Scouting for a Custom Tiny Home in Idaho

I go to Idaho in search of a tiny home solution to winter travel needs.

Tiny houses are big these days. People seem unusually attracted to the idea of living in a very small, very simple space. Tiny home communities are popping up all over the west — such as the one in Portland. There are tiny home books and websites and forums. I’ve been told that there’s even a tiny home television show, although since never bothered to get connected with cable or satellite television, I’ve never seen it. (A quick search on Google for a link shows me at least three of them: Tiny House Builders, Tiny House Nation, and Tiny House Hunters. Seriously?)

While I agree that tiny houses are cute, they’re really not much different from living in an RV — which I did for two years and more summers than I care to remember. It’s nice having less space to heat, cool, clean, and furnish. But it’s not nice to live in cramped quarters with barely enough space to store the things you need to live and work. So while I have no problem with short-term life in a small space, I think people — especially families of two or more people — who turn to tiny homes for their primary living space are, well, nuts.

That said, I’m currently considering a tiny house as a replacement for my mobile mansion, which is now for sale.

The Misunderstandings

When I mentioned this on Facebook, I got a few sarcastic comments from friends of friends who (1) didn’t understand that I was considering this for part-time living and (2) apparently know nothing about tiny houses.

One person said, “I don’t like the idea of my toilet being in the same room as my kitchen sink.” Well, neither do I. And I have to say that I’ve never seen a tiny house design with the toilet in the kitchen. So I don’t know what the hell this clown is talking about.

Another person said, “Why would you want to live in a closet?” I wouldn’t. I don’t know anyone who would. But unless you have a 200+ square foot closet, most tiny houses are considerably bigger that your closets. They even have rooms and windows. Can you imagine?

Seriously: what’s with people on the Internet? Why do they find it necessary to shoot out their opinions in such a nasty, narrow-minded way, especially when they obviously don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?

‘Nuff said.

Tiny House RV

My idea is to have a custom tiny house built as a fully-functional off-the-grid RV. What gave me that idea? The Tiny Portable Cedar Cabins website. Dave, who designs and builds these cabins, constructs them on trailer frames using dimensions that keep them road-worthy without special permits. That means they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″.

Just like any RV on the road.

Because they’re built like this, they can be licensed as an RV and they follow all the rules governing how RVs are used and transported. That means I can hook it up to the back of my pickup and take it anywhere I can take an RV.

Of course, Dave doesn’t outfit them as RVs. He outfits them as homes, assuming the owner is going to park the unit and plug it into permanent power, water, and sewer line sources. He does offer off-the grid options like a composting toilet and propane appliances. But he doesn’t normally include the features a true off-the-grid RV needs, such as fresh water storage tanks and holding tanks for gray and black water. To me, that’s what distinguishes his “tiny portable cabins” from a true recreational camping vehicle.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t make one with the things I need in a real RV.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Tiny Home in Marlin, WA

Dave works with Janet, who apparently manages his website and blog and helps him sell the his houses. Janet has one of his tiny house models, a custom “Caretaker” unit. She’s parked it on her property in Marlin, WA where it’s currently sitting, waiting for a tenant to arrive.

I drove out there about two weeks ago. Anyone who says that I live in a remote area really needs to go to Marlin (AKA, Krupp) to put things into perspective. The town has about 300 people and sits at the bottom of valley with the tiny Crab Creek running through it. The closest grocery store is 18 miles away; the closest supermarket is 34 miles away. It took me nearly two hours to drive there and once I was there, there was nothing much there. But there was Janet’s tiny house, sitting inside a fenced in area with a lush green lawn.

Tiny House
How fitting that I drove my tiny car to Janet’s tiny house.

We chatted for a while and then went in to take a look. The house was set up with a generously sized kitchen, tiny — and I do mean tiny — bedroom, and decent sized bathroom that even had a washer and dryer. It had a lot of nice touches, including pocket doors and a stained glass window. It also had two storage lofts that weren’t very tall. The exterior siding was cedar; the interior finish was a natural wood that I really like.

She showed me the composting toilet. Because the house was set in a spot without access to a sewer, she’d chosen this option. As she explained, the “liquids” go through some small holes on the front of the bowl where they collect underneath. If you plan to deposit some “solids,” you prep the bowl by laying in what looks like a giant coffee filter. When you’re finished, you “flush,” which opens the bottom of the bowl and drops the filter and its contents into another container. Somewhere along the line, you sprinkle something on the waste which gets the compost action going. Janet claims that it never stinks, but I find that very hard to believe. And, of course, you eventually have to empty the waste into a compost bin. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in a closet than have to deal with a toilet like that on a daily basis.

I asked her about RV-related options and she really didn’t have the information I needed. For that, I’d need to talk to Dave. And since I’m better talking in person to someone than on the phone, it meant making a road trip to Idaho.

Idaho Road Trip

Spirit Lake, where Dave builds his tiny homes, is about 40 minutes north of Coeur d’Alene, where a pilot friend of mine, Jim, lives with his wife Teresa. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone by visiting them and Dave on the same trip.

I set off last Wednesday morning with Penny in my distance car: my 2003 Honda S2000. Bought new in 2003, it had just under 60,000 miles on it — indeed, it would roll over to 60,000 on my way home. I’d prepped it earlier in the week with an oil change and a check of tire pressures and fluids. (I’d also had the leather armrest repaired; the leather had been shrinking for years and made the car’s interior look shabby. Fixed!) I put the top down, secured a scarf over my head to prevent my hair from flying around and getting all tangled up, and took off.

We took Badger Mountain Road up toward Waterville. It was the first time I’d taken that road in that direction at that time of day and it was the highlight of the drive — the Wenatchee Valley looks amazing from a viewpoint along the way in early morning light.

From Badger Mountain
Wenatchee from Badger Mountain.

