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Resource Conservation

We've been asked a few times now if we have any good tips for conserving resources while dry camping or boondocking. Since we seem to be pretty good at it (according to ourselves anyway, and the length of time we've managed to dry camp), we thought we'd do a post about it. Maybe you already know all of these things, or maybe you're just starting out and this will be super helpful. Either way, we thought it would be kinda fun for us to think through all the little things we do to increase our efficiency in the Airstream. 

DuskAS

Dry camping on the edge of Lake San Antonio, CA

Basically, there are four categories we think about: water, electricity, holding tank management, and propane, in that order. If we're dry camping or boondocking, fresh water is the first thing to go. If we're in a campground with partial hookups (electricity and water only), then tank management and propane are the only things we have to worry about.

WATER

The two biggest drains on fresh water are washing dishes and taking showers.

Washing Dishes:

We wash our dishes using a bowl with a squirt of soap and a little bit of hot water to start. Wash a bunch of silverware and wait to rinse it until you have a handful. When you rinse, rinse so the water goes mostly into the bowl, and this will increase the amount of soapy water you have to wash with. 

**Note: While you run to the water and wait for it to get hot, run that water into something else so you can use it. We have a Sodastream carbonator in the Airstream and so we fill an empty bottle with the "not yet warm" water to use for fizzing/drinking later, or in the reservoir for the espresso maker.

We never leave the water running while doing dishes. Wash a few things, rinse a few things. It takes a little bit to get used to, but you'll get the hang of it.

**Holding Tank Management Note:  If we're trying to be extra careful about gray water capacity so that we can shower, we sometimes pour the used dishwater into the toilet/black water tank. Since that tank is much slower to fill up (and it actually helps to have extra water in there) it seems like a good move. Some campgrounds have little drain areas specifically for dumping dishwater…also a good option – stretch your legs, walk your dishwater out to the dishwater dump.

Showers:

Oxygenics

We switched out the stock shower head that came with our Airstream with an Oxygenics shower head. It uses quite a bit less water than the original one. Also, don't leave the water running when you shower. Both the stock Airstream shower head and the Oxygenics shower head allow you to cut off the water flow on the shower head. (Note: both of these shower heads trickle in the "off" position…it's supposed to do that and yours is not broken.) Get wet. Soap/shampoo, then rinse. Condition/shave, then rinse again. It's not luxurious, but running out of fresh water or filling up the gray water tank isn't luxurious either. We can both take pretty good showers and increase the gray water tank by only 1/8 or less. To us, it's worth being this careful because it's totally worth it to be able to take a shower while you're camped on the side of a lake somewhere where there ARE no showers. If the campground has showers and they're clean, use them. It'll save a tremendous amount of water and holding tank space.

Brushing Your Teeth:

Don't leave the water running while you brush your teeth. Duh.

6gal water

Also, we have a couple of these 6 gallon BPA-free water jugs and if we plan to be out a while, we carry those full of fresh water. They're still light enough to be able to lift up to add water to your fresh water tank if you need to. 

ELECTRICITY

We replaced all of the stock halogen bulbs that came in our Airstream with LED bulbs. Each halogen bulb was 10w and each LED is 1.2w. Most of the newer Airstreams now come with LEDs…which is nice because that was not a cheap switch for us (31 bulbs, or something like that!) That means you can save 88% of the electricity it takes to run your lights by using LEDs instead of halogens.

Since we spend so much time in our Airstream, we also sometimes watch TV and movies (although many people think it's very uncool to watch TV while "camping", we think of this as our home, and at home, sometimes we watch TV. Whatever.) We installed two very low power 12 volt 22" tv/dvd combo units by Skyworth that we got from www.roadtrucker.com. They use MUCH less electricity than the standard AC-powered flat screens.

Anywhere possible, we use low power 12 volt appliances. (We also turn everything off when we leave for a few hours.) One of the biggest electricity users is actually the heater. Even though the heat comes from propane, the fan uses quite a bit of electricity. Keeping your thermostat low (or off when you're not there) saves electricity as well as propane.

The kinds of appliances to be really careful about are things that make heat: toasters, microwaves, coffee makers, hair dryers, curling/flat irons…all of these things use tons of electricity. If you're boondocking, use them sparingly or not at all. (Particularly for cooking you'll want to use the propane stove and/or your outside grill instead of any electric cooking appliances.)

Solar_airstream

Pretending to dry camp by not using the hookups (Wouldja lookit all that solar!) at Depoe Bay, OR

Now, we do have a crazy awesome solar system with 400 watts of solar panels on the roof, a 2000 watt inverter and 6 bigass AGM batteries in our trailer, and this has a huge effect on how we think about electricity while we're dry camping or boondocking: we don't think about it much at all. We can run both of our laptops, espresso maker, microwave, 1000w hairdryer, tv/dvd, the Traeger grill, etc. as much as we want, and as long as we have good sun, our batteries never get below about 90% and are back to full by mid-afternoon. (The only thing we can't use when we are dry camping or boondocking is the air conditioning. Obviously, not everyone has this crazy set up, so your mileage will of course vary.

We don't have a generator and with the solar system we have, we don't need one. If you're boondocking much, however, you'll need either (1) a good generator, or (2) a pretty substantial (and more expensive) solar system. (The small solar systems that come as factory options on some Airstreams are really only good for keeping your batteries topped up when you're not using the trailer. They won't supply a significant amount of a typical day's electricity use.)

Skamokawa_viewwithship

Dry camping on the edge of the Columbia River at Skamokawa Vista Park.

 HOLDING TANK MANAGEMENT

I covered most of this subject in the above categories: (1) don't leave water running when you shower, do dishes, or brush your teeth; (2) try to dump dishwater sometimes in a dishwater dump reservoir or sometimes in the toilet. 

