Okay, so the title might be a little deceiving if taken literally. We actually can survive quite well without making any modifications to our RV, believe it or not, but we’re a whole lot happier if we do a few things to make it more conducive to our lifestyle and comfortable for day-to-day use!
We picked up our Trek in mid-February, and have been traveling in it a little less than a month now. We’re extremely happy with it so far, but before we received it, and then again right after moving in, we knew of a few changes and additions we wanted to make:
Solar Panels, Inverter, Transfer Switch, Converter/Charger, and Additional Batteries
The Trek does not come standard with an inverter or solar pre-wiring, but we’re hoping someday those are at least optional upgrades straight from the factory, if not standard issue (can we get a show of hands from people who would love it if they were never parked next to someone running a loud generator again??).
We went with an out-of-the-box kit, as opposed to piecing together separate components, because 1) we didn’t really have the time or inclination to learn the ins and outs of designing a custom solar setup for a motorhome whose electrical system we weren’t all that familiar with, and 2) we knew it would make installation a lot easier on the service center and give us only one company to reach out to for support if anything goes wrong.
We installed a small GoPower solar package ourselves on our Airstream and knew we didn’t want to live without one on our new Trek, especially with this big, flat roof to play with and all the off-grid camping available en route to Alaska and back this year, then again in the southwest, where we plan to spend our next winter.
The installation started with the addition of two extra 6-volt batteries, to give us four total house batteries. There’s no sense in adding a bunch of solar panels if you don’t have battery capacity to store all that energy! The original two batteries were left under the steps in the RV’s main entryway, and two more were added near the chassis battery in the front engine area, right behind the “hood”. While it’s best to keep all four together if possible to reduce power loss from longer wire runs and to keep the battery draw and charge more consistent, this was the easiest way to do the installation so that we’d have easy access to check their water levels, and it kept us from having to give up an important exterior storage bay, since we don’t have that much outdoor storage space to begin with on a gas 27 footer.
Three 160-watt rigid solar panels. We haven’t put them on tilting arms yet and aren’t sure if we will, but that’s an option if we find we aren’t getting enough light in a fixed, flat position. By placing two lengthwise and one widthwise, we were able to leave room to walk up there to clean them, avoid the worst of the shadows from other stuff on our roof, and also to capture more of the available light if we aren’t parked in the optimal position with the sun’s movement (okay, the earth’s movement in relation to the sun, but you know what I meant) during the day.
A 30-amp digital solar controller with a “boost” mode that allows us to force a little extra solar energy into the batteries to top them off in a shorter period of time, like capturing the last rays in the evening before sunset. It’s not the most advanced controller on the market, but we find it’s doing the job.
A 3000-watt pure sine wave inverter with an indoor remote. It’s pretty silly to have a bunch of energy stored in four batteries, then not be able to tap into it by being limited to just what’s wired into the RV’s 12-volt system. There is a bit of extra energy loss when using an inverter to convert 12-volt to 110, but it’s necessary sometimes to use 110-volt chargers and appliances.
Since our TV’s, microwave, and outlets are also all on 110-volt power (except for the two 12-volt outlets on the RV chassis), an inverter is the only way to use those when not plugged into external power – other than running the noisy generator. There are restrictions on generator use in a lot of places, and in others it’s just a common courtesy not to run one. Our inverter is very handy for being quiet and green while off-grid, whether overnight at a Wal-Mart, or in the wild. Well, both tend to be equally wild experiences, now that we think about it.. 😉
A four-stage smart battery charger. The charger constantly monitors our batteries’ voltage and usage, then selects one of four charging modes to properly charge and maintain them. Chargers with fewer than 3 stages take longer to charge batteries, often fail to ever fully charge the batteries, and shorten the batteries’ life over time.
30 amp transfer switch (an automatic shore power/inverter switching device). In addition to saving us having to reset the time on our microwave every time we unplug the RV and move it (don’t judge, you know you hate this too!), this switch is also essential for if we install an auto generator start, which needs to detect that there has been a loss of shore power and then should fire up the genny automatically.
To accomplish this, there has to be at least one 110-volt outlet that’s not wired to the inverter (in our case, our refrigerator outlet). A controller box plugs into that outlet and sends a message wirelessly to another controller installed on the generator. We’re looking at adding one of these before this summer, so we have peace of mind that our A/C would stay on if we had a loss of power at a campground and had left the dogs alone there in the RV. There are also interior temperature monitoring devices that transmit messages to your phone that we’re still researching, to bring some peace of mind when combined with the auto generator start.
You can spend a bit less than this and still have a very good solar set-up, but something this elaborate can pay for itself quickly too if you camp off-grid pretty often – we figure in about 90-100 nights of free camping (figuring $30-$40/night for a campground) it could break even. That sounds like a lot, but as full-timers we can easily achieve that in less than a year. In Alaska, we’ll be avoiding commercial campgrounds whenever possible, so it may even pay for itself just this summer alone!
In the US and Canada, a combination of campsite review websites like FreeCampsites and Campendium, and paid membership programs like Harvest Hosts can help you find low-cost and sometimes free scenic camping, even in areas where there isn’t much public land. Then there’s the added non-monetary gain from solar of being able to camp in really awesome places without many other people around, and getting much better views with more privacy than you would at a campground!
Tankless Water Heater
In our Airstream, we installed a PrecisionTemp tankless water heater. Specifically, we used their TwinTemp combination tankless heater and hydronic heater, which also circulates heated antifreeze in lines beneath the floor, that is then converted into space heating by heat exchangers throughout the living space.
We loved having a tankless heater, not just during the times we were hooked up to water and sewer and could take long showers, but also to be able to even take short showers back to backwhile dry camping without running out of hot water, and to save propane when we just needed a little hot water at a time. After a few months of living in an interim RV that had a 6 gallon propane tank heater, we knew we needed to upgrade again! Waiting half an hour to heat 6 gallons of water before we could take a shower or do dishes was wasting time and energy, and felt a lot more like “roughing it camping” than the normal day-to-day living we’re actually doing. That’s fine for one person, or for a weekend or a few weeks with multiple people, but not as much for 24/7/365.
The ARG factory service center was experimenting with a new tankless heater by a company called Truma, who is making their entry into the US market after many years of manufacturing in Germany. We haven’t had the heater long enough to give it a thorough review, but so far it’s functioning well and very similarly to our PrecisionTemp. We’ll be sure to report back after we have some more time to use it. They said they’ll be selling here in the US soon and are building their distributor network. The cost is almost exactly the same as the PrecisionTemp RV-550 model.
If you’re a replacing a traditional tank model or building out a trailer/motorhome/tiny house, we can personally attest to the PrecisionTemp model’s ease of installation and customer support. During the year we owned one, we had to call a couple times with questions, and once because of a defective blower motor we ended up replacing under warranty, and had nothing but stellar experiences with them each time. They even overnighted the part we needed to a campground so we weren’t without hot water for long and talked us through installation on the phone!
At $1100, the price is at the high end for an RV appliance (for either of these heaters) and may be out of reach for many, but you’re investing in a quality product, built to last a long time, with easily replaceable interior components. Adding up the increased comfort, cumulative propane savings, and the time savings of not waiting for a tank of water to be heated, we felt it was well worth the cost and makes our RV feel much more like home. We hope to be saying the same regarding the reliability and customer service for the Truma heater we have installed in our new RV. We’ll be sure to report back after a few more months.
Disclosure: GoPower provided the solar kit and Truma provided the water heater to the RV manufacturer for the purposes of training their factory service technicians how to install them in the future. We don’t own either product after returning the leased RV, and don’t receive any financial compensation for our reviews. We were not paid for our positive opinions – the products just work well for us so far, so we’re happy to talk about them and share the love!
Tire Pressure Monitoring System
A tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) is something that we wish all RV’s and trailers came with, but it’s typically only included on the highest end models, if at all. Tire pressure monitors, usually screwed on your valve stems in place of your valve caps, measure the pressure and temperature in each tire while you’re parked or driving. The sensors send the pressure and temperature data by wireless radio frequency to a receiver in the driver’s area, displayed on a small LCD monitor mounted on the dash. Internal sensors are available as well if you can’t install them on the tire valves.
