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Earning Our ‘Abundant Boondocking’ Merit Badge: Bus Renovation Report

We’ve been having fun this winter putting our summer renovations to the test to see how much they impact our boondocking ability.

We’ve had a few requests to share about some of our renovations from a boondocking perspective. Since we’ve now done several extended dry camping stops since the summer, it seems like a good time to share in our continuing effort to document the projects.

Water & Plumbing Systems

Ironically, plumbing systems were not originally on our project list when we pulled into Master Tech RV last May. But the plumbing improvements have likely had the biggest impact on our boondocking ability.

'Look, Technomads - No Tanks!' - HUH? When did we request that??

‘Look, Technomads – No Tanks!’ – HUH? When did we request that??

We had actually only asked to switch out our sticky dump valves and maybe install a SeeLevel tank monitoring system. We had a “wish list” item of finding a way to carry more fresh water on board – but we had never even contemplated making changes to our waste tanks.

But somewhere along the line, Master Tech ended up ‘surprising’ us by sending us pictures of our waste tanks removed.. initially with the intention of cleaning them out.

But they were so old, not made of an ideal material, and they had not been engineered to drain completely (the drain hole was too high up). This meant we had developed a solid mass at the bottom of the black tank.

This put us in the position of having to decide to re-install those icky old things – or authorize installing new larger tanks that would better take advantage of our space.

New black & grey tanks going in.

New black & grey tanks going in.

It didn’t take us a second glance at our old dried up poop (I’ll spare the casual reader by not embedding the picture – but for those who like the gross stuff, if you’d like to see what the inside of a 25-year old black tank looks like….) to green light all new waste tanks.

And with larger waste tanks, it only made sense to swap out and expand our fresh tanks at the same time.

But taking on this plumbing project added a huge unplanned cost to our summer projects. We carried around a bit of resentment for a long time over feeling forced into the decision by having had the tanks taken out without authorization in the first place.

After being told at each step that this wasn’t a huge project and that ‘tanks are cheap’ (they are, only about $250-$300 each) – we were shocked to tally up the final bill for all the plumbing projects. It was pushing over 6 grand, a hard number to swallow having not gotten any firm estimates upfront.

So, the report… Was it worth it?

The new waste plumbing - all property and professionally done.

The new waste plumbing – all properly and professionally done.

Last year, you might recall that we were pretty happy that we were able to achieve 17-days off grid with conservative water usage. At the time, we had 88 gallons fresh, 90 gallons grey and 45 gallons black (well, not really… some of that capacity was lost to a giant poop brick).

We managed that by skipping showers, dribbling water for washing dishes, being careful with how many dishes we created, not flushing the toilet for ‘yellow’ stuff, watering trees, and supplementing some drinking water with bottled water.

With the upgrades, we now have 112 gallons fresh, 120 gallons grey and 70 gallons black.

Our longest recent dry camping stint was 16-days between tank refreshes.

At the end of that, our fresh tank was at 8% full, our grey tank at 46%, and our black tank at 57%.

I would have never previously attempted Chili Rellanos while boondocking. Do you know how many dishes this meal creates??

Chili Rellenos while boondocking?? Do you know how many dishes this meal creates??

That’s pretty impressive itself.

But what we enjoyed even more is that we were just barely conservative. About the only water conservation methods we followed were “Navy showers” and conscious water usage for dishes.

We drank our fresh water through our filtration system right off the tanks. We flushed the toilet each time. We cooked full meals that we wouldn’t have previously dreamed of while boondocking. And we showered daily if we wanted to, heck there was one day after a long hike I showered twice.

Read that again. I showered TWICE.. in one day… while extended boondocking!! Oh yeah, now that’s what I’m talking about.

Other plumbing tweaks:

  • New fresh water tanks under the bed.

    New fresh water tanks under the bed.

    SeeLevel Tank Monitoring – Previously, our only way of knowing our tank status was to be in tune with it. Listening for the tell tale full black tank burp, or hoping the fresh water didn’t run out mid-shower. Having working gauges we can check regularly is a HUGE help in managing our water usage. It let us know we still had plenty of water left to gift a shower to our neighbor. (We’ll have the pay per view video up soon… just kidding!)

  • We have a switch in the bathroom that when activated water a valve is opened allowing water to flow into our fresh tank.

    The new cold water return.

