Selecting a Tiny Space — What’s Right for You? AND — Absorption Refrigerator — Bring Your Cooler!

You’ve figured out where you want to live – moving around, staying in one place. What do you think about when buying a tiny space?  It certainly will vary based on your lifestyle and cashflow.  I’ve watched programs on purchasing tiny spaces on wheels a lot.  The tiny houses look great – cute, a little house on wheels.  We’ve also had a trailer, and my son is living in a 36’ fifth wheel while he builds his house.  What about buying a tiny house in town?  They all are viable options now that you’ve found a space to live on.

Here are things we thought about.

For me, tiny houses on wheels makes one feel like they are living in a house, because they look like a house only much smaller.  To be mobile, however, the typical tiny house does have certain limitations – not too high, not too big, not too heavy, limited storage, typically the bed is upstairs and reachable via a ladder or stairs with typically no headroom to stand up in and are mobile.  For younger people, climbing up a ladder to get into bed has some whimsy to it.  However, since I am retired, thinking about climbing a ladder when I wasn’t too keen about climbing stairs in my house all the time is an obstacle that I didn’t know I wanted to overcome.

There were other things I was thinking about. As I looked at the storage space inside them I questioned whether or not there would be sufficient space for the things I wanted to keep with me.  Remember, I was moving from a 2,500 square foot house with a barn and a storage shed to a small space.

Although the idea of great insulation and building materials that create that “real house” look is what makes tiny houses so appealing, it may make them heavier that RVs since they focus a lot on using lightweight materials.  We have a truck, but it has weight limitations.  It also may be more difficult to maneuver than a trailer and have greater wind drag – an issue when the winds are strong from both a hauling perspective and a gas mileage perspective.  What about height restrictions?  That might be an issue when hauling it down the road.  And then there is the size of the refrigerator, its weight, compost toilet versus black tank, water tank or no water tank.

Then, there is the fifth wheel or trailer.  You need a truck to haul a fifth wheel.  The benefit of a fifth wheel over a trailer is that typically the bedroom is over the bed of the truck when connected reducing the length of trailer being hauled behind the truck (about five feet).  Trailers and fifth wheels are built with aerodynamics in mind reducing air drag.  Both are pretty maneuverable as they are built for towing and height clearances.  In a fifth wheel, there are stairs – three typically – but when in the bedroom most people can stand up to change clothes.  Weight is an issue no matter what you purchase, but trailers and fifth wheels have been focusing on reducing weight as much as possible for years.  By using lighter weight materials as much as possible, you can find RV units that are relatively light while creating a comfortable living space.  But what about wintering in one of these units in a cold climate?  Well, if you need to purchase an older model, you probably will have issues unless you take steps to avoid freezing of pipes, water lines, etc.  There is a great deal of information out there on how to address this.  If you are buying a new unit, they often come with arctic packages but these vary by manufacturer.  You need to educate yourself on the model you are looking at, because more often than not the dealer selling these units does not know the particulars.  Often, the RV is tested in a zero-degree environment but with no wind.  Makes a difference.  Do you have single pane or duo pane windows in the rig?  Duo panes have advantages and disadvantages but do provide more insulation capabilities.  And with so many windows in today’s trailers, it certainly can make a difference.

Oh, and did I mention the REFRIGERATOR!!!  Depending on the unit you purchase, you may have a refrigerator that switches between electric and propane or runs only on electric. I’ll cover issues on this below.  And what about those appliances such as your stove.  Does it run on propane?  What elevation do you plan to be at?  It may make a difference on how efficiently it runs.

