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Old 04-20-2013, 04:20 PM   #1
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Post Winter Camping FAQ

So, you want to try camping in cold weather, but youíre worried about freezing? This guide should help answer some basic questions!

First, if youíre camping in temperatures that are above freezing, or even only briefly dip below freezing, then you donít have much to worry about. Fill the propane tanks, verify the furnace works correctly, read the part about humidity below, and have at it.

Second, if youíre camping without using the water system in the camper (i.e., itís winterized and youíre not planning to run water through the system - otherwise known as ďaluminum tentĒ), you probably donít need this guide, either. This isnít a solution I would use - part of what we love about our camper is having our own shower - but plenty of people do it. A variation of this method is to use only the waste system by using jugs of water and RV antifreeze to flush the toilet and drain sinks - again, you have less to worry about. Either way, check the next section on humidity, but keep in mind without taking showers in the camper youíll be somewhat better off.

For the rest of us, camping in freezing temperatures while using the water system has its own challenges and rewards. I generally think of a couple categories here, but note I pulled these temperatures and durations out of thin air - youíre free to mentally adjust them as you see fit.
1. Short trips (up to a week or two, perhaps) of camping in weather below freezing but above, say, 15 degrees F (-9 C) - this is basically what I do, although we usually have temperatures just above freezing during the day.
2. Long trips in the 15-32 F (-9 to 0 C) range.
3. Camping when temperatures regularly drop below 15 F (-9 C), short term.
4. Camping long term when temperatures drop below 15 F (-9 C).

This document is meant to be a starting point, not the end-all for cold weather camping. There are plenty of solutions that I havenít mentioned, for certain.

Humidity
The biggest problem you are likely to encounter while camping in cold weather isnít heat, itís condensation. This isnít a problem in the warmer months, because you have the windows open or the air conditioner on, and both act to remove the humidity from the air. When camping in cold weather, though, youíre probably not running your air conditioner or have your windows open (if you are, you probably donít need this guide!), so the humidity tends to collect. The biggest sources of humidity are showers (use your exhaust fan - I know, youíre sucking warm air out of the camper and replacing it with cold air, but thatís how it is), cooking, and breathing.

The two basic solutions to humidity are air exchange (exhaust fans, drawing in fresh air from outside) and running a dehumidifier. There are some smaller dehumidifiers available like this (recommended by dznf0g) and this that comes highly recommended by dekew.

Fresh Water
The easiest thing to do is simply to fill the fresh water tank and use the water out of that. Youíll have to refill it every few days, of course, but Iíve found this adequate for our trips.

If youíre staying for a longer time, it gets tricky. Heated water hoses are available but they have limits, and sometimes those limits aren't as low as you'd expect (1) (2). You can also make your own heated hose - this will have some lower temperature limit, too, which isnít reported in that post.

Tanks
Youíll want to keep the tanks from freezing. Again, this isnít much of a concern when temperatures drop below freezing only for short periods (overnight), but it can be a problem if you have longer stints of cold weather.

First, most Airstreams are built with ductwork from the furnace that helps to warm the tanks. Iím sure this helps some, but I wouldnít rely on it for extreme cold.

Many solutions have been offered. For example, you can skirt around the camper (practical if youíre staying a while) and put a heat source underneath, such as a light bulb. Another option are heating pads that attach to the tanks directly to keep them warm, but they have limits too (this brand claims down to -11 F/-24 C without being enclosed; I have no experience with them).

Note - RV antifreeze in the gray/black tanks wonít help much. As this post demonstrates, youíd need too much of it to be very useful.

Heat
There are a bunch of options here. The most obvious one is the furnace built into the camper. This has the advantage that itís already installed and out of the way, and it usually has ductwork throughout the camper (even my B190 had a second furnace vent in the bathroom). In our 30í trailer, we usually go through a 30lb tank in 2-3 days of camping, again, with temperatures below freezing at night (say, down to about 25 F/-4 C or so) and above freezing during the day. Lower temperatures outside mean youíre going to need more propane. Turn down the heat some when youíre out during the day to save propane. You can get a larger (100lb) propane cylinder connected to the camper to at least reduce the frequency of refills. The furnace runs off 12 volts but youíll need a way to regularly recharge your batteries if you donít have shore power.

