Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

The Third Degree of Cheapskate

Their silent power stops at sunset!

Their silent power stops at sunset!

Originally posted 3/18/2013

As a rule, full-time RVers are not big spenders. The great majority have prioritized the ability to live in their vehicle ahead of just about everything else. They don’t have much income, and many work temporary jobs here and there in order to continue their lifestyle. This requires travel and gets expensive, but they like the travel anyway! Others deplete their financial kitty and stop long enough to earn another bankroll so they can hit the road for a few more years.

So, over time, I’ve noticed that boondockers get a sense of achievement from conserving on the use of resources like water or electrical power, and from discovering free or very inexpensive campsites. Those from the West Coast amuse themselves by measuring their carbon footprint against what they used to do in their previous “sticks & bricks” lifestyle. Others simply monitor spending in order to gauge their progress toward achieving a Higher State of Cheapskate-ness.

Minimizing expenses is not an easy thing, because even boondocking, the cheapest way to full-time, eats through money much faster than you’d think! “But,” you protest, “How expensive could it be to drive somewhere, park for awhile, and enjoy the great outdoors? Camping, real camping, is cheap! No rent, no mortgage, no motels, fix your own food, fun!”

The current minimum monthly burn rate by full-time vandwellers – people who live out of a van or even a car – is usually regarded to be $600/month. A few can do less, but that’s only because there’s no alternative in their individual situations, and they have to. In general though, $600 is what you’ll have to be prepared to throw into the fire each month, nonstop, in order to continue that lifestyle. Even at that rate, you have to hope that nothing major comes up. People who fit the vandwelling lifestyle well tend to genuinely like camping and enjoying nature, accept and enjoy personal challenges, are highly adaptable, and have an eagerness to expand their horizons. They need these qualities because creature comforts and space are minimal, and the support systems like electrical power, heat, fresh water, and waste handling are rudimentary. By necessity, they tend to be the most innovative, adaptable, thoughtful, and reflective of all RVers. To them, it’s an exhilarating personal challenge.

There aren't too many of this type setup in the LTVA, but a van and tent are far from rare.

There aren’t too many of this type setup in the LTVA, but a van and tent are far from rare.

I’m not them, and my abode reflects it. It’s hard to gauge my true expenses this early in the game because they vary wildly with the time of year. I stay put cheaply over the winter, but then travel cross-country to stay in pricey digs for a few months. Then return. At this point, by hammering hard on spending over the winter to compensate, my newbie burn rate appears to average about $1,300/month, which is just a tad over my available budget of $1,250. Wow. But even that high budget assumes nothing will go wrong.

Why are my numbers so high? Two contributors. The largest budget killer is that trip back to the Midwest: fuel. It’s a necessary trip for me in this first year, though. No way around it. There was no time to button everything up before I left in the Fall of 2012. But I’m not alone here. From what I can tell, the biggest piece of the spending pie for all full-time boondockers goes toward vehicle fuel.

Let me put it into context. Once I started working for hourly wages instead of salaried, my thoughts for many purchases came down to asking myself how many hours of work it’d take to pay for this thing. For RVers on a tight budget, decisions tend to revolve around fuel costs. If a safe, free overnight stop like a city park is ten miles off the path, that’s about 2 gallons of fuel or $9, not including the effects of wear and tear. A cheap commercial campsite just a mile away at $12 may be the better choice overall. You can’t afford to scout around – that would burn fuel – so every single stop must be researched and locked in ahead of time, online.

The lesser cost contributor for me is that, living in a relatively posh 26’ travel trailer, such comfort and convenience comes at a cost. There are more built-in systems and devices to fail, and whatever does fail is usually more expensive to fix or replace than residential units. Rather than resembling a rustic hunting shack, a travel trailer is much more like a mobile urban apartment fitted with low-quality appliances and fixtures. Getting competent repairs can also be problematic. That wastes money.

But, I’ve titled this post The Third Degree of Cheapskate. The First Degree of Cheapskate is to minimize initial capital outlay. Considering the rather high “comforts of home” level that I’ve chosen, I’ve approached that by acquiring an old, inexpensive travel trailer and then “investing” in power and water/waste systems which will decrease operational costs in the long run. It hurts more up front, but slows down the burn rate in the long run. The hint there is that you have to make it to the long run, or the payback doesn’t happen.

This is the Black Belt of Cheapskate, a car and a tent. Some people prefer this setup over any other choice. They can camp and enjoy the freedom and very low cost, and visit friends in urban areas without getting hassled.

This is the Black Belt of Cheapskate, a car and a tent. Some people prefer this setup over any other choice. They can camp and enjoy the freedom and very low cost, and visit friends in urban areas without getting hassled.

The Second Degree of Cheapness is to minimize living expenses. Instead of “the more you spend, the more you save” it’s “the less you spend, the more you save”. One thing that means is conserving resources that are in limited supply. Diesel fuel, fresh water, propane, food, clothing. Minimize usage, because getting more of any of these and getting rid of waste costs money out of pocket. I combine errands that require the truck. Whenever possible, I use the bicycle to avoid having to start up the truck at all.

The only thing I don’t need to conserve much, at least in the Southwest, is electrical power. My solar power system costs more than a small, quality gas generator, but it’s silent and requires no fuel, no fuel storage, no driving trips to get fuel, no troubleshooting manual, and no repairs or maintenance. It’s a long-run approach. That’s nothing to brag about on a heavily overcast run of a few days, but I’m glad I went this way – so far. The Second Degree of Cheapness also means not spending money on “stuff” that can’t justify its existence. No impulse buys. No toys. No bottled water, no comfort snacks at the gas station. I’ve agonized for days over buying an electric fan, a $5 tea kettle, and spending $3 to replace a large cooking strainer that was hard to get clean without going through a ton of water to do it. That’s being cheap, but every buck wasted simply puts me deeper into the red, so it’s easier than I thought it’d be.

I haven’t exactly mastered the first or second degrees, but the Third Degree of Cheapskate is to extend the life of the equipment you already have, in order to get maximum use from it before it requires repair or replacement. Sometimes that costs money, like oil changes for the truck. Sometimes it’s just using the device or system less. Sometimes it’s using it in a way that’s less wearing. Simple example: rare is the day when you’ll see me turn the steering wheel if the truck isn’t moving. The stresses involved are impressive, and I don’t care to pay for tie rod ends or power steering pumps before I absolutely have to.

In the spirit of the Third Degree of Cheapskate, what I’m looking at these days is how to extend the lifespan of the trailer’s various batteries. This may involve a third lifestyle change. See, I’ve already made radical changes to where and how I live, and equally radical changes as to what I eat. Now, I may need to alter my sleep schedule too, but instead of the motivators being peace of mind or health, it’s cheapness!

See, my total investment in batteries has been just short of $1,700. A battery getting used up and then recharged every day is referred to as a cycle, and rechargeable batteries only have so many cycles in them before they go gimpy. The potential number of cycles is decreased by conditions that are less than perfect. By average standards, my house batteries should last 1-2 years of normal usage, and my big-buck AGMs for the office and CPAP should last 3-4 years before requiring replacement. I can handle the house batteries at about $180, but not the AGMs at $1,500. I need them all to last longer than the average. Much longer.

One way to make batteries last is to never discharge them by more than 25% of their capacity. This maximizes the number of cycles they can achieve. I’m already doing this. Good for me. But the big battery killer is sulphation, which is a natural process that coats the lead plates with crap that robs them of their ability to accept and hold a charge. Capacity nosedives. Most batteries never reach their inherent cycle limit because of sulphation.

There are three ways to limit the pace of sulphation. One is to use a high quality charge source. Fortunately, my MPPT solar charge controllers (expensive!) are the best type available. Cheapo automotive chargers and even PWM solar chargers pose more of a problem. So, I’m good there. Solar charge controllers also “condition” the pack once a month using slightly higher charge voltages in order to try to delay sulphation a little.

The second way to limit sulphation buildup is to use a small electronic gizmo called a desulphator on each battery pack. They work great. Desulphators use electronic pulses to literally knock deposits off the lead plates. Unfortunately, desulphators of the type I need run from $80-$130 smackers apiece, and to do it right, I’d need three, one for each pack. I’m just not ready for that kind of outlay, so I’m looking at the third way to limit the rate of buildup in the first place.

That little speck at center is the Mighty Enterprise with solar panels out. I took this on my way back during my walk.

That little speck at center is the Mighty Enterprise with solar panels out. I took this on my way back during my walk.

Third, sulphation increases markedly when a battery spends much time sitting around discharged. Letting one sit for a few days when discharged by 50% is the worst, and discharged by only 25% isn’t a whole lot better. Voltage needs to stay up as much as possible, for as long as possible. Now, all my packs are recharged the next day, but what I’m wondering is, does that evening discharge, sitting overnight at 75% for 10 or so hours every single day also have a measurable effect on sulphation? My guess is, bad effect no, measurable effect yes. Could I get a noticeable lifespan increase by minimizing this overnight downtime? How many more cycles could I get? I can’t find any information on this, but I suspect it would help.

The CPAP battery isn’t a big problem here, because it’s hardly discharged at all before it’s recharged the next morning.

The house battery pack isn’t stressed too badly, either. I of course use the trailer’s interior lights in the evening, but fortunately the LED bulbs that I swapped in use almost no power. The water pump and electronic igniters for the water heater and propane fridge run off the house pack. They don’t drain a lot of power.

It’s the office pack I wonder about. I prefer to watch a DVD or two at night over dinner on the 28” LCD TV before I hit the sack at 11PM. That equipment uses only about 40 watts. The factory DC power plug that came with the trailer runs off the house batteries and is specified at 96 watts capacity. Unfortunately, that wiring has deteriorated to the point that it can no longer handle the TV, so using the house batteries for watching TV is out. In fact, the trailer’s whole original equipment power harness is marginal. So, I’ve been running the TV/DVD off the office pack instead. Then the pack sits discharged overnight at 75-80% of capacity. Hmmm.

Two possibilities arise here. There were three. The first was to put the pressure on the relatively cheap house batteries. That failed when the wiring couldn’t handle it.

The second is to stop using the computer and other office equipment as soon as sunset approaches, since it’s then running off the battery pack instead of the excess power from the solar panels. Then do my evening DVD thing to take the battery down to 90% charge at worst. This would help.

The other approach is to do something other than watch movies in the evening, which isn’t that enlightening a thing to do anyway. Read a book. Study. Read an e-book on the iPad or learn something. Take my semi-annual shower. Listen to music. Heck, with enough preplanning and effort during the day, the iPad can play any movie in my collection that I care to load onto it. The key is that I should go to bed no later than 9PM. Then when I get up at 4AM or whatever, I can do anything I like in the office or with the TV/DVD because battery time spent discharged will be nearly zero. Maximum battery lifespan, and probably the next best thing to forcing the situation with a desulphator.

So what’s the hitch? Me. I’ve always been a night owl. Always. I’ve read that people used to pretty much follow the sun, and that they began to stay up and alter their sleeping hours only after the invention of affordable lighting. I have affordable lighting. I’m just not sure I want to pay the price for watching a movie on batteries. I think I’ll try this for awhile! Why not? Nobody has actually died from going to bed at eight or nine and getting up at three or four. Have they? Will I achieve the Supreme Exaltation of the Travel Trailer Cheapskate? Perhaps it’s a risk worth trying. I can see Yoda squint and say, “Do not try. Do.” Let us move forward then, Grasshopper, to the next level.

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