So maybe a tiny house in a community is the answer for you.  Purchasing something small can have great advantages if you need to stay in one location.  And, if you are downsizing from something bigger, as we did, you may have some cash in your pocket to apply toward the purchase price.  And, you are potentially building equity.  I say potentially, because you never know if your investment is going to increase in value or decrease in value.  In past years, real estate was a great investment if you made a good purchasing decision.  Typically, the value of our purchase went up.  Today, you may buy a property and find you are under water (the value is less than what you owe).  HMM.  You have a house and have locked into a monthly payment that includes insurance and taxes (if your loan is a fixed mortgage) so there are no surprises – rent going up – although insurance and taxes do fluctuate to some extent at times.  The downside is that typically a house will be larger than a tiny space so your utilities will be higher.  You often also need a down payment to purchase a house.  If you don’t put 20% of the purchase price down, you’ll be faced with mortgage insurance for a number of years – a very expensive requirement of loans without this down payment.  The benefit of purchasing a tiny house is that you have a place to stay in the community you want to live in.   The disadvantage is you have a place to stay in the community you want to live in.  What if you lose your job, want to explore new things?  You have to sell your house first or rent it out if that works for you.  You are much less mobile.

In thinking of these options, we chose to live in a fifth wheel for a time with the intent longer term to purchase a smaller house.  A fifth wheel made sense to us, but we had to be careful about the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).   We have an F250, gas engine – not diesel.  So, our maximum was 11,900 lbs. GVWR.  When looking at rig above 30 feet, that is a challenge!  We chose a Grand Design Reflection 303RLS which is 33 feet long and has a 11,900 GVWR weight.  We purchased a new rig so we could have the manufacturer install duo pane windows.  There were no rigs in the US with duo pane windows – only in Canada.  They all come standard with an Arctic Package – R9 wall insulation, R33 roof insulation, and a heated underbelly with all pipes covered and heated. We live in Colorado so it does get cold here.  The coldest it has been is 6 below zero in December. We didn’t have time to put covering around it to reduce wind, but it has really been mild (typically around 20 at night and 40 in the daytime) except for several days when the temperatures dropped.

We’ve been living in it for a month and are learning from experience.  On advice of others, we keep the black tank closed and only dump it once a week.  Enzymes work in these tanks and create natural heat I am told.  We were told if you keep the tank open, it very well may freeze.  We keep the gray tank open all the time.  Our hose to the dump site is elevated so it doesn’t sit on the ground.  When we flush the tanks, we close the gray tank for a while to build up gray water (about a day) so when we flush the black tank we have gray water to flush out the hose.  We like to keep our temperature at 68 degrees inside.  We put a thermometer in the pass through storage area and the temperature is holding nicely with the heated vent. We did buy a heater just in case we needed to supplement the heat in that area.

So here is the nemesis.  The refrigerator!  On our unit, they installed one that can be run on electric or propane.  Basically, there are two manufacturers of these refrigerators.  First, because it requires venting and pipes for the switch between gas and electric in the back, the refrigerator in our unit is very small.  A similar electric unit with the same height and width dimensions is about 2 cubic feet bigger because it is deeper than this frig.

An RV refrigerator that switches between gas and electric is known as an “absorption” refrigeration system.  No pumps or compressors are used. A combination of liquid water, ammonia, and a rust inhibitor are used in this refrigerator.  You can learn all about this system by going to Wikipedia –  I liked this explanation and the drawing as well – Basically, some type of heat input is needed in the cooling unit to causes a chemical reaction in that unit (Daltons Law). The chemical reaction in the cooling unit is very sensitive to heat and COLD.  If it is too hot (keep good ventilation) the cooling unit gets too hot.  If it gets too cold, it disrupts the chemical reaction in the cooling unit and will not cool.  Although it is often stated that if the temperature falls below 32 degrees, there will be a big drop in absorption performance as the ammonia mixture has some water and other chemicals that gel or crystallize in freezing temps the reality is that if it gets too cold, the unit will freeze up and not allow any gas to flow through the system – a log jam so to speak.

Around Christmas, our refrigerator stopped working.  Everything in the refrigerator had to be thrown away or put in a cooler outside.  Have you ever tasted frozen lettuce and carrots?  Very interesting.  That’s when I learned from Norcold (Nevercold) that the refrigerator was not designed to work under 32 degrees unless a “Cold Package” was installed on the back of the refrigerator.  Basically, a cold package is heat tape applied to the absorber coils to keep them warm during the winter.  Of course, in the summer, you need to disconnect this heating element or the coil will be too hot.

