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Polk’s Top 7 Tips for Cold Weather RVing Print E-mail

Mark Polk, motorhome maintenance expertBy Mark Polk
RV Education 101 

If you’re like me, you enjoy using your motorhome as much as possible throughout the year. Sometimes that includes RV trips during the colder winter months. In addition to enjoying the beautiful winter scenery, motorhomers can go hunting, snow skiing and snowmobiling. It’s no wonder so many people enjoy using their motorhomes year-round.

When winter approaches each year, I get numerous e-mails requesting information about using motorhomes in cold temperatures. One reason I haven’t written on this subject in the past is because it would require more than just a short article to thoroughly cover this topic.

Another reason for not writing about this in the past is that there are no guarantees that your RV can or will be 100 percent protected from the harsh winter elements by following written advice on the subject.

What I can do is offer you my top 7 tips to help protect your motorhome in the event you plan to use it during the cold winter months. I just can’t guarantee that it will be 100 percent protected.

These suggestions and ideas are for short-term winter camping in your RV. If you plan to take extended RV trips in cold weather, there are many other precautions and measures that need to be considered, such as using insulated skirting around the bottom of the RV.

Note: What we will be concentrating on in this article is how to protect your motorhome during cold-weather camping. It is extremely important that you also understand how to protect yourself and other campers in cold temperatures.

1. One of the first considerations for cold-weather RVing is if you will be traveling in temperatures below freezing. If this is the case, and there is water in the RV water system, your plumbing lines or water heater tank could freeze, resulting in costly repair bills and ruining your wonderland RV trip. To avoid this from happening, when temperatures dip below freezing, I travel with the water system winterized. It is actually much easier to winterize a motorhome than most people think, and it doesn’t cost much, either. I have winterized and de-winterized our motorhome as many as three times in one winter.

2. The good news is it is still possible to use the bathroom facilities when you are traveling with the RV winterized. We take 1-gallon jugs filled with water to use in the toilet. If your holding tanks are not heated, you can put some RV antifreeze in the holding tanks to prevent the contents from freezing. Add the RV antifreeze through the toilet for the black-water holding tank and down the shower or tub drain for the gray water tank. The antifreeze will also protect the shower or tub P-trap, which is usually located below floor level.

Note: The amount of RV antifreeze required for the holding tanks will be based on the size of the tanks, and how much is in the tanks. It will be necessary to add more RV antifreeze as waste water is added to the tanks to prevent the antifreeze from being too diluted. During cold-weather camping doesn’t allow the holding tanks to fill completely before emptying them (unless the holding tanks are heated). This will reduce the chance of freezing, which can damage the holding tanks.

When the RV is winterized, take bottled water along for drinking and other needs like cooking and brushing your teeth. We have a 5-gallon jug that we take on trips, filled with tap water from our house for our pet’s drinking water. This extra supply can also be used for washing up and other needs, and comes in handy when the RV is winterized.

3. When we arrive at our destination I try to select a site that will be exposed to the sun throughout the day, but also where there is some type of wind break available. Position the motorhome on the site so the front or rear will be facing the brunt of any wind, not the side of the RV. Normally, once at the campground, we use the water system on the RV. All of the water lines in our motorhome are in a heated space, so we don’t need to be too concerned about the water system freezing as long as the RV has heat. We leave the water heater turned on whenever the water heater tank is full so there is no chance of it freezing. If we have an electric hookup, we operate the water heater on electricity, and if not we operate it on LP-gas.

4. It’s important that you know where all of the plumbing on your motorhome is located. Some RVs have heat ducts going to the basement storage areas where the water system is exposed to outside temperatures, but many RVs do not. If portions of the RV water system are below floor level, in areas that are not heated, it is possible for it to freeze and damage the water lines. If you are hooked up to an external water supply, one option is to leave a faucet in the RV dripping. This can help keep the water moving and decrease the possibility of water lines freezing. Another option is to use heat tape to protect any exposed water lines. Heat tape can be purchased at most hardware or building supply stores. Make sure it is suitable for the types of water lines or water hoses in your RV.

5. If it is extremely cold outside and the possibility exists that the outside water supply could freeze, or if the campground water supply is shut off for the winter, I try to fill our fresh water holding tank and use it for all of our water requirements. Again, keep in mind where your fresh-water tank is located; ours is in a heated area. If the campgrounds shower facilities are still open, it’s a good idea to use them to avoid the gray-water holding tank from filling so quickly. In this situation it might be in your best interest to keep the RV winterized and just use the campground’s facilities.

6. The best source for heat is to use the RV’s forced-air furnace. There are a couple of things you need to be aware of when you use the RV furnace. First of all, it will consume more LP-gas than any of the other LP-gas-fired appliances. The LP tank should be full before leaving on your trip, and you will need to monitor the LP-gas supply carefully during your stay. Second, if you are not plugged in to an electrical supply the furnace fan can quickly drain the auxiliary battery(ies). Batteries that are not fully charged in cold temperatures can freeze, rendering the RV furnace unusable. I recommend that you plan your stay where you have access to an electrical supply when camping in cold weather. When we are plugged into electricity, we set the forced-air furnace on a lower setting and supplement the heat with thermostatically controlled ceramic heaters. These heaters work extremely well and you don’t need to be concerned about a fire or carbon monoxide.

7. If you will be camping where you don’t have access to an electrical hookup, one option is to use a generator. A generator can keep the RV batteries topped off and allow you to use the RV furnace. You will need to have a sufficient supply of fuel on hand for the generator. If it’s a portable generator make sure the exhaust is directed away from the area where you are camping. Regardless of the type of generator, always make sure the exhaust system is in proper operating condition and the carbon monoxide detector is working properly.

Caution: Carbon monoxide is deadly. You cannot see it, taste it or smell it. Never use your range burners or oven as a source of heat. If your motorhome is not equipped with a carbon monoxide detector, you should purchase a battery-operated model designed for use in RVs. Always test the carbon monoxide detector for proper operation before each trip.

You also need to be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Muscular twitching
  • Intense headache
  • Throbbing in the temples
  • Weakness and sleepiness
  • Inability to think coherently

If you or anybody else experiences any of these symptoms, get to fresh air immediately. If the symptoms persist seek medical attention.

I know I’m already at No. 7, but here are a few more cold-weather RV tips, in no particular order:

  • Do not store any water hoses with water in them. If you need to use it, it will probably be frozen. You can take it inside to thaw out if need be, or use a hair dryer.
  • Covering the windows with curtains, drapes or almost anything will help to hold some of the heat in. It helps to cover overhead vent openings, too.
  • Leave cabinets or drawers open where water lines are located to allow heat to circulate around plumbing.
  • Try to avoid opening the entry door as much as possible.
  • Oh, and don’t forget the electric blanket. It can be a lifesaver at night.
  • If you haven’t purchased your motorhome yet and you know you will be using it in cold weather, see if the manufacturer offers an arctic package option. Some packages include higher R-factor insulation values, enclosed underbelly, heated holding tanks, dual pane windows and more.
  • When you’re winter camping trip is over and you head back home, don’t forget to winterize the water system, if you expect freezing temperatures.

Happy Winter Camping.

RV expert Mark Polk owns RV Education 101, a North Carolina-based company that produces and sells educational videos, DVDs and E-books on how to use RVs. Mark has more than 30 years of experience in RV maintenance. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1996 as a Chief Warrant Officer Three, specializing in wheeled and track vehicle fleet maintenance operations. He and his wife, Dawn, started RV Education 101 in 1999. They travel with their two boys in a 35-foot Type A motorhome.
 
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