When you boil it down to the most preventable causes of road accidents, a TPMS is one of the most important safety and peace of mind additions you can make to a vehicle. Many people are busy and forget to check their pressures regularly (ourselves included) and a visual inspection is no substitute – the tire pressure would be critically low before it would be obvious just by looking at it. Proper tire inflation prolongs the life of your sidewalls and tread, and helps your vehicle’s handling and gas consumption. Under-inflation is the most common cause of tire blow-outs.
Sure, you could still have a random blowout after running over something or because a tire failed without warning, but in cases where it’s a slower failure, knowing that your pressure is high or low and that your tire temperature is hotter than normal can usually give you enough time to slow down or pull over, and be in a much safer situation and cause less damage to your RV and wheel than if it were to blow out than while driving at highway speeds.
For those who tow a trailer or vehicle especially, it lets you keep an eye and ear on what’s going on “back there” and know if something went wrong, even when you may not hear or feel it happen. We did our research and several RVers recommended TST’s tire pressure monitoring systems to us, so we ordered one and recently installed it. Their video was very helpful for pairing the sensors and monitor, and setting our pressures and alerts.
We went with the flow-through sensors for easier filling of our tires, and have 10 sensors total – 6 for our RV, and 4 for our Jeep that we tow. So far we’ve been very happy with the TST system. Occasionally it will lose signal with one of the Jeep tires (it is a long way behind us, after all) and we have to move the display around a little within the RV to pick it back up, but it’s easy to use and the alerts are very loud, with an easy-to-read LCD screen, even while driving. Thankfully we haven’t had a major tire issue yet, but we’re pretty confident it will perform as intended if we ever do.
These systems retail for around $300 plus any additional sensors you may need, but if you factor in the cost of repairs to your RV or vehicle after a blown tire, or that you could have a potentially devastating accident, it’s like an added insurance policy. It’s also an easy, non-permanent installation, so these are easily moved from RV to RV or resold later.
Oxygenics Shower Head
There’s not much more we can say about this shower head besides “If you don’t have one yet, go buy one!” Wheelingit did a great writeup here that helped convince us to give it a try, and she even talks about how they modified theirs with a third-party “pause” valve. We bought the version that has the button built in, but depending on the type of mount you have in your shower and your preferences, both are great options to save water while boondocking. It’s also great for washing dogs – it really gets all the shampoo out of their thick coats.
The shower head fits onto the existing handheld sprayer holder in the shower, or in our case, we used one of the existing screw holes and the provided waterproof adhesive strip to both “seal” the second hole and help affix the holder to the wall without drilling another hole in the shower surround. So far so good, and it gives you more angle adjustment options than the fixed holder.
Going from an unsatisfying trickle of a shower that barely cleaned us to a powerful, spa-like experience that actually uses less water than the old fixture is well worth the investment! Just like the water heater, certain things make full-time RV life a lot more pleasant and comfortable and this is one of the biggest ones for us.
Cellular Signal Booster
We managed to get through our first year and a half on the road without one, but now that we’re deep in the American southwest and about to embark on an even more remote excursion through western Canada up to Alaska, a cellular signal booster has become an essential item.
I’m actually posting this blog from a state park campground outside Tucson, where we only had 1 to 2 bars of AT&T or Verizon service without our booster, but 3-4 with it. This has been our first test of the booster in an area with marginal service, and we’re very pleased! We’re getting 5 MBps download speeds on AT&T (versus 3 MBps without it) and 4 MBps on Verizon (versus 2.4 MBps without a booster). That’s not blazing fast, but it’s enough for us to work in this gorgeous location, and we consider that a victory!
There are a variety of options and price points for boosters, and the technology is constantly changing. There’s even a new model coming out soon with an RV-specific antenna! We needed ours right away, so we went with a recent model made by WeBoost (formerly Wilson Electronics) called the Drive 4G-M with a 50 dB max gain, and is intended for use in vehicles in general. It uses an exterior and interior antenna, allowing you to place up to four cellular devices within 3 feet of the indoor antenna, rather than being able to only use one device at a time in a cradle. Since we have two different carriers’ data plans in two hotspots, this is a lot easier than putting each in the cradle individually and being limited to both tethering to the same device. We can each use a different device and carrier at the same time if we need or want to, or have a friend come over and take advantage of our booster with their device too.
Here’s a graphic from WeBoost showing how it’s installed in a normal vehicle. The power cord is 12V, and the flat indoor antenna is mounted or placed somewhere within 3′ of where you’ll use your cellular device(s):
We aren’t allowed to drill any holes or make permanent modifications to this RV, but our method of installation might appeal to you too if you aren’t planning to keep your RV a long time or are weary of making additional holes:
We don’t have an upper refrigerator vent like many RV’s, and our fridge is in our slide so it rules that out anyway, but a fridge vent is usually a good method of running a cable up to the roof on a lot of RV’s and trailers. In our case, we ran the small diameter cable for the antenna out at the top corner of our slide, passing it in through the rubber slide gasket at its top edge, but being careful to tape it to the wall so that it doesn’t ever get pinched too much or cause a slide obstruction. When the slide is closed, it compresses our top gasket just a little bit, but not enough that it doesn’t still fully close or that we’re worried about leaks, since we have a roll-out slide topper above it that offers some protection.
On the roof itself, we have fiberglass instead of metal like a car, so we used outdoor, waterproof 3M adhesive strips to attach a small steel plate the magnetic antenna will stick to. We also attached our satellite radio antenna up there the same way, since the RV didn’t come with one already installed. So far we haven’t had any issues driving with the booster antenna just magnetically attached, even at interstate speeds. We did take an extra step of looping the wire for the antennas around one of the solar panel brackets and under a solar panel wire, so if the antenna ever came off while driving, it wouldn’t fall down the side of the RV and break a window, or fly back and break a solar panel. Sometimes we have the foresight to do things like that! 🙂
The definitive source for information about cellular boosters and what’s new is the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center started by our friends at Technomadia. We joined their premium Mobile Internet Aficionados group to get the scoop on all the latest in tech, cellular providers and more, and it has paid off in spades by helping us choose our technology and data carrier investments more wisely. Technology changes faster than we can keep up with, but these guys do a fantastic job staying on top of it of it with their newsletters, forum and articles.
Safe-T-Plus Steering Control
After our first few days of mostly interstate driving in our new Trek that resulted in white knuckles, sore arms, an aching back and neck, and frayed nerves, we took to the interwebs to see if there was any way to make driving a gas Class A RV with loose steering and a short wheelbase any more comfortable. Even having come from towing a trailer that experienced some sway because we drove a Jeep that had a short wheelbase, this level of driving stress was a new sensation for us, but one we were pretty sure we didn’t have to settle for.
It turns out there are multiple systems for improving steering and handling on most RV chassis, including diesel pushers, ranging in price and complexity. We were skeptical of the manufacturers’ impressive claims, but we talked to our friends Nealys on Wheels, who have one installed on their Tiffin motorhome and swear by it, and we were pretty much sold. Because this RV isn’t going to be ours forever, we chose to go with the relatively simple and economical Safe-T-Plus steering control. According to the manufacturer, “Safe T Plus reduces the “over-steering” effect caused by side winds, passing semi-trucks, and road ruts.”
It seemed to have good reviews on forums and third-party stores, and a call to a friendly Safe-T-Plus customer service rep confirmed that we needed model #41-180 in tan, designed for our Ford V-10 chassis.
We were able to find the parts at the best price (locally) through PPL Motorhomes’ parts store. As luck would have it, we’d be driving right by their location in Houston only a couple weeks later and could pick it up to save ourselves a lot of money on shipping. We placed our order, then set about figuring out whether it was truly a DIY project like the website stated, or something best left to the pros. Turns out it’s a very simple installation if you’re reasonably handy, just a couple special sized wrenches were needed that we purchased at an automotive store, and the ability to work underneath the RV somewhere level and preferably dry for about an hour.
