It’s been nearly a year since our last blog entry. There really wasn’t much to blog about, except how we were self isolating with the pandemic raging. Pretty much what everyone else was doing. Just in an RVer sorta way. After we were kicked outta our campsite in South Florida due to the park closing and being turned into a Covid Center, we found ourselves at a KOA in Apopka, FL just northwest of Orlando for a few weeks. There we started to figure out our immediate future. Plans kept changing. We had campsite bookings that were canceling on us due to shut downs. We just needed to find a place where we could hunker down for a while, and it needed to be somewhere cooler outta Florida as it was starting to get too toasty for my liking. We decided on a lovely campground just north of Fayetteville, NC we’d stayed at before a couple of times for one-nighters. It was perfect for hunkering down at for a few months as we began to adjust to our new reality.
Meanwhile our income sources were mostly wiped out. Filed for unemployment, which for Florida residents was quite an ongoing task. We were grateful for the CARES ACT which gave us each the extra $600 a week. We had some savings, but we were doing our best not to dip into it more then we needed. How long any of this was going to last and if things would ever return to normal were all up in the air. But it was becoming clear as things went on that this would be a long process for everyone.
Then the reality of how isolated we were going to be also started to dawn on us. Living in the RV was social distancing at its max. Except for the occasional visit to the grocery store, contact with others minimal for us. But when would we be able to visit with any friends or family? We were planing to continue on up to Virginia for the summer and fall to be close to family there. Would that be viable?
All in all things worked out relatively well for us. We spent the summer and fall in Virginia and enjoyed quality time with family as we did our best to keep everyone safe. I even got to see a friend in DC one day. As unemployment checks ended, we were shifting our business to the changing work environment. Drawing caricatures for virtual events on Zoom started to be a new normal. We made attempts to offer other services which never took off. But when you’re self-employed, you're willing try new things, knowing full well that some ideas aren’t going to take. We also launched an online store selling print-on-demand t-shirts. That was way more work than we expected, but found it to be well worth the effort. You can check out our shop at LizzyTheLightworker.com. We’re still working out the kinks, and figuring out our marketing.
We weren’t making the same money we had prior to the pandemic, but we were making ends meet. Living in an RV helped. Having the option to book campgrounds and RV parks that offered better monthly and weekly rates was a huge help. By late fall we knew we were going to be heading back south. Our usual campground was still closed due to Covid at that point. So considering other less expensive options was on the table. Part of our reason for wintering in South Florida, besides avoiding the cold, was the likelihood of working local events which were typically plentiful there that time of year. But 2020 was proving to be unique. We assumed there would be some events to be worked, but we really had no idea to what degree. So we were considering less expensive, aka less geographically ideal campsite options in Florida to offset the cost of being down there. This all became a mute issue when we were lucky enough to land a huge gig with Samsung drawing on their tablets at their Samsung Experience stores. Yeah, an actual live in person event, at a time when they were nearly extinct! And this was not just huge, but literally the biggest gig we’d ever booked.
The event would run 7 weekends, all day Saturday and Sunday from early November into December just before Christmas. It would take place at four locations, including New York, California and Houston. Elizabeth and I immediately changed our plans to move the RV to Houston so I could work that event while we lined up artists to cover the New York and California events. This wasn’t just a massive gift to us, but also to the 3 other artists working this at the other locations.
The amount of money this gig would pay would allow us to breath easier a bit more than we had in months. Allowing us to take care of things we’d been putting off and just relax a little as we were saying good riddance to 2020.
At first we thought as soon as the Samsung gig wrapped just prior to Christmas, we’d head to Florida to spend the remainder of the winter. But by the beginning of December we were having second thoughts. We weren’t getting any bookings in Florida. Hence, a large motivation for us heading down there was dwindling. The winter seemed quite doable in Houston, with temperatures not “typically” getting too low. The RV Resort site we scored in North Houston (that’s right, a resort. Fancy right?) offered us a lovely lakefront site and considerably cheaper than what we’d pay in Florida. And we also decided that come spring we were wanting to explore the western U.S. again, so why not just stay in Houston and save us all those miles to come right back this way again. So by Christmas, we committed ourselves to staying in Houston for the rest of winter, allowing us to chill, work on the T-shirt shop and other business as well as get some other projects outta the way.
Then in February Texas became the center of national attention as epic winter storms dripped down and covered the state in snow and ice.
