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The Basics - Living Services

Here's a brief guide to the services needed to make life comfortable in your motorhome just to get you started. For more information see the individual topics under Vehicles & Services.

Gas   Also known as LPG and stored on-board in special replaceable steel bottles or cylinders which must be used in an upright position. A few motorhomes have permanent gas tanks which are topped up at refilling stations like LPG cars. There are also Gaslow Refillable bottles that can be topped up in the same way. Gas is needed for cooking and heating when not 'hooked-up' to mains electricity and will also run a 'three-way' fridge in similar circumstances. It cannot legally be used on the move in the UK nor in tunnels or on ferries where it must be turned off at the bottle. Permanent tanks are not allowed in some tunnels - the Channel Tunnel for example.

The gas supply is controlled by a regulator fitted to the motorcaravan or to the top of the gas cylinder. The regulator must suit both the installed appliances and the type of gas used. There are two gas types commonly available, Butane and Propane, often colour coded blue and orange/red. Each cylinder type has a different fitting so they cannot be accidentally connected to the wrong regulator. Butane contains more energy per bottle than Propane but will not deliver gas at low temperatures whereas Propane will work happily in freezing conditions. Occasional advice to change from one to the other for Summer & Winter use is complicated by the need to change regulators and fittings, so many motorcaravanners use Propane all year round. Gas Hoses (Pigtails) & Adapters (BUY from our shop - click)

Many newer vehicles are fitted to a new standard 30mbar remote regulator where a single universal regulator is fixed to the vehicle and the bottles are connected to that by high pressure hoses often called 'pigtails'. Potentially this will be more useful in Europe since only pigtail or adapter changes will be needed when changing bottles. Also it will be easier to change from Propane to Butane if desired.

Water   It almost goes without saying that a reliable source of clean and drinkable water is needed. Modern motorhomes nearly all come with on-board water tanks taking 15 to 30 gallons or more. This could last a day or a week depending on how many of you are sharing it and on your lifestyle. In practice we two refill our 25 gallon tank about every two to three days or top-up whenever convenient. Make sure you refill from mains water and not a tank based supply!

The water is delivered to taps, showers etc via an electric pump running from the motorhome battery.  In regular use this is a perfectly satisfactory supply of water for all purposes including drinking. In less regular use some motorcaravanners suffer from stale tasting or tainted water and prefer to carry a small separate supply of drinking water. Either way you have to go to some trouble, either keeping the tank 'sweet' or by using separate supplies. We prefer the sweet tank route and also use an in-line water filter on the kitchen cold tap, this works in a similar way to a jug filter but is more convenient.

Hot water is provided by gas heating sometimes with a mains electricity option too. Usually just a couple of gallons is heated at a time but this is enough for most purposes and another couple of gallons for a second shower heats up very quickly. The latest motorhomes have electronic ignition, thermostatic control and automatic safety shut down - all the convenience you'd expect at home in fact. Earlier models will be more hands-on but will still have the necessary safety features. 

Waste   There are three things to consider here, used water, toilet waste and household waste. The household waste is the easiest, simply dispose of it in waste bins in plastic bags but do it more frequently than at home to prevent any build up of odour in your small living space. We find supermarket shopping bags ideal for this. By the way the fabric spray called Febreze works wonders at getting rid of cooking smells etc from motorhome fabrics - especially camping out of season when a good airing is less likely.

Used water is also known as 'grey water' or 'grey waste' and causes motorcaravanners some minor hassle. Many motorhomes are now fitted with on-board waste tanks which have outlet taps or dump valves for emptying. The hassle comes in because there are few places in the UK that cater for motorcaravans, so most dump points assume you will walk there with a small portable device and tip its contents down a drain. So in practice, you'll need to carry some hose to extend your reach for grey waste dumping. Fortunately some sites have given the matter proper thought and will provide better facilities where it is easy to drive to the emptying point on firm ground and dump the waste water straight into a gulley. On some farm sites you'll be asked to let the water go on the field or near the hedge. Emptying into road drains is also a possibility but strictly speaking is illegal in most places (as is rinsing off the suds from your freshly washed car into one!!). In practice you shouldn't do this in rural locations because there the water is likely to go straight into a brook or stream where it can do a lot of harm, city drains on the other hand are far more likely to be connected to a full drainage system that can cope with a few extra suds - the trouble is there's no way of telling!

Black or toilet waste is contained in the toilet cassette complete with a special camping toilet fluid. The modern fluids (Green Aquachem for example) are environmentally friendly being mostly odour suppressants that break down in the environment rather than polluting it. Cassette emptying on site is at the 'CDP' or Chemical-toilet Disposal Point which can be anything from a white ceramic toilet-like device to a hole in the ground with a cover!  Water points are usually provided for rinsing and I shouldn't need to point it out but ... never use these for water tank filling nor ever use the drinking water taps for toilet rinsing!!  If not on a camp site public toilets can be used as long as the green versions of the fluids are used.

In contrast in much of Western Europe there are numerous motorhome service points (pictured) offering fresh water, grey and black waste disposal and even short term mains electricity for charging for just a few euros. 

Electricity   This comes in two flavours in motorhomes, 12 volt and 230 volt, i.e. vehicle and mains electricity. The vehicle electrics have the advantage of being fully portable and available all the time but low powered while mains electricity can offer far more power, enough for space heating and cooling for example, but only when you are on a camp site 'hooked-up' as it's known.

12 volt electricity is provided nowadays from an extra leisure battery housed in the caravan part of the vehicle. This is connected in a special way to link it to the vehicle battery for charging when the engine is running but to separate it from the vehicle battery when static.  This prevents you from flattening the vehicle battery so that you can always start the motorhome!  The 12 volt system will happily provide lighting and operate the water pump but doesn't have enough reserve to provide heating. It can also power the 3-way fridge but only while on the move and being boosted by the vehicle charging.

Mains electricity is the preferred choice if you need more power than a 12 volt battery can provide. Although gas will provide heat for cooking and for comfort it won't power a microwave and you might well consume several bottle-fulls in the depths of winter or even in very hot conditions when the fridge is running flat out! Air conditioning is also best on mains electricity. A fully equipped motorcaravan will already have all the necessary fittings so all that you need to do is to tell the camp site that you want electricity and to connect the mains post to the 'van using the special outdoor cables and connectors sold in every caravan accessory store. You can then use mains appliances as you would at home - up to the maximum allowed by the site, typically 2 to 3 kilowatts of appliance in total.  

Cooking   Almost always based on gas but may be supplemented by a microwave and possibly a small portable electric oven, both of which require a hook-up as above. English motorhomes often have a hob plus grill and oven installed but European 'vans frequently have just a gas hob. Auto-ignition is sometimes but not always available and many of us use a 'gas-match' or similar to light the gas. Auto shut-off if a flame failure occurs is always fitted. Outdoor cooking on barbeques is of course popular in summer.

Heating   The heating system is usually gas based and may be a gas fire or blown hot air heating or both. Blown air heating uses 12 volt electricity just for the fan to circulate air and is very effective in warming an interior quite quickly, it can also be routed where a boost is desired; like into the washroom, cab area, under a bed, etc. Portable gas heaters should never be used because of the suffocation risk - the installed units have carefully designed external flues to protect you in all normal circumstances. A few motorhomes have a full hot water based heating system run on diesel fuel with fans to distribute hot air. Portable electric fan heaters can be used when on hook-up, the modern thermostatic versions with safety cut-outs are essential for safety in such a small space. Ours also has a 'frost-stat' and so has a double use as a frost protector in winter. We also went to some trouble to find a quiet one so that it can be left on all night in extreme weather.


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