New products

After seven years, I think we’ve finally got it.  This trade show has always been a minor thorn in my side.  I hate the weather up here this time of year, I hate the rush-rush schedule, and I hate the trade show food.  Business events like trade shows are often formulated to cause attendees to burn the candle at both ends, staying up late at the hospitality events, eating too much, standing too much, getting up early and doing it all over again.  Add in jet lag, heavy meals, cold rain and the ever-present possibility of a virus, and you can see why it can be too much.

But we’ve got it down now.  I mean, we have beaten the system. Every year it has been a slightly better trip, and now I think we’ve nearly perfected it.  Brett and I actually had a pretty decent time.  With some maturity to Airstream Life and our approach, we’ve had to chase fewer people.  With better planning, we’ve been able to accomplish all of our goals in a day and a half, rather than two days. A little knowledge of Louisville has yielded better places to eat and quieter hotels (not under the approach path to the airport).  We even had time to take in a movie on Monday night. For the first time, I’m leaving Louisville without feeling breathless.

Focusing our efforts more efficiently did come with a small price, however.  We didn’t roam the convention floor as much as we have in the past.  Rather than dropping in on dozens of manufacturer displays and browsing the products, we spent 100% of our time talking to prospects and partners.  That’s what we needed to do, but I’m afraid it also means no photos or reports of non-Airstream products.

rvia-eddie-bauer-intro.jpgBeyond the Eddie Bauer edition Airstream, the other news from Airstream is the Avenue, a B-van based on a Chevy gas engine platform.  It’s a bit cheaper than the popular Airstream Interstate (which is based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel engine platform), at about $95k versus $125k.  I was told that it has 24 distinct advantages over the competitive B-vans from Roadtrek and Pleasureway, although I don’t know what they are.  It will eventually be sold by Chevrolet dealers in addition to Airstream dealers, just as the Interstate is sold by half a dozen Mercedes-Benz dealers.  I hope to get my hands on a demo unit this winter and take it out for a weekend.

Otherwise, Airstream was mostly showing some decor updates to existing floor plans.  We saw a 16-foot Airstream in the Sport lineup, and some interior variations on the International and Flying Cloud lines. The popularity of the B-van lineup was evident, as this is the first time I have ever seen equal numbers of vans and trailers in the Airstream display.  But the Eddie Bauer model was the big attraction, and I predict it will be a popular trailer.  People are already asking about getting the “sport hatch” feature in other trailer lengths.  In my opinion it doesn’t make sense in anything much shorter than a 25-footer, but ultimately the market will decide, and I’m sure Airstream will build trailers to suit the demand they can identify.

rvia-sfc-fuel-cell.jpgProbably the most intriguing product we spotted was the fuel cell being demonstrated by SFC Energy. This is an entirely new idea for the RV industry, but I think it has the potential to be revolutionary.  The little silver box in the picture is a kind of electrical generator which runs off ultra-pure methanol fuel from the jug at its right.  It’s called an EFOY (“Energy For You”).  It very quietly produces about 90 watts of power (at 12 volts) to recharge the RV batteries.

When I say “quiet” I mean nearly silent.  Running full-bore it comes in at about 23 decibels, or literally whisper quiet.  You could sleep with it running underneath your bed.  The reaction used to make electricity produces no harmful gases, just carbon dioxide and water vapor.  One 2.6 gallon “fuel cartridge” can run the gizmo constantly for five days, and it can be programmed to automatically run only when your batteries need charging.  You could literally camp for weeks with only this device to supply your power.

Now, you might be thinking, “My little gasoline generator produces 1,000 watts, so why would I want that thing that can only make 90 watts?”  Well, first you should read my blog entry “A Short History Of The Sun,” to understand why slow charging is much better than fast charging. In short, generators are massively inefficient at recharging batteries.

Second, most of the time, you are probably very happily camping with only 12 volt power.  (The major exception is running the air conditioning or the microwave oven.)  Your major power draw will be in the evenings, when lights, water pump, and furnace are running.   The EFOY can easily make up all of your day’s power needs by running for a few hours. Think of it as a solar panel that doesn’t require sun.  Day and night, it produces 90 watts of power as needed, leaving no fumes and no noise. In 24 hours the EFOY 1600 can produce 130 amp-hours, which is far more than we could possibly use.

So what’s the catch? Cost.  An EFOY 1600 will run about $4,500 right now, and the company has no distribution network in the US at present, for either the devices or the fuel.  The cost will certainly turn off most RV’ers right now, but look to the future.  Even today, a solar panel setup that can do half of what the EFOY can do will cost thousands of dollars. It may not be long before a fuel cell like the EFOY is the electrical power option of choice for RV’ers.