Catalytic heaters - These work off a chemical reaction with the propane that produces heat. These are popular, but require a source of fresh air, and have warnings against using them while sleeping (carbon monoxide buildup). Also, they donít disperse the heat very well - youíll want a fan or something running with it, too. These wonít provide any heat to the tanks.

Electric heaters, of various types (ceramic disc, oil-filled radiators, resistance heating devices, and so on - note if your A/C has a heat strip itís the latter type) - These can work. Iíve camped several times with only an electric heater running. Not as great as the furnace but much better than freezing. We carry a portable electric heater with us in the camper just in case. Keep in mind these wonít provide any heat to the tanks at all.

Heat strip - Some air conditioners have a heat strip built into them. These are a simple electrical coil heater. You probably should check your ownerís manual for it - the one in my B190, for example, indicated it wasnít for heating the camper in general; itís purpose was to take off a chill in the morning, or that sort of thing. The one in my B190 wasnít controlled by the thermostat, either - I left it and an electric heater running one night while it was about 17 F (-8 C) outside, and woke up to find it was over 80 F (27 C) in the camper in the morning. Youíll want to find out precisely how it works and what restrictions are on it before relying on this. This wonít provide any heat to the tanks at all.

Heat pumps - Some newer Airstreams have heat pumps installed. These do not have ductwork for the tanks.

Wood stoves, etc.: Some people have done things like this. See this thread for a few examples (there are several other examples, like this thread from jcfergusun, in which he installed a wood stove as part of entire restoration).

Jammer modified the ducting on his 30í Classic to get more heat in the bedroom from the furnace (I linked to a post summarizing the mod, but thereís a lot of good information in the rest of the thread). Even if you donít have the same model of trailer, this may give you some ideas for your trailer.

dznf0g created a circuit that turns on his furnaceís fan without starting the furnace to help circulate air from the heat pump, which puts warm air through the ductwork for the tanks. See this thread for more details.

Insulation
There are various things you can do to help insulate the camper better. Remember, we have single-pane windows, which havenít been used in homes for decades.

Fantastic Fans and the like: There are inserts you can buy that stuff into the fan opening in the ceiling. You can probably make one, too.

Skylights: Our camper came with heavy vinyl covers for them that Velcro in place. Like the Fantastic Fans, you can probably buy or make inserts for them.

Windows: If youíre like us, there are some windows that you rarely even open the curtains. I intend to cut some foil or styrofoam insulation to fit in there to reduce heat transfer. Also, good, heavy curtains should help too.

Storage areas: Our 30í Classic has a storage area under the rear bed. I was initially ignoring this as a source of heat loss, because youíd think the mattress would provide nice insulation. But, the mattress isnít the only way heat can get through - once cold air is the storage area, itís only a thin piece of wood around the bottom of the bed between that and the bedroom. To give you an idea of how bad it is in ours, we were in the camper last night with temperatures outside in the mid-20s, and I had a bottle of water on the floor: When I opened the bottle in the morning, the temperature of the water felt only slightly warmer than fridge temperature. dznf0g reports that condensation (and therefore mold) is a problem here, too, because of the temperature differential - he uses a small 200 watt electric heater running in the compartment to combat this problem.

On the road
If youíre going to be on the road for a long day in freezing temperatures, youíll want to find a way to make sure the water lines donít freeze. Running the furnace is one possibility. I havenít heard of too many suggestions for this situation - the issue is that you have limited power available to do much else.

You usually do not have to worry too much about the tanks freezing while youíre on the road - the liquids sloshing around will keep it from freezing...unless itís REALLY cold.

Other oddities
There are a few other things youíll notice about camping in the cold.
--Your power cord wonít coil up as well. Power cords are available that remain flexible in cold weather. (There was a thread about this but I canít find it - when I do, Iíll link to it.)
--If itís below freezing, raining/snowing, and youíre using a lot of propane, you may see ice form on the propane tank.

