Monday, January 15, 2024

Going Underground


"What you see is what you get
You made your bed you better lie in it
As their lies put you down and their promises rust
You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don't get what this public wants"

The Jam - Going Underground

So what does this 1980 hit have to do with this post? Nothing really. I just miss good music.

Among the usual, planting, pruning, soil building, maintenance, etc. that we enjoy each summer, we had a new, interesting project to keep us busy.

Flat land is always at a premium, so this little hillside next to our gravel pad looked like a tempting spot to add some earth sheltered storage and clubhouse capacity.

Earth sheltered buildings have a lot going for them. They can be drier than a traditional root cellar and without any HVAC will naturally stay cool in the summer and above freezing in the winter. We're lucky not to have any rocky soil. The digging was easy and the soil structure is solid.

All that extra soil came in handy for filling in other spots on the property to give us some more level land.

We overdid it a bit on the foundation with an eight inch insulated slab and thick footings all along the perimeter. We needed those oversized footings for the walls to come.

We decided to build with insulated concrete forms. They gave us solid concrete walls with insulation on both sides. The walls ended up being nearly 14 inches thick. 

The ICF goes up like LEGO blocks. This was much faster than building concrete forms from wood. 

Once the ICF is in place, you order a fleet of concrete trucks and a large concrete pumper truck. Before you know it, you have insulated, nine foot high concrete walls all around.

After adding some exterior water barrier protection, you can back fill as much soil as needed to "earth shelter" the building. 

We're lucky to have a lot of truss building options in Boundary County. From engineered trusses to handmade trusses connected with wooden dowels, we have a wide range of options. For the enclosed part of the building we chose engineered trusses. They show up neatly stacked on a flatbed truck. All you do is crane them into place and you have 120 pounds per square foot of snow load. The goal here was to never need to shovel snow off that roof!

Once the fiberglass insulation was blown into the attic, we ended up with an R-80 value (more than two feet thick). The insulation contractor told us it was the highest R-value they had ever done.

For the front deck overhang, we went with a simple oversized handmade truss connected with wooden dowels.

A little bit of backfilling, and it's starting to look like a building.

Some stain work, tongue and groove blue pine for the ceiling, and concrete fiber paneling finishes things off nicely. Since the goal is a building that can remain above freezing without being heated (even when the temperature drops to -40 degrees), we realized the door is the weak link in our insulation. To solve this, we installed two 48 inch insulated steel doors. The air space between the two doors will make a big difference in insulation.

We poured a separate insulated concrete pad for the front deck area. With the soils and microclimate where we are, frost heave shouldn't be a huge issue, but better safe than sorry.

For the roofing material, we chose a specialty 24 gauge metal material that simulates an antique patina. Done in standing seam, it should be pretty much fire proof.

Raked and seeded, the hillside should fill in nicely with low growing fire and drought resistant grass by next spring. We'll also finish off the retaining walls with some decorative stone in 2024. Altogether, we think it fits in fairly well with the landscape for such a large building.

What to do in 2024? Maybe we'll add a whole house backup generator and 1,000 gallon underground propane tank, just for fun.

Now that we have four outbuildings, two large garden plots, a well established orchard, and 20 Vermont sugar maples, we may even start planning for house of some kind!

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Learning to live small(er)...again

When we first went on the road full time in 2012, our trip across country to pick up our new trailer at New Horizons looked a little Beverly Hillbillyish.

This time around, we made it easy by moving our belongings from our New Horizons 5th wheel and into a UHaul trailer. After a full day RV bootcamp for the new owner of our 5th wheel, we were off to Indiana where Kingdom Camping and our new caravan were waiting.

A big mistake people make when buying a new RV is showing up, grabbing the keys, hooking up and heading straight out for home or a campsite. The excitement is too much and they want to immediately hit the road (or they only have  limited time off from work). When we moved into our New Horizons 5th wheel eleven years ago, we spent two weeks at the factory working out all the kinks. Even a $200k trailer can have a lot of kinks.

So when we showed up at Kingdom Camping to pick up our new trailer, we had already planned on spending five to seven days with owner Jamin Lambright and his team. On our list was to touch, use and see every inch of the trailer and its systems (inside and out) before heading for home. After all, why wait until you get home to fix/upgrade items when you have all the resources of the manufacturer available to you? In return, our MO is to take full responsibility for all fixes and upgrades after we leave with the trailer. Unless we have a major structural issue in the future, we don't expect much from the manufacturer once we take delivery.

Fortunately, all of the items under direct control of Kingdom Camping were done to perfection. All of the walls, floor, and roof were perfect. The interior finishes didn't have any strange wrinkles or untidy corners. We actually couldn't find any imperfections. The plumbing fittings were high quality, tight and well laid out. The electrical system is run neatly and correctly. All of the welds and finishes on the frame and metal trims were neat and defect-free. All of the systems provided by manufacturers outside of Kingdom Camping will fail at some point during the next ten years. At various points over the next decade, we'll probably be dealing with Dometic, Truma, Victron, Shurflo, Cruisemaster, etc., but we expect the frame and box built by Kingdom to outlive us. Building a new house with such a small punchlist upon completion is unusual. Finding a new RV with little or nothing to improve upon is almost unheard of.

