In this article...
In parallel with planning our big European adventure this winter, we also had to work out what to do with our RV.
After evaluating the options, we decided to leave the RV on our property - this was the cheapest option and would remove any concerns about not being able to get the RV back onto the property due to snow or mud season.
Since we would be away for 3 months, we wanted a way to check in on the property and the RV for peace of mind that everything is OK! We've been running an extensive home automation system in our RV for several years, and while that do the job, the RV would be completely powered off all winter so that wasn't an option.
Instead we decided to build a miniature remote monitoring system in a weatherproof enclosure - the key capabilities we wanted were to view cameras and check temperatures.
Our first challenge was to work out how to access this system remotely - for that we needed internet connectivity.
One reason we chose to buy this property is because we have symmetric 1Gbps fiber at the road. Unfortunately we haven't got this hooked up yet - the fiber company won't connect us up until we have a secure, dry building to house their equipment, yet another reason we're keen to get the utility building finished!
For the last several years on the road, we've been relying on a Verizon data plan - it's truly unlimited (we've put well over 2TB through it some months) and signal is pretty good on our property (download is ~30Mbps and upload is ~8Mbps).
By comparison, cell coverage from both AT&T and T-Mobile is essentially non-existent. We'll touch on this later when I talk through our camera setup, but we even bought a couple of prepaid SIM cards to test coverage and couldn't find signal anywhere near the RV - and just an occasional single bar of signal at the bottom of our driveway.
In the RV we rely on our Pepwave cellular modem / router or, as we've been using more recently, our Verizon MiFi device. Not wanting to leave the expensive Pepwave router or the battery-powered MiFi device outside all winter, I needed another option.
Several months prior I had been in a thrift store and stumbled upon a Cradlepoint cellular modem router for $10. At the time I had no immediate need for it, but decided to buy it anyway because it was a steal at that price.
The Cradlepoint AER1650 isn't as powerful nor does it have as fast a modem as either of our other options, but is perfectly suited for our remote monitoring box. The only downside is its size - it's pretty bulky! In the end, I had to use some right-angle adapters to connect the antennas.
Which led me to the next question - where to put all this gear to keep it safe from the elements all winter.
After looking at options online, I eventually settled on a weatherproof project box I found online. It measures 14.6" x 10.6" x 5.9" giving me plenty of space inside to house everything I need. I also liked that it has a mounting plate inside so you can screw to it without putting holes in the back of the box and ruining the waterproofing.
It is hinged on one side and uses two stainless steel latches to keep it closed. There is a gasket in the join to help keep it sealed, and a hole to put a padlock in. I ordered a pack of padlocks - I used one for the weatherproof enclosure and one for our AC main panel.
I opted to mount the box on the back of our electrical backboard. By doing so, I was able to pass a very short piece of conduit from the back of the AC main panel, through to the back of the weatherproof enclosure.
I used this to wire up two duplex outlets with GFCI protection, connected to a 20A breaker.
There were two key locations we wanted to be able to monitor with cameras while away this winter:
- A view of the outside of the RV so we can make sure the RV is OK;
- A view inside the RV to ensure there are no leaks, mice, etc.
Having ruled out cellular cameras due to poor (read: non-existent) AT&T and T-Mobile cell signal on our property, we were now looking at network cameras instead.
One option was to install a wired camera on the electrical backboard. This would have given the camera permanent power and network connection, but the backboard isn't a great location for a camera - it's too close to the RV to see anything useful.
We could have bought new WiFi cameras, perhaps solar powered ones, but instead we chose to re-use our existing Wyze Outdoor cameras.
The Wyze Outdoor cameras come with magnetic mounts but these are semi-permanently adhered to our RV and I didn't want to remove them. Instead, we picked up a couple of screw-on wall mounts - they have a regular 1/4-20 thread which fits the bottom of the Wyze Outdoor cameras and allows us to mount them on any vertical or horizontal surface.
For the indoor camera, I simply placed it on the edge of the cupboard above the bed, giving it a good view of the inside of the RV (we left all cupboards open for ventilation over winter).
Positioning the outdoor camera was a little trickier. We had parked the RV a good distance from any trees to reduce the chances of a falling branch or tree damaging the RV in heavy winds. Unfortunately that meant a lack of good mounting spots nearby!
The Wyze cameras don't use regular WiFi, but a proprietary communication system to talk back to a base station which is itself connected by ethernet (or WiFi) to our cellular router. The range on this is quite good, but has limits. I tried a few places but either the connection was too weak or the RV was too small in the field of view.
In the end I repositioned our weather station post and mounted it to that. I was a little concerned it would be too unstable in high winds but my fears turned out to be unfounded - it's been rock solid for the past 2 months.
Another concern was power - these cameras are battery powered, so how long would the batteries last? We knew from experience that the batteries do last several months - the biggest drains being remotely viewing the feed and motion activation.
We've been logging on every couple of days to keep an eye on things, and have had no motion events so far. Almost 2 months after installing them, the battery on the camera outdoors is at 76% and the one in the RV is at 85%. We only need them to last another couple of months before we're back, so at this rate we should be fine.