REALLY? We purchased a “cold weather ready” RV and a refrigerator was installed that wouldn’t operate properly under 32 degrees.  I wouldn’t even have thought to ask  the question.  It makes no sense.  Although we are living in our fifth wheel right now, we can have snow in the mountains when dry camping in June.  Think the temperatures at night are above 32 degrees at night?  Hardly.  And from what I’ve been reading a similar problem may exist when temperatures reach above 80 degrees.

So, after a great deal of debate with the trailer manufacturer (our RV dealer was closed over Christmas), it was agreed they would pay for the $80 part (Cold Pack) and “reasonable” installation on the Norcold refrigerator they installed in our new fifth wheel.  We had it installed several weeks ago, and everything was running fine.

Well four days ago, the refrigerator stopped working again.  Everything went back in the cooler!  Again, frozen lettuce which had to be thrown away and frozen carrots.  I called our RV dealer this time.  Of course, Grand Design told them it was a Norcold/Thedford issue and talk to them – they don’t want any part of this problem even though they selected to install this refrigerator in our fifth wheel without telling us that our Arctic Package unit had a refrigerator that would not work in cold weather and did not give us an option to install something else that wouldn’t cause this problem, e.g.  Nova Kool 9000 that runs on electric and when dry camping can run off solar.

Called our RV dealer again.  They’ve been great about handling this issue.  They contacted Norcold/Thedford who would not do anything unless a technician looked at the refrigerator.  For us, that meant either hauling our unit back down to the dealer (a 70-mile trip one way) — to haul our rig there, my husband has to take time off of work, we have to stay in a pet friendly hotel overnight, and find someplace to store our free-standing freezer we have in our trailer – a huge hassle – or pay for a mobile RV mechanic to come to us!  Of course, we were responsible for these costs.  So, of course, I opted for someone to come here.

Insulating the vent
Duct tape and silver insulation to reduce cold air.

Well is this problem unique.  Of course not!  Even with the heat tape, apparently, the ammonia/water solution froze in the absorption coil creating a blockage.  Solution.  Take the bottom vent off.  Run a heater in the cavity for 24 hours surrounded by aluminum insulation (the kind used on garage doors) so that most the heat was directed to the back of the unit and not to the outside.  Remove the heater.  Tape the lower vent completely except for 6” on the top opening of this vent.  Tape the first opening on the top vent.  Our fifth wheel has a lower and upper vent on the side slide out rather than a vent on the side and top – a much better design for air flow on absorption units.  Put the vent back on.  Turn the refrigerator to gas rather than electric and run it on that mode for the day.  Tonight, switch back to electric and see what happens.  If it stops working, something is wrong with the electric.  If it keeps working, the cooling unit was getting too cold even if the heat tape so wouldn’t work.

Right now, the refrigerator is set at 3 and the freezer temperature is about zero and the refrigerator is at 38 degrees.  It’s been running for three hours now.  I’ll put food back in the refrigerator once I validate that it works properly on both gas and electric.

Of course, in a couple of months, if this works, I’ll need to remove the tape from the vents and, when it gets hot – which it does here – put a fan in to circulate the air so it doesn’t get too hot or will have the same problem in reverse – too hot rather than too cold.

Cooling food in cooler vs refrigerator
Substituting a Cooler for a Norcold refrigerator

Wouldn’t you think with all of us full time RV’ers or those wanting to camp during hunting season when it gets really cold or in the early summer or those camping in hot and humid climates that RV manufacturers would think about looking at more appropriate refrigeration systems?  Guess it’s too hard to step away from technology that has been used since the 1950s.  Heck, that technology is as old as I am.  That’s scary!!

So, if you’ve purchased an RV that’s designed to be comfortable in cold weather, don’t forget a big cooler. You may need it.

LOL – life above 5,400 feet in a space that is about 300 square feet.

One thought on “Selecting a Tiny Space — What’s Right for You? AND — Absorption Refrigerator — Bring Your Cooler!”

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