I eventually hooked up with Route 2 near Douglas. From there, it was mostly straight roads over the Waterville Plateau, past rolling hills of harvested wheat fields and through small farm towns with tall silos. The road dipped down to cross Moses Coulee, then climbed again for more wheat fields and towns on the other side. I crossed the lower end of Banks Lake on the earthen dam in Coulee City and continued east on Route 2, through even more farm towns. I stopped in a small town along the way — Hartline? Almira? Wilbur? Creston? Davenport? Readan? — for bathroom break, buying an egg sandwich to go and then getting right back in the car.

Although I was enjoying the drive — I really do like a good road trip — I wasn’t disappointed when I arrived on the outskirts of Spokane. Route 2 dumped me on I-90 — which I could have taken from George if I wanted a faster route — and that took me through Spokane and info Idaho. Then Google Maps’ navigation feature directed me to exit onto Route 41. I took that north, passing a homemade billboard that said “Pray the Rosary, Vote for Trump,” and after a few miles and a few turns ended up at Dave’s construction lot outside the town of Spirit Lake.

Dave’s Tiny House Construction Yard

Janet had told me that Dave was working on about 20 houses and she wasn’t kidding. There were tiny houses in various stages of construction all over the yard. All different models, from a 22-foot Caretakers Cabin to much larger and longer models. Dave wasn’t doing any of the actual construction work himself — at least not when I drove up. Instead, he had at least a dozen guys working for him, each busy with a specific task on a specific building. Looks like he’s built himself a nice little business that employs quite a few people.

I told him what I was looking for and he led me over to one of the Caretakers cabins. It had exactly the bathroom and kitchen layout I’d envisioned. We discussed weight and tanks and all the other things I needed. I think he was surprised that I was so well-versed in not only construction but the kinds of features I needed and how they might be implemented in his buildings. For example, we discussed the placement of fresh water tanks up in the loft area and how they could be filled using a standard water connection with a value that switched the water flow to the tanks. I asked if having the tanks high would provide enough water pressure for sink and shower usage and he said it would, but not enough pressure for the instant hot water systems he used; a DC pump like the ones found in most RVs would be required.

We also talked about ways to make the building lighter. In the size unit I wanted — 24 feet max including a 4-foot porch — he estimated the total weight to be around 12,000 pounds. While my one-ton diesel pickup could easily pull that — after all, it pulls my 15,000 pound mobile mansion like its nothing — I was really hoping to replace the truck with a smaller, newer, gasoline model. That wouldn’t be advisable if I had to tow around a 12,000 pound RV. I asked if he could do 2×4 construction rather than 2×6 construction. He said that would allow for less insulation, which I was okay with. We also talked about using metal on the exterior, with the idea of it matching my building at home. That could drop the weight by another 500 or so pounds.

Tiny Home Example
I absolutely love the upper floor windows in this little house.

After checking out how the stairs were constructed in one of the other units, we stopped to look at an unusual model that was taller and wider than the others with a “shed style” roof. It was a custom unit for a family of three in Sacramento that would become their primary residents. (Remember what I said about that idea earlier in this blog post?) It had an upstairs bedroom and a very small downstairs bedroom, a decent sized bathroom and a great room with a kitchen. The main features I liked were the huge windows; the home would be very bright indeed. I wondered whether I could design a unit with the same style roof and still get the sleeping loft I needed in a space only 8-1/2 feet wide.

And that’s where we left it. I told Dave I liked that style and would rework my design with that in mind. I said I’d send him my floorplan with a list of required features. He could then work up a price and try to estimate weight.

I was supposed to do that last weekend, but didn’t. I’d better work on it soon, though. If I decide to go forward, I’m looking at an 18-week wait.

As for pricing — well, one of the reasons I was attracted to Dave’s work is that the prices are within reason. I’d seen 400 square foot tiny homes like the one pictured here selling online for over $80,000. That was absurd. Dave’s prices were much more down to earth and easier to swallow.

Still, there was no doubt that this custom tiny home RV would cost about twice as much as a 20-foot RV — which I’d also been considering.

A Visit with Jim & Teresa

From Dave’s lot, I drove down to Coeur d’Alene. I texted back and forth with Jim and discovered that he was working on a project at his new homesite. I stopped for lunch in town, then drove out to meet him.

Jim and Teresa are building a big, beautiful home on a small lot on the Spokane River just east of the Lake Coeur d’Alene. Their property includes a two slip dock that they share with their next door neighbor. The place is walking distance from one of those Main Street style malls — you know, the ones with shops and restaurants and apartments over the businesses. Odd that we abandon our downtown areas, yet build replicas of those towns to live in.

Teresa and their dog Zeus showed up as Jim was giving me the tour. I saw the whole place and complemented them on the innovative design and unusual features — including L-shaped windows and angular walls. Afterwards, we drove over to the shopping center and had margaritas and nachos while catching up. I hadn’t seen them in two years. Jim, who had been a cherry drying pilot in the Wenatchee area for about 15 years, had sold his helicopter and given up flying.

We walked back to the house from there, letting the dogs run and play off-leash along the way. The we walked along the boardwalk between the homes and the river. The sun had set and nighttime came on. We got back to Jim’s truck, which we’d left at the house, and rode in it back to the restaurant parking lot to fetch Teresa’s truck and my car. Then we rode back, convoy style, to the house they were still living in.

I got the guest room in the basement, which had been their son’s bedroom. It was nice and dark and quiet down there. I slept well.

In the morning, we had breakfast at a restaurant not far from town. I think it was the same business they’d taken my wasband and I years ago, when we’d passed through with my old RV on a sort of road trip vacation. Now it was in a new building. Great breakfast, more great conversation. Teresa recommended that I stop at Blue Dog RV in Post Falls to see what they had in the way of RVs. Since I wasn’t in any hurry to get home, I figured I may as well take a look. After all, there aren’t any RV dealers near where I live.

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. It was about 10 AM.

