Cold Weather Roundup

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Spring is here and in Kansas that means Winter is nearly over.

This entry captures what we learned and shared in the 14 posts we wrote about being cold in the Winter of 2013.

  1. Move to the warmest place you can. If you can get above 32 degrees you don’t need to read any further. This is our go-forward plan.
     
  2. You should skirt if temperatures are going to drop to single digits or below for several days. Otherwise interior water lines will freeze under the floor. In the 28′ International this will first manifest in the bathroom. We found skirting raised the temperature under the Airstream by about 40 degrees.
     
  3. The furnace will keep the interior warm and at -15F we consumed a 30lb tank a day. For this reason we bought a 20lb back up tank to use when filling the other two. This removed the anxiety about running out of propane. Leave cabinet doors open when you can.
     
  4. The furnace will not keep holding tanks from freezing when temperatures remain in the 20s or below for several days. The only solution is skirting. The emergency tank thawing procedure is as follows: set up a hairdryer pointed at the drain; pour an enormous amount of salty boiling water down the toilet. This procedure may take hours.
     
  5. Inbound shore water can be kept flowing fairly easily. This requires a heated hose and insulating the faucet. We recommend the Piret heated hose. Insulating the faucet means wrapping it in heat tape and insulation and then covering it with something waterproof since insulation is ineffective when wet. We simply placed a trash bag over the whole thing.
     
  6. Waste water sitting in exposed drain pipes will freeze without skirting. This is biggest single problem with a three season trailer. The grey water valve can be left open provided the sewer hose has a nice uninterrupted incline to the sewer. Ensure there are no bends in the sewer hose run where water could stand and freeze. We did not insulate our sewer hose but if you are in one place for weeks at a time this might be a reasonable level of effort.

    For the black water the only thing you can try is a lot of RV anti-freeze, hoping it will settle in the exposed pipes since it is denser than water. This is an official recommendation from Airstream. Our experience showed this to be ineffective and every black water dump was an exercise (sometimes hours) with a heat gun/hair dryer to thaw the exposed pipe. In fact our bottles of -50F RV anti-freeze actually froze solid at one point.

    Skirting makes this problem go away.
     

  7. We strongly recommend both an electric blanket and an oil-filled electric radiator to supplement propane. If you are on 30amp power you must turn off the radiator when using a hair dryer.
     
  8. Do not tow in snow or ice. Snow is better than ice.
     
  9. Travel with your fresh water tank full. You never know whether water will be available at your destination. This is an all-season rule.

– Anthony, Pomona State Park, Kansas

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How to survive a million degrees below zero

This post was modified from the original on 2014-03-10.

Every so often my schedule contains immovable objects and we just can’t get the Airstream around it all.

So it was this week with a whirlwind tour of central timezone cities. We decided to leave the Airstream and streamer_j in Denver and I am doing my old routine of flying. Much to streamer_j’s chagrin I am writing this from a combination of the relative comfort of the Marriott in West Des Moines and somewhere in the air on AA2302.

The complication for poor streamer_j is weather. Highs in the 10s and 20s all week and lows in the negatives. Airstreams aren’t built for that. Frozen dump valves have plagued us for months. We have muddled through with lots of antifreeze down the toilet and leaving the grey water valve open, but it was still frequent work with the heat gun.

To more thoroughly address the problem of frozen drains I tried heat tape and insulation around the exposed drain pipes. This required removing the sewer hose storage tube (we keep the hose in the rear bumper anyway) which was in the way. Unfortunately this method failed. We woke up to frozen valves. I speculate this was due to improper installation of the heat tape.

So I decided to box in the dump valves with 1″ insulating polystyrene sheets and heat that box with a space heater. While awful-looking, it worked very well. No frozen dump valves and a very toasty box. I was particularly pleased with my tape-hinged door to enable access to the dump valves.

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Nonetheless as temperatures dropped and remained in the teens we started encountering frozen interior water lines, no matter how much propane we burned. Keeping cabinet doors open was insufficient because the water lines are routed under the floor. In our 28′ International this first manifested in the bathroom.

There are only two ways to deal with this: move, or skirt. As I mentioned, moving wasn’t an option this week.

