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Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Keeping It On the Level - Simple Steps to Leveling Your RV

I remember the first time I saw it……I was amazed. That huge motor home, slowly making its way through the campground, gently rocking as it wound its way to the temporary site. Effortlessly, the pilot backed into the campsite and shut the unit down. Before the entry door was even opened I saw four strange looking legs of steel being thrust ground-ward like some type of morphing kid's toy. With a slight, subtle shudder, the coach settled into a perfectly level position. Yep, automatic levelers, electric or hydraulic are a luxury to be admired. But what about the rest of us? What exactly do we do when we set up camp after each traveling day?

Well, before addressing the basics of leveling your RV, let's understand why the rig needs to be leveled in the first place. Certainly our camping comfort is at issue. It would not be appealing to sleep with our heads lower than our feet or to be constantly struggling to keep from rolling into the wall or worse yet, the spouse. And consider the inconvenience of having the eggs roll off the galley countertop every morning.

The primary reason for leveling any modern RV is to enable the absorption refrigerator, specifically the low-temperature evaporator coils in the refrigerator, to function properly. Due to the dynamics of the RV absorption refrigerator, the evaporator coils inside the cooling unit must permit the gravity flow of liquid ammonia through a portion of the system. And as any RVer who can spell "RV" will know, liquids simply won't flow uphill. Without getting too steeped into the theory of absorption refrigeration, suffice it to say that it can indeed be costly if the refrigerator is operated off-level. True, newer cooling unit technology incorporated in today's RV refrigerator employs a more vertical approach to evaporator positioning, still the refrigerator must be "relatively" level for optimum operation. Fore and aft as well as side to side leveling remains a concern.

But, you say, it is so difficult to check the level of the refrigerator with it stuffed full of food. This is true also, so try this: Before beginning a trip, with the refrigerator empty, place a circular bubble level either in the center of the shelf in the freezer compartment, if the refrigerator indeed has one, or in the center of the bottom of the freezer compartment if there is no shelf in the freezer. Next, level the coach so that the bubble is in the exact center of the level. Then, permanently mount a set of corresponding levels anywhere that is convenient for you. In many travel trailer applications, mounting the levels on the exterior corners on the front of the trailer, near the hitch, is most convenient. (For and aft leveling of a travel trailer or fifth-wheel is accomplished by manipulating the tongue jack or landing jacks).

For motor homes, mounting a set of level indicators near the driver's compartment makes it easy to monitor your "levelness" while you drive up onto a set of leveling blocks. It matters not how level the counter top in the galley is, or how level the floor of the RV is, or even how level the casing of the refrigerator is, it's the evaporator portion of the cooling unit that counts. Bi-directional, mountable bubble levels are available in a myriad of configurations and price points at any well-stocked RV parts store.

Also, remember this; most RV manufacturers simply create a hole in the cabinetry in which the refrigerator slides. RV refrigerators are purchased in quantity from the supplier or distributor and most coach manufacturers simply insert one into the cabinet opening, screw it down and send the coach on down the assembly line. Some RVs have refrigerators that do correspond to the levelness of the floor, but others may not be so fortunate. And this is one area where guessing is not encouraged.

For specific information concerning just how far off-level a particular brand of refrigerator can be, contact the technical support people at that refrigerator manufacturer. (You'll find a detailed manual for the refrigerator inside most owners' manuals.) Avoid listening to wives tales around the campfire. Each manufacturer has its own set of specifications for its model line.

If your refrigerator happens to be one of the older types, make it as level as you can. Don't risk ruining the cooling unit. Take a few extra minutes to verify just how level you are before operating the refrigerator. Perhaps it will save you a wallet-full of dollars better spent elsewhere. Okay, now that you have a permanent set of levels conveniently installed, stay aware of them as you set up camp after each day of travel. Here's how.
Best on the Block
For those RVs not equipped with electric or hydraulic levelers, the only option is to run one, two or three of the tires up on blocks in order to obtain the optimum level position. Always keep one tire firmly on the ground. Keep in mind most modern campgrounds have relatively level spaces to begin with, but you will still have to be prepared for some of the older campgrounds or for those off-the-beaten-track dry camping sites you like to visit. There are some aftermarket products designed to actually lift the tire of the RV, but the majority of users still resort to blocks.

Typically, most RVers carry a small assortment of wood blocks in varying dimensions for leveling the coach though there are some fine aftermarket products consisting of interlocking, stackable plastic blocks that are quite useful, but at a more substantial cost. Wood blocking is less expensive and easily obtained. Though not a necessity, but for extended usefulness, purchase pre-treated lumber for cutting into individual blocks. Usually 2 X material cut to varying lengths is all that is necessary as long as you can stack them high enough for a worst-case, off level site. Here's the key; the blocks should be long and wide enough to support the complete tire footprint. And with multiple blocks under one tire, the bottommost block should be the longest and widest with each additional block slightly shorter. They can all be the same width. This will create an easy-to-climb ramp of sorts.

How to Block - Six Easy Steps to Leveling the RV
  1. Position the RV about two feet away from its final stopping point. (The actual distance will correspond to the length of blocks you use.)
  2. Turn the engine off and set the parking brake.
  3. Determine exactly how many blocks will be needed at each tire position that requires lifting. It may take a few attempts to obtain the optimum level position. After a few times though, this step will become second nature as you gain expertise.
  4. Place the block(s) against each tire (back or front, depending on which direction you're headed), making sure when two or more stacked blocks are used they are offset slightly in order to maintain the ramp-like configuration.
  5. Start the RV (or tow vehicle), release the brake, engage the transmission and allow the engine idle speed to power the unit up the ramp of blocks. If the ramp is three or more blocks high, it may be necessary to use the accelerator some to ease the rig up the ramp. Keep one foot on the brake and stop when you reach the exact center of the top block. Here's where good communications with your co-pilot really pays off.
  6. Once stopped, verify how level you are by referring to the permanent levels you installed earlier. If level, place the transmission in Park, stop the engine and set the parking brake. It is now safe to operate the refrigerator.
Here's an example of improper blocking. Notice how only the center of the tire is supported. Indeed this will raise the RV, but it will also severely weaken the sidewalls of the tire over time. An unsafe driving condition could develop.
One of the worst habits to develop is using inappropriately sized blocks for leveling the coach. This is not only a poor leveling technique; it also is doing irreversible damage to the tire. The weakest portion of any tire is the sidewall. In the photo above/left, the tire bulging over both sides of the block puts undue stress on both sidewalls. Prolonged use of incorrect blocks will substantially weaken the sidewalls, thereby creating an unsafe driving or towing condition. Tire safety should never be compromised or jeopardized.

Here's an example of a properly blocked tire. Notice how the block ends have a tapered cut. This is a good practice since it lends itself well to keeping the stack ramp-like. Notice also that a ribbed plastic block is used as the uppermost block. This is highly preferred since the use of untreated lumber has the propensity to retain moisture and grow mold. The tire remains high and dry even during extended stays in rainy locations. (It is also recommended to cover the tires completely when staying for extended periods in areas with high levels of ozone and/or ultraviolet radiation).

When leveling a motor home with dual rear wheels, it is a good practice to use boards wide enough to cover the complete dual footprint. Don't leave the inside dual tire just hanging there. The same line of thinking should be applied also to travel trailers. If one side needs lifting, use blocks under the tires of each axle on that side.

Leveling - Not
Be aware of the difference between leveling the RV and stabilizing the RV. They are not the same thing. Leveling the RV literally lifts the coach by raising the appropriate tire positions to obtain the degree of levelness needed to operate the refrigerator safely. Stabilizing jacks are used to eliminate RV bounce once the coach has been leveled. Though some RVs may come equipped with stabilizers, they are not designed to actually raise the RV. Rather they should be considered beneficial for stabilizing the RV or slide-out. Aftermarket stack jacks, scissor jacks or screw jacks are a definite plus; they are simply not adequate for leveling the RV.

So in lieu of electric or hydraulic levelers, keep these important factors in mind:
  • The levelness of the low-temperature evaporator inside the refrigerator-the main reason for leveling in the first place.
  • Use wooden planks or aftermarket blocks to raise the RV to the desired height.
  • Always keep at least one tire on the ground.
  • Protect the tires by using the correct size blocking.
  • Add stabilizers to eliminate RV bounce.
And finally, save your nickels and dimes for that cool set of automatic levelers! Remember, RVing is more than a hobby - it's a lifestyle!

Improving Motorhome Ride, Steering and Handling

Ever dream of climbing aboard your home on wheels, settling into the driver's compartment, buckling up and heading off to experience the vast panorama in a smooth, relaxing, enjoyable driving environment? Tackling the curves as you would with an equally priced, specialty race coupe, with a latte in one hand while the other effortlessly caresses the steering wheel and guides your steed blithely through the twists and turns on endless ribbons of concrete? Or are you like many RVers who are forced to literally maintain a white-knuckled death grip on the wheel with both hands, fighting a mere 5 mph side breeze, constantly correcting the steering wheel, wracking back and forth so violently your holding tanks always read "Full"? Does the strain on your back and neck have you questioning whether you are indeed in your motorhome or on some exotic thrill ride at Wally World?

In truth, many, if not most, of today's motorhomes do experience some not-so-pleasant nuances with ride, handling, steering and suspension. Typically, it all relates to weight distribution and methods of counteracting the physics of propelling a motorhome down the road. Thankfully, the aftermarket is rife with products that can and will address those issues as they relate to the specifics of each motorhome. Is that to say your motorhome will gain the uniqueness of that sporty race car? Not quite, but your new vocabulary will include phrases like, "vastly improved," "easier handling characteristics" and "much safer." Plus that pounding headache will go away.

Any discussion among veteran RVers will yield an assortment of concerns which include subjects such as tires, front end wander, rear end sway, rut tracking and that porpoise-like up and down oscillating. And since every coach displays different symptoms based on the design characteristics of that coach, there is no single fix that will fit across the board. What may work on one RV, may not on another. In fact, because each coach is so inimitable and each symptom so specific, specialty shops abound that deal exclusively with improving motorhome ride. If you are an RVer who understands from whence I speak, take heart, for there are solutions.

The first thing to investigate during any preemptive troubleshooting foray into ride and handling problems centers on weight distribution. Face it, RVs in general and motorhomes specifically are not created symmetrically nor is the weight equally placed on the chassis. In fact, John Anderson, Founder of the Recreational Vehicle Safety Education Foundation once stated that, "Of all the RVs we've weighed (over 10,000 RVs in the first seven years); we've never come across one that was loaded equally on both sides."

It is vital then, that the astute RVer know exactly how much the coach weighs as loaded for travel. In no area is this more important that the motorhome tires. Knowing how much weight each tire location is carrying is virtually the only way to know how much air pressure to pump into each tire. Over or under inflation alone can breed a plethora of steering, handling and safety worries. Additionally, most every tire company will stress the importance of proper tire sizing and load range choice for each gross axle weight rating.

As for all other steering, handling or sway issues, always begin by ensuring your rig is set up with the correct front end alignment at factory specs before adding equipment and components. Also, according to Kevin Healy, owner of an RV specialty shop, East County Alignment & Brake, always have the stock springs tested and evaluated prior to slapping on replacement parts. Granted, aftermarket products will indeed improve drivability, but having the correct spring rate is vital to knowing which combination of aftermarket products will do the most good. Since it could be a substantial investment to rectify all ride and handling ills, the smart RVer will seek the biggest bang for the buck.

No talk of front end remedies omits the name Bilstein. Simply put, if your coach is not already equipped with Bilstein shocks, get some. This upgrade is the most common aftermarket replacement component in use today. For the larger diesel pusher rigs, it's not uncommon to find four Bilsteins added to the rear end also.