RV Shopping

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s RV shopping. I’d gone through this too many times to like it.

When I bought the mobile mansion back in 2010, I honestly thought it was the last RV I’d ever need. I bought it to fit a specific need: a seasonal home for two grown people and a mid-sized dog. I figured my now wasband and I would live in it every summer for 4 to 6 months, then go home to Arizona for the rest of the year. That’s why it’s so damn big. I wanted it to be comfortable for two people for months at a time. And I fully expected to use it for many years to come, as semi-retired snowbirds.

Unfortunately, plans change. My wasband is now nothing more to me than a sad, bitter memory. I live in my own home in Washington state where I make most of my living in the summer months as a cherry drying pilot. I keep busy enough in the spring and fall to stay home. But I want to travel in the winter and spend some time in California in the early spring, where my helicopter is parked on frost control duty. I figure that I’ll only be on the road 2 to 4 months out of the year and, during that time, I won’t be parked in one place. Since it’s just me and Penny the Tiny Dog, I don’t need a lot of space. And I definitely don’t want a big rig. I want something easy to tow and easy to park. While towing the mobile mansion isn’t difficult with my big truck, parking it is a pain in the ass. And because of it’s size, I’m automatically closed out of more than a few park campgrounds.

So here I am, looking for a new solution to meet a new need.

One thing I learned the last time around is that it’s all about floor plans and features. I want the length under 20 feet, but I want the bigger refrigerator and I want the stove with the oven. That cuts out about 3/4 of the shorter models. I don’t want slides (or pop-outs) — they add weight and maintenance concerns. I want plenty of windows, a power-controlled awning, stereo sound system with DVD player, and television.

Big Window RV
I am a sucker for big windows in an RV. This Hideout was a bit longer than I wanted but the big window in the back made it nearly irresistible.

So that’s what I proposed to the very patient salesperson, Lydia, at Blue Dog in Post Falls, ID. After reviewing a few models online, she loaded me into her golf cart and drove me out onto the huge lot. We looked at about a half dozen models. We even drove back to their other lot in Coeur d’Alene to look at models there. Just when I started to glaze over, she focused me back on what we’d seen. She priced up a new and a used Keystone Hideout, each in a different style. The prices were workable, but the deal wasn’t good enough for me buy that day. I wanted to sell the mobile mansion — which was worth far more than these smaller rigs, making a trade-in impractical — before I bought a replacement.

And I was still thinking about the tiny house idea.

Spokane’s Falls

It was nearly 2 pm when Penny and I drove away. By this time, I was very hungry. But I also felt that I needed to see more of the area before I went home. I’d heard of Spokane Falls and decided to check that out. Google guided me.

I knew nothing about the area, but when I drove over a bridge and saw an aerial tram, I decided I needed to get on it. I navigated back to a shopping mall called River Park Square and got a parking space across the street in the shade. I cracked the car’s windows, leaving Penny inside, fed the meter with my credit card, and went inside.

Conveyor Belt Sushi
Conveyor belt sushi, Spokane style.

Back in the 1980s, I worked in New York City for New York City. My partner, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, occasionally took me for lunch at a restaurant near the Empire State Building that served up dim sum and sushi on a conveyor belt that wound past all the seats. Since then, I’d seen conveyor belt sushi only one other time — in San Francisco. Believe it or not, they have it in Spokane at the mall I found myself in that afternoon.

Needless to say, that’s where I ate.

And maybe it won’t surprise you when I tell you it wasn’t that good.

Sky Ride
On the Spokane Falls Sky Ride.

Afterwards, I made my way out to the ticket booth for the Spokane Falls Sky Ride. It was pretty much deserted on that Thursday afternoon, so I didn’t have to wait. I paid $6.50 (with a AAA discount) and was loaded aboard my own car.

I’ve seen reviews of this ride and some of them pretty much bash it. But I thought it was kind of fun. I even did a live broadcast on Periscope which had quite a few viewers. And the view of the falls is great!

The Trip Home

By that time, my two hours of meter time was nearly up. I went back to the car, leashed Penny, and took her for a walk around the block. We got back into the car and headed toward the freeway. I’d already decided to pass on the long ride through the wheat fields. I got on I-90 and headed west.

The drive was long and dull, made only marginally more interesting by the string of podcasts I listened to along the way. I exited at George and followed familiar roads all the way home. It was probably around 8 when I pulled into my driveway.

Was my trip a success? I think so. I got a chance to see Dave’s tiny homes first hand and learn that what I wanted was definitely possible. I also got to see some friends I’d missed — and get an invitation to return in the spring with my boat when their house is done. And although it had taken longer than I wanted to price up a few RVs, it was good to see what was available.

Now I’ve got work to do: sketch out a floor plan for a tiny home and see if Dave can make it happen. I’d love to hit the road with something different next winter.

Mobile Mansion for Sale

Perfect for snowbirds or a life on the road.

Back in 2010, I bought a 2010 Montana Mountaineer 5th wheel RV. I chose it after looking at well over 100 RVs of all sizes. At the time, I thought it was a “Perfect” RV.

Mountaineer 324RLQ Floor planHere’s the floor plan for my mobile mansion.

And it was. At the time, anyway. I bought an RV large enough for two people and a mid-sized dog to live comfortably for 4 to 6 months out of the year. It would need plenty of space, a comfortable dining area, a cozy queen sized bed, and a dedicated office area where I could spread out while working on books. And the kitchen would have to have enough space to prepare meals for two.

You see, the man I was married to had promised that he’d join me on the road in the summer months when he turned 55 in 2011. Buying the RV was just one of the preparations I made for him to leave the latest in a series of dead-end jobs, join me in Washington during the summer months, and chase his own dreams back in Arizona in the winter.

But although I trusted that man to keep his promises, he didn’t. Maybe he never intended to. Instead, he came up with another plan — one that didn’t include me. The divorce proceedings began in the summer of 2012.

