There are 9 million recreational vehicles of one type or another on U.S. roads, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
Obviously, the RV market could be a profitable one for any U.S. tire dealer. But like any other tire market, dealers have to know the ins and outs of the vehicles involved and what they mean in terms of tire service conditions and possible failure modes, according to the major manufacturers of RV tires.
There are also special requirements for equipment, although most tire dealers-especially those who sell and service truck tires-are likely to have much of that equipment on hand anyway, the tire makers said.
The RV tire market
First of all, tire dealers who aren't yet servicing the RV market but want to start should realize there are two separate segments to the market: the motorized and the ``towable.''
Towables-which include pop-up caps and ``fifth-wheel'' rigs as well as trailers-use tires ranging in size from 13 to 16 inches, depending on the size of the towable and the weight it carries, said Kris Fettig, RV marketing specialist for Goodyear's North American Tire unit.
Within the motorized segment, there are three separate types. Class A RVs-the classic big motor homes, as sold by Winnebago Industries Inc. and other producers-use tire sizes of 19.5 to 22.5 inches, according to Doug Jones, customer engineering support manager of RV tires for Michelin North America Inc., and Daniele Lee, Michelin RV tire marketing specialist.
There also are Class B RVs, which are mostly converted vans, and Class C, mini-motor homes, which ironically tend to be larger than the Class B vehicles. These RVs often are shod with light truck tires in the 16-inch range, said John Miller, engineering manager for original equipment accounts-truck/bus tires at Bridgestone/Firestone. ``But in the Class B segment, some tires may be P-metric rather than LT.''
Among tires manufactured specifically for the RV market, Goodyear has had particular success with RV-specific models such as the G670RV, which it designed in late 1999 and early 2000 for Class A motor homes, Mr. Fettig said.
``The G670RV is designed to be durable and to run cooler and ride smoother than most truck tires, which is what RV owners want,'' he said. It was introduced in the 19.5-inch size, but this year Goodyear added three sizes in the 22.5-inch range, he noted.
Michelin, meanwhile, has its own tire model specifically for Class A motor homes-the XRV, in 19.5-inch and 22.5-inch sizes, Mr. Jones said.
Goodyear also has specific tires for the towable segment-the Marathon ST and the G614RST. Both have done very well for Goodyear, and the G614RST-a 16-inch, 14-ply tire for larger, fifth-wheel towables-is getting increasing play as an OE tire in that market, Mr. Fettig said.
Serving the market
Equipment needs for the RV tire market aren't that demanding, the tire makers said, although some adjustments must be made for specific tire sizes and configurations.
On the balancing machine, dealers will need an adapter for 19.5-inch tires, Mr. Jones said. ``If they already service commercial drivers in the truck industry, they would already have mounting and balancing equipment for 22.5-inch tires anyway.''
Another good piece of equipment to have, he said, is a radial runout gauge to check the radial and lateral runout of RV tires and wheels. ``Some RVs are susceptible to vibration, so they need a very low radial and lateral runout to safeguard against vibration,'' he said.
Hydraulic jacks are a good idea when servicing 22.5-inch RV tires, according to Mr. Fettig. There's also a need for larger service bays and higher, larger doors, in order to service RVs inside a shop.
``I was in retail for 14 years, and a lot of times we'd have to service RVs in the parking lot,'' he said. ``You'd need 20-foot doors to pull them inside.''
Hose extensions to check air pressure on RVs with dual back wheels also are important, according to Mr. Miller. ``With dual back wheels, it's difficult to get to the valve on the inside tire,'' he said. ``We also recommend removing the snap-on valves used in OE tires and replacing them with steel clamp valves. The snap-on valves can be torqued wrong and lose air while running.''
Overloading a problem
Mr. Miller's comment pointed out the fact there are several safety issues specific to RVs that tire dealers must know how to address. Mr. Fettig summed up the basic issue: ``In the RV industry, load vs. inflation is the most critical thing.''
``Zipper'' ruptures are a particular problem in RV tires because too often the vehicle is overloaded and the tires are underinflated, Mr. Jones noted, adding that the nature of the RV business adds to the problem.
``If you buy a pickup or a car or drive an 18-wheeler, there are legal requirements for a certain amount of reserve capacity,'' he said. ``A certain amount of the gross vehicle weight must be dedicated to you and your stuff. In the RV industry, there's no such law, so people load up their vehicles however they please.''
The problem goes beyond mere overloading, the tire makers stressed. Often the distribution of weight in the RV's load is lopsided, thus overloading an individual axle or wheel even if the weight of the total load is not excessive.
The Recreational Vehicle Safety Education Foundation (RVSEF)-a national organization that enjoys the enthusiastic support of all three tire makers-released a survey last May that showed nearly a quarter of all RVs have overloaded tires. Nearly 40 percent of RV owners told the RVSEF that they waited six months or more to check inflation pressures, and 85 percent had vehicle loads that were out of balance by 400 pounds or more.
All three companies consider teaching RV owners about weighing vehicles properly a fundamental educational project. Bridgestone/Firestone, for example, issues a free 14-page brochure to RV owners giving easy-to-read, step-by-step instructions on tire care and proper vehicle weighing. These include where on the vehicle to find the capacity and correct axle end loads, as well as a detailed chart to fill in the vehicle's gross vehicle, individual axle and individual wheel weights.
Both Michelin and Goodyear said they go to rallies and campgrounds across the U.S. to educate RV owners about the need for proper weighing and tire inflation. ``We've been doing it since 1989, so we were out front on this,'' Michelin's Mr. Jones said. At Goodyear, Mr. Fettig noted that the RVSEF goes to campgrounds and rallies with portable scales to weigh RVs, but it's not large enough to serve the whole market, so Goodyear often performs that service itself in the field.
``One thing a dealer could offer-and make a substantial revenue out of it-is weighing,'' he said.
Besides overloading, a major problem with RV tires is aging, the tire makers said. ``RV users...often put no more than a few thousand miles on their tires a year,'' the Bridgestone/Firestone brochure states. ``Their tires may need to be replaced because of age long before their treads are worn out. Is a 10-year-old tire too old? Probably. Is a 6-year-old tire too old? Maybe.''
In general, a tire on a motorized RV will last five or six years, while a tire on a towable can go for six to 10 years, according to Mr. Fettig. Cracking can be a problem in old RV tires, he noted, but Goodyear uses antioxidants and antiozonants throughout their dedicated RV tires-not just in the sidewalls-to guard against that.
Camping World, a major retailer of campers and other RVs based in Bowling Green, Ky., added RV tires to its business this year, according to Peter Klein, the firm's senior vice president of retail operations.
The biggest investment Camping World had to make in entering the RV tire market was in mounting equipment to service 22.5-inch tires, according to Mr. Klein. While the company hasn't yet encountered any problems with zipper ruptures or any of the other problems endemic to RV tires, he said, the company offers a 12-point inspection for every RV it services that includes checking tire pressure.
While it's too soon for the company to give any dollar amounts or percentages, ``it's been a nice addition to our profit line,'' he said. ``It's our first year of really getting at this business, so it won't be until next year before we decide whether to extend our offerings to include wheels or anything else. But we've seen some real growth, and we're energized about this market.''