Testing My Mobile Newsroom Setup: Shiftpods & Heat Pumps Are A Great Combo

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In a previous article, I shared some information about a special project I’m working on: building a mobile newsroom. You can find full details at that link, but in short, the idea is to make travel super cheap to be able to do more “boots on the ground” journalism. Plus, I’m working to do it with zero burning of fossil fuels. If that sounds like a project you’d like to support, you can learn more at this article or go directly to my Indiegogo fundraiser here. As of this writing, I’m only about a quarter of the way to the fundraising goal, so if you can afford to help, I’d deeply appreciate it. Whether you can help directly or not, sharing is another great way to get this project off the ground!

One thing I mentioned in the other article and fundraiser was that I already have a big chunk of the “glamping” gear I’d need for this together. I’ve been working on getting ready to do this for years, and have been doing what I could with spare cash.

For most people who go camping, it’s a seasonal thing. You only go when it’s comfortable to go, at least when it’s just for fun. But, I want to be able to travel to go catch the coolest cleantech stories I can, so I needed more of an all-season setup, and I needed it to be something I could set up and take down quickly. It also needed to stay comfortable outside of a sleeping back inside so I could write, edit photos, and work on videos.

After doing a lot of reading and research, it became pretty clear that a Shiftpod was the best choice for my situation and needs.

What’s a Shiftpod?

For those unfamiliar, the Shiftpod is an invention that emerged from Burning Man, the annual desert festival known for crazy outfits, post-apocalyptic vehicles, and a philosophy of self-reliance and decommodification. This event happens not just in a desert, but a dry and dusty lakebed (playa) in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Because it happens on public land, no permanent structures are allowed, so participants (called “burners”) have to camp in the desert.

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As we know, necessity is the mother of invention, and people have found some pretty inventive ways to stay comfortable and get good sleep on the playa. Many people simply show up with an RV and use a generator and/or solar power to stay cool and rest after staying up late the night before. Other people build Hexayurts, a temporary shelter made from foam boards with a shiny outer layer, to keep the cool inside and reflect the heat away. But, Hexayurts are big and heavy, requiring a lot of trailer or truck space just for the boards. They also take a lot of time and effort to assemble and disassemble.

This challenge and the experience of finding out that the Hexayurt was a lot of work led Christian Weber to think about how this could be done better. After looking at everything from Hexayurts to ice shelters, he arrived at the Shiftpod design.

Even the smallest Shiftpod has enough room to act as a mobile office and sleeping space.

It’s a lot like an ice shelter (something that can be set up very quickly and has insulated sides), but with thinner fabric covered in a reflective material, kind of like the Hexayurts. The end result is a tent that is good for both winter and summer camping, as it can help repel both cold and heat as needed. It also seals up a lot tighter than most tents (to keep playa dust out), and is incredibly resistant to wind.

So far, I’ve bought three Shiftpod shelters. Two of them are Minis, and I already have those on hand. The third one is a larger standard Shiftpod, but I’m waiting for that one to come in.

Adding Heat & Air Conditioning

An insulated shelter that seals tightly and reflects sunlight away sounds like a perfect match for air conditioning, doesn’t it? Once again, inventive people who go to Burning Man have done a lot of experimenting with that, too. People have tried everything from adding shade above Shiftpods to using electric fans to dual hose refrigerated air conditioners. This then led to the market seeing the demand for portable air conditioning, and to Shiftpod adding ports to the shelter’s design for exactly this purpose.

Testing body heat evacuation with an EcoFlow Wave portable air conditioner.

Fortunately for me, EcoFlow sent me their Wave portable air conditioner last year. Like other dual hose air conditioners, it’s Shiftpod compatible, but unlike most, it’s super efficient. Once it brings the space down to temperature, it only needs about 400 watts of power to maintain it. This means that on battery power it can run for almost a day without charging, and with some folding solar panels, you can run it without needing a generator!

The Shiftpod Mini doesn’t have air conditioning ports, so I had to test this out by running a single hose through the floor zipper. We brought in the whole family, including the dogs and our more adventurous cats to generate extra body heat. Pretty quickly, the Shiftpod’s insulation trapped all that body heat, turning the shelter into a sweaty, stinky space. But, very quickly, the EcoFlow Wave cleared out all the hot air and made the tent comfortable inside for all of the living things we had in it.

What About The Cold?

I also tested a newer version of the EcoFlow Wave with an efficient heat pump, but that unit has not been announced to the public yet, so impressions will have to wait until the embargo lifts next month. But, what I can say is that many people have run very small resistive heaters in their Shiftpods over the years and have had great results with as little as 200-400 watts of power, so heating a Shiftpod on electric power is very much possible without a generator or a fossil fuel heater. Something like a Jackery or EcoFlow power station can provide plenty of power.

But, the cleanest solution to any problem is to use no energy at all, and I wanted to see how the tent did in 40-something degree temperatures just with the body heat of those inside it. So, I took it out to a campsite nearby and checked to see how it felt inside as the sun went down, and in the desert you can remember your name temperatures plummet as much as 40 degrees just after sunset. Would it be comfortable enough for me to sit and type inside, or would the cold become too distracting to work?

Temperatures drop fast at sunset in the Chihuahuan Desert.

For the first little while after sunset, the opposite happened. The tent trapped in so much heat that it was uncomfortable and I had to open the circular windows to get some chilly air to mix with body heat. But, as the light faded and the stars appeared, I closed the windows one by one. With all of them closed, the cold air never bothered anybody in the tent, because we were toasty warm inside.

The insulation was so good that we had to leave the windows and door open until well after sunset to avoid getting too hot.

I’d imagine in even colder weather, I’ll need a heat pump, but my review on that will have to wait until next month when the embargo on that gadget lifts. But, from what I’ve seen so far, I think we’ll stay warm all night and be able to work in the tent during any daytime heat we encounter on the road this summer. About the only thing that might distract me are the views outside the windows.

All images (including featured image) by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1989 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba