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.
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.
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
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!