General threads
These are must-reads for anyone planning to overwinter in their Airstream in cold weather, and good to read for anyone doing cold weather camping.
This thread has a bunch of links to other threads about winter modifications/heating.

Airstream Karma -- Out with the Vinyl, In with the Alclad - riggsco spent at least two winters in the Wasatch Mountains where they get an average of 300+ inches (760 cm) of snowfall each year. This thread is both informative and extremely entertaining.

Winter living - talks about condensation and vermin problems.

Conclusion
I hope you found this helpful. As I said above, it's intended to be a starting point to give you ideas on what you might encounter, not a comprehensive guide to winter camping. If you have updates or corrections, please post them below and I'll update this post.

Thanks to the people who wrote the posts I linked to, and to the people who reviewed my draft versions!

(Moderators, please sticky this thread, and make it so I can update it indefinitely. The idea of a sticky FAQ thread is based on a discussion in this thread.)
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Old 04-20-2013, 05:23 PM   #2
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Great info, thanks for the post.
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Old 04-21-2013, 03:54 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Skater
So, you want to try camping in cold weather, but you’re worried about freezing? This guide should help answer some basic questions!

First, if you’re camping in temperatures that are above freezing, or even only briefly dip below freezing, then you don’t have much to worry about. Fill the propane tanks, verify the furnace works correctly, read the part about humidity below, and have at it.



(Snip)

Tanks
You’ll want to keep the tanks from freezing. Again, this isn’t much of a concern when temperatures drop below freezing only for short periods (overnight), but it can be a problem if you have longer stints of cold weather.

Thanks for this FAQ. I'm hearing that temps will get to the high 20a tonight where we are camping. I'm not worked about the tanks as we will be using our furnace. I am worried about the water connection from the campsite. Specifically, I'm wondering if I should disconnect it overnight and remember not to use water...

Thoughts?

Thanks!
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Old 04-21-2013, 04:14 PM   #4
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In general, when it's going to freeze, we simply make sure there's plenty of water in the fresh water tank, disconnect the hose from the faucet, drain the hose, and put it away.

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Old 04-21-2013, 07:50 PM   #5
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In general, when it's going to freeze, we simply make sure there's plenty of water in the fresh water tank, disconnect the hose from the faucet, drain the hose, and put it away.

Lynn
Thanks Lynn. That's what we just did. Driving out in the morning. Just don't want to chance the hose or external water filter bursting. Will drain this week and sanitize the while system (this was the first time filling the freshwater tank and we had no bleach). Won't be using the water for anything but flushing and draining gray/black tanks in the morning. Thanks again.
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Old 04-22-2013, 11:47 AM   #6
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Good idea, Skater. Please feel free to incorporate my comments into the OP if you wish.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Skater View Post
Humidity
The biggest problem you are likely to encounter while camping in cold weather isnít heat, itís condensation. This isnít a problem in the warmer months, because you have the windows open or the air conditioner on, and both act to remove the humidity from the air. When camping in cold weather, though, youíre probably not running your air conditioner or have your windows open (if you are, you probably donít need this guide!), so the humidity tends to collect. The biggest sources of humidity are showers (use your exhaust fan - I know, youíre sucking warm air out of the camper and replacing it with cold air, but thatís how it is), cooking, and breathing.
And catalytic heaters or any other unvented propane appliance. Water and CO2 are the two major combustion products from propane, and you get just under a quart of water for every gallon of propane you burn. With furnaces that exhaust outside, the water vapor goes outside, and depending on how cold it is you may see it either as a vapor or dripping from the furnace exhaust.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Skater View Post
Heat
There are a bunch of options here. The most obvious one is the furnace built into the camper. This has the advantage that itís already installed and out of the way, and it usually has ductwork throughout the camper (even my B190 had a second furnace vent in the bathroom). In our 30í trailer, we usually go through a 30lb tank in 2-3 days of camping, again, with temperatures below freezing at night (say, down to about 25 F/-4 C or so) and above freezing during the day. Lower temperatures outside mean youíre going to need more propane. Turn down the heat some when youíre out during the day to save propane. You can get a larger (100lb) propane cylinder connected to the camper to at least reduce the frequency of refills.
It's worth mentioning the vaporization problem here.

Propane tanks have liquid propane inside which boils to form a vapor. The boiling causes the liquid propane to cool, and when it is cooled below around -40 degrees, it will no longer boil. The propane is warmed somewhat by the surrounding air, even in cold weather, where the propane contacts the walls and base of the tank. As the tank approaches empty, the smaller amount of propane in contact with the walls reduces the speed at which the propane warms up, and in cold weather, it isn't possible to use more than around 3/4 of the propane tank before vaporization becomes a problem.

The changeover indicator and valve won't work as designed in cold weather for the same reason. When the vaporization capacity of the primary tank is exceeded, the indicator will turn red and some gas will start to be withdrawn from the spare tank.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Skater View Post
The furnace runs off 12 volts but youíll need a way to regularly recharge your batteries if you donít have shore power.
Furnaces used by Airstream vary in their 12v power draw based on blower size. It's worth looking up, or measuring, the power required for your specific configuration. The smaller Atwood Everest furnaces draw around 4 amps, while the larger furnaces draw as much as 12 amps.

Quote:
Catalytic heaters - These work off a chemical reaction with the propane that produces heat. These are popular, but require a source of fresh air, and have warnings against using them while sleeping (carbon monoxide buildup). Also, they donít disperse the heat very well - youíll want a fan or something running with it, too. These wonít provide any heat to the tanks.
I don't believe these are safe for use in RVs and will write a separate post on that.

Quote:
Electric heaters, of various types (ceramic disc, oil-filled radiators, resistance heating devices, and so on - note if your A/C has a heat strip itís the latter type) - These can work. Iíve camped several times with only an electric heater running. Not as great as the furnace but much better than freezing. We carry a portable electric heater with us in the camper just in case. Keep in mind these wonít provide any heat to the tanks at all.
This has to be done with care to be safe.

One of the things to keep in mind is that, over a lifetime of camping, there are going to be some bad trips where everything seems to go wrong. Maybe you're unusually ill. Maybe you've consumed an uncharacteristically large amount of booze. Maybe circumstances have required you to leave a less mechanically inclined spouse, son, daughter, or traveling companion alone in the trailer while you go deal with something that's come up.

That sort of thing leads to procedures breaking down, because if you're running on 20% of your usual mental acuity or relying on traveling companions, you might forget that you have to crack a window for the catalytic heater, or you might not realize that there's a sheet or blanket too close to the electric heater, or someone might run the heaters on high instead of low, or whatever.

In most trailers there is no safe place to put the cheap, small, fan-forced heaters. Either they're in the way or they're too close to bed linens or something combustible. The larger oil-type heaters are better because they don't get as hot, but they're cumbersome and don't produce as much heat.

If you're serious about cold weather camping I suggest installing a wall heater in a safe location. Since they are permanently installed there isn't the problem of someone moving them to an unsafe spot, or plugging into the wrong circuit, or whatever. I have a Pic-a-watt wall heater, which works well because it's relatively small and quiet. Other Airstreamers use them as well.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Skater View Post
Heat pumps - Some newer Airstreams have heat pumps installed. These do not have ductwork for the tanks.
They are loud, but they produce more heat per watt than an electric heater and work OK down to around 40 degrees. The physics of heat pumps is such that their efficiency declines as the outdoor temperature drops, and the ones Airstream installs automatically switch over to using the furnace at lower temperatures.

Quote:
Wood stoves, etc.: Some people have done things like this. See this thread for a few examples (there are several other examples, like this thread from jcfergusun, in which he installed a wood stove as part of entire restoration).