As it turns out skirting is not difficult. There are companies that custom make good looking RV skirting but it’s not a last minute option.

So I went to Home Depot and bought three rolls of Reflectix reflective insulation applied as follows:

  • Tape a line all around the Airstream with non-marking heavy duty blue painters’ tape.
  • Fix the reflective insulation to the blue tape with Duck tape. Just go right around the rear bumper.
  • Use leftover insulation to patch gaps behind steps and under A-frame.
  • Put two 1,500W space heaters under the Airstream at either ends. Connect to 20amp outlets at camp spot electrical stand.

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We are using a temperature gauge with a remote sensor placed under the Airstream. As of writing these are the results.

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Units are in farenheight for temperatures and wind speed is in MPH. We are maintaining these temperatures with almost no propane since our oil-filled electric radiator is doing a great job inside. It’s not cool, but it’s working.

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– Anthony, West Des Moines, Iowa & in the air

Tough driving day

Impossible to walk on. Very bad to drive on. Nr. Lake Fort Smith State Park, Arkansas

I knew things were getting interesting when I tried to exit I-40 somewhere west of Little Rock and started sliding on the exit ramp. That’s bad with a 7,600 lb. trailer. Rain on ice. A lot of vehicles off the road.

Our goal was to get to Lake Fort Smith State Park. Getting up the mountain it was clearly dicey so we sent the scout vehicle up ahead before proceeding.

Impossible to walk on. Very bad to drive on. Nr. Lake Fort Smith State Park, Arkansas

Streamer_j had to abort after sliding to an uncontrolled stop on black ice. After traveling over 200 miles today, we came unstuck in the last mile. That seems to happen often.

Streamer_a then unhitched the Airstream by the roadside in order to retrieve streamer_j from the side of the road and the abandoned Audi from the middle-ish of it.

Impossible to walk on. Very bad to drive on. Nr. Lake Fort Smith State Park, Arkansas

With all people, cars and dog regrouped it was decided to attempt to backtrack down the mountain to the KOA in Alma for the night. The Ford F150 did an outstanding job in 4 wheel drive. Takeoff on black ice, with Airstream, was firm and the descent was controlled. Another gushing review of this truck.

The KOA in Alma has no running water. Incredulous — we are blizzard survivors! — I assaulted the spigot with the heat gun, but to no avail. Lots of exciting steam but no running water. This is why we always travel with a full fresh water tank.

The weather in Arkansas has once again prompted a change to our route plan. A previous ice storm in December had us trapped in Petit Jean State Park much longer than planned.

This time we will depart sooner. Rather than stay until Sunday at beautiful Lake Fort Smith Park, which we cannot get to, we’re going to press on instead and try to get to Tulsa tomorrow.

The video doesn’t do it justice. I need to invest in a Go Pro (please streamer_j can I have one?).

– Anthony, Alma, Arkansas

Egypt to Sardinia

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I sometimes wonder what the scale of our overland travel is in these United States relative to other parts of the world. So to help visualize that thought I found (stole) this map from Radical Cartography.

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I like this map because not only does it overlay Europe and North America but it does so true to latitude, with some surprising results that highlight the importance of ocean currents and landmass on climate. Short story: south isn’t necessarily better.

For example you can see that Des Moines, Iowa, is about as far south as Rome, Italy. Des Moines’ average low in January is 14F while Rome’s is 37F. Manchester, England is further north than Edmonton, Alberta. Yet Manchester’s average low in January is 35F, compared with Edmonton’s 5.4F.

What about distances? In 2013 we drove from New Jersey, to Rapid City to Denver and ultimately down to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and a lot in between. That’s equivalent to driving from eastern Turkey to the romantic city of Florence to the beautiful island of Sardinia and then to somewhere in the Egyptian desert.

Next week we will drive, over four days, from Dauphin Island to Denver. Equivalent to Egypt to Sardinia. We’d happily take the Sardinian cuisine and beaches!

The featured image (the one at the top) shows plant hardiness zones globally and was taken from The Plant Encyclopedia. As a general goal in winter, we try to spend as much time as possible above 32F to avoid having to deal with things like frozen water lines. For that application the USDA plant hardiness zone map is the perfect guide since the zones are based on low temperatures.

