Operational Differences Between Traditional And Sustainable RVs (Updated)

Updated 10.14.16

RVs are these cool mobile enclosures that allow people to travel while not giving up the amenities they have at home. It’s not a surprise that they’ve gotten as popular as they have. It’s cheaper to travel and stay in an RV than hotels – that is, after the initial investment in the RV. RVs now automatically generate one of two images: freedom or retirement. I guess both are essentially the same, but the latter tends to steer the younger people away. Not as much nowadays as it used to.

Before we owned our RV, we were backpackers and primitive car campers. Give us a tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag and we’re set. To this day, nothing can beat a night under the stars. But when we decided that we wanted to live full-time on the road, RVs suddenly became a bit more appealing.

We initially had a lot of pre-conceived notions about RVs. Some of them still ring true and others have been proven wrong. But the thing we were most surprised to learn is that typical RVs can’t actually stay at remote sites for very long without losing most of the comforts of home. They’re not as self-contained as we had assumed.

What's Up With RV Parks?

RVs are made to be connected to an electrical utility in order to run all the amenities on the inside – just like a regular home. Except with traditional homes we don’t think much about electricity until our monthly bill comes or we’ve lost power due to a storm. Electricity is this free-flowing thing that we never have to worry about. But with an RV it’s something you do have to think about and make plans for. Because electricity doesn’t just fall from the sky – well, actually it does and I’ll get into that in a bit – you can’t find free electrical outlets. Especially 30-amp or 50-amp outlets, which are the ones RVs require. Regular household outlets are 15 or 20 amps, which are fine for powering your microwave or fridge or air conditioner at home – but they can’t handle powering a microwave AND fridge AND air conditioner at the same time in an RV. That’s where RV parks come into the picture. RV parks allow RVers to plug in and run their TVs, microwaves, refrigerators, A/C, water heaters, lights, etc.

In addition to electricity, RV parks also allow RVers access to unlimited water (like we are all used to in a house) and the ability to discard wastewater from their kitchens and the bathrooms. RV parks that offer these amenities are referred to as having “full hook-ups”. But there’s a fee for a site with full hook-ups. In addition, some RV parks also provide cable and Wi-Fi to their guests. There are RV parks that don’t have any hook-ups but still charge a fee for RVers to park there.

There are three things we don’t like about RV parks. The first one is that we don’t want to be parked in a place where they pack you in an orderly tight fashion. The thought of looking out the window to stare at another RV is not appealing to us. Neither is having to listen to other people’s noises. Nor having to keep our dogs tied up because of RV park rules. These distractions are not a big deal if you’re spending a lot of your time away from the RV, sight-seeing or doing other activities.  For many people, who use their RVs mainly for vacations, it works very well!  But when you live full-time in your RV, you’re “home” much more, and these disturbances start to matter. These are the same reasons why we love backpacking and car camping in the middle of nowhere.

Photo of Camelot RV Park in Florida by Mercertrails.com.

Photo of Camelot RV Park in Florida by Mercertrails.com.

The second thing is that RV parks are expensive if you stay in them long-term. RV parks with full hook-ups can range from $15 to upwards of $50 a night. This quickly adds up if you are primarily staying in them while living on the road.

Campsite costs at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Campsite costs at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

And the last reason we don’t like them is that RV parks allow campers to use resources as freely as they do at home. They can take long hot showers, let the water run while washing the dishes, leave the lights on, and turn the A/C on full blast. One defining characteristic of a “camping” experience – even in an RV – is that it calls our attention to the resources we use. This is a valuable thing for all of us to be reminded of. A full hook-up, however, removes the need to mind our resources. We moved into a smaller space because we wanted to have a more sustainable lifestyle than what we already had in Asheville. But RV parks allow people to bypass the limitations of their RV’s water and electrical storage, and use resources as if they’re limitless.

That is why, before we moved into our RV, we already planned on boondocking 99% of the time. Boondocking (also called “dry camping”) is when RVers stay somewhere that doesn’t have connections to electricity, water or sewer services. Typically this somewhere is in the woods, but it can also be private land (with permission), a parking lot, roadside, or designated primitive campsite.  Usually boondocking also means free, but that’s not always the case – some low-cost paid campgrounds have no hook-ups, which would still be considered boondocking.

 Away From An RV Park – Powering The RV

Free parking is great, but how are RVs powered if they aren’t plugged into the grid? Typically RVs come with two small batteries that can power the trailer for maybe a day when fully charged – and that does not include A/C or microwave use (obviously this will vary with power usage). Those batteries are charged either by being plugged to an electrical outlet or by a diesel/gas powered generator. So a common sound in popular boondocking areas is the drone of generators. These can be surprisingly quiet, or disruptively loud, but never silent.

Every standard RV we’re aware of relies on a combination of batteries and propane gas to power the appliances inside. Refrigerators, stoves, ovens, and water heaters require far more electricity than those two small batteries can provide, so RVs come with appliances that can switch over to using propane when the RV is unplugged. So a boondocked RV needs two sources of energy: battery power, used for lights and the occupant’s electronic devices, and propane, which does all the real work of heating and refrigeration. A standard RV can stay boondocked as long as there is propane and gas/diesel available. Note that this means that these RVs are operating on not just one, but TWO nonrenewable fossil fuel sources – generator fuel and propane gas.