Jammer modified the ducting on his 30í Classic to get more heat in the bedroom from the furnace (I linked to a post summarizing the mod, but thereís a lot of good information in the rest of the thread). Even if you donít have the same model of trailer, this may give you some ideas for your trailer.

dznf0g created a circuit that turns on his furnaceís fan without starting the furnace to help circulate air from the heat pump, which puts warm air through the ductwork for the tanks. See this thread for more details.
Also noteworthy are the Dickenson propane fireplaces. Several Airstreamers have installed them, and they are popular in the tiny house movement as well as for boat cabins. They have all the advantages of catalytic heaters -- no electric power required -- and none of the drawbacks involving humidity or safety. They are separated combustion type of heater meaning that they draw combustion air from outside and therefore don't require a window to be open. However they are expensive and require a roof vent and clearance for the vent pipe. Pbearsailor among others has one of these.


Quote:
Insulation

....

Storage areas: Our 30í Classic has a storage area under the rear bed. I was initially ignoring this as a source of heat loss, because youíd think the mattress would provide nice insulation. But, the mattress isnít the only way heat can get through - once cold air is the storage area, itís only a thin piece of wood around the bottom of the bed between that and the bedroom. To give you an idea of how bad it is in ours, we were in the camper last night with temperatures outside in the mid-20s, and I had a bottle of water on the floor: When I opened the bottle in the morning, the temperature of the water felt only slightly warmer than fridge temperature. dznf0g reports that condensation (and therefore mold) is a problem here, too, because of the temperature differential - he uses a small 200 watt electric heater running in the compartment to combat this problem.
I have insulated this area on my trailer with 1" foil-backed foam and haven't found that it makes any difference in the temperature in the bedroom -- I measured. I don't believe that insulating these known bad spots (compartments, skylights, fans, etc) helps much because there is so much loss through the walls and roof.

Quote:

On the road
If youíre going to be on the road for a long day in freezing temperatures, youíll want to find a way to make sure the water lines donít freeze. Running the furnace is one possibility. I havenít heard of too many suggestions for this situation - the issue is that you have limited power available to do much else.
I run the furnace and have a charge line from the tow vehicle so that I can run it without depleting the trailer battery.


Quote:
You usually do not have to worry too much about the tanks freezing while youíre on the road - the liquids sloshing around will keep it from freezing...unless itís REALLY cold.
I haven't had a problem, but I think the dump valves are still vulnerable, as are things like the shower trap.


Quote:
Other oddities
There are a few other things youíll notice about camping in the cold.
--Your power cord wonít coil up as well. Power cords are available that remain flexible in cold weather. (There was a thread about this but I canít find it - when I do, Iíll link to it.)
As will water hoses, and they can crack as a result. Higher quality rubber hoses work best for filling the freshwater tank in the winter.
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Old 04-22-2013, 12:11 PM   #7
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Thanks, Jammer. When they get this thread set up so I can edit the first post, I'll add your info. (I think you were one of the people I wanted to get to review it prior to posting, but I forgot to ask!)
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Old 04-22-2013, 12:14 PM   #8
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How much heat is needed

1 watt = 3.412 BTU/h

Most RV furnaces are rated in BTU/h input and are around 80% efficient. For catalytic heaters figure 80% efficiency, max, when allowing for windows being open to provide ventilation.

A 1500 watt electric heater (a typical size) provides about the same amount of usable heat as a 6000 BTU/h catalytic heater (also a typical size).

Airstreams typically have a furnace sized at roughly 1,000 BTU/h per nominal foot of trailer length. The current production Flying Cloud 25' has a 25,000 BTU/h furnace while the 30' Flying Cloud has a 30,000 BTU/h furnace, for example.

I've slept in my 30' Classic (34,000 BTU/h furnace) in temperatures down to -10 and the furnace is sufficient in those temperatures and in fact still has some extra capacity. It takes several hours for the trailer to become fully warm in those temperatures.

With 1500 watts of electric heat the trailer stays warm (68 degrees) down to an outside temperature of around 50 degrees at night. With 2300 watts of electric heat, which I can get by running an 800 watt portable heater in the bedroom in addition to the 1500 watt wall heater in the galley area, the trailer's good down to 40 degrees outside at night.

