As the economy remains in question, many Americans are seeking less expensive housing solutions. One such solution is an RV or travel trailer. The author of this article is one such alternative home hunter.
Although the cost advantages of a trailer seem obvious (less expensive taxes, insurance, lower maintenance and repair costs), energy costs remain an issue. Many people have warned me not to buy a trailer or face staying cold in the winter. “They’re not insulated!” comes the popular cry.
The fact is that travel trailers and RV’s are insulated- just not as much as a house. The walls are far thinner, and in older models, high-tech materials weren’t available during their manufacture. Neither were dual-paned windows and other energy-saving devices we now take for granted.
For the purposes of this article, the word “trailer” will include any RV: van conversion, bus conversion, all classes of RV’s travel trailers, etc.
There are 20 things you can do to make any trailer energy efficient:
1. Purchase or Make Vent Pillows
Used wisely, vents and windows keep the trailer cool when the weather is just right. However, if the weather is too hot or cold, the vent becomes a source of heat loss/gain. These pillows, stuffed into the vent space, block escaping warm air in the winter and prevent infiltration of hot air in the summer.
Purchase vent pillows from any RV supply store or site, or make your own using these wonderful plans by following this link. Make pillows for windows as well for locations with severe freezing weather.
2. Reflective Covers for Windows and Door Windows:
Many reflective insulation materials exist today with R-Values from 3.0 to 15.0. Reflectix Radiant Barrier, found at most DIY stores, is a flexible barrier designed to reflect heat. It tends to be rather expensive, but is effective.
Cover windows with a sheet, and hold it in place with hook and loop tape. Industrial hook and loop tape with self-adhesive strips is available at most DIY stores.
3. DIY Storm Windows
Make your own storm windows from Plexiglas, Lexan or other plastic sheet. Carefully measure and make a cardboard template for your window. Remove ¼” all the way around your template to allow installation of weather-stripping material.
Cut out your plastic sheet following the manufacturer’s recommendations. Add the weather-stripping around the sheet and secure. Add a plastic knob or tie so removal is easy.
Press in place in the window space. This may not stop condensation, so checking the windows is required.
4. Reduce Air Flow Under the Trailer with a Skirt
Air flows under, around and over all trailers. In mobile homes, skirts are added to prevent airflow underneath, thus providing a measure of insulation. They also provide a measure of stability in high winds. Most travel trailers don’t have this added option.
Follow this link to make your own skirt from plywood.
Check with your RV park manager first, though. Explain you aren’t taking the tires off your trailer- most RV parks discourage that. Build an access panel into your design for tire maintenance as well as showing the park manager they’re still on the trailer.
If the park manager says no, forego the skirt for now or look for a park that will allow it.
5. Replace Single Pane Windows with Double Pane Insulated Windows
Contact the manufacturer of your trailer to see if double- pane insulated windows exist for your trailer. If not, an internet search for manufacturers should yield results. Follow this link to one such site.
Asking questions on RV forums will also yield information on where to find used windows in good shape at a fraction of the cost.
If your trailer has insulated windows, but leaks air, it may need resetting. Follow this link to learn how.
6. Choose an Energy Efficient AC Unit
If your trailer is more than ten years old, it’s time to buy a new AC at the earliest financial opportunity. Today’s units are far more efficient than those ten or more years ago. Many manufacturers are concentrating on energy efficiency instead of looks.
Measure the opening for your current unit and measure the square footage of your trailer. Give this information to the RV supply store, or AC manufacturer. They will help you select the right size and model for your trailer and budget.
7. Reflective RV Sealant/Paint
Made primarily for the metal roofs of mobile homes, it also provides protection for metal roofs on trailers. If your trailer has a rubber or vinyl roof, different products are called for. Contact your trailer’s manufacturer to find out what product is best. If your trailer’s manufacturer is no longer in business, as many vintage trailer companies are, your local RV supply store associates, or RV forums can supply the right information for your trailer.
8. Seal All Air Leaks
This may go without saying, but air leaks do not help the trailer breathe. That’s the job of the vents and windows. Leaks let in moisture directly onto the wood frame of the trailer, which leads to rot. Not something anyone in a trailer or house needs.
Weather-stripping materials abound at DIY stores and online RV supply stores. Foam insulation in spray cans should only be used if the words “minimal expanding” is on the label. You don’t have a lot of space for the foam to expand, and it can blow out your walls, distort your outside walls and cause damage.
To find an air leak, use a candle. Turn off the AC and any fans. Light the candle, and then blow it out. Hold the smoke near the spot you suspect. Hold still and watch the smoke. If the smoke is sucked into the wall or window, you have a leak. If the smoke goes straight up, you don’t. Never hold a lit candle near a curtain- that’s asking for a fire.
9. Insulate the Floors
Often the older trailers just have the flooring material, the undercarriage cover and that’s it.
Carefully remove the undercarriage material- plastic or metal. You’ll replace it. This cover keeps the road gravel and trash from tearing through your flooring.
Insulate with spray foam or solid board insulation, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Be careful around wiring and plumbing.
Carpet with padding also helps to insulate the floor, but unless you’re moving cabinets, working underneath the trailer provides total coverage.
10. Electrical Outlets
In a stick- built home, uninsulated outlets create an air leak the equivalent of having a two-foot by three-foot window open all year long.
Purchase foam outlet insulators at any DIY store. They are easy to cut and customize for your trailer’s outlets. Simply unscrew the outlet cover, pop the insulator on, and replace the cover. Done. It’s the little leaks that add up to energy and money loss.
11. Replace Wall and Ceiling Insulation
Wall insulation is far better than in years past, and more affordable. Your local DIY store carries products with values of R3 to R5 in different thicknesses.
I like the Double Bubble Reflective Radiant Barrier. Temp Shield is one company supplying the product while Eco Foil is the other I’m familiar with. The R-Value ranges from R7 to R15. That’s better than the walls of most stick- built houses today. The cost of the product is pricey, but saving money over time will pay for itself.
Carefully remove the wall panel- you’ll replace them. If they’re damaged or trashed, discard and buy new. Measure the depth of the wall framing. Trailers have wall frames ranging from ½” to 2-by-4 framing. This depth will allow you to choose the best material for your trailer and budget. Stack different thicknesses and R-Values together to fill the space. If spray foam is used for nooks and crannies, allow it to expand fully, and then trim it back with a sharp knife.
I don’t recommend regular house fiber insulation- if it’s compacted, it loses it’s ability to insulate. That’s a waste of your money and time.
12. Cabinets, Shower, Closets, Tub Areas
These areas may sound difficult to insulate, but not so. Use bags filled with foam peanuts to insulate under the tub (if accessible). Use foam board behind the shower walls. Insulate the inside of the plumbing casing outside and inside with radiant barrier insulation. Cut to match the measurements, and then push it in place. Spray adhesive will hold it until you remove it.
If I can’t financially remove and replace the cabinets all at once while insulating the walls, I will cut the radiant barrier to size and place on the floor of each bottom cabinet, and against the walls of the cabinets and closets. This would be temporary, but every little bit helps. Covering it with construction paper or cardboard covered in inexpensive shelf paper will help hide it from view.
13. Awnings and Solar Screening
In an RV park, it’s not always possible to set up your trailer so the hottest part of the sun doesn’t bear down on your door and windows. An awning provides shade for the door and the windows, reducing the load on the air conditioner.
Many RV manufacturers make awnings for their trailers. If your trailer’s manufacturer is no longer in business, RV supply stores and online supply stores offer many different awning solutions.
If a purchased awning isn’t in your budget, follow this link to make your own. Choose UV reflective materials. Using solar screen material to create side panels creates an outdoor room. Solar screening, found at most DIY stores and online, comes in a variety of strengths. Use 60% (filters out 60% of UV rays) for gardening, and 80% or more for your outdoor space.
Make custom solar screens for the outside of your trailer windows.
14. Use Nature to Her Fullest
If possible, choose a space under deciduous trees. The leaves will shade the trailer in the summer and allow the sun to help heat the trailer in winter. Be sure to check the condition of the trees- if they look like they’ll fall down in a strong storm, choose another spot.
If the RV park is near tall buildings or businesses, shade may be provided in these areas as well. Keep in mind that if you are a “long-termer,” meaning you live in the trailer year ‘Ëœround, and want a container garden, take shade amounts into consideration.
