Converting the RV to Off Grid Life

Since we live in our RV and want to establish ourselves on our own land somewhere, it makes sense to take the RV with us and live in it while we build our structure. At the moment, we cannot really run completely separate from shore power as we would have to run the generator a lot to keep our batteries charged and run some of our devices that rely on AC power. What we can do though, is convert as much as possible to DC power, boost our batteries, add an inverter and eventually add solar panels to charge the batteries and cut the cord.

Ideally, we can do it in stages. It may take awhile, but we should be able to basically rewire the whole RV off the new electrical system, make it grid-independent, and just put it in the new location and everything will work. It requires time and money though, as well as insight into how power systems work and putting it all together in one, complete setup.

While we cannot tear everything apart and work on it from scratch, we can start small, build for future expansion, and put it all together as we go. In time, it will be finished and built properly from the ground up to work solely of the batteries and solar, and we can get rid of the shore power connection completely. We will have to find places for the larger items though, make sure they are secure from theft and weather, connect everything together, run wire where needed, and in the end have it all working seamlessly.

To start with, we need to figure out our power demands and the critical devices, as well as divide up what can be run off DC power and what needs AC. If we can figure out what has to run on AC, what can run straight off DC without inversion, then we can just put those devices straight off DC power and save a little. We can also determine what needs to be run all the time, what will be occasional, and what can be done other, easier ways. We can also figure out what things are not even needed or can be replaced with other devices completely and replaced or just removed completely.

The basic groups for survival (and not survival, but still used frequently) are Food, Sanitation, Environment, Entertainment, and Work.

Food Items

For food (since we obviously need to eat), we have food storage and food preparation. As of this writing, we don’t use our propane at all, we just use electric 100%. That means we have to have enough electricity to cook foods properly and keep some of it cold.

Our food appliances include:

  • Refrigerator: We currently have an aging RV Norcold fridge. I want to replace it with a residential fridge that runs on AC power completely though. I have found one that will fit the spot and actually has more internal space. Runs 24 hours a day.
  • Freezer: We just got this and got it into place, now to figure out how much power it uses. Runs 24 hours a day.
  • Microwave: We use this usually once a day, probably no more than 30 minutes throughout the day, if even that. With proper planning, we can even avoid using this as much as possible. Runs 30 minutes a day.
  • Crockpot: We use our crockpot a lot, probably three times a week. We have two, a small 3 quart one and a larger 5 quart, but we’ve never used both at the same time. When we use one though, it is for a long time. Runs 4 to 5 hours a day, 3 times a week.
  • Hotplate: This does not get used often and is actually used more for Tiffany making candles than actually cooking. Runs 1 hour a day, once a week.
  • Rice Cooker: We actually haven’t used this in awhile, but hopefully will be getting a new one soon. We do not eat a lot of rice, but we should eat more. It is cheap and easy to do. Runs for 30 minutes, once a week.
  • Coffee Maker: Tiffany needs her coffee every morning, sometimes more than one cup a day. Runs for 2 minutes each use, so at most 10 minutes a day, every day.
  • Toaster Oven: This gets used rarely as well, but when used, runs for about 30 minutes or more, including preheating. Runs 30 minutes a day, once a week.
  • …and that’s really all we use.

Of those devices, the only thing that cannot be easily replaced are the fridge, freezer, and coffee maker. We could replace the coffee maker with a percolator over the fire, but it is so much easier to make a cup of coffee without having to start a fire, heat the water, make the coffee, and then have a fire still burning. Still easier to just a coffee maker, but have a backup percolator anyway.

To cook food, we can switch over to fire as much as possible and just get better at cooking over flame. If we have an abundant source of wood, then starting a fire and cooking things in a dutch oven instead of a crockpot may be more feasible. There are still things that might require a microwave though, so that has to be taken into consideration. If it is something that just requires hot water, then there are other ways to heat up water. We do sometimes cook things that are frozen and just need to be heated up quickly, but I’m not sure how to get around that aside from cooking more efficiently in portions or having foods that we can heat other ways. There are times when urgency takes over though.

