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Tuesday, November 2, 2004

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!

Disclaimer:

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.