Here’s what you’ll need, here’s what you’ll need to know.
Many options exist for heating your off-grid vehicle or home, and your heat source really depends on your location and living space. It’s best to figure your BTU (units of heat energy) needed per hour to warm the space, which is determined by the size of your space and the average starting temperature. You can roughly figure the needed BTU by taking the square footage of your space multiplied by at least 20. The colder your starting temperature, the higher you must multiply against your square footage. For example, our tiny Shasta is approximately 130 sq. ft., so when multiplied by 20, we could assume to need a heater that generates at least 2,600 BTU per hour. But, since some nights in these parts reach negative double digits, let’s increase our multiplier to 50, meaning we may need around at least 6,500 BTU to be comfortable this winter.
With a little bit of research and diligence, you can find and plug in your exact numbers and desired temperatures, and figure exactly the amount of BTU you’ll need to get your space from one specific temperature to another.
The needed BTU will determine the type of heat source you choose for your off-grid situation, as you’ll need some sort of fuel to generate that heat energy.
Electricity as Heat — Not Ideal
Electricity is not ideal, because even though we have a generator that we can just plug right into and operate electronics, charge batteries, and probably run a heater, and although solar is always an option to run devices and charge batteries also needed for an electric heater — heat energy will just burn right through that electric storage.
Batteries are drained quickly, because lots of BTU means lots of energy needed, and in terms of electricity — that translates to needing watts. And sure, you can get a beast of a generator to operate your electric heater, but that heater is going to hog a lot of your generator’s produced watts, and your gas-guzzling generator is going to be loud as all get out, or it will cost you a pretty penny to be a efficient and quiet.
I’ll outline more about generators and electric power later on, but when it comes to fueling heat, propane is just much more efficient than electricity.
We also considered installing a tiny wood-burning stove in our Shasta — a la Pinterest and Instagram magic — but noped out of that idea pretty fast.
The biggest reasoning against this idea is probably because it may immediately nullify the insurance coverage of the off-grid vehicle. Your insurance provider likely will not cover your vehicle/van/RV if you install a wood-burning stove. I don’t just mean they will not cover any accidents or damage caused by the stove, I mean that they will drop you as a client if you have the stove in your home/vehicle.
And for us, we were not comfortable with the modifications that would have been required for our peace of mind. Proper fireproofing, pipe spacing, venting — all of that and the accompanying risks were enough to dissuade us, insurance issues aside.
Sean and I would love to have a wood burning stove in our permanent home one day, but as with anything, the logistics will need to be considered. Since we have very minimal timber on our property, could we buy logs from a store or a local provider? Can we gather wood from the neighboring national forest? How realistic are any of these wood-collecting options, really, and when it’s below zero outside — is it worth it?
We Love Propane
So for now, we prefer propane for fueling our heat as opposed to electricity or wood, because for us, it’s been the most convenient and efficient to use. Propane is such a universal fuel, that it is easy to refill as needed. Many of the RV Parks that you may visit for water and waste facilities will usually also have a propane filling station, as well as your local farm and home supply store.
And like a mentioned in the previous post, many companies will also drive out to your property to fill a large tank (if your location allows for it), and lots of people in our area use this option.
We refill our propane at a cost of $2.09 a gallon, and a 20 lb tank holds about 4.7 gallons. To satisfy all of our heating, cooking, and hot water needs, we use two of these tanks — interchangeably refilling them about once a week or every other week for a total monthly cost of around $80.00. Our future plans will probably include a large tank on our property that a company truck fills once or twice a year.
In terms of just heating our little jellybean Shasta, I’ve mentioned before that it has its own onboard propane furnace. However, our Shasta was built in 1962, and the original furnace just isn’t that great. And I believe that the general consensus from the RV community is that many of the built-in furnaces usually aren’t very efficient, even in new models.
So to supplement our heat this winter, we bought a small, portable propane heater which is advertised for camping and hunting use, and we loooove it. The unit is made by the Mr. Heater brand, produces 9,000 BTU, and has kept our Shasta nice and toasty during the lowest and coldest temperatures of the season.
We generally use our Buddy heater when temperatures start dropping in the evenings and keep it running through the night while we sleep. Operating on the low/medium setting, we can get about 100 hours from the heater when attached to a 20 lb propane tank. We purchased a separate accessory hose that runs from the heater, through the wall, and to the propane tank outside. I would not advise ever keeping a large propane tank indoors.
What we like about this unit, too, is that it can also attach to the small, one lb propane bottles that can be found at almost any grocery or camping store. The small propane bottles will last about four or five hours with the heater, which makes it an ideal set up for emergency, short term heating. I wouldn’t regularly rely on the small bottles though, because at $4.00 to $7.00 each, they are way less cost effective than refilling 20 lb tanks.
Safety was a major factor in buying this heater. Equipped with a low oxygen censor, the unit will shut itself off if the oxygen around the heater is not sufficient — meaning carbon monoxide has become a risk.
Carbon monoxide is a danger you must be aware of, and it’s the reason you have to be SO careful with nontraditional cooking and heating appliances. Almost any device that uses some sort of fuel to generate heat/power, will also usually generate carbon monoxide as a byproduct.
So you can’t just go installing wood stoves, cooktops, or propane heaters all willy-nilly — not every option is safe, no matter how cute it looks on the internet.
The unit we have — the Mr. Heater Big Buddy — is one of THE ONLY portable heaters on the market that is safe for indoor use. It’s a favorite among the RV/off-grid community, but many people still debate about whether or not venting is needed. Usually, if you are using a tool or appliance that may produce carbon monoxide, you must vent the space via an open window or door. But because of its design, along with the low oxygen sensor I mentioned earlier, the Mr. Heater brand advertises their heater as being safe for indoor use without the need for venting.
I will add that when we’ve used our heater without venting, the low oxygen sensor has never shut down the unit, and our carbon monoxide alarm hasn’t made a peep. Perhaps our Shasta is just THAT drafty, the poor ole girl, and there is no shortage of oxygen ventilation around here!
But I hope the truth is that our little Mr. Heater is really just that good… Because opening a window when it’s -20° outside kind of defeats the purpose.
Like I said though, the best heating situation really depends on the location and living space.
But (in my opinion) there are a couple of universal truths — propane is the way to go, and you must always be careful of carbon monoxide.
Shoot, I’m beginning to think the best heating situation is to just go somewhere tropical and skip the cold altogether! 😉 There’s a reason why many full-time RVers are “snowbirds,” afterall…
Stay tuned, electrical sourcing and land access are up next.