Camping in the mountains, at 4,500 feet elevation, in January, is like an invitation for a freeze, yet the 10-day weather forecast said the lows would not see anything below 35 degrees F. Technically, not freezing.
That’s saying something for Southern California.
While the rest of the country was dealing with frozen rivers and polar vortexes, us digital nomads in the sunny southwest could still enjoy alpine camping without the nasal nipping of one Jack Frost.
And so, armed with that bit of comforting promise, we elected to tow our 28 foot toy hauler up to Thomas Mountain, an area within the San Bernardino National Forest, that’s host to a dozen “yellow post campsites”, effectively free boondocking if your vehicle can get there.
But weather forecasts, being what they are, often change. I just didn’t count on it changing that significantly.
After a few days there, the forecast now showed there would be a string of a few days with lows dipping below freezing, along with some snow. Yes, it was a concern for us, but then again, our trailer was equipped to deal with it. A 25,000 BTU furnace, four propane tanks, tank heaters and a water line heater, would make sure nothing would freeze up.
But the next day, the forecast corrected itself even further. It now said that lows would dip into the low 20s, with highs in the upper 30s.
Now, I began to worry.
Even though our water line had heating pads on them, I knew that those pads had their limits. Moreover, there were also places along the line that were unpadded, meaning more vulnerable to freeze.
I opted to drive down the mountain to a hardware store to buy insulation and pipe wrap to give our water line an extra layer of protection against the cold. After spending a day getting the line completely wrapped, I felt like I had accomplished something. Sash felt pretty confident our water would not freeze up.
So when our water line actually did freeze up a few days later, we felt devastated.
OK, now we have no running water, and we’re snowed in.
I couldn’t understand why our water line froze. I had left the water line heater running all night. I even left the generator running all night just to make sure the batteries remained charged. Yet, somehow, the freeze won out. It turned out temperatures reached a low of 19 degrees F that night. Perhaps the heating pads and insulation still was not good enough.
To make things worse, we now noticed the lights in our trailer starting to dim. I checked our solar controller, which could tell me the voltage in the batteries. We were down to 11.8 volts which is not enough to do much of anything with. These were dual six volt deep cycle batteries. I had them charging all night with the generator running. Obviously, they didn’t charge, and obviously that’s why the water line froze. The heating pads weren’t getting enough voltage.
I called the manufacturer of our trailer, ATC (Aluminum Trailer Company), and immediately got a technician on the phone. He had me run a test of the converter, and low and behold the converter (which converts a portion of the generator power to the batteries), was not working.
At least we now had an explanation of what happened.
I managed to put a battery charger on our batteries and started up our generator. At least that way, we could run some voltage into our trailer’s DC circuit to power the lights. We still didn’t have running water due to the freeze, but at least we could see at night.
The next day, we waited for the sun to melt off as much snow and ice from the campsite, enough to pull our trailer out of there. Once we got on to Highway 74, we towed about 100 miles south to Rick’s RV in El Cajon, an RV repair shop that we had used once before. Rick’s was the only shop we could find that would take us in that day.
The tech guys at ATC were nice enough to get on the phone with the techs at Rick’s and help them locate a new converter and get it installed right away.
By that time, the water line had thawed out, and I ran it to see if the freeze had burst the pipe. But fortunately, it did not.
Rick’s was not completely certain why the converter failed, but did note that a ground wire had burnt. In their experience, they had seen other converters do the same thing, and noted it’s often due to a wire getting loose and touching another wire.
Sash and I were more than satisfied that ATC was quick to get on the phone with us, diagnose the problem, and even assist the technicians at the repair shop. I doubt any other RV manufacturer would be so quick, let alone even bother to talk to a consumer. And I’m also happy to see that Rick’s RV would take us in right away while other repair shops I called wanted me to wait anywhere from a week to eight weeks just to look at our rig.
I’m not sure how one would go about testing their converter before camping in freezing temperatures, but it’s worth noting that they don’t last forever. Ours effectively lasted 22 months of full time use.
While ATC focuses on building all-aluminum trailers that don’t rot, mold, or rust, they still use components they buy from other manufacturers, including the converter. Over time, these components fail. When you consider that RVs are effectively rolling homes that experience an earthquake each time it moves down the road, stuff breaks.
And I think every RV owner understands that.
But not every RV owner has a manufacturer that gets on the phone with you right away to diagnose a problem, and very rarely can you find a repair shop that will take you in right away.
Awesome customer service makes all the difference in RVing.
When I’m facing a freeze I set up incandescent bulbs in the compartments that contain water or septic stuff…usually four 75 watt bulbs. Their waste heat has kept my basement as warm as 45 degrees in 25 degree weather.