More front end improvement is realized with the addition of the Davis TruTrac(tm) Bar. Developed by RV chassis expert Eric Davis, this bar allows for a stricter control of the motorhome with less effort exerted by the driver. The TruTrac(tm) holds firm the contemptible front axle side to side movement that can turn a leisurely RV excursion into a driving nightmare. If front end wander or rut tracking are frequent experiences for you, the TruTrac(tm) Bar is a necessity.

To avoid worry over severe tire oscillations on bumpy roads, or loss of control during a front tire blowout or a sudden shudder caused by a passing truck, there are a couple of cures to consider. Steer Safe and Safe-T-Plus are the front runners in the steering damper area. Designed to keep the front wheels between the ditches at all times, either of these two comparable add-ons are on most RVers want list. Coupled with the aforementioned Bilstein shocks and Davis TruTrac(tm), the inclusion of either of these steering stabilizers rounds out the most popular, three-component upgrade package for motorhome front ends today. Though each addresses basically the same steering symptoms, the Safe-T-Plus employs sealed components which could be a factor if you travel in areas where salt, ice and moisture are prevalent.

Do you constantly over-steer your motorhome as you travel down the road? The need to continuously wrestle the steering wheel just to stay straight could also be caused by a not-so-pristine steering control mechanism called the bell crank. Thankfully Henderson Line-Up Brake & RV has developed a superlative replacement product, the Super Steer Bell Crank. Many motorhomes built on the older Chevrolet and GM chassis especially are prone to rapid bell crank fatigue due to inferior bearing design. The result was a need for a rebuild or a replacement after just a few thousand miles. The maintenance-free Super Steer Bell Crank uses precision tapered Timken bearings and is completely sealed against road debris and moisture.

Ah, but not all ride and handling problems are limited to just the motorhome front end. Rear end sag or sway, the tail wag the dog syndrome, are also problematic for many coach owners. Again the aftermarket proffers up the fixes. Air bags and a heftier rear stabilizer bar will effectively address the sway problem and body roll tendencies of boxy motorhomes. Once again the Henderson brothers bring a solution to the mix with their Super Steer Rear Stabilizer Bar. A larger diameter bar and improved, high-strength polyurethane bushings are all features of most aftermarket rear sway bars. It's seldom argued that virtually every motorhome will ride better with a larger sway bar.

Air Lift air bags just may be the solution if your rig is drastically out of balance front to rear. Rear end sag is not only unsightly on people, but likewise on motorhomes. Plus this imbalance reduces the downward force on the front axle, thereby negatively affecting the front end suspension and steering characteristics. The obvious fix is to raise the rear end, shifting some weight forward onto the front axle resulting in better steering and handling up front. Simply adding leaf springs, however, creates a stiffer, less flexing alternative. If your driveway displays the tell-tale gouges in the concrete from the ball mount on your motorhome, or you look like Flipper going down some roads, perhaps it's time to consider a rear air bag system. Do remember there is an Air Lift kit for just about every motorhome.

Without a doubt, RV owners of yesteryear never had as many aftermarket opportunities to improve upon ride and handling as do RVers of today; most just suffered in silence, drifting from RV to RV hoping for a better ride at each trade. Thanks to the diligence and ingenuity of some bright minds, there are better mousetraps out there. Indeed today's coaches are better than ever, but with each body size, floor plan design, wheelbase dimension, weight distribution variance, and chassis brand, comes the need for pinpoint troubleshooting to determine which products will offer the best possible solution for common front and rear ride tribulations. Once that is determined, one quick trip to your local RV Service Center will have you sipping that latte in no time while allowing the blood to finally flow to your knuckles once again. And remember, RVing is more than a hobby, it's a lifestyle!

How Fresh Is Your Fresh Water?

According to the ancient Greek poet Pindar, "Water is the best of all things." But would Pindar, who lived 518-438 BC, even understand our contemporary RVing concept of carrying fresh water with us, or of tapping into a different source of city water each evening? Certainly there was a high degree of importance placed on the availability and the freshness of water during those ancient times, not to mention the importance of learning the refined art of dry camping; talk about real boon-docking! And so it should be today. RVers should wonder just how fresh, (read - safe), is the water at the various campgrounds we visit.

The Bad,

Not long ago, USA Today analyzed millions of records from the nation's 170,000 regulated water systems during the years 1993-1997 and concluded, "Each day, millions of Americans turn on their taps and get water that exceeds legal limits for dangerous contaminants. Millions more get water that isn't treated or tested properly, so there's no telling if it's clean." Think water worries are just a dilemma from the long ago past? The worst outbreak of a waterborne illness in U.S. history was just a few short years ago in 1993 when a parasite in Milwaukee's water system killed 111 people and made 403,000 people sick. A report by the Medical College of Wisconsin and the EPA estimates that 7.1 million Americans suffer nausea or diarrhea yearly just from foul water. The bottom line? Take a proactive attitude and be sure the water you allow into the fresh water system in your RV is indeed fresh and free from contaminants

The Ugly,

We've all experienced bacteria-causing, foul tasting and smelly water at some time during our RV excursions, but are there more serious dangers lurking below the surface? (pun intended). Just what pitfalls are we to be aware of? Microbiological water enigmas center around five categories; viruses, molds, algae, parasites and bacteria. Specifically, waterborne bacteria and some hearty parasitic protozoa are a serious concern everywhere since the majority of these are often not affected by typical disinfection processes. In fact no U.S. municipal or regional waterworks can guarantee killing or removing all of them. Add this to the fact that the most dangerous of the parasitic cysts, Cryptosporidium, is found in virtually every surface water supply worldwide. Small wonder there should be caution.

The very name itself should induce an awareness; "crypto" means hidden or secret and the word "spore" means seed or germ. Cryptosporidium is literally a "hidden germ". A leathery shelled parasite, it is just 3-7 microns in diameter; (a human hair measures 100 microns). Cryptosporidium causes severe, flu-like symptoms and must simply be left to run its course since there is no cure. Once ingested and broken down, four additional protozoa emerge from each cyst and begin to reproduce. As widespread as Cryptosporidium has become, the EPA still does not require municipal water systems to test for it. Yet another good reason to take an assertive stance regarding the water you drink and cook with.

