Recycling Old RV Trailers

by Kent Griswold on May 22nd, 2012. 60 Comments
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by Abel Zyl Zimmerman

I recently bought and dismantled a 14 ft. RV trailer for tiny house parts. I thought you avaricious do-it-yourselfers might find the story interesting.

It was a pretty moldy RV, with some appliances inside and an undamaged trailer frame. My goals were to get those two things out of it, and when all was done, I was about 80% successful in doing so.

RV exterior

RV exterior

Costs:

  • Purchase price: $300
  • Licensing: $23 (it had current tabs)
  • Work gloves, dust masks: $10
  • Sawzall demolition blade: $7
  • Contractor trash bags (for loose debris and fiberglass): $12
  • Diesel fuel for the project, towing it home and delivering recyclables: $55
  • Local landfill fee (plywood, broken glass, fiberglass) $99
Working Interior

Working Interior

Labor:

  • Towing home: 5 hours
  • Teardown, recycling, cleanup: 13 hours
  • Total costs/labor: $506 and 18 hours

Not bad.

Here’s what I ended up with:

  • RV range/oven
  • A small sink
  • Hand pump faucet for fresh water
  • Polyethylene fresh water tank
  • A small 120v refrigerator
  • 2 new 5 gal propane tanks
  • 5 aluminum frame louver windows (others were broken during demolition)
  • 2 leveling jacks
  • Recycling of aluminum and copper: a check for $125!
  • A 14 ft x 7 ft trailer frame (see notes below)
After walls knocked down

After walls knocked down

So, was it worth it?

It was messy work, especially tearing the floor structure off the frame. And the floor structure was the moldiest part. Hauling was hard work. All the recyclable landfill waste fit into my truck, but I have a fairly huge old Ford. The weight of all that wood/glass/etc. was 1660lbs.

Recycling the metals was a little more fun. I had 149lbs of ‘clean’

Aluminum and 41 lbs of ‘dirty’ aluminum (that I couldn’t get the screws/staples out of.)

And 15 lbs of copper pipe and wire. They weighed it all, then printed me a check. If you are going to reclaim metals, check with your local recycler first. Sort everything out before you pull up. If it is mixed, they may not take it OR they may give you the lowest rate possible.

Aluminum

Aluminum

The louver windows are going to my friend, Charlie, to use in his camper restoring project.

RV appliances are sometimes usable for tiny houses — sometimes not.

Many are not built for day-to-day use. The ones I got are OK though, but required a good bit of cleaning. I had to repaint the metal top of the range, because it had rust spots.

I am an electrician, and I chose to dispose of all old electrical outlets, switches, wire, light fixtures, etc. They just didn’t seem to be in great condition. There is definitely a safety concern with using old electrical equipment.

The trailer frame is OK. I realized that I will have to add quite a few things to make it usable for a tiny house: new fenders, more steel cross-members, and a complete rewiring. This won’t cost me much, because I am a welder, and have shop space to do it in. But for some, this may be a deal-killer. If you hired someone to do all the aforementioned improvements, it could cost as much as a new trailer frame. Still, if reclaiming materials is your goal, this might be acceptable.

The trailer frame

The trailer frame

Well, there you have it. A very moldy RV is getting reborn in various ways, notably as a tiny house foundation!

Abel Zyl Zimmerman
Zyl Vardos
Olympia, WA
Zylvardos.com

Truck loaded for landfill

Truck loaded for landfill

60 Responses to “Recycling Old RV Trailers”

  1. Thanks. That was interesting.

  2. Lauren Newlands says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I was thinking about doing the very same thing and now I know it’s not for me because I don’t have the proper tools. Thanks again :)

  3. Steven Taylor says:

    Love it. I need to get me a trailer like this so I can start my own project.

    • Roxana says:

      Hi , I have an rv. that my father has . and needs to get rid of by end of next week. we are located in vallejo california 94590. If interestes. Let me know. It does not run. Needs to be hauleda away.

    • Debralee says:

      Steven,
      My boyfriend has a trailer that needs to be demolished for recycling. It is located in the high desert above Palm Springs (Yucca Valley), CA. If you are still interested in this as a project, please let us know.

