By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
It’s hard to imagine what the RV industry would be like without the variety of components manufactured under the Airxcel umbrella that are built into just about every type of RV manufactured each year.
The RV Products Division makes Coleman-Mach air conditioners and MaxxAir vent covers and fans. A sister Division, Suburban Manufacturing, produces furnaces, water heaters, cooktops, and ranges with ovens.
Located in Wichita, Kansas, RV products alone employs in excess of 200 people working two shifts, said Greg Guinn, president of the division.
The company started as a division of The Coleman Company when, in 1966, industry legend Sheldon Coleman took some new products to Montana for pre-production testing. Normally, he used his famous Coleman tents to sleep in, but that year this family used a motorhome built by longtime acquaintance John K. Hanson, the founder of Winnebago Industries. Coleman loved the RV experience, but had trouble sleeping because of the heat.
He challenged his staff to develop an air conditioner for the motorhome and to have one developed before next year’s trip. The engineering staff rose to the challenge, and the Coleman Polar Pal was introduced in 1967 and sold about 1,600 units.
Since then, the company has manufactured more than 5 million roof-top air conditioners, as well as basement models for larger motorhomes. In fact, the firm produces almost as many air conditioners every day as the total number of units manufactured in 1967.
The units are rigorously tested at multiple locations during the production process:
- The copper tubes that hold the 410A refrigerant are burst tested with 500 pounds per square inch of pressure to test the overall integrity of the system.
- After making the final braze joints in the refrigeration system, each unit is evacuated and must hold the vacuum for 30 seconds with no leakage.
- When fully charged, the unit is tested for leaks in the run test booth using a detector that can find leaks small enough to allow as little as one-quarter ounce of refrigerant to pass per year.
- Coleman-Mach air conditioners are designed to operate at desert temperatures of 125 degrees, and to withstand cold as low as -40 F.
After testing, the air conditioner is packaged and shipped out to dealers on wood skids, and to manufacturer customers on returnable packaged skids. “The plastic returnable skid means our customers don’t have tons of wood that has to be disposed of, wood that would ultimately end up in landfills,” Guinn explained.
Coleman Mach air conditioners are distributed by Coast Distribution to thousands of independent dealers around the country, and are also available at Camping World accessory stores and dealerships. The products are used by RV manufacturers around the world, with units shipped to Australia, Asia, and Europe each month.
“Our OEM business has been quite strong this year,” Guinn explained, “We are, however, a little concerned about retail RV sales, and are keeping a close eye on that reporting. The wet spring with cooler-than-normal weather has postponed the retail buying season somewhat. But, recent reports are encouraging, and we expect the positive momentum of the RV industry to continue for the balance of the year.”
One company, three divisions
Airxcel has three operating divisions all led by President and CEO Mel Adams, and by Chief Operating Officer Jeff Rutherford.
While Guinn heads up the RV Products Division, Art Klee oversees Suburban Manufacturing, which was acquired in 1998 and is headquartered in Dayton Tenn. Paul Mechler leads the Marvair Division located in Cordele, Ga. Marvair manufactures climate control units for cell phone towers, commercial applications and individual classrooms. Marvair was acquired in 1997. The latest acquisition is the well-known Maxxair product line which took place in 2012.
“Through the various acquisitions, Airxcel can now offer five appliances to the RV industry. We ship over 30 truckloads of product to Elkhart each week,” said Adams. “These are not widgets. They are complicated pieces of equipment that RV makers and consumers rely upon to work consistently for years. They must work all the time, every time.
“Our associates take a great deal of pride in building products that provide comfort and convenience and that make the RV experience more enjoyable for our customers,” he added. “Imagine RVing in the summer without air conditioning, or heaters in the shoulder seasons, or not being able to cook while on the road.”
Airxcel and its divisions are constantly challenged to innovate and develop new items that excite OEM and retail customers, Adams explained. He noted that the firm has seen an increase of nearly 20 percent in its OEM business this year, although that is expected to slow down slightly as the year progresses.
“We are unique, in that we source components from around the world to get the best value, performance, and reliability, and then do the final assembly in the United States,” he said. “It’s something we have done consistently since 1967. Every RV air conditioner we’ve ever made has been built within about 500 yards of this facility.”
Sheldon Coleman and his father built the Coleman Company with the attitude that no product is really sold until its delivering satisfactory service to the consumer, Adams explained, adding that same Coleman tradition is evident in the company’s products today.
“We are competing with companies that build products in China, to take advantage of low cost labor, much lower hourly wages than we pay our associates,” said Guinn. “Consequently we have to try to do things smarter, to innovate, to find or develop less expensive production methods and processes.”
“The people building air conditioners in China are not likely to buy an RV from one of our customers,” said Guinn. “But many of our employees are active RVers who use the product and know how they must perform to deliver the best camping experience for all of our customers.
“There is another advantage to RV manufacturers to use products built in the United States. The supply line from our factory to our customers is short, and is able to react to changes in requirements by our customers in a very timely manner — days rather than weeks,” said Guinn.
He stressed that Airxcel builds high quality products that are designed to provide satisfactory service to the consumer for years. A great example is that Suburban builds their water heaters with glass lined steel tanks, just like residential water heaters, while a competitor uses unprotected aluminum tanks.
“Sure aluminum is lighter, but it is subject to corrosion at a much faster rate,” Guinn explained. “We use replaceable aluminum or magnesium anode rods that sacrifice themselves to the corrosion that occurs as a natural process when heating water. They protect the tank. Replacing a $10 anode rod is easier and cheaper than replacing the entire tank, and repairing or replacing the floor or anything else that was damaged when the tank started leaking.”
All of Airxcel engineers are encouraged to participate in the RV lifestyle to find just how well the products they design work when used in real-life situations. This input is invaluable when updating existing products, or developing new ones, he said.
“We are in the business of supplying components for high-ticket discretionary purchases,” Guinn explained. “People spending hard earned dollars on vacations and recreation tend to be very demanding. They expect — and deserve — quality products for the investments they are making. We are happy to do our part the help our OEM customers build long lasting products that enable RV owners to enjoy the experience and make happy memories.”
For more information on Airxcel or Airxcel products, call 316.832.3400 or visit www.RVComfort.com
For more information on Suburban call 423.775.2131 or visit www.RVComfort.com