Friday, June 16, 2017

Eco RV-ing: Can Recreational Vehicles Be Green?

According to the 2017 North American Camping Report conducted by Kampgrounds of America (KOA), 75 million American households are active campers, and there is an increased percentage of American campers who are younger and more diverse.  An older 2011 University of Michigan study identified 8.9 million American households as Recreational Vehicle owners, with the largest growing age group of RV owners being the 35 to 54 age group who now own more RVs than any other age group.  The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates that 8% to 9% of American households own an RV – with around 9 million RVs on the road in 2016 (and steadily growing). 
With the increase in the percentage of younger campers, an additional surging trend that can currently be seen in the RV industry is the amount of owners and consumers who are searching for, and requesting information on “green RVs.”  Most people assume that given the large, boxy nature of these homes on wheels, that they certainly can’t be green or environmentally sensitive.  However, for the past several years, RV shoppers have seen the emergence of a program called Certified Green by TRA Certification, Inc.  If you’ve been on an RV lot lately, you’ve likely seen the Certified Green stickers or signage on some models.  Certified Green is a third party inspection program that evaluates RVs in terms of Resource Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, and Indoor Air Quality. 

I recently contacted Mandy Leazenby, a representative from TRA Certifications to discuss exactly what they do and what their Certified Green label means.

KN: How old is TRA Certification, Inc (TRA)?  When was it founded or when did they start doing certifications?
ML: TRA Certification was founded in 1992.  We are 15 years old.
KN:  What about the parent company, T.R. Arnold & Associates?  How old are they and what do they do?
ML: Our parent company was founded in 1968.  They are 49 years old.   They have been in the third party certification and inspection business focused on building code compliance, building materials, energy efficiency, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and fire safety.  They have a Building Code Regulatory focus.
KN: What served as the catalyst for the creation of Certified Green?  Was there a certain group or market segment that pushed for eco-conscious RVs or was it conceived by one particular person? (Essentially, what’s the history of the TRA?)
ML: This focus is natural for all of the folks here at TRA.  We have been evaluating the code compliance of insulation and energy requirements for many years.  It is a natural evolution for us.  As the Building Codes became more demanding for efficiency, our interests have grown and we’ve become focused in that direction.
KN: Does TRA receive feedback mostly from consumers or manufacturers or another stakeholder?  In what ways?  How is that feedback incorporated into what TRA does?
ML: Today, the major feedback comes from the RV manufacturers and consumers.  We get a lot of calls from RV “Users” about their interest in the Green Ratings their units have.  Also, consumers use our rating to make their decisions regarding which RVs to purchase.  We also receive a lot of consumer calls regarding indoor air quality.  That seems to be the most important “green” quality of an RV.
KN:  Are there certain areas of the country where the demand for TRA Certified RVs is higher?  If so, where?
ML: No, the demand is universal.  We are getting a lot of feedback from younger buyers who are interested in the environment.  Older buyers are more interested in the indoor air quality of their units.  In fact, most consumer calls we receive are in regards to indoor air quality.  This is an opportunity for us and for the industry to pay even more attention to what goes into an RV.
KN:  TRA certification guidelines look familiar – similar to LEED Guidelines.  Is TRA affiliated in any way with the US GBC / LEED or did the founders of TRA use LEED as inspiration for the TRA guidelines?
ML:  Certainly the USGBC work and the LEED efforts have been a good guide.  We are involved with various venues such as the RESNET Programs for energy ratings of new homes.  Some of this effort also involves modular homes and manufactured (mobile) homes.
KN:  What’s in the future for TRA?  What can we expect in the RV industry in terms of eco-friendly coaches?
ML:  Our program naturally evolves as does the industry.  We plan on introducing an indoor air quality program that is separate from the “green” program but can be complimentary.  We have the equipment to test sample units at either the manufacturer or the dealer location
KN:  Are more manufacturers looking to get TRA Certification?
ML:  Absolutely!!  They are knocking our door down !!  Really, we think there is a growing demand once the marketing people take notice.  We are certifying new companies on a regular basis.  We are also adding new models for some manufacturers who are already under our program.  More and more new RV manufacturers, especially ones that produce “tiny houses” and lightweight towables are interested in how they perform in our green program.
KN:  Is there any plan for TRA Certification to address fuel economy of motorhome RVs? What about wind-tunnel testing for aerodynamic information/ratings – have they considered that type of testing?
ML:  These issues have been considered but they are very complex and variable from one model or configuration to another.  Analysis is very detailed and costly.

