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If you really hate emptying the black tank on your RV, consider switching to a composting toilet. Yes, you have to empty it, too, but it’s not as messy or as smelly.
The big difference between the composting toilet and a system that uses water is that urine and solid waste are collected separately in the composting toilet. That means the results are not as offensive.
You won’t have to use your black tank at all.
Composting toilets are safe—so safe that they are installed in many national parks. Solid waste in small quantities is treated much the same as disposable diapers, and urine, if disposed of properly, is not considered hazardous.
A good composting toilet costs about $950 and up.
Installing a Composting Toilet
No water hookup is needed for the toilet itself because it doesn’t use water. A composting toiler just sits on the floor, without the need to connect to water, waste outlets or even the floor. You will need an electrical outlet to run the toilet’s small fan, and you will need to drill through a surface of your camper for a small ventilation line.
The biggest question may be what to do with your old water-operated toilet. You can just leave it in place, but that may limit the space for the composting toilet. If you remove the old water-operated toilet, you’ll have to disconnect and properly seal off the plumbing—one line only, since a toilet uses only cold water—and you’ll have to cover and seal the opening to the black tank.
An RV center can supply the parts you’d need, or it can do the whole job for you. Store your water-operated toilet so you can reinstall it if you ever sell your RV.
The composting typically requires partial assembly—unwrapping it from packing material, putting the tanks in place and possibly attaching a handle for the composting bin.
You must set up the toilet for use by adding coconut fiber (sometimes called coco coir) or peat moss in the solid waste bin, hydrating the material before spreading it out at the bottom of the bin. This must be repeated after each dumping.
Using a composting toilet requires sitting. Men and boys will not be able to stand and urinate because doing so would mix liquid and solid waste, which would affect the neatness and purpose of composting. Mixing would create a stench, so children must be trained to use the composter properly.
A plastic bottle collects urine at the front of the toilet.
A larger composting bin collects solid waste beneath the bowl. Organic material, such as coconut fiber or peat moss, is placed in the composting bin to collect an mix with solid waste. For two people, a block of peat moss will probably last a year, or close to it.
Each time solid waste is put into the bin, you must turn the handle to mix it with the organic matter. That’s how odors remain in check.
To be absolutely safe, you may want to contact the environmental agency in any state where you think you may have to dispose of waste. The federal EPA lists state agencies online. Regulations also may vary by park, and by municipality, so check with them.
Here are some places you should be able to empty the urine bottle from your composting toilet:
Dumping Solid Waste:
Solid waste as it comes from a composting toilet is not yet truly compost. That takes time. But it is not considered hazardous by the EPA. Your bag of waste and fiber is the same classification as solid waste or municipal waste. It’s actually not as bad as a disposable diaper, which mixes solid waste with urine and contains more non-biodegradable plastic.
If you buy a vented, extra base (about $300), you can set it aside an allow it to completely compost before dumping. That’s the ideal method.
Here are places for dumping solid waste:
Always read the instructions that come with your toilet. Not all models are the same. And check with EPA regulations before you dispose of waste.
Photo Credits: natureshead.net
If you’re putting your RV away for the winter—or already have—make sure your house batteries are stored properly.
Proper storage ensures that batteries won’t freeze and that they’ll be ready to take a full charge come spring to serve you for another camping season. With lead acid and AGM batteries, you don’t want freezing to occur because battery cases can expand and crack if frozen, ruining the battery. Leaking battery acid can damage concrete underneath and other materials nearby.
Don’t leave your house batteries in place, exposed to freezing temperatures and unattended all winter. That’s a sure recipe for battery failure.
Store batteries in a cool, dry place—in freezing climes, a basement is great. With acid-containing batteries, your storage spot should have an available electrical outlet for a charger.
Befitting batteries with the oldest technology, lead acid batteries also require the most work for safe storage. But, hey, they’re cheap and if well maintained, reliable.
First, clean dirt and buildup from the terminals and battery casing. The buildup is highly corrosive, so wear gloves and eye protection. Ignoring the buildup can accelerate discharge.
Pull off each cap and check the water level. If tops of the metal plates are exposed, fill the battery with distilled water until the metal is submerged. (This is why they are sometimes called “wet batteries.”) Distilled water prevents mineral buildup.
Use a multimeter to check the charge level. It should be close to 100 percent before storage. If it’s low, apply a charge until the battery comes up to 90 percent. This may take eight or more hours. Then apply a 2 amp charge to top it off.
Place the battery on cardboard or wood. Concrete won’t drain modern batteries, but it is cold, and cold is a lead acid battery’s enemy during storage.
Here’s where the high-maintenance part comes in: A lead acid battery loses 5 percent or more of its power per week, so check your battery every month. It should not fall below 50 percent. Allowing the charge to fall below 50 percent can lead to sulfate buildup inside the case, and to freezing and cracking. If that happens, you’ll need to buy a replacement.
One way to slow power dissipation is by attaching a battery minder, also called a battery tender or maintenance charger. It’s a small charger—or an adjustable charger—that delivers a 2 amp charge. A battery that’s close to 50 percent discharged can be hooked to a higher-amp charger—say, 10 amps—for a few hours to restore full charge. A battery maintenance charge can then be applied. Some chargers will switch automatically from full charge to a maintenance charge.
An Absorbent Glass Mat battery is a more advanced lead acid battery, so preparation for storage is similar—but simpler. Clean off residue and mineral buildup as you would on a traditional lead acid battery.
AGM batteries are sealed, so there’s no need to check the water level. They can be mounted or stored in any position.
Use a multimeter to determine the charge level. Bring it up to full charge before storing. Power loss on an AGM battery is slower than with a wet battery, but so is recharging. AGM batteries sometimes can take more than a day to recharge. Read the manual for your battery.
Check every four or six weeks to see that the power level has not fallen below 50 percent. Apply a 2-amp battery maintenance charge to keep the power reserve from falling below 50 percent.
Since a Lithium Iron Phosphate deep-cycle battery costs more than double what an AGM battery does, you don’t want to store one incorrectly. Storage is the easiest of all RV battery types.
Lithium batteries don’t require maintenance—they’re sealed. There’s no checking fluid level. You don’t have to worry about sulfation inside these premium batteries. And you can store them in any position.
A proper charge level for a lithium battery before storage is 40 percent—much lower than for a lead acid battery. A higher charge could result in damage to the lithium during storage. If it’s too high, disconnect the battery from charging equipment, then attach a light or two to bring the charge down.
Like other batteries, they can be kept in a cool, dry place. Unlike the others, they can remain in your RV and won’t freeze. They do not require monitoring or a maintenance charge. Return them to your RV after storage and recharge them then, or recharge them in the spring when temperatures rise and remain above freezing.
Lithium batteries can be discharged at temperatures as low as 4 degrees below zero, but never recharge lithium batteries during freezing temperatures. Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries lose a much smaller amount of stored energy than lead acid batteries do, so storing one at 40 percent should keep it safe all winter without a maintenance charge.
If You Did It Wrong
If you stored your batteries improperly or, worse, left acid batteries unattended in or outside your RV, go back and do it the safe way. If not, you’ll have to apply a recharge intermittently to prevent freezing and self-destruction. It’s much easier to remove house batteries and store them properly, intermittently monitoring their power level.
Furnaces keep you warm inside your RV on cool nights—and cold ones—but they’re not much to look at. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a fellow RVer to say, “Hey, you really need to see our heat vents. They’re just beautiful.”
Not gonna happen. Now, a fireplace—that’s a different story. A fireplace can be attractive on its own, offer a lovely view of flames, and throw a lot of heat.
A heat source that’s nice to look at is always welcome, and that’s what an electric or propane fireplace is. (If you want a rundown on woodstoves, see our earlier blog.)
When done right, a retrofitted RV propane or electric fireplace installation is just as safe as an original equipment, built-in fireplace. It may be safer than a freestanding propane space heater because it won’t accidentally tip over.
It’s imperative that the installation follows manufacturer’s specifications for clearance and ventilation. Recommended gaps between the fireplace and surfaces must be maintained, and in the case of a propane fireplace, a nonflammable wall barrier may have to be installed.
On electric fireplaces, look for a proximity detector. If it senses an object too close, it shuts down the fireplace to prevent fire.
With a propane fireplace, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector and alarm low on a wall, plus a propane leak detector. Mount a smoke detector high on a wall or on the ceiling for either type of fireplace.
When looking for a space for an electric fireplace, try to find out from the RV manufacturer where the optional fireplace would have been installed had it been ordered with the RV. Usually the space is covered by a shallow cabinet. Remove the doors and maybe some material at the back of the cabinet and there’s probably a space for an electric fireplace. There also may be an electrical outlet already installed where the fireplace can be plugged in.
Fuel choice is largely personal, but it may be influenced by your RV lifestyle and whether you boondock often. It also can be influenced by the location you have for a fireplace, clearance around that space, and the size of your RV.
Electric and propane can be used under different circumstances (see below). The real flames that come with a propane unit may be enticing, or they may scare you. The simulated flames of an electric fireplace may satisfy your aesthetic sense or turn you off.
Both fuels are clean, but health issues are associated with unvented propane fireplaces. A vented fireplace, which burns outside air and exhausts gases through a vent or chimney, leaves indoor air healthier.
Both gas fireplaces and electric models come in wall-mount or recessed styles. What you buy may depend on the space you have, clearance, and venting requirements, but as long as you follow the fireplace manufacturer’s recommendations, your choice should be a matter of preference.
Clearance requirements differ by manufacturer, model, BTU rating and fuel choice. In general terms, electric fireplaces need a half-inch to one inch clearance from combustible surfaces, but don’t assume: Follow the specs. Propane fireplaces are likely to need more clearance and a noncombustible lining between the fireplace and wall surfaces, and the flue pipe and surfaces.
A propane fireplace, even with wall liners, can look attractive. A good example is the 22-pound Dickinson Marine P9000. This 8.5x14x5.5-inch vented unit, designed for boats, is used frequently in RVs. It requires a stainless chimney, but the fireplace can be mounted at floor level if needed for proper draw. It also needs metal shielding on the wall adjacent to the firebox and flue pipe. The P9000 is stainless steel for a brighter look. Make sure you get the propane version, not the wood-burning solid fuel model. It’s rated up to 4,500 BTUs and can burn up to seven hours on a pound of propane. With liners and chimney, the whole setup probably costs $1,200 or less.
Electric fireplaces abound for RVs. Electric is what most RV manufacturers install. With no chimney or wall liner needed, you’re looking at $250-$500 in most cases. Figure on another $100 or so if you’re framing around it and trimming the enclosure out. You also may have electrical costs for wiring in and outlet. Still, it’s cheaper than a propane installation.
Photo Credits: rvupgradestore.com
New things come along all the time aimed at the RV market. Some are worthless, some are obviously a great idea, and some prove themselves over time.
Let’s dwell on things that actually make sense. Some make work easier. Others make good times more fun. All are worth considering and can help you check off names on your holiday gift list.
A curved wedge made from recycled plastic, Rapid Jack from Andersen Hitches solves many a problem with having to install tire chains or change a trailer tire. It works with dualies and with twin-axle trailers. Rapid Jack is has a weight capacity of 20,000 pounds, despite weighing just 6 pounds itself.
Insert Rapid Jack under an inflated tire on one of two axles or a tire on a dually axle, then drive forward or back until you feel the vehicle lift. That gets the tire that’s flat or to receive chains off the ground. It’s easier than setting up a traditional jack and cranking it or pumping a lever. Laid on its side, it also can be used as a base for a hitch jack. Price: About $50.
If you hand-crank four scissor jacks to stabilize you RV once you level it, you’ll save time and effort with a battery-powered impact wrench. It also saves wear on your back, hands and arms when changing a tire.
Only a few years ago, you needed compressed air to have a powerful impact wrench. Not today. Stronger batteries and powerful magnets make modern impact wrenches quite good. With the appearance of a squat drill-driver, an impact wrench has more power and more torque, and a collet, rather than a chuck, for holding bits and tools. Look for a wrench rated for at least 300 lb/ft of torque with an 18-20v battery. Make sure you’re getting the tool, battery and charger. Many recharge in less than an hour. The DeWalt Max XR throws in a bag—perfect for RV storage. You’ll have to pick up attachments that fit your jacks and wheel lugs. Price: $150-$350.
If you’ve thought about adding a drone to your RV toy box but shied away from $1,000—or higher—price tags, consider the DJI Mavic Mini quadcopter. It’s so lightweight that the FAA doesn’t even require you to register it. Its four fold-away motors and rotors propel it to speeds up to 25 mph. The built-in camera is mechanically stabilized on a 3-axis gimbal, the best way to ensure that video is shake-free. It’s capable of recording video in 2.7K high-definition—not the highest out there, but very good. Detailed stills are 12MP.
Mavic Mini can fly 2.5 miles away and stay aloft nearly half an hour. That’s stellar in a small, foldable drone. The included controller links to your smartphone so you can see what the drone does. Store and edit video and stills on your phone. Mavic Mini takes off and lands easily, and there are flight tutorials. Use Mavic Mini to scout ahead when you’re exploring, to preserve your activities, or to shoot creative selfies with the help of preprogrammed flight modes. DJI drones are known for dependability. Price: $399.
A paper Atlas in 2020? Really? You bet.
You may scoff at a paper Atlas in the age of GPS, but it provides things at a glance that your GPS or cell phone just doesn’t. Maybe the most important thing is that an old-fashioned atlas works without power, so if you’re on the road, don’t know the area, and there’s no cell signal because a tower or power is absent, a paper Atlas is a valued companion.
A paper atlas also can give a bigger view than a tiny monitor or smartphone screen. That helps if a family is gathered at lunch or breakfast trying to figure the next leg or two of their journey. They’re likely to see more features than on a GPS map. The wider view also helps put things into perspective. The Walmart version shows the location of the chain’s stores and denotes where gasoline and/or diesel fuel is available. The stores also are probably sources of other necessities, including prescriptions, propane and firewood. And the paperback will store easily. So there! Stop sniggering. Price: $11-20.
Image Credits: Dronenerds.com
Portable lights are invaluable to RVers when hitting the trail, relaxing outside the RV, responding to emergencies and performing maintenance tasks.
Flashlights can do more than just light the way. Thy can also signal an emergency. And if they’re the right strength, shape, size and weight, they also can help with self-defense.
Today’s best flashlights have LED bulbs. LEDs are brighter and whiter than older halogen bulbs and far brighter than even older incandescents. They also are more shock resistant, so dropping one on the trail or while walking to camp facilities at night won’t kill your light.
Many LED flashlights have adjustable light settings. Batteries can last for weeks on a low setting and surprisingly long even on high beam. The bottom line: LEDs emit more light, particularly in groups of three, five or more, but use less energy than a single older bulb.
Influencing your battery choice are your needs, budget and tolerance for the inconvenience of recharging or swapping out single-use batteries.
Most rechargeable flashlights with integrated batteries have lithium-ion units that charge in two to 10 hours. All other factors being equal, the higher the battery’s mAh rating (milliamp hours), the longer it will deliver power before needing to be recharged, and the more draw it can handle. Adding convenience is USB-cord recharging, allowing recharging from other devices, battery packs or vehicle ports.
You can still get flashlights that work on traditional disposable alkaline D cells (the big cylindrical batteries) and AA and AAA cells (smaller cylindrical batteries), or CR123A batteries. Those sizes also are available as rechargeable batteries, usually in nickel metal hydride, or NiMH, so you can buy a charger and recharge reusable batteries hundreds of times. Shop carefully for chargers. Some chargers will replenish four batteries in about an hour or less; others can take four hours or even longer. The Energizer 1-hour charger with 4 NiMH batteries is about $35.
Newer 18650 batteries also are rechargeable, often with 1,800 to 3,000 mAh ratings or higher to power a flashlight longer, and 3.7 volts of power. They power laptops, other electronics and even the Tesla rechargeable car—although a Tesla requires more than 7,000 of them. Seriously! Similar but smaller than the 18650 are 16340 batteries. $10-$25, depending on brand and capacity.
Both sizes can be purchased for a little extra money with built-in protection against overcharging and overheating. You can also buy an overcharge-protected charger. The Dottman Smart Universal Battery Charger can charge AA, AAA, 18650, 16340, CR123 and more sizes and guard against overcharging. About $35.
Let’s look at a few flashlights, and where and when they come in handy.
A tactical flashlight is tough and can take a pounding—or deliver one in self-defense. The Streamlite Stinger slips into a back pocket because it’s thin. Rubber over an aluminum body provides good grip and the polycarbonate lens is unbreakable. It has an adjustable beam and a 50,000-hour LED. It can shine up to 6¾ hours on low, 3½ on medium and 1¾ on high. The strobe can be used to disorient an assailant, or it can signal distress for 5½ hours. It’s water resistant and includes a charger. $100-$125.
The Goodsmann Submersible LED Spotlight Model 9924-H101-01 is versatile and powerful, with an astonishing 1,100-foot beam—more than a third of a football field. Its Cree LED lamp produces a blinding 3,000 lumens. The built-in battery is rated at up to 2,000 mAh, powering it up to 8.5 hours on low and up to 3 hours on high. A flashing emergency beacon has a runtime of up to 7.5 hours. A pistol-style handle makes it easy to hold, and a fold-down stand makes it a work light. It also floats. About $150.
