After a long several month closing I finally settled my Airstream onto my own land not quite two weeks ago in late October. It still feels so weird to say that! “My land”!
I thought I’d be able to kick back for a bit to relax and enjoy the moment, but alas, Mother Nature had other plans for me. I guess she thought I needed a few more challenges, specifically, the threat of a snowstorm and record breaking single digit temperatures.
Nothing like keeping things interesting right?!
When I moved onto my land late on a Wednesday, I barely had enough time to get set up before dark. I had to work my day job Thursday and would have only a few hours to prep for an incoming winter storm that was supposed to deliver 3-6″ of snow along with record low temperatures. Although I’d been doing a lot of reading on Airstream and RV forums about tips and tricks to survive the winter, I had zero actual experience doing it.
Earlier in the week I bought a 3000 watt generator as a solar power backup. I hemmed and hawed at the time about dropping $800 on a generator and I equally fretted over whether to buy a smaller wattage one or this big 3000 watt one. I finally settled on the idea that a bigger generator that could power my entire Bambi was likely the better choice, but did I really need 3000 watts? It seemed like overkill and I wasn’t immediately convinced of my decision.*
*Not to ruin the story but since I first sat down to write this, a lot has happened and I no longer regret buying this 3000 watt generator!
Believe it or not, I’ve never operated a generator so I knew I’d need a little time to get it set up and ready. Sure, everyone said “it’s easy, you push start!” but I still needed to get oil and fuel in it and make sure all was running. Ya, we’ll come back to that shortly….
Square foam and a round Airstream.
I started my workday extra early Thursday so I could use my afternoon prepping as best I could for the incoming arctic blast. My first task was picking up rigid foam from the lumber yard to try to construct a skirt around my Airstream. The day prior I had finally emptied one of my two 20 pound propane tanks, so I got it filled in town and bought a third backup tank as well as a Mr. Heater tank top heater.
Hey, I figured if everything went to hell, I could huddle outside in front of my propane heater with 60 pounds of propane at my disposal! Seemed like a fantastic hell in a handbasket plan to me!
By the time I had rigid foam, two full propane tanks, fuel for the generator, fuel stabilizer, oil, and an assortment of other things my truck was looking like a clown car again and I was rapidly running out of daylight.
I prioritized getting some kind of insulation around the bottom of my Airstream but quickly realized that its curved body doesn’t really work well with square rigid foam. After a frustrating hour or two I managed to hack together a very bad, very unstylish RV skirt that had a lot of gaps. I did my best in a time crunch but I wasn’t sure it would even work. It was so bad I’m embarrassed to post photos!
I taped it all together with metal duct tape, which would pull off cleanly and hopefully not leave a residue. There was no way this skirt would hold up in wind so I was relieved the wind forecast looked fairly calm.**
**Ok yeah, there’s yet another post coming shortly about that…
By the time I was done it was already dark, I was hungry, out of energy, and I had yet to unbox my generator. I threw my hands up. “F*** it, ” I said. “I’ll deal with the rest tomorrow. I can only do so much.”
Instead, I put the tank top heater on my extra propane tank, whipped up a quick dinner, and took some much needed time to sit back with a beer and relax in front of the propane heater.
Damn I was glad I bought this thing!
It was only my 2nd night on the property and so far I felt like I had gotten no breaks.
A night of worry.
I went to bed that night quite nervous about what the next few days of freezing temperatures and snow would bring. I had prepped as much as possible but it was a big unknown. I wasn’t really worried that I could keep myself and Hudson warm—I had tons of blankets and a subzero sleeping bag.
I was worried about the Airstream.
What if something froze? What if I burst a pipe? I’m 4 hours from the nearest Airstream dealership and finding contractors here in the Methow is already a challenge.
It wouldn’t be good, that was certain.
Many people told me to get a space heater, but, the only power I have on my land right now are the two batteries in my Airstream, a solar panel, and a generator. Everything I read online said the real trick to keeping your pipes from freezing in an Airstream is to keep the furnace on a low setting. All the pipes are above floor level and the ducted furnace keeps warm air on everything important.
Though the furnace is propane it still needs battery power to operate the blower that circulates warm air but it seemed simple: set the furnace on a low setting and hope the batteries kept it going overnight!