And The Good There are ways, however, to combat and protect against harmful bacteria and parasites like Cryptosporidium and Giardia. Effectively, there are three things RVers can do;

One, boil all the water used in the fresh water system - Boiling is a good way to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites though this is not very practical.

Two, use bottled water - Again, not very practical for RVers. It can also be expensive, inconvenient and still no guarantee that it's pure. Some published reports even suggest that 25% of all bottled water contains known carcinogens and about 20% contain industrial chemicals. Wonderful.

Three, use a point-of-use, (POU), water filtration system. This option is the most viable, the most convenient and the most readily available to all of us. Many fine companies have jumped to the fore with an assortment of effective filtration products.

Filtration systems can run the gamut from simple mechanical strainers to the more exotic reverse osmosis and superchlorination systems. The best system for you depends on your traveling habits and the cleanliness of the water you are likely to run into.

Many POU systems are installed under the galley sink and deliver fresh water directly to a dedicated faucet for cooking and drinking. However, many RVers prefer the very popular, in-line external units that allow finite filtration without losing that precious under-the-counter storage space. The added plus is that all the incoming city water is processed, so you can enjoy RV showers without the heavy metals and odors sometimes found in park systems. As an additional precaution, use an in-line filter as you fill the fresh water tank on the RV. As water is processed through the filter just before it enters the city water inlet or the inlet to the fresh water tank, sub-micron particles, bacteria, cysts and unwanted chemicals are removed by the active filtering media, usually carbon.

So just how does activated carbon remove the impurities? By the process of adsorption. No, that's not a typo. Adsorption is the physical process that occurs when dissolved molecules, bacteria and other particles are attracted to and attach themselves to the surface of the adsorbent, the carbon. Kind of like a magnet sticking to a metal surface. Quite different from the more familiar process of AB-sorption, which can be likened to a paper towel soaking up water.

As an adsorbent, especially when filtering trihalomethanes, (THMs), volatile organic contaminates, (VOCs), pesticides and fungicides, activated carbon is quite effective because it's surface area is enormous; about 1,000 square meters per gram. To put that into perspective, a piece of carbon the size of a single pea will yield a surface area a little over the size of half a football field! But as with many good things, there is a downside to using carbon as the sole filtering media. Exposure to chlorine in water supplies will quickly deteriorate the adsorbing qualities of carbon, rendering it minimized or useless in as little as 200 gallons, so if you use a chlorine product to de-winterize your RV water system, be sure to remove or bypass the filter first!

As an alternative, companies such as Hydro Life and General Ecology, have improved upon the process of carbon-only filtration. General Ecology has developed a unique technology employing a "Structured Matrix" filtration component which instantly filters the water without the use of chemicals, double treating or delay time.

Hydro Life has perfected a filtering media which employs carbon along with their patented media called KDF. KDF causes an electro-chemical reaction which neutralizes harmful chemicals and dangerous metals such as lead. As an example, chlorine is broken down into a harmless chloride after being zapped with the .04-volts produced when the water passes through the KDF. The water then passes through the carbon to complete the filtering process.

An established maker of exterior and interior POU systems, Hydro Life also has developed a unique bracket to hold most external filters. A mounting plate is secured to the sidewall of the RV and a second plate is provided for stowing the filter inside a compartment. The nice feature about this holder is that it can be reversed to hold either the canister-type filter or the in-line version.

Other suppliers with a high degree of brand recognition include Everpure® and Culligan®. The popular Everpure system utilizes a superchlorination/dechlorination process to attack bacteria, viruses, cysts, rust and other heavy metals. All of which can lead to foul smelling water.

Another name synonymous with RVing is SHURflo®. Aside from their very popular water pump, SHURflo also offers the Waterguard Water Filter Kit. This cartridge-type filter can be mounted inside, under the counter, or used as an in-line, exterior filter. One Waterguard model incorporates a handy bypass valve for easy cartridge replacement or for winterizing purposes. Like the Culligan canister-type filter, the Waterguard replacement cartridges are available with an assortment of filtration media depending on the degree of filtration needed.

Look for a filtration system that satisfies the requirements of Standard 53: Drinking Water Treatment Units - Health Effects, as determined by NSF, a third party certifying agency. Though no official standard exists for POU filters, virtually all public health officials adopt the standards of the NSF.

To ensure proper filtration efficiency, always replace the filter media or cartridge as least once a year. Keep in mind, the longer a filter is in service, the less effective it becomes. At some point, an exhausted filter media will begin dumping contaminates back into the system. In severe cases or when tainted water has been encountered, it may be necessary to replace the filters more often.

Perhaps what Pindar really wanted to say is, "Fresh and clean RV water is really the best of all things!" Well, we, at least, can enjoy that sentiment today. Be sure to check out the filtration devices on your next visit to your local Camping World store.

RVs, Rubber Roofing, and You

Few innovations in the RV industry can boast of steady interest over an extended period of time and at many levels of the industry. But along with other leading-edge design concepts such as basement model floor plans and slide-out rooms, the advent of EPDM rubber roofing has generated a lot of interest and a box full of questions regarding its wear, its care and its benefits. Equipped on RVs since the 80's, EPDM rubber, (ethylene propylene diene monomer), has now enjoyed industry-wide acceptance on many recreation vehicles and many decades of successful use in other industries. So popular now, most RV manufacturers offer at least some of their product line, if not all, equipped with an EPDM rubber membrane as the finished roof surface.

As EPDM membrane increased in popularity and RVers became more in tune with it, aftermarket products began to appear including a vast assortment of treatments, cleaners and protectants. And that's where the contention began. Confusion seeped its way into the fabric of discussions from campfire conversations among RV owners to professional technical presentations by the so-called experts. Even knowledgeable professional shops were a bit vague when asked about specific precautions concerning EPDM membrane. The facts will be revealed here, but first, a little EPDM background.

