How I Converted a Travel Trailer to Off-Grid Tiny Home for $3000!
Initial Travel Trailer Purchase
So I’ve decided this winter, instead of traveling overseas, to build a self sufficient house for myself here in Canada. My goal is to see how cheaply I can build an off-grid mobile home. The plan is to completely convert a travel trailer to of-grid tiny home – complete with battery bank, solar panels, water system, shower, kitchen, wood stove, etc. Over the course of this post, I’ll do my best to give a detailed overview of the conversion of camper trailer into a comfortably livable, off-grid tiny home. In the end, by doing all the work myself and buying all (almost) the materials second hand from searching classified ads I completed the off-grid travel trailer tiny home for less than CAD$3000! Proof(ish): list of parts, materials, and associated costs used in the conversion.
I started by buying an old 22ft camper trailer that someone had been apparently using as a hunting cabin. It was nothin to look in the beginning, but I got it for $500 so couldn’t expect much for that price. This is the trailer’s back-story as I was told it: the seller, Karrie, his ex-wife (who he’d just gotten back together with) died and her prior boyfriend had been living in it (with her?) on her parent’s property. After she died, her parents wanted it gone and told him to get it off their property; he said he wasn’t interested in it and to just get rid of it; so Karrie offered to sell it for them, moved it to his back field, and “just wanted it gone.” I initially went to see it with my mom (who may well have been more excited about the prospect than me) during a patch of rather bad weather. Didn’t have winter tires on the F-150 rear-wheel-drive, and no 7-way brake controller, so worked a deal out for him to deliver it for $600. Turns out Karrie didn’t “just want it gone,” nearly as much after receiving a down-payment, so I installed a brake controller in my truck ($140) and went to get it myself: hence $500. So, minus fuel, I basically got the truck brake controller setup for free by picking it up myself. My goal is to see just how cheaply I can get it into livable condition by doing all the work myself and buying the bulk of building material through local classified ads.
Surprisingly, most of the lights worked after plugging it into the truck; unsurprisingly, the trailer brakes didn’t. But, with no plate nor registration, me and my trusty old Ford got’er home without incident over a few hours of rather icy roads. She’s gotta be pushing the upper bounds of the truck’s tow capacity, but the ol girl didn’t complain (much) over the relatively flat Alberta secondary highways.
On the way to pick up the trailer, I picked up a busted up chair from the side of the highway that should go rather nicely in my finished tiny house. Hopefully it’ll go through the door; if not, I’ll have to open up a wall, as fate will not be cheated! For now it can stay in Mom’s green room. As it turned out, the chair wasn’t comfortable and she ended up tearing it down to salvage the leather for other projects.
The trailer – let’s call her Big Assed Betty (Babs for short) to avoid odious repetition of “the trailer”, came furnished with a chimney, wood-stove, propane stove/oven/range, grandma chair (dibsed by my Granni), plywood bed, coat rack, red toolbox (coated on the inside with some suspiciously toxic looking powder), battery bank (split open), and an AC/DC converter (fried).
Initial Interior Condition
Bab’s interior was luxuriously (possible at one period?) outfitted with two layers of mismatched wood paneling and vinyl tile flooring. Evidence suggests that over the decades, she’s endured innumerable half-assed upgrades, downgrades, patch-jobs, additions (A/C, partitioning), and subtractions (bathroom, kitchen, various windows). At one time she was seemingly outfitted with a sink, shower, toilet, holding tank, and associated plumbing.
Her insulation is largely mouse-shit free and in re-usable condition; unfortunately, there’s substantial water damage in her 2×2 framing, so I’ve ripped down all the ceiling insulation to make it easier to work in there amidst the rat’s nest of wiring without constant eye/skin/breathing irritation. One thing I do love about Babs already is her many various windows 🙂 Here’s another remodel project of a very similar travel trailer I came across if you’d like an idea of what the original trailer likely looked like.
Unfortunately, after ripping up a bit of the flooring and undercarriage, I found it much too rotten to build atop. The tin undercarriage metal sheeting has rusted out wherever it’s in contact with the steel frame, so the floor joists, insulation, and floor sheeting was completely water-logged and rotten. There’s no way I’d be ok rebuilding atop that mess, so it all had to come up. I tried to keep the wall base-plate boards in place, where possible, but most of them were all but rotted away as well. It was a bit of a balancing act to keep the walls from collapsing once the floor joists were gone, but I managed to do it in stages so they maintained as much support throughout the process of tearing out the floor. I ripped up the rear first, using a trusty old pick-axe, then replaced the rear wall base-plate boards, floor joists, and sheeting before moving onto the front section. The walls wanted to sag down and fall over during the process, so I used a couple jack-alls to raise them up in order to slide the new base-plates back underneath.
Another big reason why I bought Babs was for her wood stove heater and existing chimney; however, I later discovered the wood stove had a large crack in the firebox where the sidewall overheated and bulged out, breaking the weld; also, both batteries have frozen burst both end cells, so they are unsalvageable. But I convinced my cousin to weld up the stove for a case of beer if I supply the welding rod. So I took a trip over to see cousin Justin, and he did a great job welding up the old heater. Looks good, but I’ll have to wait until I get the old subfloor replaced before I can set it in place. Hopefully the warm spell we’ve been having lasts until then so I can keep steadily plugging away even once the temperature drops again.
It’s April 23 and snowing again – all week long it’s been snowing… Luckily there was enough of a break in the weather for me to paint up the wood stove and get it installed. The existing damper holes were not allowing enough air intake, resulting in the flame being choked out when the door was closed. So I bored more and bigger damper holes which seemed to improve overall combustion. Let it snow, now I can work in relative comfort indoors despite the floor remaining wide open.
Rebuilding Floor, Undercarriage
So the floor and undercarriage is now mostly ripped up. With the rotten wall base-plates gone, the walls are rather wobbly, so I’ve left the front end floor in place until I get the back rebuilt. No sheet metal has shown up in the classifieds, so I’ve opted to use some old barn roofing kicking around the farm as the new undercarriage. It has a profile to it, so I’m just hammering it flat around the edges and where it hits the frame – doesn’t have to be pretty, just has to get the job done. Rebuilding and sealing up the undercarriage is taking alot longer than I’d thought because I’m constantly having to jack up and down each side in order to wedge the angle steel, sheet metal, and base plates in under the wall studs. Getting all the base layers arranged, placed correctly, and bolted to the frame is hard enough without having to simultaneously do a balancing act with the flimsy walls that are constantly trying to bow in and out under the jackall’s pressure. Surprisingly, I accomplish this (at least up to the wheel wells) without completely trashing the exterior siding! Not looking forward to doing the same thing for the front end, but at least I know what to expect now.
One of the frame cross-member has come loose from the frame, so I bolted it back in place. Before sliding the roofing under the base plates (easier said than done) I laid down a bead of silicone sealant so no water can leak in under the base plates. Once the floor is completed, I’ll finish caulking all the edges, joints, and holes in the galvanized steel sheeting from below.
I placed a classified ad on kijiji.ca listing many of the building materials I needed. Barbra, from Igloo Building Supplies, contacted me regarding a few year-end clearance items they were trying to get rid of that were on my list. Ended up getting 1000 self tapping screws ($5), 160sq.ft. of rigid insulation ($50), and 160ln.ft. of 2×2 lumber from Igloo ($50) – thanks Barbra for the top-notch customer service!
This week is cold again and snowing, so I’ve laid down sheets of plywood over the holes in the floor and closed up the back end with sheet metal to keep the snow and wind out. Really looking forward to getting enough of the floor sheeting down to be able to set the wood stove back up.
I plan on reusing as much of the original fiberglass insulation as I can. Not only because it’ll save me some money but also because this is the most environmentally conscious choice. However, because the old floor insulation was shot, I’ve chosen to put down new polystyrene rigid insulation in the floor. This way, if any water does manage to get in, the insulation won’t be at all compromised. After researching insulating options, I’ve decided against just spray foaming the whole thing because, although spray foam insulation is great for complete coverage and vapour barrier, it’s not great for the environment and can pose health risks from off-gassing if the on-site chemical reactions don’t go exactly right. I’m not saying it’s a bad product for all applications necessarily, but the potential energy savings in my case are not so important because I plan on heating/cooling Babs with all renewable energy.
So the undercarriage and floor are done, FINALLY! That was a lot of unanticipated work that put the project months behind my imagined schedule. Here’s a basic recap of how I rebuilt the floor: I found some used galvanized steel barn roofing in good condition on the back 40 and hammered the profile flat as possible to lay down atop the frame to protect the floor joists and insulation from weather, water, mice, etc. I used self tapping stainless steel screws to screw it together and sealed every single hole with all-weatherproof, flexible silicone caulking. After the tin galvanized steel sheets were sealed up and lying directly atop the steel frame, I framed up the floor joists and base-plates for the walls. It took some doing (and some swearing) to get the tin and base-plates underneath the walls without them sagging and caving in under the weight of the roof, but with alot of effort (and more swearing) everything was sealed up nice, stable and sturdy.
Well unfortunately January and February both were rather nasty (-30C for weeks on end). I was hoping to get the wheel wells done so I could finish the rear floor far enough to place the stove back in before the cold snaps hit. But that didn’t happen, and turns out I didn’t have the motivation to go out and work in -20C weather (not to mention my sealant needs >4C temperatures to set up properly). Was gone to Kelowna dog sitting for my sister for a good part of March, so it’s now April before I’ve gotten back into Babs full swing.
Spring is now here (fingers crossed!) which makes it much more enjoyable working on the trailer. A squirrel has built a nest in the garage next to my work area, but I think she’ll move it if she doesn’t have babies already because of all the noise I make around there. Later on in the spring a robin built her nest close by also.
Wheels and Suspension
Just finishing up bashing the wheel-wells into submission and sealing them up good. When I removed the driverside wheels, I found a nasty little surprise: the inside shackles for both leaf springs are sheared completely off! Both are only still attached on the one side of the bolt, so I was lucky to get Babs home without dropping her on the pavement lol. That wouldn’t have been fun! I wrenched on the bolts a good deal today, but they weren’t budging, so we’ll have to up the stakes tomorrow 🙂
After trying the impact wrench on those stubborn nuts, leveraging a 2×4 + steel pipe to the point of wrecking my 7/8ths wrench, heating in an effort to expand em, liberal use of WD-40, and some mild swearing, I decided to just cut the damn things off. Teflon sleeves fit nice and snugly inside suspension tubes, bolts went in easily after that. Done.
And of course the mosquitoes are already vicious as all hell in northern Alberta. But as long as I have my sweet, sweet deet I’ll take them any day over the frozen wasteland that was the past 6 months. Next thing is to close up all the exterior holes in walls to keep those damn mosquitoes out!
It rained really hard here this week, so I got a good idea of where water was getting in. The midget door will be coming out, as it’s frame is completely rotted and leaks like a sieve. The main door was barely holding together by a few rusty screws in rotted wood, so I removed it, reinforced it with 1x2s and copious amounts of PL400, insulated it with rigid and spray foam insulation, and re-attached/patched the metal skin with plenty of metal screws and silicone caulking. Picked up a $5 dollar door knob (with same keyed dead-bolt I’ll probably use on the back compartment) in local classifieds, and got lucky as it fits and latches perfectly! Seriously, if you have the time, you can find anything on Kijiji.ca, especially in Edmonton area, which is one of the reasons I decided to buy and rebuild the travel trailer there. Also it was nice to have the time to help my parents prepare to sell their house and move.
Exterior Metal, Roof Patching
Finished framing, insulating, and sheeting the floor a week or so ago and am now onto patching the many holes in the exterior roof and siding. It’ll look like a patchwork quilt after I’m done with it – hopefully a coat of paint will help – but at least it will stand up to the weather a lot better. I was planning on installing more windows in place of the larger holes boarded over with plywood; however, I scrapped that plan after a botched job of installing the first window. I used the wrong caulking and busted the window, crucifying my hand, while removing it. I was surprised how weak the window was, and now that I think of it, it’s probably not the best idea to put large windows in a mobile trailer as there is a fair amount of flex in the walls. The free windows I got will not go to waste though, as Mom has already repurposed them to keep the tomatoes warm in the garden. Also, I relocated the front window to the side so it will have less chance of getting smashed out by flying rocks on the highway.
Babs was a little much for my ol-beater F-150, so over the winter I kept a careful eye on kijiji.ca (of course) for a good used truck with low kms and scooped up a great little 2002 Chevy 1500 Silverado (183000km) for $2000 from a mechanic. It had some rust and needed some brake work done, but the seller agreed to include the brake work in the price. She’s got the 5.3L with lots of snort, an additional towing radiator, tow package, and additional rear leaf spring, so should manage Babs fine, as long as I don’t push ‘er too hard. I dumped my old beater Ford for $1500, so for $500 I’ve got a much more solid truck. And the Chev is so much more comfortable and fun to drive 🙂 To be fair, I haven’t included this $500 in the $3000 build total, as it’s not really part of the rebuild project.
Roughing in Electrical Circuits
It’s a rainy day for working on exterior siding, so instead of sealing up the underside I’m working inside on fixing, rerouting, and rewiring the old trailer brake wiring and the AC/DC electrical wiring. After foolishly assuming the previous owner knew what he was doing, I proceeded to wire it up the same as it was before. Essentially he had just mated the harness wires to the approximately same colored wires running throughout the trailer. My first tip off that something was very wrong was that when I hooked up the harness to the truck, the truck brake lights immediately illuminated and the rear trailer running lights had a faint glow…sometimes. Sometimes the brake lights seemed to work, but then they’d just go out. At one point, my truck’s brake controller seemed to be doing something, but then went back to displaying ‘n.c.’ – for ‘not connected’ I presume. So yes, there were a few stray electrons in the system to reroute. Luckily those stray amperes didn’t seem to short out anything and/or fry any fuses in the truck; however, still haven’t got the brakes working yet so can’t completely rule this out yet…and yup, spoke too soon – did end up frying a few 10A fuses, but that’s what they’re there for, no permanent damage done!
Trailer Brake Wiring Diagrams
Color matching connections did get some of the running and signal light circuits functioning, but there were a number of connections that were obviously connected up wrong. So I had to dig back in to my prematurely tidy wiring job with my trusty multimeter in hand to do some trouble shooting. It took me an entire day of tediously testing connections between the truck, harness, and trailer to get all the brake lighting working correctly. Although it’s likely of little interest to anyone reading this (“Hello…is anyone there?” -cricket chirps), I’ve added a few relevant wiring diagrams, mainly for my own future reference, if I ever have to dig back into the rat’s nest. The truck has a 7-way trailer connection and the trailer has a 7-way connection adapter [Fig. 1] hooked up to a 6-wire cord (reverse lights omitted on center pin) which is then patched into the trailer circuits underneath the front of the trailer [Fig 2]. Because I chose to reroute the wiring around the perimeter of the floor, the rear circuits came up short, and the only extra wire I had was blue and white; Unfortunately for the next guy to mess with the brake wiring (probably me), this will add confusion because now the visible ends of one of the green running light wires and the brown left turn signal wire are blue while the right turn signal wire is white [Fig. 2]. If I wasn’t dyslexic before…
New Wheel Brake Drums
So yeah, turns out the brakes were all shot. Thanks Dad for installing all four new wheel brake drums. The new drum assemblies were able to be bolted right to the axles, unfortunately, the old drums were welded in place, so the new assemblies had to be tore down and parted into the old drums. If you want more info on how this was done, have to ask him 😉
Plumbing Water System
To save on interior space, I opted to plumb in a shower and faucet to the outside, passenger rear of Babs, and to use an outhouse at home and porta-potty on the road for toilet. I love the way this keeps the interior completely wide open, and for myself this is actually more convenient than having to deal with all the shit associated with indoor RV bathroom systems, no thanks, I’d rather poop in a bucket! So I plumbed in the hot/cold hose bibs, sink shutoffs, and shower valve with 1/2″ copper pipe inside the passenger side, rear wall and underneath the kitchen counter to the side of the future rear trunk. Hopefully it will not freeze during the winter cold spells, but it should be fine as long as I keep a fire in the stove going during the coldest months of the year.