I did the math on furnace amperage and it seemed like reasonably charged batteries should do just fine, but in my experience, theory doesn’t always equal reality. Sure, I could run my generator, but running a generator, even a quiet one, all night long wasn’t really my idea of a peaceful evening on my land and honestly, seemed not very sustainable to me.
I hoped my batteries would do the job and lied awake for hours thinking through everything in my head.
“What in the world are you thinking? Why didn’t you go to the RV park in town where you’d have full power and services?”
“Because here I have a pole barn shelter. And my own land. It’s sunnier and warmer at this end of the Valley. I’ll be fine. It’s only a few days. It’ll teach me if I can survive the winter in an RV. I have a generator, I’m fine!”
“Ya, but what if your batteries don’t keep the furnace running all night? What if you have to run the generator all night? What if you don’t get it running? You have a generator you’ve never used and don’t even have ready yet!”
“I’ll figure it out!”
“What if you don’t? What if you try to start it and you get nothing?”
“Then I’ll drain all the RV tanks and go into town and find a rental.”
“But then what? What if the pipes freeze in your Airstream and burst? Then you have a whole new expensive problem.”
“I have a generator, worse case I’ll just run it all day.”
“Ya, a generator you’ve never used and don’t even have ready yet!”
At some point I eventually gave up and went to sleep.
Waking up to a winter wonderland.
The next morning I awoke to the beautiful sight of falling snow! My batteries successfully kept the furnace running off and on all night, but temperatures hadn’t yet gotten really cold. Hudson and I took a fun romp outside before I retreated back to the Airstream to start my work day. As the snow increased, I knew the sun wouldn’t help me today and I needed to get the generator fired up to charge the batteries and keep the furnace going though the day and into a much colder night.
Let’s just say that the middle of a snowstorm is not a fine time to pull out the directions and hope to hell your generator works. I began filling oil using the funnel provided in the generator kit, but the angle of the funnel was so shallow it was tough to tell if the oil was moving slowly because of the freezing temperatures or if it was full and overflowing. I kept stopping to check the dipstick, but that only resulted in more spilled oil.
Hello, Exxon Valdez.
I was convinced if I ever did get the generator fired up I’d probably have a generator fire.
“Damn it” I told myself. “Why didn’t you do this yesterday when it wasn’t such an emergency?”
“Well, because I can only do so much in a day, silly” I retorted.
I’ve become a master at talking to myself these days.
I put in a half quart of oil, which most people online said was enough for this generator and I’m pretty sure the dipstick looked full, but it was impossible to see in this lighting. I cleaned up as much oil from the inside of the generator as I could.
Apparently generators prefer ethanol-free fuel, which isn’t the fuel you get at gas stations. I had no time to track that down so I picked up high octane fuel at the gas station. I was told to add a fuel stabilizer and it would be fine.
I read the directions. Oh, you’re supposed to put the stabilizer in the fuel when you get it at the gas station. F***. Well, I just got the gas yesterday so I’m sure it’s fine, right?
The directions said that one ounce of stabilizer treats up to 2.5 gallons of fuel. Brilliant! I had a 2.5 gallon fuel container. But how much was one ounce? Not like I have little fuel stabilizer ounce glasses sitting around.
Ok, the container was 4 ounces. I figured out what looked like a quarter of the container, poured it into the generator fuel tank and figured when I poured in the fuel it would mix up, right?
Right! Sounded good to me!
Now the only trick was figuring out how in the world this gas can cap works! OH MY GOD why is everything in the world so child proof!? The gas cans I used in my youth weren’t like this. You just poured.
At this point, I’m sure I’ve never googled “how to” more in my life than this moment.
Start my Predator generator. Mix fuel stabilizer with fuel. Pour fuel out of a gas can. Survive in an Airstream in a snowstorm.
How much is an ounce?
Oh, then the best part: I needed to install the battery that controlled the push button start on the generator. I flipped through the instructions. Nothing. I looked outside and the snow was dumping.
“You need to get this generator running” I told myself.
I flipped through the instruction manual again. Are you kidding me? Instructions for everything but installing the battery. It said: “install the battery.” At this point the snow was coming down hard, my fingers were freezing, and I was convinced this was not going to end well.
