I’ve been living in my RV for six months now, and overall I like doing so. Recently, one of my friends expressed interest in full time RV living, so I wanted to write down all the challenges so that he knows what to expect before taking the plunge. Before I do that though, I’m going to list the good stuff:
Benefits of Full Time RV Living
The primary benefit is cheap rent. Monthly rates at RV parks are very inexpensive compared to apartment rentals in my area (San Diego county). When you add in the cost of financing the RV, the total monthly cost resembles that of a studio apartment, but you get to keep the RV. This assumes you live in an RV park. I suppose it would be possible to boondock frequently for even less money, but since I have a job I need a stable address. (See below for a listing of the RV park-related challenges that must be considered).
Fitting into an RV means having less stuff, unless you rent storage space which I didn’t. I find owning few things liberating. I still have room in my RV for musical instruments (sans amplifiers), a few books, and a computer, so I have no trouble staying entertained. Not having many material things to manage has provided substantial freedom from intellectual distraction.
Easy to Move
If I get laid off from my job, which I don’t expect to happen, moving will be easy. I’ll just hitch my trailer to my truck and be off to wherever new economic opportunity resides. Alternatively, if I choose to pursue a PhD after completing my Master’s degree I’ll simply tow my rig to wherever I attend school.
Ecological Footprint (The Benefit)
An RV impacts the land it is set upon less than an apartment or house does, leaving less of an ecological footprint.
Feeling Less Screwed
While I still have to pay rent to the RV park, I don’t feel I’m paying as much to “the man” as I would in an apartment setting, which suits my slightly anarchistic world view. Saving more money increases my overall freedom.
Challenges of Full Time RV Living
My cat does not have as much room in my RV as he had in my last apartment. However, he is an old cat who doesn’t move around much. And he has lots of toys to play with so I don’t worry much about him. The biggest challenge was figuring out where to fit in litter boxes, and how to keep litter from getting all over the RV. (Litter gets into the floor-mounted heating ducts for instance). I partially solved the problem by laying plastic sheeting in a corner and placing the litter boxes on top. This is not a perfect solution but it works well enough:
Insulation and Propane Use
While I live in mild San Diego county, I live in the foothills of the mountains and therefore it can get cold at night during the winter. During these nights I go through a lot of propane since my RV’s insulation is poor. I estimate that during December I spent $100 on propane, which I used only for heating (not cooking or water heating). Fortunately, my RV park has a propane filling service where you leave an empty bottle on the driveway in the morning and they return it full in the afternoon, billing you at the end of the month.
The poor insulation was a problem in the summer too where I’d have to run my air conditioner during the day to keep my cat cool. I estimate the monthly electricity bill was $100.
I hear that the trick to getting an RV with good insulation is to buy one made for Canadians. I’ve thought of fixing the “reflective bubble wrap” insulation you can buy at Home Depot to the walls to improve the situation, but haven’t figured out a good way to attach the insulation in a way that doesn’t leave a mark when the insulation is removed.
My RV park has very poor WiFi, which also costs $30 a month. This did not meet my schooling needs so I bought mobile hotspot service from my phone provider. This provides only 4G of data at 4G LTE speed per month, which is enough for browsing but not enough for much video (I had to get rid of Netflix streaming service). I am fortunate that my RV park, which is rather remote, is still within 4G range. To adapt to the limited monthly download volume, I download my class lectures at work and save them to a flash drive, and also download large data files to an Amazon EC2 instance and manipulate the files there (more on Amazon EC2 below). I also take my laptop to the library often to use the WiFi there.
I do not have room for a large desktop computer, which limits the computing power I have available locally. Readers of this blog will be aware that I perform computationally demanding tasks regularly. To get around the problem I rent computing power from Amazon when I need it. Using Amazon, I probably break even with the overall cost of buying a powerful desktop computer, so nothing is really lost. All I need to make this arrangement work is the 4G internet access discussed above. This works because all data is processed and stored on the Amazon EC2 instances, so only results and commands need to be passed between my laptop and the EC2 instances, thereby minimizing the amount of the monthly data download availability I consume.
I am both a scientist and an engineer, and therefore am constantly tinkering with something. Usually this tinkering involves only a computer so there is no need for lab space. However, there are projects I would like to take on that require space, such as learning to use 3D printers, that I simply do not have. I only have one table and that holds my laptop and rather large monitor. The table provides enough room to mess with things like Raspberry Pis, but again, a 3D printer or an autonomous robot might be too big for the space I have.