Do you know how many books I wrote at this desk? And yes, that’s an HDTV — one of two in the RV.

In a way, it’s a good thing I bought what I came to call the “mobile mansion.” It gave me a very comfortable place to live in the months between when I left my Arizona home and when my new home in Washington was ready to be occupied.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a lot more RV than I want or need for the winter travel I’d like to make part of my rebooted life. Yes, it’s spacious and comfortable and it’s easily towed behind my 1-ton Ford diesel truck. But it’s a pain to park and it doesn’t fit into many of the tight spaces I’d like to go. It’s perfect for a snowbird — someone who wants to go south for the winter (or north for the summer) and just park in one or two places for the season. But to travel? To move every few days? Not practical.

So I want to downsize. I’d like to replace the mobile mansion with a bumper-pull trailer that’s under 20 feet in length and has no slides. Something light that I can pull with a 1/2- or 3/4-ton truck. Something that’s easy to park, even in tight spots. Something for a life on the go.

That’s why the mobile mansion is for sale. I’ve got it listed on RV Trader and on Craig’s List, as well as in a few local places. If you’ve been thinking of joining the ranks of snowbirds — or breaking free from your nine-to-five grind to start a life of adventure on the road (in comfort) — this might be the perfect solution for you.

This Can Be Yours!
This whole rig can be yours for just $42K!

The asking price? $32,900 for the RV — pay the asking price and I’ll deliver it within 500 miles of 98828 at no extra charge. You can get a NADA Guide RV value and specifications here; just keep in mind that the value doesn’t include the solar setup.

If you want the truck with it, the price is $42,000 firm for the whole rig. You can buy them as a starter kit and hit the road before the first snow falls!

Prepping my RV for Winter Living

A lot of work with good results…so far.

It was October when I realized that I’d likely need to stay in Washington for the winter. Although I didn’t expect to have much work to do, other business in-state required me to stay for various meetings throughout the winter months.

And then I started getting flying jobs, out of the blue, giving me enough work to make it worth sticking around. I started thinking about enjoying a winter season for the first time in 15 years, of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing with friends. Of really enjoying all four seasons of a year.

Not only was I going to stay, but I was going to make the best of the situation and enjoy my stay.

The No-So-Tough Decision

But where to stay?

I had a few options for winter lodging:

  • I could rent a furnished apartment. There are some available in the area, including some that are normally rented out to skiers coming to nearby Mission Ridge. The monthly cost would likely be somewhere between $500 and $1,500 — if I could find one that allowed dogs.
  • I could rent an unfurnished apartment. This would likely be cheaper, but it would also require me to move some of my stored furniture to make myself a home. I had to figure in the cost and bother of the move. And again, I needed to find a place that allowed dogs.
  • I could “camp out” in my hangar at the airport. The hangar has two offices with baseboard heaters, as well as a full bathroom. My furniture is already there, so it’s just a matter of reorganizing it to meet my needs for the few months I’d need to live there. Unfortunately, I didn’t think my landlord — the folks who manage the airport — would like those arrangements.
  • I could live in my RV, either in my hangar — there’s plenty of room — or on my property where it was already parked and hooked up. The trouble with that was that my RV, the “mobile mansion” is not designed for cold weather living. To make matters worse, I had parked it 66 feet from my onsite water source and I knew the hose running in a makeshift conduit under my driveway was very likely to freeze.

Morning View
Here’s what I saw out my window the other morning, not long after dawn. I look forward to seeing the changing seasons in my view.

In the end, the decision was made easy by the amazing views out my window every day. From my perch high above the Columbia River and Wenatchee Valley, I could enjoy the ever-changing scenery, which varied throughout the day with changes in light and weather. I could watch low-level clouds form and dissipate over the river. I could see the shadows move and lengthen with the shifting of the sun. I would watch the moonlight play upon the hillsides and cliffs. And I could marvel at the lights down in the city, sparkling with color. Would I see all that cooped up in a tiny rental apartment? Or closed up in a cavernous hangar with just three windows? No.

And what of the work I could do on nice days? I was working on a pathway from my RV parking area to my beehives. I’d been planting wildflower seeds and bulbs. And I still hoped to begin construction on my building at the beginning of the new year; I wanted to be around to supervise and document the work.

Besides, since I’d been living in the mobile mansion full-time since the beginning of June, it had become my home, my space. Bought to house two people, a mid-sized dog, and a parrot, it was amazingly comfortable for one person and a tiny dog. After dealing with seemingly countless delays, I’d finally moved it to the piece of land I’d been dreaming about for over a year. I was in my home, on my home. I was loath to give that up, even for a few months.

Of course, to stay in the mobile mansion meant a lot of prep work. I needed to “winterize” it and its water connection to ensure that my water pipes — inside and out — didn’t freeze and that I could keep warm inside. And with frost appearing outside my door on some mornings, I knew I didn’t have much time.

PEX, the Miracle Pipe

Heat Tape
Heat tape comes in rolls. I bought this at Home Depot.

The first thing on my list of things to do was replace the standard RV drinking water hose that ran from my city water source across my driveway (in a makeshift conduit I’d created) to the mobile mansion. I needed to run some kind of water line that I could run heat tape along. Heat tape (or trace heating) uses electricity to apply a small amount of heat to pipes to prevent freezing. I had some experience with it from my Howard Mesa cabin, where we’d used it on a very short length of hose between a water tank and the building. But rather than a 6-foot length of the stuff, I’d need 66 feet of it. That meant two 30-foot lengths plus one 6-foot length.

Regular hose, however, was not recommended by the heat tape manufacturer, which clearly specified metal or plastic water pipe. A hose was not a water pipe. Perhaps it wouldn’t work as well. Or perhaps it would degrade the hose and cause problems. I could imagine being poisoned by the breakdown of chemicals in my hose. (Seriously: I have a pretty good imagination sometimes.)