Sorry for the camera angle in the above video that omitted the main shower valve. This was the last main copper solder job for the project, so I’m sorry, but really didn’t want to redo it just so the 100 people that may eventually view this video don’t get an up-nostril shot! Anyways, yeah I’m using copper solder here to seal up a brass shower valve to copper 1/2″ piping and complete the interior plumbing. I tied in hot and cold shutoff valves above the kitchen counter so I can gravity feed hot and cold water from the interior (during the winter to avoid freezing) in addition to the hot and cold hose bibs to the rear exterior (for when I can hook up hoses during the summer).
After months of waiting for some decent wall board showing up in the classifieds, I ran out of time and had to buy new. I opted for 1/4″ sheets of panel-board often called “poor man’s mahogany.” It’s light and strong and should give the thin walls some more support. The existing wall studs were placed at random intervals which made it impossible to use full sheets, as sheet ends must land exactly atop wall studs.
So the end product is more patchwork looking than I’d like, but it’s done now; perhaps later I’ll refinish the walls, but for now it’s good enough for me: it’s just a trailer after all…er, I mean “modern tiny home,” cough*keyword-drop*cough. I used 1″ drywall screws to mount the wall paneling to the 2×2″ studs, if I had it to do over, perhaps I’d use staples instead, as they would leave less of a profile after painting, but hindsight is 20/20. I also wanted to leave myself the option of easily removing individual panels in the future, just in case I fucked up the wiring or something inside the walls. My mom generously offered to paint the interior using some left over paint from their house. She knows I hate painting – thanks Mom, you’re the best!
Then framed in the bed stand, wheel well covers, and tested electrical circuits for any shorts. No shorts meant not a single stray screw! Just one stray wire that I easily rerouted to isolate all three DC circuits from one another.
I found a 10′ chunk of countertop, in basically new condition, for $20 and a double kitchen sink/faucet, also $20, on good ol kijiji! After putting off cutting sink and stove holes in it till the last minute – cutting holes in countertop always involves pucker factor – I got it done with minimal fuck ups, just a few scratches from the saw on the enamel. I had to build the kitchen counter fairly low due to the backsplash being right tight with the bottom of window. I boarded straight over the entire face of kitchen cabinet for now because I’m not sure where I’ll put in a fridge and/or cupboards yet. I can cut them in later as needed.
After capping a couple holes in the gas line and some fancy gasfitting, I managed to seal up the gasline to the stove and tested it out for a few days without leaks. Did have to buy new basket assemblies for the sinks, as the old ones were rusted out and missing drop sleeves. Also under-counter clamps were missing, so I had to improvise with some steel strapping to hold the basins tight to the countertop. After connecting the faucet to the hot and cold lines using braided hoses, I hooked up a hose to the exterior hose bibs and tested out the drains for leaks also. None, damn am I good or what lol! I just have the drain dropping straight down through the floor to empty on the ground under the trailer. If need be I can put a bucket under there to catch the grey-water but probably no need in most locations.
