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.
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.
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?
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%.
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:
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!)
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!
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):
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.
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.
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:
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:
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 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:
- Being Electrically Abundant in a Mostly Electric RV
- The (Almost) Fantasy of Solar-Powered RV Air Conditioning
- RV Solar: Is It Worth It?
‘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: