There are 2 possible sources of energy in a camper or motorhome – propane and electricity. When we decided to winter in Illinois we had to think from a frugal RVer’s point of view about which way to go to keep warm and do other things that require energy. We could depend on our propane furnace, use electric heaters, or use a combination.
Our motorhome is a relatively small space, and we had some previous experience with small electric heaters in our travel trailer. They seem to do a good job of keeping an area warm, but they do soak up the kilowatts if overused, and the bigger ones can pull too many amps for the system we have (30 amp service only). You also have to have at least 2 of them, one for the front and one for the back. There are many different styles and sizes available, but we found a couple that we really liked and stuck with them.
Our propane furnace is designed to keep important parts of the motor home warm, such as the under-the-sink cabinets in the bathroom and the kitchen, and the water pipes underneath the floor. Unfortunately, it starts to lack real warming ability when the temperature dips into the 20s and lower, so we use it sparingly.
Of course, there are other necessary uses of LP gas. The refrigerator uses gas, but works very efficiently in the colder weather, but the hot water heater takes longer to heat up a batch, and the longer it cooks, the more propane we use. Speaking of cooking, we use our propane kitchen stove every day, and in the cold it’s nice to get something in the oven that warms up the place and smells good too. So the combination of heating, hot water production, and cooking can add up to emptying our tank in a relatively short time. It seemed to last a good month or a little bit more before we had to figure out how to get it refilled.
A motorhome has a disadvantage over a camper in the gas department – the tank is onboard, and it can’t be removed, refilled, and replaced like a trailer tank. This entails one of 2 courses of action when it is empty: drive to a propane source and get it filled, or set up an outboard tank that can be refilled without moving the motorhome. For us thrifty folks the real issue here is cost. A tube and valve setup called an extend-a-stay or extend-a-flow can be bought and installed for around a hundred dollars. It is possible to use a small gas cylinder, but the larger tank itself will cost at least $50 or more depending on how big you want it, so getting an outboard LP source would cost us $150 or so.
We found a relatively inexpensive propane supplier who could fill our onboard tank for around $25 if it was close to empty. But of course we had to unhook everything and drive there (at 8 mpg, $4 a gallon gas has to be figured into the equation too). When we first arrived, we were thinking about putting up skirting to conserve some of our heat, but we finally decided not to bother. We figured we would need to fill up our tank at least 3 times during the winter, so the cost of propane going that route would about $75, plus the gas it would take to drive the 30 mile roundtrip to the supplier. That turns out to be cheaper than buying a hose/outboard tank system, and we wouldn’t have the problem of what to do with that huge tank when we get into warmer weather and head off for other places.
We benefited by having a mild winter temperature-wise, and a low amount of snow, too. So we didn’t have any problem getting out and driving in winter weather, but it was still a pain. Taking down the pictures and nick-knacks and unhooking everything takes less time than you think it will, but it is a bit of a job. After a couple of times though, we streamlined the process and it didn’t seem so bad.
I suppose if you are in a colder climate for a longer period of time and can expect some snow buildup around the RV, an extend-a-stay would be a good investment. After all, you can’t live without propane in an RV, and you need to be able to have the security of a full tank when it starts getting low. For us, the lack of the extra expense and complications made it worthwhile to just use the onboard tank.
By the way, the ideal solution to this problem would be a propane supplier who can drive up, fill your onboard tank, and let us skip the driving out part. If you are in a real fancy RV park for the winter, that service might be available. But for us frugal folks, that’s not likely to happen. We also tried to find a propane deliverer in the area who would fill our tank, but nobody would do it – too expensive to drive here and to keep the necessary equipment on their trucks. So once again, we had to live and learn and make decisions without having a lot to go on. Based on our experience this winter, I think we would do the same thing again, and use the money we save to crank up the electric heaters a little bit more.
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