  4. I love it! You did the right thing. So many old trailers sit in the woods and rot, adding to the blight of the American roadside landscape. You just did the environmental equivalent of the “This mile of roadway cleaned by XYZ Corp, or the Girl Scouts, etc” that we see as we travel AND you got some goodies along the way.

    Good work! Inspiring!

  5. liz goertz says:

    are trailer frames rated for weight? do you know how much that one can hold? Tiny houses are much heavier than trailers and the ones Ive seen pictured on this sight usually have a double axle.

    • Well, it is tricky with old RV frames. The axle may have a marking. This one did not, but I know from experience it is a 3500 lb axle.

      To build on it, I will add metal members at the ‘elbows’ of the frame and repair two cracked welds at the smaller cross members. Also, I design my house structures according to the stiffness (or not) of the frame.

      A double axle trailer is not necessary for a house this size. The last tiny house I built this length weighed 1900 lbs. I expect this one to come in at about 2300 (total weights include trailer frame) My 18-20′ tiny homes can weigh in at 5-6000 lbs.

  6. Dinah says:

    Thanks for saving the landfills of America.

  7. Nice article Abel! I had wondered most of this for a long time, especially in light of The Fortune Cookie. Thanks for writing this all out.

  8. Greg says:

    I did the same thing. It was a TON of work. Was it worth it? It’s worth it only if you’re trying to save cash. Would I do it again? Probably not. I would however buy my fridge, stove, tanks, etc. from the used RV shop.

  9. alice h says:

    I’ve been going back and forth on this idea for a while, thinking now it’s probably not practical for me to take on. Thanks for setting it out so clearly. Also interesting to see the skimpy framing on those things and how nasty things can be inside the walls. Aside from the aesthetics, the other reasons I prefer to build a tiny house on wheels rather than make do with a trailer (though they’re so much cheaper) is not knowing how much mold or bad wiring might be hiding in there. If I got a trailer I’d probably start ripping stuff out anyway so why not start from scratch and build just what you want. I know this was a junker already but you never really know what you’re getting even with something that looks good on the surface. The actual trailer frame you end up doesn’t seem worth the work unless you have a lot more energy and resources than I do. Also not sure I’d end up with something strong enough to take on a “real” tiny house. A lot depends on what you plan to build.

  10. Suzanne says:

    Great posting. Great details for all of us thinking of taking on this project!

  11. Patti says:

    Well you did achieve your goal of getting it down to the frame, and in addition to saving landfills offset a lot of the tear-down costs (at least money-wise) by turning the scrap in for recycling

    I look forward to watching/seeing the build-up

  12. matt says:

    Awsome that you did this!I just finished demo’ing a 30ft trailer and swear if I do it again I’ll record it because a few tricks can save people lots of time.If I could do it again,I would do it in this order:1-remove all windows,doors,and exterior add ons.2-pull off aluminum siding(I only got 50pounds off mine).3-pull out insulation and wiring while finishing off the interior.When you get to holding tanks your done(if they are full than you have one last task!).I would not pay money for a moldy trailer.I convinced a neighbor to pay for the trash disposal($200)in exchange for removing their blight.The appliances like air conditioner and fridge usually have a high disposal fee too so when it was all said and done,I basically got a free heavy duty trailer frame for a hard week of work.I wouldnt want to do it too many times but their is enough novelty in doing it once to have made it worth it.

    • Right on! Yes, free would have been the better price.

      Good luck.

    • Joe3 says:

      Like you, I just finished a demo of the upper portion of a 24′ tandum axle travel trailer…next week the floor should be gone. It is a lot of wotk, and I made most of the investment back on recycling the aluminum, I still have some extruded, wiring, and copper to bring in. I have about 4 days into tearing it apart. To me the time was well spent, I enjoyed the demo and really learned just how many staples there are in a travel trailer.

