While I was optimistic I might be able to survive the entire winter completely off-grid on my land in my Airstream, I’ve spent enough winters in the Methow to know the possibility was slim. So far, aside from some early wind and weather challenges, off-grid living had been going surprisingly well. The late fall had also been fairly mild. I knew it was only a matter of time before winter showed her true colors.
Indeed, a near week of subfreezing weather finally came knocking in mid-December and with it came a whole new set of challenges which I talk about below. The temperatures did eventually rebound into the 40s last weekend but then I saw the forecast for Christmas week and beyond: freezing rain, several inches of snow, and sustained subfreezing temperatures.
I knew I couldn’t “outpower” the weather with my two little 12V Interstate batteries. The time had finally come to face reality and say goodbye to my land for winter.
Last Saturday I took advantage of clear roads and weather and very reluctantly pulled up the stakes. I’m now 13 miles away at the cozy Pine Near RV Park in Winthrop, riding out the rest of winter on luxurious full hookups. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years and had already talked to the friendly owner a few months back. She knew I’d eventually roll in.
It was pretty damn hard to leave my land, especially when Gardner gave me a fantastic morning show the last day. At the time I wrestled with the decision and couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Once I got settled though? Well, I’ve already been here at the RV park a full week today and with the gift of hindsight, as well as the gift of 30 amps of power, a septic hookup, and all the water I need, I know I made the right decision.
And we did indeed get freezing rain and a ton of new snow, so towing in this weather would have been a challenge.
It was the right time.
I won’t lie, being on full hookups has never before felt like such 5 star luxury living! The furnace is cranked, I sometimes lie in bed watching a movie, I can take hot Airstream showers again, and there’s no more power rationing. I’m free to just have fun this winter and indeed, that’s exactly what Hudson and I have been doing!
So here are some of the fun stories from my last two weeks of off-grid living that involve exploding water, Bigfoot horror, frozen septic valves, failing batteries and crashed drilling rigs. Ya, it’s been a doozy.
6 gallon ice cubes.
While I’ve had no problem keeping the Airstream’s onboard freshwater tank from freezing thanks to the ducted furnace, I did suddenly have a problem keeping my water stockpile from freezing.
After one particularly cold night in early December I went to the grain silo to grab two 6-gallon containers of water and found them both frozen solid. In fact, all 50 gallons of my stockpiled water was frozen.
I thought perhaps the containers would thaw in the sun, so on the next sunny day I set them out by the Airstream. It was a good plan until I completely forgot about them and went to bed. That night was another cold one and sometime around 3am I was scared awake by a loud BANG. Even Hudson got up and started barking. It sounded like something blew up into the side of the Airstream.
I panicked, thinking I had burst a pipe or something equally bad. I should also mention that I was right in the middle of reading Max Brooks new book Devolution, which is basically a World War Z horror novel but with Bigfoot. I flipped on the lights and looked around but there was no way in hell I was going outside to investigate at 0-dark-thirty in single digit temps after reading about Bigfoot massacres. Good God.
I went back to bed, fearing the worst.
The next morning I found the cause of the “explosion”. One of my 6 gallon water containers had ruptured and blown up into the side of the Airstream. Oops. The Bambi now has her first little dent. I was relieved it wasn’t a Bigfoot attack.
I suddenly came to terms with the idea that I’d have to start filling my water on demand rather than stockpiling and that wasn’t exactly convenient. A freezing water stockpile was something I hadn’t really accounted for!
Fun with septic tanks and frozen dump valves.
Only during winter RVing do you get to experience fun things like frozen dump valves. Since being on my land I had a local septic company coming out every two weeks to service my tanks. The thing is, they were never really full at two weeks, so in early December I got daring and decided to go three. Plus I figured they’d be less likely to freeze when full than when not.
It was a good plan, until I hit 100% on both my gray tank and black tank two days before the septic company was scheduled to visit. Doh.
Figuring out how far you can go with full tanks in an RV is sort of like figuring out how far you can go with an empty gas tank in your car. It’s a bit anxiety-inducing.
At any rate, the septic company finally stopped by while I was out on an errand. Later I got a voicemail: “Hey! Our guys stopped by but they weren’t able to get your dump valves open. I think they’re frozen. I hope your tanks aren’t frozen.”
Oh shit. Oh frozen shit.
Is my black tank a gigantic poopsicle?
They told me to perhaps pour some hot water into the tanks and try to put a heater near the valves and they’d come back. Hmmm, the problem is that I had no more room to put anything in my tanks. They were completely FULL.
