We really enjoy the great outdoors when there aren’t crowds around. For a lot of places like National Parks, that pretty much narrows things down to the winter, and that’s OK with us. Wintertime RVing is peaceful and quiet. So when we were looking for a new RV, Stef and I made a big deal about having the ability to RV in the winter. Not just drive the RV in the winter, but to have actual full use of the RV in the winter. There’s a big difference.
Well, we’ve had our Travato, Lance, for several months now. Winnebago did some things for us to make him more winter-friendly right out of the gate. And just by my own nature, I had to tinker with things even further. We recently went on a winter shakedown cruise of sorts, and so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share all of the things I’ve done to Lance (so far), and then let you know how those modifications worked.
There’s a lot to tell, so go get yourself a (warm) beverage and settle in…
Things Winnebago Did For Us
Any time I talk about these things, I have to remind people that our RV was a one-off experiment, for Winnebago and for us. They’ve not committed to make these modifications available on future Travatos, so please don’t start demanding them from your dealer. It was really just Winnebago and us wanting to see if it could be done. That said, here’s what they did for us in the winter-RVing department:
- The Fresh Water Tank – this is actually standard on the Travato 59G, but it’s such a big deal that I thought I’d call it out. The fresh water tank is inside the heated space of the van. This is so important, that I wouldn’t have considered making the rest of the modifications if this one thing wasn’t in place. With the tank inside, if it’s warm enough for you, it’s warm enough to keep the water from freezing, and you don’t have to do anything extra to get that benefit.
- The water lines are inside the heated space. This was the most major (and time consuming, I suspect) mod for them to make. In order to use the water system in winter, the lines need to be kept from freezing. This is a lot easier to do – and a lot less expensive from an energy management perspective – if those lines are on the inside of the van.
- There are tank heaters on the grey and black tanks, on the macerator pump that drains the grey tank, and on some key junctions in the waste water system. These can keep the contents from freezing, but they’re fairly expensive (in Amps) to run. When they’re on, they consume about 10 Amps of 12 volt electricity.
- The Seitz window. There is one window up in the “penthouse” area where we sleep. We’re fortunate that Winnebago provided us a double-paned acrylic window (by Seitz) in that space. This is more important than you think, because I’m sleeping basically right up against it. If it was too cold, I’d have a very hard time sleeping. A while back when I examined our Travato with an infrared camera, it was extremely obvious that this Seitz window was superior to the standard single pane glass windows when it came to keeping hot and cold areas separate.
- The Composting Toilet – Yes. The toilet. Winnebago installed an Airhead Composting Toilet in our RV. And while we have a love/hate relationship with the toilet, it was a key component in our winter RVing strategy. Why? Because it takes no water. Even if all the water lines in the RV froze and the pump exploded, we could still use the toilet. When it’s zero degrees in the middle of the night, and most of the campground facilities are closed anyway, having a functional toilet is a big deal! And in addition to the fail-safe nature of the composting toilet, there was the added bonus that there are no water lines running to or from it to worry about.
And that’s where Winnebago got us. It was a good start. But as I got to know Lance, and started tinkering and taking things apart, I thought I could do even more.
Further Modifications I Made
1.I Installed shut-off valves for the external fill ports.
Have a look at the picture below. It’s the side of our Travato at something-below-zero. Those two ports I’m pointing at are the tank fill and city water inlet ports. When you look at this picture, it’s rather obvious you don’t want any water there in the winter. So I installed shutoff valves for each of them. (You shouldn’t be using these ports in the winter anyway.)
This was pretty simple to do. Both of these lines enter the van and run underneath the dinette seat where they join into the water system. I cut out small sections of both of these lines a foot or more inside the body of the van. I then installed Shark Bite (push to connect) ball valves in each of them. So now, when winter rolls around, I purge those lines once and shut the valves. Water doesn’t get within a foot of those ports until I open the valves again in Spring.
2. I Installed a shut off for the rear hose.
When I took those infrared pictures of our Travato, one of the coldest spots I found was about thigh-high, along the outside wall of the bathroom. This is also the area that the water line for the exterior hose runs through. We rarely use that exterior hose in the summer, and we certainly won’t be using it in the winter.