We’ve had to adjust it a couple times as expected and instructed by the manual (just loosening and re-tightening the small bolts attaching the hydraulic to our tie rod) to get the steering dialed in so we track straight, but it really made a huge difference in the handling of our RV.
No more over-exaggerated steering motions are needed while driving in a straight line. Strong cross-winds and really rough roads will still tire us out eventually, but we can now drive one-handed much more of the time while we sip on our coffee, instead of white-knuckling it with both hands and locked-out arms nearly all the time. Every passing truck, pothole, rutted road, and small gust of wind was a challenge before. Not having to correct the steering constantly has also helped us both not to get motion sickness, especially when one of us is trying to work while the other person is driving, or if the passenger needs to walk to the bathroom or kitchen for something. $600 and an hour of our time really well spent! It can also be easily removed and added to a different RV (if it’s the same chassis) or resold later.
These are less earth shattering, but worth a mention:
We added a 2″ memory foam mattress topper and quilted mattress pad that makes the bed feel a lot better and doesn’t really warrant pictures and a description. Even with the topper on there, we have no problem still raising the bed all the way to the ceiling. We just have to be careful if we add extra blankets or leave pillows up there so that it’s not straining the bed motors to squish them up there. We usually leave our bigger decorative pillows next to the dressers, on the steps up to the bed, and keep just our two flatter bed pillows at the head of the bed when we raise it.
We bought a portable RV step stabilizer for the fold-down steps to give a firmer feeling when entering and exiting and save on wear and tear on them. It just manually screws up and down to adjust in height. Just be really careful to never allow the the steps to fold up automatically with it under there, or to retract the jacks and let the RV drop onto it – it could burn out the stair motor or bend your steps! We always remove it first before starting to pack up camp so we don’t forget and start the engine, which automatically folds our steps up.
We also added RV step rugs that attach by springs and clips around our steps. This is much nicer for the doggies’ paws or bare human feet if you’re like us and “forget” to wear shoes a lot.
Because we can’t keep our dogs away from the picturesque windshield complete with a dashboard squirrel patrolling platform, we added some non-skid area rugs to the dash, then covered them with a thick quilt to protect the vinyl dash against toenails. When we’re parked we throw a couple chair cushions on top to keep it all from slipping off when they jump up and down. If we were going to keep the RV for a long time we’d have a custom carpeted dash cover made, but this works for now, and the blanket is easy to wash frequently. We haven’t had any complaints yet from the resident security guards, especially the shorter two!
We also practically own stock in 3M removable adhesive hooks now, including a stainless steel key rack that holds a wallet, keys and more on an upper cabinet by our door.
We added a strip of 3M velcro on our ceramic toothbrush holder, with the matching piece on the bathroom counter backsplash, and have been able to leave it on the counter while traveling without fear. We also used velcro strips on the dashboard for our satellite radio receiver, GPS, and brake controller display for our towed vehicle.
Strategically-placed non-skid rubber drawer liner has been fantastic under bottles of hand soap, select kitchen counter items, and anything else we don’t want sliding around. We even have it under the IKEA tabletop that we bought for the bedroom/office area, and it allows us to drive without moving it, and lower the bed onto it at night (there’s enough room between the rubber legs on the bottom of the bed and the dresser top that the bed doesn’t come in contact with the desk). It works best on our solid surface kitchen counter, but not quite as good on the laminate surfaces, so do some tests before trusting it with anything breakable.
In the shower, we installed an IKEA wire corner shower basket using waterproof 3M strips to keep our shampoo bottles corralled while driving.
We never leave anything made of glass or that would make a huge mess if it spilled sitting loose while driving, just to be safe. We learned our lesson the hard way in the Airstream a couple times when our fridge came open. In case you were wondering, jalapeños from a glass jar do not smell nearly as good after they’ve been rolling around on the floor for a few hours while in transit on a hot summer day!
Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to ask in the comments or send us an email!