While my conversation with Mandy was interesting, I really wanted to find some insight about how eco-friendly RVs can be, from people who had first hand information.  So once again, I sought out the Wynns.  Nikki and Jason Wynn, the RVing and sailing couple of internet and video-blogging fame (found here at Gone With the Wynns) did a piece titled “Can an RV Be Green or Eco-Friendly” In that article, they made several key points:
·        Especially for people who are living in an RV full time – it’s very eco-friendly.  Consider the much smaller square footage for heating and cooling compared to a full size apartment or home!  Resource consumption will be much less.
·        If you tow an eco-friendly car and drive it when your RV is parked, you can offset the lower fuel economy you get in the RV when traveling between destinations.
·        Boondocking or dry-camping allows you to conserve even more resources.  Parking in shady sites that don’t require you to run the AC can go a long way in reducing resource consumption.
The article also gives several tips on how to make an existing RV more eco-friendly, so be sure to check it out!  They also have a complete Green RV series of articles and videos on various eco-RV-ing topics – including installing a composting toilet in an RV.  Imagine no more black tank dumping!
The website also offers a few ideas about why RV vacations are greener than other types of vacations.  Consider the fuel and resource consumption of air travel and staying in hotels in comparison to an RV trip.  In addition, advancements in manufacturing mean that RVs are smaller, lighter, tighter, more aerodynamic, and use green materials such as textiles and other interior components that contribute to improved indoor air quality.  New diesel chassis also increase fuel economy so much so, that some smaller motorhomes attain fuel economy that almost reaches that of typical SUVs.  Additional tips for “going green” on your next RV trip can also be found on the website.
The bottom line is that many RV owners and consumers are seeking out ways to be more eco-conscious in their RVing lifestyle – whether it’s full-time living or just for occasional recreation.  Manufacturers are starting to come around, and are even offering RVs with solar panels or that are prepped for solar.  Others have tankless or on-demand water heaters, and are increasing the energy efficiency of the outer walls through increased insulation and dual pane windows.  Manufacturers are now beginning to see the value in offering eco-friendly RVs and partaking in third party green certification programs to help achieve that goal.  We need more RV designers and builders to continue to offer these options and even develop new green RV features for buyers who demand them.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Green Towers to Address Air Pollution in China

I’m sure most people can recall the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China, but beyond Michael Phelps’ historic performance in the aquatic center, there is another significant thing I remember about those games.  I remember in the months and weeks leading up to the games, there was international concern over the air quality in and around Beijing.  The evening news featured videos showing smog and haze engulfing the major Chinese cities – especially Beijing – and showed people wearing masks over their mouths and noses as they walked their daily commute.  With China’s huge population, it is a country that has long been concerned with issues of sustainability, conservation, energy efficiency, and pollution.  As early as the mid-1990’s the Chinese government was working with architects and urban planners to develop a strategy for sustainable growth.  Despite previous failed projects (like this one), leaders in China continue to seek out the world’s brightest design-minds and sustainability experts to address the country’s growth, conservation, and sustainability issues.
Malmö, Sweden and Turning Torso building.  Photo – Krista Nutter 2010
A decade after the first prominent eco-village plans for China’s rural countryside, international architects are looking back into cities to implement the next “eco-revolution.”  Sustainable urban revitalization projects from the United States (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati), Brazil, Sweden, and China have been featured in recent news. (Zajechowski, 2016)  In fact, I’ve experienced the urban revitalization in coastal Sweden’s city of Malmö firsthand – walking through parks of native plants and visiting buildings with green roofs and living walls.  I also visited an eco-village neighborhood there in the shadow of Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso high-rise residential building.  Many sustainability experts feel that to fully address global sustainability issues, we cannot ignore urban cities.

