Saving the Earth at 10 mpg
Updated 6/7/2016

Saving the Earth at 10 mpg

We'd all like to think we're making the world a better place, or at least not making it worse. At first glance, driving a gas-guzzling RV doesn't sound like the best way to do that. But there's more to RVing than meets the eye, and it can be a relatively "green" way of life, compared to living in a traditional sticks-and-bricks house. Of course there are all kinds of RVers and all kinds of houses, but I can give you a general idea based on my own experiences. As they say, "your mileage may vary."

To begin with, there's what you might call the startup cost of any lifestyle. I'm not going to try to do a detailed numerical analysis, but it's pretty obvious that a lot more resources go into building a typical house than a typical RV. My motorhome is 27' long by 8' wide by 10' high—in practical terms, about 170 square feet of living space. There are very few houses that small! Most homes are probably five to ten times that size—meaning they require that much more lumber, steel, aluminum, plastic, copper and so on to construct.

But let's set aside the startup costs, and just talk about the day-to-day environmental impact of full-time RVing versus living in a house like the one I used to own. The obvious place to begin is with fossil-fuel consumption—hence the tongue-in-cheek title of this article.

My home, the gas hog

When I first told my friends about my plan to become a fulltime RVer, one common reaction was "Aren't you worried about gas prices?" After all, I'm driving a vehicle that averages 10 mpg—appallingly low by today's standards. But surprisingly, experience has shown that I'm actually using less gas now than I was when I was working full time.

How can that be? Well, I was commuting twenty miles to work (forty miles round trip) five days a week in my Honda Accord, a very nice car that averaged 29 mpg. Then of course on weekends I'd run errands, and sometimes drive out into the countryside looking for photos or visiting friends. Altogether I drove about 800 miles a month, using about 30 gallons of gasoline.

Now let's look at the past six months, which are typical of my RVing lifestyle. I've camped mostly in beautiful state parks and Bureau of Land Management areas, with an average stay of two weeks per campground. In between, I've driven an average of 224 miles a month, using 28 gallons a month of gas. That's right—I'm using slightly less gas now in my 10 mpg motorhome than I did when I was driving a 29 mpg car.

If you're not a full-time RVer, two hundred miles a month may sound unrealistically low for a person traveling in an RV. To most people with full-time jobs, travel means vacation travel... and that means you pile into your car at the crack of dawn, drive hundreds of miles to reach your destination, unpack all your gear, and spend a week or so relaxing. Then you pack up and drive hundreds of miles back home. Because you only have a week or two of vacation, the goal is to drive long stretches—as long as humanly possible—in order to minimize your travel days and maximize your relaxing days.

But full-time RVing isn't like that. To begin with, I have all the time in the world. There's no rush to get anywhere, so I'm not going to drive hundreds of miles a day every day—that would be insane. For me, 200 miles is a long day's drive... and I don't need to drive every day, or even every week. My preference is to find a nice place, stay two or three weeks, then drive 50–100 miles to the next nice place and repeat ad lib. Many of my full-timing friends have similar patterns. Oh, some do move more often and cover more distance... but others stay in one place for months at a time, serving as park volunteers or campground hosts in return for free campsites. My lifestyle is somewhere in the middle.

What about errands—trips into town to buy groceries, do laundry, and pick up mail? Well, I used to stop in town every few weeks on my way from one campground to another, so those errands didn't require any extra driving. But now I tow a Subaru Forester, so I can run those errands anytime I wish. The Forester uses a third as much gas as my motorhome, so my overall fuel consumption is still less than it was when I lived in a house and drove to work every day.

Living off the grid

Let's talk about electricity. I used to pay over a hundred bucks a month for electricity to run all the appliances in my condo. But in my RV, even when plugged into campground hookups in the dead of winter, I use only $35 worth of electricity in an average month. That's not much juice. Look at it this way: most houses have at least 200 amp electric service, while my rig can only use a maximum of 30 amps. That gives you an idea of the difference in power consumption. In the coldest months, when I often stay plugged in, I keep my entire home cozy with two 600W electric heaters—less than 10 amps total.

And that's just in the winter. For at least half the year, the solar panels on my roof generate all the electricity I need, so it doesn't cost me a cent. That free power runs all my lights (all LEDs, by the way), my music system, my computer gear... even my microwave oven. And it doesn't use up coal, oil or natural gas, or require nuclear power plants.

Energy by the kilowatt comes straight from the sun to me. I just love that! For example, a couple of summers ago my solar-equipped RVing friends and I spent four months camping in the most beautiful parts of Colorado, without hooking up to electricity even once. Or take this past fall and winter: in the eight months between September 2014 and April 2015, I had plug-in electricity for exactly one night. All the rest of the time I did just fine on pure solar power.

Now we're cooking with gas!

What about propane? I do use that for heat, cooking, hot water and (usually) to run the refrigerator. "Aha," you might say, "that's why he can get away with using so little electricity—he's just substituting propane." Well, not really. In the eight-month fall and winter period I just mentioned, I used an average of ten gallons of propane a month—about thirty bucks worth. If you're using propane, natural gas or oil at home, check your bills and compare. I'd be willing to bet that you use more fossil fuel in one month than I do in four.

How do I do it? Well, for starters, I have a lot fewer square feet to heat than a conventional house has. And much of my non-electric heating is done with a catalytic heater. In addition to being silent and using no electricity (because they don't need blowers), cat heaters produce twice as many BTUs of heat per gallon of gas as a conventional furnace. (That's because none of the heat goes up the flue.) So my propane goes twice as far.

And of course there's my "climate control" system—the one with wheels. Ever wish you could move your house to Arizona in the winter and Maine in the summer? Well, an RVer can do just that, and it saves a lot on my heating and cooling bills. Of course, there is a cost in gasoline... but not as much as you might think. I just gradually meander north all spring and drift south all fall, at a nice leisurely pace. I don't actually have to go very far north; up in the Colorado Rockies at 10,000 feet it stays nice and cool all summer.

Getting in hot water

Most RVers have lots of little tricks for minimizing consumption of resources such as fuel and water—after all, our tanks limit our supplies—and I'm no exception. For example, there's the water heater. Mine's probably no more efficient than a conventional gas-fired residential water heater... but I only run it for ten to twenty minutes a day, unlike a home water heater, many of which are on 24/7. Am I taking cold showers? Not at all. The secret is to get the water to exactly the right temperature for my morning shower, then shut off the heater for the rest of the day.

The shower isn't the only water-using appliance in the bathroom, of course. An average household toilet uses 3.5 gallons per flush—every flush. By contrast, mine takes a meager 6 ounces of water to flush liquid waste, or about 24 ounces for solid waste. And when brushing my teeth, I don't leave the water running, so I only use about 6 ounces of water. And so on... Those are some of the reasons why I use less than 100 gallons of water a month. Just to put that number in perspective... the average single person living in a stick-and-brick home uses 50 to 100 gallons of water every day. By contrast, my RV's 50-gallon tank lasts me more than two weeks. (And that's showering every day in my rig, and using only my own bathroom—no campground showers or toilets.)

One of the most important aspects of being "eco-conscious" is becoming aware of the resources you use and the waste you generate—fuel, electricity, water, trash, sewage and so on. As an RVer with limited storage tanks, you can't help but be super-aware of how much you're using and how much you're dumping—especially when boondocking or dry-camping, away from the plug-in conveniences of an RV park. RVing is a great way to raise your eco-consciousness!

You get the idea, I hope. For me, at least, full-time RVing is actually the most energy-efficient, water-efficient, all-around "green" lifestyle I've ever enjoyed... even at 10 miles per gallon! Just something to think about the next time you see an RV rumble past on the highway.

© 2016 by Andy Baird.