For the hotplate, we can switch to an induction cooktop that is completely electric and builtin as well as add something like a Blackstone griddle. There are a few varieties and sizes, along with a plethora of add-ons and accessories. I don’t think we would ever need anything over the 17″ model, maybe the 22″, but that also comes with the added cost of needing propane. It also is not as controllable as a hotplate for temperature, so having the hotplate as a backup or getting a small induction cooktop for precise controls would still be needed. I will have to look into more precise induction cooktops though, but that starts getting expensive. If we can turn that into a business and start selling products online, then the cost would be worth it though.

The oven is really the only thing I have left to figure out. We do not bake often as it is, but if we are setup in a permanent location, we can get something that can operate outside and run off something that can be controlled. Maybe a small propane oven or even a wood stove in the eventual permanent structure.

Sanitation Items

For sanitation, we need clean, hot water, clean laundry, and waste removal. We need to keep clean and have hot water, and obviously have to do something with our waste as well as trash.

Our sanitation items include:

  • Water Filter: A water filter uses no electricity. We actually have three for our drinking water, one on the line coming in for all water, a Brita filter on the kitchen sink, and a Brita pitcher we keep full.
  • Toilet: We have a traditional RV toilet. Its not an expensive one, and uses no electricity at all.
  • Shower: We use the campground bathhouse at the moment. Haven’t even showered in here.
  • Laundry: Small, apartment style laundry machine. It uses electric and water, and runs for about 30 minutes a day.
  • Water Heater: We have never had a working water heater.
  • Waste System: The dump system uses no electric, but we just dump our tanks into the campground waste system.
  • Trash: I’m sure we throw too much away. I try to recycle and reuse as much as possible, but this can be done better.

We will obviously have to drill a well and have a water pump on it to keep water pressure to our RV. If I do it right, we can set the whole thing up to run on its own system, have its own battery and inverter, and be completely independent of the house system. I’ll add something to monitor it as well so that if power goes out or there is something wrong, I’ll be notified. I will probably also add a holding tank, which will also require a pump to send water at the right pressure to the RV and eventual permanent structure.

Water filtering with hopefully never cost any money. I’m sure there are powered filtration systems, but we don’t use so much water that we would need it. Depending on the water at our location, we may want a water softener though, but hopefully that can be connected to the same power supply as the water pump and kept independent.

We need hot water as soon as possible. I have a on demand water heater in mind that costs about $150. We can hopefully get it next month and install it and finally have hot water. It’ll be interesting to see how it affects our electric bill.

For bodily wastes (from the toilet), we can switch over to a composting toilet. A fully built, ready to install system costs close to $1,000, but we can build one cheaper if we want. I’d rather have one already built and ready to install, but if need be, I’ll make one for us.

For laundry, we will probably stay with what we have, but make it permanent. We can make the water so it goes directly into it, have on/off valves, be able to adjust the amount of hot water going in, and have the waste water go wherever we need. We can switch over to cleaning products that will not damage the environment and just send that waste water with all our other water from the sinks and have it water the garden. If we use no damaging chemicals at all, then there is nothing to worry about.

For trash, that is going to be the difficult area. Right now, we have too much. There have been areas where we have reduced, but we still buy too much in packaging that gets thrown away. If we can switch over to producing more of our own food, then we have less packaging. We can switch to washable cleaning products instead of using paper towels to throw away all the time. We can also start composting and put much of it in there, especially if we buy products in packages that will break down quickly. It will require a shift in thinking though and a lot of research.

There are also things that can be burned or used as fuel starter, which we already do now. I’d like to eliminate as much waste as possible though.

