When the RV industry peaked following the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris Barth noticed a gap in the RV market that wasn’t meeting consumer needs. Taking matters into his own hands, he and three others founded a better RV company that strived to satisfy a variety of consumer needs with their flexible units. With a focus on quality products, Ember is creating RVs that change the game.
Building a Better RV with Ember RV Company
Recognizing a gap in the RV industry, Ashley Bontrager Lehman, Chris Barth, Steve Delagrange, and Ernie Miller teamed up to create an RV unlike any other on the market. In 2021, they founded Ember RV and began designing RVs that offered unparalleled flexibility and functional configurations that accommodate a variety of RVers. Since the beginning, Ember has aimed to build a better RV and RV company by addressing customer needs and providing flexibility in their products. Together with their operations experts, this team of founders is using their extensive industry experience to provide RVs that offer unique and different experiences to customers. Focusing more on overlanding and allowing their customers to spend more time off the grid, Ember is constantly striving to create a better RV.
In this episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, Ember RV’s co-founder, Vice President, and COO, Chris Barth, sits down with host Dr. Denis Phares. They discuss Chris’ tenure in the RV industry and how it led him to disrupt the industry with the innovative Ember RV. He and his co-founders focused on creating an RV that would allow people to get away from crowded campgrounds and spend more time in nature connecting with their loved ones. Chris highlights how Ember’s focus on quality and domestically sourced products led to choosing Battle Born Batteries as their power source. The aptly named Gamechanger 3.0 gave Ember RVs the reliable power customers needed to go farther off-grid and stay out longer.
Denis Phares: 00:07
I’m Denis Phares, and this is The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. We are here in Tampa at the RV Super Show. And I’d like to welcome my guest today, Chris Barth, one of the founders and Vice President at Ember RV. “Thanks for having me.” So, what exactly do you do at Ember RV?
Chris Barth: 00:41
Our company is new. So, everybody is in kind of a multi hat role. I am officially the Vice President and COO, but I really prefer to talk… I do all… “You clean the toilets too?” I have. But I really prefer more of a discussion of a Lead Product Developer and co-founder. One of the most exciting parts about the role was getting to be there from the very, very ground up and shaping things. So that, that’s the fun part.
Denis Phares: 01:08
So, you guys are newcomers to the industry, I guess there can be characterized as that. So, it’s, it’s pretty cool to have one of the founders on the show today. Talk about the founding of the company.
Chris Barth: 01:18
Well so a new company, but I’ll say old, older… not old, that’s the bad way to say it, but experienced folks, that are our partners. So, I’ve been in the industry since 1996. And largely doing product development in one way, shape, or form. And my other founders, Ashley. Ashley, when we started was, what 11 years in, and she is the granddaughter of the folks who started Jayco. So, her family has been doing that forever. Her grandfather and grandmother founded that company in 1968. And it sold out to Thor. And she then moved on to a different kind of role. And still wanted to lead though. So, I had an idea about, kind of family legacy. And myself and a couple of others kind of discussed this idea of what we wanted to do together, maybe some new spaces that weren’t being touched.
So, it was a discussion of if there’s an area that we could kind of address for people who are looking for something different kind of post pandemic. It was, what if I don’t want to camp in a campground? How would I do that? And some of that discussion was, uh, about looking at what kind of… what kind of uses that people have. RVIA did a giant 120-page study about, kind of different types of RVers. They identified seven types of RVers. And we said look, what if we could get three or four different types in a segment. And then we also said if we build the same thing that everybody does, that’s not going to go over so well, let’s do something better.
So, the concept of let’s build a better RV, with my founders. And the other two founders are Steve Delegrange, an operations expert guru, somebody who has been in the industry for almost 30 years. And then Ernie Miller, about 20 years of experience and two of the most popular ops guys in the industry, but just have teams of people that want to work with them. So, we all said, what if we could build a better RV? What do we do with that? And then then it became a discussion actually about what if, what if we could build a better RV company. And building the company out, then became really, really cool versus just building the coaches themselves.
Denis Phares: 03:44
So, is it daunting building something completely new in a mature industry? Or were you like, focused, you knew exactly these are the needs, and we’re going to address those?
Chris Barth: 03:52
I think daunting is a great way to talk about it. We also started in 2021. So, there’s a lot of other strange challenges going on there with supply chain and procurement. “I heard about that.” Yeah, did you hear about that? Raw materials were strange. And there was… every other week, there would be something else that was a weird thing that would happen. So, you just had to start accepting things. Someone parked a canal or boat in a canal wrong, or, you know, just weird stuff. “I remember.” It was very strange. So that actually helped to shape some of what we did. Just because of even availability of certain parts, we started looking at certain premium materials and tried to go more domestic. That was a really important thing to us to domestically source. But yeah, it was daunting. There was a challenge. The marketplace was saturated with certain types of products as well. We saw a huge opportunity in the overland space. Overland, for those who don’t know, is kind of best maybe defined by people who are more focused on the voyage rather than just the destination. Like they love… Well, it’s kind of like the great American Road Trip crossed with a jeep backpack mentality. And I really think that there’s a lot of people who are doing overland stuff a lot of different people are doing it but not in the RV space, really.
Denis Phares: 05:12
So, you’re pretty unique in your focus, at least in the mainstream RV space?
Chris Barth: 05:16
Mainstream RV space. We said this, if this is conventional, let’s go conventional plus. And if the conventional space is more, maybe what we call traditional RV, let’s go a little bit more unconventional, non-traditional. And what we saw there was the idea of if campgrounds are full of traditional RVs and traditional RVers what if we don’t need a campground? How do we get off grid and off road?
Denis Phares: 05:16
So, it is funny that the conditions that led to, you know, the difficulties in supply chain and all that also led to more people wanting to go out and RV so at a time when our RVs were selling and booming, and the infrastructure was not folks were like, alright, we need to get out and not plug in. And that’s what you were addressing.
Chris Barth: 06:03
I think it was this idea of post pandemic mentality. Even in the pandemic, people were like, you can’t take my vacation away from me, right? I’m not going to go to maybe a theme park or I’m not gonna go to hotel, maybe I’m not on an airplane or a cruise ship or all those things… RV became super, super popular great way to spend time with the family, as by the way it always was, but it really put an emphasis on it.
Denis Phares: 06:26
Well, I think it was like, “Well, I’m not even going to work. Yeah, I’m going to work in the RV.”
Chris Barth: 06:30
And we had a lot of people asking then for… I need flexible space. My RV has to be multiple things, it can’t just be a bunk house, or it can’t just be like a couple style coach. So that flavored our design as well. And we’re gonna have multiple floorplan configurations that convert quite a bit now. So, the off-road part was an interesting thing we had to work with, with our friends and Lippert and their current group to develop an off-road suspension. So that’s a trailing arm heavy duty coil spring Dual Shock, truly independent suspension.
And that that covered the whole idea of let’s get off road. That’s a specialty frame. And there’s all sorts of goodies to dig into there. But the other part of this was how do we get off grid? And off grid was… I’m going to need big water. So, 55 gallons of fresh water, for instance, and ta-da I need batteries, right? And I need power. How do I do that? And how do I do it effectively? Solar. A lot of folks in RV started understanding maybe even a few years ago, but they just addressed it by throwing panels on top and then saying your solar prepped or your solar ready. Yep. Great. But that’s just gas pump. And that’s not gas tank.
Denis Phares: 07:44
We address all of that issue all the time. “Yeah, I’ve got two kilowatts of solar. Why is this not working right?” Well, the sun only shines in the daytime. “Yep.”
Chris Barth: 07:53
And we’ve told people bigger batteries is the right way to go. Not more panels necessarily. Because once you get charged up, right, you’re able to do so many different things. So that was kind of key. Early, early in the development stages, we ran into some friends… Wade and Josh came and talked to us a lot about… “They’re friends of mine too!” Yeah, from your company… came and talked to us about different things we could do. Even dropped off some kind of battery boxes, to give us some sizing ideas. And we actually, and this is gonna sound fun to you, we designed the product actually around some of those spaces to make sure we could, we could actually integrate it in. And we even kind of looked at what is going to come for the future and built it out, so the larger battery, the Gamechanger could fit in there, too. We also loved the Battle Born name already because that was something that was coming from consumer requests, when we went out online and took a look at what people are talking about, that was really the only brand name battery that came up with frequency.
Denis Phares: 08:55
So, by the time Wade and Josh had spoken to you, you already knew the brand?
Chris Barth: 09:00
I did. I’d already heard I’d already heard of it from the marketplace. And I knew that I knew that Dragonfly I mean, I knew that name as well from other stuff. But Battle Born was the kind of that, that name that was out there on the lips of consumers already. And you’re supposed to give consumers what they want, right? You’re supposed to like try… “We try, yeah.” So, this was a really cool thing to be able to say, “Hey, we have this this cool battery system.” I mean, I think I told you guys before that the very first time… we’re in a fairly empty facility getting brand new shipments in and this pallet of batteries shows up. And Ashley looked at me because it was a fairly expensive… You know, the batteries, they’re not cheap. They do something very special for us. And a giant pallet of them. She was like “Hey, what’s this all about?” Because we were just stocking up and I said, “This, this is how we’re gonna go, this is gonna be really cool.” She’s like, “You better sell them.” And it turns out, we grossly underestimated the demand. Which was a really interesting thing that happened. We really thought, at the beginning, it might have been more of a 15-20% take rate kind of thing. Dealers needed to maybe… RV dealers needed to know a little bit more about it. We still needed to kind of learn how that system would work better. But we planned for it, we knew there’d be demand. The demand shifted into an almost 50% out of the gates kind of thing. And now it hovers around that 75-80. I’ve had days though; the full production line is just full of solar panels and Battle Born Batteries on every single coach.
Denis Phares: 10:37
Given what you just discussed, how is it that anyone doesn’t opt for, for this?
Chris Barth: 10:42
Well, so that’s, that’s the thing now. So, if we look at if we look at inventory, that dealers have, the units that are powered up, the ones that are ready to go… which, by the way, what’s cool is like at a dealership location, when we ship that, that way, it’s dry camping at the dealership, you know. And somebody can go in and turn everything on and try things out. Because it’s, it’s ready to go. We’ve hidden the batteries nicely to kind of integrate them into the coach. So, if it’s something that, if the dealer knows it’s there, they flip everything on. And, again, we’re dry camping at the dealership. It has been a thing where we’ve watched consumers kind of pick off that inventory first, they go after that, which makes sense.
Denis Phares: 11:23
So, the dealers are dictating that spread of…
Chris Barth: 11:27
Yeah, it was us and them both. At first, it was just a “Hey, what do we think the… what do we think the take rate is going to be? Or how is it gonna work?” And then slowly but surely… and some dealers by the way, were really, really in tune with this and said, “I’m going to take them all this way.” Other ones were, “Let’s see how it goes.” And what we learned as our consumers and see the value in a more robust system to get them off grid. So, while I can say it’s expensive, that’s almost an old mentality on it. I used to work with an electrical engineer at another manufacturer who used to tell me all the time that solar is… “Solar energy, you’re never gonna get your money out of the investment, right? Never gonna never gonna get a return on that”. And I would say, “So you’re saying it’s a bad investment?” He said, “Yeah.” “Well so is an RV.” Right? And this is a… I know, I build RV’s all day long. We don’t buy RVs because it’s an investment, we buy RV’s because they let us do something that we couldn’t do otherwise.
And it’s one of my favorite things about it actually, is the experiences that you’re able to have which are so unique and different. This makes it even more unique and different. Who needs a campground? I love campgrounds. I like state and national parks too, but state and national parks many times have more rustic areas. Some of the best areas in fact, are more rustic. And there’s lots and lots of land in the United States and Canada that you can just… again, if you know somebody who has land up north or whatever, you can get off the off the grid pretty quickly and have a fantastic time. These batteries, this water, extra propane, all these things help you to do those things. And if, with some planning, you can stretch it out for weeks.
I came back from my spring break trip with my kids. I’m actually… I own an Ember 190 MDB which is a no slide bunkhouse model double over double, I have twin 15-year-old daughters. Zoey and Evelyn, I’ll just say that because they’ll listen to this because they’re a geek like their dad. We came back from a spring break trip. And I decided I’d just put my coach out in the driveway, to see how long it would go, because I just wanted to see me using it, in the real, how I would use it. And I had a little mini fridge going which was probably the biggest power consumer, we have a 12-volt fridge in there that actually really works well. After the fifth week in my driveway, we’re going on another trip. And after the fifth week, I was like, “Okay, I’m satisfied, that in April weather in Indiana, which was by the way, all four seasons at once. You know, we had a dusting of snow. And we had a really hot day, I was in partial sun sometimes because of a tree shade that would fall over the panels… I think the lowest I ever got on the batteries was like 78%. So, I was really excited to think about this idea of conceptually, perpetual camping. If I didn’t throw in the air conditioning or the microwave, which are the only two items in our coaches, which are 120-volt users really… other than getting that mini fridge on that specific model.
Denis Phares: 14:26
So, if I can go back a second… “Yeah.” I can conclude that you are in an RV manufacturer that owns an RV.
Chris Barth: 14:32
Yeah, it’s one of those funny things. I think there’s an assumption that of course everyone in the RV industry camps, of course everyone uses their products. And I think there’s a dirty little secret in RV industry that like most of it’s designed by 30- to 40-year-old males who don’t camp, and we hear about that from consumers all the time. I’m just repeating what I’ve been told by consumers that are… they question this, like, “Has anyone ever used this thing?” And it’s a rough thing sometimes because it can be even really little things like a bathroom. A toilet position in a in a crowded bathroom can make you say it’s obvious that the person who designed this has never had to use a bathroom in an RV. The dirty business of doing RVing is one of those things where if we can do that better… man is that a big, big impact on people. Or, you know, “Where does the light switch go? Or how many USB ports does something have in it?”
So. there’s all these little things like that, using the coach, which Ashley owns one as well. So does Steve. So does Ernie. Everybody camps, right. We also, when we get done with our prototypes, we’ve made them available to our to our team for an experience… as an experiential fleet. So now we have guys who have been building RVs for 20 or 30 years in Elkhart County, Indiana. That’s where we’re based. We’re based in Bristol. We’ve had people who had never camped before, in a RV. And they’ve been able to take out an Ember and have their first experience. And the only thing we require from them is for them to tell us, “What did you like? What didn’t you like? What would you change? How would you make it better?” Better is a big phrase for our companies, “What can we do better?” It’s actually a part of our company philosophy.
Denis Phares: 16:07
So, I would think it’s an asset to have the lead product designer, actually go RVing frequently and understand the pain points and try to solve them.
Chris Barth: 16:14
It’s super fun to like, go on a trip, like we went out to one of the overland expos, Overland Expo East. We went there with… two of my engineers came out there with us. I had one of my prototype engineers… all of us camping together, especially camping in prototype stuff, and trying different things out. I mean, there’s some stuff that we had on those coaches that still isn’t in the marketplace yet. And it’s fun to try those things out. That’s the true R&D is how does it work in use. But it also is fun, because that crew was enthusiastic about building the next thing.
And so, a couple of young engineers that are with us that got to see their stuff in use. It’s awesome to see like a customer, seeing photos come in. It’s another thing altogether to use it yourself. And, and kind of prove the whole thing out, “Oh my gosh, this really works well.” And then people come by and say this is really cool, what you did. And we have a modularized kind of bunk system that we’re showing off on a coach here. For the first time in a big tandem independent suspension setup, called the 221 MSL. And the back has got this kind of a very cool… it can be a bunk room, it can be an adult bed, it can be a desktop, it could be storage space.
