First Time with Frozen Water

If you have been reading all along, you know we have had several close calls with our internal water pipes freezing.  We barely got out of Alaska in time, struggled with it at the Beet Harvest and selling Christmas trees, went a year without a working furnace and made that work in below freezing temperatures in Campbellsville, and hooked up a space heater to keep the lines from freezing when our rig was in front of our parents’ house  with negative 6 wind chills.  We thought that was behind us when we got the furnace fixed, so it is with no little irony that I report, last night we finally froze up.  I say that, but I should be clear that at this point I have no idea where or how we are frozen.

I do know that we pulled into our gate last night and were dealing with temperatures in the teens.  We also had some water in our fresh tank, because we weren’t sure if we would have water at all. There are winter advisories in our little corner of the world, and the water tank and/or hoses that they supply were frozen when we got here.  No problem, we thought, and got our electric heaters up and running including the heater in the basement.  In all fairness we had a lot going on, not the least of which was making sure Lee got some sleep.  I wasn’t sure how late I would be able to stay up (turns out I made it to 3:30am, who knew I had that in me?), so I got a little concerned around 1am when I turned on the water pump to brush my teeth and nothing happened. The basement temperature was 34, but I immediately turned on the furnace to give it a little boost. Not much I was willing or able to do at 1am, so I closely monitored the temps and let Lee sleep as long as I could.

(So here’s the scoop on the water freezing. If you already know all this, or don’t care, scroll past all the italics. To start with there are actually two separate water systems Trace is referring to. Well, actually there are four, and in some rigs, five. So I’ll explain that first. The first is the city water, which is the connection to a constant pressurized water source from OUTSIDE the rig, which is basically the same as what would be in a house. The second is the fresh water tank, which is an on-board storage tank that you fill and use when you aren’t connected to city water. The third is the black tank, which is the storage tank for water from the toilet. And the fourth is the gray water tank, which is the storage tank for water from the shower and sinks. Some rigs have two separate gray tanks, one for the kitchen, and another for the bathroom.

When the temperature gets below freezing, and stays that way for long enough, you can have several problems. The liquid in the black/gray/fresh tanks can freeze, which isn’t really that big of a deal unless they’re really full, and the liquid can’t expand, which can crack the tanks. You can also get cracks in the fittings. The valves used to open and close the gray and black tanks can also freeze. And of course, if you’re not on city water, and the fresh water freezes, you can’t get any water from that tank. But it would have to be really cold for a long time for those things to happen. It depends on the starting temperature of everything, and then how cold it gets, and for how long. Once the outside temperature hits 32 everything doesn’t just instantly freeze. It all has to cool down to 32 and then stay at 32 or below until it freezes. And every material has its own properties of how long it holds heat, and where things are located and how they’re insulated comes into play. All of this is just to say that even though we’ve been in freezing temps before, we’ve never had a “freeze up” until now, but it’s helpful to understand all of this and think about it. How much you want to learn about thermal and fluid dynamics is up to you. The problem we ran into here is that although we started at well above freezing, we arrived in the dark after 7 hours of driving in below freezing temps, and once we got here it was around 12 degrees, and stayed that way all night and well into the next day. And we were on fresh water, not city water. And the city water system here at our location was already frozen, but I will get into that later.