That's all with no wind. Wind makes a big difference.
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Old 04-22-2013, 12:41 PM   #9
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Some additional practical considerations

Most trips will inevitably require a period of storage before and after with the trailer wet (unwinterized). You have to have either heated storage or storage with electricity available for this to work especially if you're going to leave the trailer for more than a day or two.

It can be hard to find a dump station or a place to load fresh water in the winter. Plan ahead and be sure facilities are open, or make a setup so you can fill and dump tanks at your house or storage location.

It is possible for the water heater to freeze, if you shut it off and it has water in it. The burner tube is open to outside air and is not insulated.

Emergency winterizing

It pays to have some sort of means of winterizing the trailer available during a trip if something goes wrong -- propane, furnace, or electric problems, or having to leave the trailer due to a snowstorm or other emergency. Low point drains may freeze when you need them most. Bring a couple jugs of pink antifreeze and plumb a winterizing valve into your water pump.

Winter boondocking

Unless you're taking the "aluminum tent" approach, you need to have electricity to camp in the winter, because the furnace will deplete the batteries overnight. You have to run the furnace when it's really cold to keep water lines from freezing. All you need is enough power to run the converter, so you can run the furnace. A 100' extension cord going to someone's garage will do it.

With a good, multi-stage converter, and a generator, and maybe some extra batteries, it is possible to boondock with several hours of generator run-time per day.

Some vintage kin (Avion and possibly others) used a sealed-combustion, gravity furnace that does not require a blower. These are similar in design to the Dickenson fireplaces but have a pilot light and are controlled by a thermostat. Trailers of this era have freshwater tanks above floor level, but lack greywater tanks and are susceptible to having the shower trap freeze.
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Old 04-22-2013, 01:10 PM   #10
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Catalytic Heater Safety

I don't think that catalytic heaters are safe for use in RVs:

1) Things go wrong on RV trips (see upthread) and are fighting a bad cough and an intestinal rebellion or whatever you might forget to open windows, or might decide that it isn't worth it because you're freezing.

2) The performance of the catalyst deteriorates over time. As it deteriorates, it releases more unburned and partially burned fuel into the heated space, including carbon monoxide and other toxic compounds.

3) In many RVs it is not possible to find a location that complies with the clearances to combustibles that are required.

4) Though not a safety problem, these heaters contribute to condensation problems by releasing a good deal of water vapor while in operation.

The hazards increase in colder weather where there is more of a temptation to close windows and where the heaters are run at higher output.

Better to use vented heaters, such as the Dickenson fireplace, or other alternatives I have posted here in the past.
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Old 04-23-2013, 07:04 PM   #11
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Newbie and the furnace

Crazy but here goes. We have never used our furnace and it is going to freeze tonite. Don't understand really how to turn on. Have a DuoTherm control. I have turned on the furnace mode but at this point have not heard it come on.

Any suggestions? Thanks!
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Old 04-23-2013, 07:21 PM   #12
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Never mind it's on :-)
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Old 06-19-2013, 09:00 PM   #13
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"Your power cord wonít coil up as well. Power cords are available that remain flexible in cold weather."
A further comment on this. If you are out when or where there might be freezing precipitation. Use props to keep power cords and hoses up off the ground. They will quickly become frozen to the ground.
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Old 06-20-2013, 04:28 PM   #14
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Ha! Reminds me of the days when we ran this place full-bore during ski season. We'd have people coming in with their mega-class-A rigs, putting down the stabilizers, and skiing for a few days. When it was time to leave, they discovered that their stabilizers were frozen to the ground and wouldn't budge. (Those things have a lot of force in the downward direction, but not very much at all in the upward direction.)

BTW, we solved the problem by collecting lots of short boards and placed one below each stabilizer, allowing it to rise at departure time. With some subsequent sunshine on the boards, I was then able to use a sledge hammer to knock them off the ground later.


Lynn


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"Your power cord won’t coil up as well. Power cords are available that remain flexible in cold weather."
A further comment on this. If you are out when or where there might be freezing precipitation. Use props to keep power cords and hoses up off the ground. They will quickly become frozen to the ground.
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