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Old 05-12-2005, 12:58 PM   #1
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"Green" Airstreaming

I recently received an email from a 40-something friend of mine who, like us, is considering full-timing with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. If you are interested in the environment, you might find the discussion interesting. I present this simply as food for thought, not a manifesto or even a recommendation to anyone.

John wrote: "Hi Rich,

I have an RVing question for you.

As a miserly "green" politically, and being green in RVing I'm concerned about fuel efficiency for the vehicle we use on our contemplated sojourn in 2006. Seems we need to ponder trailer vs. motorhome. I looked at the weights of trailers and the 28ft Airstream International model I like came out at over 5,000 lbs w/out fluids and gear. This seems to require towing capacity of a full-size truck. (Is this correct or will a powerful mid-size like the Nissan Frontier king cab suffice?)

Fuel efficiency of the Nissan Titan and similar fullsize pick-ups was a lowly 12 - 15 hwy without accounting for the trailer so I'm thinking mpg with towing must be about 10 - 12. Can a motorhome be much worse than 10 mpg. This might speak for doing the motorhome route and towing our Saturn for in-town trips once the motorhome is parked at an RV park or the like. Your thoughts?



I wrote back:

John, you bring up a good debate: the "green-ness" of RV'ing. Here's my analysis, based on some research and personal experience. First, a few background statistics.

Motorhomes generally achieve about 7-8 MPG on the highway when powered by gasoline. Diesel units typically do a bit better, but we're talking maybe 9-11 MPG -- not anything to get excited about.

Towing trailers generally gives better fuel economy, but not much. Most people I've talked to get 10-12 MPG with gas, 14-16 MPG with diesel.

Diesel engines pollute differently, putting out less oxides of nitrogen (which makes smog) but more particulate matter (soot). It's a tradeoff. You really aren't being particularly "green" to choose diesel over a gas engine, although this will improve in 2007 when low-sulfur diesel fuel begins to be mandated in the US. Personally, I like diesels but I don't kid myself about saving the environment with one.

The "green" advantage of a MH is, as you suspected, the ability to tow an economical vehicle behind it and use that when you are settled. This makes a lot of sense.

It comes down to how much driving you plan to do, versus how much staying put. If you roam every week with the motorhome, it can be a remarkably expensive (read "fuel hogging") way to travel. You're trading off motels for imported oil, and I know you don't want to do that.

But if you do what full-time MH owners do, which is drive to a destination and sit there for weeks, you have chosen the greenest alternative. Most of the miles you travel will be in daily life, back and forth to the grocery store, etc., and you'll be hopefully using something economical for that, like the Saturn or Honda.

The trailer is a bit better on the road in terms of fuel economy, but it requires a fairly powerful truck (not a car), so good fuel economy when not towing is hard to find. You are correct in that any 28 ft or longer Airstream will require a full size truck. The weights given on the Airstream site are "dry" weights. They don't publish the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) on the spec sheet on the website, but that's the real number to consider since it represents the maximum allowable weight of the trailer, and is much closer to reality once you've loaded up for full-timing. For the International 28, I believe the GVWR is about 6800 lbs. Mid-sized trucks usually can't handle it, and their real-world fuel economy is not so much better than the full-size trucks anyway.

We are looking at a pickup which gets about 18 MPG when not towing according to friends who own it, and 11 when towing. 18 MPG is certainly not something that makes me happy -- a guy who usually considers anything under 30 MPG to be a travesty -- but unfortunately a motorhome is not an option for us due to the typical layouts (designed for retiree couples, not working families).

Trailers, on the other hand, have much more flexible layouts. Given this, our choice is a trailer with the best (most economical, easy to drive) truck we can find (with appropriate towing capacity). It's a compromise for sure.

Back to the green issue: I believe that overall, full-timers who do not move frequently (say less than 100 miles per week, or 500 miles per month) are actually very green. They require less fuel to heat their homes, they use efficient public facilities for things like clothes washing and drying, they run more economical refrigerators, have fewer household electronics (and fewer parasitic loads), are very cognizant of power consumption, have less square footage to air condition, they don't commute, they only have one car or truck (not two or more as is typical in America today), and their homes embody less overall energy and petroleum products in their construction. Full-timers don't mow their lawns with polluting 2-stroke engines, either.

Motorhomes and trailers are only gas hogs when they are moving. If you slowly work your way across to California in a year with a travel trailer getting 10 MPG, you will consume about 350-400 gallons of fuel. Compare that to the fuel usage a typical office commuter uses just going to and from work in a year. A 25-mile commute, twice a day for 50 weeks a year -- even if you drive a small car that gets 30 MPG -- will consume 416 gallons!

At the same time, a home in a northern climate will consume 1000-2000 gallons of fuel oil or propane just to stay warm in the winter. The full-timer will drive south in winter and north in summer.

It's not a perfect picture. One problem we've encountered is recycling. At home we recycle everything we can, and we compost all organic matter in the bin out back. On the road, it's not always possible to find places that will recycle your cans and newspapers, and you won't have a lot of room to store them either. Composting -- well, that's just about impossible. If you tried it in a campground, you'd probably be thrown out!

Still, if you are concerned with being green, consider the total picture. On the road you are forced by limited storage space to acquire less "stuff", which means less to fill landfills eventually. You consume less, you waste less, and you are aware of what you do use. Having a lightweight lifestyle such as full-timing in the era of McMansions, conspicuous consumption, and supersized everything is probably the greenest move you can make. So go on the road and enjoy yourself!

Hope this helps

-- Rich

As I said, this is just food for thought. Comments, corrections, and debate are welcome.

Former full-timer | AIRSTREAM LIFE magazine | Tour of America (old blog) | Man In The Maze (current blog)

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Old 05-12-2005, 02:01 PM   #2
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my lawnmower is a 4-stroke.

other than that, I agree

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Old 05-12-2005, 02:19 PM   #3
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I submit that if you are concerned about matters "Green", forget RVing. Anything more and you are deceiving yourself or rationalizing away your principles.

Fuel economy should only matter to you as far as your pocketbook. The world is awash in crude oil. It's only a matter of extraction and refinement facilities. And if you think about the rapid advancements with technologies the energy situation will be taken care of in ways we can't imagine now. Think about just the L.A. air basin. More cars being driven there now than ever before, yet the air is the cleanest it's been in a very long time. There are a lot of really smart people continually working on the problems of a cleaner environment that really care about it, not just a bunch of "leftist do-gooders". Technology, markets, and our desire for a clean and abundant world will make it happen.

So get the RV you want, and take the trip of your desires and appreciate the life God gave you.

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Old 05-12-2005, 02:22 PM   #4
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Good point Rich especially with regards to the driving totals, I would think a trailer towing - truck will be driven a lot more than a Moho as the truck in most cases also becomes your daily driver at home. For many of us Moho owners the toad is our daily driver and its usually a small car..So our overall greeness may be somewhat better.
Then again if you want to be really green you should probably have a Prius and a tent.
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Old 05-12-2005, 02:29 PM   #5
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Ok - I've looked at some motorhomes. Doesn't one need to get a much BIGGER mh vs. the TT to get the same interior space? I think a TT is much more condusive (sp?) to fulltiming, esp with a family vs. the mh. Towing a toad, I'd think one one expect about 6-7 mpg. Even my one ton van with the 26ft TT, five people on board, and loaded up got 9-10 (hurts, I know!) mpg on our west coast trip last year. I think finding parking is easier with the TT, but then, I've only driven a 28ft mh once (college days, USC vs. Stanford), and that was a much more white knuckle trip vs the van and our trailer.