We replaced our propane tanks with 8 batteries to power the Toaster.

We replaced our propane tanks with 8 batteries to power the Toaster.

Whether it’s for monetary, convenience or environmental reasons, there are a lot of RVers using solar panels nowadays. Whatever the combinations of reasons are, we are thrilled to see people invest in solar panels. It just makes sense! Typically those RVers have anywhere from 100 watts – 300 watts of solar panels. We’ve heard about a few RVers and bus dwellers who have installed a lot more solar panels: Technomadia is one of them, Chris and Cherie have 800w of solar panels installed on their bus roof and 600w of flexible solar panels - nicely done guys! The solar panels allow them to run their generators less, and sometimes completely eliminate them, but propane gas is still relied upon for heating. It’s rare to find a mobile setup that is powered entirely by solar panels.

We have four 305 watt solar panels, totaling 1,220 watts.

We have four 305 watt solar panels, totaling 1,220 watts.

When we decided to move into an RV, we also committed to making it fossil fuel free. Our choice was that we would boondock but not depend on gasoline, diesel, or propane. We would heavily invest in outfitting our RV so that it would run totally off the energy created from our solar panels. After calculating how much space we had available on the roof and how much electricity we would need, we settled on 1,220 watts of solar panels and eight golf cart batteries.

The only thing left in our RV that uses propane is our stove/oven. However, we have since bought a small two burner electric stove and exclusively use that to cook now. We occasionally use the oven to bake or heat up leftovers, but we plan to get rid of it oven soon so we can be 100% fossil fuel free in the RV. The reason we didn’t get rid of the oven during the rebuild is that we weren’t sure if we had enough solar panels and batteries to power an electric stove. We wanted to wait until we have lived in the RV and had a better feel for how we were using electricity. So far, we’ve used only 3 lbs. of propane (compare that to the 60 lbs. of propane our trailer originally came with), so we think being propane-free is totally doable. *As of June 2016 we are officially and completely propane free when we removed our RV stove/oven. You can read about our new all-electric setup here.

Whereas we got rid of the propane tanks that came with the RV, we did keep the RV electrical cord so that if we needed to, we could go to an RV park and plug in for electricity. So far we’ve only plugged in 5 days out of the 164 days we’ve been on the road. Two of those days were because our solar panel charge controller shit the bed and we needed to plug in while we waited for the replacement to arrive. *As of 10.14.16 we haven't plugged in for 333 continuous days! 

Away From An RV Park – Fresh Water And Wastewater

While batteries store the energy that RVs need to power the rig, the fresh water and wastewater that RVs need and generate are stored in tanks.

RVs come with a freshwater tank that is located somewhere inside the belly of the RV (or occasionally inside a cabinet). The size of this tank varies, typically dependent on the size of the RV: the larger the RV, the bigger the tanks. Our tank is 40 gallons while a friend’s ~35 ft. long fifth wheel has a 100-gallon tank. From talking to other RVers it seems like ours is on the smaller side and the 100 gallon tank isn’t that common, most are around the 60 – 70 gallon range.

 
Our freshwater tank. The pink liquid is RV specific antifreeze that we used to prevent the tank from freezing over winter while it was stored.

Our freshwater tank. The pink liquid is RV specific antifreeze that we used to prevent the tank from freezing over winter while it was stored.

 

There are two separate types of wastewater tanks that sit under the RV on the outside: the grey water tanks collect discarded water from the sinks and shower; the black water tank holds toilet waste. Our two grey water tanks are each 40 gallons (one is connected to the kitchen sink and the other to the bathroom sink and shower). Our black water tank was also 40 gallons, but we removed that tank because we got rid of the RV toilet for an Air Head composting toilet. This seems to be about an average size for the wastewater tanks.

Our black tank that we removed from the RV.

Our black tank that we removed from the RV.

The sizes of these tanks determine how long RVers can boondock; when the freshwater tank is empty, or if either the grey or black water tanks get full, then it’s time to go fill or empty the tanks. Our freshwater tank lasts us for about a week. After that we have to figure out a way to get more freshwater. Our grey water tanks are rarely a problem. Most of the water we use is for drinking or cooking, so not a lot of it ends up in the grey water tank. One of the reasons we took out the traditional toilet was so that the black water tank wouldn’t be the cause of us looking for a dump station. We only ever have to deal with emptying out our two 40-gallon grey water tanks. Dump stations are located either at RV parks or on their own in various places like rest areas or gas stations. Either way, there’s typically a cost (around $5 - $10) to use a dump station (but there are also lots of free dump stations). So the more often RVers have to empty out their tanks, the more money is spent on dumping.

Dump station in Salida, CO.

Dump station in Salida, CO.

What It Means For Us

Our priorities are being outdoors as much as possible and living as sustainably as we can. For that, a standard RV comes close to fitting the bill, but doesn’t go quite as far as we wanted. That’s why it was worth it, for us, to modify our trailer and create the "Solar Toaster". We have met a lot of people who are very happy living full-time in standard RVs and see no need to change anything. What’s awesome about RVs is their flexibility. They come in so many shapes and sizes, price ranges, and feature sets, that just about anybody can find one that will feel like home, and can use it in whatever way they like. But we hope that through our own travels and living in the Toaster, others can see that RV life can be sustainable, too.

Boondocking in Crestone, CO.

Boondocking in Crestone, CO.


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