An ounce of preventive vehicle maintenance is worth a pound of safe, enjoyable travel.
By Paul Helmstetter, F204763
Remember the thrills and chills we enjoyed from riding a roller coaster or similar attraction at our favorite amusement park? On the contrary, as an RVer, there is nothing like driving from point A to point B without experiencing any white-knuckle events. I love uneventful trips. I call this “the joy of uneventfulness.”
Have you ever talked with a fellow RVer who was lamenting about a breakdown or blown tire on a trip? Maybe it happened to you. Imagine the fear of being stranded on the side of a busy expressway while the 18-wheelers are rushing by less than two feet away at 75 miles per hour. This is a true adrenaline rush, but not an enjoyable one. Let’s look at this analytically to understand how we may reduce the probability of experiencing a failure in transit.
Performing routine maintenance on motorhomes and other vehicles helps to obtain their designed useful life but cannot prevent random failures. It is important to do your required maintenance to prevent premature failures. Routine required motorhome maintenance consists of items such as checking tire pressure, changing oil and filters, greasing the chassis, along with replacing wearable components such as the brake linings.
To minimize the risk of failures, it is important that we begin by selecting the right RV for our personal needs. It should be equipped with the space and cargo carrying capacity (CCC) to handle everything we transport. The tires need to be strong enough to support the maximum load the coach may ever experience, and the critical components should be accessible for service. (The easier it is to perform the service, the more likely it is that it will be done.) Don’t assume the tires will always carry the weight of the coach. I’ve seen a triple-slideout motorhome with a little more than 1,100 pounds of CCC and tires not rated for the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). I’ve also seen expensive units with GVWRs in excess of 50,000 pounds and less than 2,000 pounds CCC. Price does not guarantee cargo carrying capacity.
Once we have a motorhome capable of carrying the load we will put on it and are performing our routine maintenance, what else can we do to help prevent breakdowns? There is a maintenance discipline that can help reduce the likelihood of failures that I refer to as “detective maintenance.” It involves using your five senses to locate and correct potential problems before they become failures. For example, your owners manual may instruct you to replace your fan belt(s) every four years, thereby preventing a fan belt from wearing out and breaking. However, a belt also can break if it becomes damaged. If you take a few minutes to examine it for nicks or cuts, you may prevent a potential failure. If you do your own belt changing, store the old ones with your tools. Should a new belt fail prematurely, the older belt can get you to a repair facility without a tow charge.
First, check your tires with a certified pressure gauge before every long trip and at least once a month. In fact, RV manufacturers indicate you should check them every day while traveling. This obviously is preferable to doing it at a less frequent interval, but each time you check the pressure, you release some air and introduce a potential failure by disturbing the seal. (Have you ever had a valve stem fail to seal, ending up with a flat tire?) I purchased visual indicators that screw onto my valve stems. While checking pressures, be sure to visually inspect the tires themselves for bulges or other damage.
Check the fluid levels in the engine. Look underneath the vehicle for puddles or spotting. Adjust any low level and make a note to have it checked when convenient. Note: Most engines, especially diesels, will seek their own comfort level for crankcase oil. Once you’re familiar with this level — even if it’s not at the full mark — you should maintain this level. Anything higher than that will be “thrown” out.
Before each major trip, open the engine compartment and look around with a flashlight.
- Make sure no “critters” have taken up residence.
- Look for signs of leaks. Tighten all hose clamps at least once a year. These are “soft joints” and need to be retightened periodically to prevent leaks. (Not all hose clamps can be tightened, in which case they don’t need to be.) Check for cracks in hoses and fan belts.
- Check all battery connections. Clean off any corrosion. Examine for tightness. Inspect the electrolyte fluid level in all batteries unless they’re the sealed type.
- Make sure the radiator and all heat exchangers, including the transmission cooler (on automatic transmissions) and air-conditioning condenser, are clean. Look for evidence of leaks, which usually will show up as dark spots. If you don’t have an automatic transmission cooler, talk with an expert to find out whether you need one. Running too hot can lead to premature transmission failures.
- Look for wires rubbing on the frame or other object, possibly causing a short or ground.
- Check the fan blades for cracks.
- Look for anything else that doesn’t seem right.
This sounds like a major undertaking, but with my diesel pusher, I can unload the miscellaneous items under the bed, remove the cover, check everything I can see, and put it back together within 20 minutes. I usually spend more time finding a flashlight with good batteries than performing the inspection.
After checking the tires and engine, look underneath your motorhome to ensure that nothing is hanging down or dragging on the ground. Take a peek at the roof for anything that does not belong there and could blow off and damage the towed vehicle or another vehicle on the road.
Make sure all of the compartments are secure for travel. We don’t want our cargo shifting during transit and causing an unanticipated change in vehicle handling.
After hooking up the towed vehicle, check its lights. Double-check all of the attachment points. Test the auxiliary braking system, including the warning light in the motorhome. My wife and I have a regular routine when we connect our towable to our motorhome. After the vehicle is attached, she enters the motorhome and steps on the brake pedal, indicating she is in position while I watch for the brake lights. I press the test button on the auxiliary braking system to apply the brake while she watches for the warning light in the motorhome. She steps on the brake again, letting me know when it illuminates.
At this point we know the auxiliary brake control works and turns on the warning light in the motorhome. I then walk to the back of the motorhome to verify the wiring to the towable. She steps on the brake pedal again while I observe the lights on the motorhome and the towable. If everything is all right, I give her a thumbs-up. I then look at the roof to make sure the antenna is down (a good time to inspect your satellite dish also). I double-check everything in the towable and the connection from the motorhome to the towable. I make sure the stepladder hanging from the roof ladder is secure, and then I walk down the side of the motorhome checking the tire pressure indicators, the slide to make sure it is completely in, the compartment doors to ensure they are closed and locked, and the awning to verify that it is locked and the lever is in the roll-up position.
I start moving out slowly, letting the tow bar lock while making an exaggerated turn to bring the wheels of the towable into view to observe them turning. When we make our first stop and during every extended stop, I do a walk-about. I observe how much tire is in contact with the ground (too much means the pressure is low). I also check the tire pressure indicators. I touch the wheels to find out whether they are hot. I listen for leaks and sniff for unusual odors. I make the same checks on the towed vehicle. I check the “car-in-tow” sign, then open the door on the towable to check the neutral tow light, the air pressure on the auxiliary braking system, and the power-on LED on the plug.
Walking toward the motorhome, I check the stepladder hanging from the back. I then check the chains, pins, plug, and breakaway cable; walk down the other side of the motorhome, checking those wheels and tires and the slide; and swing back around the front to check the awning and the right front tire.
Will following a similar process eliminate all breakdowns? Absolutely not. However, it may prevent the most common ones, allowing you to experience “the joy of uneventfulness.”