PEX comes in colors; blue is usually used for cold water and my water was going to be cold! I bought this at Home Depot.

Enter PEX. My friend Mike, who’d done most of the interior work on his home in Wenatchee Heights, had raved about it. I did some research. PEX was more costly than PVC but less costly than copper. It didn’t require any welding — or whatever it is that people do to copper pipes to join them — and it was flexible. There were two kinds of fittings. One kind required special (costly) crimping tools. The other kind, known as PTC, let you literally snap pieces together, with no special tools at all. All I needed was a PVC pipe cutter (which I already had) and a very inexpensive tool I could use to separate joined pieces if I made a mistake. The snap fittings were a bit more costly than the crimp type, but I only needed a few. I bought a 100-foot roll of blue 3/4 inch PEX.

PTC Fitting
A typical PTC to female pipe fitting.

I also bought PTC fittings. I needed one to join the PEX to a male hose connection and another to join the PEX to a female hose connection. I had a tiny bit of trouble with that — PEX connections normally work with pipe threading, not hose threading. (The fact that the two threadings are different is something I learned back when I set up the irrigation system at my Wickenburg house years ago.) The Home Depot pipe guy helped me get what I needed.

Pipe Insulation
This rubber pipe insulation has adhesive on one side, making it easy to wrap pipe. I bought this at Home Depot.

But there was one more thing I needed: pipe insulation. I wanted to wrap the pipe with the heat tape on it to help keep it warm. I checked out my options and decided on an adhesive wrap. Although it came in 15-foot lengths, I wound up needing 7 rolls of it because it had to go around the pipe. (This, by the way, is also when I learned that when you buy stuff for a home project at a place like Home Depot, always buy more than you think you need. It really sucks to run out of something in the middle of a project and you can always return unused items later. Home Depot has an excellent return policy.)

I went back and got to work. The biggest chore was attaching the heat tape to the pipe and insulating it. The big challenge there was straightening the PEX. It does straighten, but it straightens easier when it’s warm and it does require muscle. (Needless to say, I was sore the next day.) I cut off about 70 feet of the stuff and ran it across my driveway from the water source to my RV’s water connection area. Then, with the sun shining full on me the next morning, I brought out a clean damp rag (to clean away dust on the PEX as I worked), set up a chair, and got to work.

You see, because the PEX was so long and relatively inflexible, I had to move along the length of the PEX to get the job done. I couldn’t stay in one place and move the PEX. Adding the heat tape and insulation also made the PEX heavier, so moving it later would not be a good option. That was okay.

I was very pleased with my choice of insulation. Normally, I’d have to tape the heat tape to the PEX every six inches with a piece of electric tape. (Heat tape is not adhesive, despite its name.) But the insulation tape was adhesive so I just used it to stick the heat tape to the PEX, wrapping it as I went along.

It took a long time. Three days of about four hours a day with a few breaks for phone calls, snacks, and to track down a tiny dog who thinks she can chase bighorn sheep up on the cliffs. But finally, I was done. One end had two cords (one for the 30-foot length and one for the 6-foot length) and the other end had one cord (for the other 30-foot length).

I attached the fitting on the RV end of the PEX. I could not believe how easily it snapped into place. Working with this stuff on my new home was going to be a breeze. I trimmed the water source end and attached the fittings there. So far, so good.

Finishing Up the Water Pipe

Of course, I couldn’t have the wrapped tape stretched out in the elements across my driveway, especially when the snow started falling. So I got out my shovel and I dug another trench just deep enough to lay a conduit that I could seal the wrapped PEX into to keep it dry and enable me to drive over it.

For the conduit, I used brown vinyl downspout pipe. That’s the stuff people usually use to go from the gutter on the edge of the roof to the ground. I bought six 12-foot lengths of the stuff and six connectors. I also bought a pair of matching flex elbows to use at either end. I ran the PEX in this pipe, making connections as I went along. Then I laid it in the trench, put the flex pipes on both ends, and connected the ends of the PEX to the water source and RV. When I was finished, the PEX was completely enclosed in the pipe.

I crossed my fingers as I turned on the water. This was the moment of truth. If any of my connections leaked, I’d have a bunch of disassembling to do to find and fix the problem.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when not a single drop of water leaked from either end of the PEX! I love this stuff!

I had a few more things to do:

  • I needed to insulate the water source pipe and any portion of the pipe that wasn’t covered with heat tape or adhesive insulation. I used regular foam pipe insulation for that.
  • I needed to cover the water source area with waterproof material to prevent water from getting into the flex elbows. I used a heavy duty plastic garbage bag with bungee balls to keep it in place.
  • I needed to cover the trench across my driveway. I shoveled the dirt back in and placed construction cones at either end where the pipe emerged from the ground.
  • I needed to plug in the heat tape. I plugged two of the three cords in at my power pole and ran an extension cord across the driveway for the third plug. (I didn’t want the heat tape using the same circuit as the RV for various reasons.)

Then I was done.

Testing the Water Setup

Just in time!

The next morning was cold. I turned on the faucet and nothing came out.

I turned on the RV’s water pump. My internal tanks were full and functioned fine. But I had to troubleshoot the problem with the new pipe.

It turned out to be pretty simple: the heat tape was plugged into a socket that had tripped its GFCI. I reset the GFCI and tested the outlet. It worked.

Of course, it didn’t get cold again for quite a while. Three weeks, in fact. This morning, the temperatures dropped down in to the 20s. I turned on the water and it flowed.

All that work — and the approximately $150 I’d spent on parts — had paid off.

Basement Pipes

The mobile mansion has what I call a basement. It’s a huge storage area in the front under the bathroom and part of the bedroom. Most of the pipes that supply water to the bathroom fixtures run exposed in the basement ceiling.

The basement is not heated. When temperatures in the basement dropped down to freezing, the pipes could freeze, too.