    Cold Water Tank Return – When we walked into our bus one morning, and the shop had taken off a wall to replace plumbing we hadn’t discussed replacing (notice a theme?) – we turned lemons into lemonade. We took the opportunity to create a return loop from the shower to the fresh tank. With the flip of a switch a valve is opened on the return water line from the shower. Because the shower itself is not on, pressure routes the hot water line back to the fresh tank, so we’re not wasting cold water waiting for the water in the line to get hot. It takes about 10-15 seconds for hot water to reach the shower. Previously, we filled up a water jug with the cold water to re-use for flushing the toilet!

  • Sucking in fresh water from a collapsable water carrier.

    Sucking in fresh water from a collapsable water carrier.

    Water Carriers & Refilling – Obviously, our tanks are seriously mis-proportioned. We can’t carry nearly enough fresh water to ever fill our waste tanks. We made use of every inch we could to increase our fresh water capacity to bridge the gap. To further our flexibility, we also engineered our water pump setup to be able to suck clean water into our fresh tanks (we can’t gravity fill, due to the location of the tanks under our bed). So, we’ve now purchased a couple collapsable water carriers so we can fetch fresh water and bring it back to the bus. Before heading out boondocking, we fill them up with filtered water that we can use for drinking, or saving for our first refill. This all helps extend our boondocking ability.

All and all, we figure our new setup could keep us pretty comfortably off-grid for a month (or more) between dump stations with minimal conservation. But for the 14-day limit at most boondocking spots, we can live like we’re on hook-ups with just a little adjustment.

Are we still bitter over the unexpected project creep? A few showers while boondocking have washed that creep mostly away. It does feel great having a plumbing system that is pretty legit now. But we can’t necessarily say we would consciously have chosen these modifications had we known what the costs would be – after all, our existing system was still functioning and feeling pretty darn abundant. Oh well, it’s done – so we’ll enjoy the added benefits.

(Please Master Tech, check in with customers before pushing them down paths they may not have planned on!)

More Info (including why we didn’t consider a Composting Toilet): 

Heating Systems

When we purchased our bus back in 2011, a typical RV furnace was installed under the dinette seat – which immediately got ripped out to build our desks. Since then, we’ve used electric space heaters when on electric hook-ups, or the Mr. Heater portable propane system when boondocking.

Combined with following the weather, that actually worked quite well for years.

This summer one of our biggest projects was installing a hydronics system that takes care of hot water, heating and engine pre-heating. It also allowed Kiki to have her own private potty room. In a nutshell, it’s a central boiler that distributes heat to where it’s needed. For furnace usage, it goes to heat exchangers installed in our baseboards.

The Precision Temp TwinTemp Jr. The heart of all things hot.

The Precision Temp TwinTemp Jr. The heart of all things hot.

To the surprise of even ourselves, as we have a diesel coach and were propane-free, we selected the propane powered Precision Temp TwinTemp Jr.

Functionality wise, we’re very impressed with it – it’s reliable, super quiet, no maintenance, and was much more affordable ($3,750 for the unit, plus about $4k installation) versus installing a diesel equivalent (we were quoted $12-$16k for an Aquahot install) that would require regular annual maintenance.

However, our one major disappointment is that our Precision Temp setup is still consuming way too much propane – nearly 30 lbs a week when in winter mode!

We still need to find time to further hunt down conductive heat loss where hydronic plumbing is touching metal (more insulation), and we are contemplating providing a way to shut off unneeded heat loops when not in extreme conditions. Our most likely culprit left is the tie into our bus’s front radiator that had formerly been tied into the engine coolant system. It’s normally intended for driver heat and defrost, but we wanted to dual purpose it to heat the front of the coach while stopped without installing another exchanger.

We're refilling propane tanks WAY too often.

We’re refilling propane tanks WAY too often.

Precision Temp tells us that when properly installed, the TwinTemp should be able to keep a 40′ coach with slides warm in 20 degree temps for way less propane than we’re using. We hope that as we continue to fine tune the installation, that proves true.

Until we have the open time, we put up with frequent propane fills. The costs are of course annoying, but seeking out refill options so frequently reminds us why we embraced a single fuel source in the first place.

Thankfully, the unit also works off electric – so when we have hook-ups, that helps.

Other heating tweaks:

  • IMG_9187

    Love love love the hot tap!

