Choosing an RV
How I investigated, evaluated, and selected a mobile office motor home.
"How can there possibly so many different makes and models and designs and options in the RV marketplace?" In search of a vehicle that could be both a capable mobile office and a nice place to live on the road, the choices seemed overwhelming. But over time, I learned why there's so much variety, and what makes the most difference. While your needs and considerations might be different, here's some of what I learned in picking out the ideal RV for me.
The term Recreational Vehicle or RV covers a huge range of ways to take yourself and your stuff on the road. So my first task was to narrow my focus.
The photo shows several types of RVs that happened to be near me in an Arizona campground. Top-left and bottom-left are classic travel trailers, which can be towed by most large cars or trucks. Top-center is a Class C motor home built on a truck chassis. Bottom-right is my Class A motor home. Parked in front of it is a Jeep I use for local excursions. Between campgrounds I tow it behind the coach, so it is commonly called a "towed" or "toad" or "dinghy". Not shown is the other common trailer, a fifth-wheeler or "5-er", so-called because it hooks into the rear bed of a specially-equipped truck, which both tows and supports it.
A travel trailer or 5th-wheel might be just what you want, since they cost much less than a motorized RV, you might already have a suitable tow vehicle, you can use the tow vehicle for general driving, and you can separately change your tow vehicle and/or trailer as your needs evolve.
But I need to work on the road, including while rolling down the road (with someone else driving), and it's not legal to be inside a trailer while moving. After some consideration of practical pros and cons, I decided to focus on motor homes.
Motor home types
Motor homes are roughly grouped into three types known as classes. Class A is the boxy bus-type. Class B is usually an RV body built on a van-type chassis. Class C is an RV body on a truck chassis, with the truck cab poking out of the front. Each has its advantages. For instance, a class B might be the lowest cost, though models built on a commercial delivery van chassis can get up there in price. A Class C RV usually provides lots of features for the money, and is a classic "starter" motor home.
The most serious RVers drive class A "coaches", for any number of reasons, including inside space and lifestyle amenities, driving comfort, vehicle chassis design, and the view through the front window. Class A coaches can have gasoline or diesel engines, a crucial choice because of many differences in cost, performance and maintenance.
A gas-powered Class A motor home usually has the engine in the front, providing nice flexibility in floor plans and windows. One negative to a front engine is that there's more engine noise for the driver and front passenger. A rear engine puts the noise behind you, but creates a tighter rear space, which is typically the bedroom area.
Many Class A motor homes are "diesel-pushers," meaning they have a powerful diesel engine in the rear, the same type (and often, brand/model) engine used in 18-wheelers that are on the road constantly. A diesel engine is especially helpful in situations where a gasoline engine loses power due to lower air density, such as at higher mountain elevations and in hot desert areas. Much of my driving is in the western states, so I focused on getting a diesel-pusher RV. Mine has a Cummins 400hp engine.
Picking the "right" motor home length is a huge decision. After not finding the perfect RV -- short when driving but long when living -- I compromised. It's possible to squeeze into an RV that is 20-something feet long, but you'll have to decide if sleeping in the kitchen, or cooking in the bathroom, or whatever tradeoffs are required, is "good enough." I needed space to work and live simultaneously -- I'd waste too much time switching back and forth, so that meant I needed to go "long" -- but how long?
To comply with most state laws, the maximum length of an RV is 45 feet. But many states require a special driver's license for a vehicle 40 feet or longer. While several RV dealers told me "don't worry about that", I asked some California Highway Patrol officers and they told me they DO check length vs. license, "bumper to bumper with a tape measure". The "Class B" driver's license seemed like a hassle, expensive to get and keep -- frequent medical examinations, for instance. So I narrowed my search to motor homes shorter than 40 feet.
One possible confusion to avoid: RV models are often identified by numbers that imply the length. Some brands use numbers that make the RV seem longer than it really is, but others use numbers that imply it is shorter than might be measured by a police officer "bumper to bumper." Check the real specifications and even measure it yourself. The RV I bought is a Monaco Diplomat 38PDQ that is really just shy of 39 feet. The so-called "40" models that I liked were really about 41 feet long.
Some people like to go short, because only the shortest motor homes can get into certain campsites, mainly older sites found in national, state and county parks. But the short length required -- sometimes 25 feet or less -- makes for dramatically different motor home experience. So, it's a difficult but essential question to address. I chose a longer coach, knowing I can stay at modern RV parks and visit the older sites in the Jeep I tow behind me.
There isn't much reason to consider width. The maximum seems to be 102 inches, so 8.5 feet is the width of every class A and class C RV I looked at. Even many class B models, narrow in the front, had a wide "house" on the back.
Of course, the floor plan matters most, and what's best depends on your needs. I went for Monaco floor plan 38PDQ, which has a relatively small and tight bedroom and bath, with most interior space in the front office/living area.
When evaluating different RVs, perhaps the most difficult aspect is the weight it can carry, and how that weight must be distributed. The vehicle's chassis design, tires, and tire pressure determine the overall weight it can carry. The location and weight of the RV's fixed elements -- engine, tanks for fuel, water, etc, and furnishing and fixtures inside the RV -- determine how much weight it already has. What's left is the weight-carrying capacity and positions YOU can use.
It's tricky because it isn't alway what you want or expect. For instance, Class A diesel-pushers have the heavy engine in the rear, the same location as the bedroom, which often has several closets and cupboards, and storage bays on the outside of the coach. The temptation is to pack them with stuff, but that can quickly overload the rear tires. The RV's manual typically has complex formulas and charts to determine how to set the tire pressure and load, and a statement that you must get the RV weighed at each wheel to be sure what you're doing.
The best practice is to load heavier things toward the opposite end from the engine. But that's not always easy or possible, and you can't make any informed decision until you know your RV's weight and load characteristics. So get it weighed, the load carefully.