Convenient for hiking, breaking down camp before daybreak or performing maintenance, a headlamp leaves your hands free. The rechargeable Black Diamond series can emit a beam rated at up to 300 lumens, with a low setting available. Runtime on high is up to 30 hours. It’s water resistant, so changing a tire or walking your dog in the rain won’t damage the lamp. $15 and up.
Flashlights with D, AA or AAA cells have been around for decades for one simple reason: They work. They have gone through many iterations. Most significant are the change in lamps from incandescent bubs to halogen and finally LEDs, and tougher cases. With the availability of rechargeable, removable batteries, they’re cheaper to operate. You can’t do much better than a Maglite ML300. It produces 1,000 lumens of light on 4 alkaline D-cell batteries and can run for 97 hours on low or 5¾ on high. Smaller Maglites also are available. $90-100.
Two-hundred hours of use from one charge on a lantern is nothing to blink at, and that’s what the Tough Light Rechargeable Lantern delivers. Lanterns are great for campsites and completing work in dark corners of your RV or at night. Tough Light produces 400 lumens, adjustable to 200 lumens for the longer runtime. A white beacon shines for 265 hours, and a red hazard light for 526. The lantern is water resistant to 5 feet. About $65.
If you miss curling up by the fire on a cold fall or winter’s evening because you’re on the road in your RV, you may want to look into real wood-burning stoves for RVs.
These compact units, in addition to lending a rustic appeal, supply all the heat most RVs would need on cold nights—or days.
Having a wood-burning stove in a RV requires certain things:
Wood heat has its advantages:
Wood heat also has disadvantages:
Among people who convert other vehicles into RVs—school buses and cargo trailers, for example—wood heat has proven to be viable, effective and safe. It works in a commercially made RV as well if you have the space.
All wood stoves must have a clearance area for walls, ceilings, floors and furniture. Propane heaters have clearance requirements, too, but those for wood stoves typically are larger.
You’ll need to buy and install a surface-protection kit that has fire-resistant surfaces and insulation to prevent the intense heat of the wood stove from migrating to wall surfaces, ceilings and floors. Alternatively you can make barriers out of non-flammable materials.
If your stove is mounted off the floor, you may have storage space underneath. High mounting also eases loading and cleaning.
RV woodstoves typically are painted with black heat-resistant enamels. Some offer bright metal trim, such as on the window surround on the door, or on other stove details. Stainless steel models are bright.
To see the flames you’ll need a stove door with a window. The windows are ceramic to provide a view and hold up to the intense heat. If watching the fire isn’t important, a metal door may save a few bucks.
Hardwood makes the best fuel. It burns longer and cleaner, so it won’t coat the chimney with creosote as quickly or as thoroughly as softwoods do. Creosote is a fire hazard, so periodic cleaning is required. When you install a stove, check the cool pipe weekly for creosote buildup. When you spot a buildup, clean the pipe, then repeat the cleaning in about as many weeks as the first buildup took.
Stoves also burn pressed composite fire logs. Keep some on hand for emergencies when your firewood supply is exhausted.
Some stoves also burn coal, but be warned: Coal dust is heavy, unpleasant to deal with and can fly with the slightest disturbance, including cleanouts.
Store firewood in a sealable plastic bin or bins. A lid ensures that any insects inside the wood won’t get into your RV.
Woodstoves that are EPA certified burn clean.
RV-adaptable woodstoves are quite compact. Generally speaking, the bigger the stove, the higher the heat output. But woodstoves pack a punch, and you might be surprised at how much space a modestly sized stove can heat.
The Dickinson Marine 00-NEWSF Newport Solid Fuel Heater is extremely compact at 10x8 inches, with a height of 17 inches. It weighs just 15 pounds. It can burn one or two small logs, a composite log, charcoal briquettes or coal for a modest output of 3,000 to 8,000 BTU, enough for a small camper, or for a van, truck or cargo trailer conversion. There is no glass window for viewing flames. About $425. Caution: Do not confuse this with similar-looking Dickinson propane models if you intend to burn wood or coal.
The Cubic Mini Cub measures less than 1 cubic foot and weighs just 27 pounds —surprisingly light for a wood-burning steel stove. Its 6,000 to 14,000 BTU output is best for RVs of less than 200 square feet, so you could use one in an 8x20 travel trailer if you’re willing to burn the stove hotter and tend it more often. These are ideal for space-challenged RVs. About $900 with all you need: stove, wall and floor protection, plus chimney with air intake.
The Summers Heat 1,200 square-foot Woodstove is bigger but still compact at 21x15 inches, with a 32-inch height on its steel legs. A built-in fan more evenly distributes heat. Burning typical 16-inch logs, it can put out up to 60,000 BTUs of heat, more than you would need for even a large RV. About $650.
For a long, unattended burn, consider the Kimberly Mini Wood Stove, but be prepared to pay for your uninterrupted sleep. The price nears $4,000. The Kimberly uses less fuel and produces nearly smoke-free exhaust because it’s highly efficient. The 10-inch cylindrical stove has a 12–inch diameter base and is 27 inches high. It needs just 6 inches of clearance without wall protection. It can heat from 150 to 1,500 square feet on up to 40,000 BTU of output. There’s a small viewing window. The Kimberly weighs just 56 pounds.
Photo Credit: CubicMiniWoodstioves.com
It may seem sacrilegious to some RVers not to have an onboard, integrated generator, but there are several reasons portable RV generator sales are up:
More generators are billed as RV-ready, but what does that mean? As with so many things in the RV universe, there’s no legal definition of the term “RV ready,” so shop carefully.