If you’re connected to city water, then the problem starts where the supply pipe comes out of the ground, and to the spigot, and then the hose connection, and then the hose, and then where it connects to your rig, and finally, to some degree, where the pipes in your rig are located. Some campgrounds have insulation on their supply pipes and spigots, and in rare cases, heated pipes, and you can buy or make heated hoses. We use this one, and our friend Bill made his own. Generally, the point where you connect the hose to the rig doesn’t freeze, but it’s possible. Some people say that a 100 watt light bulb in that access compartment does the trick, but I’ve never had a problem in the compartment so I don’t know. I use one of these to check temperatures to see where problem areas are, it’s very helpful. I also use remote temperature sensors to see what the temps are like in various areas. You can use a single sensor and just move it around, or you can buy sets that will monitor up to 8. Or you can get really fancy and use SensorPush units, which allow you to use an unlimited number of sensors, and they will send data to your phone, and even send you text messages if temps go above or below limits you set! I told you it was fancy. If anyone ever wants to buy me a present, 8 or 10 those would be perfect. When connected to city water, I have two methods for dealing with potential freezes. If we’re going to be somewhere more than a night or two, and it isn’t already really cold, I use the heated hose.  It’s kind of unwieldy and hard to manage, because of the stiff wiring, and even more so if the hose is cold. If I get to use it, hooray, that’s pretty much all I have to do. It has a foam insulator at the spigot end which slides over the spigot connection and helps keep that from freezing. If I think that the spigot might still freeze, I turn off the spigot, disconnect the hose and completely drain it, then reconnect it. Most times, the next morning I can turn on the spigot and everything is fine. If I’m using regular hoses, I turn off the spigot, disconnect and completely drain the hose, and then reconnect it. In the morning I turn it on. If you don’t drain the hose, you end up with either slush, or a solid plug of water that blocks flow.

If you’re NOT connected to city water, then you actually stand a better chance of not having a freeze. The water in the fresh tank has to cool down and freeze, and if you’ve ever seen a pond not frozen when it was really cold, you get the idea. The real problem is the fittings. They’re much smaller, so don’t hold as much heat for as long, and there’s a tiny amount of water in them, which also will freeze faster. So you could have liquid water in the tank and the pipes, but one fitting could slush up or freeze enough to stop it. This is where each rig design comes into play. Ours has a corrugated plastic underbelly cover, then insulation protecting the tanks. The propane furnace pushes some of its hot air into the underbelly and that should help keep things just warm enough to prevent freezing. The pictures below should help explain. Not all rigs are designed this way, however. Our rig also has a “crawl space” where the furnace, water pump, water heater, and all the water lines are. That is an enclosed space and the furnace would normally keep it more than warm enough. But with our furnace not working, I put a thermostat controlled electric space heater there while we were in Campbellsville, and Columbus, which worked just fine. It was the drive from San Antonio to middle of nowhere west Texas with no heat running and a tank of fresh water that did us in. I should also mention that although my rig, and possibly yours, are advertised as “sealed” there are lots of little holes and cracks in the underbelly where cold air can get in. And “insulation” is perhaps a strong word for what amounts to a sheet of tinfoil.

My recommendation is to stay the hell away from any place that might get colder than 50 degrees. If that’s not an option, and you want to do the most you can, then start by getting underneath your rig, and if possible, remove the underbelly cover. Wherever you can see a water line or fitting, use foam pipe insulation or whatever will work, and cover as much of everything as you can, and seal up as best as you can the holes in the floor where the lines go through into the rig. Stuff every open space you can find with insulation. After the belly cover is back on, look for any spot, no matter how small, and try to seal it up with minimally expanding foam, or sealing tape. Then get into wherever you can in the crawl spaces and look for the top side of where the lines come through the floor. Seal those up. Cover the lines and fittings wherever you can, unless this is a heated space, in which case you might want to leave them uncovered. 

Some folks use skirting outside if they’re going to be somewhere for a long time, but we’ve never done that so I don’t know how well it works, but our good friend Jim has written an excellent post about preparing for an extended stay in the cold. We referenced that in a previous post. Other people cover the inside of their rig windows with insulation and whatnot, but we don’t want to do that. We also don’t have serious condensation issues, but we know that can happen in some rigs. Google around for more information on those things. 

The last thing I wanted to mention was the specific challenge of being at a gate which provides an above ground 300 gallon tank and pump and hoses for water when it gets this cold. When we arrived here the folks that we were replacing hadn’t done anything with the system, and it was completely frozen over. The hose was 50 feet of solid ice, and the pump was also frozen. The day after we arrived and I returned from the store it had warmed up to above freezing, so I laid the hose out in the sun and removed the pump and put it inside where it would thaw. I also took off all the connections and thawed them. The water in the holding tank itself had not frozen completely, but the outlet pipe had, and it never fully thawed, so I just used a corkscrew to pull out that plug of ice. Once I had everything thawed I was able to reconnect it and we took showers and did dishes. I disconnected everything again and put it in our heated storage compartment so I could just reconnect it the next day and do the same thing. Unfortunately, there’s really no solution to this apart from making a 50′ heated hose and putting a heater inside the box where the pump lives, and this cold snap is a freak thing that’s only lasting a few days, so if we get another cold snap I’ll just do the same thing. – Lee)  