Small Space (Need for Storage Efficiency)
Living in an RV requires storage efficiency. For example, I use my bunks as storage racks:
Similarly, under the bed I store books:
Note that when planning storage, you must not exceed your towable weight limit.
Having to Own a Truck
My RV is a travel trailer, so I have to own a truck to tow it with. Since it makes little sense for me to own two vehicles, I’m not buying a more economical hybrid vehicle that would make my compute cheaper and more ecologically friendly. So I feel I am stuck with my gas-hogging truck for the time I own the travel trailer.
I could have bought an RV with its own engine (at substantially greater cost) and then bought a vehicle suitable for towing behind it. However, this arrangement was out of my price range at the time I bought the travel trailer, since I already owned the truck with no debt.
Issues With RV Parks
I like the RV park I am in, having no complaints other than the great distance I have to travel to get to work. However, there are three issues one needs to be aware of when staying at a park:
1. Your RV must be younger than some date set by the park, and in good condition, or they won’t let you stay there. This precludes buying a very cheap, very used RV and fixing it up.
2. The RV parks in the cities around me (San Diego county) have limits on how long you can stay. Usually, they require you to leave for two days following a six-month stay. I think these are city laws but am not sure. Out in the county, I’ve not seen the same constraint, so I live in the county far from my workplace.
3. The RV parks close to where I work cost substantially more, up to twice as much per month. This is because they are closer to the beach. However, there is a trade off since living at one of these would reduce my commute, but I’d have to deal with issue #2 above.
As mentioned above, I live in a relatively remote part of San Diego county compared to where I work, so my commute is typically 45 minutes one way. Fortunately, the county has a good public radio station.
I haven’t mastered cooking in such a small environment yet, and therefore use a microwave for most of my meals. My RV has a propane stove top with three burners but no oven. There is also no dishwasher, making cleanup a bit more annoying. I also haven’t mastered food storage in the small space yet. The small refrigerator has proven big enough for my needs though.
Ecological Footprint (The Challenge)
My long commute, having to own a truck, and the poor insulation all contribute to the ecological footprint of my living in an RV.
Lack of Study Space
Similar to the lack of lab space is a lack of good study space. Again, my only table is taken up by my computer and monitor, leaving no room to spread out books and lecture notes. I find studying on my bed instead makes me tired so I usually do my homework at work (after hours).
Not Sure What To Do When Lifestyle Changes
I expect I won’t live in an RV forever, e.g., when I start a family. Therefore I’ll eventually need to go through the hassle of retiring the RV. This will mean either storing it or selling it. Storing it will be expensive, and selling it suffers the effect of great depreciation. Moreover, I might still owe on the RV loan after such a change in lifestyle. My response to this eventuality has been to pay off the loan aggressively.
My RV was not designed for full time living (some are). For example, latches are weak and cabinets are easily damaged. Moreover, full time living might void the warranty according to the users’ manual. I did not realize this until I had bought the unit. If there is a next time, I’ll buy a unit made for full time living.
Using solar power to charge batteries makes sense for boondocking, but mixing solar power with park-based living may not provide much benefit. I haven’t seen RV solar installations that feed power back into the grid once the batteries are charged (though admittedly I haven’t looked as hard as I could). This is something I’ll explore more in the future, but for now I’m suggesting that investing in solar power for park-based RV living needs to be carefully evaluated before taking the plunge.
Tank Sensors Giving Me Trouble
From the moment I started using my RV, my sensor on my black-water holding tank has been reading three-quarters full, no matter what chemicals I dump into it. Therefore I’m not always sure when to dump the tank. Even when living in a park, it is best for the holding tanks to let them fill before emptying them, rather than simply leaving the valve open all the time.
As expressed in my post “engineer moves into an RV“, there are no 12 VDC receptacles for running 12V appliances in my RV. This is no problem for park living, but if I boondock using the batteries for power I’d like to be able to use 12V devices. Furthermore, there is no easy place to connect an inverter to my 12V power supply. These are things I wish I checked for when shopping for RVs.
I’ve found plumbing to be a pain in my RV. There are two problems: First, you can’t use chemicals like Draino to clear blockages since they will damage your holding tanks, so you have to manually clear pipes. Second, the tight spaces make getting to the pipes a challenge.
If you let the water heater run for 45 minutes, you can take a warm, roughly 10 minute shower. However, you’ll lose warm water after that. In drought-stricken southern California, one should not take a long shower anyway. You have to remember to turn off your water heater when you are not using it to save propane.
selecting travel trailers by regression
engineer moves into an RV