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April 30, 2019

What is the RV industry doing to Mitigate its Contribution to Climate Change?©

By: Rob Lowe

I’ve pondered this question for several years. With the dramatic climate change events that have ravaged the world recently, I began to search for an answer to the question: What is the RV industry doing to reduce the effects that RVing contributes to climate change? What is ironic, is that the industry developed out of a desire to ‘get back to nature’ with an attitude of ‘enjoy nature and leave no waste behind’. Is anyone really looking at the future effects that the record sales of RVs are having on the environment that we all depend upon for our sustenance? What guidance are the industry associations giving their members to prepare, as the sales targets are met and exceeded annually? We all know this can’t last, however most focus on the economic rationale, not the ‘real cost’ of the life changing harm to the environment.


I’ve looked at my personal RVing situation and must admit that I’ve contributed to global warming. The reality is that all of us have – some more than others. More about my situation in another blog posting. First let’s look at the whole RV market where there is some glimmer of hope.


Before condemning large Class ‘A’ owners as the big culprits, how about those trailer owners with large pickup trucks that use a pickup for their daily commuter vehicle? The rationale usually goes that it does not make sense to own a large trailer or fifth wheel and another vehicle for daily travel. Or, ‘I use a truck for work, so pulling a trailer on the weekends and vacations, just makes sense’. The energy required to pull the trailer on a few trips a year (which is high) is compounded by the energy expended each day travelling to and from the workplace. Would those pickup owners drive a smaller or more fuel-efficient vehicle, if the trailer was not in the picture?

Owners of Class ‘A’ motorhomes use a lot of energy moving their house on wheels down the road with the 400, 500, or 600 plus HP engines, while travelling on those same trips. Their energy consumption may be somewhat offset when many of these vehicles sit idle when not in use, while a smaller vehicle is used for the daily commute or driving needs. If vehicle sales statistics are any indication, those ‘smaller’ vehicles are becoming larger, especially with the decline in gas and diesel prices that only recently changed direction. Attitudes of maximum comfort, I want all the bells and whistles, I’ve earned it and the payments work for me, make the effects on climate change somebody else’s problem. An ‘I’ve earned it, now I’m going to enjoy it’ attitude kicks the bucket down the road. Our children and grandchildren are truly going to bear the brunt of this approach.


Is the RV industry doing any future planning to acknowledge and offset the harmful effects of the RV’s being sold today that are contributing to increased global warming? When are we collectively going to acknowledge that we are the enemy, not just the coal using power plants, or large industrial complexes?        

This industry strength has been its diversity both in producers of the finished products and the numerous individual suppliers that supply those producers. Every supplier has a superior product when compared to their competitor and with enough RV producers, these suppliers can compete and survive. Without leadership at an industry level, that acknowledges that changes need to be made, innovators will be stymied.  


Changes need to be made!


From the size of RVs and external designs, their furnishings and equipment, systems, power trains, together with how they are used, and the infrastructure that supports them, changes are required to address the harmful climate effects of the lifestyle. Integration of components, rethinking about how systems interact together and searching for alternative ways to accomplish the end results are all parts of the new approach. You might think the answer is simple: Eliminate those large horsepower engines. That is just one of a number of long-term solutions however attitudes regarding how much house is to be taken on the road, is the crux of the issue.

This is not to say that the industry is not innovating – it is! However, it needs to advance at a much greater pace, think outside of the box and take the ‘if we build an innovative, energy efficient RV – they will buy it’ approach to paraphrase a popular saying.

Where does the industry start? Intensive collaboration on research to build a better product. Start with the building blocks. Does it make sense to have two complete power systems? Is a 12- volt DC system and a 120-volt AC system, and a LP fuel system necessary? Recently LP has been phased out of many larger RVs, however this has increased the use of larger residential refrigerators, electric or diesel-powered heating systems and the need for larger battery systems. How about a single 48-volt, 96-volt or similar DC power system that can be recharged from 120VAC when at a campground and by an engine driven alternator when driven down the road? The whole RV can run off this energy system and the trip to the campground will simply be a charging location from an electrical perspective. Ultimately, electrification of powertrains will provide the power for all systems, provided that the chassis and coach builders can co-operate on the overall power requirements.