  13. You rock Abel! I just wanted to add that if folks had access to an excavator, say at a local wrecker or something like that, they do a very nice job of ripping the whole top off of the frame in a matter of minutes- after you’ve salvaged what you want form inside the camper. I did that here at our local free store/ recycling depot and it went really well, all we had to do was help sort the metal etc and then pry off the sub floor. Anyway, it might be an option for folks to think about.

    • True. There was some curious moments when peeling off the roof (while standing on the roof) and not being sure where to step, or when it might collapse.

      Safety could be a concern when tearing down a structure like this. I did it, but had some moments when the walls were buckling in. I just pushed them away from me. Also, there were some wicked screws sticking straight up out of the floor structure (3″ and rusty).

      A bigger RV would require more careful planning for ‘letting down’ the structure. Unless you had an excavator!

      Note: peeling it apart step by step did make it easier to recycle (de-screw) the aluminum.

  14. Chestnut Street Small House Co. says:

    Great story! Thanks for the breakdown of hard and soft costs, as well! Cheers, Noreen

  15. neiallswheel says:

    good job there mate, had to break a winnebago up once and cut the chassis into lengths. Not good.

    thinks if im gonna do this….
    1)pull bits you want out of interior + windows.
    2)peel off the ally sides.(remove insulation)
    3) tip the whole thing on its side, kick off the timbers from the trailer and
    4)’new’ base trailer and have a bonfire

  16. Paula says:

    thanks for the explanation. I would never do this but you’re much more capable than I. I am very interested in what you build on top of this now! Keep us posted.

  17. Mike says:

    Just a note of caution. An economy model travel trailer frame is engineered for the load it carries and the occasional load of 2-4 humans for a few weeks out of the year. Note the quality of construction; 2×2 wall framing, aluminum, thin plywood, plastic and particleboard. Also note the size and capacity of the axle.

    Anything you build on this frame should have approximately the same total aggregate weight of components with a compensation factor for age and corrosion. You can build strong and lightweight, but you’ll need to use materials of those same qualities. Those materials are generally more expensive and require specialized fastening and construction methods.

    A better approach would be to source a twin axle utility trailer with a load capacity equivalent to or substantially less than all the construction and contents and occupants that you plan to put on top of it. Anything less than that will be a disappointment or even dangerous to the owner and others on the roadways.

    • True, for the most part.

      Their are some very light ways to frame and finish in wood. I use them selectively, depending on the project. It need not end up like an RV again.

      The axle is rated for 3500lbs, and has brakes.

      The coupler is in great condition and should be good for 5000lb.

      The main frame is C steel, and heavy enough to be unaffected by rust/corrosion (there was very little anyhow).

      In all fairness though, I recently used a frame made of thinner steel that DID have some structural damage from rust. Repairing steel is easy for me, since I am a welder, but it might be a deal-killer for a DIY’er. It costs $ to go the local welding shop.

      • I just wanted to mention that i AM needing to beef up this frame somewhat. I am adding two 3″ C-steel transverse members in the axle zone (to prevent wall loads from flexing the main frame members. And i will likely add 3-4 more 2″ angle cross members to help support the plywood floor.

        This is in preparation for a small, relatively light tiny house.

        Abel Zyl

  18. This is one of the most interesting articles I’ve read. I know when I pulled the seats out of my school bus a few years back, I loved the money I got for scrapping them.

  19. Jim says:

    When you have time and no money, this is a great idea. Truly Sweat Equity!

    Blue Scooter

  20. Carlos says:

    I can understand dumping, chipping or burning the rotten lumber. The Aluminum sheathing can be reused for numerous other projects. My Dad recycled the sheathing from a burnt out mobile home to clad his workshop. Since you have some welding skills, I’d definitely beef up the frame with gusseting and some perimeter channel or square tubing to help support the roof loading.

