While drycamping at the Sigsbee campground on Key West Naval Air Station and adjusting to Serenity’s power, water and sewage limitations, I had been thinking a lot about the monetary value of each hook up or service offered at most RV parks. There is no substitute for location, and we would not have traded our excellent drycamping time at Lake Amistad, Lake Mead, or the Salmon River for even a free full hook up spot in the nearby towns. But what I am talking about here is an “all other things being equal” comparison of a (safe, legal, level) drycamping spot to the same site with services, and breaking down the value of each service.
Now that we have moved over to the full hook up section of Sigsbee, we have an excellent opportunity to make that comparison. The prices here are heavily subsidized by the Department of Defense: we paid $14/night for the dry camping, and now $24 for the full sites. Equivalent private resorts here in Key West charge anywhere from $80 to $130 for something similar, so the military rate is not the best method of determining value, but its at least a couple of data points. Another way to view it is that the military rate is about 75% subsidized, meaning the unsubsidized market rate should be $56 for dry and $96 for full service sites, another couple of data points.
Electrical, $5-$20 per day: It’s common for publicly operated places (federal, state, county parks and the like) to offer sites with “all but sewage,” though they will usually have a centrally located dump station on premises. We have even stayed at a couple of “hook up” campgrounds that did not even have water, such as the electrical loop on the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the impossible to reach water connections at Oscar Scherer State Park. But if you are paying for something more than a dry camping site, you expect at least 30 amp electrical service.
One way to calculate this value would be the equivalent cost of operating your generators, for which we can come up with a range from minimum use to all day run times. For instance, during several weeks here in Key West I calculated we spent $5/day on gas and propane during conservative but comfortable generator usage, with only a few days of hot weather leading to us use the big Onan genny for our air conditioners. If we had to run the Onan all day, say 12 hours, to combat the heat, the cost would be closer to $13/day.
Of course, neither of these take into account wear and tear on, and thus replacement costs of, the generators. Our Honda cost about $1,100, and with care, according to many other RVers, it should last 5 to 10 years at our expected 500 hours per year usage rate. Let’s assume a minimum of $100 per year plus some parts, oil, and maintenance costs, so we might be looking at $10 per month, or $0.33 per day, roughly. The big Onan will probably cost $4000 to replace if we ever do. I have no idea of the expected lifespan, but conservatively we can quadruple the daily Honda costs, and call it $1.33/day, giving us an equipment usage value of more than a buck fifty per day.
Of course none of this addresses the hassle factor of having to manage the generators, such as going out in possibly inclement weather to pull start the Honda and the trips to the gas station for fuel. Nor does it take into account the subjective value of not having to listen to the buzzing of the motors all day, and some people will find that aspect worth quite a bit. So I figure the range of value for electrical services runs from about $5 (low generator use, minimum lifetime replacement cost) to $20 (high generator use, moderate replacement costs, high value on convenience and quite) per day depending on usage, weather conditions, specific equipment configuration, and subjective preferences.
Those with a robust solar set up might avoid a great deal of generator use, sort of replacing the vast majority of our Honda costs, but they wont be able to operate an AC no matter how big their rooftop panels are, so a main generator like our Onan is probably still in their cost analysis, as are the installation costs of the solar panels, wiring, inverter/controller, and enhanced house battery pack. If interested in a detailed look at RV solar, you can’t go wrong with Technomadia’s extensive collection of posts on the subject, or Wheeling It’s recent explanation of their in progress major solar upgrade.
Water and Sewage, $1-$5 per day: We can carry 65 gallons of freshwater, which with conservative use will last us about nine days. That’s means using it for toilet flushing, hand washing, cooking, and careful dish washing, but not for drinking or showers. I’m sure we could stretch it to 14 if we used more paper plates and kept jugs of water in our bathroom for the toilet.
We have a 44 gallon gray water tank (showers and sinks) and a 54 gallon black water tank (toilet). This 98 gallons of storage gives us a buffer beyond the fresh water tank capacity: we don’t have to worry about accidentally overfilling the waste tanks since our final indication of the need to fill and dump will come from the empty freshwater tank. Since we rarely stay in one place for more than a week, the hassle of filling the freshwater tank can occur together during the “upon arrival and departure” trips to the dump stations we tend to do at many publicly operated campgrounds.
I guess what I am getting towards is that the worth of a water hook up is entirely subjective, depending solely on how much you value the convenience and flexibility of unlimited water use, and is entangled with the availability of on site sewage connections. Stating that last bit differently: a water hook up does not allow unlimited use if you don’t also have connected sewage; one way or another you’re still going to have to break camp to take care of full or empty tanks. Having water alone is better than nothing: we can use our little outside rinse station, don’t place any load on the noisy water pump, and can be slightly more liberal with usage, but I would only give it a value of a dollar or two per day without also having sewage. If you combine the services though, being able to take hot showers in your own rig rather than shlepping to the shower house, giving those dishes a more thorough clean and rinse, and not having to worry at all about taking the rig for a fill and dump has got to be worth several bucks a day for the comfort, convenience, and peace of mind.
