Babs, Part 1: demolition, undercarriage, exterior rebuild

Convert camper travel trailer to off-grid tiny home renovation

Midway through rebuilding travel trailer undercarriage, floor, and walls.
Midway through rebuilding travel trailer undercarriage, floor, and walls.

Winter 2016, I decided to build a self sufficient house for myself here in Canada. My goal was to see how cheaply I could build an off-grid mobile home. The plan was to completely convert a travel trailer to of-grid tiny home — complete with battery bank, solar panels, water system, shower, kitchen, wood stove, etc.

*Larger images coming soon…

Here’s a video playlist documenting key moments during this trailer rebuild

Initial Travel Trailer Purchase

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): [TODO: 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.

Meet Babs

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.

Interior Demolition

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.

Wood Stove

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 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.

Insulating Floor

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.

Spring Break

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!

Exterior Doors

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, 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.

New Wheels!

Babs was a little much for my ol-beater F-150, so over the winter I kept a careful eye on (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.

Babs,  Part 2: AC/DC electrical, plumbing, interior rough-ins

Coming soon…

Babs, Part 3: plumbing systems, kitchen, floor

Babs, Part 4: photovoltaics, battery bank systems, finishing