Environment Items

While we do not need a constant 72° inside, we do need it to remain above freezing and below boiling. Keeping it within a suitable range isn’t always easy, but learning how things work, keeping them under control, and keeping humidity at the right level is important.
To keep our environment in acceptable levels, we have:

  • Air Conditioner: Since we are in Florida right now, we do use the air conditioner. Tiffany’s limit seems to be about 83°, while I can tolerate a little higher if the air is moving.
  • Heater: We have used the heater a few times here in Florida when the temp dropped into the low 40’s, maybe for a few minutes in the 50’s to bring it up a little. We are hoping to not go so far north that we need to use it a lot though.
  • Fans: We have fans running a lot. The noise, the fresh air, the movement of air, it all helps us.
  • Dehumidifier: We have actually not had to use a dehumidifier, but we may need to in the future. It’ll be nice to have one in case though.

Temperature control is one area I’m not sure what to do about. I know everyone says you cannot run an AC on solar power. Or maybe you can, but not for very long. To reduce the amount of AC we need to use, we are going to be installing some Tropi-Cool on the roof to insulate better and hopefully that reduces the amount of cooling we need to do.

The same with heat, if we can reduce the amount of heat lost, then we don’t have to artificially raise the heat. It is possible that if we replace the flooring, we can figure out some sort of radiant flooring to put in first and maybe that will use less electricity.

We also use a heated blanket once in awhile and have a heated mattress pad. We have not used it yet this year, but did last year when we were in Kentucky in December and January.

For fans though, I have no idea what to do about that. We usually have one fan going somewhere constantly. I am not sure how much electricity a fan uses, but maybe we can switch over to more efficient fans or ones that will run directly on DC power to reduce lost from inverting. If I can set them up properly and figure out the best location to get the most air flow, that would help even more and make them more effective.

Dehumidifier depends solely on the location and outside conditions. It may be needed at times and there may be no getting around that.

Entertainment and Work Items

There is some overlap between entertainment and work items. Many things get used for both purposes, depending on what we are doing at the moment.

Our entertainment and work items include:

  • Televisions: We have two TVs, one in the bedroom and one up front in the living area. We haven’t used the living room TV much, but we hope to clean up and organize better to make it easier to sit and watch. They are both on AC power.
  • Computers: We have a couple of servers doing small functions. I plan to add more for small functions around the RV, but if I continue to use Raspberry Pi’s, they can all be DC powered directly.
  • Laptops: Laptops obviously have batteries, so the only time they draw power is when charging. One has a 85watt charger, the other a 60watt. I hope we can one day upgrade to newer computers, which will hopefully be more efficient and the batteries last longer as well. They get used for work and entertainment, depending on what we need to do at the moment.
  • Smart Phones: We both have our iPhones and charge them at night. We may be able to get a small charger built just for phones and just use that, separate from the main system.
  • Tablets: We have an iPad and a Kindle Fire, along with a Nook. The do not get used every day and only need power when charging. It is minimal, but they can also be charged directly off of DC power.
  • Hotspot: The hotspot we currently use has a USB adapter, so it can be direct charged from the batteries as well. It does not need to be run through a USB adapter at all.
  • Router: We have two routers, one with a wifi network and one is just a switch for devices in the electrical cabinet. I can upgrade those eventually, depending on how large I want our wifi network to be.
  • Game Systems: We have two New 3DS’s and a Wii at the moment, but may be getting a Xbox 360. If I had time, energy, and funds, I’d get a Playstation 4, but that is not going to happen any time soon.
  • Small Electronics: This is things like essential oil diffusers, wax burner, chargers for our watches, chargers for controllers and batteries, and other little, not-often-used items. They are not used every day, certainly not all day, and use a little power.

That is really it for our power usage, so the next step is figuring out what we need to use all the time, what we can switch over, what we can use something else for, and how to put the whole system together completely. With the conversion to a composting toilet, we get rid of black water which is a huge problem to deal with. Gray water can be dealt with, especially if it is in no way toxic. The only remaining step then is converting the power over and removing ourselves from the grid.

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