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One of the most common questions I see in full-time RV forums is “What do I need to do to prepare my RV for winter?”, so I thought I would share some tips and things we have done to protect our RV systems from freezing, reduce energy costs, and stay comfortable living in a camper in cold weather.
We are about to enter our second winter living in our fifth wheel, and since we bought the RV in summer of 2016 we have been parked stationary in Kansas City (on the Kansas side). (In case you are wondering right now why we don’t just move south for winter, it’s because we are tied to a job here for now.) The climate here is not as severe as some places people might be living or camping in the winter, but it can get pretty cold.
To let you know what kind of weather we’re preparing for in our RV, a typical winter day in this part of the country is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. Usually we will get a couple of weeks each year where the high temperatures don’t get above freezing and the lows are close to zero, but we rarely get sub-zero temperatures. And although we usually get at least some snow and possibly ice, the snow doesn’t stay on the ground for more than a few days.
Cold Weather RV Features
We live in a 2009 Keystone Everest, which is a 38-foot fifth wheel with four slide-outs. It is supposed to be a four-season RV, which means it includes the following features to supposedly help insulate and protect against cold weather:
- Extra insulation
- Vents in the roof to release excess moisture from the “attic”
- An enclosed underbelly
- Heat ducts and vents in the storage bay area, where much of the plumbing system is located
- An enclosed water connection point with a heater vent blowing into the enclosure
We specifically shopped for a four-season RV when we chose our Keystone because we knew we would be spending winters in cold weather. However, some people do camp in cold weather in campers that don’t have all of these features. Here are a few cold weather camping tips I’ve seen from people who live in climates colder than ours or who maybe don’t have all of the features we have:
- Line the backs of cabinets (that are on an exterior wall) with Reflectix.
- Spray the bottom of the camper with spray foam. This isn’t something I can recommend from personal experience; it’s just something I know some people do. If I were going to do it, though, I would want to make sure I didn’t do any spraying that would prevent me from accessing certain systems if they needed repair. An alternative is to attach foam board insulation to the bottom of the RV.
- Put Reflectix on the backs of storage bay access doors.
- Additional tips I will mention later in this article
And here are the things I will be covering in this article:
- The water supply system
- The sewage system
- Heat sources
- DIY vinyl skirting
- Window insulation that lets light through
- Slide insulation
The Water Supply System
Since we live in a mobile home park and are connected to a city water supply, we have never used our fresh water tank, and we needed to protect our fresh water line from freezing. To do this we purchased a Pirit brand heated hose. Some people wrap their regular hose with heat cable and pipe insulation, but our water connection is so far from the city water pipe that we wouldn’t have saved much money doing it that way. We have been happy with our heated hose; it is very convenient and we left hooked up (but unplugged) over the summer as well.
We did have one issue with freezing last year, when the city water pipe sticking out of the ground that our mobile home park was supposed to be responsible for winterizing froze. The only thing they had done to protect the pipe from freezing was to wrap it with insulation and plastic, and the part right next to the ground wasn’t adequately protected, and it froze during a cold snap where the high temperatures were in the single digits. After a neighbor helped us thaw the pipes with a crazy high powered industrial heater he brought from his place of work, I removed the park’s insulation, wrapped the pipe with electric heat tape, covered it with more insulation and plastic, then for good measure I lined a Rubbermaid storage tote with foam board and put it upside down over pipe. It did not freeze again, lol.
Here is the mobile home park’s insulation job compared to mine:
And here is the insulated Rubbermaid tub I put over the whole thing:
The Sewage System
Some people leave both their gray and black tanks closed during cold weather and only open them for dumping, but we really wanted to be able to leave our gray tank open and not have to worry about it. After researching, I realized that unless we were in a climate where liquid could freeze in the amount of time it took to travel through the hose (which we were not), it would be okay to leave our hose hooked up and our gray tank open as long as it could drain quickly without any places where liquid could collect.
To make sure our hose drained quickly, we built a downhill track for it out of cheap vinyl guttering and cinder blocks. (We did have one of those accordion folding type of sewer hose supports, but it was constantly falling over and we wanted something sturdier.) Additionally, our sewer hose runs under the bottom of our RV and is fully enclosed with skirting, so frozen sewage hasn’t been a problem for us.
As for our tanks, they stayed plenty warm, having the warmth from the storage bay radiating through the floor on one side, and because our skirting kept them warm enough on the other side. For people who need extra protection against frozen tanks, tank heaters are an option. However, it’s important to make sure that pipes in addition to tanks are protected from freezing.
When the temperatures dip below freezing, we make sure to run our propane heater so it can blow into our storage bay and keep our pipes and tanks warm. But we use electric heat as backup for when we run out of propane in the middle of the night (because sometimes we are irresponsible and forget about our propane tanks) and because it’s cheaper for us as a main source of heat when the temperatures are above freezing.
These are our electric heat sources:
- An infrared heater, Dr. Infrared brand–we love this thing. It heats our whole lower level pretty evenly, stays cool to the touch, and has a thermostat.
- Our electric fireplace heater (although we hardly used it last year, we have been using it quite a bit so far this year).
- A little ceramic space heater (left to us by the previous owners. We used it a lot last year but haven’t gotten out yet this year.)
Note: Although many or even most cold weather RVers use electric heaters, some people say it’s not safe to do so, and there are horror stories surrounding their use. I am comfortable with our setup and willing to accept any associated risk, but please do your own research and get to know your camper or motorhome’s electrical systems before making the decision to use one.
