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Eco RV-ing: Can Recreational Vehicles Be Green?

Jun 23, 2017 4:43:30 PM / by Krista Atkins Nutter

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According to the 2017 North American Camping Report conducted by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), 75 million American households are active campers, and there is an increased percentage of American campers who are younger and more diverse. An older 2011 University of Michigan study identified 8.9 million American households as Recreational Vehicle owners, with the largest growing age group of RV owners being the 35 to 54 age group who now own more RVs than any other age group. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates that 8% to 9% of American households own an RV – with around 9 million RVs on the road in 2016 (and steadily growing).

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With the increase in the percentage of younger campers, an additional surging trend that can currently be seen in the RV industry is the amount of owners and consumers who are searching for, and requesting information on “green RVs.” Most people assume that given the large, boxy nature of these homes on wheels, that they certainly can’t be green or environmentally sensitive. However, for the past several years, RV shoppers have seen the emergence of a program called Certified Green by TRA Certification, Inc. If you’ve been on an RV lot lately, you’ve likely seen the Certified Green stickers or signage on some models. Certified Green is a third party inspection program that evaluates RVs in terms of Resource Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, and Indoor Air Quality.

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I recently contacted Mandy Leazenby, a representative from TRA Certifications to discuss exactly what they do and what their Certified Green label means.

KN: How old is TRA Certification, Inc (TRA)? When was it founded or when did they start doing certifications?

ML: TRA Certification was founded in 1992. We are 15 years old.

KN: What about the parent company, T.R. Arnold & Associates? How old are they and what do they do?

ML: Our parent company was founded in 1968. They are 49 years old.   They have been in the third party certification and inspection business focused on building code compliance, building materials, energy efficiency, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and fire safety. They have a Building Code Regulatory focus.

KN: What served as the catalyst for the creation of Certified Green? Was there a certain group or market segment that pushed for eco-conscious RVs or was it conceived by one particular person? (Essentially, what’s the history of the TRA?)

ML: This focus is natural for all of the folks here at TRA. We have been evaluating the code compliance of insulation and energy requirements for many years. It is a natural evolution for us. As the Building Codes became more demanding for efficiency, our interests have grown and we’ve become focused in that direction.

KN: Does TRA receive feedback mostly from consumers or manufacturers or another stakeholder? In what ways? How is that feedback incorporated into what TRA does?

ML: Today, the major feedback comes from the RV manufacturers and consumers. We get a lot of calls from RV “Users” about their interest in the Green Ratings their units have. Also, consumers use our rating to make their decisions regarding which RVs to purchase. We also receive a lot of consumer calls regarding indoor air quality. That seems to be the most important “green” quality of an RV.

KN: Are there certain areas of the country where the demand for TRA Certified RVs is higher? If so, where?

ML: No, the demand is universal. We are getting a lot of feedback from younger buyers who are interested in the environment. Older buyers are more interested in the indoor air quality of their units. In fact, most consumer calls we receive are in regards to indoor air quality. This is an opportunity for us and for the industry to pay even more attention to what goes into an RV.

KN: TRA certification guidelines look familiar – similar to LEED Guidelines. Is TRA affiliated in any way with the US GBC / LEED or did the founders of TRA use LEED as inspiration for the TRA guidelines?

ML: Certainly the USGBC work and the LEED efforts have been a good guide. We are involved with various venues such as the RESNET Programs for energy ratings of new homes. Some of this effort also involves modular homes and manufactured (mobile) homes.

KN: What’s in the future for TRA? What can we expect in the RV industry in terms of eco-friendly coaches?

ML: Our program naturally evolves as does the industry. We plan on introducing an indoor air quality program that is separate from the “green” program but can be complimentary. We have the equipment to test sample units at either the manufacturer or the dealer location

KN: Are more manufacturers looking to get TRA Certification?

ML: Absolutely!! They are knocking our door down !! Really, we think there is a growing demand once the marketing people take notice. We are certifying new companies on a regular basis. We are also adding new models for some manufacturers who are already under our program. More and more new RV manufacturers, especially ones that produce “tiny houses” and lightweight towables are interested in how they perform in our green program.

KN: Is there any plan for TRA Certification to address fuel economy of motorhome RVs? What about wind-tunnel testing for aerodynamic information/ratings – have they considered that type of testing?

ML: These issues have been considered but they are very complex and variable from one model or configuration to another. Analysis is very detailed and costly.

While my conversation with Mandy was interesting, I really wanted to find some insight about how eco-friendly RVs can be, from people who had first hand information. So once again, I sought out the Wynns. Nikki and Jason Wynn, the RVing and sailing couple of internet and video-blogging fame (found here at Gone With the Wynns) did a piece titled “Can an RV Be Green or Eco-Friendly” In that article, they made several key points:

  • Especially for people who are living in an RV full time – it’s very eco-friendly. Consider the much smaller square footage for heating and cooling compared to a full size apartment or home! Resource consumption will be much less.
  • If you tow an eco-friendly car and drive it when your RV is parked, you can offset the lower fuel economy you get in the RV when traveling between destinations.
  • Boondocking or dry-camping allows you to conserve even more resources. Parking in shady sites that don’t require you to run the AC can go a long way in reducing resource consumption.

The article also gives several tips on how to make an existing RV more eco-friendly, so be sure to check it out! They also have a complete Green RV series of articles and videos on various eco-RV-ing topics – including installing a composting toilet in an RV. Imagine no more black tank dumping!

The GoRVing.com website also offers a few ideas about why RV vacations are greener than other types of vacations. Consider the fuel and resource consumption of air travel and staying in hotels in comparison to an RV trip. In addition, advancements in manufacturing mean that RVs are smaller, lighter, tighter, more aerodynamic, and use green materials such as textiles and other interior components that contribute to improved indoor air quality. New diesel chassis also increase fuel economy so much so, that some smaller motorhomes attain fuel economy that almost reaches that of typical SUVs. Additional tips for “going green” on your next RV trip can also be found on the website.

The bottom line is that many RV owners and consumers are seeking out ways to be more eco-conscious in their RVing lifestyle – whether it’s full-time living or just for occasional recreation. Manufacturers are starting to come around, and are even offering RVs with solar panels or that are prepped for solar. Others have tankless or on-demand water heaters, and are increasing the energy efficiency of the outer walls through increased insulation and dual pane windows. Manufacturers are now beginning to see the value in offering eco-friendly RVs and partaking in third party green certification programs to help achieve that goal. We need more RV designers and builders to continue to offer these options and even develop new green RV features for buyers who demand them.

If you liked this post you may like information on the local Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council's "Southwest Ohio USGBC Chapter - Green Home Tours." It includes a tour of the first container home in Greater Cincinnati this Fall.

Topics: Green Marketing, Green Building Marketing, Green Building, Business to Consumer Advertising, Featured, Eco RV-ing

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Written by Krista Atkins Nutter

Krista Nutter, LEED AP, MS Arch. A college design educator and administrator at a CIDA-accredited program, a sustainable building consultant, and designer/owner of an award-winning, Energy-Star 5+, passive solar, solar electric, high-performance green home in Cincinnati, Ohio.