According to a published polymer selection guide spec sheet, EPDM membrane is ideal for outdoor applications, such as the roofs of RVs because it has an excellent resistance to ultra-violet light, (UV), ozone, oxidants and can withstand severe weather conditions. Such characteristics allow many EPDM manufacturers to guarantee their membrane for long periods - ten to twelve years. Realistically, EPDM membrane could last closer to twenty! Additionally it has excellent resistance to heat which makes it extremely well-suited for recreation vehicles in any climate. It is capable of enduring temperature variations from -50 degrees F., to 240 degrees F., without cracking or deteriorating. Its sunlight aging rating is excellent. Compression set, abrasion resistance and its resilience factors have all been rated good. On the downside though, tear resistance only came in at fair, and the solvent and oil resistance rating is poor. Many RVers have experienced tears or rips in the rubber caused primarily by low hanging tree limbs while pulling into campsites. Happily though, repairs are likewise easy, thanks to the aforementioned aftermarket. Other inherent negative characteristics include a susceptibility to absorb oils, fats and waxes from solvents having a low polarity. An example would be the resultant bubbling or wrinkling that can occur if an oil-based roof coating, commonly used on aluminum RV roofs, is mistakenly applied to EPDM membrane.

By nature, EPDM rubber requires no protection from UV rays or ozone bombardment, though it is prone to oxidize. Normal oxidation is a condition due to the disintegration of surface binders or elastomers simply by weathering. Other destructive environmental conditions can also add to the degree of chalking. The result is that surface chalking actually removes a portion of the rubber. This is a normal occurrence and the RVer should not be concerned about the direct effect on the rubber. Oxidation will, however, usually manifest itself as long, unsightly streaks running down the sides of the RV. We've all seen it. The streaks are usually caused by dirt, road grime and air-borne pollutants that settle and adhere to the roof and are washed over the side along with the loosened powdery surface elastomer. The simple solution is to keep the roof clean. The degree of chalking associated with EPDM may vary from coach to coach. And according to the makers, tighter controls during the copolymerizing procedure leads to a slower rate of oxidation though most will surrender up to 10% of the overall thickness during the life of the roof. Since EPDM is itself an elastomer used generally in conjunction with other elastomers, copolymerizing the EPDM with other modifiers can substantially improve the quality. But that's for the manufacturers to worry about.

Cleaning your rubber roof should be a regularly scheduled maintenance task performed often enough to keep the EPDM surface white. Usually four to six times per year will suffice depending on your climate and its propensity to gather and distribute dirt, and how pure the copolymerizing process was performed during manufacture.

One confusing aspect of EPDM care, alluded to earlier, involves the use of products that contain petroleum distillates. It appears the very words, "petroleum distillates" invoke confusion and controversy. EPDM, as designed and formulated by the chemists and engineers, has a poor resistance to oils and solvents - derivatives of petroleum, but many, if not most, of the aftermarket cleaners and protectants are forever branded with the words, "Contains: Petroleum Distillates" right on the container. So what gives? When asked about the apparent contradiction, many product manufacturers were quick to respond and ready to defend. Read on.

According to most, the term "petroleum distillates" is a very broad category which usually refers to all aliphatic hydrocarbons. Further, aliphatic hydrocarbons can be divided into two distinct groups: petroleum distillates and synthetic paraffinic hydrocarbons. Not that it will impact your RV life immensely, but the three general classes of compounds found in petroleum distillates include napthenic, aromatic and paraffinic hydrocarbons. All petroleum distillates and paraffinic hydrocarbons are good cleaners and spot removers though the paraffinic hydrocarbons have a lower flammability level, a narrower boiling range and a higher solvency rate. They all are very good at removing light grease and grime common to the roofs of RVs. Further purified, some distillates eventually become oils used in medicines and cooking aids.

Proponents say trying to define the term petroleum distillates is akin to explaining the term, "liquids." Liquids come in many varieties; water, milk, battery electrolyte, gasoline, cough medicine and nail polish can all be described as liquids, and each has a beneficial use when used correctly. However, nail polish used as battery electrolyte or milk poured in your RVs fuel tank will indeed have disastrous results. Fact is, all petroleum distillates begin their refined life as a petroleum distillate, but their end use can be radically different. This is not to trivialize the concern about some petroleum-based products with respect to EPDM membrane, but broad-brush tactics condemning all petroleum distillate products as the death knell to EPDM rubber roofing is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. One EPDM manufacturer even recommends the use of unleaded gasoline as a cleaning solvent though admonishing, "Use cleaning solvent sparingly. Do not saturate sheet. Noticeable swelling of sheet indicates that too much cleaning solvent is being used." Makes sense. Additionally, industrial splice cleaners used by some makers, including Carlisle SynTec and Anjon, contain petroleum distillates. Immersion tests have revealed that petroleum distillates indeed cause EPDM to swell, wrinkle and bubble, but in the case of volatile solvents, the swelling can recover as the solvent evaporates. In other words, take care and know what you are doing if you use petroleum distillate products on EPDM membrane. Your rubber roof material will bubble and loosen if it is saturated or soaked with a product that contains petroleum distillates.

But, this harkens back to a common theme among those EPDM product manufacturers who use petroleum distillates in their mix; they say in essence, look, we have done our research, spent big bucks to formulate a product that will do what it says if you simply follow the directions properly. We have to put the words "petroleum distillates" on the label as a notification for physicians and emergency medical specialists in the unlikely event of ingestion of our product. Prominence in labeling is a requirement of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Code of Federal Regulations, Commercial Practices, Section Sixteen. (Copies of the regulations are available by contacting Superintendent of Documents, PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954).

So the call went out to product manufacturers and EPDM suppliers and distributors for information, product samples and maintenance recommendations. Samples, when provided, were tested from a user's perspective in various climates over the course of many months. What follows is a list of the products that were effective on EPDM rubber membrane displaying variable degrees of oxidation and sporting an assortment of stains and dirt. What mattered? Just this - did the product do what it said it would do.

