How Green is My RV?

Malcolm Street — 2 July 2020
Your choice of travel vehicle will largely determine how sustainable and responsible your adventures are, but your van also plays a role.

When considering how environmentally friendly their caravan or motorhome is, many people might consider battery and solar panel capacity, and maybe the grey water tank, but not much else. 

However, I would like to suggest that it’s much more than that and starts back with the manufacture and purchase of any RV. ‘Tread lightly’ or ‘leave only footprints’ are expressions we often hear, yet I suspect the RV world leaves a deep footprint. 




REDUCING THE FOOTPRINT

I’ve mentioned this before, but apart from the USA, Australia builds the heaviest caravans and motorhomes in the world. Is this necessarily a good thing? Having a heavy caravan means using a large tow vehicle for safety reasons. Similarly, with motorhomes, having a heavier body means more weight on the cab chassis. 

There are several factors that come into play here, but one of them is a less fuel-efficient vehicle having to be used in all cases. One of the side effects of this happens in the motorhome world. Use of a European cab chassis is quite common, but the Euro trucks often have relatively small turbo-diesel engines. While this is fine in lighter weight European-built motorhomes, it is sometimes lacking here. 

Who is responsible for the heavy RV problem? I’d like to suggest that just about everyone is — manufacturers, consumers, RV magazine writers and even non-RV publications. I mention the latter category because anytime a non-RV magazine or newspaper does a feature on the RV industry, they always go for the biggest, most exotic RV they can find, not necessarily what the rest of us are driving around in. 

Regulatory authorities get a mention in here too because the Federal Government has been humming and hawing about introducing Euro 6 emission standards. Not only has that affected what light commercial vehicles are available in this country (since just about all our tow vehicles and motorhome base vehicles are imported) but also the quality of petrol and diesel supply. 

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

It would be inappropriate to suggest RV manufacturers are totally responsible for the large and heavy RVs that we have in this country, because in some ways they are only responding to customer demand. If a customer walks in and says, “I want an 8m (26ft) caravan with all the bells and whistles”, what manufacturer is going to turn them down? 

However, whilst many a manufacturer has been great with introducing battery and solar panel technology to their products, too many have not been as keen about weight-reducing construction techniques, relying on tried and trusted methods which are not always weight-saving. 

Getting back to buyers and potential buyers, how are you planning on travelling? Do you really need a van with plenty of space to move around or will you, like many folk, spend most of the time living the al fresco lifestyle? Is a full-width bathroom really necessary or are you planning on spending most of your time in caravan parks? How about a washing machine — is that just nice to have or will you be using it frequently? 

Undoubtedly, the thing that has added weight in recent times has been the ‘offroad caravan’ craze. Just about all manufacturers produce an offroad caravan. Most have several models but they are all heavier than a standard caravan. I don’t have any numbers on this, but I have a hefty suspicion that there are many ‘offroad’ caravans that are up for nothing more serious than graded outback roads, something just about all caravans are capable of handling. 

I ALREADY OWN AN RV

If you already own an RV, then most of the above does not apply, but it’s always good to consider just how much unnecessary gear you are carting around. Many folk have winter and summer clothing on board, but do you really need that? Others stock up considerably on foodstuffs before travelling, but there are good economic arguments (drought and bushfire related) for purchasing locally wherever you might be. There are other weight-saving ideas too. I know that paper books and CDs are much treasured, but the digital equivalents are much lighter.

SELF-CONTAINMENT: WATER

I’m not going to suggest running with empty water tanks. I know water has serious weight but there are many places in Australia where it’s foolish to arrive with no water onboard. However, there’s another ‘staying green’ area where there seems to be some diverse thinking — grey water disposal. Most motorhomes and fifth wheelers come with grey water tanks, but up until relatively recently most caravans did not. I don’t know why. While there are plenty of places around Australia where any sort of water is appreciated for a parched land, there are a growing number of areas where grey water is unwelcome. 

The Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA) led the charge a few years ago with their self-contained RV policy, which included a grey water tank. It’s backed that up by a great dump point installation programme. Others, including a well-known caravan club, did not require grey water tanks in their self-containment definition, for reasons unclear. That’s definitely odd. More caravans these days are having grey water tanks fitted as either standard or optional items. 

Since many are fitted to the rear of the van, retrofitting is not difficult, although towing balance factors need to be considered. Overall weight less so because it’s generally considered that when a fresh water tank is filled, the grey one is emptied.

Another solution, mostly European and New Zealander oriented, is to have small portable tanks on wheels that can be emptied as needed. 

SELF-CONTAINMENT: CHEMICALS

These days, most toilets in RVs are the cassette type, which must be emptied on a regular basis and then recharged with an appropriate chemical mix. It’s always good to make sure it’s not harmful to the environment. Macerator toilets are around, but more common in the marine industry and rare in RVs. 

Grey water tanks often require a bit of a flush — the clue being rather pongy drains — and there are some green-friendly treatments that are readily available. 

SELF-CONTAINMENT: ELECTRICS

This is a whole topic within itself but there’s no doubt that LED lighting, battery and solar power capacity has improved markedly over the last decade. LED lighting, being very efficient and low current, is here to stay, and no new RV these days come without it. For older RVs, retrofitting LED globes and fittings is quite easy. 

Batteries add weight to any RV but there’s no doubt that they are essential for any RVer contemplating a night or more away from mains power. It’s worth doing a few power calcs to determine just how much battery and solar capacity is needed. For many, a single 100Ah deep cycle battery, backed up by a solar panel or two on the roof, will suffice. Three-way fridges, although not very efficient on 12V, ease the 12V load by running on LP gas or mains power. On the other hand, 12V compressor fridges can be run very efficiently on 12V and, with enough solar panel capacity, can be quite green in their operation. Lithium batteries are the new wunderkind in the RV world, being lighter than equivalent deep cycle batteries, as well as having better charging and load cycles. However, they are still very expensive and deep cycle batteries are often a better option. 

ALL RUNNING EFFICIENTLY

Whatever your RV, one way of being as green as possible is to ensure that everything — engine, trailer brakes, air conditioners, fridges, generators, battery chargers and solar panels — is in tiptop order. That is by ensuring everything is regularly serviced as required (engines, for example), cooling vents are not blocked (in your fridges), and that everything is kept clean (particularly solar panels) and otherwise working properly.

So, how green is your RV? Is it time for a check?  

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Malcolm Street