My first thought was to insulate them with regular foam pipe insulation. I even got started doing that. But then I realized that a better solution would be to simply put a space heater in the basement and make sure it ran when it was cold out.

The trouble was, the basement was full of stuff. I’d have to move all the stuff out. I couldn’t fit all the stuff inside the mobile mansion. That meant having to store it in my hangar with the rest of my things.

I was bummed. There was some stuff there that I wanted to keep handy. Still, protecting the pipes was more important than convenience so I resigned myself to moving it all out.

Radiator Dog
Every morning, Penny lounges by the radiator in the living room.

That’s when I happened upon a gently used 6 x 8 shed for sale at an amazing price. I moved almost everything in the basement into the shed. Storage problem solved. The basement was now empty enough to put in a heater and not have to worry about things catching on fire.

Inside the RV, I had been using one of those oil-filled radiator style electric heaters for years. I kept it in the living room. In the bedroom, I had a small tabletop electric heater with a fan to push the warm air. Trouble was, I don’t like listening to a fan while I sleep so I never used it at night.

The radiator heaters are silent. I bought a second one, which had a fancy thermostat, and put the original in the bedroom. That freed up the little tabletop heater for basement duty and ensured a warm, quiet sleeping environment.

I placed it in the middle of the basement floor. Then I connected it to a temperature-sensitive outlet called a Thermocube at the end of the extension cord I was already using for the heat tape. The Thermocube supplies power to its outlets when temperatures dip to 35°F and turns off power when temperatures rise to 45°F. I turned the heater on to the lower of its two settings, figuring that would be enough to keep the area from freezing.

Basement Insulation
In this shot you can see the basement insulation panel as well as the connection for the water into the RV. The orange wire is for the heat tape; the red is the extension cord. Both are run into the basement where the heater is also plugged in. The blue coiled hose is the RV’s “outdoor shower” which I can’t seem to disconnect so I left it there.

Of course, like the rest of the RV, the basement isn’t very well insulated, either. Fortunately, I had four foam insulation panels I’d bought for another purpose. I did some trimming and made two insulation panels for just inside each basement door. Although it wasn’t a perfect solution for insulating the space, it was better than nothing.

Over the next few weeks, I’d open the basement doors to check the temperature in there. Although I never saw the heater on, it was always considerably warmer in that space than outside. I assumed the heater was getting the job done.

The Straw Skirt

The reason I had the foam insulation panels in the first place was because I had a crazy idea about possibly using them to build a skirt around the base of the RV. Many people had advised closing this space off to help keep the RV warm. But the mobile mansion is about 35 feet long. Foam was neither practical nor cost-effective.

I consulted with several friends. My friend Bob sketched out a frame that I could build with 2x4s and plywood. It would take a lot of wood and a lot of work. He gave me some wood for the frame to get me started.

But then my friend Tom, who lives in Vermont, suggest straw bales. I felt like slapping myself on the side of the head. Like duh. Not only were they good for insulation, but I’d be able to use them in the spring in my garden.

Straw in Truck
My first load of straw bales in the back of my truck.

So I went to get straw bales. I started with six. They loaded them in the back of my truck. It reminded me of the old days, when I’d get hay for my horses. I even bought a hay hook to make it easier to move them around.

I backed the truck up near the mobile mansion. The guy who loaded them told me they weighed around 80 pounds each. I don’t think they were that heavy. After all, I was able to get them into position easily by myself. They made a nice thick skirt against the sides of the RV.

Straw Skirt
The first six bales of straw in position around the mobile mansion. It took 22 bales to get the job done.

But six wasn’t nearly enough. I went back later in the day and bought another eight. This time, the loader put a palette in the back of the truck. It just fit. I strapped the straw down to prevent it from tipping off and brought them home. When I finished moving them around, I realized that another eight bales should do the job.

I got them two days later and put them in place. Although it wasn’t perfect, it was better than nothing. I’d fiddle with them and with spare pieces of wood and cardboard throughout the coming weeks.

Total cost of the straw skirt: around $200. Time and effort: minimal.

About the Physical Activity

I want to take a moment to comment about the physical activity needed to get all this work done.

First was dealing with the coiled PEX. I really needed to put some muscle into it to straighten it out. And that needed to be done about 3 feet at a time.

Next was digging the trench across my driveway. Although I’m fortunate that there are very few rocks in my primary building site — which also made the septic system guy pretty happy — the driveway did have a layer of gravel over it. I had to dig through that gravel and into the softer dirt beneath it. Later, I had to shovel all that gravel back. Hard work!

Finally, I had to deal with moving 22 straw bales from the back of my pickup into position all around the RV. I don’t really know what they weighed, but they were pretty heavy. I did a lot of dragging, mostly because I couldn’t do much lifting.

The days after doing each of these things, I really felt it in my muscles: shoulders, arms, abdomen, etc. But the soreness felt good. I can’t really explain what I mean by that. I think it has something to do with finally being back in shape after so many years of living in limbo. I’d let myself go physically (and mentally) while my future was delayed, waiting for a partner to fulfill promises he never meant to keep. Losing weight last year, getting back into outdoor activities, feeling good about myself again — that’s only part of my reward. The other part is the ability to do hard work again, to get a job done without waiting for someone to do it for me. (Not to mention the ability to make decisions without having to debate them with someone who seems to prefer arguing over getting things done.) The aches and pains were a reminder of how good independence really is and how great it feels to be physically fit and healthy. I love it!

The End Result

Last night, the temperatures dipped into the 20s. I know because I bought a thermometer with three wireless sensors — the one I fastened at my water source read 22°F this morning. In the basement, the temperature stayed in the high 30s. When I turned on my taps, the water flowed.