    Hot Tap: The folks at Precision Temp sent us an unofficial add-on, a direct tap into the super-hot water at our sink. It’s been super handy for brewing tea, instant oatmeal and my new addiction – coffee! While I wasn’t much of a coffee person before, it’s become my morning ritual to make a cup using my Aeropress. This combination is super boondocking friendly – little clean up required, little water needed and apparently one of the best ways to brew out there.

  • Dual Pane Windows: They seem to be helping with temperature regulation. But that one is difficult to gauge. It’s not like we can do a head-to-head comparison of before and after to take measurements, and our entire heating situation was upgraded too. But, we’re happy. The windows look fantastic, they function so much better than the old ones, and the sound insulation is definitely noticed.

More Info on Keeping Warm:

Power Systems

Our 1400w solar setup with 500AH lithium battery bank also continues to kick butt (we had these long before the renovations).

No tilting for us this winter... adding more panels is so much easier.

No tilting for us this winter… adding more panels is so much easier & safer.

We recently did a full battery drain to check on the health of our lithium batteries, and are thankful that all of our adjustments seem to have helped. We have had no further capacity drop since we reported the premature aging this time last year. Whew.

This has kept us able to continue to regularly utilize about 350AH of power out of the bank, which has proven to be quite abundant for our regular daily needs. We’d ideally like more capacity for running our AC longer.. maybe one day.

Hard to believe we’ve been running lithium for almost 5-years this summer, we’ll likely do our next report later in the year.

This winter, we skipped tilting our 800w of roof panels – it’s just too much effort and risk to climb up on the roof. Yes, we get a lot more power that way. But we’ve found having the supplemental ground system to be a much better balance for us. It’s easy to put out, keeps us abundant in power, and I don’t pace on the ground ready to dial 911 while Chris is up top tilting.

We’re night owls, we tend to shut things down around 2 or 3 am – and the power is typically down to about 50-60% by then. By the time the sun goes down the next day, we’re usually solidly back over 90% to start our evening with making dinner, computing, or binging movies on the projector.

We're continue to take measurements of our flexible panels to see how they age over time.

We’re continue to take measurements of our flexible panels to see how they age over time.

We’re continuing to take measurements on the flexible panels we have in our setup (we have panels from three different companies to compare head to head).

Chris has it on his very long to-do list to put together a report on how they have aged. Hopefully that will come out before solar is an obsolete technology (sorry folks, writing technical perspectives like that is a very time consuming side hobby for us.)

Thanks to abundant solar power, our new 2500w propane generator isn’t getting much of a workout at all. We haven’t even put 20 hours on it yet to do the first break-in oil change. We did recently time our monthly 1 hour maintenance run for a cloudy day after pulling an all-nighter and re-charging our eBikes off solar.

Not bad for having a mostly electric RV (our fridge is 12v marine fridge and all our cooking is off an induction & microwave/convection oven).

More info on Solar & Boondocking:

Merit Badges

merit-badge-boondocking-rvWouldn’t it be super cool if some enterprising RVer, with better graphic skills than I, came out with RVing Merit Badges?

‘Extended Boondocking’, ‘Walmart Overnight’, ‘Surviving a Major Break Down’, ‘Dump Station Catastrophe’, ‘Random Encounter with a RV Blogger’, ’50+ mbps Mobile Internet Speeds’, ‘Campground From Hell’, ‘Made Lunch During a Traffic Jam’ and ‘Emergency Unhitch After Going down a Dead End Street’ would be some fun ones to start with.

Our summer renovations have definitely earned us the ‘Abundant Boondocking’ merit badge.

With just a resupply of fresh water (and some nice weather) we could easily keep away from a dump station for a month or more with little adjustment from having full hook-ups.

After all of the summer frustration getting out of the shop, it’s so nice to be reaping the rewards!

More Bus Renovation Re-Caps:

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51 Comments - Still Plenty of Room for Yours!

This blog is fueled by YOUR enthusiasm. Your comments help inspire the next post.. don't be shy!

  1. Thanks for all the information that you provide here, on YouTube and in your book. In your resources, you lost the EEZTire TPMS and that you have had others. What are your thoughts on this topic?