To me, this spelled trouble, so I wanted to install a cutoff for it as well. But to do this, I had to open up the bathroom cabinet. Once I got access to the line, I installed another Shark Bite quarter-turn ball valve. This is another one that I purge once in the fall, and then won’t use again until Spring (if I even do that).
3. I re-routed some plumbing lines of my own.
Yep. Not fun or easy, but I did it. Some of the plumbing lines – particularly those under the galley and those leading to the bathroom – were pressed pretty closely to the metal skin of the van. That metal skin would act like a giant superconductor of cold, and would suck the heat right out of anything it touched. I reasoned I needed to move these further to the interior of the van. This involved cutting sections out of perfectly good lines (scary!) and moving them around a bit and then reassembling (with a lot more Shark Bite fittings).
Like I said, this wasn’t fun or easy, but when I was done, all the water lines were at least 6 inches inside the heated space, and none of them were touching the skin of the van anywhere.
4. Insulation – I went nuts.
This is something I obviously couldn’t do to the entire van without disassembling it (no thanks). But anywhere I could, I added extra insulation to any bare metal surface I found. I opened every cabinet, removed every drawer, and even removed a few panels they probably didn’t intend for me to remove. If you’ve seen my post on insulating the doors, you probably know the drill here.
First, I installed a layer of acoustic damping material (Fatmat). This stuff also has some limited thermal insulating properties, but not much. Then, after that, I installed a foil backed denim insulation material, with the foil side facing the heated space. I installed as much of this as I could, and tried as best as I could to foil tape the seams. In some places, I also installed some foil backed closed cell foam as well (basically, places where there wasn’t room to allow the denim any “loft”).
One product I did NOT use – and one that you’ll hear just about every other RVer say they DO use – is Reflectix. If you don’t know what it is, it’s basically bubble wrap between two layers of tin foil. The very small air space in the film doesn’t count for much, and so most of the claimed R-value for this stuff is from its effect as a radiant barrier. Well, even the Federal Government knows that, in order to be effective, the reflective surface of a radiant barrier must face an air space. Yet time after time, if you search for “RV Insulation”, you’ll find people using this Reflectix stuff in direct contact with other surfaces (usually up against glass). Money wasted. And besides that, radiant barriers work better in hot climates than cold anyway – and cold is what I’m worried about.
I’m sure I’m going to get lots of comments about the Reflectix because RVers seem to love it so much. That’s fine. Use it if you want to. Most reputable insulation contractors have stopped using the stuff. And I haven’t heard of any RV manufacturer actually using Reflectix either. That told me something, and so I didn’t use it. Anywhere.
But back on task…
In addition to insulating the spaces and metal walls themselves, I also added insulation to the pipes. Even if the cabinets do get below freezing, the pipe insulation would provide some added protection. This was just standard home center stuff.
5. I modified the Truma venting.
Our Travato has a Truma Combi heating system. It distributes warm air through three vents. One of these vents is on the underside of the dinette seat. This is convenient, because there are a lot of water lines closed up in that space. To wit:
I need to keep those water lines above freezing. Yes, they’re inside, but they’re right on the floor, and there’s a big bit of exterior wall just on the other side of the Truma boiler. This cabinet can get cold when it’s closed up in the winter.
One solution was to run heating cable along all those lines. I could certainly have done that, but it would have been difficult, expensive, and would actually take quite a bit of electricity to keep them running. (I still have the standard batteries, so my electric “budget” is only about 100 Amp-hours a night.) So my thinking here was to try to use passive heating wherever possible. This is why it was so fortuitous to have a Truma vent in the same cabinet.
Don’t tell the engineers at Truma, but I simply drilled four, ¼ inch holes in the back side of that Truma vent. (The one for the heated air – NOT the one for the combustion air intake/exhaust!) With the Truma running, this leaks just a little bit of warm air into this cabinet. I don’t need a lot, just enough to keep it at 33 degrees or better. Hopefully, this would do the trick.
