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On the Road – Still: Fuel Prices, Vehicle Cost Not Stalling RV Tire Market Growth

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About 8 million U.S. households now own at least one RV. That’s a whopping 58% increase since 1980. Putting it another way, 376,700 units (motorhomes and towables) were shipped in 2005, up 1.8% from 2004 numbers. Even more impressive is the 15% gain in RV ownership from 2001 to 2004. The trend is unmistakable.

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All of these numbers are record breakers and include owners across a wide age span. Those under the age of 35 posted the largest gains over the past four years, and the enormous baby-boomer generation, just now turning 60, is moving quickly into this market. Today, 8.2 million RVs are traveling U.S. highways, with higher numbers to come.

The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) is calling for an 8% increase in the number of U.S. households owning RVs by 2010. The RVIA also points out that more RVs are owned by the 35- to 54-year-old age group than any other. The typical RV owner is age 49, owns a home and has an annual household income of $68,000.

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Rusty Ryan, owner of Forrest Tire Co. in Roswell, N.M., is caught up in the lifestyle.

“We’re so enthusiastic about the RV and commercial tire business, we’re knocking out a city block and putting up a new building that will have three 14-foot-wide by 14-foot-high bays so we can service the RV customers coming through the ‘Land of Enchantment.’”

What Fuel Prices?

“Heading into 2005, with higher fuel prices, we honestly thought it would be a tough summer for the RV crowd,” says Ryan. “We were exactly wrong; 2005 was our best RV tire year ever. From January 2004 to January 2006, our business was up 21%, and we’re looking for an extra 10% growth in our RV tire business in 2006.

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“Our business was already up in February 2006, with lots of new young RVers stopping in for service. These people tend to have more money than time, are in a hurry and buy what they want,” he said. “Some of them own a $1 million Class A motorhome and are towing a $100,000 boat and a brand-new Jeep Wrangler. As one RVer told me, ‘If you can’t afford the fuel, you don’t need one of these vehicles.’

“These people are generally relaxed when they pull in because they are doing something they want to do,” he says. “For the most part, they are a tight-knit group. They stay in touch with each other and their families via cell phones and computers. Some are full-timers, some are part-timers, and most of them check the ‘markets’ several times a day. Lots of these folks are investors who know how to make a buck, and that feeds the lifestyle.”

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Like Ryan, Bob Dickman, a Les Schwab dealer and owner of Bob Dickman Tire Center in Junction City, Ore., also observed an RV tire sales and service gain in 2005. “We were up 7% last year,” says Dickman, who expects a strong 2006. “Already, we’ve had calls from RVers in Florida and Tennessee who are coming to Oregon to see us for new tires.

“A year ago, the experts said RV trips would slow down to 200- to 300-mile trips only. At first, I thought higher fuel prices would have had a strong effect on RVing, and although things slowed initially, we’ve gotten beyond that point. I think that many of the people buying RVs only intended to use them for 200- to 300-mile weekend trips in the first place. Those paying $300,000 to $1 million and up don’t care about the price of fuel anyway, so that part of the market is not being affected. They have the money, and they are going RVing.”

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Dickman says the RV market will continue to grow. “We are already seeing signs of this at the big RV shows,” he says. He’s talking about the blue badges that are given at these big rallys to newcomers – first-time RVers. “I’m seeing more and more blue badges, “he says, “so we’re tweaking our 10-year plan for RV tires.”

Opportunity in Education

“Most RVers aren’t as well educated about their tires as they should be, and that’s where the independent tire dealer comes in,” says Ryan.

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To help educate those consumers, Dickman posts tire aging advice on his Web site. “We want RVers to know that, five years after they put a tire into service, they should pull it off and replace it with a new tire. This is a good rule of thumb to follow, although it could be affected up or down by mileage and by how the RV has been stored and used.”

To avoid confusion, Dickman points out that, like all tires, the manufacturing date is molded into the sidewall of every RV tire. And, he explains the mysteries of the DOT code to customers.

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“We ask our RV customers to look at these numbers as it relates to the day the tire is put into service, not so much the date of manufacture. Five years after being put into service, tire inspection becomes important, and tire inspections should be more frequent,” he says.

Important to the discussion, Dickman points out that, per tire, large Class A motorcoaches are the heaviest vehicles on the road. They are even heavier than a commercial truck, he says. What he means by that is easy to understand.

“Let’s say the front axle on a motorhome comes with an 18,000-pound-rated front axle. The tire of choice for this type of axle is a 315/80R22.5, which will be asked to support 9,000 pounds per tire on the front axle and rear axle(s). This is accomplished by adjusting the psi from perhaps 110 to 125 psi to 130 psi after checking the load and inflation tables,” he says.

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“A commercial truck front axle might be rated at 14,500 pounds compared to an RV’s 18,000 pounds per axle. This is also true for the rear axle, which means an RVer can theoretically put more weight on an axle – front or rear – than many truckers. And, we always use the recommended pressure called for by the manufacturer of the RV.”

Time is also spent examining the load per axle, a job best accomplished by weighing the motorhome wheel position by wheel position. You have to consider how customers load their RVs and how much stuff they like to carry.

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RVers can be lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to older tires, he warns. “Their tires tend to look pretty good after five years of service,” says Dickman. “They often have half of their tread depth remaining, but there can be no doubt of their age. During an inspection, we look for signs of ozone cracking and other signs of weathering in the sidewall areas.”

Manufacturer’s Viewpoint

Goodyear RV tire experts Dave Carper, an application engineer, and Kris Fettig, an account executive for OE equipment sales, agree with the two dealers about educating RV owners about tire age, gross vehicle weight, axle weights, tire load ratings and, most importantly, getting the RV weighed at every wheel position.

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“Right now, there is a need for more portable weighing scales,” says Fettig. “The dealer willing to invest in a pair of these scales can charge $50 to weigh the entire vehicle and make a very nice profit. This includes everything from the large, Class-A motorhomes to pickups and fifth-wheel setups to every kind of towable imaginable.

“Another important factor in the RV market is related to the plain fact that wear is not a primary engineering factor in the manufacturing process,” he says.

“For the most part, these tires don’t wear out; they age out. So, we build them with less tread depth for less squirm and cooler running. The tread designs work strongly against hydroplaning and provide traction performance. Since RVs are not normally driven in the snow, we consider RV tires to be an all-position product.”

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“When we attend the big RV rallys, we tell our customers to check their tire inflation pressures daily, just before heading out for the day,” says Fettig. “This is a big challenge, especially for those with inside duals – another opportunity for the tire dealer.

“We are also keenly aware of weight bias. Some trailers now come with as many as five slide-outs, and the biggest fifth-wheel trailers are riding on three axles with six tires. We often fit such trailers with a narrower tire to assist in tight turns. Since these tires are free-rolling, they do a much better job in this regard.”

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The trend in motorhomes, as viewed by Fettig, calls for front-engine units powered by diesel. The bigger units will continue with rear-engine diesels. In terms of tires being sold specifically to the RV market, Fettig is predicting 800,000 units in 2006 for towable units and 300,000 units for motorhomes – a total of 1.1 million replacement tires. “The market is split this way,” he says, “75% of all RVs are towables; 25% are motorhomes.

“This is going to be a lively market from early March to mid-November 2006,” says Fettig. “It’s a well established market, which seems impervious to fuel prices, and will continue to grow. And, RV owners are starving for a tire education and looking for anyone who can provide both a learning experience and proper service for their RVs.”

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