How Vintage Campers Will Save The Planet

As a student of sustainable design and one who also restores vintage campers, I’ve always been able to see the potential in old camper trailers. When I was in high school, I thought I would just buy one, decorate it and live in it. (Big dreams, right?) Then I found out about the Tiny House Movement and felt like I fit right in. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to breathe a new eco-friendly life into something used. Sustainable design became an essential part of my life.

The COMET (Cost-effective, Off-grid Mobile Eco Trailer) is an exercise in sustainability and small space living. It is an educational tool for children and adults alike. It is a DIY guide for others wanting to pare down and have little to no negative impact on the environment, other humans, and themselves. She is a preservation of incredible design of the past meshed with the essential design of the future.

For the past year I have been turning this 1960′s Avalon trailer into the COMET: a full-time healthy living space and mobile classroom that is eco-awesome and off-the-grid, and costs less than $8,000. All materials used in the COMET are either sustainably produced or sourced from re-purposed materials. There is a focus on re-used and free building materials. Affordability and DIY are essential because a healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle needs to be accessible to everyone. Everything in the COMET has to be healthy for humans too; that means no toxins and no harmful chemicals.

The COMET is an interactive space so that it can serve as an educational tool as well. Clear wall panels expose systems in action. A little window allows you to touch the super soft non-toxic insulation in the wall. The entire building process of my camper conversion is documented at to serve as a DIY guide for others wanting to explore tiny space houses, living off the grid and sustainable building practices.

kitchenutensils300Living in a tiny space using only renewable resources is not a sacrifice, but a step towards freedom and happiness. With a holistic approach to house design, the COMET is healthy for the environment, the inhabitants, and the people who produced the materials.

Here are some of the key features that make the COMET ecologically and economically conscious.

1. It begins with personal action. I am a producer. We can all choose to be producers instead of consumers. Every time I make something out of nothing or build something useful out of something I found in the trash, I am a producer.

2. Sustainability is about moving away from wasteful linear systems towards more efficient cyclical systems. In my designs for the COMET, I diverted waste back into the system wherever possible to eliminate unwanted byproducts. Remember, nature produces no waste.

3. Energy and resource conservation come before all else. Before looking at photovoltaic systems, before deciding what you will “need,” you must focus on conserving energy first.
 My advice: Go without, lighten the load. Choose a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner. Have a clothesline instead of an electric drier. Use a solar-cooker instead of the microwave. Ditch the hairdryer. Have a simple solar shower for the summer months. These are little things you can do in your daily routine to cut down on energy usage. Here’s what I did in the COMET:

Solar shower: Solar heated water is perfect for quick showers and is also good for washing dishes in warm water when it’s nice out.

bedroom350 Hand pump faucet: This was an easy decision, as the Rocket Pump faucets were original to the 1960′s campers. But anyone trying to save electricity can use this option in place of an electric pump and save some energy. If I had to do it again I would go with a foot pump faucet, which is still manually powered but you don’t have to pump with one hand while you wash the other.

LED light bulbs: These are energy saving alternatives to traditional lightbulbs. The 60 watt equivalent uses about 7 watts. They have the same energy usage as the CFL lightbulbs, but last 10 times longer.

Good insulation: People always talk about getting more efficient boilers, heaters and appliances. But the real savings comes not in the newest technology, but in minimizing waste. Before thinking about buying a new “green” heat source, minimize wasted heat. Increasing insulation and air-tightness will save you money and energy.

4. Solar power can be grid tied or off-the-grid, depending on your circumstance. The COMET has an off-grid system, with a capacity of 555 watts of solar power (three 185-watt monochrystalline panels), more than is really necessary. The solar panels will be on an A-frame, separate from the camper so that they can be in the sun while the COMET is in the shade.

5. On average, you can collect about 6 gallons of rainwater in 100 square feet of roof space in one month where I live in New England. This isn’t enough to be my entire water supply, and drinking roof-collected rainwater would require a filter system that I just didn’t have room for. So the water that collects on the roof will be directly diverted, via gutters and spouts, to the bumper garden.

toilet2006. Conserve water by not using any by using a waterless composting toilet! Flush toilets take three really valuable resources — fresh drinking water, urine, and humanure — and turn it into sewage, which needs to be treated with harsh chemicals to be water again. My custom urine-diverting toilet separates liquids from solids. Urine collects in a removable vessel, and diluted with clean water, can be sprinkled on plants or at the base of trees. Solids, containing biodegradable toilet paper, are called “humanure” and collect in a square 5-gallon bucket until it is full. After each “deposit,” sawdust or peat moss is sprinkled in layers to remove any moisture. Urine diversion is the key to small-space, indoor composting of humanure. The less moisture there is in the toilet, the less chance for odors. The composting toilet vents to the outside via a PVC pipe and a tiny solar powered vent fan on the roof.

7. You can’t have an open compost pile in a tiny house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recycle your food scraps. A worm bin (vermicompost or vermiculture) uses red wrigglers to turn your food wastes into the perfect organic fertilizer and is small in scale and odorless. A worm bin can be made from plastic containers; just put your table scraps in the worm bin every few days and they make short work of it. Talk about cyclical systems: My food scraps make the fertilizer that I use to create more food, meaning more food scraps – and it goes on and on!

8. My bumper garden could be called a glorified window box mounted onto the rear of the trailer above the bumper. The bumper garden will have a cover made of polycarbonate, a double walled plastic material used in greenhouse construction, so that it can act as a small cold frame for starting seeds and keeping plants warm.

9. If you are diligent about what goes down your drain and use all natural, biodegradable products, you can recycle your greywater to some extent. Some tips for biodegradable solutions? Clean with tea; it’s acidic enough to wipe down surfaces. Use natural toothpaste and biodegradable soap. Vinegar is also a natural antibacterial, but be careful not to put too much vinegar in soil.

10. Throughout the process of renovating the COMET, I learned that, wherever it is safe, it is better to use recycled materials than to buy new (even if the new materials are “green”, it’s easier to recycle something local to you). Where I couldn’t find enough materials secondhand, I bought something that was good for indoor air quality and good for the environment. By choosing to use certain salvaged materials mixed with new materials, I kept the feeling of the original 1960′s trailers.

mariah140You don’t have to live in an off-grid trailer to put these ideas into action! Whether you live in a house, condo or apartment, you can take personal action towards living a little simpler today.

Mariah Coz lives in a 1960’s vintage trailer that she renovated to be an eco-awesome, off-the-grid mobile home and classroom. In her tiny home you will find lots of super tiny living ideas. See what Mariah and the COMET are up to at