When you go camping for the weekend, isn’t it a great feeling to plug into shore power and not have to worry about an electric bill? At one point or another, part-timers come to this realization and quietly smile to themselves. During the camping season, they crank up their RV air conditioners without thinking about insulation or their travel trailer’s insulation R-value.
For full-timers, it’s a different experience. A lot of these RVers are required to pay for electric service on a monthly basis. Unless you have a solar system that can feed your A/C’s appetite, over half of your electric bill is consumed just on climate-control.
Understanding how insulation works is the key to reducing your climate-control costs. In order to do that, we’ll explain how insulation works and what R-value means. With this key knowledge, you’ll become a master RVer who can beat the summer heat and live like royalty in the coldest of winters.
What Does R-Value Mean?
If you remember Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, you’ll remember the Pink Panther Owens Corning commercials of the 1980s and 1990s. Owens Corning recommended you should have at least a 12-inch layer of their R-25 insulation to properly protect your home. Unless you owned a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, you had to assume it was a good rating.
RVs of that time period mainly used fiberglass insulation but were nowhere near R-25. If you had R-7 insulation in your RV, you were lucky. Only experts in insulation who could build their own coach from the ground up had a chance of extending their RV season beyond Halloween.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) defines R-value as:
“An insulating material’s resistance to conductive heat flow is measured or rated in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value — the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness. The R-value depends on the type of insulation, its thickness, and its density.”
In our physical world, heat always moves towards cold. It does this until the temperature is balanced. The key to R-value is minimizing the thermal conductivity of insulating materials.
To translate all of this in to “RV Speak,” R-value is a measurement used for insulation. The higher the number, the better your coach retains/resists heat. The R-value of air is R-1, while a thick layer of densely packed fiberglass can have an R-value of R-25.
All of us would love to have R-25 values on our RVs, but the technology isn’t there yet. Most RV manufacturers use a dense polyfoam block foam insulation that ranges between R-5 to R-7 in their RV sidewalls. All-season/four-season travel trailers increase their insulation depending on the RV maker.
The purpose of insulation is to prevent or at least minimize the heat transfer to the colder temperature. In the summer, think of the outside air as that invading medieval army trying to break into your castle with a battering ram at your castle gates. The R-value would be the strength of your gate (insulation) keeping the invaders out.
Resistance Isn’t Futile
The DOE’s definition of R-Value talks about resistance to the conductivity of heat flow. There are actually three different ways insulation works, two of which create R-Value.
- Conduction: A relevant definition of conduction is the process where heat transmits through a solid material when there’s a temperature difference. Most metals, graphite, and some plastics are conductive. Using fiberglass or foam insulation stops heat transfer from the inner to the exterior walls of your RV.
- Convection: Heat circulates air as it transfers to colder temperatures. According to master home builder Bob Vila, you want to contain a layer of air near a source of heat, allowing the heat to transfer throughout the space. Using Bob’s definition, your insulation’s R-value keeps the convection effect inside your RV, dissipating the heat (or air conditioning) within the coach instead of leaching outside.
- Radiation: Radiant heat (like the sun) travels in a straight line and warms anything solid in its path that absorbs energy. Using reflective air bubble sheeting on your windows and doors doesn’t increase your R-value directly. It does reflect ultraviolet radiation and other radiant heat sources from transferring inside.
Other Ways to Enhance the R-Value of Your Camper
Insulation with a high R-value can effectively slow conduction and convection. If you have reflective sheeting on your windows, you’re further protecting the interior of your RV from heat transfer. Yet heat can be sneakier than a cockroach.
Sealing the Cracks
During the summer, you want to make sure your heat vents are closed and secured. Conversely, your air conditioner ducts should be sealed during the winter. Slideout edges should be inspected and covered with door draft stoppers or other draft preventing materials.
Even if your ducting is insulated, you’re wasting climate-control energy keeping these unneeded ducts temperature controlled. Sealing these vents will not only increase your R-value, but the interior of your RV will also reach your desired temperature faster and more efficiently.
Moisture in the air doesn’t affect your R-value, but it does affect your energy costs. Humid air takes more energy to cool than dry air. Water is not a conductor of heat, so it takes longer to cool or heat.
This is only part of the issue with humid air. If your RV’s interior is exposed to humid air for long periods of time, this is perfect conditions for mold and mildew to start growing. The wooden infrastructure of your furniture and various other components that aren’t sealed can start to crack or warp.
If your rooftop air conditioner doesn’t have a dehumidifier feature in it, you may want to invest in a dehumidifier. You’ll see your energy costs drop and elongate the life of your RV. This will also save you from potentially having to replace any insulation that’s prone to water-related damage.
