Part 2 of our learnings being off grid on the road – focusing on managing power usage, and specifically heating and cooling.
Knowing how much power your appliances need is key
If you’re going to live sustainably off grid rather than using a generator or shoreline power, you have to start getting familiar with your power management. Red can run entirely off solar when you have 6-7 hours of sunshine in a day, but once it starts to be cloudy, it’s not so clear-cut.
Especially when you’re in more extreme weather (hot and cold), there are things you can do to make your life more comfortable and avoid those 4am alarms.
Hot water’s a luxury on tap
Certain devices we have are very power hungry, and between those, some are critical, some are nice to haves. So first thing to turn off on the road is our eco-smart water heater.
First it burns a lot of power fast, second, it’s really a luxury when you can heat water on a propane stove pretty fast. One of the things we’ve learned pretty quickly is that generating heat with electricity is fabulously inefficient. So for the sake of hot water from the tap, the heater is just off unless we’re in desert in blazing sun all day.
Keeping warm at night is a challenge in colder climates (especially high elevation)
Speaking of heating, the second device that “burns power” is our ceramic heater. Now this isn’t so cut and dry. Whilst it may seem a luxury, we stayed in West Yellowstone in Mid-May, we awoke to snow several times and below freezing temperatures. As adults, we’d be fine with our sleeping bags, as would S, but babies aren’t so great at generating their own heat and E would get cold, even in her woolino sleep sack.
So we need to put our little ceramic heater on overnight periodically. If we left it on all night, we’d all roast, but we’d also run out of power at around 4am. Since E still wakes every few hours, this isn’t so much of an issue as we just flick the power on or off for each wake up, but nothing worse than hearing the battery alarm in the wee small hours.
For us, one way we can trap a bit more heat is to drop the roof of Red and sleep with less headroom. Probably won’t be an issue for a lot of people in rigid trailers, but if you can shrink the available space at night, it’s a lot easier to stay warm (why do you think sleeping bags are so snug?)
Cooling is best done as a preventative measure
Heating a trailer is easy, cooling one is near impossible without expending a lot of power. The most important bit of advice for hot weather off grid I can give is to keep airflow low to trap cool air in the morning, invest in some heat reflective wrap and duct tape over your windows (it doesn’t look pretty but does wonders), find a spot if possible that is shaded and turn off as much as you can in the trailer as everything generates heat (our inverter is like a radiator).
Whilst this might not be enough for some, if you can keep a trailer internal temperature below 90 in the desert in the heat of the day, it’s quite easy to get the temperature bearable at night, once you cross that threshold, it’s a real bugger.
The is especially an issue with young children as the heat makes for cranky sleep and is higher risk for SIDS. Literally, every time we didn’t manage to keep Red cool, the kids would not get to sleep until several hours past bedtime and we’d be stressing until we saw the heat drop to a safer level.
If you take a look at our experience in Death Valley, you’ll realise that sometimes, you lose control and you need to find an alternative for the night. Adults can take a hot night, but don’t take risks with the most important thing in your life.
Hopefully this would be obvious, but in hot weather, the grill is your friend outside. Never cook inside the trailer, don’t boil the kettle first thing in the morning on the hob, suck it up and take the kettle outside. The more heat you generate inside the trailer, the harder your job is at nighttime.
Invest in a high efficiency convection cooler
Some people reach for the aircon units, but we don’t have one. Red really doesn’t have any room for more ducting, it would look pretty ugly, and most of all, aircon is one of the big contributors to climate change, along with being very power hungry.
The solution we found on a hot night near Lake Mead was an evaporative cooler. These units work by forcing air (via a fan) through a wet filter. This adds cool humidity to the air (especially in dry climates) and makes it feel a good few degrees cooler. This is not going to make your trailer cold, but it will take the edge off a really hot night. They’re also very low power consumption and have the added bonus of doubling as a noise machine for your sleeping babies…
The big downside is you need to fill them with water which is precious when you have a limited supply. Also, most that will fit in a trailer, will only have capacity to run on high for 7-8 hours, so fill it up before you go to bed or face the beeping alarm in the middle of the night.
Keeping food cool – fridge or coolbox?
We have a small refrigerator in Red which on lowest setting can be run all day in temperate climates, but it’s a no go in hot weather. Why? because it has to keep cycling on, which powers up the inverter, which belches out a big load of heat. There’s no point having a cool food in the trailer if you melt when you step inside because the inverter has been on all day.
So what are your alternatives? First, depending how long you’re out there, you may not need to cool much, and a small cool bag may suffice, and you can live on dried goods and tinned food for a fair amount of time. However, if you really need a cool beer at the end of a long day hiking, you’re only options are to head to civilization, or to get a coolbox.
When camping in the past, we’ve used a traditional coolbox with ice packs. These typically last about 2-3 days depending where you can stash them out of the sun and if you have enough packs. The drawback is they are heavy to lug around and get real soggy by day 3.
On this most recent trip, we got a coolbox that runs off a 5V power source. This means we can plug it in the back outlet in our car and it runs away whenever we’re driving. It’s certainly not as cold as a traditional cool box with ice clocks, but it does the job if you’re going to be driving for a few hours each day.
Avoiding the inverter – Get a 5V outlet installed
Assuming you’re not going to use a fridge, and you’re trailer is cool enough to sleep without a cooler, it’s so important to find ways around running your mains power. We have a 5V outlet unit in Red which bypasses the inverter and has a cigarette lighter outlet and 2 USB outlets. This means we can charge a lot of items off the USB (baby cam, phones, night light) and not fire up the inverter at all.
This means we can shut almost everything down and make sure we’re not bleeding power or heat out into an already hot trailer. As I said above, it’s easier to keep a trailer cool, than to make a hot trailer cool.
Things will go wrong and how to stay zen and calm. Let’s just say, we had punctures, impassable roads, mice, heatwaves etc.