Our goal would be to spend all of winter in zone 10b or higher. In the US that’s basically South East Florida and the coast of Southern California.

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Unfortunately this isn’t possible for us, yet. The best we can consistently do for now is get to zone 8a which puts us in the southern half of Arkansas and lows of 10F. Right now, on Dauphin Island, we’re in zone 9a, with lows of 20F.

It’s important to point out that plant hardiness zones are based on lowest expected temperatures, not averages. Averages are generally well above that. For example in Little Rock, Arkansas, we can expect an average temperature of 39F in January with an average high of 49F and an average low of 29F. That’s good enough.

We’d still take Sardinia.

– Anthony, Dauphin Island, Alabama

When you know it’s a bad idea

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The forecast for the next few days is grim. Lows forecast to be something between -8 and -4 (-22 to -20 celcius) depending on the source. But we’ve decided to stay put instead of heading somewhere warmer (Branson, MO in particular). We’re not sure this is a great idea but the roads are dicey. Pick your poison.

Cold weather is a problem in an Airstream. Assuming you have money to burn (on propane), the issue is not comfort. You can keep an Airstream as warm as you like I suppose.

The issue is water. Ultimately water has to come in and it has to leave.

For a while you can live in a closed system. The Airstream has a fresh water tank and both grey and black holding tanks. Two people, living glamorously, can go for a day on the fresh water tank and about the same before needing to dump the grey water. You can typically go for several days – about four – before emptying the black water (sewage) tank. There are extreme-boondockers who can turn a day into a week but we’re not interested in navy showers.

So what? The furnace ductwork in the Airstream has been designed to heat the tanks – fresh water, grey and black. So, theoretically at least, by burning propane you can prevent those tanks from freezing. Our experience in single digit temperatures confirms this.

The difficulty then is bringing in fresh water and eliminating dirty water in sub-freezing temperatures. These are actually two separate problems.

Inbound water is the easier of the two problems to deal with by far. Assuming the campground keeps the water supply turned on, you can ensure the water pipeline remains open by using a heated hose from the spigot to the trailer and a combination of heat wrap/insulation on the spigot itself.

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If we’re only staying a night or two, and temperatures rise above freezing during the day, we’ll usually just fill our fresh water tank and disconnect from the spigot overnight. No big deal and quicker than bothering to insulate the spigot.

Unfortunately outbound water is not an easy problem to deal with. Since the tanks themselves are theoretically heated by the furnace, the main problem is the exposed drain pipes. These are made of some sort of plastic and always freeze. There is a danger of them becoming damaged as a result, although we have been fortunate.

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When (not if) these pipes freeze you must resort to a hair dryer, heat gun or similar. We come at it from both ends and put boiling water down the sinks/toilet at the same time as heating from the outside.

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Ideally though you want to prevent the drain pipes from freezing in the first place. There are a few options here.

First you can go all out, skirt in the bottom of the trailer with some insulating material and add a heat source. ok if you are situated permanently but not really an option for streamers on the go.

Second there are some interesting options using heating pads or crafting a light-bulb based heating contraption between the dump valves.

Third, you can attempt to fill the drain pipes with anti-freeze. Since anti-freeze is denser than water, if you dump anti-freeze into the tanks it should, theoretically, settle at the lowest point (the exposed drain pipes), keeping the water itself in the heated area.

The third option is how we do it. After emptying the tanks we put three gallons of anti-freeze into the black and two gallons into the grey. Airstream suggests one gallon each. We’ll have a real test tonight.

– Anthony, Pomona State Park, Kansas. 25 degrees.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

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. . . everywhere we go!

We are currently in Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas. A beautiful park and I think we have it all to ourselves – probably because we’re in the middle of an ice storm.

We have a knack for bringing bad weather with us. Today we lost shore power around 08:00. Shore water is frozen so we’ll attempt a de-thaw shortly. We call this “involuntary boondocking.”

We’ll be exploring the park. Keep an eye on our Flickr feed.

– Anthony, Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

The exit

We are now well out of the Black Hills and safely tucked away in Central City, Colorado. Some footage of our final exit from Rapid City on Monday is above.

– Anthony, Central City, Colorado