by Abby Haight, The Oregonian

Friday November 28, 2008, 1:06 PM

Ty Adams of southeast Portland bought a 1994 Safari Trek motor home and turned it into a sustainable tool to teach about renewable resources. It runs on biodiesel, has solar panels for its electricity and hot water, a composting toilet and channels to catch rainwater.

The 1994 Safari Trek motor home parked in the green-living southeast Portland neighborhood draws curious looks.

Which is just what Ty Adams wants.

Curiosity breeds questions. Questions give Adams the chance to preach his passion — for alternative fuels and energy independence, for conservation of natural resources and for creative, sustainable design and construction practices.
An outdoors enthusiast who never dreamed he’d become an RVer, Adams learned about motorhomes while working for a Coburg RV manufacturer — then launched into his own campaign to bring environmental practices to the world of motorhoming.

His unlikely pulpit is the 27-foot-long “SolTrekker,” a paragon of sustainability in an eye-catching custom paint job of orange, brown and white, with yellow sun rays reaching from the wheel hubs.

It’s the blood and guts of the motor home that so audaciously flip the RV stereotype.

The SolTrekker runs on biodiesel. Solar panels heat its water and power its electricity. Special gutters channel rain through filters and into holding barrels to use for cooking and cleaning.

The composting toilet doesn’t need to be pumped out.

Bamboo siding replaced the vinyl interior walls and eliminated out-gassing. Dense, soft insulation made from shredded denim jeans seals out extreme temperatures.

“I really like this idea of taking this symbol of consumerism and excess,” said Adams, a freelance writer and editor who counts among his sponsors Monaco Coach of Coburg, his former employer. “I like to take it and make it sustainable. If the RV industry can go this route, any industry can go this route.”

The RV industry hasn’t rushed to follow Adams’ lead, but more owners are installing solar panels for electricity and pumping biodiesel.

Meanwhile, the SolTrekker is a teaching tool for what could be.

Adams’ journey to green RV pitchman followed an equally unusual path. Raised in Bozeman, Mont., Adams, 30, is an outdoors enthusiast who had no interest in the RV experience. “My thinking was why take it all with you? You want to leave it behind.”

After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism, and working as a newspaper reporter, Adams was hired as an editor and writer for Lifestyles, a travel magazine published by Monaco Coach Corp.

The company, with headquarters in Coburg and one of its manufacturing plants in Hines, is the leading manufacturer Class A diesel motorhomes, the type built from the ground up rather than attached to a truck chassis.

“Never in a million years” did Adams imagine he would grow to appreciate RVs and their owners. As his affinity grew, so did his curiosity about using biofuels to power the rolling homes.

Although many RV’s run on diesel, few owners had tried biodiesel, Adams learned. Intrigued by the possibilities of alternative fuels, he made a pitch to his bosses in 2005 to build a biodiesel-powered motor home.

Monaco officials were interested, but without consumer demand they couldn’t justify the project. Instead, they helped Adams buy a motor home at cost — he sold his house to pay for the $108,000 RV. He outfitted the rig with a heated tank so it could run biodiesel in cold weather. Adams quit Monaco and hit the road in 2006.

Over more than 20,000 miles, he talked to RV owners and anyone else interested about biofuels. Although he’d left Monaco, Adams continued to write for its magazine. And he shared with the company insights he gained from other RV owners.

As Adams drove, he wondered: Could I do more?

The answer was, Yes.

“I tell people that biodiesel was my gateway drug,” he said with a laugh. “I started meeting people who were into solar thermal. One thing led to another. I met a guy in Texas who wrote a book about harvesting rainwater and he said, ‘I think you can get 70 gallons off an inch of rain.

“The world was my classroom.”

Adams sold the BioTrekker to a like-minded biofuels advocate, who continues to tour the East Coast.

Back in Oregon, Adams joined his partner, Allison Hintzmann, and Adam Stadtlander to create a non-profit organization, SolTrekker, to promote sustainable practices.

Adams paid $25,000 for a 1994 Safari Trek with 8,000 miles and went to work.

“It really felt like building a home,” he said. “A thousand trips to the hardware store.”

Greg Holder has installed solar electric systems on RVs for 20 years through his Eugene-based company, AM Solar, Inc. He helped Adams outfit the SolTrekker.

“He’s an early adopter,” Holder said. “He’s pushing it and taking it out and exposing it. That’s how changes happen.

“It used to be you bought a new RV and all the out-gassing from the carpet and the walls — you couldn’t live in it for the first few months. Ty is making it a lot more green.”

RV owners choose solar to explore and “boondock” on public land away from crowds and services, Holder said. Easy-to-use solar panels provide an average 400-600 watts of power, filling batteries that take over on cloudy days.

“The user shouldn’t have to do anything but follow the sun south in the winter and north in the summer,” Holder said.

Adams and the SolTrekker made appearances at Portland’s Fall RV and Van Show and Build It Green Home Tour, and the Tacoma Fall RV Show.

Among SolTrekker’s biggest boosters is Adams’ former employer.

“We truly believe what he’s doing helps our industry to develop ways to help our customers RV, whether it’s solar panels to lower the cost of your electricity or other ways to lessen your carbon footprint,” said Ryan Lee, director of marketing for Monaco Coach, which helped pay for the paint job on the Sol-Trekker.

A survey on Monaco’s website showed that owners were interested in — and might be willing to pay a little more for — sustainable additions to their motor homes.

“He’s doing a lot of things outside the box,” Lee said. “But this is a way to fund someone who’s out there and being an ambassador for our industry.”

Adams has a few finishing touches before he shows off the SolTrekker to Monaco. The trio of volunteers then plan to take a short break before resuming school tours in the winter. SolTrekker will hit the road next spring.

Adams already imagines more for the tricked-out RV, like harnessing the wind or installing a hybrid electric engine.

And maybe a little boondocking.

“I’d love to go to Eastern Oregon,” he said. “Selfishly, I’d love to take this out for about a year.”
Abby Haight: