Going RV-ing? Try Going Green

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Ahh, the open road. What could be more American than a cross-country road trip? Just pack up the kids and hop in the RV. But wait–isn’t that an unsustainable way to travel?

Not for Sara and Matt Janssen, who converted their RV into a green motor home. The pair sold their house and has been living in the 36-foot motor home with their four-year-old daughter ever since, traveling the country promoting sustainable living, according to a recent article in the New York Timesarticle in the New York Times.

The greening of their RV included putting in bamboo floors, repainting with nontoxic paint, and installing a waste-grease fuel system that has saved them over $25,000 in fuel costs. “It’s a self-contained lifestyle,” said Sara, a photographer. In addition, the home’s small size keeps their material waste at a minimum. “We can’t buy anything because it won’t fit,” she told the Times.

Although selling their home might seem a bit extreme, the Janssens are part of a growing movement to green-up RV travel. Even celebrities are on board: Willie Nelson gained a lot of press attention a few years ago for creating his own biofuel, called BioWillie, which he uses for his tour bus. And the time couldn’t be riper: Despite the recent fuel crisis, motor home ownership is on the rise, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. As of 2005, nearly one in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households owned an RV.

“If you can make an RV sustainable, you can make any industry sustainable,” says Ty Adams, another green-RVer quoted in the Times (his rig runs on biofuel). Adams and Brian Brawdy, a wilderness expert who drives a converted eco-friendly camper, also hit on one of the ironies of such travel: Those who answer the call of the RV adventure lifestyle are often driven by a love of nature and a desire to escape to it, but driving an RV is also one of the quickest ways for a traveler to damage the natural environment.

Although RVs may have the reputation of being gas-guzzlers on the road, “when they stop moving, they’re exemplary models of conservation,” writes Rich Luhr, the publisher of Airstream Life magazine, on his blog Tour of America.

He points out that even before the addition of green features, motor homes often use far less water and energy than the average household, which could mean that staying in an RV while traveling is more eco-friendly than staying in a hotel. But with 8.2 million RVs on the highways at any given time (including rented RVs), and with an average of only eight miles to the gallon, most RVs still need a major overhaul to qualify as eco-friendly.

And although individuals have begun eco-converting their motor homes, the industry itself has a lot of catching up to do. Mass-manufactured green RVs have yet to have a large presence in the market. In fact, just two years ago, the manufacturer Featherlite Luxury Coaches released the most expensive RV yet: a $2.5 million Franken-bus of imported goods, including African sapele trim on the steering wheel, Italian upholstery, and bath hardware from France. That’s a hefty carbon footprint, before your foot even hits the gas pedal.

But in the long run, “people RV because they like that sense of independence,” said Brawdy. “I hope it communicates to energy independence as well.”

Photo by zTransmissions via Flickr.