Chris Barth: 17:34
So, it’s about flexibility. All of these different items in the coach that allow us to be more flexible, are the things that I think of that maybe make the brand and the product stronger. Flexibility, flexibility in that power system for us, allowed us to do the off-grid thing in a way that I feel like did change the game, right? So that’s why I think the battery name is so fun, and we’re still trying to work on some, I think better kind of ways to tell people that we’ve got that, that Gamechanger on board. And make sure they understand that, in my experience now, over the last year kind of having these units live in the marketplace. Questions that frequently come up are about what they can do with a battery system. They frequently want to run the air conditioning system and we have to have a talk with them about what’s real there… manage the customers’ expectations. We usually say, you know, about 100-amp hours of battery, maybe buy you an hour on the air conditioner, but that’s a, your results may vary discussion, right?
Denis Phares: 18:42
That’s, I mean, that’s a good rule of thumb that we like to tell people as well, about a kilowatt hour for an hour of air conditioner usage. But do you find yourself designing around how long you want your customers to be able to run the air conditioner?
Chris Barth: 18:56
We’ve tried… we’ve actually tried not to do that because it’s such a limitation still. We use a Truma air conditioner unit. The Truma Aventa, which is really a much better power consumer, like it, does a great job. But it’s still a discussion with most folks, especially the kind of the more maybe battery minded ones, the ones who like, know how it works. That let’s get good airflow going, we’re gonna maybe blast the air conditioner for… maybe we’ll blast it for a second, we have it on for an hour cooling down the coach, for a half an hour cooling down the coach and… our coaches are relatively small so you can cool them off pretty quick. Then we have big European windows in there that can vent and pair that up with a specialty fans and things like that and you can really do better and getting it cooled off and good to go. Again, I think there’s lots and lots of room for people to have more, more in-depth conversations about what they really want the systems to do.
We’re trying to listen about, “Hey, what do you want to do?” The air conditioning thing just comes up, you know. We have somebody who like calls in and says, you know, they’re in… the person was in Louisiana. 101-degree real temp, crazy high humidity, and he had 200-amp hours of battery. And said that he had the air conditioner on blast for two hours or hour and a half. And then… and then it petered out and he was upset. He said, “It only lasts an hour and a half.” I was like, “That is awesome.” You know? And he was like, “No.” You know. “I wanted eight hours”. I said, “Well we can buy you some more batteries?” You know, that’s the whole, that’s the whole thing is… I frequently talk with customers about that gas, gas pump, solar power, but gas tank, you need, you can add more gas to the tank and new battery tech is always coming.
Chris Barth: 20:43
One of the very exciting things I know from your company is you guys have, like, new stuff on the way all the time. I know that you’re working on special projects that will make that so that we can go further. But it’s… we have to have the time to do it. And then it’s just the resources as well. The customers do understand that you have to spend to get to that spot. But it’s almost limitless. I mean, you could… we have we have cargo carrying capacity issues, like you’d get into if you loaded the whole thing full of batteries, but it’s potentially something someone could do. And I know in the bigger rigs that they do it right. You get into a fifth wheel build, and you can… “Oh my goodness, if you’ve got 3000 pounds of cargo carrying capacity. Why not take up a couple hundred pounds of batteries. Right?” I think you’d be okay with that. Right?
Denis Phares: 21:29
I would be okay with that. Do what you need to do to get more batteries out there and we’re gonna help.
Chris Barth: 21:33
Yeah, see, we’ve been doing a good job. That’s a funny story happened to us last year when we were at this show. They didn’t power us up. There was some sort of mix up. Our whole row didn’t have power. And because we had Battle Borns in, we had an only three coaches at the time, every single one of the overland’s this year has a Battle Born in it because of what we learned last year. We had it in three coaches, we daisy chained them together, powered our whole display. Then the dealer plugged in their printers, their computers… our whole area for three days had power, but it was only run on Battle Borns. So that’s kind of a cool thing.
Denis Phares: 22:09
You’re welcome. On that note, thank you so much for coming by Chris, and we appreciate your time today.
Chris Barth: 22:15
It was a pleasure being here.
Denis Phares: 22:17
That’s gonna do it for today. I’d like to thank my guest, Chris Barth, co-founder and Vice President of Ember RV. Thank you, Chris. Be sure to subscribe on any of your favorite podcast platforms.