Recent Examples:


A recent example that developed from the need to collaborate makes a helpful example. A RV maker had adopted an innovative electronic, third-party anti-sway system on its trailer. When towed by a GM pickup with GM’s trailer towing package, the trailer’s new antisway system caused the GM tow braking system to react and shut down, since it sensed a system error. This resulted in no trailer braking when the anti-sway system acted to correct sway.  Obviously a very unsafe and potentially life-threatening situation. Lack of knowledge by the anti-sway system maker, the RV manufacturer and in this case, the pick up truck maker (GM) of how each electronic system interacted with the other component, created what could have been a very hazardous situation. When GM learned of this issue, they reached out to the industry association (RVIA) and a committee of representatives from suppliers, RV makers and GM was formed to deal with the issue.

GM, as most truck makers do when designing their pick-up trucks, used an imaginary ‘white box trailer’ setting trailer weight, approximate dimensions and tongue weights to design their trailer towing system for their pick ups. The know that various utility, boat and recreational trailers are towed with their pick ups.

The collaboration undertaken resulted in the recently announced GM and ASA Electronics system available on some GM pickups, that incorporates smart trailer braking with sway and trailer system monitoring abilities from the towing pickup. With this innovative system, many of the items frequently checked in the RV, (water and tank levels and so on) can be checked from the cab of the pickup. Most importantly, the RV maker and GM know how their products will properly operate when towing. Now the electronic systems on each vehicle can properly communicate with the other.

        

Elimination of the need for an Auxiliary RV Generator


Another approach of collaboration has occurred on some Class B RV’s produced on a Mercedes diesel cutaway chassis, where an auxiliary generator has been supplanted by an engine mounted generator that brings the vehicle main engine on at idle to charge the coach and chassis batteries when required by inverter use. This saves the fuel used, to not only power the generator when needed, but also the energy wasted while carrying the relatively heavy generator along for the vast amount of the time that it is unused, but ready for use. The new engine mounted generator is the size of an engine alternator. The vehicle engine is more efficient than the auxiliary generator’s, quieter and has all the emission control systems to reduce harmful emissions.

Take this approach a little further and look at the RV generators used on many RVs. Frequently RV’s will have approximately 3KW per air conditioner in the coach. Recent innovations in technology have made 2KW all that is needed to start and run a conventional RV air conditioner, making it possible to operating one air conditioner on a 2KW generator or an inverter. Auxiliary, portable generators are often carried along with trailers to provide power when campgrounds have none or for boondocking.  Now, they can be smaller and quieter with lower emissions.

Modern lithium battery technology has advanced to the point where it is possible to run one or more modified RV air conditioners overnight on a reasonably sized lithium battery and inverter system. Lithium batteries weigh less than half the weight, have double the capacity of their lead-acid brethren and last fifteen to twenty years. With a single electrical system, much of the redundancy could be eliminated and efficiencies of higher voltage, variable speed DC motors would improve the overall efficiency of these systems. Those making the components need to be involved in the switch to a more efficient power system, since the current generation of components will be outdated.

Some of us can remember vehicle engine mounted generators which required finicky regulators to adjust and control. They were immediately destined for a page in history when Chrysler introduced the ‘alternator’ (an AC generator using diodes to make clean DC with an internally controlled regulator.)  Incorporating this change, required collaboration within the vehicle industry and updating of electrical system standards and components. The RV industry will require the collaboration of all involved, from regulators, suppliers and the RV makers to design and implement systems that will revolutionize and simplify the controls and operation that apply to all onboard electrical systems. This is only one of many that will require transforming.

Even pull behind trailers could benefit from lithium technology in a different manner. Imagine a trailer that has a ‘live’ axle; that is, one that is powered with an electric motor that helps to move the trailer as it is towed down the road. This technology already exists and is being implemented in Europe. It allows smaller cars, such as a Mini, to tow a trailer!            

Other changes will provide new opportunities to be more efficient. Have you ever wondered why all the 120 VAC electronics in a RV are powered to be ‘Instant On’ even though the vast majority are rarely turned on? Think about the outside TV hidden in the outer wall of the RV, or the one that is on a ‘televator’ beside a dinette that needs to rise into position to be watched, or the bedroom TV, home theater and satellite system that could be left depowered since they are used infrequently. All these components could receive power when the TV is needed, not all the time. In production this is a specification that needs to be set by the maker and operation of the RV needs to be slightly changed. ‘Instant On’ had its beginning when electronic components need to warm up old vacuum picture tubes. Today, there is no need for need to power systems that take a couple of seconds to turn on and become fully operational. What a waste of power to standby!