  2. Hi. Some time ago you posted a article on; Following the 70 degree trail. When was that posted, I would like to read it again. We are now official Nomads since Aug. 2015. Now setting out from Phoenix area towards New Mexico then to TX, LA, MS, then north. Just wanted to see if I could find out about the article. Thanks.
    Terry and Deb Carr

  3. Well Cherie credit to you for what you have achieved great inspiration for women in your industry and in what ever we do keep up the good work wish i had have known about all this stuff in the day im 60 and have done alot and just really getting into this scene a little bit, my partner mattt is a geek/software developer and is dabbling into solar as electricity in australia is so high price wise that this is definately the next alternative thankyou for all your great information i follow you guys all the time now that i have joined and follow your facebook. Hope you can come to australia one day we live in the best place Sunshine Coast Queensland not far from the airport and the beach. Marcoola.

    cheers dee and matttxx

  4. Thanks very much Cheri, l envy you two. I dream of what you are doing, but health issues, it is not possible. Great information. I look forward to read your blog and miss the daily blog, keep up the blog and best wishes to you and Chris. Ray

    • Thanks Ray… not sure we’ve ever had anything close to a ‘daily blog’? We used to aim for twice a week, now we’re just not holding ourselves to a schedule and posting when we have time. Hopefully with the book now getting to completion, we’ll have more time to catch the blog up. I’ve got an idea list a mile long.

  5. Four weeks between dump/fills is normal for me, I’ve done as much as 5 weeks and was more concerned about running out of propane for my fridge. 80 gallon water tank, unknown black and grey sizes. It takes about 120Ah per day from my solar to my 260Ah LiFePO4 bank to reach full charge, most days my 450W solar do fine. (Tilting when the days are shortest.)

    You should also have Camp Hosting, Amazon, Beat Harvest, and Blogging badges.

  6. Your tankage is impressive, as is the amount of solar you have. Thanks for taking the time to write it all down, your posts are always informative and entertaining.

  7. Great update! I was wondering how the upgrades had been working out. Our tanks are 85f/85g/50b and I think we can get to 14 days (I held off dumping when we got to Sam’s in DHS to see) and the limit is our black tank (I should bring less beer into the desert 🙂 ). Solar install is planned for next summer.

  8. Thanks for the update. It is great catching up with the details on all the upgrades done. We have done the solar upgrade and getting ready to update our lighting to LED. Not certain about composting toilet… Although we still think it will be worth it. Probably wait until we get on the road in May get a better feeling for how our Journey meets are needs at that end… 9 weeks before FULLTIMING starts for us.

    Can’t wait. See ya on the road.

  9. I knew there was something fishy about that switch labeled “camera” in the bathroom. 😉

    No really, the shower was much appreciated, thanks!

  10. Outstanding article. Paricularly enjoyed its comprehensive-ness.

    I’m also space-limited on my roof. I like very much your idea of supplementing with separate-system panels.

    But how do you get the electricity from the solar controllers of the stand-alone panels into your battery bank? I’m guessing you connected each controller’s ouput to the central buss, maybe?

    Jerry

  11. Another great update! This one hit close to home as we just started full timing and are finally at the point where we can get the solar/lithium system we installed dialed in.

    To that end, we are sitting in an RV park on California’s central coast. We’re about to fill out fresh water tank, dump our black/gray tanks and then disconnect from the pedestal to see how well everything works before we go boondocking for reals. Wish us luck.

    PS: Thank you again for all of the great articles you’ve posted over the years. I’m sure you hear it all the time, but what you are sharing is an invaluable resource to us noobs. You guys rock!

    • Hope this message finds you rocking being disconnected.. enjoy the abundance of it all. (And we never get tired of hearing reflections back that the efforts to provide this content are appreciated.. so thank you for sharing!)

  12. You guys are amazing ! You make all this technical info so entertaining to read about. I love whenever I get a new post from you in my in box !!! What a wonderful life you have built for yourself . I have a bus conversion too. It’s a 1984 MC9 coach that I converted with help from friends. I am just a weekend warrior in the spring and summer cause I’m in the northeast. However I look forward to the day that I can go full-time ! In the mean time, I live vicariously through you, so please keep these wonderful posts coming.
    I can’t tell you how much joy I get from your writings !
    Thank You ! Thank You !

  13. Great article. Sounds like you have come up with some good solutions. You are not afraid to do what is going to make you happy. Why is it those RV places do things without asking. Always nice to find one that does. Anyway sound like you plumbing was worth it in the end.

    • I think long term, we’ll appreciate the unexpected upgrade and having a system that serves us well into the future. It is nice to not worry so much about just what is going to leak next.