Inside, the RV is cool but not cold. Both radiators are on, although the one in the bedroom is set to low. I have an electric blanket on my bed so I’m never cold at night. The RV’s gas heater with its loud fan supplements the heat in the living room in the morning. I know I could keep it warmer if I’d just close the blinds, but I’d rather put on a sweater than miss out on the views outside my windows.

It’s unseasonably cold this week so I’ll have a good chance to test my setup. I’m not too concerned. The other day, one of my neighbors, who is going away for the winter, kindly offered me his home. I’ll talk to him later today; that might make a Plan B for nights that are just too cold to stick around. But it shouldn’t get much colder than it is this week, so there’s a good chance I’ll be living in my own space all winter long.

We’ll see. I’ve done my part; let’s see what Mother Nature challenges me with.

Another Moving Day

It is, after all, a mobile mansion.

Yesterday, I repositioned my fifth wheel RV, the “mobile mansion,” from an RV park at the Colockum Ridge Golf Course in Quincy, WA to a residential construction site high on a hill on the east side of Squilchuck Valley. The site is across the street from an 86-acre orchard I’m responsible for drying with my helicopter after it rains for the next few weeks.

The Move

Moving an RV you’ve been living in for two months isn’t as easy as just hooking up and rolling out. The first step is to put away all the loose objects you’ve been living with for that time — loose objects will get tossed around in transit. I had to stow my desktop computer in its box to protect it, clear my desk and table and kitchen countertops, stow shelf items — the list goes on and on. Even the small tabletop lamp beside my La-Z-Boy rocker needed to be stowed.

Of course, since I was putting things away, I felt compelled to dust and vacuum. The benefit is that when I arrive at my new parking spot, my home will be clean.

Then comes strapping down the items that can’t be stowed: my swing-arm mounted 36-inch HDTV, the La-Z-Boy, and Alex the Bird’s cage. The RV comes with straps for all of these things. (Alex’s cage sits where the second La-Z-Boy would be.)

Outside, I needed to take down my windsock and its 14-foot pole. (I had to use pipe wrenches to get the three pipe segments separated.) Stow the bird feeder and grill. Take down the outside sun shades, hose them off, and hang them to dry — then stow them when dry. Roll up the awning. Dump the gray and black water. Wash and stow the sewer hose. Disconnect the water and power and stow the hoses and cables.

Use the remote to slide in the RV’s four slides, raise the stabilizer legs, and lower the landing gear. Back the pickup into position — by myself, mind you — and raise the landing gear to drop the hitch on top of the ball. (Yes, this is a fifth wheel trailer, but we put a gooseneck adapter on it since we already had a gooseneck hitch in the bed of the pickup.) Fasten the pin, chains, and power cord.

RV CheckI use an app on my iPad to list and check off the things I need to do. It’s called RV Checklist and although its not as slick looking as a typical iOS app, it does give me the ability to create and use custom checklists. The benefit: I can include items like “Take down windsock” and “Secure bird cage,” which are not likely to appear on any standard check list. I can also remove items I don’t need, such as “Disconnect satellite dish” and “Hook up towed vehicle.”

On the Road

My RigOnce the trailer was hooked up and the chocks were collected and stowed, I loaded my potted tomato plant and Alex the Bird into the truck and headed out.

Driving a 3/4 ton pickup with a 34-foot fifth wheel trailer behind it isn’t something to be taken lightly. Every turn needs to be considered. Every downhill slope needs to be approached with care. And driving in city traffic can really pump up stress levels.

My drive wasn’t long — only about 50 miles. The first 35 miles was two-lane state highway with little traffic, 60 miles per hour speed limit, and passing lanes every 5 to 10 miles. Easy going. The next 5 or so miles, however, was city driving through East Wenatchee, over the Columbia River, and into Wenatchee. This is tense stuff for me because, with my load, driving defensively is not much of an option. I have to keep to my lane and hope no one around me drives like a jerk. Then the final 10 or so miles was up windy canyon roads. Yesterday was a special challenge — a detour onto a narrower, windier road. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t an issue.

After two turns, I climbed up the last road to my destination. The pavement turned to fine gravel. A quarter mile later, was the circle of a former cul-de-sac, now with a narrow dirt road leading farther up the side of the valley. My parking spot was a sharp right turn down a steep dirt hill. Since I’d be backing into it, I pulled up into the far side of the cul-de-sac and got out to set my cones.


I have a trick I use to back up the RV by myself. I have four small orange traffic cones. I set them out as guides to where I want to park the RV. I can clearly see them in my side view mirrors. All I have to do is line up the side of the RV with the cones and I can get it into position.

Of course, this site required quite a lengthy roll back. As a result, I had to set the cones out once, back almost all the way to the last one, and then get out of the truck and set the cones again. The last little bit was particularly challenging, since I’d be positioning the RV between the edge of a cliff and the home under construction. I managed to get it in place without too much difficulty — this surprised me because, by that point, I was completely exhausted. I’d been on the move all day and it was about 6:30 PM.

Before disconnecting, I needed to make sure the RV was level. After consulting the level right inside the RV’s door, I decided that three leveling blocks would do the job. I positioned them and rolled the RV back on top of them. Although I probably could have been a bit more level with just two blocks, this was good enough. Besides, I knew from experience that if it rained, the blocks would sink a bit into the ground beneath them. That would likely make me perfectly level.

Then lower the landing gear, disconnect the hitch and its chains/cable, and pull the truck out. Raise the landing gear to level the RV. Slide out the slides. Good to go. I’d pull out the things I needed as I needed them over the next few days.

Later, after a shower to wash away the day’s dirt and sweat, I ran a power cord to the 110 volt outlet on the homesite’s electric box. This power connection is a far cry from the 50 amp power supply at the campground. I know I won’t be able to run certain appliances at the same time — for example, the microwave and air conditioner. But at least I won’t have to rely on the RV’s solar panel or run the generator for power.