An interesting note is that other factors also contributed to a product's effectiveness including the time of year and how well the roof had been previously maintained. But the type of stain, the indigenous climate and how much oxidation was present were the three main determining factors. Application directions were followed to the "T" though none were compared head to head for ease of use since that comparison would be purely subjective. Interestingly, there were no reports of swelling, bubbling or damage caused by the use of a rubber roof cleaner or protectant that contained petroleum distillates.

One cleaning tactic that continues to work on tough stains, previously endorsed by virtually all EPDM suppliers, is to dampen a clean cloth with mineral spirits, (a petroleum distillate), for spot applications. However, do not pour mineral spirits directly onto the roof; remember the saturation factor. Another product evaluator had success simply with Tile-X mildew cleaner, a bleach-type product, though it remains unclear exactly what type of stain was on the roof. Simple household bleach worked well in other instances. Dicor recommends their own cleaner or a mild laundry detergent for general cleaning and mineral spirits for the tougher stains. Ironically, Alpha Systems Incorporated, another major EPDM supplier, choose not to respond to two separate requests for information and their recommendations.

Yet a dichotomy still exists. Fact; warranties can be voided by using products that contain petroleum distillates if damage is incurred by its use. Fact; when used as directed, EPDM products containing petroleum distillates do work. So just where does that leave the RV owner? It beckons the RVer to try an assortment of care products and make a personal observation and decision based on his/her climate and type of grime. In other words, use what works best in your situation taking care to follow the directions explicitly. Be also advised that your warranty may be affected by using products that contain petroleum distillates. It just may come down to how well you want the roof to look, how easy it is to clean, and if the risk of voiding the warranty means less to you than keeping your EPDM rubber roof membrane spotless.

Other companies contributing to this article include:

1500 Shelton Drive
Hollister, CA 95023

Patrick Industries, Inc.
PO Box 638
Elkhart, IN 46515

Pro Guard Coatings
PO Box 2056
Sinking Springs, PA 19608

A Safe LP System

Safety, safety, safety! Is it really such an issue with recreation vehicles? Yes, yes and yes! If I were to pick just one “Golden Rule” to encompass the entire RV spectrum it would be, Never Compromise the Safety Factor. And in no system is that maxim more important than in the Propane System.

All RVers know, (or should know), that LP is one of the most volatile of all products carried in our RVs. Its adaptability to the RVing form of travel is most significant. It can be compressed tightly into a relatively small container and yet it holds within enough energy to truly allow us to be “self-contained.” However, one must not view the LP system with a cavalier attitude. Conversely, respect for and the acceptance of certain LP related realities make the LP system a valuable asset. Ignore them and…well, let’s not even go there.

Okay, you agree, the LP system should be kept safe. But just what can I do to ensure my safety and that of my recreational investment? Well, for starters, realize that preventive maintenance can be a good thing - an inexpensive insurance policy, if you will. Each appliance within your LP system requires seasonal maintenance as mandated by the appliance manufacturer. Read through that literature you tossed into that bottom drawer. In most cases, maintenance items are not covered by that new coach warranty or any extended warranty for that matter. I know that sounds like somewhat of a downer and certainly your RV Dealer glossed over it if he even mentioned it at all. Preventive maintenance is simply the responsibility of the RV owner. But as alluded to earlier, view it as a basic insurance policy.
The primary aspect of a preventive maintenance program for your LP system is simply this; it is a safety issue. Now, go back and re-read the first paragraph. Back so soon? Read on. This article will list a few important items in the LP system we should all consider. They are presented in no specific order of importance. Keep in mind, they do not represent the sum total of everything that needs to be addressed. Many coach owners perform these tasks themselves, however, if you do not feel 100% comfortable doing so, please call your local RV service facility. They will be more than happy to accommodate you.
  • First on this list, check for LP leaks often. In my seminars, I recommend three different intervals for having your entire RV tested for leaks. Before each and every trip, as necessary, (for instance, if you smell the odorant added to the LP), or at least twice a year.
  • Always use a dual stage regulator and always carry a spare regulator. The regulator is the heart of the entire LP system. If it is rendered faulty, your complete LP system will be useless. If you dry camp often, that means no heat, no hot water, no cooking, and, dare I say, no cold adult beverages. LP regulators come pre-set (close enough), from the manufacturer and are simple to install while on the road.
  • Never allow your LP container(s) to be overfilled. All are manufactured to be filled to 80% capacity only. We store LP as a liquid, but utilize it as a vapor or gas. If liquid fuel enters the regulator and piping system, serious (read costly), damage can occur.
  • Inspect your containers often. Look for rust, dents, dings or other obvious damage to the container, hoses and other devices attached to them. Have a professional technician inspect them if you find something questionable.
  • Be sure your safety related detectors are operable and always carry fresh batteries for each. Regularly test the effectiveness of the LP leak detector, the carbon monoxide detector and any smoke alarms you may have in your RV. Don’t overlook the fire extinguisher as well. Be sure it is charged and ready to go should you need it.
Once again, the above list should not be considered all-inclusive. It is intended, however, to indeed be key reminders for us all to never compromise the safety factor. And remember, RVing is more than a hobby - it’s a lifestyle!

Do It Yourself, or Take It to a Pro?

By Gary Bunzer

Recreational vehicle service and maintenance - we have all had exposure to its necessity at one time or another. In the vast realm of RV options such as type of RV, floor plans, color schemes, types of chassis', interior furnishings and other assorted appointments, just to name a few, there can be no denying the "non-optional" eventuality of service, maintenance and repairs required by many of the components on our coaches. This is especially evident as we keep and utilize the motorhome over longer periods of time. Virtually all coach manufacturers agree that in order to receive the most out of the recreational investment you've made, adequate maintenance must be performed on certain components on every RV. In fact, a typical motorhome with a generator and two roof air conditioners has a minimum of sixteen retail hours (or more), of mandated maintenance that needs to be performed each and every year! That's right, sixteen hours worth. And many coaches mandate up to 20 or more hours of annual service. At an average retail labor rate of, say $95.00 per hour, that could total almost $1,900 per year for just trying to avoid a major problem.

Product manufacturers oftentimes will indicate the necessity for periodic maintenance on their individual products each season as a precautionary step in obtaining the optimum use of that product. It is noted, however, that all products will not automatically self-destruct if these sixteen hours of maintenance are not performed, but it is highly recommended and one would certainly gain additional life from these products if they were to be maintained and checked periodically.

Some of those areas that may need seasonal attention and that you may want to consider doing yourself are not limited to, but do include:
  • checking and sealing the roof, windows, storage compartments and doors
  • cleaning the propane gas appliances
  • changing the oil in the generator and chassis engine and checking all fluid levels
  • cleaning the filters in the roof air conditioners
  • cleaning and treating your holding tanks
  • flushing and sanitizing your fresh water system
  • performing battery maintenance
  • winterizing and de-winterizing the coach
  • installing add-on accessories
There are basically two types of RV service; crisis repairs and preventive maintenance. The aforementioned sixteen hours would be classified as time devoted to preventive maintenance - those steps usually performed before there is an actual need for repair. Kind of like preventive medicine. Something you do now to prevent something worse from happening later. A little insurance, if you will. Crisis repairs, on the other hand, offer no options. The problem is already at hand and readily in the now! A few examples of crisis repairs would be an abnormally worn tire, a blocked cooling unit on the refrigerator, a blown engine, a burned out roof top air conditioner compressor.
That said, here's the important thing to remember; preventive maintenance will minimize the frequency and the degree of crisis-type repairs. Routine tire inspection and careful study of inflation pressures, checking and cleaning the refrigerator components and checking the propane gas pressure, regular oil changes, and periodic cleaning of the air conditioner filters can all prevent the above crisis repairs from happening. Realize it is a choice each RVer must face - Preventive maintenance, or crisis repairs. There is no third option.

Do It Yourself?
Alas, this discussion is not really about the types of RV service, but about whether or not you should even attempt some of the maintenance items yourself. Can we as owners control our own RV repair destiny? Is that possible or feasible, or should we simply leave all types of service up to the professionals? I, for one, have always been in favor of owner involvement in the technical arena concerning RVs - to a certain extent. I've devoted a large junk of my time over the last forty years educating the RV owner specifically in some of these areas. But you did notice I had a quasi-disclaimer tacked onto the end of that earlier sentence. Unless properly trained and prepared, I do believe RV owners should simply not attempt to make repairs or perform service on any RV, product or component.

This is especially true during any factory warranty period of a new coach. All repairs should be performed by authorized persons only during this time. In some cases, warranties may even be voided or manufacturer liability lessened if unauthorized repairs are performed (In the context of this article it is assumed your coach is not under a warranty situation). But most maintenance items, though mandated by the product manufacturer or coach builder, are not covered by new or extended warranties. Some items are simply destined to be the sole responsibility of the RV owner. Rarely, if ever, are maintenance items ever covered under warranty. In such cases, and in instances of out-of-warranty RVs, certain owners will actually enjoy delving into the various technical aspects of their coaches. The key is knowing when to actively participate and when to simply make an appointment at your local service facility.

So just who among us should even consider performing maintenance tasks and minor servicing on our rigs? Here's some demographics. An informal survey taken at one of my recent owner maintenance seminars revealed that the motorhome owner who actively performs routine service typically:
  • is mechanically inclined, or has past experiences in the blue-collar trades.
  • has an impressive assortment of hand tools and testers.
  • has a keen interest in the technology of the motorhome.
  • travels and camps in remote areas, far from regular RV service centers and has no choice but to learn to become an RV service tech.
  • has as much or more of a technical aptitude than the non-certified professional.
  • is now, or has been a full-time RVer.
If you recognize yourself in these listed characteristics or are wondering whether or not you should even attempt a maintenance task, here's a few considerations for you to ponder. Keep in mind, however, this list is not all-inclusive and all items may not apply evenly across the board. These are just a few thoughts to explore.

Review your own mechanical/technical aptitude - The important thing here is to realize your limitations. As you ponder a task, ask yourself, "Can I physically perform the steps necessary to do this?" Many items in, under, on and around motorhomes require physical dexterity. Physical limitations may prohibit some of us from performing certain maintenance items. Sort of like when the brain says "yes," but the ole 'bod says "no way!" Also, realize and admit it when the subject at hand is truly over your head. There is no need to be a hero. You definitely do not want to risk converting a simple maintenance task into a costly crisis repair! Cha-ching! It will cost substantially more to undo an error than to simply make an appointment with a service center if the subject is beyond your scope. You aren't expected to know absolutely everything about your RV, but you should be able to honestly recognize the point at which you do not understand something. This maxim is true even with professional service technicians as well. Foolish is the RVer who trusts his coach to a service shop that proclaims its technicians know all there is to know about recreational vehicles.  

Have a willingness to learn - If you truly want to be able to perform some routine maintenance items, be willing to do a little homework. Servicing LP related appliances and components, for instance, virtually mandates a basic understanding of the sequence of operation of that appliance. Both electrically and with the flow of the propane gas. Each appliance is different, but your advantage is that you only need to learn those that pertain to your RV. And it's not that difficult to learn. Oh, it requires reading and studying the literature that came with your coach, but for the most part, it can be enjoyable. Especially when you consider that any knowledge gained and then applied may ultimately save real dollars in repair costs.

In cases where the owner's manual or user's guide has long ago disappeared, contact the component manufacturer directly. Most would be more than willing to make available the literature you need. You wouldn't think of jumping in a motorhome and taking off down a road you've never been on before without a road map or at least a general knowledge of where it leads. So it is with most technical matters on your coach.

Be properly equipped - Be aware that many maintenance tasks require a selection of tools and that some require specialty tools that you may not have in your tool kit. An example of such a tool would be the long flue brush needed for cleaning and servicing the RV refrigerator. If you commit to performing this step yourself, purchasing the needed specialty tool would be a wise investment. Aside from the flue brush, here are a few more specialty tools you may want to eventually acquire:
  • Propane manometer.
  • Battery hydrometer - one that is temperature compensated is more accurate.
  • Volt, Ohm, multi-meter (VOM) - a digital one is best, but any is better than just a simple test lamp. 
(A detailed list of RV specialty tools will be featured in my, soon-to-be-released eBook, so stay tuned for that!)

