A Comprehensive Guide to Common RV Problems and How to Solve Them
If you’re like most RV owners, your motorhome or travel trailer is your pride and joy. It’s the key that unlocks your access to adventure your home away from home that makes every destination feel comfortable and just familiar enough to get you amped up to explore.
But anyone who’s been on the road for longer than a couple of days knows that RV issues are pretty much unavoidable. After all, it’s a house that movies. Technology is pretty amazing, but we’re talking about a big, heavy vehicle with some super complicated systems. A few things are bound to go wrong from time to time!
What’s worse, RV repair and maintenance costs aren’t exactly known for their affordability. Even when you’re working with a trustworthy mechanic, you can easily find yourself taking out a second mortgage to foot the cost of relatively simple repairs.
Good thing this is 2018, the age of the internet… which means instant access to a plethora of RV maintenance information and 101-style articles. You can even find step-by-step RV maintenance tutorial videos on YouTube!
Along with learning how to DIY simple repairs (or how to find the best instructional resources), this post will also help you learn which preventative maintenance steps will help you keep your rig issue-free in the first place. A little bit of regular effort goes a long way toward keeping your rig rolling for many happy years and camping trips to come.
It may take a little bit of elbow grease… but we promise it’ll be worth it.
Common RV Problems and How to Fix Them
RV camping is a pretty amazing, high-tech travel lifestyle — but it’s actually been around for a while. Just about a century, in fact; you can learn more about the fascinating history of RVing in this RVshare post.
The good thing is, all that history gives us a good idea of which RV repair problems you’re most likely to face. Some mechanical breakdowns are simply more common than others. What’s more, many of the clever, handy campers in the RV world have shown us how to take care of some of these common maintenance issues, which can help you avoid paying top dollar for professional repair services.
We’ve also learned a lot about the simple, regular maintenance that will keep minor repair issues from blossoming into bona fide problems. A little bit of effort now can keep your rig running smoothly for years, not to mention helping you avoid major repair costs.
Let’s start with some of the most common RV problems, and go over a few of the easiest troubleshooting and prevention steps.
RV Roof and Leak Repair
When it comes to RVing, water leaks aren’t just a scary possibility: they’re pretty much inevitable. Even the toughest modern-day motorhome finishes will eventually cave to the pressures of the elements. Sealants harden and crack with age and motion, no matter how high-tech and well-made they may be.
And unfortunately, this ever-present bogeyman can wreak some serious havoc on your camper. Water damage does more than just stain your interior. It can also damage delicate moving parts, rust out metal fixtures, and even cause dangerous short-circuiting in your RV’s internal electrical system.
So, of course, it’s important to get ahead of this constant threat and minimize your chances of water leaks before they happen. The good news is, it’s relatively easy to do so — it just takes a few preventative maintenance steps performed on a regular basis.
First of all, always store your RV under a waterproof, UV-resistant cover. If you can, an indoor storage facility — or at least one with a roof — is your very best option.
We know, however, that renting a covered storage facility slot isn’t always an achievable option. In those cases, opt for a high-quality RV cover, which will help protect your investment even when it’s parked outdoors. When shopping for a cover, make sure you look for one that’s both waterproof and UV-resistant, which will help keep your finish as sound and seepage-free as possible. And keep in mind that, although these covers can cost several hundred dollars (depending on size and features), purchasing one still a whole lot cheaper than doing major repairs after water damage. Plus, it’s a one-time expense, as opposed to the drawn-out cost of renting a storage facility or constantly performing repairs after your rig sustains water damage.
Another way to resist leaks for as long as possible is to apply a new coat of RV roof sealant once a year as a preemptive strike against broken seals. You probably already know that you can use Dicor or a similar product to tackle existing, localized leaks… but it’s way better to stop them before they start in the first place.
Finally, always take the time to thoroughly check your RV for water damage before and after every single trip, as well as when you put the rig into or take it out of storage. Look for signs of stains along every seam and seal on your rig’s interior, paying special attention to roof openings like your bathroom or kitchen vent fans and your RV air conditioner.
Although finding a leak would be a major bummer, learning about it as soon as possible will help you to mitigate large, or even irreparable, damages. Here’s our guide to checking your RV for water damage.
Minor Issues with your RV’s Electrical System
Let’s get one thing out there straightaway. If you’re at all uncomfortable handling electrical issues, it’s a good idea to hire professional help. After all, with other DIY repairs, you run the risk of causing damage to your rig. But with electrical DIY repairs, you run the risk of causing yourself serious damage — i.e. injury or even death.
But there are certain minor motorhome and travel trailer electrical problems that the average around-the-house handyman can take care of without serious intervention. For instance, occasionally you’ll find the switches or push-buttons in your circuit breaker panel stop functioning. Replacing these is a very minor procedure.
The same goes for the outlets you find throughout your RV’s interior. If you find one malfunctioning, it may be due to the common use of the clip-together style of the receptacle by RV manufacturers. These receptacles cut through wires’ insulation, clipping to them in order to make contact and run an electrical current. They’re simple, and thus a money saver… but they’re also prone to becoming lose (and, thus, not working). You can easily replace them with the same type of outlet boxes you use at home, which will solve the issue and create a more reliable source of power.