6. I installed a vent in the raised floor.
This is a continuation of the “passive heating” line of thinking. In our Travato, there are water lines that run right through the raised area of the floor near the cab. These are not in a heated space, so I needed to get some heat to them. I elected to do this by cutting a 2 inch by 10 inch hole in the step, and placing a vent cover on it. There’s no powered ventilation at work here, I’m just allowing enough air mixing to occur to keep the interior of that space above 33 degrees.
This sounded like an easy enough idea, but it wasn’t so easy to implement. First, I had to seal off that space on the back side. I don’t want to heat the whole underneath of the step – just the little bit where the water lines are. So I cut some wood blocking, and then installed some insulation along the channel where the water pipes are. But cutting that hole was difficult! I was cutting blind into an area where I knew there were water lines. Obviously, I didn’t want to cut or nick the water lines.
So I did this by hand with a three inch saw blade.
For two hours.
Watching my progress on the inside with a camera scope.
It was very uncomfortable.
But I got it done. It looks pretty good (once I dyed the cut to approximate the flooring color).
7. I installed heat tape.
This was probably the hardest part of the whole process. There are two channels in our floor where water lines run across the sliding door opening/walkway. But when I did my initial cold weather /infrared evaluation, these channels and their covers were some of the coldest parts of the van. I couldn’t leave water lines there and expect them to not freeze.
Basically, these channels were just grooves cut in the plywood subfloor, and the lines were laid down in them. But the lines were lying directly on the metal skin of the van. The “super conductor of cold” metal skin of the van. Not good. So the first thing I did was to get some insulation between them and the metal floor of the van. For this, I used some of the reflective backed closed-cell foam. I didn’t really care about the reflective bit here, I just needed something that I could squeeze in that space that would still have some insulating value when compressed. This stuff seemed to fit the bill.
But when I added the insulation, it actually took up a lot of the free space in the channels. The heat tape wouldn’t fit! So I had to actually widen the channels. I did this using a Fein multi tool and a plunge cut blade and every ounce of patience I could muster. Several hours later – wider channels.
The heat tape I purchased came from OEM Heaters. It’s a lot thicker than you realize when you buy it. Especially when you are trying to cram it into narrow openings and bend it around corners. It doesn’t much like that. We had words, the heat tape and I, and it tried to slice my index finger off, but I’m happy to report that it eventually saw things my way. I got the tape laid down, and was ready to get power to it.
This stuff claims to use 3.5 watts per foot, at 50 degrees. I had purchased 15 feet, but I only used 6. Even so, just to be safe, I sized everything for 20 amps. Our rig does not have awning lights, so that switch location was just covered with a plug. I bought an appropriate 20 amp switch that would fit in the panel. That was easy. I had to run power all the way from the fuse panel under the refrigerator and pantry, through the dinette seat, through the raised floor, through the channel, and up into the galley for the switch, but that was more time consuming and annoying than actually difficult. Anyway, when all was said and done, I got it wired up, turned it on, and…
I was actually underwhelmed. The heat tape was only drawing about 1.5 Amps when the RV is at a livable temperature. Yet, it seemed to be working. I didn’t completely trust it, but I wasn’t about to tear it out either. It would have to do.
8. I installed vent covers!
Another thing I noticed from my IR pictures was that the Maxx Air fan was letting out a lot of heat (or letting in a lot of cold, as in this picture). I knew the Truma could keep up, but why waste energy, right?
I had remembered seeing an ingenious cover for the Maxx Air fans in an Advanced-RV. I called them up and ordered one, and now I have an insulated fan cover of my own.
This is so smart I wonder why Maxx Air doesn’t sell them as an accessory. It’s that perfect. You simply replace the mounting screws on the Maxx Air internal cover plate with snaps, and the cover snaps in place. Brilliant!
And, from the “every little bit helps” department, I hacked together this for the bathroom vent as well. Scissors, foam, and 2 minutes.
9. I insulated the shower drain.
This is the only water line that runs outside. It punches straight down out of the shower drain, then forward about two feet, then back up to the pump underneath the sink. Initially, I couldn’t think of any way to get this inside the heated space. (Maybe I wasn’t thinking hard enough?)
I didn’t really want to run heat tape to this line either, as it would involve drilling holes in the floor of the van. So I kind of took it easy on this one. Here’s what I did.
I cut a small section out of the line, and installed a (Shark bite) drain valve inline. My thinking was that after showering, we could run antifreeze through the line (note to self: Bring antifreeze and funnel). And then, after sucking as much of the antifreeze through the pump as we could, I could drain the line of anything left. (If there’s nothing there, it can’t freeze, right?) In tests in the driveway, this led to about a tablespoon of liquid being drained from the line.
Then, I insulated the line and valve, and put some protective tubing around it. I was fully aware of the double-edged sword the insulation might prove to be. What I mean is, insulation can help keep lines from freezing – but if they do freeze, it also helps keep them from warming back up! But my thinking was – with NOTHING in the line, I don’t care how cold it gets – it shouldn’t freeze. And any shower would be with (hopefully) warm water that wouldn’t be in the line long enough to freeze.
So that was all the physical modifications to the RV. In addition to those mods, there were also a couple procedures that we needed to follow to keep things working in the winter.
Winter Operational Procedures
- The heat tape would be left on any time the outside temperature was below freezing. At only one to two amps, I figure we can handle that kind of draw.
- The Truma thermostat is to be set no lower than 62 degrees during the day.
- At night, when it starts getting really cold, the thermostat would be set to 68 degrees. I can probably reduce this somewhat in the future, but until I had some experience with the setup, I didn’t want to take chances just yet.
- As mentioned earlier, after taking a shower, purge the shower line with antifreeze through a funnel. When all that is sucked out, someone has to go outside, crawl under the van, and drain the line. Stef was not too enthused about this, so I figured it would be me.
- At 10 Amps, the tank heaters were a larger draw. We would leave these off when dry camping. But they could be on in freezing temperatures when either driving, or camping with hookups. Fortunately, our waste tanks fill very slowly. Since we have the composting toilet, the black tank only fills if we take showers. And the grey tank only fills from hand and dish washing.
- When draining the tanks in cold weather, run antifreeze through each tank and its pump until you could verify antifreeze at the dump site. This also had the effect of “seeding” the tanks with antifreeze.
And having thought all that through as best as I could, it was time for a test…
Winter Camping: Go Big or Go Home!
Night 1 – Bryce
Bryce Canyon National Park, in southern Utah, sits at over 8000 feet, and is known for its fantastic winter scenery. It’s also known for being really cold, and the week after Christmas, it was supposed to get down to 13 below zero…
Perfect! Let’s go!
And Stef agreed. So during our week plus RV trip, we decided to stay at least one night at Bryce. The campground there has no hookups, so there was no safety net – we were unplugged and dry camping. The weather channel said it was supposed to get to -13 (Fahrenheit), and that’s realistically, as cold as I’d ever really want to go RVing. (We don’t mind RVing in the cold, but we want to be able to exit the RV as well…) Really, I was hoping for something more like zero or single digits, but -13 was what I got, so that would have to do. We got our indoor/outdoor thermometer, and a couple of data logging temperature probes and headed out to the campground for a night of hopefully not freezing ourselves silly.
And it mostly worked.
The very first thing I did when I got up was to turn on the water. Success! Both hot and cold water were running after all night in well-below-zero temperatures. Our outdoor thermometer was reading -6 here, but it was just sitting on the running board and probably picking up heat from the van. Weather.com gave us a -13, so that’s what we’re going with.
I had placed the temperature probes 1) underneath the dinette seat and 2) under the galley cabinet. When I downloaded the data, it looked like this. (This data is for three days – more on that later – Bryce is the first night)
So, when it gets down to -10 or so outside, the interior of the galley cabinet can get below freezing. So why then, did the water pipes not freeze when exposed to that for several hours? The pipe insulation, I suspect. I don’t know how much longer it would have held out, but I think we were probably right on the edge of what we could endure.
The cabinet under the dinette seat had a much warmer tale to tell. The heat leakage I created from the Truma seemed to keep that cabinet nice and (relatively) toasty. It wasn’t hot in there or anything, so I don’t think I overdid it. Just nicely above freezing for the duration.
You’ll notice though that the thermometer in the picture is indicating an interior temperature of 72 degrees. This is because we kept it up in bed with us, and we basically sleep on the ceiling so all the warm air eventually makes it up there. We did NOT have the Truma set to 72. That would be insane. We would like to decrease the temperature while sleeping though, so I’ll be using this information to figure out a better night time temperature setting than 68.
The shower drain was another matter. Despite being what I thought was empty; and even though the only thing that could have been in the line anyway was antifreeze… it froze up. Naturally, I didn’t notice this until I was naked and wet, and watching the water start to pool around my ankles. It wasn’t my best moment. We had to bail the water out of the shower into the grey tank (credit to Stef there), and then dry off and go outside and investigate (Stef was no help at all crawling under the van in sub-zero temperatures). At -6 degrees and angry, I didn’t learn a whole lot that night. For the remainder of the trip, showers were restricted to non-freezing hours only. That kinda stunk.
Night 2 – Kodachrome Basin
Apart from the shower mishap, after the first night in Bryce, we were feeling pretty confident, so we traveled on to Kodachrome Basin State Park. Temperatures that evening got down into the low twenties. Pfffffffft! Please. We ran the Truma only on electric (they had working hookups) and it still had us sweating at 68 degrees. We also ran the tank heaters all night (since we had the hookups), and drained them the next morning and re-purged the pumps with antifreeze. No problems.
Night 3 – 9000 Feet at the Lake
The third night in the graph, we dry camped at 9000 feet at Fish Lake in the (aptly named) Fishlake National Forest. We were right on the shores of a mountain lake just outside a campground that was closed for the season. It was perfect, and another night of testing Lance’s winter mettle with no hookups. Temperatures that night got down to the single digits (6 or so, according to our thermometer), and we experienced no problems – nor did the cabinet interior temperatures dip below freezing at any point.
Areas for improvement.
So all in all, I’m calling the winter camping a success. But there’s always room for improvement. Here are the areas I’ll be looking into in the future.
1. Warming the galley cabinet
Given that It got below 32 degrees under the galley, I think I need to do something to warm the inside of that cabinet. I could run heat tape along all the water lines and the pumps, but that would be energy-expensive. Instead, I think I’ll cut another 2” x 10” vent opening inside the bottom of the cabinet under the drawers. That should allow enough heat to leak into the cabinet to keep it above freezing in the coldest temperatures we’re likely to encounter.
Also, the infrared pictures I took in Bryce seemed to indicate a fair amount of heat leakage from what I’ll call the “C-Pillar” at the rear of the sliding door – right by the galley. I may try to add some insulation if I can get into it somehow. But once I’ve done this, I think the fresh water system should be good to go.
2. The shower drain
This is another story. When I was no longer angry, naked, or wet, I took another look at the shower drain. There seemed to be a small rise in the drain hose where it went over a metal part of the van chassis. I think that bump in the line allowed something to pool at the low points in the hose. (Yes, that should have only been antifreeze and it shouldn’t have frozen anyway, but it did.) And also, let’s face it, at -13, things do freeze pretty quickly.
So, I think I have a couple options here. The first is to bring the line inside the heated space entirely. This actually might be easier than it sounds. Sealing off the existing drain would be easy enough. Then, I could punch the line through the aft side of the galley cabinet, and put some sort of hose connection underneath the cubby hole in the shower (something like what you see on the outside of the Travato for tank fill and city fill). When we wanted to shower, we would just attach a short length of hose to that port, and drape it into the shower pan to pick up the water. Kind of ugly, but totally functional and nearly freeze-proof. The big question in my mind would be – can the drain pump for the shower lift the water high enough for that to work? Is that kind of thing even listed in the pump specs? Because I’d hate to get it done, only to find out it doesn’t work… More research needed on this option.
The other option is to work with the existing setup. First, I need to remove the insulation from that drain line underneath the van. Two reasons for that: 1) I needed to be able to see what was causing the blockage, and with the insulation on, I couldn’t. and 2) Because, even if it froze, I would have liked to be able to thaw it with a hair dryer or something. Once the insulation is off, the next thing to do would be to modify the line to have a more regular slope to avoid any low spots, and to put my drain at the absolute low point. This is the less invasive and easier to do option, so I’ll likely start here and try again.