For propane heat, we have two 7-gallon propane tanks. Even though I tried to be, I wasn’t very meticulous in my propane record keeping last year, but here is a rough estimate of our propane usage for a few of the winter months based on my rough notes. We buy propane either from a nearby U-Haul, which is more expensive (over $3/gallon including their base fee), or from Tractor Supply Co., which is cheaper ($1.86/gallon last winter, and they don’t charge any additional fees) but is unfortunately located 30 min. away from us.
October – about 20 gallons
November – about 22 gallons
December – about 35 gallons
January – about 35 gallons
Reducing Heat Loss
I don’t know if we actually need skirting to keep our pipes and tanks from freezing, but we decided to go ahead and use it just to be safe, and it made a huge difference in keeping our RV warmer inside and preventing heat loss. We made our own removable, reusable vinyl skirting out of recycled billboard vinyl for around $200. You can read more about how we made our skirting in this blog post.
Our windows are only single pane, so we cover them with plastic to reduce heat loss in our RV, and it makes such a big difference. This year I was kind of lazy about getting them covered and we ended up having some cold days with them uncovered, and on one of those days when it was around 32 degrees outside I found that while our thermometer read 75 degrees on our refrigerator, it read 66 degrees after being moved next to a window.
Although some people cover their windows with Reflectix, I have to have light in winter, so last year we covered our windows with a combination of bubble wrap and shrink plastic, and this year I made storm windows out of plexiglass and removable Velcro covers for the screens from clear vinyl. I wrote a separate blog post about my experiences with various cold weather window protection methods if you’d like to check it out. (I also have a blog post about window treatment ideas, if your windows need a makeover!)
Some people who full time in an RV in cold winter climates have problems with condensation accumulating on the windows. Fortunately we haven’t encountered this problem, but for those that do, insulating the windows can make a big difference. Running a humidifier can as well, but just lowering the humidity alone can still result in money literally going out the window (in the form of electric or propane heat) if your windows are still cold, and if you do insulate your windows, you may find this alone solves the condensation problem. (If not, I do have a blog post all about what causes condensation in RVs and ways to prevent it.)
Below is a picture I took earlier this fall of a window I hadn’t yet insulated next to one of my windows covered with plexiglass immediately after I released steam from my Instant Pot; you can definitely see the difference in the temperature of these two windows (if the plexiglass had been cold, the steam would’ve fogged it up as well).
The walls of our closet seem to be more poorly insulated than the rest of our RV, which makes our bedroom feel pretty drafty on cold nights, especially on my husband’s side of the bed next to the closet. In the past I tried taping some extra Reflectix to closet walls to see if it would help, but I didn’t have enough to fully line it so I always intended to do a better job later, but then I heard of some people having problems with condensation accumulating underneath the Reflectix they used to line their cabinets, so I abandoned this idea.
Then one of my subscribers sent me an idea that I love. She found a moisture-resistant, adhesive foam panel product designed to look like wood planks or white bricks. I loved how the product made the closet look, so I decided to try it, figuring that even if it didn’t help with the cold, at least it would look better than the beige wallpaper that I’d always regretted leaving unpainted when we painted our RV’s walls.
I love the results, and I do think the closet feels warmer, but I can’t prove it scientifically. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how I did the project.
Even after putting on our skirting last year, I noticed that the floors of the slides in our living area were extremely cold. There didn’t seem to be a draft, and the seals around the edges of the slides seemed fine; it was actually the floors themselves that were, according to my thermometer, a good 20 degrees colder than the rest of the room. To solve this problem, I went to Lowe’s and purchased some foam board, and we duct taped it to the bottom of each slide. This made a huge difference in the temperature of the floor and the warmth of the whole RV. If I had it to do over again, though, I would use HVAC tape instead of duct tape as it is supposed to be better in all weather and not leave residue when removed.
If we move some place else we may have to improvise some other solutions depending on our new circumstances, but this is what works for us in the meantime!
Well, we’ve had some really cold weather the last couple of weeks – colder than it normally gets in Kansas City, with several nights below freezing and days with highs in the single digits – and as a result we’ve run into a few issues we had to figure out….
The first problem we had was when we went to empty our black tank and discovered the gate valve was frozen shut. We set a little ceramic space heater directly under the gate valve (which is under our skirting), and it was thawed in about an hour and we were able to empty the tank and close it again, no problem. *whew*
The second issue we had was when one of our propane tanks ran out at 5:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day. We had an extra full tank of propane, but when we hooked it up, the furnace wouldn’t ignite. We could hear it trying to ignite every 30 seconds or so, and the fan was blowing, but no heat. I checked the stove to see if we we were getting gas there, and it was working, but with a lower flame than usual. After doing a little Googling, I realized that the propane was probably not getting good flow due to the outside temperature, which was -9 F. We bought an extra space heater thinking it might thaw out the tanks, but it didn’t really make a difference. I also bought some Reflectix to line the door to the propane area, which I discovered was not insulated at all, but while that may help in the future, it didn’t do anything to warm up the tanks.
Finally, the outdoor temperature rose to around 11, and the furnace ignited by itself.
To hopefully prevent this issue from happening again if we get some more extremely cold nights, we ordered this electric propane tank blanket. We haven’t used it yet; I will certainly update this post once I have some feedback on it.
Living in an RV in cold weather is certainly an adventure! If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!