My Campsite

I stayed here last year for the first time. Back then, the only sign of construction was a building foundation and the concrete pouring forms that had been used to make it. This year, there’s a small, two story vacation home framed out and roofed. The siding should go on this week; the windows, which have been delivered, will go up soon, too. Then construction will stop for the season. The owner of the property is paying for construction as it is completed and he says he’s out of money.

A time-lapse movie I shot last year from this spot.

My parking spot is literally on the edge of a cliff — the ground drops off about 10 feet past my door. The views out the side and back window are spectacular. Across the valley are scattered pine trees, granite rock outcroppings, and orchards. Sunrise is amazing; golden light creeping down the hillside. And back toward Wenatchee, I can see the Columbia River and Rocky Reach Dam, which are all lit up at night.

Helicopter in OrchardMy helicopter is parked down in the orchard. I tried to park it near my campsite, but I couldn’t find a piece of ground level enough to make me comfortable leaving it there. I might try moving it again later today — I really don’t like it being out of sight. Wish I could get my hands on a Bobcat for a few hours to level out a piece of this hilly homesite.

I wonder what will happen next year. Will the house be done? Will the owner tell me that there’s no room for an RV in his side yard? Will I be parked down in the orchard beside my helicopter and the scummy pond, hauling fresh water and running a generator every day? I hope not. But I won’t worry about that now. I’ll just enjoy this year’s hillside campsite.

Today, I’ll hook up the water connection and set up the gray water to drain away from the RV. (I’ve already switched to biodegradable soaps to minimize impact.) Then I’ll head down to Wenatchee and do some shopping.

I’m glad I’m up here. Although this location is lonely and remote at night, there’s activity during the day on the house construction nearby and on the orchard. And I can’t imagine a more pleasant place to park.

Travel Insanity

Too many miles, too little time.

I’m just recovering from a crazy week with too much travel in too short a time span.

Our Flight Path

Our flight path, recorded on my iPad with GPSTrack. Can you tell where we did some scud running?

It all started last Saturday, when I flew with two companions from Phoenix, AZ to Wenatchee, WA by helicopter in one day. It was almost 11 hours of flight time with mostly very brief stops for fuel. Although I had very little stick time — one of my companions did almost all the flying — I was still alert and able to fly at a moment’s notice.

It got a little tense when we had to do some scud-running in Oregon that lasted far longer than I like to be spending scud running — as if I like it at all. It never got dangerous, but more than a few times, I began scouting the remote hillsides around us, looking for a place to set down and wait it out. I was very glad when the terrain finally descended, dumping us in an area where we could get back on course.

We spent the night in Wenatchee and I parted company with my travel companions, leaving them to catch an early flight to Seattle while I took care of other things locally.

Sunday was relatively restful. I needed to reposition the helicopter to Quincy, WA, where I’d be spending part of my summer. That was just a 15-minute flight. Then I spent some time socializing at Ferguson Flying Services, where my helicopter is parked in Quincy, and the Colockum Ridge Golf Course, where my RV would be parked soon. Then a friend/client picked me up and drove me the 5 miles to his winery in town, where I spent the afternoon socializing with him, his family, and the folks who came for wine tasting. A nice, mellow afternoon.

But at 4:15, the craziness started again. I got a lift to Wenatchee Airport, where I caught a flight to Seattle with a connecting flight to Phoenix. My husband picked me up there at about 10:30 PM. Overnight at our Phoenix condo.

Monday morning, bright and early, we were on our way back up to Wickenburg. I spent the day finishing up some work on a chapter of my book and then packing. It wasn’t until nearly 9 PM that night that we were done and pulling the RV out of the hangar where it lives most of the year. We left it parked in front for the night.

Welcome to NevadaAt 6:45 AM, I was in the driver seat of the truck with Alex the Bird in the seat beside mine. We were starting a 1,295-mile drive from Wickenburg, AZ to Quincy, WA. My goal was to make Jackpot, NV that first day — a distance of 725 miles. I spent most of those miles on Route 93, a two-lane road with speed limits up to 70 miles per hour. There was no traffic and certain stretches of the road were straight and flat as far as the eye could see. We made Jackpot before nightfall. After dinner n the casino, I spent the night in the RV with Alex in comfort — in the casino parking lot.

My Rig, in Jackpot, NVThe next morning, I woke at 6:15, which is late for me. Anxious to get on the road, I rushed around making my coffee and Alex’s breakfast and then buttoning up the RV for another day on the road. It wasn’t until after I topped off the fuel tank across the street from the casino that I realized it was an hour earlier; that part of Nevada is on Mountain Daylight Time. So I got a very early start. I left Route 93 behind in Twin Falls, ID, and hopped on I-84. The route was mountainous and the truck sucked diesel at an alarming rate as I struggled to maintain speed up hills. I left the interstate just past Pendleton and got back on smaller, traffic-free back roads to head north. After 10 miles on I-70 and the last five miles through familiar farmland, I rolled into the parking lot at the Colockum Ridge Golf Course RV Park just after 3 PM.

My Route

My route, as captured by GPSTrack on my iPhone.

I was fortunate to have had good weather all the way. Towing 13,000 pounds of fifth wheel RV on wet pavement is no fun — as I learned last year. It was just starting to rain when I finished hooking up my utilities at 4 PM.

Do I need to say how exhausted I was? I’d snacked my way from Wickenburg to Quincy, eating only snacks on my low-carb diet: jerky, almonds, and cheese sticks. The only real meal I’d had was at the casino in Jackpot. My digestive system was a mess for the next two days.

And of course, I developed a bad cold, which I think I’m just coming out of now.

But on the bright side of this, I managed to get all my assets in position for the first half of the cherry drying season. I set up my RV office and yesterday I managed to knock off another chapter of the book I’m working on. I’m also in the area early enough to set up helicopter tours and wine tasting trips with the local wineries.

It’s been a rough week, but now I’m settled in. It feels good to be at my home away from home.