Using a Semi-truck as an RV Hauler

Shown here are the three common models of Volvo’s that are converted to RV Haulers. The leftmost truck is a Volvo 780. In the middle is a Volvo 670, and on the far right is a Volvo 730. Not shown is a 630 – which is the same height as the 730, but has the shorter condo of the 670. The 630 and 670 are the same cab, except the 670 is full-height. That gives you more interior storage. The 780 and the 730 have a wider cab, deeper (longer) condo. The 780 has the most storage and most “livability of the three.

The 670 has two bunks in it, as does the 780. The 670 is the most common Volvo and is widely used by long-haul fleets. The 780 is mostly an owner/operator truck, and the 630 is mostly a regional hauler truck. You see the 630 pulling tankers and flatbeds.

The 730 is the rarest of the four trucks.

But It Is So Big !!!

Volvo 610 set up as a “daily driver”.

Some people are intimidated by the size of a semi-truck (HDT, or Heavy Duty Truck). Our Volvo 610 (the white truck, shown to the left) was a short wheelbase conversion, measuring 182 inches. The wheelbase is just a little over what a crew cab dually pickup truck wheelbase is (6” more), and the total truck is just a few feet longer. With the fifty degree Volvo wheel-cut (how far you can turn the wheels) you can maneuver far better than any pickup.  And, although the truck is taller than a pickup, the 10’ 10” is still low enough to drive around town and into neighborhoods.  You do have to be aware of low tree limbs, and you will not be going through most drive-thru’s, but it proves not to be much of an issue.

The bottom line is that the “footprint” of that truck on the road is about the same as a crew cab dually, and it maneuvers better. Yes, it is a little taller. But it is the same width as the crew cab rear wheels, and easier from a driving perspective because the front is the same width as the rear – unlike the pickup, where the rear is wider. On the pickup, you don’t visually “see” that extra width out in front of you, so it is harder to adapt to.

2009 Volvo 780 configured as a car-hauler.

In the case of our 780 – the larger silver truck shown with the car on it – it is definitely larger than a pickup at 29’ 3” overall length. But it has a condo you can live in and a car on the deck. Because we carry a car on the 780 the truck itself is not a daily driver, so the additional size of the truck is not really a factor in livability.

Visibility to the rear is also a concern we hear from people. It is true that you do not have windows to look out of to the rear. But the mirrors are so big that this mostly negates the issue. And the fender mirror(s) allows you to easily see the blind spots. The driving position is high enough that even if you had windows, they would not provide good “situational awareness” so your driving must adapt to that – just like in a motorhome. You use the mirrors, and you use the side and backup cameras. There is a monitor for viewing those right next to the driver’s seat.

The HDT gives you a much better view down the road since your seating position is up higher. It is far more comfortable than a pickup pulling an equivalent size trailer since it has all air ride; air ride suspension, hitch, cab and air ride seats. There is no “chucking” with the truck either since it is heavy enough to resist that. And, of course, the engine brake means that you never have to worry about going down hills. With the in-built engine braking, you can go down any mountain without ever touching the service brakes.

How Does the Transmission Work?

Our 1999 Volvo 610 had an “Autoshift” transmission. The autoshift transmission requires that you clutch only on starting or stopping. After that, the computer performs all shifting, both up and down – there is no “clutching” required for gear changes. There is a manual mode where you may use push buttons on the transmission stalk to perform shifts – again, with no use of the clutch. The truck will not allow you to perform a shift where you can over-rev or lug the engine. This means the engine is always protected from the driver. One advantage to having a clutch for starting is that when you are hooking to the trailer you can “slip” the clutch, just like on a car, and control your speed better. Earlier truck transmissions without a clutch pedal often have issues with this low-speed backing – especially Freedomline and Ultrashift transmissions.

The newer-generation transmissions that are fully automated properly handle low speed creeping. The Volvo I-Shift that is available in later model Volvo’s (2008 and newer); the Ultrashift Plus also performs quite well, as do the other newer transmissions. 

What Kind of License Do I Need?

I get the license question fairly often. Depending on your state you may need an upgraded license or you may be able to drive on a “car” license. You will have to investigate that issue, based on your domicile. But if you need an upgraded license for an HDT, you will almost certainly need an upgraded license for the “super pickup” class vehicle as well – like the F450/550 and the Dodge 5500. Most states that require an upgraded license do so at a weight limit. I’ll use Texas as an example. In Texas if the combination of the truck GVWR (note that is the rating, not the actual weight) plus the trailer GVWR is over 26,000 lbs you need an upgraded license – in the case of a truck/trailer you need a Class A Exempt (“exempt”, meaning exempt from CDL regulations). An F450 has a GVWR of between 13,050-14,000 lbs, depending on year and equipment. That leaves you around 13,000 lbs for the trailer before you get into Class A Exempt licensing requirements.  Each state will vary somewhat, but more and more states are implementing weight-based licensing requirements. If interested in hearing more about this contact me.


