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.

| July/August 2004

  • Carol Maxwell and Ed Gurdgian spend between five and seven months (and drive more than 30,000 miles) each year in their Class A Prevost bus-to-motorhome conversion. This eco-RV features twenty Seimens [now Shell Solar] M55 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof; a 24-solar-panel ground array; four wind turbines; a 30-gallon, batch-type solar water heater.
  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based green architect Andy Thomson is designing his family’s dream home—an 8.5-by-32 foot eco-RV that features solar panels, an on-demand water heater, a composting toilet and eco-friendly finishes, which he hopes will last for fifty years.

  • Photo By Michael Shopenn
  • 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.
  • Hit the open road in an eco-friendly RV like Claire Anderson and Shawn Schreiner, who are touring the United States in a 1976 Airstream trailer that they’re eco-remodeling as they go. These RV adventurers pull their Airstream with a used Ford F250 diesel truck retrofitted to run on used straight vegetable oil (SVO) that they obtain from restaurants.
    Photo By Shawn Schreiner
  • Eco-RVing might just change your life—if you’re open to the possibilities.
    Photo By Shawn Schreiner
  • While the classic Airstream trailer may look like a shiny aluminum tin can or bear a faint resemblance to the robot in Lost in Space, it can become a cozy, self-contained eco-home and office, as Claire and Shawn have proven. They even give mini-courses, short workshops, and small soapbox lectures to help educate others who want to live a more sustainable nomadic life.

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.

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