Some makers say a generator is RV ready if it has a TT-30 twist-type outlet like the one you would find on an RV park’s 30-amp shore-power hookup. It lets you more easily feed your RV’s electrical system directly from the generator, but you can also do it with a quality adaptor. The problem is that many of these generators are really just contractor-grade tube-framed AC units that are noisy and inefficient.
Think about what makes a generator attractive for your campsite: quiet operation, low weight, a decent run time on one tank of gasoline, the capability to generate DC current, and a built-in inverter. A quiet generator is really one that has a decibel level in the 50s at 23 feet. Remember: It’s not just about your ears, but also about those of your neighbors.
Briefcase-style generators, with a handle on top and sound insulation surrounding the engine and alternator, are the quietest. These inverter-equipped models produce direct current—DC power—and use the inverter to turn it into 110v of alternating current, or AC, which is what you get from shore power.
Two more features are useful. The first is electric start. These generators have an internal battery to turn a starter motor. There’s a pull cord for backup. The second is a sensor that shuts the generator down if the oil level is low. This feature could save your generator if you’re lax about checking the oil regularly.
In general, the higher the power rating, the more expensive the generator is, at least within a single brand. Some brands carry a premium and may cost more for a unit that generates lower output than for a competing brand that produces higher output. Honda and Yamaha, both having reputations for quality, clean power, low noise and durability, are likely to cost more than competitors for equal power ratings—and they’ll sell at list price or close to it.
If you’re running an air conditioner, or lots of power-sucking devices simultaneously, such as a hairdryer, computer and a coffee maker, you may want to go with 3,000 watts or more. A 2,000-watt generator should suffice to run a small air-conditioner, but not multiple devices with it.
A top-of-the-line 2,000-watt generator, such as the Honda EU2200i, costs a bit over $1,000. Some inverter-equipped competitors cost $300 to $400 less. Check the reviews online.
A 3,000-watt Honda gasoline-powered inverter generator, the EU3000i, costs about $2,100. You can pick up a 3,000-watt Champion for about $860. You have to decide if a premium brand is worth the price.
Almost all generators have an economy mode to save fuel. Read or watch reviews to determine if the wattage of a generator can run what you want in economy mode. On many models, the generator switches automatically from economy mode to full power when it senses a heavy load, then back down to economy when the load lightens.
A dual-fuel generator, which runs on gasoline or propane, has its advantages. For one thing, if you run it on propane, you don’t have to carry gasoline in a jerrycan—not the safest proposition. Yes, you’ll have to get propane more often, but trading in a tank of propane or having one filled can be a lot neater and easier than having to get and transport gasoline. Generators fired by propane also tend to run a bit quieter, which you may prefer.
The downside of propane: It’s less efficient. You’ll get fewer hours of operation out of a gallon of propane than out of a gallon of gasoline, although propane is at least a bit cheaper. If you think the noise level and convenience of propane refills are worth the tradeoff, a dual-fuel unit may be for you. You can hook a propane line directly from your RV tanks to a dual-fuel generator, or you can carry an extra propane tank—in your pickup truck bed, if you tow—to handle the generator.
Prices on dual-fuel generators, all other things being equal, are less than 20 percent higher. For example, a 3,400-watt sound-insulated Champion RV generator that uses only gasoline costs around $860. A dual-fuel version with the same wattage is less than $1,100.
Ring a bell? It’s probably stamped on the key to the storage compartments on your RV. It’s probably also stamped on the key to the storage compartments on the RV next to yours, and on the key to the RV next to that one.
That’s right: Those CH751 locks aren’t so much for security as they are for keeping all your stuff from spilling out as you bounce down a highway or a trail that would pop a door open without the locks.
The good part is that if you lose your CH751 key, you can always buy another online or at an RV center. The bad part is that anyone else can buy one, too.
Here’s more bad news: RV entry door locks aren’t much better. The upper lock labeled “M” uses a master key—a universal key that anyone can get. The lower lock, which is a deadbolt, uses a different key, but it’s also identical to the deadbolt locks on many other RVs.
In other words, as a security measure, most standard RV locks are worthless.
You can tell yourself that the RV community is pretty honest—and that’s true—but replacing a cam lock on a storage compartment isn’t hard, and neither is replacing a door latch. Doing both will keep out the people you don’t want in your camper when you’re not around. That’s an especially good idea if you have valuables in your RV—more likely perhaps for full-timers than for vacationers, although these days, who doesn’t have expensive phones, tablets, computers and other electronics onboard?
Go online to find locks that are keyed alike to replace CH751 locks. Be careful when buying sets of cam locks. Some manufacturers promise one-key practicality, but they don’t tell you that everyone else buying the locks has the same key code. If keys aren’t unique or don’t have one of several key codes available, look elsewhere.
Shoprvlocks.com offers cam locks for as little as $11.95 each, and a 5 percent discount if you order five to nine locks. Possible key codes are 200—one heck of a lot better than a universal code. The locks offer a choice of diameters and lengths, as well as cam length and bend options. You can step up to a tubular cam lock for $15.99, with 10,000 key codes possible, or what the seller calls a pickproof magnetic cam lock, with 1,500 possible magnetic codes, for $23.99 each.
Etrailer.com sells Global entry door latchs with matching keys. It can match the key to the entry door with the key to storage cam locks—if they are all placed in the same order. Global’s locks use 91 different key codes. Cam locks are about $11 each. Entry locks require buying a new entry latch with matching key codes. Entry latches are about $35.
A costlier but more convenient alternative is an entry door latch with keyless entry. The latches from rvlock.com are good examples. Choose your own combination for the touch pad, or add a fob and open remotely—convenient when your hands are full with supplies, dishes from cooking out or a child. A key opens both the latch and deadbolt should the battery-powered combination pad fail. The company also offers locks for storage and luggage compartments, and a central control for all locks. Prices range from about $200 to $260 for entry door latches.
