Let’s talk about that shiny black-and-gold sticker on the side of your RV.
Where did it come from? What happens if you peel it off? And why is your dealer trying to charge you $135 for it? Can you tell him where exactly he can put that sticker, or would that be considered rude?
That piece of UV-protected vinyl is a Narniacal wardrobe into a whole other world of RVing – not a world of mountains and campfires, but of assembly lines, purchase orders, and $1 billion marketing campaigns.
And it begins with the Man Behind the Curtain: the RVIA.
(play dun-dun-DUUUUUN!!!! sound effect).
Table of Contents
Who Is This RVIA, You Say?
If you’re an RV owner, you should know about the RVIA.
RVIA is the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. It’s a collection of RV manufacturers and suppliers representing most of the market players. RVIA says they represent the manufacturers of about 98% of all RVs made and sold in the country.
(That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds, considering that four companies – Thor, Forest River, Winnebago, and REV Group – own something like ~94% of the market. But altogether, the RVIA represents somewhere around 450 companies as of summer 2022.)
They’ve been around for a long time. The association was formed in 1974 from a merger of TCI and RVI, and it’s been rolling right along ever since.
You can figure all this out (and much more) by visiting the RVIA’s website.
But here are a few things you may not already know:
RVIA Advocates on Behalf of the Industry
The RVIA is primarily a trade organization. Yes, it also runs a compliance program, which is why there’s a sticker on your camper, but the true purpose of RVIA is to lobby and advocate on behalf of the industry.
- RVIA sponsors the Go RVing annual marketing campaign, which drives billions in business to the RV industry.
- RVIA maintains a library of educational and marketing materials available to industry insiders like marketers, campground owners, dealerships, etc.
- RVIA lobbies policy-makers in state and national government. The Association adopts formal stances on contested issues such as trade tariffs, lemon laws, highway length restrictions, driver’s licenses, etc. These policies are promoted, in part, through the House and Senate RV Caucuses on Capitol Hill.
RVIA Is Composed of Manufacturers, OEMs, Banks, and More.
The RVIA is mostly run by industry giants. The Board of Directors has celebrities like Forest River, Thor, Airxcel, Thetford, Onan/Cummins, Winnebago, KOA, Patrick Industries, Rev Group, Wesco Distribution, Lippert, Freightliner, etc. There’s hardly a component in your RV that wasn’t made by, assembled by, or distributed by one of those companies!
With that said, there are smaller voices as well, such as Aliner and Carefree of Colorado. So there’s a good mix of manufacturers, OEMs, distributors, and campgrounds.
RVIA doesn’t hide any of this information. It’s all public knowledge, posted proudly on their website. And that’s good.
They’re doing important work. In America, we enjoy the biggest RVs in the world, the most RVs in the world, across some of the greatest landscapes in the world, for some of the cheapest relative travel and lodging prices in the world. Without the RVIA, we probably wouldn’t have that.
I’m a natural counter-culturalist myself, but there’s nothing wrong with the Big Guys banding together to promote their industry. That’s why you have an RV and I have a job, after all.
RVIA Mandates Safety and Design Standards
The RVIA mandates its members conform to certain standards, such as the following:
- NFPA 1192 Standard for RVs (2021 Edition): This standard covers the fuel systems and equipment, ﬁre and life safety provisions, plumbing systems, and vehicular requirements for motorhomes, towables, and truck campers.
- National Electrical Code (NEC) (2020 Edition): The provisions of Article 551 cover the RV requirements for 120V/240V electrical systems. The provisions of Article 552 cover the Park Model RV requirements for 120V/240V electrical systems.
- ANSI A119.5 Park Model RV Standard (2020 Edition): This standard covers the fuel systems and equipment, health, ﬁre and life safety provisions, plumbing systems, and construction requirements.
- ANSI/RVIA Low Voltage Systems in Conversion and RVs Standard (2020 Edition): This standard covers Low-Voltage (LV) electrical systems and devices up to 60 volts nominal or less.
RVIA also requires RV manufacturers to install appliances in accordance with their certified listing and manufacturer’s instructions. So your manufacturer can’t decide they can install a furnace any which way they want; they have to follow the OEM’s rules.
RVs are also legally mandated to abide by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). This applies to things like tires, seat belts, GVWR, windshields, etc.
I own a copy of almost all of these standards. Dissecting them is an article series in and of itself, but here are three takeaways:
- These standards are primarily concerned with electricity, propane (LP) distribution, freshwater supply, wastewater drain and venting, and fire and life safety. Unlike the International Residential Code for houses, for instance, the standards don’t say much about how the body or chassis of an RV should be constructed.
- Most of these standards are similar to what’s required for your house or commercial building, with allowances made for the peculiar nature of an RV. An RV engineer isn’t allowed to hide any PEX plumbing inside of a wall, for instance.
- These standards are critically important. I’m glad that the standards leave overall composition and construction to the discretion of the engineers, but I’m equally glad the rules for water, gas, electricity, fire prevention, and life safety are spelled out so plainly. These standards help keep you alive!
What the RVIA Is NOT!
The RVIA is not a Standards Developing Organization (SDO). It can’t issue its own laws or regulations; it can only adopt standards from other bodies like the NFPA.
The RVIA isn’t a dealership organization. Dealers have their own group: the RVDA. Although there is a pretty close relationship between the two. We’re all ducks in the same pond.
The RVIA isn’t a government agency. You don’t get voted into office; you get hired for a job. Everyone who works for the RVIA is an employee, not a public official.
The RVIA doesn’t handle recalls. That’s the jurisdiction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). (And fun fact, every RV manufacturer is required by law to state that in their Owner’s Manual!)
Anything that isn’t within the purview of an NHTSA recall is usually publicized as a service bulletin.
The RVIA isn’t a mandatory association. It’s opt-in only. And if you can’t pass muster, or you fail the inspection process, you’ll get booted out. I’ve heard that manufacturers actually have been kicked out, but I don’t know of any myself.
Theoretically, there’s no law (in most states) that says a manufacturer must be a member of RVIA. In fact, many smaller truck camper manufacturers and custom RV builders aren’t interested in membership.
However, in reality, that’s not wholly accurate. In Washington state, for instance, you’d be hard-pressed to sell a commercial RV at a dealership without RVIA certification. Basically, each state has its own laws about RV safety, but all 50 states accept the RVIA sticker as proof of conformance. Without the sticker, you have to prove everything on your own. Good luck.
The RVIA isn’t a quality control program. This is where things get tricky, and a lot of RV buyers get confused because the RVIA does insist that a QC program must exist.
You see, as a member of RVIA, a manufacturer must abide by several hundred rules and regulations, embodied in adopted standards. But the RVIA isn’t “in charge” of the certification! Rather, a manufacturer “self-certifies,” and a trained inspector audits each assembly line in a factory every 8 weeks or so.
Let’s talk a little more about these audit inspections.
What Is the RVIA Quality Program Like?
I’m sure many of you are curious about the RVIA inspection process. Without getting into too much depth, here’s what happens.
Every 8-10 weeks, an inspector shows up unannounced. There are normally 5-10 inspectors on staff, I think. Most are based in Indiana, and every few weeks they travel to RV manufacturers spread out around the country. They take turns covering different areas.
Every inspector brings a tablet and a flashlight. They audit each assembly line separately. They don’t just inspect finished units; they inspect each assembly station. Some inspectors pay more attention to the plumbing; others, to the electrical. Usually, they are accompanied by a company engineer or production manager along the walk-through.
They’ll ask questions and take pictures. They’ll look up code references on their tablets. They’ll check for listing symbols on plumbing and electrical products. If they find something wrong, they’ll cite you for it.
There are different classes of violations. Serious violations (or repeated small deviations) require formal statements and evidence of the solution. If you keep screwing up, you get put on probation, and in the end, you can get kicked off the team.
