In this article...
Smart RV Tour
Last week we shared the long-awaited tour of our Smart RV.
In it, we walked through what we have done to create what we believe is the ultimate DIY smart RV. We had an amazing response to both the blog post and the video!
When you first step into our RV, it's not immediately apparent that there is anything unusual - it just looks like a regular RV. And that's by design. One of my goals in building out the home automation system is that it should blend into the background.
It's continually working behind the scenes to make life easier and more comfortable, but it isn't demanding our constant attention. Consequently, we're often surprisingly blasé about it since it's just become the norm for us.
But the overwhelmingly positive response really got me excited about it all again, and there were some great comments that have inspired me with some new ideas.
One of the reasons we had been hesitant to share is because we weren't sure how to find the right balance between the what and how of the system.
Our most successful video on YouTube is about 37 mods we've done to the RV during full-time living.
I think one of the reasons that was so successful is that we covered a lot of material very quickly - for each mod I just tried to explain the what and why. But with our Smart RV, people really want to know the how too.
The challenge is that since Diana and I both have deeply technical backgrounds, we've designed the system with that in mind. Or to put it differently, we haven't made our system very beginner friendly!
But clearly the demand to learn more and replicate it is there, so what's the solution?
Well, when we've talked about mods in the past, we've always talked about how we did something, not how to do something. Of course our experience is helpful to others, but we always expected people to use our content as inspiration rather than a true step-by-step guide.
This time we're going to do something a little different. Over the course of the coming weeks and months, I'm going to start sharing content that is designed for people to follow step-by-step. I'm going to take things right back down to the basics, so anyone can follow along and begin building out their own system.
So if you have the desire to build out your own Smart RV, the willingness to learn some new skills, and a modest budget ($100 is plenty to get you started) then make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter and follow along!
Our system is based around a relatively complex computing & networking setup, but this week I ordered a Raspberry Pi 3 B+. This is a very affordable tiny computer with plenty of power to run everything in our home automation system, and I'll be using it as the basis of the beginner-oriented tutorial.
Stay tuned for episode 1!
SeeLevel II Tank Sensors
As RVers, knowing how full (or empty!) our holding tanks are is important because that determines how long we can stay off grid. Yet one notable omission of our Smart RV is that we don't have any monitoring of our tank levels. Why not?
Well, our RV, like many, came with the simple resistive tank sensors that illuminate some LEDs to show the tank as either empty, 1/3rd full, 2/3rds full, or full. In theory.
In reality, the levels are laughably inaccurate at the best of times, and the black tank sensor in particular is unreliable to the point of unusable. They work by using a few bolts drilled through the side of the tanks at different levels, then pass an electric current through them to see which bolts are submerged in liquid.
Any "stuff" that sticks to the bolts will cause inaccurate readings, hence why our black tank sensor almost always reads full. I like to joke that the black tank sensor is really just a way to test that all the LEDs still work!
I actually designed and fabricated a circuit board that would interface with the resistive tank level sensors and take readings. While it technically worked, the reality was that the data was so unrealiable and low resolution that it wasn't usable for anything, so I gave up.
But there is a better way.
Following our video, we've been in contact with Garnet Instruments - the company that makes the SeeLevel II tank sensors. These are a much better design and work by having a sensor strip that you attach to the outside of each tank and is accurate to ±8% or better!
They were really excited about our Smart RV and have agreed to send us a brand new pre-production unit to install on our RV. We'll be able to integrate it fully into our home automation system, and using the data we collect, give them feedback on the product itself.
RV-C to WiFi Bridge
There are already several different SeeLevel II models out there, so what's different about this new model?
It doesn't have a display!
Wait, what? So how do you read the tank levels?
Well, in an increasing number of higher end RVs, there is a single central place where you can monitor and control everything - including your tank sensors. You know, a little bit like our centralized dashboard!
The new SeeLevel II Soul unit they're sending us does away with the display entirely and instead connects to the communication bus inside the RV. This is known as RV-C and is a simple, wired system very similar to the one in your car that can be accessed via the diagnostic port near your steering wheel.
The only problem is, our travel trailer doesn't have an RV-C bus.
What we need is a way to extract the RV-C data and send it over WiFi to our home automation system - an RV-C to WiFi bridge. Similar devices do already exist, but are really not designed for end-consumers such as us.