I was originally planning to meet up with my old buddy, Tom in Memphis, TN where he was picking up a brand new motorhome. Tom and his wife, Teri had made the plunge into full time RV living last March, but felt they’d outgrown their current motorhome. So they’re making a big upgrade which should enhance their nomadic lifestyle. With their brand new Tiffin Allegro Red 33AA ready for pickup this week, Tom was going to fly into Memphis to take ownership of it and drive it back to Florida where they’re currently wintering. I offered to join him on the journey back to Florida to get me outta my RV for a few days, give Elizabeth a break of having me around all the time, and to just have some quality hang time with a good friend, which I’d been sorely missing this past year.
Those plans became increasingly complicated by the growing threat that was this winter storm. The forecast just kept get worse as we got closer to our travel dates. In an attempt to avoid flight delays or cancellations, Tom and I moved out flights to Memphis up to Sunday from Monday, but ultimately the winter storm building cancelled both of our flights. A blessing in disguise, because now it was dawning on Elizabeth and I how cold and icy it was going to be in Houston. If I had made it to Memphis, I would’ve spent the rest of my week insane that I wasn’t home with Elizabeth addressing the series of issues that were presented by the this storm.
Up until now, we’d pretty much avoided any serious winter weather with our motorhome. Yeah, we’d gotten the occasional snow fall. But the temps rarely dripped below freezing. I had a night that supposedly got down to 21 degrees in Taos, NM. But that was just one night and the temps prior and immediately afterwards were well above freezing. In a motorhome, its typically known that as long as you have the furnace running, by design, warm air will be blown into the lower compartments where the water tanks and lines are, keeping them relatively safe from freezing. When temps aren’t dropping so low, we also have an electric fireplace and space heaters to keep us warm, especially when we have shore power from the campground. As an add precaution, we placed small space heaters inside the lower compartments to help keep them warm, especially if we’re trying to mitigate our propane usage.
We received a notification from the RV Resort that due to the hard freeze they were expecting, they would be shutting the water off in hopes of saving their plumbing from damage. So Sunday afternoon just prior to the storm hitting us we’d all need to fill our fresh water tanks and disconnect out hoses to city water. We’d depend on our fresh water tank for a number of days along with any bottled water we bought.
We retired Sunday evening feeling we’d prepared the best we could, with the sound of ice and sleet beginning to fall on the RV. We woke the next morning to a very wintery scene. All the grass now white covered with ice, 19 degrees outside and no water running out of our faucets or toilets. But we had power, so that was a good thing. We quickly figured out we could fill a handy 5 gallon bucket with water from out fresh water tank, so although it wasn’t running through the plumbing, we still had plenty of water to wash and flush toilets with.
Trying the investigate where the plumbing was frozen was sheer speculation at this point. Since there was no water flowing anywhere in the coach, I kinda assumed it was the water pump or near there. So that’s where I looked first. We had a slight drip prior in the wet bay, so I ended placing the space heater in there on a higher ledge to avoid the heater from getting wet. But once I looked in there I saw there was a layer of ice that formed on the floor of the compartment pretty close to where the pump was mounted and some plumbing. There obviously was enough heat getting to this section, and this one bit of piping freezing could easily stop water flowing to the entire rig. So in hopes of remedying the situation, I moved the space heater lower, closer to the pump and took an emergency mylar sleeping bag I had in my camping gear and attempted the insulate the compartment better.
Since we probably weren’t going to see above freezing temps for at least a couple of days, I doubted the plumbing would thaw quickly, but I knew it would thaw eventually, and just hoped it would do so without causing damage.
We never had trouble keeping us warm enough inside. But were concerned with why it wasn’t staying warm enough in the lower compartments. The temps were expected to drop more so the following night. I had wireless thermometers in the lower compartments showing me how “not” warm it was down there, frustrating me as I saw the temps still dip below freezing.
Early evening the power went out. Which seemed a bit odd at first since we’d gonna all day with power well after the initial freeze hit us. A quick google search revealed Houston was struggling with their power grid and rolling blackouts were taking place. We started to hear the sound of generators running from all the other RVs in the resort, and we cranked ours up as well. We were officially boondocking!
Now we have done next to no boondocking, aka RVing without connections. We’ve done a few overnights at Walmarts and a Cabella’s. But I’ve since learned that Elizabeth really doesn’t enjoy these stays, since we are greatly limited on what we can run. Boondocking is ideal if you don’t have to run the AC or any energy hogging device like a residential refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, etc. Our rig is designed for this, but having a well maintained and hefty battery bank to run the basics is key. RVers who are into boondocking often upgrade their batteries from standard led acid to lithium and install some solar system. We’re still sporting the led acid. Two big 6 volt batteries that wired together give us our 12 volt system. But I’d never really tested how long I could power our rig for on these. And without shore power, I still needed to power the furnace, our residential refrigerator and some lights. The furnace heats with propane, but still needs electricity to ignite and power the fan.
