We live in a 2003 Dutchman Four Winds 5th wheel travel trailer. It is 30 feet in length and includes a 12-foot pop-out in the living/dining room and a 6-foot pop-out in the bedroom. It includes roughly 350 square feet of living space, with ample storage inside as well as in a bay below the trailer (what we call the “garage”).
The trailer is parked with the length running north/south. The wind comes from the southwest in Kendrick Park, so our trailer serves as a wind block for the “yard” and entry which are on the east side. When it snows, the wind blows the drifts northeast… and so far, with over 25 inches of snow already under our belt this season, we haven’t had to use a shovel. (An El Niño winter is predicted, so I’m betting we’ll find ourselves stuck soon. We’ll deal with that when we get there.)
We put together a list of “home improvements” that we needed before being able to live comfortably, especially before the cold winter months arrived.
Let’s talk about the off-grid systems we have in the trailer.
There are two 100-watt solar panels on the roof, attached to two deep cycle batteries sitting in the “garage.”
Hooking the inverter to the batteries.
Crawling under the trailer to pull the power cable underneath over to the inverter/generator area.
We have power!
We purchased a pure sine wave 1000 watt inverter to convert the DC power of the batteries to AC power for our electronics. The inverter hooks up to the batteries, and the trailer electric cable (which would normally plug into the electric dock at an RV park) plugs into it at the other end.
The lights, ceiling fan, toilet fan, and furnace blower operate off of DC. (The fridge has that option as well, though we are utilizing it in “propane mode.”) Anything you need to plug into an outlet utilizes AC power, and thus needs an inverter or a generator (unless you are able to hook up to the grid, such as at an RV park).
The batteries can power our computers and lights for 6-8 hours during daylight, but much less time at night. Especially since they tend to lose power quickly when it is cold.
When we need an electric boost (as well as need to charge our batteries), we utilize a 3500 watt gasoline generator (to my chagrin, but when it’s -13º F outside you’re really not in a place to argue). We learned that we needed to turn the breaker off that included the converter when using solar, and turn it back on with the generator.
The inverter will sometimes beep at us in the middle of the night when the batteries run too low to support AC power. Luckily, the inverter came with a button and wire that can be run inside the house so you don’t have to venture out into the cold to turn the inverter on and off when needed.
We read another blog post that made us think that a standard propane furnace in a trailer might not be enough to stay comfortable, particularly in Flagstaff.
Immediately I thought of a wood stove. My husband thought I was nuts at first, which he normally does, but then he comes around. I humored him as we explored other options for heat, such as a Dickinson stove (often featured in Tumbleweed homes and also used for marine applications), as well as some other propane options. The BTU outputs of these units were… well… underwhelming. I’m sure in other climates, or with better insulation, they work very well.
I can put up with a lot (as you will soon read), but one thing I cannot tolerate is being cold for extended periods of time. I can’t do anything until I am warm. (Seriously, I just curl up in a ball, breathing warm air into my clothes, rocking back and forth. It’s pathetic.)
Unforgettable Fire, LLC caught my attention in 2009 with their Kimberly Stove, supposedly the most efficient-burning stove on the market. While it is impressive, beautiful, and space-saving, the price tag makes it inaccessible to anyone on a budget. So Kimberly was eliminated… at least, for the time being. Bummed.
We stopped by Flagstaff Hearth and Home and spoke with Troy Baker about our project. He showed us the Avalon “Camano” wood stove, which burns at 80-85% efficiency, is mobile-rated, and works well in small spaces (under 1200 square feet).
The stove was installed halfway through October – just in time to battle the freezing nights. A friend from our church generously purchased a cord of juniper for us, and we later purchased a cord of oak. Other friends from our church kindly gave us their seasoned pine in exchange for hauling it out of their backyard (they had just installed a gas insert). The Forest Service also held its annual free firewood pick-up at the end of September, so we took full advantage of that with another friend’s pick-up truck. We ended up with around 3 cords of wood to get us through the winter… or, at least, part of the winter. (We have yet to find out how much wood we’ll actually need.)
Here comes our stove!
The first fire.
Creating the wood shed.
A full wood shed!
An additional wood storage area made of pallets.
So far we burn 7-10 split logs, 14-16″ in length, per night. My husband is much better at wielding an axe than I am. As long as we wake up every few hours to stoke the fire with another log or two, we can keep our trailer between 65-70º F even when it’s below 0º outside.
One fell swoop.
It took me 20 tries to split that stupid little log.
The stove, hearth pad, 10 feet of chimney pipe, outside air kit, chimney bracing, and installation cost around $3,000. Considering we want to use it in our future home one day, I figured we might as well enjoy it now rather than wait. At this point, I would consider it a necessity for our life out here this winter.
It’s hard when we arrive home late at night, after an evening meeting or event, and have to start warming up our trailer. It takes about two hours to become “comfortable.” We’ll turn on the gas generator, crank the propane furnace up, and work on creating a roaring fire. The stove itself takes about an hour to get truly hot, and then it takes another hour for the heat to emanate throughout the trailer. After that, though, it’s wonderful. We hope that most days we can get home around 4:00pm, before it gets too dark and cold. Even a little bit of sunlight does wonders for the interior temperature of the trailer.