I opened the battery compartment. Ok, this is simple. Wire up the positive and negative terminals. I’ve worked on cars and consider myself fairly mechanically inclined, but I hate working with batteries.
“Ok wait, I have fuel in this thing. And oil. What if I wire them wrong and something sparks? Do you connect negative or positive first? Oh shit I have no idea what the hell I’m doing….”
And of course, the battery terminals were like the tiniest little terminals known to man that required me to take off my gloves and further freeze my fingers. I gotta say, most of the time I love the reward and challenge of being a one-woman show. This was not one of those times.
I pulled out my phone and Facetime’d a few friends. “Hey! Is this battery hooked up right? Am I going to fry my generator? Myself?”
It seemed unanimous from friends that I had done ok and so the moment finally came. I closed my eyes and pushed the start button on my generator.
It cranked and nothing.
“Noooooooooo!” I cried. My heart sank. “C’mon generator….. pleeeeeeeease!” I knew my ability to survive the day and possibly even the next few days relied wholly on this generator.
Then I realized I was pushing start with the generator still in “off” mode.
I turned the dial to “start”. Pushed the button and held my breath again. The engine fired and lurched to life.
I slowly turned the knob to “run” and voila, just like that, it was running! I’m sure if the few neighbors I have saw me dancing under the pole barn they were probably thinking “what in the world.”
“Hmmm, now what do I do? Do I just plug my Airstream in? Will I electrocute myself?”
Everything said to start the generator first, then plug in the load, so I grabbed my Airstream power cord and plugged it in. Nothing bad happened, the generator was cranking away, so I ran back inside.
My microwave display was on and it looked like I was on full shore power. Yahoo!!! I turned the furnace up to 60, plugged in all my electronics, and marveled at the fact that I was now on full power with use of all my outlets and as much heat as I wanted.
The funny reality was that even with my furnace going, refrigerator coming on intermittently, all my lights on and electronics plugged in, the generator wasn’t breaking a sweat. Now my new worry was whether I was generating enough of a load. New generators are supposed to have a break in period that doesn’t exceed 75% or so of their wattage, but it’s also not good to run them at nearly idle.
Every time I thought I had squashed one worry I created a new one. Good grief.
Enjoying the snow.
I busted out my coffee maker, thank you 3000 watt generator! I took work calls while enjoying fresh coffee and watching the snow. Over the next few hours the snow fell heavier and heavier until there was a few inches by afternoon. It was pretty amazing sitting inside my little Airstream watching the beautiful winter wonderland outside.
On my own land!!!
I ran my generator for about 4 hours, then turned it off. Although I could hear it was running, I was impressed by how quiet it was. Most of the time I barely heard it above the sound of the furnace, but still, it wasn’t as great as my silent solar power.
That night I set my furnace at the lowest setting, 50, and tried to go to sleep. The lows were forecast in the 20s but not as cold as they were going to get the next few nights. I crossed my fingers I wouldn’t wake up with dead batteries or frozen pipes.
Between getting used to the sound of the furnace coming on and off all night and worrying about my batteries and frozen pipes I admit that I had a second night of horrible sleep. I’m sure I got up to check my battery voltage at least 10 times through the night.
In the morning, neither me or the pipes had frozen and both the furnace and batteries were still cranking along. I peeked out my window and Mount Gardner glistened in the sunrise with gorgeous new snow! I couldn’t bear to get out from under the covers, so I took a photo through the window and enjoyed the view.
Even though 50 sounds chilly, it’s actually a bit warm for sleeping, but unfortunately my furnace doesn’t have a lower setting. Once you’re up though, 50 is chilly! I’ve never been so happy to see the sun rise over the mountains behind me. The solar panels started doing their thing and the Airstream warmed quickly.
It’s said that solar panels are even more productive in cold temperatures and with the incredible solar explosure on my land, my batteries were fully recharged by 2-3pm. I told myself I needed a bigger battery bank. While the sun was up, Hudson and I explored our winter wonderland and I spent the day cleaning out a portion of the grain silo so I could use it for temporary storage and get some of my things out of the elements. It was a good way to make the sunny 35° day seem an awful lot warmer.