Cam locks are secured on the inside of the door with either a U-shaped clip that is forced over the lock’s barrel, or with a hexagonal nut that threads over it. Both are easy to remove with the door open.
Check out this video to see how the locks are removed and replaced. You need no special skills and no special tools. And you absolutely don’t need an expensive locksmith. Figure on a hammer, flat-blade screwdriver, pliers and adjustable wrench—all items that you probably have in your toolbox.
Entry door locks come off easily by removing interior screws. Installation is simply a matter of reversing the process. Make sure you buy a latch assembly that fits your motorhome or trailer, since sizes and styles vary.
Being connected is how we live. We go online to get directions, do our banking, shop, share with friends, keep tabs on family, play games, access music, and watch TV or movies. It’s also been reported that teens need Internet access just to breathe, although evidence is merely anecdotal.
Setting up Internet connections in an RV is different from what’s needed in a stationary home.
You probably look for campsites that have Internet access. You’re OK if the campsites are hardwired, although speeds may be slow. If they’re not wired, and you must rely on the camp’s WiFi, you’ll probably be tempted to take a less desirable campsite to ensure a strong signal, but the feed may be slow anyway.
The only other way to find free access on the road is at libraries and some businesses with free WiFi, typically fast food joints and businesses with waiting rooms. That may help you keep tabs on your email, but it’s not an especially secure way to pay bills.
Much better is having your own data coming in or at least being able to enhance the camp’s signal.
You spend a lot of time outside the RV while camping, so the signal needs to be strong not just inside your RV, but also nearby. Here are the things you’ll need to reliably access the Internet from your RV and campsite:
On the road, you can get data delivered reliably to your RV only by paying for it. You can tap that data with the proper equipment, but you’ll probably have to increase the maximum data available. Tablets and computers, streaming services and game consoles gobble up data.
If you vacation only a month or three each year, you can buy only as much data as you need the rest of the year and pay for extra data in the months you travel. You will need extra especially if kids are streaming music and movies, watching TV, gaming and chatting. Extra data also is advisable if you work online from your RV or watch a lot of TV.
Beware data plans labeled “unlimited.” Only in our age of steadily decaying consumer protections could something be called unlimited and still incur extra charges for data—but some data plans do just that. Read the fine print.
An antenna to pull in a signal is often roof-mounted for optimum reception. Omni-directional antennas take different forms, from painted metal to plastic-coated, and sometimes encased in a larger plastic enclosure. Antennas add height, but no more than a hooded fan. Still, you’ll have to avoid damaging an antenna on overpasses or branches. Position an antenna away from other roof-mounted accessories to avoid interference.
Exterior antennas are designed to resist dust and water intrusion from spray, but even enclosures designated IP65 will not resist water jets, so take care when washing. Seal any mounting holes or openings for cables with Dicor or a sealant approved by your RV manufacturer.
Some RV antennas are also a signal extender. They strengthen incoming and outgoing signals. With an extender, you can be farther from a cell tower and still get a usable connection. If you have no data plan, an extender amplifies WiFi signals from RV parks and businesses.
Some tablets and any smartphone can link wirelessly with a password, and many smartphones can also serve as a hotspot, allowing Bluetooth-enabled devices to link through the phone to access the Internet. A separate portable hotspot (often called a jetpack) costs $200 or less. The optimum solution for multiple devices, or if you want an Ethernet connection, is to install a router to distribute the signal from the antenna. Combination signal extender/routers also are available.
Channel bonding isn’t necessary, but it can help prevent dropped calls and buffering while streaming. It helps maintain connectivity when you are beyond official coverage zones—ideal for boondocking. Uploading and Skyping also will be stronger.
Bonding combines any channels on which you receive data to produce one stronger signal that’s sent over your own virtual private network (VPN). So, if you have a cell signal, an Ethernet signal and a WiFi signal, or, say, an AT&T and a Verizon signal, plus a WiFi signal from the RV park, bonding will enjoin them on the network side and result in faster throughput. An example is Speedify. It’s available in one-year subscriptions if you’re full time or close to it, or monthly if you only vacation in your RV.
Photo Credits: weboost.com
Older RVs and tow vehicles may lack some of the newest electronic accessories, including one of the more useful innovations, the backup camera. With wireless technology, it’s actually quite easy to add one.
The rear of a travel trailer is a great spot for a backup camera, but it’s a place not likely to have one. A backup camera will make backing into a campsite and just turning around much easier. It also will make highway driving easier because it can serve as a rearview mirror, displaying what’s behind your trailer.
A wireless setup is ideal for the rear of a trailer—the camera and sending unit behind the trailer, and the viewer inside the tow vehicle. You also can get wireless systems that add cameras to the blind spots of trailers or motorhomes. Wireless range may be as high as 70 feet.
Wired cameras for trailers with up to 50 feet of wire are available, but you must decide if you want to do an installation on that scale. Remember, you would have to wire the length of the trailer and the length of the tow vehicle, plus connect at the hitch.
A wired camera is better used on a motorhome or for mounting a camera to work only for a tow vehicle. Wired units generally are cheaper but take more time to install. A camera on the tow vehicle itself will help when driving the truck alone, and maybe during trailer hitching, but it won’t help you see behind the trailer.
Costs Range Widely
You can get a camera for less than $20, but you’ll probably have to supply a monitor, and the image quality will be low, especially in extreme lighting conditions. Kits with both camera and monitor range from about $60 to the mid-$200 area for wired types, and from about $100 to $400 for wireless, with the monitor size and features affecting the price. Wireless systems with extra cameras for blind spots, useful on large motorhomes and trailers, are available for about $500 but can top $900.
Mounting Method - Cameras can be mounted by drilling through your vehicle’s or trailer’s body, by using pressure-sensitive tape, or by mounting atop or in place of the license plate frame.
