Road trip: RV manufacturers scramble to stretch their mpgs

Lighter, lower recreational vehicles can double gas mileage.

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    Recreational-vehicle manufacturers, like carmakers, are hastening to make their products lighter, and more aerodynamic in order to boost their fuel efficiency.
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Q: My wife and I drive more than 20,000 miles a year in our recreational vehicle (RV), which gets about seven miles to the gallon, but high fuel prices are eating into our nest egg. Are there more fuel-efficient ways to enjoy the RV lifestyle?
Walter Hendricks, Tampa, Fla.
A: Major RV manufacturers all report a downturn in sales since the price of fuel started to skyrocket a few years ago. A typical gasoline-fueled RV gets between 5 and 10 miles per gallon, and those who may have bought one to save on lodging and food on their travels are finding that filling ’er up may cost more than hotels and restaurants.

But as elsewhere in the auto and truck industry, some RV manufacturers are scrambling to incorporate gas-saving features and design new models with better mileage and a lower carbon footprint.

According to the website RV.net, several factors contribute to a greener RV. First is reducing weight by using lighter materials and improving structural design. Smaller RV engines also reduce fuel consumption (and weight) – if owners can live with less horsepower. More efficient transmissions, better aerodynamics, and increased non­powered engine cooling round out the suggestions on RV.net.

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Some of these features can be found in the new Avanti line of RVs from Indiana-based Damon Motor Coach, which offers a 70 percent or more increase in fuel economy over other large (Class A) RVs.
Damon converts the ultraefficient chassis, engine, and transmission of a leading parcel delivery fleet truck (delivery companies optimize fuel efficiency) into an RV. The Avanti’s chassis also sits lower than that of other RVs, for less wind resistance. Result: 14.5 miles per gallon, twice that of other RVs in its class.

But size isn’t everything. Ontario-based Roadtrek takes stripped-down commercial vans – such as the Chevrolet Express or Dodge Sprinter – and converts them into deluxe, albeit smaller, motor homes with fuel efficiency ranging from 15 to 30 miles per gallon.

Sportsmobile also offers a wide range of converted GM and Ford vans customized as motor homes. Owners of Volkswagen’s popular pop-top Eurovan, discontinued in North America in 2003, reportedly can sell their vans for what they paid for them new, even if they have high mileage, due to surging demand and lack of supply.

Another option for reducing fuel consumption is to put a slide-in camper top onto an existing pick-up truck. The additional weight will decrease fuel efficiency slightly, but you’ll still get much better mileage than with any kind of large RV. Those used to roomier accommodations might opt to tow a “fifth wheel” – a large RV-style trailer with all the amenities – behind a suitable car, pickup, or SUV with a trailer hitch.

But no matter what you do, living on the road is not optimal for your carbon footprint. If the environment is a big concern, giving up the RV – and outfitting your home with energy-efficient appliances – may be a more responsible thing to do.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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