All of that shows you how lucky I am to be married to this guy.  I wouldn’t have the first clue about any of that.  I am also lucky, because of this next story.  I tried my best to stay awake the next night but ultimately had to wake  Lee up at 3:30am/  Not only did he quickly get out of bed, but he also did everything he could to get me sleeping as quickly as possible.  I told him about the water, which he took in stride, and I also let him know that we had a weird timezone issue.  At the edge of this property we can literally stand with one foot in New Mexico and the other in Texas, and the closest town is actually in Mountain Time Zone.  So as I was waiting through the night my phone kept flipping time zones on me, which confused me to no end until I figured it out.  I wasn’t prepared to lose another hour to a time zone change, especially on no sleep, so I stayed on Central Time and asked Lee to find out in the morning what time zone the site worked from. Barely awake, and no coffee in him, he handled all of this with grace and I fell sleep pretty quickly and slept until 9:30am.

At that point I was awake, and although Lee wanted me to go back to sleep, I knew we had too much to do today.  We put together a plan of action based on priority, and once I was fully awake we both dug in.  This site is pretty unlevel, so the first thing was putting down some rubber pads we have and Lee driving up on them to give us a little more height on one side.  He needed my help with this little bit but afterwards it was all him.  And can I just say again how amazing that was?  The sun was shining, but it was still 23 degrees and he not only checked in vehicles but unhitched, leveled, got a few things from the basement, emptied out the truck, disconnected the propane tanks so he could fill them,  and eventually headed out to Odessa to go to the grocery store, hardware store, and to buy propane.  I focused on the inside, which was nice and warm, and checked the few vehicles in and out.

It turns out it was a real blessing that it was a holiday, because the Fracke sand trucks are off until Tuesday.  Those will be running in groups every 15 minutes between 7am and 5pm and it will be very hard at that point to get much done in the daytime.  As far as the frozen water goes, which is the point of this post, we mutually agreed to develop a “wait and see” attitude.  Food and propane come first, mainly because there isn’t much that can be done about it at this point, other than keeping the temps as high as we can.  I will say though that I am a bit frustrated.  We intentionally bought a “4 season rig” in which the tanks were somewhat sealed and heated by the furnace.  As Lee explained in great detail above, four season doesn’t come close to guaranteeing never freezing.  That would have been fine with me if the salesperson would have just been honest about it.  The sticker on the reason has a picture of a snowflake on it for heavens sakes.  Ahh well..lesson learned.

Once I was up and awake, Lee drove to Odessa, which is about an hour away, and went to both Walmart and HEB.  There is a tiny grocery store very close by for essentials, but a stocking up was definitely called for, since we had intentionally let our supplies run low as we wrapped up at Amazon. We don’t typically do a lot of cooking while we travel, and we spent a week in Columbus, and didn’t want a bunch of fresh food to go bad just from sitting for 10 days in the fridge. I watched the gate and things were pretty slow.  As the sun came out things started to warm up a bit.  Our rig was covered with a thin layer of ice from all the mist and fog we encountered while we drove here from San Antonio  which mostly melted, and it wasn’t absolutely awful when I had to step outside.  When he got home from the store, Lee decided to take a crack at getting us some water before the sun went down and the temps plummeted again. He took apart all of the connections from the water trailer, and after some effort was able to clear the ice and get some water flowing.  We both took quick, but very hot showers and then he disassembled it all again, because the temps were going down into the low teens.  Definitely not the best situation, but we can make it work in the short-term and hopefully no serious damage has been done to out water system.

