This article is part of our new Currents series, which explores how rapid advances in technology are changing our lives.
Since they got married in 2016, Brittany Garrett has been separated from her husband Isaac during some of his US Navy assignments. After retiring from the military in February, however, the couple embarked on a long-discussed plan for non-stop togetherness. They sold their Virginia Beach home and headed across America to pull a 22-foot trailer behind a heavy vehicle (first an SUV, then a pickup truck). Ms. Garrett, 26, described the past few months as an opportunity to catch up with her husband for “all the lost time he was gone.”
“We’re in our mid-twenties and have no children,” said Ms. Garrett, who works remotely as a recruiting manager for a childcare agency. “We didn’t need a two-bedroom, three-bathroom house. That was something that made society believe they were needed at this stage of life. So we downsized. “
Even before the Oscar-winning Nomadland film about a traveling RV owner got people talking about life on the street, the Garretts were joining the growing number of RV owners, according to Monika Geraci, a spokeswoman for the RV Industry Association the number in North America is up to 11.2 million. RV ownership has increased 26 percent over the past decade, and new RV sales in March broke all records, with just over 54,000 deliveries to dealers in North America.
Dealers and online marketplaces are also reporting great demand for used mobile homes, trailers, buses and vans. And innovation continues with the new models, says Bob Wheeler, President and CEO of Airstream Inc. His excitement shows when he talks about the next big thing: rollout awnings with embedded solar panels and technology that enables reuse Gray water.
“The pace of change is increasing,” said Wheeler. “All we can do is anticipate and design systems that can be flexible.”
Cary Auburn, a retired Colorado attorney who has been camping since his youth, is amazed at the progress. “The explosion of RV technology in just a few years is almost shocking, especially for those of us who have been driving RVs for so many years.”
Mr Auburn, 77, remembers a time when batteries provided little more than a trickle of electricity and bathing and rinsing water was dumped into the forest as a matter of course.
“That’s how we’ve evolved with coaches,” said Dave Simso, owner of Dave’s RV Center in Danbury, Connecticut. “You’re never anywhere where you don’t have everything you need.”
That could be the case with the ultra-luxury Newmar branded RVs, which start at just under $ 200,000 and can go up to $ 1.3 million. But Mr. Simso’s son, Dave Jr., the company’s general manager, says that even modest-priced RV manufacturers have always tried to keep up with new products – even when “new” meant microwave ovens and DVD players.
A robust aftermarket allows buyers of older models to upgrade their units. The main focus of interest is in three areas; Internet, portable power, and what John Tinghitella, president and owner of RV Designer, which supplies RV Designer replacement hardware, calls the “gross” issue of toilets.
“You never think about it at home,” said Mr. Tinghitella, who is also a member of the RV Industry Association. “We made a flush and we’ve done it all our lives, we have no expectations of seeing it again.”
This is not the case on the go – this is how numerous toilet innovations are created.
Most of the time, the Garretts park their caravans on campsites and hook up their gravity toilet to a sewer. Otherwise a waste holding tank must be emptied at an emptying station. “That’s my job,” said Mr. Garrett; his wife thinks the process is “crass”, like many others.
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The couple are considering switching to a compostable toilet that involves separating liquids from solids. Other options include a cassette toilet, which traps everything in a container that is removed, emptied, and reinserted, and incineration toilets, which incinerate the waste in a metal container just below the seat.
Older RV owners are also looking for sturdy portable power supplies. Many campsites have power outlets at every site. But for “boondocking” – staying in places without electricity – a kind of power supply for light, heat and the charging of electronic devices is required. Gas powered generators can do this, but they cause noise and emissions, making upgrading from older technology batteries to lithium-ion batteries a popular alternative.
Grant Walters, regional sales representative for Pleasure-Way Industries, a Canadian manufacturer of the smallest category of Class B RVs, said his company started installing these fast-charging, long-lasting batteries in 2016.
“The decision was one of the better steps we’ve taken in recent years,” said Walters, allowing owners to use their vans anywhere.
“Class B provides a base camp for backcountry camping,” he said. “It is conducive to people who are actively kayaking, cycling, and mountain biking.”
Karen and Ray Abramson of Westport, Connecticut, bought a lightly used Pleasure-Way RV in 2019 that was already equipped with lithium-ion batteries and solar cells for charging. “We can probably be completely self-sufficient for five days,” Abramson said.
However, the change requires more than replacing old lead-acid batteries with new lithium batteries. Special chargers are recommended for lithium, both for charging with 120-volt AC power and for charging using the vehicle’s alternator, in accordance with guidelines from Seattle-based manufacturer Dakota Lithium.
“Not all RV or trailer on-board chargers are capable of charging a lithium product,” said Jeff Barron, laboratory manager at Interstate Batteries. Then there is the cost. Lithium batteries are four times the price of lead-acid batteries, and charge controllers can cost an additional $ 2,000, Barron said. Dakota Lithium CEO Andrew Jay estimates that a small system would cost around $ 1,500, and the most popular, which includes solar panels, is $ 3,000.
The pandemic is widely viewed as a boost to the current popularity of RVs, but even before the global shutdowns, digital nomads took to the streets and not just young professionals. The Abramsons – he’s a CPA, she’s a tutor – are in their 60s. When they got their RV, they promptly added a second desk behind the driver’s seat so they could both work while driving.
“There are a lot of people who want to keep it simple and escape the complexities of their personal lives, but everyone wants connectivity,” said Wheeler.
Airstream’s high-end campers and trailers, like those of other manufacturers, are equipped with Wi-Fi and cellular antennas, and there are several companies operating in the aftermarket. These antennas amplify reception from a cell tower or WiFi access point, whether it’s a campsite or a local Starbucks. But they can’t improve slow speeds. That’s an infrastructure problem made worse by the “exponential growth” in the number of people taking to the streets expecting home-quality Internet, said Andy Mikesell, who works at Winegard Company’s dealer service that makes and sells RV antennas Dealers and consumers.
“The real trick in this whole thing is getting the different parties to work together, and campsites need to have better networking capabilities and better servers,” he said.
For consumers who are used to using on-demand Internet at home without thinking too much, getting mobile connectivity can be complicated. In 2019, Leigh and Tom Mundhenk of Ocean Park, Maine purchased a new Leisure Travel Van. During their first nine-week getaway, they never quite understood how to use the factory-installed cellular booster as it came with several different data plans.
“There are many different options and we are not at all tech-savvy,” said Ms. Mundhenk. Mr Mundhenk added that the couple are still trying to figure out what kind of plan they would need.
Connectivity frustration is practically universal, said Neil Balthaser, a retired technician who runs Ultramobility, a YouTube channel for RV owners. That’s because mobile internet access relies on cellular services that may be difficult to reach outside the beaten path.
“If you think about it, it’s a gimmick – your trainer won’t get any other WiFi than your cell phone,” he said.
Several different companies offer satellite Internet, but setting up the receiver can be time-consuming. Starlink, Elon Musk’s company, which offers Internet through a number of satellites, is said to make it easier to connect, but is not yet available.
For RVs who feel the technology is either too old, or too new, or too gross, the first four months of Ms. Garrett’s full-time life suggests there are more pros than cons.
“I was surprised that I enjoyed it and it brought me as much peace as it did,” she said from San Diego. “Living easier, that’s the peace I meant. Less stuff, more life. “