  14. Nice write up about some of last summer’s upgrades to the bus. Very enjoyable to read.

    Now the size of those tank upgrades, Wow! That’s impressive. Gets me thinking about how long a solo person like me could stay in the boonies. If you two can go a month or more, without being overly conservative, I’m guessing a solo traveler being conscientious about things could get 2 1/5 to 3 months maybe? Amazing!

    Where do I sign up?! 🙂

    • It is crazy to think how an individual might be able to thrive with this sort of setup. If it were just me however, I have to be honest – I’d probably be indulging in some longer showers 😉

  15. Very nice indeed! It’s really encouraging to hear that you guys have been able to boondock for so long with minimal adjustments to your routines. I really look forward to doing the same. By the end of the month I will have a 16 year old Foretravel diesel pusher with AquaHot, 1200 Watts on the roof, 120v/12v refrigerator, 102 fresh, 110 gray, 54 black. The only part I’m missing for now is a very large capacity bank of lithium batteries, but that should happen by next Spring. In the meantime there is a 10KW (diesel) generator which I haven’t heard yet, but will have a Gen-turi exhaust stack and use the generator only when really necessary. I don’t care much for noise, especially off the beaten path – the peace is a big part of why I go there in the first place! Good on ya both! You guys are trail blazers.

  16. As always, your outlook on even the unexpected 6k renovation is great and an inspiration to us all. I love the badge idea, I think an “I survived extended RV service/renovation” could be a combo of a large bottle of wine and a person pulling their hair out. It would of course be a badge no one would want, but too many of us would earn. Of course the first one off the press would have to go to you guys. I am so glad most of the renovations are working out. Two showers while boondocking!! TWO SHOWERS IN ONE DAY!! Good for you!!!!

    • Keep in mind, it did take us a few month to get to this level of positivity about it. We did moan about it quite a bit for a while. But, life is too short to carry that around. I’ll focus on the TWO showers aspect instead. 😉

      And great idea for another badge.. you’re right, many would qualify for that one.

  17. I’m surprised they haven’t invented a lift system for the solar panels. Where you could just push a button from inside to raise and lower the panels. They have it where you can move slides in and out. Anyway, maybe this will spur someone to design, develop, patent and make a millions 😉 Or has it already been done???

  18. I really like your positive attitude and I’m not sure I would be as forgiving as you and Chris seem to be. As you’re boondocking longer it will be just a bad memory and a lesson learned. We’re jealous of your capacity and hope you keep having a fantastic winter.

  19. Nice upgrades, but what did the larger tanks and equipment do to your weight? Just in water, 24 gallons is about 192 pounds. I’d recommend getting the upgraded bus weighed to make sure there isn’t too much weight for the axels, tires, wheels to handle.

    • That’s a valid point for conventional RVs. But we have a bus conversion designed for 41 passengers and their luggage. We were about 8000 pounds under our gross rating before the changes. We do need to get a new weigh, but doubt we have anything to be concerned with. 😉

  20. I love reading your blog, as I am currently hunting for my first bus. I lived on a 38′ boat on the River Shannon for three years back from ’03 to ’06, and as I am looking to relocate back to the US soon I am planning on living the nomadic life.

    As to heating, had you considered a drip oil stove at all? I realize that there would be a footprint inside the cabin for With a small plastic day tank similar to the ones that they use for outboard motors and a siphon pump you could get great heat and a good fresh air exchange to keep moisture/mold to a minimum.

  21. In your travels, have you seen any gatherings of antique bus conversions. Looking for such so that we may join with our 1955 Southern Coach.

  22. Your heating sounds good. $30 ish a week isn’t to bad, consider metered electric in parks. Maybe more capacity to make propane stops less frequent?

    • When we ran off metered electric with the hydronic system in winter mode off electric, our bill was about $14/week. When we switched to running it off propane with the rest of the house systems still on metered electric, the cost was about $10/week. Propane is more pricey for sure (30 lbs has been around $15-25 per fill).

      The point is, the system shouldn’t be consuming that much power, period. Especially for temps typically in the 40s overnight, and not needed at all during the day. If we were battling a deep freeze, we’d be pretty happy with these numbers.

  23. Although the bus a bus will always be out of my reach (and that’s ok, I already decided the Class C was too big and am big and happily thriving in a van) I’m glad the upgrades, are for the most part, working for you.

    And, as always, it’s so awesome of you to take the time to share your findings with the community.

    Love you guys! Keep on keepin’ on!

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