I should add that in addition to these remote cameras, we also have several trail cameras mounted discretely around the property as an additional layer of security, not to mention neighbors keeping an eye on the property for us.
The cellular modem and Wyze Outdoor cameras give us good insight into the property, and I could have stopped here - but I wanted to go further. Specifically, I wanted two more capabilities:
- Remote monitoring of our weather station and other sensors around our RV;
- Remote access to a Tailscale VPN exit node on our property.
I won't go into too much detail here on the second, but here's a quick overview. There are certain websites that block visitors or change their content for people from certain geographical regions for various reasons. We wanted to be able to bypass that, and a VPN exit node on our property gives us the ability to make it look to websites like we are still in Vermont, no matter where in the world we really are.
Combined with the first reason, this meant we'd need a small computer system running all winter long. If you've been following us for a while, you'll know that we have an extensive home automation system running in our RV.
Rather than leaving that whole system running all winter long, I instead chose to build a new, trimmed down version of it using a Raspberry Pi Model 3B+ and a Nooelec RTL-SDR v5 for 433MHz RF signal decoding.
While the simplest way to run Home Assistant on a Raspberry Pi is to install it on an SD card, these can be liable to fail due to constant data writing. So rather than an SD card, I chose to use a SanDisk 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive for the install. Time will tell whether this is a better option.
As a fallback, I also installed a second Raspberry Pi, this time a Model 3B that I had lying around. I just installed the base Raspberry Pi OS and Tailscale on an SD card, but then configured the Overlay Filesystem to be read-only.
Since there's no data being written, this should drastically increase the longevity of the SD card. This way, even if the first Raspberry Pi fails, while I'd lose access to the weather station and other sensors, I'd retain the Tailscale VPN exit node.
In my opinion, Home Assistant is the perfect home automation hub. While using it simply as a hub and dashboard for a weather station and handful of sensors is barely scratching the surface of its capabilities, it was the easiest and quickest way for me to set things up.
I haven't set up any fancy cloud access or reverse proxying to access it - instead I just configured Tailscale on Home Assistant and am periodically logging on by its IP address to view the dashboard.
One thing I've noticed is that the sensors seem a little intermittent. A sensor may work great for several days with regular updates coming every minute or two, then seemingly disappear for a day or more. I can only assume this is because so much is crammed inside the box, and it's causing interference with the sensors from time to time. Either way, I have enough temperature sensors that even if one drops out, another is still working.
I did place a temperature sensor inside the remote monitoring box itself to keep an eye on the temperature there. The big concern with computers and temperature is usually overheating, but I knew there was little risk of that in an un-insulated box outside in a Vermont winter - I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to get too cold!
I've only seen that sensor dip below freezing very occasionally, on the very coldest of days when the outside temperature has been around 0°F (-18°C) - the electronics inside are obviously generating enough heat to keep things warm inside.
In addition to remote temperature sensors, I also enabled some monitoring on the Raspberry Pi itself. It's been interesting watching the CPU Temperature fluctuate with the outside temperature - at its hottest I've seen the temperature climb over 110°F (43°C) and below 75°F (24°C) at its coolest.
With all these electronics running in the weatherproof enclosure, and knowing that they're generating enough heat to generally keep things from freezing inside the box, how much power is all this consuming?
I opted not to try and install any power monitoring devices in the box, mainly due to a lack of space.
However, we've since received our first electricity bill for when we weren't on the property for the whole billing period. According to the bill, our usage for the month was 12kWh. Assuming that the electricity usage was steady throughout the month, that works out at an average of ~15W continuous power draw.
That's in-line with what I'd expect - each Raspberry Pi is likely drawing ~2W, so the remaining is due to the Wyze Outdoor cam base station, cellular modem router, and a travel router I installed inside as a WiFi access point.
At the current price of around $0.18/kWh, we were charged $2.16 for electricity usage, on top of the regular connection charge we pay regardless of usage. Not bad given the capability it provides!
While this remote monitoring system gives us real, material benefits this winter - primarily the ability to check on our property and RV from wherever we are in the world - it was also a bit of an experiment.
Would the camera batteries last an entire winter? Would the electronics survive the cold of a Vermont winter in an un-insulated enclosure?
So what have we learned?
Well, first, yes - the camera batteries are holding out well, and the electronics have been working consistently even on the coldest of days.
But there have been some other interesting learnings too.
During the first big storm that hit Vermont in December, our property lost power for almost 48 hours. While we lost connectivity during this time, it was a good reminder to us that we must factor prolonged power outages into our building design.
Also, I'm surprised how intermittent the sensors have been. In the RV, we would sometimes get the occasional outage on a sensor, but it was a very rare event. Since we plan on having an extensive grid of sensors in our home automation system, I need to think carefully about what protocol to use, where to position antennas, etc.
Overall, while this system hasn't been perfect, it's done everything we needed it to do. The Tailscale VPN exit node has come in useful several times already to bypass geo-restrictions as we've been traveling, and the cameras have given us immense peace of mind, especially during the two big storms in December.