The night went pretty well.  The generator powered flood lights are really strong so the area is well-lit, and there is enough road traffic that I felt pretty safe.  I can also see the lights from a nearby small town, which gives the illusion at least of not being isolated.  One of the first things I did here was write down the closest cross street and the numbers for the local sheriff and police department.  It’s pretty complicated because we are right on the border, but I would hope in a true emergency folks wouldn’t pay much attention to an imaginary line.

Around 3:30am I was pretty tired, so I woke Lee up and went straight to bed.  His morning went pretty well and he got to see our resident coyote.  (I have named him Cisco. – Lee) Around 4am it was sniffing at the vole colony across from us and stared at him for quite a while.  Then it wandered off but came back a few times between 4am and 6:30am.  So the guy before us was probably feeding the coyote which was pretty idiotic.  They generally are pretty shy around humans, but feeding them (as with any wild animal) is not a good thing and lessens their fear of people.  Lee did some research though and hazing them does work (ie: yelling and throwing things at them) but for the time being we will watch the situation and see how it plays out.  If there is no food it will hopefully move along to another area, although the vole buffet might work against us there.  Although they are nocturnal I did get a nice look at it the next day.  I was able to take some pictures and it’s a big one, about as large as a German Shepherd.

Amazing how they blend into the landscape


Lee named it Cisco

The rest of the morning for Lee was pretty busy with a fleet of about 5 sand trucks coming and going all day. They come in, are here about 15 minutes, leave, and are back in about 15 minutes. there were also some vehicles with folks coming and going to the frack site. Many of them left though, because the pumps were frozen, so the really heavy traffic didn’t come today.  I woke up around 11am (amazing how quickly I flipped my schedule to nights) and around 3pm Lee hooked up the water.  We took showers and did dishes and then filled up jugs for the toilet and coffee and then he disassembled everything again.  So tonight we should be able to get on our regular schedule.  Lee is 4am -4pm and I am 4pm – 4am.  This is different from most folks who do 6-6 shifts, but we both like falling asleep in the dark, and the earlier start time gives him a couple of slow hours to wake up before the “heavy” traffic starts at 6am.  These rigs generally run some staff 24/7, but the bulk of the traffic does come between 7am and 6pm.  That’s one of the reasons I really like working nights.  The more down time the better, and for me at least it is worth the additional cold to get fewer interruptions.

 

 

Our site. (Just off camera where you can see the black edge of a low box is a 500 gallon diesel tank. We’re more than 5 hours from the “office” so it helps to have fuel on site. Then from right to left is the 300 gallon fuel tank, the 500 gallon fresh water tank, our house generator, and then there’s another trailer behind that with a massive green septic tank. It has another smaller white tank in front of it that says “Treated Water” with a garden hose that snakes off into the bushes. I’m guessing there’s some kind of system that “cleans” the black water, I’m going to ask and see what I can find out. Behind that large green tank is a much smaller tank with a pump that’s used to transfer black water to the large tank. And the hose you see coming towards the camera is the air line for the bell. We like it much better than the motion sensors we had at our last gate, but I need to make some modifications to it in order for it to be perfect for me. – Lee)

I like how we have some brush surrounding us. Makes for a little bit of a wind break. You can see the air line for our bell going off to the left. There’s one for people coming in and going out, and they cross the road far enough away from us that it gives us time to get to the door so they aren’t waiting.

 

The gate which thankfully we get to leave open!

 

The light tower. (We like this light tower better than the one we had last time. It has it’s own generator and fuel tank, which is pretty small, but we like having it on the “curb” side of the rig because the rig does’t cast a shadow on the road. It also puts zero light into the bedroom, which is awesome for sleeping.

 

This road leads to the oil area. It is 4 miles away so no smell!

 

What we can see is this sand pit.

 

Trucks are taking out caliche,  which is used to build roads.