Most inspectors have an eagle eye for the testing checklists that accompany every unit. These checklists are completed at every assembly and inspection station. RV manufacturers must conduct certain tests for every unit: dielectric shock tests, propane leak tests, electrical operational tests, continuity tests, etc. If anything looks off – even if the assembler didn’t use their full signature – you’ll hear about it.
Let me be clear – the RVIA inspector doesn’t go through an entire unit. He/she can’t go through the 500-or-whatever line items in the NFPA 1192 (plus the other standards). These audits are useful and helpful, but the core assumption is always that the RV manufacturer is doing their job, and RVIA is peeking over their shoulder.
Again, it’s not a true quality control program. The inspector checks for compliance with the mandatory standards only.
- If the manufacturer is using brad nails where staples or screws would hold better, that’s not the inspector’s concern.
- If there’s a rat’s nest of wire behind the converter, that’s not his problem, so long as it has the clamps required by the NEC.
- If the air conditioner sounds like a mini jet engine, that’s completely irrelevant. Not a code item.
Some of you are thinking this sounds like a ton of needless regulation. Some of you feel the opposite: that the inspectors should be crawling on their hands and knees, inspecting every crimp with a go-no-go gauge.
The truth is that if you compare the RV, marine, automotive, and residential construction industries, RV manufacturing arguably has the least stringent requirements of any similar industry. That’s good and bad. It allows designers to quickly adopt and try out new designs – but it means the lemons are extra lemon-y.
Personally, I believe a company is ultimately responsible for its own products. Manufacturers should champion their own quality processes, not delegate that responsibility to a third party. If they build junk, the market should reject them (that’s an Adam Smith assumption that falls apart in the face of duopoly, but that’s another rant!)
That’s why I suggest you contact an RV manufacturer directly and ask for a walk-through of their facility before you commit to a purchase. The RVIA audits are a helpful accountability tool, but more government can’t solve
So What’s Up With That Sticker?
Now, let’s talk about those stickers.
If the dealership is charging you $135 for the sticker, I’m sorry. The RVIA doesn’t charge dealerships; they charge manufacturers. Your dealership is trying to promote the lowest price they can get away with and blame “the sticker” as the reason they have to inflate the price. Legally, the dealer can’t just peel off the sticker if you refuse to pay the fee. I’ll let you have that conversation.
Those stickers are what fund RVIA. Rather than pay exorbitant annual dues, all RVIA manufacturers pay a small flat annual fee (around $2,000) and then the “sticker price” for every unit produced. That way, revenue scales with production, and the RVIA can call itself a self-funded organization.
There is only one RVIA seal. There’s no difference in the sticker between a $300,000 custom diesel pusher and a $17,000 cheap*ss travel trailer.
Not gonna lie … it can be frustrating to complete a design project to save $20 a unit without compromising quality, only to fork over $100 for a measly sticker (as of 2022, prices per sticker start at $79 and go up from there).
But I get it. With that sticker in place, life can continue as normal.
- Manufacturers can tout quality and compliance.
- Dealerships can garner instant trust.
- Customers can rest assured their propane systems have been leak-tested.
- Banks will offer financing loans because they understand the collateral.
- Financial institutions can write RV insurance policies.
- State governments can allow RVs on their public roads.
- Campgrounds can accept RVs without worrying they’re going to catch fire from a loose wire and burn down the site (and all its neighbors).
The RVIA sticker, for all its flaws, promises a baseline of quality. Not the most impressive baseline, to be honest, but a baseline nonetheless. And the trust in that certification is what allows the entire RV ownership experience – the insurance, the financing, the reservations – to keep rollin’ along.
If you have a love-hate relationship with that sticker – well, so do I. It’s not a promise of world-class craftsmanship, but it is a promise of basic safety. And it’s a big reason why you can drive your RV into any state you want, whenever you want.
Just try to remember that when you cough up that $135 to “pay” for that sticker, and maybe it won’t taste so sour!