Display Type - You can buy separate camera and monitor, camera-and-monitor kits, or cameras that beam their signal to your iOS or Android smartphone. Displays typically increase with screen size, 4.3-, 5- or 7-inch. Some displays replace your rearview mirror, with widths between 7 and 10 inches. They work like traditional mirrors when not powered up.
Sensor Type - CMOS sensors provide a lower-quality image, but they’re cheaper. CCD sensors provide good images even in low or bright light, but they cost more.
Reverse Image - The view looks like what you see in your rearview mirror—highly desirable.
Auxiliary Lights - Some cameras get help at night from small lights. Infrareds are best.
Lane Departure Warning - Another feature not available on earlier model vehicles, lane departure alerts you if you stray into another lane.
Recording and Playback - Look for this if you want a record of your driving.
Backup Grid - Lines guide you in backing up straight. Original equipment cameras typically have this feature.
Instant Power - As on new vehicles, the camera goes on as soon as you shift into reverse.
Experienced do-it-yourselfers can probably handle installation, but bigger wired systems may be better left in the hands of a shop. You may balk if your camera requires drilling; make sure it properly seals out water to prevent rust, and use a quality drill bit from a name brand, such as Black & Decker, Dewalt or Milwaukee. You may have to splice into your vehicle’s wiring with some systems, and definitely for automatic power-on, so make sure you’re comfortable with that. Expect to pay a shop’s normal hourly rates for installation.
We all love the latest gadgets, and more importantly, what they can do for us. Few of us want to live without cell phones, GPS-based directions or rechargeable devices.
There are, however, a few examples of old technology that remain useful in an RV.
Now, some of you may think of duct tape as the greatest invention of all time. That’s probably the wheel, but the silvery adhesive aid is one simple, inexpensive, versatile invention. It’s great to have a roll on hand.
And why not? In World War II, this water-resistant, strong tape was used to keep ammo dry by sealing ammunition boxes. When the Apollo XIII moon mission was crippled by an explosion, it sealed up the makeshift oxygen system that astronauts cobbled together and helped to save their lives. Anything that helped win the world’s biggest war and bring three endangered astronauts back from the dark side of moon has merit.
You’ll appreciate duct tape if a piece of trim comes loose and you want to keep it from flapping as you drive. And you’ll thank the stars that you have a roll if a fender bender has your bumper cover dragging. (People have held bumper covers up for months with duct tape.) It will also at least slow a hose leak.
You also may want to buy a role of quality gaffer’s tape, which is used on movie sets. It’s cloth-backed but unlike duct tape has no plastic backing for water resistance. Gaffer’s tape, which delivers a strong bond, leaves no or reduced residue, making it great for interior use.
Like duct tape, bungee cords are great in a pinch. The elastic cords, with metal or plastic hooks on the ends, come in different thicknesses and lengths.
A carefully installed bungee cord also will hold up that bumper cover. It will keep cabinet doors closed when a latch beaks. A bungee cord will secure bikes to a rack and stop that annoying rattle from a loose item in your storage area. We personally know of a case where a tiny bungee held a loose cover to the master cylinder of a poorly maintained rental truck for the length of an interstate move. Buy multiple sizes so you’ll find a cord for whatever pops up, so to speak.
The days of relying on a CB radio for directions, traffic conditions and plain old chatter are long gone.
But CB radios—that’s Citizens Band, for the uninitiated—can be a useful emergency tool. Most police no longer monitor CB transmissions for emergency calls, but those that do still listen to Channel 9 are probably in remote rural areas. If you’re trying to deal with a flat tire where there’s no cell tower, a CB radio may do the trick.
Electronics rule where road maps once were king. But the accordion-fold paper map, spread out across your table at the local diner, or a good road atlas will give you the big picture one heck of a lot better than your tiny cell phone screen will. And where there are sporadic or no cell phone signals, a paper map is all you’ve got. It’s cheap and takes little space. Keep one handy.
Throw-away batteries are passé, but in an emergency, they can be a godsend. For one thing, they’ll last longer than the power in a rechargeable flashlight. If a mechanical issue prevents recharging, a flashlight with a couple of long-lasting alkalines will keep you going—just like that bunny on TV.
Having a vehicle smaller than your motorhome at the ready when you’re set up at a campsite is a major convenience. It’s easier to drive a smaller vehicle to get groceries, visit a friend, see a movie or venture off road.
If you camp in a fifth wheel or trailer, secondary transportation isn’t an issue. You just drive the unhitched tow vehicle.
For RVers driving a motorhome, it’s a different story. Unless the motorhome is a toy hauler, you have to tow a vehicle. Dollies and trailers can be difficult to maneuver, and trailers add weight—and work. That makes flat towing—also called four-down or dinghy towing—the best solution.
Finding a vehicle that won’t be damaged by rolling along on all four wheels takes work. Only some vehicles can be flat towed, but quite a few are affordable, especially when used. Every vehicle will need a tow bar plus wiring and braking add-ons.
A dinghy vehicle’s transmission and transfer case must continue to be lubricated as it rolls with the engine off. There’s no absolute rule here. Some vehicles can be towed thousands of miles, some a few hundred and only below a certain speed. Some models may be flat towable in automatic and manual transmission models, and some in one but not the other. Generally speaking, an all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicle must have a transfer case that can be shifted to neutral. Take note: With electronically controlled transmissions and transfer cases, traditional rules don’t apply.
Edmunds.com, a reliable site that reviews and lists equipment available on new and used vehicles, says that among the things you must know to flat tow are whether to pull fuses and which ones, what must be switched on or off, how to position the shift lever, and how often you must stop and run the engine for lubrication (sometimes as often as every six hours). In general, ignition switches are placed in the “accessories” position so the steering wheel will turn.
Still, you have to know which vehicles are flat-towing approved.