Oh my god what had I done. I fretted all day that my tanks were probably full, frozen, and cracked. What if I couldn’t get them dumped? Would I be stuck with frozen tanks until spring?
I ran into town, bought a $20 hairdryer, plugged it into my generator, and got out there with both my hair dryer and my Mr Buddy propane heater, trying to unfreeze my valves. Luckily it was only the valves that were frozen and they unfroze pretty quickly. The septic company drained the tanks and I learned a big lesson. While keeping your tanks full(ish) in winter makes them less likely to freeze, don’t let them get completely full!
Between freezing water and freezing dump valves I was learning quickly that without shore power it’s pretty tough to plug in heaters to keep things from freezing, or even unfreeze things when they do freeze.
Diminished battery capacity.
It’s kind of amazing if you ask me that I’ve basically been living mostly off-grid in my Airstream since late August with nothing but my two stock 12V Interstate Marine batteries. Everyone, and I mean everyone, told me to upgrade to Lithium or AGM or 6V golf cart batteries. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about RV living it’s that tons of people have free advice yet very few have actually ever spent time in winter conditions. Like, very few.
I didn’t upgrade my batteries because I wanted to learn more about my power needs so I could eventually make the most educated, economical choice for me. Stock batteries are also easy to find and cheap to replace. I’ve been reading a ton about batteries since August. While I don’t have a battery PhD quite yet, I’ve learned a lot, especially about batteries in cold weather, which I’ll quickly detail below.
Cold weather and freezing. Fully charged batteries won’t freeze until nearly 100 below but at a half charge, a lead acid battery can freeze at -10. If it does, it’s toast. While AGM are less susceptible to freezing, they are still in the same boat.
Cold weather and capacity. Perhaps most importantly, all lead acid batteries will suffer a drop in capacity when temperatures get below freezing and it can be as much as 50% when temperatures dip to 0. That includes AGM batteries as well. Since the rule of thumb is to not discharge your batteries below 50%, that doesn’t leave a lot of capacity in cold weather.
The trick with lithium batteries. While lithium batteries are indeed much more expensive and much more performant at colder temperatures the thing that people fail to tell you is that you must store them in above freezing temperatures. Charging them in below freezing temperatures damages them and that’s a costly mistake.
Battery heaters. Lots of places make battery heaters, which are great for cold weather, but they require a power source and therein lies the problem. If you’re boondocking in cold weather, that’s when you need them and that’s when you’re far less likely to have the power for them.
With my batteries out on the tongue of my RV, even insulated, they were exposed to the elements and once I got into extended freezing weather I saw a significant drop in capacity.
I had been easily able to keep my furnace running off and on for about 12-13 hours while maintaining a 70% charge or more on my batteries. As temperatures got colder I was struggling to run the furnace from 10pm-6am without my batteries dipping below 50%. My solar charge controller told me I was getting about 20-25 usable amps out of my batteries, a huge dip from the 50-60 I was getting before.
I thought about tying in two more batteries for more capacity but at this point it felt like a game of diminishing returns. Between batteries, freezing water, and freezing septic valves, well, it was time to call it.
And the last story about a crashed drill rig?
Since June I’d been in contact with a well drilling company and the one thing I hoped to complete on my land this year was getting a water well. After months of waiting, the day before I hitched up to head to the RV park the well drillers finally stopped by. They had at long last finished a job in Winthrop and were bringing the drilling rig to my land that afternoon.
“Just maybe you’ll get your well for Christmas” they said, but then joked that first they had to get their drilling rig safely down a mountain in Winthrop on icy roads.
I figured it was Murphy’s Law they’d show up right as I was about to leave. I told myself I’d come back with my truck, my propane heater, and my laptop and hang out while they got the well drilled.
Not to worry, two hours later I threw that idea out the window. They called me back to let me know that they had indeed run their drilling rig, trailer, and all their equipment off the side of the mountain in Winthrop. Luckily no one was hurt, but they certainly wouldn’t be on my land that weekend or probably even this year.
Of course I finally had the well drillers ready to go and they ran their off equipment off a mountain. If that so far doesn’t sum up how the land development is going, I don’t know what does!
But you know, all I could do was be happy that no one was hurt. Hopefully I can get my well in spring and until then, well, I’m enjoying 5 star living with power, water, and all the heat I could want!
Without all the overhead of off-grid living, what have Hudson and I been up to? Here’s a quick summary…..