The list goes on however, I think you get the point. A lot of power is wasted in the generation and lack of use of components in many locations around a RV. The motherlode of these is the energy wasted when a RV sits unused. Conventional thinking is that it needs to be plugged in ‘to charge the batteries’. As a result, all other items plugged into their respective circuits receive power when power is applied, so energy is wasted by these phantom loads. How about using a small, self- regulating battery maintainer directly connected to the batteries and plugged into a standard 120VAC, 15- or 20-amp receptacle? Hopefully this will be a stepping stone to total elimination of the need to plug in, as RV makers eliminate the ‘powered when standing by’ function. Using this approach saves all the energy used by the standby electronic units. Better still, when RVs are equipped with lithium batteries, no power is required during months of storage, since these batteries self discharge at a negligible 1% per month.

Using this approach, each system or component on a RV could be passed through the climate change/global warming perspective and generate multiple efficiencies.


RV Consumers Need to Do their Part to Combat Climate Change:


Consumer education must go along with the changes needed in the RV industry. Some of the changes will arrive in the industry as a result of changes applied nationally and internationally, outside of the RV industry. (‘Instant On’ is just the tip of the iceberg).

Since all industries are driven by consumer demand, the RV industry reacts to what consumers say they want. It may be time to look at those demands through an additional lens of dealing with climate change.

Do RVers really need a 45 foot (13.7m) long motorhome or 42 foot (12.8m) long Fifth wheel trailer with all the features of a ‘stick’ built home? Baby boomers may think so, I doubt that millennials do. Can RVs be enjoyed with less ‘stuff’? Is ceramic or porcelain tile flooring everywhere (that needs to be heated on cooler days) needed to give a nice durable floor? Is all the hardwood in the interior necessary to enjoy a RV? Is the space required for a rear bathroom and a ½ bath really needed? Is it necessary to have a laundry onboard? If it is, does it need to be two separate appliances? Do we need a full-sized residential refrigerator over 15 cu. ft (425L) to ‘survive’ for a week?  

You get the point. If we want to make a difference, then we may need to go back 10 or 20 years to RV sizes of that generation with today’s technology providing the really important features. I’m not saying everyone needs to ‘shrink’, however I do firmly believe that we each have a major role to play in offsetting the effects of our lifestyle on Climate Change. With a modest change in the weight and length of an RV, chassis size can shrink both in length and the weight-carrying capacity. This right-sizing will reduce the need for the extra large engines and pave the way for alternative power sources that will be the norm within a generation.

The automobile industry went through a similar transition, brought about by the early 1970’s energy crisis. The fins and chrome along with excessively heavy and large bodies were dropped by 1977, engine emission control equipment was implemented, and fuel efficiency started to be considered after the scare of not having enough fuel became a reality. Would any of us really want to go back to those vehicles, other than for the nostalgia they bring?  

When RVers travel, for those that leave a home to do so, do they adjust the thermostat and turn off the water heater to significantly reduce home energy use? Are those homes equipped with highly efficient LED lighting to save energy demand when using them? Can appliances not needed be turned off during absences? Looking at the energy uses of these homes while enjoying a RV is part of the change in thinking.

The rubber really hits the road when we sometimes flippantly say: ‘Well – I’ve earned it, I can afford it, so who cares?’ It is time for the benefit of our children and grandchildren that we say: ‘I’m going to step up and do something, because I can!’ Most RVers have the financial resources (or are prepared to finance to get them). Is it time to think about the future in a different light?  There is a recent trend in the industry to shorter Class ‘A’ diesel RVs. A few years ago, the industry returned to gas powered RVs under 30 feet (9.1m). Class B RVs were popular in Canada since fuel prices were (and are) always higher than the US’s. The rise in Class B+ and C RVs are really pointers to the direction the industry is going. Electric power trains are in development and will be appearing. Alternatives to towing large tow vehicles will (and have) presented themselves. Pickup truck engines that can run on half of their engine cylinders under certain conditions will make multipurpose vehicles better for our climate.


The ultimate questions for today’s RV Industry participants and RVers are:


What is the collective RV industry (Manufacturers, Suppliers and Campgrounds) doing to mitigate Climate Change?


What am I going to do to reduce my personal impact on Climate Change?  


Answers to these questions will, more than any other factor, influence the next twenty (20) years in the RV industry.          

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