What About Comfort?

People ask about comfort because their current pickups hauling big trailers are so uncomfortable. That is because they are being pushed to their limits and are not designed for comfortable hauling of large loads, even though they may be rated to safely handle the load.

A semi-truck is designed for an 80,000lb (combined) load to be pulled continuously across the country. The cabs are designed for driver comfort – since drivers essentially live in the truck 24/7 while on the road. The truck has creature comforts just like a car does – good climate control, sophisticated cruise control, and an excellent driving position with full adjustment of the steering wheel. It also has a seat that is more like a chair; positioning is more chair-like as far as your legs go, instead of “laying you out” with your legs extended like many cars do. It has an air ride cab, air ride seats, air ride suspension, and an air ride hitch so that trailer movement does not translate to truck movement.


How Does One Choose a “Good” Semi-truck?

Choosing a semi-truck is a little different than choosing a car. But in some ways it is the same….let me explain. The difference is that you generally focus more on miles than on the year. And the number of miles on a semi-truck may seem daunting to most car buyers. That goes back to how semi-trucks are expected to perform. Remember, these trucks are designed to be driven 24/7. If the truck is not moving it is not “working”, and thus is not making money for the company or the driver (most drivers are paid by the mile). A semi-truck that is “team driven” can easily rack up 10,000+ miles a month. The truck and engines are designed for high miles, unlike a car that may only average 20,000 miles a year. In general, the engines in these trucks are designed to go 1,000,000 miles before overhaul. Yes, that is one million.

Maintenance is the key element in finding a good truck. The truck needs to be properly maintained by the driver/company. Buying a truck with a known “provenance” or “pedigree” goes a long way to ensuring that you are getting a good truck. Anything can happen of course, but we maintain our trucks to the highest standards. We generally replace components far before needed. We do not want to break down on the side of the road or be stuck someplace. Since we live “on the road” that is not an option for us. We owned the 1999 Volvo 610 shown above for ten years and it was very reliable. We never broke down in it.


Where Do I Get It Fixed?

Most people never notice all the HDT (heavy duty truck) service facilities. There are places to service/repair these trucks in every town in the country. There are lots of HDT “working” trucks traveling the highways continuously, and they have to get fixed wherever they are. So it is easy to find service for the truck – far easier than for a pickup truck. And, in general, the shop rate for HDTs is lower than for pickup trucks.


What Does It Cost to Rebuild The Engine?

Some people have heard horror stories about HDT’s needing to have the engine rebuilt. While this is VERY rare in RV use, it does happen, and no one can guarantee that it will not happen to a particular truck. But don’t forget, these trucks mostly have engines designed to go one million miles without rebuilding – and many go far beyond that.

Dealing with a “blown” engine takes, basically, three forms depending on the damage.

Typically you can do an “in-frame” rebuild, where the engine remains in the truck and is rebuilt in place. The second choice it to pull the engine from the truck and rebuild it. And lastly, you can get a re-manufactured engine that has been rebuilt by the manufacturer and comes in a crate – called a “crate engine”.

On a Cummins ISM like in our Volvo 610 an “in-frame” rebuild runs around $11K-13K, depending on what is done. Cummins Rocky Mountain was advertising an ISM in-frame rebuild for $10,800 in June 2013. It would not be much more today. It is typical to replace functioning auxiliary components during the rebuild process, simply because you are “in there”, which will add to the price. At the end of the rebuild you typically have an engine with a 2 year/200,000 mile warranty.  From an RV-use perspective, it is a “lifetime” engine.  

Our Volvo 780 had a D16 Volvo engine in it. This is a much larger engine than the ISM, and would cost in the $20,000 range to rebuild.

RVH Lifestyles sells two or four-year warranties that cover all the major engine parts, in addition to the transmission, pollution control systems, differential, turbo, etc.  Any truck purchased from RVH will come with at least a two-year warranty, but you can place a warranty on your own truck.


The Bottom Line

An HDT is easy for almost anyone to drive. I have taught many women who have never driven a large vehicle to drive at the HDT Rallies. People adapt very quickly. And the HDT gives you the flexibility to do many things not possible with a pickup: never any concerns about weight again; plenty of power for the mountains; exceptional braking power; use as a motorhome for short trips;  carrying a car, motorcycle or ATV; lots of storage, etc.

Here is a video with further information about tow vehicles.