  21. Joe3 says:

    Abel, Nice article with lots of information. I just took the travel trailer portion off a 8 x 24 foot tandum axle trailer. Next week the floor. I did what you proposed, door and windows out and saved for now, pealed the aluminum skin off and took it to the recycler.Then rather than stand on the roof, I collapsed the stapled wood frame onto the trailer. The roof was galvanised steel coated with the white stuff ( I forget what it’s called), it made it easier to sawzall in pieces and take off. Saved the stove and 2 way refrigerator, the wire, copper, & extruded have still to go to the recycler. Burned most of the wood in the firepit, not much is left. I should also come out with a ‘free’ trailer, I’ve got 4 days of sweat in it so far. Again, thanks for the great article at an appropriate time. Any easy framing ideas you can pass on? Seems building with conventional 2 x 4s @16″ would be mighty heavy, I was thinking SIPS or maybe 2 x 3 @16″ making a monocoque structure to carry the stress?

    • Framing is a greater question than can be answered here. If you are sure about your total design, using 2x4s @ 16″ wont hurt a thing. I often use less for studs, but use exterior grade plywood, glued and with non corrodable fasteners. Attachment to the frame is paramount… Similar to hurricane attachment in conventional building. Check out Dee William’s book, Go House Go, for eloquent explanation of these concepts.

      Abel

  22. bob henry says:

    I have a very similar tale. I stopped to ask about a little 14-16 foot Layton camper I pass each day to and from work. Turns out the fella recognized me from the across Indiana TV segment we recorded 2 years ago about tiny trailers. (It is repeated here and there and apparently it aired again just a few weeks ago).

    Anyway I asked if there was a little 3 burner stove/oven in the little trailer I could buy. He led me out to the trailer and we took a tour. There it was, a harvest gold little 3 burner stove and oven with matching vent hood

    While we talked he said he was gonna scrap out the trailer and anything else I wanted was up for grabs. He pointed out the small gas fired water heater and the gas furnace and the sink and the bathroom fixtures and the best part, it’s all free for the taking. I returned the next day and literally filled my pickup bed with all kinds of great loot and the best part it was free.

  23. Paul Jenkins says:

    Very interesting! Sounds like hard work but worth it!

  24. Jennifer says:

    It’s interesting to me how many people are choosing this path for their tiny home start! My husband and I stripped a 27′ bumper pull trailer down to the floor, and recycled, sold or gave away on craigslist almost everything else. Definitely not looking forward to finishing the tear down on the floor. But we have several welder friends at the ready to beef up the already heavy duty frame when it’s time to do so.

    Oh yeah… does anyone need a fiberglass shower/tub/toilet/sink enclosure? hahaha :-)

  25. Donatella says:

    Everyone needs to check out Zyl’s website. He’s being modest by not promoting it more, he does gorgeous work:

    http://zylvardos.com/

  26. robb davis says:

    Great work–and anyone without a truck will have a trailer for moving the recycled trailer!!

  27. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for detailing this out. I had wondered about using a trailer frame, but it looks pretty flimsy for anything I might build. Also, I am not a welder, so that would increase the issues. I like all the pieces you kept to recycle.

  28. Edwaard Thompson says:

    I should have videoed or pictures of my scrapping of my 79 Itasca RV. Scraped the body with some kids that needed the money, Not recommended. Things were wrecked that should not have been, namely the holding tanks.
    Saved the stove,sinks, windows,Toilet,and light fixtures, may not use them. Shower stall,LOST, Holding tanks,LOST. but most of the plumbing and such was saved. Have a 40LB under body propane tank, as well as the gear to use it. also saved the 5k generator.
    Also still have the cushions and table top. Thou I needed to scrap the benches, MOLD.

  29. We had an old trailer that was used as a sales office at the Russian River TT Preserve. The salesperson got a life threatening permanent disability from the toxic mold. The only way we could dispose of it safely was to burn it to the ground. You’ve got to be be careful when dealing with moldy old trailers. The only old trailers that are worth salvaging are Airstream types which can be gutted, renovated and sold at a profit if not kept for personal use.

    • Good point. I wore a mask that was acceptable for airborn mold. Eventually, everything was well ventilated enough to make working in the trailer less potentially hazardous. Here in the Northwest, everything (rv’s and houses alike) grows mold during the winter… It seems.

      The reaction you are talking about is rare, but real. I had a friend who was hospitalized because of it. He was exposed to it during his time working in a Wa St government mail facility.

