When adapting a trailer for life near the tree line, everything in the place requires a Frankenstein's Fix.
For a number of years now, my girlfriend and I have been growing restless. We live in Colorado, you see, and yearn for a life in the mountains. Clear air, chilly weather, spectacular views, massive drifts of snow. It's in our very blood and bones. So we decided to do something drastic: We sold most of our household possessions, purchased a travel trailer and some mountain land, and set off for our new lives. If only it were quite that simple.
(All photos: Benjamin Goldstone)
You may now be asking yourself how this has anything at all to do with a "product that I tore into to fix or improve it." I ask only for your patience, as this is a story about fixing our lives as much as a product. Or perhaps "hacking" would be a more apt term, as we decided to explore the limits of a travel trailer as well as ourselves. Our plan? To brave the elements at 9,600 feet in one of the most beautiful places in the world to pursue that dream... in a three-season RV. Yep, we must be nuts.
As our budget was only $5,000 for our new home, we needed to get creative. A fully winterized, fully furnished RV runs far above the $5,000 mark, so we purchased the best used unit we could find. The previous owners hadn't maintained it to quite the degree they should have, and so a number of repairs were in order.
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Tools for a new life.
First and foremost was the fridge. It was not properly cooling. In fact, even on the warmest setting, instead of cooling things it would freeze everything in it. Uh oh. The issue could be one of a number of things. Most likely either the thermistor or the control circuit board was bad. I grabbed my multimeter, set it to detect resistance, and placed the thermistor in ice. It registered 8kΩ, within the 7-10kΩ range it should be in. When placed in warm water, the multimeter averaged 2kΩ. The thermistor was not the issue. Upon pulling the cover off of the control board, it was immediately apparent that one of the capacitors was having issues as it was bulging. After soldering in a new capacitor, the fridge began to cycle and cool food properly.
But wait, now suddenly the light in the fridge was only intermittently working. After ensuring the connections to the power sources (both AC and DC) were solid and that the components on both the control and settings boards were all working as required, I pulled the light itself apart. Two of the contacts within the switch were no longer solidly connecting when the switch closed -- one of those cases where a fix to one thing reveals another unrelated issue. I stripped the plastic off of a twist tie for a garbage bag, cut the wire within to size, and wrapped both sides of the switch so when closed, the switch would function reliably. Now the fridge is in perfectly functional order.
A number of other minor repairs in the RV were also immediately required. The vent on the roof above the fridge, used to keep the fins on the fridge cool, had been mostly broken off, allowing in the elements. Nothing to do but remove the remnants of the old vent and install a new one. Additionally, the grip tape on the stairs needed to be replaced; the interior was ugly as sin and needed painting; a number of latches were broken; the windows in the door had fallen down into the door; etc, etc. “Oy Vey!” As my grandmother would have said. But this is the life we signed up for. A couple of trips to the RV supply shop and days later everything is back in working order.
Now, while we work on clearing our land of dead trees, we have found a gig at a local state park that provides space for our RV and trucks in return for a minor amount of work. As it happens that space is on the top ridge of a mountain, situated at 9,600 feet, just below the timberline. Taking an RV designed for three season use and turning it into a living space capable of weathering winters with average snow falls of 80+ inches and temperatures down to -30 degrees F is no small feat. Most RVs are not designed for that kind of living, and ours certainly wasn't. While not really a design fault, we do need something that will keep us and our pets warm through the harsh winter ahead.
As it's quite likely that we will be snowed in at least once this winter, redundancy and proper preparation are of paramount importance. We started by making a list. So far, we have resealed the trailer with silicone caulk and expanding foam sealant, insulated underneath, applied heat-tape to the exposed drain pipes, applied heat shrink to the windows, and purchased the supplies to skirt the trailer. We have also purchased bear spray, backup heaters, a generator, a solar panel and charge controller, backup propane, emergency first aid kits, as well as backup food and water supplies -- and, of course, a whole mess of snow gear to supplement what we already have.
Never one to simply leave things be, however, I have started working on additional projects. A backup UPS for the heat tape and other critical AC systems is a must. A DC-to-AC inverter for running AC systems while boondocking is also necessary. I'm most looking forward to my new Raspberry-Pi/Arduino-based control system idea for controlling and monitoring the entire trailer. While a lot of work, this new lifestyle has certainly delivered our dreams, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I do, however, now know how the characters in the epic A Song of Ice and Fire felt when they said “Winter is coming.” For us, lady winter is truly on her way, and she is going to be brutal. Wish us luck.
About the author Ben Goldstone: "I live in Colorado and own a small IT consulting business. I have been into everything tech related since I disassembled my parents' lawn mower at the age of eight... and couldn't put it back together properly after the timing gear fell out. My love for tech is matched only by my thirst for knowledge, pursuit for audio nirvana, and love for the outdoors."
The Frankenstein's Fix has just come to an end. Stay tuned to read the submissions and see what kind of difficult job of judging we have ahead of us! Submission details and full contest rules here.