Long story short, we enjoyed running water and hot showers for about a month before we realized that it would take an insane amount of fuel and power to run heat tape around our water tanks to keep them from freezing.
Our trailer has a 35-gallon freshwater tank (as well as 35-gallon graywater and blackwater tanks). We used to fill 5-gallon water jugs and fill the tank using a funnel and my husband’s brute strength.
Then it got very, very cold. We had hoped that the heat from the wood stove would somehow transfer to the tanks to keep them just above freezing. We also had installed insulation along the water lines.
But everything froze. So we emptied the tanks and bought a counter-top water container with a spigot so we can have drinking water, wash our hands, brush our teeth, and do the dishes. We shower in town.
I’m looking forward to the warm months when we can utilize our cute little 6-gallon water heater (propane-fired) and lovely shower stall, adjacent to our bedroom. (We had bought a “bathtub” for our son but it didn’t quite fit in the shower stall, heh.) In the meantime, it’s really not so bad. When I’m cold, I really don’t want to get wet anyway.
Our neighbors share garbage and recycling dumpsters as part of a service. We really don’t create enough waste to need to hire anyone to pick it up, and instead take a small grocery bag full of garbage and a shoe-box amount of recycling into town every 2-3 days. In warmer months, I’d like to start a compost pile on our land. Most of our household waste is organic and thus biodegradable.
Again, my husband was scared, but I convinced him to stop being a pansy.
Emptying and hauling blackwater is not an option since our trailer will not be moving anytime soon. So we needed a practical way to deal with bodily waste.
Enter the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. When I showed my husband this blog post, he was willing to give it a try. We had a great conversation piece in our living room at the rock house for a while while we were transitioning to full-time trailer living. It was a bit pricey (around $1,000 with shipping), but that was my compromise at my husband’s request (since I was really vouching for a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust).
There was a bit of prep work to be done in the trailer to accommodate the composting toilet. It came with a small electric fan that needed to be hooked up to DC power, as well as a vent hose that needed to hook up to one of the exhaust pipes coming out of the roof of the trailer. My husband skillfully performed the installation and even created a little base for the toilet to attach to that covered the previous toilet’s drain hole in the floor (which also required a fitted drain plug). He hooked up the toilet fan to the existing bathroom fan wires in the ceiling skylight. I installed a conduit cover over the wires to make everything look pretty.
The urine container needs to be emptied every 2-3 days; just keep an eye on it. The solids container needs to be emptied about once per month, with how often my family of three uses it. We bought an extra toilet base so that the solids can continue to compost in the base for another month before needing to switch it out. The County tells us that this waste cannot be dumped on our land without a septic system, but it can be taken to the City dump.
There is absolutely NO odor. We used to joke that the bathroom smelled better than the rest of the trailer. You can even stick your face down in the bowl (I was curious) and take a deep whiff… no odor. It looks and smells like dirt with bits of toilet paper mixed in it. We used coconut coir with a bit of water to create the “brown matter” base for the “green matter” solids to be mixed with. Coconut coir is very inexpensive; looks like a $16 large block will last us all year.
The key is separating the liquids, which are what cause odors. There is a separate container for urine which is easily emptied. The Nature’s Head toilet is easy to use, not disgusting at all, and I would recommend it to anyone living off-grid!
After looking at the ceiling “mini trusses” while Troy installed our stove, I’m pretty sure our trailer uses 2×2 framing. This means we’ve got about 2″ of pink fiberglass insulation and a bit of aluminum siding and outdated wallpaper between us and the subzero temperatures outside. Yikes.
We’d read about other RVers using straw bales to skirt the bottom of the their trailer so as to not be a “floating box.” Much of the cold creeps in from the bottom of the trailer. So we shopped around and found that we could get 30 bales delivered for about $10 each. I also learned the difference between hay (which animals will eat) and straw (which most animals will not eat); I’d prefer the elk didn’t eat our insulation, as cool as it would be to wake up and have one right outside our door.
The bales are really heavy. We’re talking like 60 pounds. My husband did most of the moving and arranging, though I am proud to say I was able to kick a few into place under the trailer. We then wrapped them in sheet plastic (as best we could) to help protect them from moisture, and screwed wood siding along the bottom of the trailer to “finish it out.” Classy, I know.
We created what we call the “shed” (underneath the bedroom by the hitch), where we stacked up the bales to make walls. We then designed and built a wood frame to keep the walls upright, as well as installed a tarp to create a storage room of sorts. The tarp helps keep the cold wind out.
Inside, we use skylight insulation pillows that look like they’re covered in fleece. We just shoved them up into the skylight holes and they fit perfectly.
It can get pretty cold (freezing, in fact) inside the trailer if we don’t use heat, however it seems to naturally sit at about 10-20º above the outside temperature, which is pretty good I think. (In the summer, the reverse is true. Most folks don’t use A/C in Flagstaff as the daytime high is usually in the 80s. Get a cross breeze going through your space and you’re comfortable.)