Our fresh water tank is 39 gallons. Our gray water tank is 37 gallons, and our black water tank is 39 gallons. So if we manage the tank levels closely along the way, we can add fresh water as needed and stay out for a couple of weeks without having to dump our tanks. 
 

PROPANE

Propane tank

Heater:  Keep the heat off if you don't need it during the day, and set it as low as you are comfortable at night when sleeping (use plenty of blankets). If you have the thermostat set high (or even on what you're used to at home) and leave it on all the time, that uses up propane in a hurry.

**Note: When we are hooked up to electricity, we have a small space heater that we use for heat instead of our Airstream heater, saving our propane for when we need it.

Water Heater:  The hot water heater really only takes about 10 minutes to heat the water, so we leave ours off most of the time and only turn it on before we're going to use it to do dishes or take a shower, then turn it off again when we're done. Otherwise you are using propane to keep 6 gallons of water hot all night while you sleep and all day while you're out exploring. 

Kitchen appliances: The stove, oven, and fridge use very little propane, so we don't worry about those at all. We can probably dry camp a couple of weeks without using up one propane tank (unless we are somewhere really cold and need to run the heat all day.) If your fridge and/or your hot water heater have an electric mode, learn how they work and use them when you're plugged into electricity. This will save more propane for when you're dry camping. However, if you're running on an inverter off your batteries, be sure that your fridge and hot water heater are NOT on electric mode — they'll drain your batteries in a hurry.

Have you got any conservation tips to share with us? Post 'em in the comments section!

(Posted by Laura & Kevin)

  • Fogmonkey

    Hey Riveted….That was helpful information. We purchased our 2011 International Serentiy 25′ exactly one year ago. We have been out and about in California and Oregon but have never been anywhere without full hookups. I want to go other places and dry camp but I really didn’t know how it would work since we don’t have solar or a generator yet. After reading your post I am thinking about a solar system. Did you have your Airstream dealer install it? How did you choose the brand? I’ve been enjoying your blog and look forward to more info and trip ideas!

  • Good stuff! For our required dose of coffee we rely on an AeroPress and hand-cranked burr grinder. Makes fantastic coffee and doesn’t use an ounce of electricity. Does require patience and use of fine motor skills though.. but is good excuse to get in the moment.

    It doesn’t save you a ton of energy.. but electric coffee makers typically need 1000+ watts of immediate power.. and so you either need a serious inverter or generator to rely on those.

  • @Fogmonkey: Thanks! We had our solar installed by AM Solar in Springfield, OR. They did a fantastic job. Feel free to email us if you have any more specific questions.

    @Cyrus: Yes that’s a great way to conserve power as well. We used to have a stovetop espresso maker (vintage from Italy) that we used all the time…but then we got spoiled by the Nespresso at home and since our system can handle the power it uses, we now use that all the time in the Airstream (with a french press as backup). But the hand cranked burr grinder!? That’s some serious “in the momentness” isn’t it? Awesome.

    -Laura

  • We use alot of those techniques too. Also recently installed the Oxygenetics showerhead and love it. Wrote a bit about our water conservation here:
    http://wheelingit.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/going-water-green-conserving-water-on-the-road/

    By the way where did you boondock in Depoe Bay? I didn’t know there were any spots there!

    Nina

  • @Nina: My mistake. We were at Sea & Sand RV Park and I thought those front row spots were dry camping spots, but I just looked it up and I don’t think they are. We weren’t using the hookups this trip because we were in “test” mode with some of our new low power appliances (and Kevin’s handy volt meter). 🙂

  • We’re renovating our 34 ft Classic Limited and we’re looking at installing Solar Panels, just wondering where your batteries are located?

  • Thanks so much for this informative post! My husband & I are only a few weeks into living in our 25ft. airstream and are still learning about our tank capacity, electric consumption and all that stuff. We have the exact same size tanks as you so now I have something to aim for (a few weeks without dumping- wow!). I really appreciate the dish washing tips as I have been struggling to figure out the best way to get them clean with minimal water. Tried the bowl method this morning and it worked great. I would have never thought to dump the dish water in the toilet but since the grey always fills up before the black it makes sense every once in a while. I’ve been following your blog for over a year now and am in love with your photos and all the handy links to cool products you post. We’re (slowly) making our way west right now and can’t wait to visit some of the places you have been. Thanks again for the tips as well as the inspiration.

  • @Michael Blakely: In our Airstream we have the front bedroom layout. Our batteries (fully sealed AGM batteries, okay to have inside) are under our bed. Four of them are along the outside side of the wall that divides the outside storage from the under-the-bed storage, and the other two are on the inside side of that divider wall. -Laura

  • @Amanda: Thanks so much for your feedback! I’ve bookmarked your blog now too and will follow along!

    Okay so to be clear “a few weeks with dumping” is optimistic. I think our extreme has been 12 days at Contorta Flat on Crescent Lake (photos here: http://www.riveted-blog.com/2010/08/contorta-flat.html) in Oregon. We were parked on the side of a lake, the “campground” had no amenities at all. Not even water. We brought extra water, and we added maybe 12 gallons of fresh water to our tank. We were sailing (very wet sailing in the Hobie) on the lake every day (lake showers) so we only took a few very minimal showers during those 12 days (TMI). I think if we’d had campground showers to use we could have a bit longer for sure. 🙂

  • good post – I am living in my 30-footer for almost two months now and am very conscious of all things conservation – helps to have the view of other full-timers. http://chinesebuffalo.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/a-busmans-holiday/

    Charlie

  • Excellent tips! Couldn’t have laid it out any better than that!