I’m going to go ahead and stop here, but I did want to mention the sunsets are absolutely gorgeous. (As are the sunrises, which she never gets to see because she’s sleeping. – Lee)   I’ll be providing updates as things happen, and we will see how much we have to say.  From our perspective the best thing would be a nice boring stint. I know it doesn’t make for interesting blog posts, but my life could use some boring right now.  Plus I really want to dig into the first draft of the book I wrote last year and hopefully I can get it to a place where I can epublish.  It tells the story of how we got started and since I didn’t share much detail in my early blogging days, there are lots of stories that have never been told in this blog. Some of them have made wonderful campfire stories 🙂


(And for you early birds, here’s what I get to see, pretty much every morning. – Lee)


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9 thoughts on “First Time with Frozen Water

  1. Thanks for description of your “four season” rig. We just bought a LUXE with their “artic package” that I’m sure is similar to yours (two 20k furnaces, heat pumps, extra heat in the basement with heating pads on the tanks). Reading your rendition of the freeze out there helps reinforce what I’ve learned from your blog and others to always be ready for the unexpected. Enjoy the sunsets, warm weather is but a few short weeks away.

  2. It is crazy all of this cold weather way down south! Great depiction of the water and lines freezing. Question, do you have tank heaters on your rig? We are heading out full time in a couple months and I wonder how much difference they would make in a situation like yours. Our rig does have them but then I am sure there is still a myriad of fittings not protected.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on wishing the RV salesman just telling it like it is…but hey, they sell roses and unicorns! 🙂

  3. Well now, that was truly an enlightening story. I now have more questions for our salesman when we do our PDI. Our Heartland Big Country is also advertised as 4 season and we opted for the arctic pack, but obviously that can still leave questions. Being up here in Portland, Oregon for the duration of this winter and possibly the next, I really need to nail down the issues of cold weather. Even though our favorite weather person has assured us we’re through the worst of winter, this is Oregon and nothing is for sure.
    I’m looking forward to the next installment of the cold weather saga. Thanks a bunch. Lee is “The MAN”.

  4. While skirting is amazing (we endured a week of minus 25 temps at night with no freeze-ups), it’s expensive and can’t be carried with you from place to place. It cost us around $300 to skirt our rig with 3/4″ foam board, just for reference.

    I’ll bet the combination of the cold and the wind at highway speeds caused the majority of your rig’s freezing issues and you may not have that problem again, now that you are stationary. If it does, possibly putting a wind break on the prevailing wind side might help. Question: do you have fresh water lines below the floor in that enclosed area? We do not…all of ours are inside the living area of the rig. If you do, insulating them is a great idea!

    • All of the water lines are in that enclosed area which we can either heat using an electric space heater, or the furnace will do it if it’s running (walking doesn’t get the job done) and the furnace is in that same space. The only lines in an unheated space is where the fresh water tank line comes from the tank up into that space to get to the pump. – Lee

      • What brand space heater do you use? I use a laser temp gun similar to yours at work for getting the temp on produce, so I asked my wife to order one from Amazon for my personal use. My thought was for axle bearing temps. Never thought, at that time, about basement temps. Thanks for that point.

      • The brand does’t really matter, what matters is the type of heater and the wattage. Some heaters are designed for slow steady heat, some are designed for quick intense heat (as in under a desk) some have multiple heat settings and thermostats, and fans, and some oscillate. And the amount of wattage varies. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to use a 1500 watt heater with a high blower in a small bathroom. So it’s pretty application dependent. Most heaters have a little chart on the box that helps figure out which one is best for a certain use. For instance, I already wish the one in the sub-basement had a remote, so I could turn it on and off and adjust the temp without having to climb in there. For now I’ve got it set to max, and I just unplug it to avoid crawling in. And I also only use it if it’s going to be below 10°. Hope that helps. – Lee

  5. Our RV’s “Arctic Package” includes AC/DC tank heaters and heat tape and foam wrap on the water lines. The tank heaters are made by http://www.ultraheat.com. Something to consider adding, if you think this situation might occur in the future—the heaters may have helped your freezing situation (i.e., they can be on when you are traveling in sub-freezing temperatures, pulling from your batteries—and obviously can be powered by an electric 30/50 amp pedestal).
    We choose the Arctic Package option, just in case we might need it. We are currently using it, for the first time in our 3.5+ years of fulltiming. Local temperatures are dropping into the 10s and 20s at night. Between the arctic package heaters and monitoring the basement temperatures, we appear to be doing fine. We hope that we never need to turn the heaters on again, but we like having the option.

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