WiFi, $3-$7 per day: “Free”RV Park WiFi is frequently sketchy to the point of unusable. A service with which you can’t connect due to signal strength, or can’t effectively use due to bandwidth clogging, is not worth a penny. Sometimes the service is available but limited, e.g., available during non-peak usage hours for basic internet functions short of video streaming. And occasionally, rarely, you will find a park with actually full use “hotel quality” connections allowing robust download capability any time of day. I’m trying to determine the value of WiFi on those two levels, limited and full service.
One way to do this is to determine how it compensates for, our compliments, your monthly data service. Operating our smart phones and Verizon MiFi Jet Pack hotspot (to which our laptops and tablet connect), we pay $100 for a robust 18GB data package. You can get cheaper plans through the discount providers, but we spend a lot of time away from metropolitan areas, and thus place a premium on the industry leading geographic coverage that Verizon provides. Despite this large date allowance we tend to blow through it: even with very little video streaming we will deplete all 18GB well before the end of the month if we don’t offset it with free WiFi at parks or libraries or friends/family houses.
So a working park WiFi, even limited, is worth at least what we pay per day through our data plan, $3.33, and probably more since we have spent a lot of time finding and driving to public libraries in order to mitigate our Verizon use. If we are talking about a robust, video stream supporting WiFi capability, then it might even be double that, allowing us to catch up on the lengthy list of television shows which we fall behind on every time we head off to places without cable TV, which is pretty much every place we go. I’m not saying I would pay $7 a day every day, or even frequently, but in certain circumstances, perhaps when we are particularly jonesing for some Walking Dead, I could see us splurging that much for a couple of days just to get our fix.
Cable TV, $2-$4 per day: It’s not all that common for us to stay at a park with cable connections; maybe a handful of the 88 different places we stayed in 2015 had it. Considering how many dead ended cable connections I have seen at private parks, I suspect its getting even rarer, probably because of the ubiquitousness of RV satellite systems and the availability of digital over the air channels. Look, some people are just not into TV. We are not those people. We are the opposite of those people. So a cable connection, even just the basic service, is worth at least as much as the equivalent service we would have in a home. Let’s call it $2 a day, particularly in places like Key West were nearly all the available over the air stations are either in Spanish or are shopping channels/infomercials.
Another way to figure it is to compare it to one of those previously mentioned RV satellite systems and the associated monthly plan costs through Direct TV or Dish Network. I’m seeing basic plans for less than $2 per day, or $3 for the robust packages. Just like in the electrical hook up valuation, its only fair to include the satellite system hardware and installation costs as well, but they can be negligible. If you go with one of those Tailgater “carry out” antennas with a receiver for $350 on line, and assume a five to ten year lifespan , you’re only paying 10 to 20 cents per day. Even the high end $2500 roof mounted system with an assumed several hundred dollar labor cost for running the wires and mounting it, we are still only talking a buck fifty per day over a conservative five year life span.
Amenities: pool, planned activities, lounge, community center, boat ramp & dock, gym, tennis courts, laundry, etc, $5 per day?: I dunno, its almost too subjective for me to even guess at. I can say that when they are available, we use almost all of them. Rosemarie attends free classes, from yoga to crafting, in the community center. In any given week we might join in on a handful of group activities such as bingo, karaoke, cocktail social hours, pot lucks, or holiday events, and its nice to not have to organize or plan it ourselves. If its hot and there’s a pool, we are probably in it every other day. All that’s got to be worth at least $5/day on top of the actual hook ups, right?
Full service resort: $16-$42 per day: So there you have it; at a beautiful drycamping location, all other things being equal, we can see the exact same site with full amenities being worth anywhere from $16 to $42 more, with a third to half of that just for the electrical connection. At the top of the post I mentioned that here at the Navy’s Sigsbee RV Campground we pay $14 for the drycamping and $24 for the full hook up spot. Both options include free high capacity WiFi, as well as most of the amenities listed in the previous paragraph, though neither includes cable connections. That sort of means that the $10 delta between the Sigsbee site options is only accounting for somewhere between $6 and $25 of the above calculated total resort services. Yeah, I’m really down in the weeds now.
So climbing out of the weed garden: Look, there are times when we don’t want anything resembling a full service resort because that implies there will be a bunch of other people around, and while we genuinely like the overwhelming majority of RVers we have met, sometimes you want the isolation and cost savings that only boondocking can provide. But for the rest of the year, when we are in areas where there might very well be a range of service options at local campgrounds, its good to have thought hard about the value we place in such things. So, how much do you value these services? Any significant difference from our estimates?