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Saving the Earth at 8 mpg

Rough road

When I told my friends about my decision to become a fulltime RVer, I got two common reactions. The first was "You must really enjoy driving!" When I answered "Not especially," I got blank looks.

To most people with fulltime jobs, travel means vacation travel... and that means you pile into your car at the crack of dawn, drive like hell across three states to reach your destination, unpack all your gear, and spend a relaxing week fishing and goofing off. Then you pack up and drive hundreds of miles back home. The objective here is to drive long stretches—as long as humanly possible—in order to minimize your travel time and maximize your relaxing time, because you only have a week or two of vacation.

But fulltime RVing isn't like that. To begin with, you have all the time in the world. There's no rush to get anywhere, so you aren't going to drive hundreds of miles a day every day—that would be insane. Most fulltimers I know think 200 miles is a l-o-n-g day's drive... 75 miles is more typical. And we don't move very often, either. My own 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.

Gertie the Gas Hog

Which brings me to the second common reaction: "Aren't you worried about gas prices?" After all, I'm driving a vehicle that averages 8 mpg. (Newer Lazy Dazes get 10.) Well, no, I'm not really worried—because I'm 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 to visit 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 fairly typical of my RVing lifestyle. I've camped mostly in beautiful state parks, with an average stay of two weeks per park. 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 8 mpg motorhome than I did when I was driving a 29 mpg car.

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 Honda Fit, which averages 47 mpg (by my actual measurements, not the EPA's), so I can run those errands anytime I wish while using very little gas.

Living off the grid

But there's more. I used to pay over a hundred bucks a month for electricity to run all the appliances in my condo. No more! In Gertie, even when plugged into campground hookups in the dead of winter, I used only $35 a month of electricity on average. And for at least nine months out of twelve, 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, my music system, my computer gear, my breadmaker, even my microwave oven. And it doesn't use up coal, oil or natural gas, or require nuclear powerplants. Energy by the kilowatt comes straight from the sun to me. I just love that! And the next time there's a region-wide power failure, I'll thumb my nose at the utilities and go right on with my life.

Solar panels

What about propane? I do use that for heat, cooking, hot water and to run the refrigerator. "Aha," you say, "that's why he can get away with using so little electricity!" Well, no. In the first five months of 2014 I've used just 18 gallons of propane (at an average of $3.10 per gallon)—less than $60 worth, or fourteen bucks a month. If you're using propane or natural gas at home (or oil for that matter), check your bills and compare. I'd be willing to bet that you use more in one month than I do in five.

How can I get away with using so little propane? Well, for starters, in the wintertime some of my heating is done with campground electricity, which costs very little in the state parks I prefer. Most of the rest 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 then 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, I can and do. That saves a lot on my heating and cooling bills. Of course, there is a cost in gasoline... but go back and read that "Gas Hog" paragraph again. I don't mean that I drive 1,500 miles twice a year, the way somebody on vacation might. I just sort of meander north all spring and drift south all fall, at a nice leisurely pace.

Now we're cooking with gas!

When I make a big pot of soup or stew, I heat it up on the propane-fired stovetop... but then after ten or fifteen minutes I slip that pot into the vacuum-insulated jacket of my Nissan Thermal Chef. This nifty device works exactly like a Crock-Pot slow cooker... but it requires no energy! Food can simmer for eight or ten hours in the Thermal Chef without using any gas or electricity beyond what was needed to bring it to an initial boil.

Nissan cooker

Getting in hot water

And then there's the water heater. Mine's probably no more efficient than a conventional gas-fired heater... but I only run it for ten to twenty minutes a day, unlike your home water heater, which runs 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. This Eureka article explains exactly how I do it.

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 flushes with only about 6 ounces of water for 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... I have many ways of saving water. Those are some of the reasons why I use less than 100 gallons of water a month. Check your water bills and see how you're doing.

Just to put it in perspective... the average person living in a sticks-and-bricks home uses 50 to 100 gallons of water per day. My RV's 50-gallon tank lasts me two and a half weeks! (And that's showering every day in my rig, and using only my own bathroom—no campground showers or toilets.)

Speaking of water... I filter mine, so I don't need bottled water. Most folks don't realize this, but the bottled water fad is responsible for a good part of the huge increase in plastic production in the past decade—up by more than 50%, from 32 million tons a years to 50 million tons a year, between 1995 and 2001 alone. All the plastic used in bottling beverages comes from petroleum... and most of it goes into landfills. In other words, it damages the environment two ways. It's a lot better for the planet to filter my own water than to let somebody else filter it and then sell it to me in plastic bottles. It's a lot less expensive, too. (For more about bottled water, see this article.)

You get the idea, I hope. For me, at least, RVing is by far the most energy-efficient, water-efficient, all-around "green" lifestyle I've ever enjoyed... even at 8 miles per gallon! I don't want to sound smug, but it's a good guess that I'm using fewer natural resources than most Americans. (And remember, I'm driving a twenty-year-old vehicle—no trade-in every few years for me.) Just something to think about the next time you see an RV rumble past on the highway...

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