Hauling Trailer Across Rockies
So at this point, I was nearly done buying all the bulk materials I’d need to finish the trailer (or so I thought). So I decided to put my new wheels to the test and pull Babs over the Rocky Mountains to the Okanagan to escape the mosquitoes and enjoy the heat of the summer. In order to legal do so, I needed to fix last minute trailer brake/signal wiring bugs, hook up break-away switch to battery (never did get around to this), and register the trailer. Problem. After a thorough search of the frame, there was no VIN. There was a metal tag saying the VIN was located inside the trailer, but the insides (along with said VIN) had long ago been gutted by previous owners. Which leads into the next section. Overall, the trip went exceedingly smoothly! From here on out I’ll be living in Babs full time! So happy to finally be at this point 😀
Pro Tip: How to register a VIN-less trailer on the cheap
- Alberta Registries wants $600 to stamp new VIN on trailer – not fucking happening
- Research manufacturer records for year-end VIN numbers issued to get ballpark number
- Guess at any proprietary manufacturer’s model number codes, if any
- Make sure bill of sale reflects make, model, year sections of VIN exactly
- Make up appropriate VIN using online calculator to find correct check-digit to avoid red flags at registry
- Search local police VIN number database to ensure not associated with previously stolen trailer
- Check with registry that VIN number hasn’t ever been registered before
- Register VIN with local registry
- If one registry calls your bluff or finds something amiss, go to another and repeat until successful
Not saying I did this…just saying, theoretically, one could do this, if one were disinclined to pay more in registration fees than original trailer price.
I decided to install dark vinyl flooring and am fairly happy with how it turned out. There has been a couple joints that came apart temporarily due to expansion/contraction issues caused by temporary changes in temperature. It’s a small area so the dirt accumulates quickly and shows up on the dark floors readily, so I have to clean floors at least once a day. The worst thing about the floor is that it scratches quit easily, and I’ve had to come to terms with having a scratched up floor. It’s just a trailer after all.
Finishing Electrical Systems
I found a salvaged 30A cord and breaker box (coiled cable, grey box on left: $20 – thank you classified gods!) from a 70s prowler trailer, similar to mine, and hooked it up to the AC circuits. So when available, I can hook into shore power which has made Babs much more livable while I’m finishing up getting her fully off-grid. Tested the air conditioner for the first time, and it still works, yay! Then I hooked in the DC circuits to the old DC fusebox and mounted a bus bar on the panel to connect all grounds. A friend donated a 10′ chunk of three strand, 10 gauge cable to run from the exterior battery box terminals, through the front wall, to the fusebox. I temporarily coiled up the remaining strands to power the future inverter. Once I determine a balance between how much power I need for AC appliances, how much my batteries can provide, and how long it will take for my photovoltaics to charge batteries, then I can better size my inverter.
So I now have all my interior lighting fixtures hooked up to the batteries, which is great now that the days are shortening up again. Before now I’ve been just using my phone and a small AC lamp for light at night. However, I’m not using them too much yet because I have no way to recharge the batteries until I figure out how to correctly wire in my solar panels and charge controller. For fixtures without an incorporated on/off switch, I decided to just wire individual switches directly beside light fixtures to avoid having to run additional wire down to a separate switch location. I installed a few 5W fixtures on the wall, thinking they’d be dim enough to work there, but they are a little hard on the eyes, so I think I’ll wire in a dimmer switch for them in the future.
Finishing Interior Water System
tired of freezing showers
hanging hot, cold tanks
Battery Bank and Photovoltaic Systems
two sets of fried battery returns
two deep cycle lead acid, 6V, 216Ah
wiring battery mains
days to charge from half drained?
days of regular electricity use?
If anyone does end up finding this post (goo-bot gods please shine down on me!) and wants more info on the build process or whatever, you know what to do below, thanks for your time 🙂