While the cover of the pole barn was fantastic I still had a lot of wet boots, wet clothes, and a damp dog. My laptop and electronics were not happy with the cold temps, even with the Airstream furnace on low, and it was tough to dry wet gloves and clothes without a dryer.
It was my first taste of RV living in winter and for the first time, my little 19′ Bambi seemed awfully small.
I tried to use my batteries sparingly until nightfall, saving them for running the furnace overnight. Before it was dark I closed all my blackout curtains and blinds to keep in as much heat in as I could. Once the sun went down it got cold fast and I heaped on the blankets.
By the third night, Sunday evening, I was finally understanding how much propane, fuel, and energy it takes to stay warm all day and night in these kind of temperatures. Though the weekend was spectacularly beautiful, it was a very small taste of what I had signed myself up for, trying to live in an Airstream in the winter, let alone on a property with no power.
I was so worn out that day from everything that I only wanted to stretch out in front of a fireplace. Well, I did the next best thing. After doing a fun project to install my geeky new weather station in my field, I fired up my Mr. Heater propane heater and sat in front of it for a few hours, enjoying the peaceful quiet and the gorgeous mountains.
It was perfect.
I was so tired that I went to bed exceptionally early Sunday. In the silence, I slept more soundly than I had in days. Sometime around 6am I woke up and realized that although I was warm under my blankets, the reason it was so silent was because I had forgotten to turn on the furnace. Hudson was curled up next to me half under the blankets because it was freezing in the Airstream.
“Oh shit!” I thought! “The furnace!”
All of my windows were coated in ice on the inside. I fully expected something had burst. The console on my brand new weather station told me the outside temperature was 16 and inside? 24. Shit.
I jumped up and turned on the furnace. No way was I touching anything else until it had warmed up. Everything was cold but still intact and luckily the furnace fired right up. It took a full hour of continuous running to get the temps back up to 50.
A glimpse of the future.
Maybe I dodged a bullet that night. Or maybe the Airstream and it’s newer PEX plumbing is more durable than I think. No matter how much I read online, everyone has an opinion about the conditions required to freeze RV pipes. Some people say pipes only freeze when below freezing for more than 24 hours. Others say you can burst pipes overnight. Some say the newer PEX plumbing is unlikely to burst. Some say Airstreams are great in winter. Others say they’re not.
Though the cold weather only lasted a long weekend into the beginning of the following week and daytime highs were above freezing, it was a cold glimpse into the reality of my future. It only took a few days before I admitted to myself that perhaps I was ill-equipped to spend winter in an Airstream in the Methow, especially without shore power. Maybe this time I really had bitten off more than I could handle.
What would happen when the Methow got really cold? Like sub-zero cold? Sure, my batteries were keeping up to the challenge and I had a solar panel and generator but would I have enough power and fortitude to make it through December, January, and February?
“This is crazy” I told myself. Hook up and go to Yuma, Arizona while you still can! You can work from anywhere. Why are you planning to freeze here in the Methow all winter? Having a house is one thing, but an RV? Good grief girl, what are you thinking?
Perhaps though, I thought, this early season cold snap was sent my way to give me some experience and time to prepare. Just maybe it was a gift from Mother Nature. I won’t deny that seeing my own land under the beautiful cover of snow was incredible. I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be.
I figured out pretty fast my weak spots and where the Airstream needed more insulation. There was no question I needed to improve my RV skirt, get some nighttime insulation for the windows, stockpile propane and fuel, and rely on my generator when necessary.
The biggest lesson? No matter how much I prepare, there really is no way to know what will happen in the next few months. There’s something both equally refreshing and terrifying about that. Will winter be mild? Harsh? It’s not up to me.
This new life truly is day to day. Though every day seems to bring a new challenge I still have to take the time to sit back, enjoy the journey, and see what comes next. Every day that I feel overwhelmed becomes the next day where I feel empowered. Maybe I’ll soon get temporary power and a well on my land. Maybe I get neither and end up at the RV park in town. Maybe I end up in Yuma, Arizona.
Something tells me though that I’ll likely be right here, under my pole barn, making it up as I go, taking the good with the bad.
And I might just set a new record for googling “how to” while I’m at it.