The ability for two people to safely walk around anywhere on the roof is also unusual. The only space on top not covered by solar panels are two small areas on either side of the 12V AC unit. We had to leave some roof space available for future maintenance. We still managed to fit 2,020 watts of rack mounted solar panels up there.
From Amish carriage to Off-road trailer, both need "horsepower" to move :-)

Trying as hard as we could, this is all we could find to improve upon: 
  • Re-wiring the on/off lights on six push button switches.
  • Adding a shelf here and there.
  • Replacing a faulty propane detector.
  • Upgrading a few 12v and in line fuses.
  • Fine tuning and programming some systems that are new to us (Truma Combi Plus, Victron, Separett toilet, airbag compressor system).
  • Replacing a small TV monitor with a small smart TV.
  • Adding a small heavy duty entry handrail.
  • Adding a small compartment door latch and entry door bumper.
  • A little interior caulk spot touch up here and there.
This may seem like a long list, but if you've ever owned an RV, you know these are some of the things you do routinely. Jamin and his team handled all of these fixes as we discovered them over two days and while we were moving into the trailer at the same time. Surprisingly, Jamin told us we are his first customer to actually stay a few days to make sure all systems are go. He would like to see more customers do that in the future.

OK, some interiors taken by Jamin:

We have some nasty weather coming in and some long miles to do to get back to Idaho. We'll have more photos and details once the sunlight is cooperating and we've had time to get organized again.

Monday, April 3, 2023

A Trailer for Our Next Chapter - Part VIII: Let's pick this thing up already!

We are getting close enough to taste and smell this thing. Ten days and 2,000 miles from today we will be backing our little UHaul trailer up to our new home on wheels and starting to transfer our belongings. The roof has been coated for no maintenance and long term durability, and the solar panel roof rack and panels are ready to be mounted.

The front storage box and rock guard are ready for business. The front storage box is strong enough for us to climb on top of it as needed for maintenance. You can also see the driver side fender is ready to be welded on. This will also be strong enough to use as a step to reach higher for maintenance.

We've run the side cladding up a little higher to minimize the boondocking pinstripes we pick up on occasion.

The compartment for the Nautilus water management system and Cruisemaster ATX suspension are conveniently located. We made sure all of our compartment doors are extra thick and have higher quality latches and weather stripping. This helps in cold weather protection and in keeping dust away from the system components.

Here's a good angle on the large laundry hamper and storage compartment in the space between the bathroom contertop and the shower. The shower, bathroom sink, and kitchen plumbing never run in an exterior wall or unheated compartment. There will be no plumbing freeze issues in this trailer.

Here's a good view of the solid surface flip up bar table that runs the length of the trailer across from the kitchen. It can be stored in a down position to give us a little more walking around room if wanted.

At 18"x18", the undermount sink isn't the largest but is still plenty big for us. We're more interested in having ample counterspace.

We're really looking forward to the big beautiful memory foam and gel queen size bed we ordered for this trailer. High end trailers have become so expensive, and it boggles my mind that it's so rare to be able to order your own mattress during the specification phase of the purchase. Being able to walk around the sides is priceless. Anyone who lives full time in their RV knows you don't want to skimp on the mattress or the ability to maneuver around it! 

Imagine that. A bed platform with struts strong enough to hold up the weight of a heavy, high quality mattress.

Nice clean battery mounting under the bed. Bus bars and heavy gauge wire passing right through the bulkhead to the inverter mounted on the other side in the pass through basement. There's also plenty of room left over to easily store our Starlink equipment when traveling (with room to spare).

The passthrough basement houses all of the solar/electrical components neatly and safely. We also have a solid residential breaker box. After living with basement doors that folded up to be secured, and having them come loose and hit us on the head more than once, it will be nice to have compartment doors that fold down. They can be used as little tables and can be disconnected and folded all the way down for easy basement access. 

View from the other side of the basement.

We'll soon have a lot more to share including photos of the trailer out in the world.

Monday, March 27, 2023

A Trailer for Our Next Chapter - Part VII: We've almost reached the top

The clock is ticking. We are 10 days from hooking up to leave and deliver our 5th wheel to its new owner and 16 days from arriving at Kingdom Camping to move into our new trailer. We'll need every one of those 16 days to finish up final maintenance chores on the 5th wheel and truck, move all of our belongings into a UHaul trailer, give the new owner of our 5th wheel a full day of RV bootcamp training, and complete the 1,900 mile trek to Millersburg, Indiana.

We've reached the point where all the major work below the roof is done and the many little details like a missing cabinet door or light fixture need to be taken care of.

There's a small 12v fan that continually aerates the water-free toilet. Combined with one small window, those will be the only "holes" in the bathroom envelope. No ceiling fan vents or skylights needed.

