Mother Earth Living

Home, Home on the Road: Travel Friendly in a Green RV

Satisfy your nomadic impulses and environmental values with RV retrofitting, including photovoltaic systems, biodiesel fuel, and composting toilets.
By Carol Venolia
July/August 2004
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Along with remodeling the Airstream’s bathroom to include a composting toilet, Shawn is replacing the RV’s carpeting with bamboo flooring. In the future he plans to add solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to the Airstream’s roof.
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Have you ever been tooling down the highway, seen a huge recreational vehicle (RV) roll by, and thought what shameless fuel hogs the drivers were? Yet maybe in the back of your mind was another thought: If only I could find a small RV or power one with biodiesel. It would be wonderful to tour the country, wake up in a warm bed surrounded by forest, cook organic meals in my own rolling kitchen, and not have to pitch a tent every night.

Maybe you can.

RVs range from little fiberglass travel trailers pulled by cars to huge, bus-size, “Class A” motor homes with slide-out rooms. The fuel mileage for motor homes ranges from five to eighteen miles per gallon, and you can spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a fixer-upper trailer to several hundred thousand dollars for a Class A model.

Many a happy tent camper has disparaged RV owners for hauling entire houses—complete with TVs, stereos, and noisy generators—into campgrounds. Most RVers say they go on the road because they love being close to nature but like to return to a kitchen and comfy bed at the end of the day. The truth is these folks spend far less time inside their rigs than they would at home; instead they’re out hiking, fishing, and bird-watching. And here’s the kicker: Typical RVers consume less energy while staying in their RVs than they would at home, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. When we figure only gas mileage, we’re not looking at the whole system. For starters, many RVers drive to a destination and stay for a while. In particular, full timers (people who live in their RVs year-round) park in one place, often for months. Even with low fuel efficiency, that makes their annual vehicle fuel consumption lower than that of the average house-dwelling commuter.

And there’s more to the picture. At any size, an RV has far less interior volume to heat, cool, and light than a house, tipping the total energy usage in favor of RVs as conservation tools. Furthermore, RVers tend to migrate with the seasons, keeping their space-conditioning needs in check while increasing their personal awareness of climate. If we look at other resources, things get even better. RVers have to think about where their electricity comes from, and they carry their water and wastes onboard. They inevitably become more aware of resource cycles.

Does this mean all RVers are fully aware of their role in the complexity of our biosphere? Hardly. But it does mean there’s more potential for environmental responsibility than might appear at first glance. Ecological design pioneer Ian McHarg once said he wished he could send politicians up in a spaceship so they could experience their basic need for clean air and water and intimately understand the importance of reusing all waste products. The RV may be the closest thing to that spaceship for millions of people.

On the downside, RVs simply aren’t made with health and ecology in mind. They’re generally not built to last, their insulation levels are low, their interior materials outgas volatile organic compounds and may include endangered wood species, and they tend to have moisture problems. Furthermore, the odor-control products that many RVers put into waste tanks often contain noxious chemicals that destroy the septic systems at dump stations.

To be a green nomad, start with a used RV so that toxic materials have had a chance to outgas. You might then increase insulation levels, refinish the interior with eco-friendly materials, get hip to the ways of veggie fuels, install a composting toilet, and hook up some photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Green revolutions

Claire Anderson and Shawn Schreiner are an inspiration to eco-RV wannabes. Claire is a writer and former managing editor of Mother Earth News, and Shawn is an artist and builder. They wanted to see the country and learn firsthand how to build a straw bale house, install PV panels, and put together a graywater system. But they didn’t want to compromise their environmental values on the road.

Claire had always wanted an Airstream trailer. Used Airstreams aren’t easy to find, but they managed to buy a twenty-foot 1976 model in good condition. The next piece of the puzzle was how to pull the trailer responsibly. Claire and Shawn liked the idea of biodiesel fuel, but they couldn’t see themselves hauling around chemicals to make their own. Then they heard Brent Baker and Stephan Smith talking on National Public Radio about touring the country burning straight vegetable oil (SVO) gleaned from restaurants. SVO produces fewer emissions and greenhouse gases than petrodiesel, and the exhaust smells faintly of french fries.

Claire and Shawn found a used diesel truck; a nearby company called Greasel installed an auxiliary tank for the vegetable oil, a filter to remove food particles, and a coolant line that allows engine heat to warm the oil before it’s used. “We were on a high the whole way back from Greasel,” says Claire. “We could scarcely believe we were fueling the truck sustainably—with what’s basically trash.” They’ve now logged more than 12,000 miles on SVO.

Interacting with people turns out to be half the fun of SVO. When Claire and Shawn knock on a restaurant’s back door to ask for used cooking oil, they often end up giving an impromptu workshop in the parking lot with disbelieving but excited restaurant owners and staff gathered around. Their truck also garners enthusiasm as they drive down the road. On the side is painted “Got grease? This truck runs on used vegetable oil.” “People honk and give us the thumbs-up,” says Shawn, “especially in the South. People everywhere can relate to fuel independence.”

Shawn is eco-remodeling the Airstream. He replaced the old carpet with bamboo flooring. He’s renovating the bathroom and installing a sawdust-bucket composting toilet. And he plans to apply peel-and-stick Uni-Solar photovoltaic panels to the roof, fitting the trailer’s curves and maintaining its aerodynamic beauty.

A smaller footprint

In Canada, green architect Andy Thomson sees homes on wheels as a way to affordably reduce our ecological footprint (the quantity of land and resources required to support our lifestyle). “With a trailer,” says Andy, “you can be pretty creative with the shape, materials, heating systems, and waste handling—without a normal building permit.”

Andy finds that good design allows the living space of a 1,000-square-foot apartment to be compressed into 200 square feet. “A well-designed RV can provide all the comfort and functionality of a house at a fraction of the cost, both economic and environmental,” he maintains. He, his wife, and young daughter have lived in eco-retrofitted RVs for several years, moving their dwelling only as needed to empty the waste tank and to fill the refrigerator and the water and propane tanks.

Andy is designing the family’s dream home: an 8.5-by-32-foot green trailer complete with insulation, a heat-recovery ventilator, two small platinum catalytic heaters, solar panels, an instantaneous water heater, a composting toilet, and eco-healthy finish materials. The trailer should last fifty years, in contrast to the industry standard of ten to twenty. Andy and his family plan to move their home twice a year, spending fall through spring in Toronto, where Andy works, then moving to the countryside for summer. He is also working with a housing manufacturer to produce eco-trailers for sale; he expects to have prototypes this summer.

Roll your own

Learn more about the world of green RVs with these websites:

Green RVs
GreenRevolutions.org—Information on Claire Anderson and Shawn Schreiner’s biodiesel-powered Airstream.
Sustain.ca—Details on mobile eco-living from architect Andy Thomson.
Phrannie.org—Articles on PV, composting toilets, water heating and purification, space heating, moisture, and durability.
RVTechStop.com—Product reviews and articles on alternative energy systems, written from a “rolling laboratory.”
Greens on Wheels Online discussion group. Go to Groups.yahoo.com and search for “greens on wheels.”

Alternative Fuel Sources
Biodiesel.org
Biotour.org
GreaseCar.com
VeggieVan.org
Photovoltaics for RVSolarElectric.com
BackwoodsSolar.com—Manufactured greenish RVs
EarthRoamer.com
QuickupCamper.com

General RV sites
BusConversions.com
Escapees.com
FullTimeRVer.com
HorizonsRV.com
MrSharkey.com
NewRVer.com
RV.org (consumer group)
RVDoctor.com (tech articles)
RVingWomen.org
TrailerLife.com


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