COOKING AND EATING
Now that we have the wood stove, we can cook on top of it! We purchased a cast iron dutch oven and pan set from CAL Ranch for about $50 and I have used the pan to cook english muffin pizzas and bean and cheese tostadas so far. When the stove is really hot, they cook very quickly! I’m looking into good stove top dutch oven recipes and will experiment with soups and chili mixes this winter.
When the stove isn’t fired and we need to cook, we use the propane range and oven that came with the trailer. I used to be afraid of gas. When we were little, my mom drove my brother and me past a house that had blown up because of a gas leak. So we always assumed that gas was extremely dangerous and never to be used. Now I light that little stove and oven with little to no fear, and it works well. Just make sure the vent fan is running and the kitchen window is opened just a crack to allow for proper ventilation. Since the vent fan runs off of DC power, sometimes we’ll need to turn on the generator if it’s later in the day and the batteries have been run down.
The trailer came with a microwave that we never use… because we really haven’t needed a microwave in many years. It can work when the generator is turned on. In the meantime, we’re using it to store cleaning supplies.
I hope to build a solar oven this spring.
An apartment-sized DC/propane refrigerator (with upper freezer) came with the trailer and it works just fine. We run it off of propane. Now that we have the wood stove for heat and don’t need to run the propane furnace, we find ourselves switching out our 7-gallon propane tank every 3-4 weeks. It costs around $20 to refill our tank in town.
For those who are considering living off-grid in a trailer, I thought it would be helpful to list a breakdown of our operating costs compared to when we lived in a little house in town.
Water, Sewer, Trash:
Trailer: $10/week to shower at a very nice truck stop, and we pay a $25/month optional donation to our church to shower, fill up some water jugs for our counter-top water container, and drop off our garbage and recycling in the church dumpsters. (We could have also asked friends if we could have done these things at their homes.) When it warms up, we’ll be able to shower at the trailer again, so we won’t have to pay to shower at the truck stop anymore. The coconut coir for the toilet is $16/year.
House: $50/month average.
Trailer: solar panels create free electricity, but when we need a bit more power, we use the 3.4 gallon gasoline generator. My husband estimates that we use about 1.5 gallons of gas per night that we use the generator (which is not every night), so it’s probably safe to assume that we spend about $12-20 per week during the winter, and will rarely need to use the generator during warmer months.
House: $60 average per month.
Trailer: We use propane in the trailer and refill our 7-gallon tank every 3-4 weeks, so that’s $20-30 per month. It will be less in the warm months.
House: $50-60/month for natural gas.
Heating with Wood:
Trailer: 3 cords of wood cost around $600. We’re not sure if this will last us all winter, so let’s assume we’ll purchase another cord or so for $300.
House: $0, since we used natural gas.
So what are our conservative average monthly costs in the trailer versus the house?
Trailer: $40 for WST, $40 for electricity, $15 for gas, $75 for wood = roughly $170/month.
House: $50 for WST, $60 for electricity, $60 for gas = roughly $170/month.
It’s disappointing that our average monthly operating costs may amount to about the same… but don’t forget that we’re no longer paying rent! We estimate that we are saving roughly $9,000 per year by not renting in town; we’d still have land payments and County taxes on the land whether we live on the land or not, and our car travel has increased so that’s an added expense.
We noticed a few droplets coming off the roof-antenna-handle-crank-thing in our bedroom ceiling, so we decided it would be a good idea to check the roof for cracks and leaks before the winter. We purchased a tube of RV roof sealant as well as silicone and went over our elastomeric roof with a fine-tooth comb. We also installed some vent hoods on the roof, that go over the operable skylights and reroute moisture away from the openings. For being a 12 year-old trailer, the roof is in great shape and we didn’t have to seal too much.
One night we came home late to discover mouse turds on our kitchen counter. We bought little plug-in rodent sound deterrents (with built-in night lights!) and put one inside and one in the garage, where we expect the little guy got in. We also bought a live trap.
A few days later we came home late again and discovered the trap we had put on our counter was in the “closed” position. My husband picked it up and shook it, saying he didn’t think anything was in there. Before I could tell him to take it outside to check, he opened up the trap door to peek inside… and out popped a fat brown mouse! He screamed like a girl, which made me scream and laugh at the same time… which made our sleeping son cry while the mouse scurried all over the floor. He got away. We spray-foamed any holes to the garage that we could find, but would still come home to turds every once in a while. We’ve left the trap out ever since but I think the mouse has evolved.
There were some animal tracks in the snow leading into the shed under our trailer. My husband identified them as “skunk” online. We haven’t seen the little guy yet, or smelled him (luckily), but have named him “Krampus” in the meantime.
Sometimes it’s annoying to live in a trailer, I’ll admit. You can’t just push buttons and have things happen – you have to work for your water, power, and heat… and you have to be patient. You have to increase your level of preparedness, such as having extra water, fuel, and food on hand in case of getting snowed in.
But when I look out at the breathtaking mountain views, and enjoy how close (and hardworking) my little family is becoming, I remember why I’m here. The reward is priceless. And when we build our home, it’ll be even better.