For the best insulation and ease of wiring/maintenance, it's advisable not to place outlets in the exterior walls of an RV. To achieve this in a bathroom where three of the four walls are exterior and the fourth wall is not suitable for wiring, we solved the outlet placement by using this nifty little pop up outlet in the corner to the left of the sink. It will live most of its life in the popped up position, but will be lowered/stored into the counter top as needed.

The nice big fiberglass shower with a metal detachable shower head. You can't see it in this photo, but there is a large cabinet to the left, between the edge of the bathroom countertop and the shower, that will make for a convenient laundry hamper and for towel/bedding storage.

Large kitchen sink and a lot of counter space. We'll be using portable electric cooktops as, and where, needed rather than having a cutout in the solid surface countertop with an inset permanent cooktop unit. This will give us a lot more flexibility in a small space and make replacing/upgrading a cooktop inexpensive and easy. Note the hole in the roof where the low profile 12v AC unit will be mounted. That's the only spot on the trailer where the roof is breached.

Testing the color for the kitchen backsplash. The copper/goldish look seems to work pretty well.

For those occasions when a 17" laptop screen isn't big enough, the wall mounted smart TV can be extended and rotated to face either the kitchen/living area or the bed. We added that neat little flip up solid surface counter extension at the end to give a little extra counterspace when needed (while leaving plenty of room to move round in front of and on that side of the queen bed).

Across from the kitchen we opted for a flip up bar table (made from the same solid surface material as the kitchen countertop) rather than the typical fixed in place dinette set up. We lose the extra sleeping area a dinette offers, but we gain a huge amount of living space. That will make it a lot easier for two adults and two dogs to maneuver around each other, work on computers, and eat meals. The barn door style sliding bathroom door also helps us maximize the open space in the center of the trailer between the bathroom and the bed.

We've been intrigued by the awning designs that extend out from the top of the trailer without using vertical guide arms attached to the trailer on either side of the awning. Those vertical arms can get in the way of entry doors you want to latch open, windows, outside outlets, basement doors, etc. These newer designs offer a much cleaner look. This awning has all of the usual automatic features and a motion detector to retract it in high wind. Regardless, everyone who travels in the West should always live by the rule that an awning can be damaged by the wind at any time. We've managed to guide our current awning through 11 years of use without a mishap and plan to do the same with this updated version. You can also see all of the various systems controls/monitors mounted just inside the doorway. 

What's a post without a picture of the fully articulating McHitch? Here's the truck side of the hitch patiently waiting for us to bring a truck to it.

The next step will be all of the build on top of the roof. The permanent "no maintenance" roof sealant/coating, the mounting frame for the solar panels, the solar panels with combiner boxes, and the 12v AC unit are all next on the to do list.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Trailer for Our Next Chapter - Part VI: Bits and Pieces

We are about four weeks away from moving into our new home on wheels. All of the planning is underway to deliver our current 5th wheel (home for the last eleven years) to its new owner, transfer all of our belongings to a U-Haul, give the new owner of our 5th wheel a one day RV bootcamp, and make our way out to Indiana. It will be strange to sleep in motels for three nights. Multiple bits and pieces are being finished.

We wanted a nice sized bathroom sink that was integrated into the solid countertop. The ceramic, above the countertop, basins seem to be all the rage these days, but that didn't make much sense to us for an off road trailer. We did raise the height of the countertops giving us more cabinet space below and ensuring we won't need to bend over as far to reach the sink as we get older.😀

The Separett dry flush toilet uses no water and doesn't need any expensive proprietary bags or liners to operate. It's not a composter, but like those units, it uses a small 12V fan to manage odor. 

The kitchen has solid surface countertops with plenty of space and three outlets. We will be going all electric except for heat. The Truma Combi Comfort Plus on demand hot water/heat unit ended up underneath the 10.5 cuft Dometic 12V refrigerator. From that location we were able to duct six vents throughout the trailer, including two vents below the floor to protect the fresh and gray water tanks/plumbing. Since the tanks are directly below this area, there's not much plumbing at all under the floor. That is an important freeze protection element.

The solar components are staged and ready to go in the front basement area. That area can be easily vented in hot weather and the electrical components will help keep the space warm in cold weather. There is no plumbing anywhere near this expensive electrical equipment. In addition to giving us extra storage space in the front basement, skipping the outdoor "pull out" kitchen set up frees up that space for solar equipment. We're not EMF fanatics, but the rule of thumb we've always read and been told is that it's a good idea to keep your solar inverter at least three feet away from where you spend most of your time.

Another cool, multi function inverting outlet, just because.

Is this our TV? No, it's the remote Victron controller. We aren't attached at the hip, or any other body part, to a smart phone, so bluetooth doesn't interest us. We can convert to bluetooth in the future if we want. 

The space under the queensize bed holds the Expion batteries. 1,104 amp hours of power storage with room for more storage.

Which one of these is not like the other? We love to see brass fittings in our plumbing system! What is that solo white plastic fitting in the center? We don't know yet, but we will find out.