels but are used only for this purpose. As we are converting the gas engine to a diesel, I am very interested in the diesel hydronics system because heating is something we have not figured out. Thank-you!!

    • Converting from a gas to a diesel engine is a very ambitious task – it sounds like you are in the midst of an awesome project!

      As you research diesel heating – look into Webaasto burners and AquaHot full systems. There are a lot of good resources out there that you’ll find if you start Googling about.

      Getting diesel heat is on our todo list, but probably not a priority until we face the prospect of a winter someplace other than FL. Here in FL our Vornado electric space heater has proven to be plenty enough heat so far.

      Keep us posted on your project!

      – Chris

  11. I have been purusing your site on & off the past few months as I am modernizing my ’77 GMC. My goal is to run 100% electric in the future. That is why I was particularly interested in your review of lithium ion batteries. In the mean time I have pulled my propane and installed an instant-on electric water heater, induction cooktop and a mica space heater. All of these are very efficient. I am also doing everything possible to lower the coach weight and improve aerodynamics.

    I thought this might help. If you would like more info, just contact me. I appreciate your site.

  12. Hi Cherie & Chris:
    A very interesting article – thank you. I am reasonably
    conversant with what you have described, and here is my view
    on the possible pit-fall. Florida diesel costs right now are
    about $4.00 US gallon, and it is possible (probable) that you
    will see that increase to $6.00 or higher within the near
    future. I believe if you are going to go through a major
    conversion, you may wish to consider switching your bus to
    run on CNG. I am providing a link http://www.ewsews.com which can
    provide some background information. A switch to CNG is in
    line with the ‘Pickens Plan’ which you may wish to review also.
    My own RV, an older Chinook Concourse with a 360 c.i. engine
    was converted to run on LPG (propane) when I bought it in 2003.
    For the six years 2003-2009 that I used it to work out of town
    and commute home on weekends, my gasoline costs at 9 MPG would
    have been $39,000, but on propane, my actual costs were $28,000.,
    a savings of $11,000. or roughtly 30%. Your propane costs
    right now are close to gasoline prices, so an LPG (propane)
    conversion is probably not worth while, but a CNG (natural gas)
    conversion might be worth looking at. Your generator or a
    reasonable replacement also could be running on CNG to provide
    you with electric power at reasonable cost. Gasoline and diesel
    are both fairly ‘dirty’ fossil fuels, whereas propane and natural gas are much cleaner (less than 25% of the tailpipe
    emissions. AND, the US has great gobs of natural gas reserves
    in its possession so natural gas costs should be much more stable. The one shortcoming with LPG (propane) and LNG (natural
    gas) is the limited range, but with the ready availability of
    both fuels, and the location guides for them, that probably is
    not an issue. You will need to do the research to ensure that
    your engine can accomodate the alternate cleaner fuels.
    Thank you for your many great articles. Best to you both.
    Ingo Oevermann, Smithers, BC

    • Ingo – we’re only talking about the house systems of our coach. We’re not doing anything with the original 50 year old engine, it’ll continue to run diesel as long as practical. We just simply don’t run enough miles to make any sort of engine conversion worthwhile.

  13. Hi Chris&Cherie,
    Have been following your website since a while, because we are also converting a truck-camper, European style. We’re planning a family trip for a minimum of 2 years.
    You are already looking at the Webasto like solution (http://www.webasto.us/general/en/html/8369.html), but now there are also cooking appliances that work on diesel, like the X100 from Webasto (http://www.webasto-outdoors.com/cooking/diesel-cooker-x100.html).
    Webasto is also working on a gas free solution for campers/RVs.
    Good luck with the finishing touches on the conversion. It looks great!!
    By the way we put a link on our website to yours. Might be interesting for European readers.

  14. Wow guys, every time you do a post like this I can’t help but think you must be very brave! I’d be terrified of pulling so many bits off… do you even get that ‘and we’ve got all these bits left over’ type scenario when you’re done reassembling it all? I tell you what though, by the time you get that bus just how you want it, they’ll be bringing out a conversion kit to make it fly… :0)
    Tony

    • Heh.. don’t know what’s particularly brave about taking out an unsafe system? Remodeling an RV isn’t all the much different than remodeling a house, and it’s been fun!

      Hmm… making the bus fly. Now that would be sweet!

  15. I’m making plans to be a solo snowbird. I’m considering going all electric and diesel in a Class B with three solar panels and three or four AGM batteries. Hydronic heat/water, induction cookplate, microwave/convection oven for the occasional batch meat cooking. Does this power system at sound all doable to you two?

    • Sounds similar to what we’re aiming for, Linda. Make sure you measure all your energy use to make sure your solar array and battery bank will be sufficient, and that you have a plan for cloudy days, or needing to park in shade. Solar is fantastic, but it’s not always available or enough to keep up.

  16. Have you done the cost comparisons of being forced to run your generator for what might amount to trivial (yet long term) amp draws in certain situations, versus sticking with at least a limited propane setup?

    Fridges have come up in efficiency, and your stove (as mentioned) is only used in short bursts (ditto hot water), but some items like electric heating is potentially on consistently for long periods, and running multiple electric heaters (given the size and probable lack of insulation in your bus) all night on batteries simply isn’t going to be realistic no matter how large your bank.

    The energy-dense nature of propane (as you mentioned) is what makes it the go-to option for RV’s, especially for heating, and speaking from experience (We’ve winter camped in our fifth wheel) given the incredibly poor insulation on most RV’s, keeping them warm in the cool weather is a BIG challenge. I couldn’t even fathom it being possible without shore power in many situations without a propane furnace in play.

    • Hi Mark.. please re-read the posting in its entirety. It sounds like you completely skipped over the part where we plan to address this by installing a diesel burner hydronics system for all our heating (air, water and engine pre-warming). We have no intention of our space heater being our long term heating solution. There are other options than electric and propane.

      Our bus is also pretty darn well insulated, thus far we’ve not needed to run a single space heater more than 30 minutes at bedtime to keep our coach warm enough all night in low 40-degree weather. We have even done a couple nights off-grid in mid-30 degree weather with the space heater.

      • Sorry, I did miss the “And heating” portion before hot-water. Makes sense that it can be an all-in-one solution.

        As for temperatures, well, we were camping in temps ranging from -20c to -36c (on one of our nights) which when you do the conversion from metric are in a whole different ballpark. At -36c even the propane furnace alone was woefully inadequate in our fifth wheel, we had 3 other electric heaters supplementing throughout the trailer to avoid having it run basically constantly.

        I understand you are not likely planning (at least willingly) to be in these sorts of extremes, but just playing devils advocate when I thought you were planning to rely on resistance heating. 😉

      • Nope.. not designing around extreme situations. If we found ourselves in such extremes for some unforeseen situation and the 200+ degree hydronics capability wasn’t able to keep up – well, we’d find a solution. But in all likelihood if we found ourselves in such conditions, it would probably be a catastrophic earth climate event – like Yellowstone erupting, meteor hitting the earth, reversing of the poles, ice caps melting, etc.

        But heck, never thought we’d experience 127 degrees either. So, ya never know. We plan for what we can anticipate, and adapt as necessary when called for.

      • Research your choice of hydronic systems very carefully. Most of the ones I’ve seen are based on the Webasto 2010 heater head. I used to a Webasto tech for many years, and that particular head is the second least reliable unit I experienced. The technology in it is 1970’s, and quite frankly, very primitive. They don’t like moisture in any form, the “brain” is a relay box, and all the sensors are mechanical switches. Extremely expensive to repair or service.

      • I’ve heard many people swear by how awesome and reliable their Webastos are – as long as you keep on top of the suggested annual maintenance.

        But when we do eventually go hydronic, we will consider all our options.

        Do you have any other heaters / brands that have impressed you with their design and reliability?

        Thanks for sharing your experience,

        – Chris

  17. Good write-up! We do alot of roasting/baking in the oven so that’s probably the #1 thing which would hold us back from all-electric, although I think (for us) everything else could go. Alot of the new Class A’s are coming out all-electric these days (in fact it’s getting harder & harder to find new A’s with propane). Definitely a trend.
    Nina

    • Good to know it’s a trend in the Class-A world. We know that some of the very high end professional bus conversions and Class-As are also utilizing LFP batteries, so that definitely makes sense.

  18. We don’t live in or do we ever anticipate living in our tiny travel trailer …. it’s just an escape pod & major cooking is not something we want to do in an escape pod! I, particularly, don’t really like to “camp” without shore power, so our little trailer is totally electric — microwave oven, lights, etc. We do carry a portable propane grill with us & it has 1/2 grill – 1/2 griddle, so we don’t even have to dirty up pans to cook meat, eggs or even pancakes. We’ve adapted it to use a larger propane tank than the little cylinders, so it’s a great compromise. We even cook green beans in the can on top of the griddle and have yet to find too many things we can’t generally make work. Ours is a Blue Rhino we got on Amazon for about $75 (online research revealed it as one of the most powerful, efficient ones for its size & price) and it folds up and stows away when we aren’t using it …. in fact, we like it so much, we often use it at home instead of firing up the big propane grill in the backyard — even in bad weather, you just need a covered area, front porch, awning, even an umbrella or makeshift tent/lean-to. It might be a great compromise if you find you are craving a pizza on the grill or someone wants charred animal flesh!

    • We have a great little grill that we got on Amazon.. it’s linked to on the kitchen gadgets link in the post. We love it.

      Occasional escape camping and living full time in a RV have very different design elements and considerations. Ours is our home, and needs to be completely livable.

  19. You two do the best write ups.
    would you add another battery pack at any time (Li-Ion) and solar panels on the roof? You got SOOO much roof.
    A solar oven is what we carry. http://www.sunoven.com/
    Works extremely well.
    we leave in 18 days to head out to Great Basin National Park for the summer and plan on being there in May.
    Terry & Bess

    • Solar ovens are cool.. could be fun to play around with. But baking just isn’t our thing.

      And yes, as outlined in the post – we plan to double our battery bank and add solar sometime this year.

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