November 12th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Life aboard the Libertalia Remembered, #1: What even IS a Class A RV?

It's not like it's any kind of an anniversary. But over the last year, I've made several references to the two years I spent living in a 1989 Pace Arrow model 37J class A motor home, traveling around the country to Pagan festivals and science fiction conventions and selling gizmos to the attendees for a living. Checking back over my notes from back then, I see that I launched the Libertalia (or, affectionately, "the Libby") on January 3rd, 1998 and sold its wreckage to a salvage dealer on January 10th, 2000. And every time that I've mentioned how much I miss that life, and how just incredibly dirt cheap a life it was to live, somebody asks me how it could possibly be cheaper than living in a dirt-cheap apartment with no real expenses. Even more often than that, I get asked to explain just exactly what it was like to live that life, by people who'd like to imagine it better. So here goes.

But before I explain what my days and nights were like, my working days and my days off, it will go a lot smoother and with fewer interruptions if I get a bunch of the basic technical explanations out of the way before I start. Because unless you have one in the family, you probably have at most the vaguest and foggiest idea of what the heck is inside one of those gigantic land yachts, what it can do, and how it works. So let me explain to you the basic technical design of a class A motorhome, and in particular the technical overview of my ancient Pace Arrow 37J. And let me start by explaining the term "class A" itself. It's not a reference to quality, for all that Pace Arrow at least used to be the premium brand in high end motorhomes. It's a generic type of vehicle. Self-contained all-in-one motorhomes are categorized based on the type of chassis that the vehicle started with. To slightly oversimplify, there are school bus conversions, van conversions, and commercial truck conversions, and those are class A, B, and C respectively. To tell them apart without looking underneath, if it looks like an ordinary van, if it could pass for an ordinary van in bad light if you squint, it's a class B. For the bigger buses, look to see if the driver sits up high or not. If the driver sits at normal vehicle height with a bunk bed over his head, that's a class C. If the driver sits way, way up above the axles, near the roof line of the vehicle, then it's a class A, like my old Pace Arrow 37J, which started out its life as a half-built 33' school bus.

By half-built, what I mean is this. Imagine a gigantic steel ladder, 33 feet long and about 4 feet wide. The "legs" of that ladder, the long horizontal beams, are very heavy duty steel box beams. Between them are the "rungs" of slightly cheaper steel. Now lay that ladder flat. There's an axle underneath at the very front, and one or two axles (I had two) most of the way back, with gigantic truck tires. At the very front of almost every motor home 37' and shorter is an ordinary V8 big-block engine, in my case a GMC 454 cubic inch engine with some after-market upgrades to the radiator and exhaust systems. Behind and below that is a relatively ordinary automatic transmission, and the usual long drive shaft going back to the rear axles, just like on any car or truck. (Bigger and/or better motorhomes are usually rear-engine diesel.) Other than the parts I just described and the steering wheel, everything else from the original school bus design gets thrown away, never installed; the parts that I just described that are kept are what I mean by a "school bus chassis." Instead of bolting a school bus body to that chassis, they do something you would never imagine on your own in a million years. After running some plumbing and wiring channels, they just bolt a perfectly ordinary plywood floor on top of that chassis. Then they nail onto that floor, with ordinary nails, an ordinary 3-room shotgun-shack house, in my case 37' long by 8' wide by 12' high to the center roof line (counting chassis), built out of ordinary 2"x4"s, with ordinary fiberglass insulation inside the walls and ordinary drywall on the walls and ceiling.

The windows are custom-made, but that's only because the law requires them to be automotive safety glass. In design they're no different from the windows in most apartments: double-pane sliding windows for the larger windows, hand-cranked louvered vent windows for the smaller ones, with ordinary window screens. The main difference between the above-the-chassis part of an RV and an ordinary cheap frame house is that the siding is sheet aluminum or fiberglass (usually the latter, as with my Pace Arrow), with molded fiberglass front and back ends, and a curved sheet fiberglass roof instead of shingles. (Curved for the same reason any sane roof slopes, for runoff. Usually coated on top with a layer of sheet rubber to deaden the sound of rain on the roof.) Other than those changes, yes, that's an ordinary house driving down the road.