First, decide the kind of vehicle you want. Do you just want a car that can be towed, then driven into town? Or do you want an all- or 4-wheel-drive SUV or truck that can take you off road?
Then consult a list, such as the list from Motorhome.com, which has dinghy vehicle guides going back to 1990. Downloads are free. Goodsam.com also publishes the list. The 2019 guide lists 65 vehicles, from subcompact cars to 4-wheel-drive pickups. It tells you speed and distance limits, plus what needs to be done before towing.
Talk only to industry people you absolutely trust:
Before you buy any vehicle for dinghy use, check the owner’s manual for that make, model and year. Edmund’s says an owner’s manual will explain whether a vehicle is approved for dinghy towing and how towing must be done. “Check the manual,” Edmunds emphasizes, “then check again.” Remember: Dinghy approval for a model can change from year to year, so get the right year manual.
Owners manuals, even for past years, usually can be found online by searching “year make model owners manual.”
Can you modify a vehicle for dinghy towing? Technically, yes. An RV dealer can do the work. But it’s risky. Modifications may not protect the vehicle’s transmission, transfer case or electronics as the accessories maker claims. Modifications also will invalidate the vehicle manufacturer’s warranty, so if the vehicle fails, you’re out a ton of money.
Many factors that influence tire replacement on an RV are identical to those for other vehicles, but one stands out as decidedly more relevant to RVs: tire age.
Why? RV tires may deteriorate before the tread wears out if they’re old. RVs travel fewer miles than daily drivers for most people, so the tread often remains high, even after years of use. Sure, some RV owners—especially nomads who live on the road—drive 10,000 miles a year. But the average RV owner drives less than 5,000 miles yearly, according to Guaranty RV Super Centers, an Oregon-based chain of RV dealers.
A 5-year-old tire may not show much wear at 25,000 miles, but what kind of shape is it in? It’s possible that a tire with half its tread will begin to show sidewall cracks, largely from the ultraviolet rays in sunlight and from atmospheric ozone, but also from the stress of heavy loads, the heat from high speed, and improper maintenance and storage.
Check the manufacturing date on each sidewall—the last (right-hand) four numbers after the DOT marking. The first two of those numbers are the month and the last two, the year. For example, a tire stamped “0110” was made in January 2010. Michelin recommends having the tires checked when they’re 5 years old.
By the seventh year, or if signs of non-tread wear show before then, consider getting new shoes. If tires check out, keep running them. When replacing just two tires, place them on the same axle at the rear.
Here are steps to make your tires last:
Go by the tire manufacturer’s inflation recommendation. Don’t overload your tires, and just as importantly, don’t underinflate. Goodyear says every pound of under-inflation decreases a tire’s ability to carry 20 to 30 pounds of payload. Goodyear recommends checking pressure when tires are cold, before and after each trip (even short ones), when TPMS indicates a problem, and monthly during storage.
An RV that’s too heavy unduly stresses tires. It also can degrade handling. Distribute contents as evenly as possible to avoid stressing just one tire. Weigh your RV while it’s loaded (and with full tanks) on a truck scale.
Tires wear more evenly and last longer as a set if they’re rotated. Including your spare in the rotation ensures that it won’t age beyond its useful lifespan. Check your RV owner’s manual, but as a guide, rotate yearly.
Tires should be balanced when new or rotated to the other side. Unbalanced tires will ride roughly as they bounce.
If possible, store indoors in a cool, dry place. Outdoors, try to find an area shielded at least part of the day from sunlight. Unload your camper. Inflate the tires to 25 percent over the recommended maximum. Clean the tires with soap and water, but avoid sealants and dressings. Place the RV on blocks if possible. Shield the tires from sunlight with covers. It may be helpful to park on a layer of plastic between the tires and pavement. To avoid flat-spotting, move the RV every three months but not in cold weather. If tires are stored indoors, keep them away from ozone-generating heat sources.
Buy tires similar or identical to those already on the RV. Match the size and load ratings of original tires. On trailers, never mix increasingly available radials with bias ply, which are being phased out. You can use bias trailer tires even if your tow vehicle has radials.
Photo Credit: tcpglobal.com
RV weather seals—also called gaskets or weather stripping—are as important in warm weather as in cold, and warm weather is a much better time to replace them if you do the work yourself. Warm weather keeps rubber gaskets more flexible, making them easier to work with.
You have three very easily understood reasons for renewing weather seals before summer. Seals that are in sound condition:
Weatherstripping is likely to deteriorate around entry doors, storage compartment doors, windows, operating roof vents and slide-outs.
Some weather seals apply with glue, often (but now always) in the form of an adhesive backing on the seals themselves. The adhesive surface is exposed when you peel off a plastic or paper cover. These seals are common on entry doors.
Seals for sliders often are fastened with glue but require an application of liquid adhesive, since they typically don’t come with a pressure-sensitive backing. Some mount in tracks on the RV.
Other weather seals press into place. Many have a slotted surface that attaches to the edge of a window or compartment door, or to an upward-facing, leak-discouraging lip on the frame of a roof vent.
Seals may differ by make and model of RV, but buying more-expensive original equipment seals usually is not necessary. Several manufacturers offer aftermarket window, door and vent gaskets in a range of sizes, styles and prices. They typically have catalogs in RV stores or online charts to help find the proper fit. For instance, if you go to manufacturer Steele Rubber Products’ web page and click on slide-outs, you’ll find single and double bulb seals of varying heights and widths, seals with fins, seals with track mount, and seals with peel-and-stick adhesive, all shown in profile. Matching a seal profile usually turns up a match.
Other replacement gasket suppliers include CR Laurence, Bling-Flagship, Lightman, Minor Rubber, Perma-Fit, Trimlok and Zoro.
For a proper fit:
When buying slider seals, make sure they’re wide enough to overlap or cover the gap between the slide-out and the adjacent, stationary RV wall. That keeps out water, dust, pests and debris.