So, I'm going to DIY my own! I have a plan, I think I have all the components I need, and once the new SeeLevel II Soul arrives I'll be able to test it out.
And obviously, I'll share the experience so you too can do the same. If your RV already has an RV-C bus then plugging in this DIY module would allow you to get everything from RV-C into the home automation system - that might be lights, appliances and much, much more! A huge win for less than $30 in parts.
We're on full hookups right now, so why do I care about monitoring the tank levels?
Well, for one, having full hookups is definitely not the norm for us, and once we can resume traveling again, we'll be out dry camping and living off our tanks.
But even now, here in the RV park with full hookups, knowing our tank levels is important. What I want is auto-dumping tanks - the holy grail of RVing.
Here's the problem: we want to keep our tank valves closed so that we don't get smells (or worse!) coming out of the park's sewer system and up into the RV. For the black tank that's fine since it takes a while to fill - I can just dump it once a week or so. But the grey tank fills much quicker with two of us washing, showering, cooking and generally enjoying the city water connection - I'd be emptying the grey tank every other day at least.
Instead, I've been leaving the grey tank open - particularly this winter when emptying the grey tank meant trudging around in the snow, reaching through a trapdoor in the skirting to pull the valve, then standing and waiting while it emptied before closing.
What I really want is a system that would empty itself. Using the data from the tank sensors, the automation system will know when the tanks are getting full. For now that can just alert me to go and empty them, but my plan is to also install electric waste valves, also controllable by the home automation so it can then dump the tanks itself!
I'm even thinking about taking it a stage further. With a valve on the city water supply, I can even connect it into the San-T-Flush system on our RV so it will automatically flush the black tank too. Another valve will let me divert city water into our fresh tank so we won't need to separately fill that tank before a trip - we can just tell the home automation to automatically fill the fresh tank.
My end goal is a full auto-dumping system. I imagine a future where we are using the RV more recreationally - say short, weekend trips. We return home from a trip and connect the water, sewer and electrical hookups, then press a button. The system will automatically empty and flush our tanks. Then, before we go on the next trip we press another button and it can fill the fresh tank for us too!
Honeywell Smart Thermostat
One of our most popular blog posts is about how we upgraded to a smart thermostat in our RV - it's something a lot of people want to do!
We installed that thermostat almost 2 years ago and it has been working absolutely flawlessly ever since. The problem is that it's not very DIY friendly - the thermostat in particular is a discontinued model and it can be hard to find.
There are some other options, for example the MicroAir EasyTouch RV thermostat that I reviwed last year.
While on paper it sounds good, in reality the design is dated, the interface is sluggish, the price is eye-watering and it's impossible to integrate it into a home automation system.
I regularly receive emails from people asking if I know of a different thermostat that would work, and I've never been able to find something. At one point I was hopeful as Amazon reviews suggested the Radio Thermostat CT50 would work so I bought one to test, but it was a dead end.
However, last week one of our followers (thanks Jim!) linked me to the Honeywell T6 Pro Z-Wave Thermostat as one that they have working in their RV.
I had dismissed it originally because it's battery operated - I didn't want to be changing batteries every 10 minutes! But they've just changed the batteries in theirs after almost 2 years of constant operation - woah!
That sounds perfect, so I've bought one on Amazon to test and review - it arrived yesterday. Stay tuned!
So where is this all going? What's our end goal?
The goal was, and is, to make our life in the RV more comfortable, more efficient and more secure. But now I'm adding in another goal: connect everything.
Honestly, we could stop where we are. Our system is already incredibly advanced and has immeasurably improved our quality of life. If we didn't make a single addition or change to the system, we'd still be really happy.
But one of the fascinating things about what we have built is how much we have learned. We've solved problems we didn't even think about until we started exploring - like the auto-shutoff timer on the inverter. We've used the data we've collected to make real decisions about what we buy and how we upgrade our RV. It's taught us things that will help us when we build our house.
I feel a duty to keep going. There's more for me to learn, and more for me to share. Everyone has their own idea about what RV life means to them, and I applaud that. Why should I stop now and say "this is enough automation for RVing"?
I'm going to take this further. I want to learn what I don't yet know I don't know. I want to connect everything in the RV.