Well, except for one thing: it's a house that's meant to work perfectly well with no water main connection, no sewer main connection or septic tank, no natural gas or propane connection, no cable TV connection, no phone connection. It's meant to be able to "dry camp," or run fully self-contained, for (depending on the design and number of people living in it) anywhere from 3 to 7 days. But even for that, they invented almost nothing new for the RV industry. Virtually all of the plumbing, wiring, and heating equipment is re-purposed yachting equipment. 12 volt DC lights and appliances connected to one or more "marine deep-cycle" batteries, which are basically just better-quality automobile batteries. (I'm oversimplifying, I know. And some people swear by golf cart batteries in series/parallel instead of marine deep cycles. But the principle is the same.) A drinking water storage tank with an on-demand 12V compact water pump. An on-board propane tank connected to one or two propane furnaces whose fans run on 12V DC. A couple of 12V DC cooling fans, swivel mounted where you might need them. A small on-demand propane water heater, small but very hot. A low-flow shower (and in my case, small bath tub) in the bathroom, plus the hand-washing sink in the bathroom, plus a kitchen sink with 12V DC garbage disposal, all plumbed to a "gray water" holding tank. A very-low-water gravity-fed toilet directly above its own "black water" sewage holding tank, not substantially different from the one in a porta-john. Only the refrigerator's technology is at all complicated or remarkable, and even then, the "two-way" refrigerator is mostly a throwback to an older ammonia-based evaporative cooling system that can either run on propane with a trickle of 12V DC electricity or on normal 120V AC current -- that is so energy efficient that they recommend the design to people doing solar power conversions. And to back it all up, a standard gasoline generator sitting in one of the "basement" storage compartments bolted to the underside of the chassis, which runs the few appliances that can't run on either propane or 12V DC, like the microwave or the satellite dish on the roof or my desktop computer or (on the very rare occasions I fired them up) the rooftop air conditioners.

Behind a small access hatch near one corner, there are external hookups so that it can be connected, via stored hoses and cables, to all of the same utilities you have at your house: 120V or 240V AC, CATV, telco, water, and sewage. (Not gas, though; when perma-camped, you still have to have someone come around and top-off the internal propane tank every couple of months.) But you don't need to, as long as every 3 to 7 days you can find somewhere to drain the gray and black water tanks, refill the freshwater tank, and top off the gasoline and propane tanks as needed. I mostly used Flying J brand truckstops for that, because Flying J was the first national chain of gas stations and truckstops to bend way over backwards to have dedicated gas pumps, parking spaces, and drain-and-fill stations for RVers. I would generally hit one once or twice a week. In between, I could live, work, and sleep anywhere that I could get away with it, and all it cost me was maybe a quarter of a gallon a day in gasoline for the generator to keep the batteries topped off and to run whatever AC appliances I felt like running. Maybe more if I felt like doing laundry; the Libby even had an on-board apartment-sized washer/dryer combo unit. I preferred to use laundromats. I could do more loads at once, and 120V dryers are insanely slow and inefficient. But I could use the on-board unit when I needed it, and did.

Did you catch that I said 33 foot chassis, but then I said 37 foot house? Not a typo. And alas, Pace Arrow went cheap on the work-around for that. Rather than build a custom chassis or order a custom chassis, they simply welded 4' extension rails onto the back of the chassis. Made out of cheaper, smaller cross section, steel beams. And then, in a fit of design idiocy, hung the second-heaviest component on the vehicle, the 40 gallon fresh water tank, underneath that part of the chassis. Every 37J I have ever seen on the highway -- and remarkably, they is still at least one I see a couple of times a year on I-70 that's the same model year as mine -- has a small but perceptible "sag" to the rear end.

But that's not the worst thing that I didn't know. The worst thing that I didn't know was that there is an industry standard "self-destruct" age on motorhomes. The industry believes that the average motorhome goes through at most two owners before being junked. They believe that the average owner trades their motorhome in every 3 to 5 years. And to save money, they build them in an order that makes several of the critical components, like the piping and wiring channels, almost impossible to reach if they need repairs. So when they spec the components for critical systems like the generator, the water pump, the plumbing components, and so forth they specify that they should last for 8 years of heavy use. After 8 years of being used as a full-timer's RV, any RV is designed to disintegrate more or less all at once. If I'd known that in 1997, I might still be on the road, maybe. My 1989 37J was, do the math, 8 years old when I bought it in December of 1997. And yes, the previous owners were more-or-less full-timers, living in it eight months of every year. Oops.

I still miss her.
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