Obtain replacement parts - Pay close attention also, if replacement parts are required. As an example, when performing a cleaning on the RV furnace, it is required that certain gaskets be replaced. Be sure to have those gaskets on hand prior to beginning the cleaning. One goal should be to keep the down time to a minimum. Always keep a small assortment of frequently replaced parts on hand.

Gather all the necessary tools and parts before starting your maintenance task. If you are performing maintenance on any electrical item, if available, always have a wiring diagram or schematic available as part of your resources. Most diagrams are usually included in the owner's literature and many will come with the replacement parts.

Consider the time factor - Always plan your approach to any maintenance task appropriately. Realize that all maintenance requires time. Be sure to allot yourself plenty of time to complete whatever it is you are undertaking. Do not rush yourself. You are more likely to omit a step or make a mistake if you are under pressure to complete a task when in a hurry. Remember, the next time you perform that same task, the time element will be reduced. Familiarity and repetition will breed speed.

How to "Do It Yourself"
Okay, so you feel like you just may qualify as a true RV "do-it-yourselfer," so now what? Well, now for some strategic planning and implementation. The following suggestions will get you started.

Prepare a proper and clean work area - Having a clean work area for whatever the task may be is vital in order to avoid confusion and also help keep the coach clean if you must traipse in and out of it several times. When servicing the appliances for example, it is best to perform the maintenance tasks with the appliances left in the installed positions. An exception would be the RV furnace. In some instances concerning the furnace, better results are attained if the furnace is removed and the work performed on a bench.

Also, in some cases, the absorption refrigerator may need to be partially removed to gain access for cleaning. Therefore, be sure to cover and protect carpeting or finished floors. When changing the oil in the generator or on the chassis engine, have an area cleared so complete access is easily accomplished. Don't forget to have your replacement oil ready to go before you remove the drain plug!

If you will be needing electricity, have your extension cord uncoiled and strategically placed prior to starting. Likewise, if using a drill motor, have the correct size drill bit, or screwdriver tip at hand. Proper preparation will make any maintenance task easier. Did you remember to allow enough time to do the work?

Have all replacement parts ready to go - Have all replacement parts prepared and laid out for easy access. If your maintenance task involves threaded fittings, a handy tip is to apply the correct sealant or Teflon tape before actually starting the work. It's much neater and easier when your hands are relatively clean. Lay the fittings aside and cover them with a shop towel or cloth until needed. If the new parts need any type of pre-assembly, do it now, before you get engrossed in the task at hand. If some parts in a repair kit will not be needed, separate and discard them prior to beginning. This will simplify your repair and avoid any confusion you may encounter later when you realize you have a few parts left over.

Obtain the necessary support materials - As mentioned earlier, have all wiring diagrams, service notes, installation instructions or any other type of resource open and within easy reach before starting the job. If you feel you may need additional help or support information, postpone the maintenance until all the necessary information is in your hand. Remember, preparation is much easier for a preventive maintenance procedure as opposed to an unwanted crisis repair. Also, keep in mind most maintenance tasks are available on the RV Doctor's Do-It-Yourself DVD. Additionally,  local community colleges may offer classes for the RVer and RV shows offer seminars on RV maintenance.

Backup vehicle - It's always advisable to have another available vehicle, "just in case." Whether it's a neighbor's truck, or a second vehicle of your own, perhaps it's the small car you usually tow behind your rig, in any event, always plan to have a mode of transportation available just in case you forgot something or for emergencies.

Establish a relationship with a local service facility - This step is vital. Even though you may want to perform some maintenance yourself, always get to know a local dealer or service center in your area. Aside from being there to order parts for you, they can also be a good source of information. They should work in concert with you and not feel threatened that you elect to perform some of your own maintenance tasks. Obviously, you will need to rely on them for any technical area you decide not to pursue, and there will be plenty left for them to do.

All major repairs and many items that require specialty equipment is best left to the professional shop as discussed. Of course, you will want to check out your local area to find the appropriate service department that best fits your needs. All service facilities are not created equal. Be sure your shop is staffed by qualified, Certified RV service technicians!

Additional tips - Never attempt to adjust the RV generator yourself. This is one area that is definitely better left to your service shop. Many specialty tools are required, as the generator needs to be load tested while making governor and carburetor adjustments. Load banks and specialty testers are beyond the scope of the do-it-yourselfer. Just remember that on the RV generator every mechanical adjustment that is made has an electrical result. You cannot tune a generator by ear. This item is for the professional.

Also, as briefly mentioned, never attempt to adjust the propane regulator. This too, is a job for the pro! Changes in the delivery pressure, though crucial to each appliance cannot be determined by visually watching a burner flame. Too high gas pressure will damage many appliances, while too low of a delivery pressure will result in improper combustion and inefficient appliance operation.

By carefully evaluating your technical expertise, learning and gathering a resource library of sorts for those items on your coach, acquiring the proper tools and parts and most importantly, having the right attitude, you may be just the candidate to experience the fun of maintaining your investment for your leisure enjoyment. Of course it could just as well be your full-time home we've been discussing. In any case, it is hoped that major repair costs are avoided and total enjoyment is realized from the experiences of working on your own motorhome. And remember, RVing is more than a hobby, it's a lifestyle!


In all instances, every effort is made to ensure the correctness of all content on the RV Doctor Website. It is imperative that if you choose to follow any instructions or procedures outlined on any page of this website, you must first satisfy yourself thoroughly that neither personal nor product safety will be compromised or jeopardized.

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If you are in doubt or do not feel comfortable about a procedure, do not continue. Simply call your local RV service facility and make an appointment with them. The advice, recommendations and procedures offered by the RV Doctor are solely those of Gary. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions, procedures and recommendations of our sponsors or advertisers.