RVers also frequently replace their RV batteries, especially when they’re planning to upgrade from a generator to a solar panel system. Lithium batteries are lighter, longer-lasting, and don’t require anywhere near as much maintenance. They’re also relatively simple to install and set up yourself, though you’ll also need an RV power inverter and a few other components.
Plumbing the Depths: RV Toilets and Water Systems
When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. And if you have issues with your RV toilet — or any other part of the plumbing system, for that matter — you’ll quickly find your camping adventure at an uncomfortable standstill.
Fortunately, many RV plumbing issues are simple enough to troubleshoot yourself. For example, a common cause of RV toilet clogs and backups is simple user error: too much toilet paper or too little water can keep your camper potty from proper flushing. Making sure everyone knows the right way to “go” will go a long way toward avoiding any problems.
Another common error is to leave the black water drain pipe open constantly if you’re hooked up to a sewer connection. But doing so is a bad move: it will allow all the liquid waste to drain first, which can lead to a sticky, sludgy clog in your holding tank or sewer drain pipe — the type of clog you do not want to have to deal with on your vacation. (Or ever.)
If you’ve already got a clog, the only thing to do is to snake the line, which is usually best done from the RV’s exterior (through the black tank drainage valve) as opposed to from inside through the commode itself. Depending on the severity of the clog, some campers have also reported success using plain old hot water. However, keep in mind that you may not have the skills (or the equipment) to perform this part yourself. Commercially-available products like Draino are unlikely to help and can also have negative interactions with RV toilet chemicals.
In some cases, the clog will be bad enough that you’ll need to get professional help regardless of your at-home plumbing abilities. The good news is, with the above information in mind, you’re unlikely to cause the problem again!
Other common RV plumbing issues include leaky pipes, which may be over-tightened in the case of PVC/flex piping or corroded in the case of old-model metal fixtures. If you’re comfortable removing and replacing pipe fixtures at home, chances are you’ll be able to do so in your motorhome as well — though keep in mind that your system may require specially-made parts, which are designed to withstand a motorhome’s motion without cracking or breaking.
A final word about RV plumbing: If you’re planning on traveling to cold locales during the wintertime, you’ll need to winterize your rig just like you would your home to keep the pipes from freezing. You’ll need to use a specially-made RV antifreeze to do it safely, and utilize your RV water pump to spread it throughout the system.
Keep it Cool with These Common HVAC Troubleshooters
Depending on when and where you’re headed, your RV’s air conditioning isn’t just a luxury — it’s a necessity. That’s especially true since a lot of us do our big yearly trips over the summer when temperatures can get downright brutal.
There’s nothing worse than coming home from a long day of sweaty adventures looking forward to a nice, cool couch retreat… only to discover the “cool” part isn’t happening. Fortunately, however, there are lots of RV HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) repairs you can do without calling a professional RV AC service.
For instance, if your air conditioning unit is running, but you notice the air coming out of the vents isn’t exactly cool, the problem could be as simple as having dirty RV air vent filters — which means the solution could be as simple and cheap as replacing them. (You should perform this step as a preventative maintenance routine on a regular basis, anyway, so you might as well keep a stock of them on board both for those periodic changes and in case this happens.)
Another common RV AC issue has nothing to do with the AC unit itself — rather, it could be that your thermostat is busted, and not properly communicating with your air conditioning unit!
Replacing an RV AC thermostat is a relatively simple operation that can be performed with common hand tools. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to upgrade from analog to digital if you’re in an older RV model.
Finally, even in the worst-case scenario — your RV needs a whole new air conditioning unit — it’s actually not that difficult to DIY your solution.
RV Slide Out Problems
For all the benefits of the extra space, RV slide-outs can provide, this technology does have some drawbacks. For one thing, all those moving parts are vulnerable to rust, corrosion, and plain-old aging.
On the one hand, it’s kind of unsurprising that the whole moving section of a room would be a prime site for technical issues. The exact thing that makes this technology so amazing is what puts it at risk for problems. But as with so many other parts of RV repair, performing regular maintenance can help keep your slide-outs in proper, working order for many years to come.
For one thing, take advantage of every opportunity to lubricate your RV slide-out arms. This will ensure the longevity of the moving parts, which will go a long way towards preventing sticking issues. An affordable, commercially-available product like WD-40 will do the trick — and you’ll doubtless find tons of other applications for it elsewhere in your rig.
Another common RV slide-out the problem? Leaks. All those seams and seals are just begging to be infiltrated by every RVer’s worst enemy: unwanted water.
Keeping your slide out seals lubricated and soft will help extend their lifespans. A few squirts of UV-resistant 303 each time you operate your slide-out do wonders. Of course, all seals eventually harden and crack with age and use, at which point you’ll need to replace them. And as with all other parts of your rig, it’s a really good idea to check and double-check for water damage often. That way, if and when it does emerge, you can fix it before it spirals.