We quickly discovered that running the minimal systems, our batteries were only lasting a couple of hours before getting too low. Led acid batteries don’t like going down below 50%, or it will damage them. These are also the same batteries being used to start the generator, hence we definitely didn’t want the batteries getting too low. Turned out we’d be without shore power for over the next 24 hours. Running the generator for good chunk of time was going to be essential for keeping us warm.
Running the generator during the day was one thing, but sleeping with it running was another thing. We’d slept with the generator running once before during one of those Walmart stays and really didn’t like it. The generator is mounted towards the back of the rig close to our bed, so it was disturbing to sleep feeling this thing rumbling just below us. We were also a bit concerned about any exhaust seeping into the coach while we were sleeping. We did have a carbon monoxide alarm inside with us, but during this whole episode we started noticing a slight haze inside the coach that concerned us. The whole thing was just unsettling. Meanwhile, I’m starting to look closely at a feature that came with the RV that I never really used. The Auto Gen Start. Since we never really boondocked, I just didn’t get around to testing this Auto Gen’s capabilities. All I knew about this installed device was when I had it enabled it would automatically kick the generator on whenever the batteries go down to a certain level and then run for a bit and turn off. This sounds like something I’d like to use now. But since I’d never tested it, I wasn’t comfortable just going to bed and relying on this to work. And when I just had us powered by the batteries alone and the Auto Gen Start enabled, I was seeing the battery levels drop a bit more than the recommended 50%. So at what point was this thing going to kick in? I found the manual in the bag we keep with all the manuals and discovered that the settings for the Auto Gen Start could be adjusted, but I was going to have to find the box where all those settings are made somewhere below, most likely near the batteries and inverter. It’s was dark by now and very cold, so I waited til morning to find that and adjust to my desired settings.
We ran the generator the rest of the night, with no problems. Elizabeth surprisingly slept better then I did. We stayed warm enough, in fact maybe too warm. The thing with the furnace was where the warm air was going. From the first time I ever ran it in Taos, I’ve noticed how the heat vent into the half bath always blew way more hot air. The vents didn’t have any flap or way to close them, like the AC vents do. So the half bath in the middle of the coach would receive all the hot air. Almost seemed a waste. So that night while stressing over the generator being on all night, I start thinking how we can push more of the hot air entering the half bath down into to low compartments. So I start pushing rags into the vent to block most of it. There was still some air coming through, so it wasn’t an issue, but it seemed to help as Elizabeth noticed a difference towards the back of the rig, and the lower compartment temp readings were way up when we woke that following morning. It’s not a perfect system, especially when tested with these extreme temperatures. But learning how the rig works really helps.
The following morning still without power, I find the Auto Gen Start box and make my desired settings. The rest of the day the generator automatically turns on and off on its own without us having to monitor the levels, as well as save some gas and noise. A far more sustainable situation. By the afternoon the frozen plumbing thawed and our water pump flowed again, with no sign of damage. Our moods quickly improved, followed by the power returning later that evening. Meanwhile we were starting to realize the toll this storm was taking on so many others in Houston and the state of Texas in general.
This is when we began to appreciate how luck we’ve been, and far better prepared than most living in sticks and bricks. So few have decent backup systems in their home to deal with such an event. We started off with a 100 gallons of water in our fresh water tank plus whatever drinking water we bought prior. Then we had the ability to generate power and use batteries to still run thing so the generator didn’t have to run the whole time. Then we had propane to heat and cook with. We didn’t run outta anything. But man, so many were left with so little options. Desperate to get warm, too many died from accidentally setting their homes on fire or poisoning themselves from carbon monoxide. Then all the freaking damage from burst pipes. Just crazy!
We woke the follow morning without power again, but we were fine running with our Auto Gen Start. The power came back later that night and we were pretty much in the clear. Still waiting for the water to get turned on. Which it did briefly, but turns out the RV resort did indeed have its own bit of damage.
In the end, I’ll think twice about wintering in Texas again. And the next time we’re faced with a potential winter storm like this, we’ll treat it like we do hurricane threats. Just get us the hell outta there! Although this still would’ve been a though one to dodge. Not sure we could’ve moved fast and far enough away, based on what we knew when. But we’ll definitely be more on guard in the future.
Hopefully this is it for this winter, as we’re planning to head westward in just a couple of weeks.
Written By: Al Rodriguez