3. Improve window coverings
Take a look at this picture and it’s immediately obvious that the single pane windows in the van are a huge heat-liability.
But even if we didn’t have an infrared camera, the problem with the windows was painfully obvious (and cold) just from sitting next to them. They were like mini-refrigerators to sit near. The one exception to this, of course, was the Seitz window up in the penthouse, which preformed like a double-paned heavyweight. So, we need to do something about the windows.
One option here would be to replace the stock windows with Seitz windows. This might not be practical due to mounting restrictions, window sizes, etc. But it’s worth looking into. The one place where I think it’s most likely to work would be on the sliding door. The stock window there is just mounted into the sheet metal of the van, so I could work on it without tearing too much stuff apart. I don’t know about the sizes available, and whether or not it would work without banging into the van when sliding the door open, so more research is required.
The easier option here is to just have some new insulated window shades made. The MCD shades are quick to draw, and they work great in summer, but they’re practically worthless against the cold. So, using the cloth shades Winnebago provided as a pattern, we’ll likely have some new ones made with a layer or three of Thinsulate, or some other insulating material inside of them. We’d still have them attach with magnets – they’d just have some serious R-value to them (and be a cool color or pattern or something).
4. Warm the Floors
The floors in our Travato got COLD. They were better towards the back, but from the galley forward to the step-up and the sliding door the floors were uncomfortable to walk on. Besides “wear slippers” (which is what I kept telling Stef), we need some sort of solution here.
I’d rather not spend any energy on the floor, so any kind of electric floor heating mat is out. But I might consider adding a 4th duct to the Truma to have it blow across that space, if that’s even an option.
Of course, the real solution would be to add some insulation to the floor, but that’s easier said than done now that the van is already built out. I may be able to add spray foam in a few places underneath. But every time I think of that I have nightmares about being stuck under the Travato with “Great Stuff” foam dripping down onto my face and expanding onto the tailpipe and catching fire. No thanks. I’d have to find a professional to handle that for me. So if anyone knows of one, I’m listening.
5. Increase Battery Capacity
If I ran the tank heaters all night long, they would basically use up most of my (useable) battery capacity. With the 2 stock 100AH batteries, and trying not to drain them more than half way, that’s about the best I can do. This limitation is what led to the decision to not run the tank heaters unless we had hookups, or were driving. That worked out OK for us on this trip, but if we were not going to drive or have hookups – and we needed to drain, this could be a problem. We would like the ability to run the tank heaters for at least one night on battery power. That means, basically, we’ll need to double our usable battery capacity.
The short answer to that is lithium batteries. In addition to saving weight, we’ll get twice the capacity in the same amount of space.
Of course, switching to lithium batteries is a whole topic in itself. I won’t go into details here, but one of my concerns – particularly since we’re talking about cold weather camping –is that lithium batteries do NOT like to be charged below freezing. But then if I add heating pads to the batteries – will that wipe out any gains from switching to lithium batteries in the first place? Again – more research required.
I moved to Utah to escape the humidity of the Deep South, so I wouldn’t be bringing this up unless it was a real problem… But MY OH MY WAS IT DRY in our Toasty little Travato. My fleece pajama pants were making visible sparks in the night as I rolled over. It’s true! After our week in Lance with the Truma running basically non-stop, my knuckles were so dry they were just randomly bleeding! We had virtually no condensation on our windows – even at below zero temperatures – because there was no moisture in the air to condense. Utah is dry enough already, and the Truma just cooked the remaining moisture right out of the air.
I know most people are trying to keep moisture out of their RVs, but I may have to investigate adding a humidifier to the Truma. I don’t know how to do this safely, but as a last resort, we could always hang a damp towel on our laundry line overnight or something. Or maybe bring along a portable humidifier like they used to run in my room when I was a kid and got sick? Something needs to be done, because if we had stayed out any longer, it would have been painful.
So there you have it. That’s what I did to make our Travato, Lance, winter ready. I’d say I’m about 80% of the way there, and I’ve got some ideas on where to get that remaining 20%. If you’re considering doing something like this to your RV, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I’m not saying this is the only way to go about things, but it’s the way we did it, and it’s working out so far.
Thanks for reading. Cheers!