Figure 1

It appears that China’s next attempt at sustainable greatness has them pairing up with Italian architect and urban planner, Stefano Boeri.  Boeri is the creator of the “vertical forest” concept of urban eco-design, first unveiled in Milan, Italy (Frearson 2014) and now underway in Nanjing, China (Mairs 2017).  Boeri’s vertical forest designs mix high-density, multi-unit residential or mixed-use designs with bio-habitat installations featuring trees, shrubs, and plants on the terraces and façades of the buildings.  The plantings will then remove dust, particulates, and carbon dioxide from the air while providing oxygen to “de-pollute” the cities.  Visually, the towers provide interesting vertical green-space to the cityscape.  The affect is not unlike the many urban living walls that can be found in many cities across the United States, like this one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Boeri’s vertical forests increase biodiversity in urban areas – drawing a variety of birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to the area.  This is good news for urban gardeners.  The strategy also creates shaded, cooler and acoustically quieter interior spaces.  The designs were created with the help of a botanist and horticultural experts to assure that the correct selection of trees and plants were made for each different façade of the building.  Boeri’s Milan vertical forest project has received numerous awards, despite skeptics of the overall sustainability of the project due to increased structural requirements.  (A true assessment of the project’s success from the standpoint of a resident post-occupancy evaluation would be valuable; however one could not be located.) 

In terms of indoor air quality, I can’t help but think back to a product I ran into a few years ago.  Back in 2014, I wrote an article on a new product in development – a hardwood flooring product that purified the air.  Lauzon Pure Genius flooring is still available overseas, but I’ve yet to be able to find it here in the U.S.  It seems to be the perfect companion to the vertical forest and living wall projects happening across the world!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Light Pollution Matters

Of all the “green” initiatives, issues, or topics that I’ve done presentations on or spoken about, the one that receives more questions regarding its level of impact is light pollution.  For the past several years, I have lectured on sustainable construction and techniques to make buildings more kind to the environment and ecosystems in which they reside.  Along with the “big three” topics of energy efficiency, water efficiency, and indoor air quality, I also discuss things like material resources, waste management, and rainwater runoff mitigation.  However one topic that always raises eyebrows is light pollution. 
When I introduce the topic, I can almost see people thinking, “Light Pollution?  How can light be pollution?  These tree-huggers are just making stuff up now, right?  We have so many other types of pollution to worry about, why on earth would we waste our time worrying about light pollution.”  Interestingly, I always considered light pollution more of an annoyance or inconvenience than really an environmental issue.  I knew that scientists who study the sky were concerned about light pollution, and that light pollution creates a certain difficulty for them in their observation, but I really didn’t understand how that impacted the environment in the big picture. 
Then one summer, my family took a month-long trip to the western USA.  We camped in 14 National Parks – which by the way are pretty big on protecting dark skies and educating people about light pollution.  Most nights in National Park campgrounds, rangers host evening programs or presentations, and we happened to attend one on Light Pollution followed by an astronomy session with high powered telescopes in one of the darkest sky areas of the country (Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah).  During the light pollution program, we learned most of what I already knew about down-facing light fixtures, colored light sources, and ways to control outdoor light pollution to mitigate the effects of your outdoor lighting on your neighbor’s property.  However one part of the presentation focused on why addressing light pollution is important, and it was fascinating. 
You see, addressing light pollution is more than just cutting down the light you send across your property line into your neighbor’s yard because “he likes it dark since he’s a star-gazer.”  Addressing light pollution is actually quite critical in addressing environmental issues that impact local ecosystems, the food web, and other interrelated issues.  Insects and animals have developed inherent behaviors over thousands of years, including migration, mating, feeding, and navigating their surroundings.  These behaviors in some species require darkness without artificial illumination and can be negatively impacted by light pollution. 
Here’s an example:  In the light pollution presentation we saw at Bryce Canyon, we learned about a study scientists had done on the effect of light pollution on a certain frog population.  In areas not affected by light pollution, the particular species of frogs being studied were observed to feed less during times of the full moon (which causes greater illumination in the frogs’ environment).  However, when the moonlight was reduced through the natural moon phases or cloud-cover, frogs returned to feeding normally.  The same species of frog was then observed in an area thought to be affected by light pollution.  Scientists observed that not only did the frogs refrain from night feeding during the full moon, but they also refrained or significantly decreased their feeding in light polluted areas of their environment anytime the light pollution was present.  This caused adult frogs from this area to be smaller, less-nourished, and also for mating activities to decrease thus causing overall population numbers to decline.  This essentially affected every other species above them in the food web.  In addition, populations of insects that the frogs feed on – including mosquitoes – significantly increased in the area, which, of course, could lead to a long list of other impactful issues.

