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Green Certification of RVs Doesn't Guarantee Safe Indoor Air

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

May 8, 2015 8:57:00 AM

New labels on RVs suggest that certain models are certified green, but that can refer to a wide range of features.

I've been writing about buildings, products and houses for more than 20 years, and I've seen just about every type of greenwash you can imagine. The RV world, until recently, had escaped my notice.

But When I began RV shopping, I noticed right away that certain brands are boasting green labels, such as Viking. But stepping inside the vehicle, I could immediately smell high concentrations of glues and finishes. This is not OK. That "new" smell people talk about is almost always one that's laced with VOCs and harmful components, not something to be sought after.

Now this is not to pick on RV makers who are trying to do the right thing. It's long overdue for RV companies to look seriously at environmental issues.But they may be focusing on the wrong priorities, and the certification organizations are making it easy to do so.

If you visit the TRA site —currently the primary "green" certifier of RVs, you'll see a lot of long lists of different things they take into account when evaluating an RVs green credentials. This is where the problem starts. Like LEED an other home certification systems, manufacturers can essentially cherry pick the green features they want to tackle, and ignore others completely. Their goal is to collect a certain number of "points," and some features grab a lot more points than others.

Here's how they evaluate indoor air quality:

MANDATORY - All wood materials are CARB 2 compliant
Low VOC materials are used - 2 pts each, max 20 pts (Based on LEED for Homes standards)
Zero or minimal carpet is installed (slide outs/cab allowed) - 10 points
Non-emitting materials are used - 5 pts each, max 50 pts
Mechanical ventilation/exhaust devices - 1 pts each, max 3 pts
Natural ventilation - 2 pt each openable skylight, max 6 pts
Ductwork is off the floor (5 pts) or protected/vacuumed at final (3 pts)
Carbon monoxide detector is installed - 5 points

These are great ideas, but only one of them is "mandatory." The rest are just optional point-grabber that manufacturers can pursue or ignore.

So let's look at the CARB 2 compliance. This little-understood term refers to a standard set by the California Air Resources Board, limiting formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products

The actual limits may not mean much to you, but here they are:

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF): 0.11 PPM
Thin (<8mm) MDF: 0.13 PPM
Particle Board: 0.09 PPM
Composite Core Hardwood Plywood (HWPW-CC): 0.05 PPM
Veneer Core Hardwood Plywood (HWPW-VC): 0.05 PPM.

These limits are a best guess at what a "safe" level of formaldehyde is in the home.But you can see the problem. What do such limits mean, given the highly variable details of living inside a relatively airtight box? Do the owners of the RV run vent fans or not, and how consistently? What's the climate—formaldehyde offgasses differently varying with heat and humidity. Are there children or elderly on board? How many hours per year will the unit be occupied? There's no one-size air pollutant threshhold that will keep every RV safe.

The bottom line is that any product that allows SOME formaldehyde into your RV living space is merely a "good enough" solution—not an actual ban on toxic materials. As I have written about paints and solvents for homes, "low-VOC" is not an acceptable threshold for building products. The right answer is NO VOCS in places where people live and RVs are a super-concentrated living space.

The technology of zero tolerance for formaldehyde here, but the real reason standars such as CARB2 exist is not to protect consumers. It's to protect the right of composite wood factories to keep using toxic glues and resins that cost them less than less toxic options—or spending more on R&D.

Adding insult to injury, the certifying agencies have created a sliding scale, so companies can brag about hitting the "bronze" green certification. Put in the perspective of continuing to sell RVs that make people sick, that's like a wife beater bragging that he no longer hits his wife every day. He's down to just 5 days a week!green_graph_of_rvs

RVs are at a disadvantage compared to houses, when it comes to indoor air quality. They're small, highly contained spaces. A house with a few offgassing cabinets might have a less noticeable effect on residents, simply because of the volume of space and ability of toxins to find their way out of living areas (dispersal). Homes also must meet various air change minimums per hour that don't apply to RVs.

The EPA calls out RVs SPECIFICALLY in their new rules about formaldehyde limits. They require that wood composites be made with LESS TOXIC types of formaldehyde resins and glues. Again, since when is less toxic good enough?

It's time for RV makers to get real about indoor air pollution—and for certifying organizations to BEGIN green certification with indoor air quality, instead of just treating it like one item on the buffet. Saving trees and using less water and recycled aluminum all matter, yes. But really clearing the air ins RVs needs to be priority number one. GB

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