  30. Lexie says:

    Good for you to have thought outside the box a bit ! Love it!!

  31. [...] Olympia, Wash., tiny house builder Abel Zyl Zimmerman of Zyl Vardos writes on Tiny House Blog about deconstructing a derelict trailer to salvage its parts, especially the trailer frame, to use for a tiny house on wheels. He gives specific info on costs [...]

  32. I just bought an old camper for the same purpose! Thank you so much for posting this, it is very insightful. We can’t wait to start tearing it down!

  33. [...] trailer for the purpose of building a tiny home. You can read the article on the Tiny House Blog: Recycling Old RV Trailers. Steve and Wendy from Serving God and Stickin’ It to the Man build a relatively large tiny [...]

  34. Melanie says:

    Thanks. This is inspiring!!

    Way to be the step forward in reusing the old.

  35. Zyl Vardos (my business) just restructured, refabbed, and refinished the trailer frame from the RV I wrote this blog article about.

    It is the foundation of a new 13′ x 7′ tiny house and everything is going fantastically!

    Pictures up at: http://www.facebook.com/ZylVardos

  36. Janine says:

    Why did you need to license the camper if you were going to tear it down?

    Thanks

    • Well, I intended to use the frame to build a tiny house on. Since the frame has the VIN that identifies it as a vehicle… licensing allows me to tow the frame legally, even after the ‘rv’ part is gone. And when I build a tiny house on it, it becomes a new ‘rv’. Bureaucratically anyhow.

      The tiny house is now under construction.

  37. Rick says:

    Anyone in Lower Mainland/Vancouver area British Columbia want a FREE old 16′ Prowler RV trailer?

    If so, call me ASAP 604 465 8639

    TODAY August 1st!

  38. Joey says:

    This is exactly the info I needed so thank you for posting. I have a 23ft double axle travel trailer and am planning on stripping it and building a tiny home on the frame. How can I determine the load capacity of the frame?

    • You can’t determine it accurately, because by removing the RV, you are changing the structure.

      The two most likely indicators are the load/capacity tag on the RV, and the markings on the axles.

      But even with this information, there are many other things about the frame to take into account before you can determine any sort of capacity, or gross vehicle weight.

  39. STATUS report:

    The range in this RV, a “Holiday”, which probably dated from the late 60′s or early 70′s was a bust. The oven thermostat doesn’t work, and there are no available replacement parts for it.

    It lights just fine, but gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter… not quite right for making cookies.

    • Beth L says:

      I am trying to dispose of a 1976 30 something foot travel trailer in Van Nuys CA. Inhabited and maintained at an RV park. My uncle was relocated to assisted living. Free for the taking.

  40. I desperately looking for an rv/camper for an eco friendly project in Salt Lake Utah going to CA in a week and can pick up. Can go and pick up anywhere!! Please call me 801-318-0356 sonia@soniathomas.com

  41. Shannon says:

    I am trying to get rid of a 2000 Fleetwood Prowler 26H Limited Edition! It has too much water damage for me to fix it! The seal on the slide went and it has been rained on for a year! Everything inside works great, front queen bedroom, Super Slide, Oak Cabinets, LOADED! The only thing is I live in ALBERTA CANADA. I don’t know if anyone has any idea’s or know’s the best way for me to get rid of it is?? I was thinking the auction.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Shannon,
      Where in Alberta? Do you still have it? I might be interested in a salvage op. Contact me through my website, flownorth.ca. :)

      To everyone else: Wow, you can really see the cheap/lightweight/shoddy construction in the “Working interior” photo. See how thin the walls are? When I tell people I want to build and live in a tiny house, many of them say “why not an RV?” THAT is why! I live way up north! I need insulation! :)

  42. [...] house. Interested in salvaging an old RV for a trailer? See Zyl’s post on the tinyhouseblog: http://tinyhouseblog.com/tiny-house-concept/recycling-old-rv-trailers/. He gave a really realistic table of the costs and [...]

  43. […] Talk about Steve and Wendy, who were building a tiny house from an old RV. How cool! I also found this short post by Abel Zyl Zimmerman on the Tiny House […]

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