To learn more about light pollution, you can visit the Dark Sky website at  Here’s a one-minute video clip about what you can do to address light pollution in your community – you can start by turning off outdoor lights at night. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Throwback Thursday - What's in a Flush?

So over the past weekend I was visiting a school of design and reviewing them for CIDA (Council for Interior Design Accreditation).  I was talking with my colleagues on the visiting team and some of the faculty members at the school, and we were discussing my home and some of the things we went through in building such a "different" home.  I was recalling this story from 2006, so I thought I would share it again with my readers today . . .

Dual Flush toilets are everywhere now!  We have 3 of these:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

This or that? Clothes Dryers, Cool Roofs, and Christmas Trees

You know that guy who writes the books and articles, "Eat This, Not That"?  Well, here's my own little take on that theme - only instead of food, I'll be talking about green living this and that.

First, here's one from me personally.  I often have people ask me the question - Which Christmas Tree is Greener - Artificial or Real?  (I know, I hate talking about Christmas in March, but it's something worth thinking on a while - especially if you are thinking of making a change in your normal choice in this matter!  Think about it for a few months before you really have to decide!)  Of course the GREENEST choice is no tree at all, and I may get there someday, but not while my kids are still living at home.  For me, it's just too much tradition and too many memories to give up.  We make a big deal of getting our tree and decorating our tree together as a family, so I'm sorry, but my environmental legacy will just have to be tainted a bit.

There are people who are on both sides of this argument, but my research leads me to give a slight edge to the "cut-your-own" real tree.  Notice that I didn't say a real tree that was pre-cut from one of those tree lots - because who knows when that tree was cut and how long it's been on a truck, or where it came from?  I prefer the cut-your-own tree, because then you know exactly when it was cut, how far it traveled, and so on.  Cut-your-own trees last longer and stay healthier than pre-cut trees.  The trees farms are managed responsibly and the trees provide habitat and eco-benefits for the years that they are growing.  And because they are newly cut, the fire hazard is greatly reduced with a cut-your-own tree.  In fact, I would estimate that the cut your own tree that's watered regularly is the safest kind of tree.  I posed this question to my 10 year old and I think we've got a science fair project in the works to test the flammability of different types of Christmas trees, including artificial trees.  (Which I am NOT a fan of at all.  Any reason that a real tree could catch on fire is just as much of a reason that an artificial tree will catch on fire, and the toxic fumes created when all of that plastic goes up in flames severely decreases your chances of making it out because you'll be overcome by the fumes.  That's exactly the reason why building codes require plastic products like foam insulation to be protected with a fire barrier like gypsum board / drywall.)  There are tons of articles on the Internet about this debate - with conclusions on both sides - so do your own research and make the best choice for you.  Just remember that any live tree needs to be kept watered - check it daily -  and never leave lights on unattended when you are away or sleeping! (this is true for artificial trees too!)  There are lots of eco-friendly ways to get rid of your cut tree when you are finished with it - a quick search and you'll be presented with more ideas than you can imagine.  (who knew it could become an underwater fish habitat in a pond?)

Some other topics you might be interested in:

This or That - Clothes Dryers on Low for an extended time or High for a shorter time?  (Mr. Green answers that one here.)

This or That - a Vegetated / Green Roof or a Solar Reflective White Roof?  (Mr. Green answers that one here.)  Enjoy!