Common Types of Insulation in RVs
Now that you have a full tool belt of knowledge concerning what R-value means and how it relates to your RV, we’ll explore the common types of insulation within the RV world. For those do-it-yourselfers (D.I.Y.) who are rebuilding their Antique (pre-1945), Vintage (1946- 1969), or Classic (1970- 2007) coach, this section can help you with your project.
Rigid foam is the most popular type of insulation used today. RV manufacturers cut the polyfoam into precisely measured pieces and put them in a heated press with the exterior walls. This process bonds the two pieces to create an airtight seal.
They are then laminated together for further protection against contaminants. These compound pieces are then attached to the aluminum frame with just enough room for wiring, plumbing, and ducting. Before the interior walls are installed, support framing is placed for windows and furniture.
The R-value of rigid foam is anywhere between 3.5 to 6. All-weather/four-season coaches that are built for beyond freezing temperatures have R-values that go up to R-10 in some cases. Insulated bay doors and RV door insulation may have different R-values than the sidewalls.
If you plan on replacing your rigid foam, do your research first. Removing it can be difficult since it’s laminated, heat bonded, and glued to the exterior wall. There’s not a lot of room between your insulation and your interior walls, but you may want to consider adding spray foam insulation which will add to what you already have.
Spray foam is not commonly used as factory-installed insulation. Many D.I.Y.ers like to use it to add an extra layer of insulation to what they already have. It has the lowest levels of R-value (around R-3.5) but is the easiest to install.
There are a few different types, but expanding polystyrene is the safest to use. If you decide to use spray foam, make sure all of your windows are open and you’re using fans to vent the fumes. You’ll also want to use PPE (personal protection equipment) as well as thoroughly protect the interior of your RV.
You’ll find fiberglass insulation in RVs from older eras. The problem with RV fiberglass insulation is its “magnetism” for moisture and it starts to breakdown within a year. Fiberglass is great for solid structure buildings, not RVs.
The trade-off is its high R-value. When vintage and early classic RVs were coming off the factory floors, they had R-values between 13-19. Unless they were kept in near hospital-level environments, the insulation would degrade becoming nesting grounds for mold and mildew.
RV’s of these time periods have walls that look like houses. You could cut rigid foam into strips that fit within the studs and/or use spray foam. Either one will work well as a replacement.
Before you retrofit your new insulation, definitely check for asbestos. Some of these RVs do have this carcinogen in them. The safest way to remove it is to hire experts that have the proper equipment to remove it.
RV Exterior Sidewall Insulation
Did you know that your exterior RV sidewalls have R-values of their own? Materials like Azdel are fiberglass composites that are designed with thermal and sound insulation properties. With an R-value three times better than wood, Azdel has a rating of roughly 4.5.
With the bonding process, the R-value of the wall and the insulation work in concert to create the highest R-value travel trailers. Many major RV manufacturers and their subsidiaries use Azdel in their coaches. Some of them include:
- Forest River
- Gulf Stream
- Many others
RV Underbelly Insulation
RV floor insulation wasn’t thought of much in previous years. Underneath the subfloor was either metal or wood. When the concept of four-season camping entered into the RV world, using RV insulation in the underbelly was an optional feature.
As it became popular, sealing the underbelly of travel trailers and motorhomes became a standard feature. RV manufactures are now using corrugated plastic sheeting to protect and insulate the underbody of RVs. Like the sidewalls, they place a rigid foam layer to work together with this material that has its own R-value.
The black sheeting has an average R-value of R-6. Many people forget how valuable it can be to prevent the summer heat from coming through the floor. It also contains your furnace’s efforts in the coldest of winters.
RV Roof Insulation
Your Roof has a top layer usually made of either a rubber composite or a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) membrane. Underneath that is a thick layer of insulation. Your RV’s roof does most of the “heavy lifting” when it comes to insulating your RV since heat rises and its the one area that’s most exposed to the sun.
Your roof’s insulation is usually between R-10 to R-20. Since it’s thicker than the walls, more insulation is possible. Make sure your A/C’s evaporators are working properly, so the water isn’t overflowing onto your roof insulation.
As a preventive maintenance tip, when you’re up there checking for cracking, adding a layer of sealer will definitely help. The sealant is a white paint-like material that can be rolled on. It’ll help your roof in the battle against the sun’s radiant heat.
Other RV Insulation Ideas
Your RV may have great insulation, but your climate-control devices are still working hard to keep the interior space comfortable. Your coach has windows, slideouts, and other components that your insulation doesn’t protect. Our RV window insulation tips feature can help get started on completing the rest of the equation.
There are other techniques you can use to prevent heat transfer. We already mentioned using door draft stoppers around your slide outs. If you have your choice, try and pick a campsite that’s more shaded. Window awning can be a great way to dampen the sun’s rays.
If you don’t have a rear window, try to park your RV, so the front is facing north. The southern facing side of your RV will receive the most direct sunlight. Windows with the most northern exposure get the least amount of sun exposure in the United States.