Category: Water and Trash

The average house weighs 500,000 pounds. Every ounce of it is ripped from the earth by carbon belching machines; it’s hauled around the country by more carbon belching machines and then it’s processed into the material for the house. Finally, it’s transported to your house-lot, which was also clear-cut. By living in a van, one less house needs to be built, allowing all 500,000 pounds to stay in the earth and none of that carbon is belched into the air. That makes you an environmental superstar!

After last weeks negative post it’s important that I show the flip side of the coin which is that by living mobile we not only make ourselves much happier, more contented and peaceful people, we also drastically reduce the damage we’re doing to the earth .  Your first reaction is probably that there’s no way that can be true and you’d like proof of it. That’s reasonable, and in this post I’ll try to convince you. First, let me define my terms.

  • I’m using vandwelling as a generic term to mean living full-time in a car van or small RV. Granted, the bigger the vehicle you live in the more harmful it is to the Earth, but even a bigger RV will still be much less harmful and greener than the typical house.
  • I’m assuming that the vehicle is not parked in an RV park, but is boondocking (dry-camping without hook-ups) either on city streets or public land like BLM deserts or National Forest. For the last 13 years I’ve lived off-grid in a vehicle of some kind and only stayed in a paid campground four times, and even then only because I was at a place where I had no other choice and I didn’t have hookups.

This is going to be a two parts series, in the first one I’m going to talk about general ways our lifestyles are much greener than living in a house and then in the second part I’ll talk about how boondocking allows us to be totally off-grid and drastically reduce our carbon footprint. We’ll look at specific examples and use a carbon calculator to compare vandwelling to house dwelling. Those hard numbers will be my proof that vandwelling is greener. In that post I’ll address the specific question of burning extra gas in our vans and RVs.

General ways vandwellers are greener:

By getting double use out of a motor vehicle no home has to be built for us. Because nearly all of us own a motor vehicle of some kind, you are just adding functionality to an existing product that was already made anyway.  We don’t need to manufacture a new product, we are just re-purposing an existing one. By living in a vehicle, no home has to built for us which by itself is fantastically good for the planet in these ways:

  • No land was cleared to build a home for me. Instead of leveling 1/8th 1/4 or  1/2 an acre (or more) of land, its left in pristine, natural condition. The trees and natural vegetation absorb carbon and the animals thrive in it.
  • No streets were built for the subdivision because it wasn’t built. No sewer lines or power lines were laid because there is no house!
  • No trees were cut down for the lumber to build me a house.  Instead, they continue growing and absorbing carbon.
  • No sheet-rock or cement was produced for my house. Both of which are carbon intensive to produce and transport. An amazing total of 5% of the countries air pollution comes from making cement and then it destroys everything natural whereever you pour it.
  • No nails, screws, siding, roofing, copper wiring or copper pipes were mined or manufactured for my house, because I don’t have a house!
  • No appliances were built for my non-existent house.
  • No carbon was burned to log or mine the huge amount of items used to build a normal house. No carbon was burned to transport the materials for my house or to build the things that go into the non-existent home of Bob Wells 000 Main Street, Nowhere USA.

No forest were clear-cut to get the lumber for my house and no land was cleared to make the lot to hold my house. Why? Because I don’t live in a house!!

Instead, my cargo van home was built in 2001 by Chevrolet and sold to a plumbing company in Los Angeles, CA, who used it in their plumbing business for 11 years. In 2012, I bought it and turned it into my home. I’m sure I used less than 100 pound worth of material to convert it because it already came with shelves installed. All I had to do was build a bed. As far as I’m concerned, that 100 pounds is all that counts toward my house, but lets be generous and say the whole van had to be created to be nothing but a house. It weighs maybe, 7000 pounds.

I also live in a 6×10 cargo trailer which I bought new to be my tow-able winter home. It weighs 1300 pounds and I added about 400 pounds of plywood, wood, screws and insulation, so lets round it off to 700 pounds and say it weighs a total of 2000 pounds. That means my total home (van and trailer) weighs 9000 pounds.

There were 9000 pounds worth of materials extracted from the earth to build my mobile house. Then it had to be transported and manufactured into all of it’s many parts.   How does that compare to the average American home?

The average American home weighs about 500,000 pounds.  Every ounce of those materials came from the earth and had to be mined, drilled for or cut down, then transported and manufactured. Finally they are all brought to the job site and built.

Simply by preventing the construction of one more home, I’ve prevented the environmental damage of the production and transportation of 490,000 pounds of material! And that doesn’t include the fact that I prevented the clearing of a lot of land for the home itself, the power, sewer and water lines for that house and the streets that go to it.

In this one act I’ve done so much good for the environment that it will offset every other thing I do for the rest of my life! But,that’s not an excuse to abuse the earth,  I still try to live as green as I can every day!

I am an environmental champion, a hero of the earth!! If you are a full-time vandweller or RVer, so are you!

No cement was mined for the foundation of my house at 000 Main Street, Nowhere USA, because it doesn’t exist.

Our homes are tiny, so they are greener to live in.

I live in a 6×10 converted cargo trailer which is 60 square feet and it’s towed by an extended van. I know numerous people who live in mini-vans which are even smaller, about 50 square feet. An extended van or Class B is around 72 square feet, a 24-foot Class Cs  has a whopping 150 square feet. Compare those to the median home in America which was 2306 square feet in 2012.  It’s obvious that  living in 60 square feet is going to be tremendously greener than living in 2306 square feet because there is less room to light, heat, cool, maintain and fill with stuff.

No coal was mined to power anything of mine. The power for for all of my things was pollution-free from the sun.

We create our own electricity from solar panels or our alternators. By charging deep-cycle batteries from the vehicle alternator, solar panels, or generators, no coal, natural gas or propane is being burned so I can have power.  Because we have a limited supply of power, we are very conservative with our use of it and rarely wasteful.   For example, I use one LED light for lighting and only use it when totally necessary. How many light bulbs are in your house and how often are they on with no one in the room?

We are very frugal with water. Most of us don’t have water tanks so we fill small water jugs from city taps. Urban van dwellers mostly use public bathrooms and rural vandwellers mostly use porta-pottys of some kind. My guess is that the average vandweller uses 2 gallons of water a day and the average boondocking RVer uses 6 gallons a day. Compare that to the average American who is using 80-100 gallons of water per day.

Very few of us have any kind of heating or air conditioning. Many of us are snowbirds, moving with the seasons, so we avoid extremes of heat and cold. If we do need heat, we use something like a Mr. Buddy Portable Propane Heater. But even then our living space is so small that we can’t leave it on very long before the van is too hot and w turn it off. So even if we use a heater, we use very little propane. It’s common to use only a Coleman propane stove to cook on and even for comfort heat. Rarely do we use over one or two gallons a month (RVers may use quite a bit more, but still much less than any house). When it’s hot, small fans work really well to cool us off. The bottom line is that for the most part we use very few fossil fuels except for gas for our vehicles.

We don’t over-consume: When your home is as small as ours is, you simply can’t buy a lot of stuff—there isn’t room. The essentials of living usually take up all the space we have so we are forced to stop buying more. Generally, we all reach the point where if something new is going to come in, something old is going to have to go out: One-in, One-out. Everything we don’t buy is another product that doesn’t have to be produced and transported with packaging that doesn’t have to be thrown in to the landfill.

We don’t have lawns. At first that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but a recent NASA study says otherwise simply because of the huge amount of it.  There is three times more land dedicated to lawns than to corn in the USA. Lawns are the single largest crop in the country and they have a big impact.

  • First, the average person in America uses 200 gallons of water per day to water their lawns in a time when water shortages are becoming common.
  • Second, the EPA says lawn mowers produce 5% of all air pollution in the country. Running your lawn mower for one hour is worse than running your car for eleven hours.
  • Third, every year we spill 17 million gallons of gas while refilling our lawn mowers. That’s more than the Exxon Valdez dumped into the Gulf of Alaska.
  • Finally, the large quantity of fertilizers and pesticides used on lawns means some percentage of it must be washed off and end up in the wastewater system where it works it’s way into the oceans, doing even more harm to it.

We aren’t wasteful: When it’s a hassle to get the basics of life, you value them and don’t waste them. When the sun goes down, and you are done driving for the day, all the electricity you have left is what’s inside your battery, so you are very frugal with it. I usually carry 2-4 gallons of water so I am equally careful with it. I use a quart spray bottle for most cleaning, baby wipes and wash clothes to shower, and almost never have hot water. Compare all that with the average home.

  • Who gives a thought when turning on a light? There is an unlimited amount of power, so who cares, leave them all on. Maybe once a month when you pay the electric bill you think about it, but probably never again.
  • Same with water, in most of the country it’s unlimited with no restrictions, so you just use all you want. There are 50-gallons of it in the hot water heater and if that isn’t enough, you might need to get a bigger one. Leave the water running for 5 minutes until the hot water gets there? No big deal!
  • No way are you going to be hot or cold in your own home! You just turn the thermostat up for heat and down for air conditioning. There is an unlimited supply, so why be uncomfortable?

When we  look at the carbon footprint comparisons in my next post, this difference in attitude explains why vandwelling is so much lower.

Even if we wanted to, vandwellers just can't have this much crap!

Even if we wanted to, vandwellers just can’t have this much crap!

We don’t have luxuries:  Nature may abhor a vacuum, but not nearly as much as the average American!! Every empty space in their huge house must be filled! They get caught up in our consumer society and buy everything they might possibly want–even if they have to get it all on credit and work two jobs to pay for it.

  • There may be big-screen TVs in nearly every room along with powerful hi-fi stereos.
  • They have every conceivable kitchen gadget and appliance.
  • The walls can’t be bare so we decorate them with all kinds of pretty things.
  • We can’t sit on the floor or even a camping chair, so we fill the home with all kinds of furniture.
  • It goes without saying that we must be as pretty as possible and smell great, so we fill the bathroom with every kind of health and beauty product, each one guaranteed to make us “fabulous” no matter how toxic they are, how many animals were harmed or how much damage they do to the earth.
  • And then there is the outside of the house. What good is an empty garage, so we fill it with tools and equipment. Very often it is so full of stuff that they can’t even fit the car in.

Worst of all, the house is never big enough, so we are constantly working towards getting an ever-bigger house and until then we rent a storage space to hold all the crap we had to have but will never use again.

None of this applies to vandwellers. Nearly everything in our tiny homes is essential, with maybe a very few nice or sentimental things thrown in.


So those are just general ways vandwelling is drastically greener than living in a house and much less damaging to the environment. In my next post we’ll concentrate on comparing the carbon footprints of vandwellers and house dwellers and specifically answer the myth that by living mobile we burn so much more gas that it offsets the environmental advantages of living in a van.

If you are interested in learning more about carbon footprints, a book I highly recommend is How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything   He does a remarkable job of explaining the carbon cycle of consumerism and comparing different items so you can make wiser choices. Get it from Amazon here:

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