There's a good market in used RVs. You can find older coaches from quality manufacturers with wonderful features at terrific prices.
But buying new or newer lets you consider a recent evolution in design: inside space that slides out and/or pops up. This can make a dramatic difference in usable inside space, which might not matter if you just want an RV that is a motel room on wheels. But if you are going to spend lots of time inside, as I am, working, expandable rooms are likely to be a must-have.
Some motor homes sport "full length" slides that push out almost the entire side of the coach, a marvel of engineering. At the really high end, there are coaches that have a second story that rises up from the roof. RV maker Country Coach has a Veranda line with pop-out decks.
Keep in mind three things about slide outs. They add to the purchase price and weight of the motor home; weight is also a cost because it affects fuel efficiency. They are mechanical so likely to develop a problem someday. And they can only be opened while parked with sufficient outside space.
Be sure to evaluate how well the interior works with the slides in. My coach has 4 slide-outs. The front room is cozy but usable on the road, but when the two slides are extended it becomes almost three feet wider, which feels huge. The bedroom with slides in is almost-unusable -- some cabinets blocked and closet access requires crawling over the bed. But with the slides out it's usable if still tight. I preferred more space in the front, but some people choose motor homes with large bedrooms,
Kitchen, bath, bed
I lump these together because, for me, they just have to be functional, nothing more. I don't cook anything complex, so the microwave/convection oven is plenty. My coach's three burner stove has yet to be used. Other than for basic body maintenance the "bathroom" isn't an area I visit, but you should make sure the toilet and shower meet your needs. At the other extreme, some longer coaches have a second "master" bathroom, with a tub.
The bedroom in a motor home is primarily a place to sleep, so pay attention to the bed's size and comfort. the mattress might be called "queen" but chances are it's not the same you'd have at home. Otherwise, the bedroom is mostly a place to store and change clothes, so reasonable closets and storage are useful. However, weight matters, especially in the rear where the bedroom is, so you can't always carry as much as you might think.
Electricity on the road
When buying a vehicle, its electrical systems are not usually a big factor, or any factor at all. But a motor home is both vehicle and home, and like any home, electricity is essential. Think about all the electrical devices you use -- you'll have many of them in your RV, including kitchen appliances, audio and video systems, bathroom gadgets, lights, heat, and power for your laptop computer. When evaluating RVs, pay close attention to available electric systems compared to what you might need.
There are actually several motor home electrical systems and subsystems. The first division is between vehicle and house electricity.
The vehicle electrical system has a battery and alternator, just like a car, only usually a motor home has multiple vehicle batteries to provide more current. This system starts the engine, and runs the gauges, headlights, "car" radio and other vehicle devices.
The house electrical system is where there can be major options. The house system consists of one or more "house" batteries, often the same type used in electric golf carts. These batteries output 12 volts DC, and many components in the house part of the motor home use 12 volts, typically certain lights, water pump and heater, and certain motors.
The RV might also have an inverter, which converts 12 volts DC into 117 volts AC to run devices like microwave, refrigerator, TV, and some lights. The challenge is that the house batter system has limited power and can't provide much 117 volt AC for very long.
The best way to get power to an RV is simply to plug it in to "shore power". A motor home can be connected to a standard 117 volt AC outlet, or better, to a special higher voltage/current outlet. A standard 117 volt circuit, such as commonly available in a home, can provide 15 to 20 amps total to everything connected to it. That might be fine for an area of a house, which usually has several 20 amp circuits. But it is barely enough to power up a motor home's "house" and usually not enough to simultaneously run everything in the motor home. Much better is to connect the RV to a 30 amp or 50 amp circuit that is typically provided in RV camping spots.
Because shore power isn't always available, and inverter power is too limited, many RVs, especially larger motor homes, also have a generator. This device is a small engine, of the same type as the RV vehicle so it can use the same fuel, that when running generates electricity. Generators can be small, just enough to charge up dead batteries and run a few lights. Or they can be large enough to provide as much current as a the RV needs. My motor home has an 8,000 watts generator, which theoretically provides 68 amps at 117 volts. More realistically it provides the same 50 amps I'd get from a maximum-capacity shore power connection. The trade-off is, the generator engine uses my coach's diesel fuel, about 1/2 gallon an hour. Still, having a generator is essential, in situations where I don't have shore power, and also for situations where I need to charge the motor home's batteries. So pay attention to the electrical systems and capacities of any RV you are considering.
Style vs. function
Probably the silliest aspect of motor homes is their decor. Many brands and models are obsessed with style in woodwork, cabinetry, upholstery, carpet, wall treatments, even ceiling decoration. That's wonderful for "fine" living, except weight matters. Motor homes would be more fuel-efficient if they weighed less, and swapping heavy home-style interiors for lighter but starker airplane-style interiors -- common in European RVs -- could make a big difference. I expect this to happen in the U.S., eventually.
I know, gas and diesel cost more than ever. So, all modes of powered transportation cost more. There's no escape, short of staying home. But owning and driving an RV isn't a question of cost-per-mile, it's a matter of living your life -- or not. In another article I address the cost issue, but unless you are determined or forced to not spend your money on travel, adventure and enjoyment, an RV is still a wonderful way to go.
Hit the road, Jack
I've touched on some key areas to consider when looking for a motor home, but there's plenty more to it. In other articles we consider different aspects, but there's no substitute for kicking the tires. If you live where there are major dealers for major brands, visit them all, visit every coach they sell, and go back multiple times. Don't be pressured or jump at a "deal" until you know exactly which coach you want.
Buying an RV is a big decision. But if you have a sense of adventure, a desire to explore, and a willingness to find your own fun, RVing might be just what you need. Do it!