15. Save on Propane in the Winter
Electrical costs tend to be cheaper than propane. As a bicycle commuter, I don’t want to haul propane tanks in the bicycle trailer in the middle of February- our coldest month here. Conservation will then become the key of the day, and it isn’t that hard.
I’ve been told and read online that severe cold means cold showers. Apparently, the electric water heater doesn’t do the job well during the winter, so most “trailer-ites” (a term from the movie, “The Long, Long Trailer”); switch their water heater to propane. Now, a six or seven gallon hot shower is nice. At least the water is hot. And it doesn’t take a lot of propane to heat it.
If the stove, furnace, and water heater all run on propane, choose to turn something off or use far less.
I’ll use the propane for hot water and heat the trailer with small electrical heaters. I can also choose an AC unit with a heat strip to replace the propane furnace (assuming my trailer will have one- not all do).
For cooking, I’ll keep the propane stove off, and use an electric toaster oven, crock-pot and an electric skillet I love. I also have a couple of patio burners to use.
See if the trailer’s propane storage area will support a larger bottle. For example, a lot of trailers have two 5-gallon tanks. Those are the size of barbeque tanks. Seventeen-gallon tanks are available, but are taller. If your trailer’s front or storage area won’t support them, buy a spare bottle and conserve instead.
16. Solar Panels Give Free Power
Cut electrical costs with a solar power system. Initially the cost is high, but not as high as ten years ago. Today’s panels and systems are far more efficient.
Generally, your trailer will run off the battery, then switch to park power when the battery is low. The charger will kick in, and recharge the battery at the same time. This reduces energy costs, but with the sun charging the battery, your costs are even lower. The energy savings will pay for the system over time.
One huge benefit- if the park power goes out, you’ll have power. The big motorhomes have generators of their own, but few trailers do.
17. Thermal Curtains
Used both during the summer and winter, these fabrics save money. Follow this link to one such product.
If you can sew, making the curtains is a snap. If not, a friend or seamstress can easily make them for you. The best advantage is getting the color, print and fabric you like the first time, instead of settling for what’s on the rack.
18. Upgrade Your Water Heater
Modern RV water heaters are far more efficient than those manufactured ten or twenty years ago. If your water heater only runs on electricity, upgrade to one that also uses propane. You may need to run propane lines, or have an RV repairman or shop do it for you.
The advantage is hot showers when you want them, even in the midst of winter.
19. Clean and Service the AC Ducts
If your trailer has ducted air conditioning, check the condition of the ducts. Keep them clean with brushes available from any RV dealer. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for checking the ducts for leaks, and fix or have them repaired. If space permits, wrap them with insulation to reduce heat/cooling loss.
20. Insulate Water Lines
Most water lines for trailers isn’t copper tubing, it’s a type of plastic called PEX. Rigid copper pipes don’t do well bouncing down the road. Flexible plastic tubing does. However, they are still vulnerable to the cold like their metal counterparts.
Purchase inexpensive pipe wrap or insulation at your local DIY store and wrap the cold and hot water pipes. Do not wrap pipes near the water heater itself if using the propane setting.
You’ll save money and on propane by getting your hot water faster.
These twenty hints for energy efficiency in a trailer don’t have to be installed all at once. Do one or more as your budget allows. Eventually, you’ll have the most efficient trailer in the park, for a fraction of what your neighbors paid for theirs.
· New model trailers manufactured today have higher energy-efficiency in mind. While the cost (depending on the make and model), remains below that of most stick-built homes, it can remain out of reach for those on hard times. The cost of an older model is often within financial reach.
· Those purchasing an older model trailer should be aware that even though “everything works now,” as with all older homes and cars, things will start to break down, wear out, etc. This is an excellent opportunity to upgrade to higher energy-efficient products and high-tech items.
· Older model trailers often have lower insurance premiums regardless of upgrades. Keep in mind that purchasing a rider to cover belongings and replacement cost (if possible) is a good idea.
· If the trailer is undergoing a total remodel (for example, gutting it and rebuilding from the inside out), this is a perfect time to buy the best insulation affordable.
Source: Staff Article, “Winterizing Our Travel Trailer,” By Example Website, no date given.
Source: Staff Article, “How to Skirt a Travel Trailer,” By Example Website, no date given
Source: Curtis no last name given, “Video: How to Replace RV Windows Yourself,” RV Roadtrips The Fun Times Guide Website, no date given