RV Brake Repair
When you’re driving such a heavy vehicle, stopping is important. (Actually, stopping is important no matter what vehicle you’re driving.)
And it’s a well-known fact that over time, certain brake components break down. That’s how they create the friction that stops you in the first place!
From topping off your brake fluid to actually replacing the brake shoes, drums, or rotors, if you’re comfortable doing mechanical work on other vehicles, you can easily translate those skills to your RV. You’ll need the proper equipment, of course, like a strong jack to lift your travel trailer up.
Easily-Replaceable RV Parts
Although most RVs are outfitted with high-quality components, it’s just a fact of life: things break sometimes.
Fortunately, many motorhome and camper parts are pretty simple to replace, even if you don’t consider yourself particularly handy. Here are a few common areas where a replacement might do just the trick.
Just like the light bulbs in your house, the light bulbs in your RV will burn out periodically. Depending on the specific light fixture, a standard 100-watt bulb might not fit… but that doesn’t make the replacement any less simple. Ensure you have back-up bulbs in stock for all the lights in your RV you use most commonly. That way, when you suddenly flick the switch to no effect, you’ll be able to fix the problem in a jiffy. (Just make sure you have the switch set to “off” before you do so to avoid electric shock and burns!)
If you replace the bulb and find the light still isn’t working, you could be dealing with a deeper electrical problem, such as something to do with the wiring. If you’re comfortable going into your RV’s electrical systems, you can remove the light fixture to see what’s going on below the surface. However, if in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified electrician. Saving a little money isn’t worth risking electric shock!
RV Windows and Seams
You know that water damage we keep talking about? Another prime access point is the same one the sunlight filters through all your RV windows. Keeping them closed is one thing, but those seals also play a big part in keeping the interior of your rig nice and dry.
RV windows are also prone to other types of damage. For example, an errant stone thrown by a tire while you’re cruising down the highway can crack or shatter your RV window glass. The good news is, replacing or resealing RV windows is pretty easy. All it takes is a screwdriver and some good RV sealant.
RV Awnings and Canopies
Your RV’s awnings may seem like a luxurious extra, a quick and easy way to extend your living space by adding a shady, outdoor patio.
But for those of us who camp in hot locales — which is most of us, especially during the summer — those awnings actually serve a much more functional purpose. Shading the windows can help keep your RV’s interior temperature cooler, which avoids putting undue stress on your HVAC system.
What’s more, the LED lights on modern RV awnings can help guide you to your campsite after nighttime excursions, which can help you avoid safety issues, especially if you’re wild camping or boondocking. In short, your awning actually does a whole lot of heavy lifting… so it’s important to take good care of it!
We’ve written before about awning maintenance, including this easy guide to cleaning your RV canopy of dirt and debris. However, replacing your awning is also totally doable — and with some of the fancy, pre-lit, automatically-unrolling models on the market, it’s a great opportunity for an upgrade.
RV Accessories to Keep Your Rig in Ship Shape
We write a lot about RV accessories here on the blog, and for good reason. In some cases, the right gadgets can help you keep your rig’s sensitive systems safe.
For example, although most RV hookups at developed campgrounds and parks have their electrical and water outputs regulated, you never know when something could go wrong — and cause a short in your rig’s wiring or a pressure problem with the plumbing.
A simple water pressure regulator with an attached gauge is a great way to circumvent a potentially costly problem, especially since it costs less than $50 to get one. Considering the complexity of an RV’s plumbing system, it’s a worthy investment to protect yourself from dealing with a messy hassle.On the electrical side of things, you might consider a power line monitor, which you can use to check the wiring, polarity, and voltage of your shore power hookup before you subject your RV’s wires to a potential surge. It’s also a good idea to use surge protectors on your RV’s interior to adding a further layer of protection between your expensive electronic items and potential lightning strikes and other electrical mishaps.
There are plenty of other RV accessories that can help extend the lifespan of your RV’s systems and appliances. For example, using X-Chock wheel stabilizers in your travel trailer will help keep your leveling jacks from doing double duty, and may even help your tires last longer since they won’t be moving around so much when you’re camped. It might not seem like it, but even kitchen gadgets can be an aid to making your motorhome more long-lasting: adding an Instant Pot to your rig’s kitchen means you’ll be putting less stress on your other cooking devices, like your microwave or oven, for example.
RV Repair Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
We hope this post helps you rest easy, knowing that RV maintenance and repair doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In fact, with a little bit of foresight, planning — and yes, maybe a little bit of sweat — you can often avoid frustrating RV repair issues (and expensive RV mechanical services) in the first place.
And if you’re not sure how to tackle the common troubleshooting issues we’ve outlined above, don’t be afraid to turn to the camping community for help! From RV forums to YouTube tutorials to the comments and community right here at RVshare, most campers are happy to lend a helping hand to others learning the ins and outs of these unique vehicles.
Finally, don’t forget the most important part: Once your rig’s in ship shape and ready to go, get out there and do some exploring in it!