I've always thought that the new Sprinter in passenger van mode (approx $33 - 35,000) would make a awesome tow vehicle (I'd love to have the 1 ton dually with passenger space, and low ceiling). 20 city, 25 hwy. Approx 5000# tow rating. I hear rumors that a more powerful diesel is coming. If so, that would be a clear winner in my book.

At risk for opening up the whole bigger is better argument, I think the diesel Toureg would be a great vehicle, but at $50K +, I don't think there will be many takers.

I think there is "someone" out here who tows a certain 26ft Argosy with a Honda Pilot. I wish they'd say how it is. The new Ridgeline is also supposedly beefed up as well.

Now, neither of these cars/trucks would tow a 28ft CCD. So, it's back to the biggies.
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Old 05-12-2005, 02:48 PM   #6
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Rich, I enjoyed the post and I think you make some very good points. We live in a society that is driven by consumption and over the past four or five years I have noticed that the trend is not to try and scale back but rather get out and consume with no regard for the enviromental impact. Conservation is a concept totally foreign to those in positions that could really make a difference.

Five years ago Ann and I made a choice that we would scale back our lifestyle. We want to lessen our impact on the planet and serve as an example for our kids. We built a very energy efficient 1,500 sf home, began recycling, started a garden to provide for at least a portion of our food. Trips to the store and other errands are scheduled to reduce driving. Our vintage cabin cruiser is being replaced by a sailboat. Even RVing has been scaled back size wise. The 26' Overlander was sold to buy a 17' Caravel. The F250 V10 pickup has been replaced by a Honda Ridgeline. There is not a single aspect of our lives that has not been been analyzed.

As a family we have learned to live more on less and the lessons learned from RVing have played a central role in our quest to become a little more earth friendly.
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Old 05-12-2005, 05:46 PM   #7
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I’m with Turtle on this one. I don’t think of conservation (or the current pc term “green”) and Rving as necessarily compatible ideas.

That said, I get pretty good mileage from my 2 Ford F150’s. The first is a 1997 V6, bought new. I consistently get 20 MPG highway, 15 city. I had to buy the second truck because the first isn’t hefty enough to tow my “new” TT! The second I only purchased 2weeks ago. It is a 1998 V8. I’ve put 1 ˝ tanks of gas through it and I’m getting about 16 ˝ MPG city. I haven’t had it on the highway yet for an extended trip.

Both of these vehicles emit less than 10% of the allowable pollutants. Not bad numbers for two vehicles that are generally thought of as “hair under the armpits, don’t give a damn about future generations” kind of vehicles. If you further consider that neither of these vehicles are being driven more than 5/6,000 miles per year nowadays, I guess I’m not doing too bad.

Quit worrying about it. Take your kids camping.

Just my 2 cents. Jim


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Old 05-12-2005, 06:25 PM   #8
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Rich you make some very good points. We are now downsizing to an even smaller house 1200 sg ft 1871 farm house but planning on increasing the size of our TT with thoughts to the future when we can spend more time on the road traveling.Before Airstream (B.A.) we owned a diesel VW golf (50mpg.) before that a gas Golf before that another gas Golf and before that Beetles.We have always been aware of not only the cost of the vehicle but the cost and impact of ownership. My wife still drives a new style beetle but I drive a Suburban with an 8.1 litre engine. I consider my Airstream my vacation and weekend home and the Suburban as a necessary evil. Today there isn't any good way to justify owning a vehicle that gets such terriable gas mileage except that it's what I need to tow the Airstream, and I love my Airstream.
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Old 05-13-2005, 08:27 AM   #9
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Just how many out there are even recycling? That small step in the right direction is avoided by most folks. I have been doing it at home extensively for years..and at my job I carry off loads of cardboard and magazines weekly to the recycling center...however I know most local businesses aren't doing the same, and they persist in filling up the dumpsters and then in turn the landfills.
Its depressing but you have to continue to do your part if you are motivated that way...and it does mean a bit more work.
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Old 05-13-2005, 09:15 AM   #10
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I don't think conservation and RVing are necessarily incompatible -- conservation is always a matter of decisions, choices and compromises. When we travel we pull a 19' Bambi with a 1500 Avalanche and get about 13-14 mpg while towing. This is a choice we've made for ourselves. When we are not seeing the country, we mostly drive a Honda Civic Hybrid, at 42-47 mpg. This was another choice. We know we aren't likely to get the monetary payback for the improved mpg but we definitely get an environmental payback that might affect our grandkids in a small way. We also garden and recycle most everything -- more choices. I don't think RVing has to be an all or nothing deal unless you are full-timing, and then you are probably having a smaller affect on the environment than you would in "city living" anyway.
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Old 05-13-2005, 10:44 AM   #11
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Well said Dave, I agree, it is not an all or nothing scenario. The fact is people are going to continue to RV, myself included, and people are going to continue to do things that have enviromental consequences. Short of eliminating the human race there is no way around it. However there are choices available that can lessen that impact and some of those choices are the ones that have been previously stated. People can stick their head in the sand and pretend that the air quality is not declining, that there are not changes occuring in the climate, that we have plenty of natural resources which will last indefinately, or that China, India and other developing countries are not going to try to attain the livestyle we have in the United States. Personally, I choose to try and live in a way that lessens my impact on the earth, while enjoying the beauty of nature.
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Old 05-13-2005, 12:16 PM   #12
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I occasionally suffer guilt over what we do to the enviroment, because my number one hobby is cars. Has been and always shall be. Usually big V8 monsters that suck up the gas and pollute like it was still 1968. Now, I am actually in favor of electric cars and hydrogen hybrids and that sort of thing. I think it would be great if someday I could race/cruise/tow with something that is quiet and doesn't pollute, but I'm afraid that is a long way off, maybe not even in my lifetime.

How much of an impact we make on the environment is a matter of our own threshold of pain. We could all live in a cabin in the woods, never driving, using horses, living off the land. Most of us wouldn't go that far (I might like to try it for a year though, just to see), but we can all do as much as we can until it interferes with our enjoyment of life the way we want to live it. I recycle everything I can, use our high-mpg car for trips around town, compost, keep my cars in tune and not leaking fluids, and try to make a light impact on the land. But I'm not willing to give up my cars, and I'm not willing to give up my RV. I hope the other things I do somewhat make up for it.

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Old 05-13-2005, 12:29 PM   #13
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One of my pet peeves is excess packaging materials. Short-cut foods - the kind that rv'rs tend to gravitate to for convience sake, are usually over wrapped. Have you ever actually looked in the dumpster at a campground? But never fear - I have some recommendations to avoid over packaged materials.

1. Steaks and baked potatoes have almost no package - eat well!
2. Poptarts can be used as wheel chocks - re-use them - save money and waste!
3. Beer cans: loads of packaging- bring a keg - they are refillable. Share with friends.
4. Diapers - potty train ASAP!
5. Bottled water - use the faucet! (but not the one at the dump station)
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Old 05-13-2005, 01:02 PM   #14
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I believe the Sierra Club magazine (or maybe Mother Earth Journal?) published a study where someone actually measured and compared consumption levels. Here's what I remember from this article...

As I recall, the results were that it was a net savings in the general population of full timers, even net of fuel consumption. Part of this was attributed in the article to the "snowbird syndrome." Apparently it is much less environmentally taxing to live a mobile lifestyle following the seasonal shift of comfortable weather. There also tended to be a culture of living more efficiently in this population, although the researchers noted that very few of the people they studied self-identified as green.

On the other hand, the highest energy users were folks who maintained year round residences and kept RVs for excursions/vacations (guilty!). This population tended to even have higher consumption levels just in their RVs alone, tending to rely more on shore power and using high drain appliances like a/c and microwaves more frequently.

Sounds like it might be good topic to revive into a new article, huh?


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