A sharp-looking motorhome reveals much about the owner’s dedication to keeping the recreation vehicle in top condition.
By Gary Bunzer
Motorhome owners take great pride in their home on wheels and want it to look its very best at all times. When it comes to a motorhome’s appearance, the most obvious areas to protect and maintain are the exterior surfaces. But you might be surprised to learn that many owners are not even aware of the types of materials found on their own motorhome, let alone the variations of exterior surfaces incorporated on today’s production coaches.
Whenever the exterior care of a motorhome is discussed, it is crucial that the types of materials be identified. No single product will work on all the different surfaces, despite what some marketing hype may proclaim. In addition, I believe owners can employ three basic types or levels of maintenance on the exterior surfaces of any motorhome.
Preventive maintenance. This means taking care of something immediately, before it has a chance to worsen. Though bothersome at times, preventive maintenance, in the long run, is the least expensive path to follow. The key word for this type of maintenance would be “precautionary.” Examples include washing and waxing the exterior, sealing roof seams, etc. Motorhomes that are not treated to a regular preventive maintenance regimen will quickly move to the next level.
Restorative maintenance. This level pertains to motorhomes that have deteriorated to a certain extent, usually through neglect, but oftentimes through abuse. This type of maintenance remains doable by the RV owner, though it usually takes a little more effort, time, and money. The key word for this type of maintenance would be “salvageable,” meaning the process of deterioration can be reversed. An example would be removing the oxidation from the front or rear caps, or removing bird droppings, mold, and mildew from a rubber roof.
Damage repair. This stage of maintenance mates up to its title nicely. The deterioration at this stage cannot be reversed, and drastic action is mandated. Significant damage also takes the RV owner out of the equation, since this type of exterior repair is not possible for the do-it-yourselfer. It typically involves replacement of the affected component(s). The key word now is “crisis.” Severe sidewall delamination and soft spots on the roof are examples.
You may be wondering why owners should undertake a regular preventive maintenance program on the exterior of any motorhome. I believe at least three good reasons exist.
Pride of ownership. Call it an image thing, but if you are serious about the lifestyle, you want your motorhome to look nice. Simply put, most good-looking motorhomes are well cared for. This is evidenced at every FMCA gathering, from small local chapter rallies to the international conventions. You always will see someone out there polishing his or her coach.
Resale value. Plain and simple, a motorhome that has been cared for will retain its value longer than a neglected coach. There’s a good chance that you will upgrade or trade in your motorhome down the road, and the better condition your current coach is in, especially the exterior, the more trade-in value it will have. At one of the RV dealerships where I worked, I remember a trade-in that looked extremely nice on the outside, but the various systems were in pitiful condition. The sales department paid top dollar for a motorhome that wasn’t worth the money it would take to repair the plumbing, electrical, and propane systems, simply because it looked great on the outside. Needless to say, the sales department heard directly from the service department on that deal.
Lifestyle reflection. This point is not about us but is made simply to understand that we may have a subtle influence on those looking to the RV lifestyle as a possible future alternative. As viewed by non-RVers, does your motorhome reflect the value you place on this lifestyle? Perception can have an influence and, as an organization, we should at least be aware of the appearance we project.
With that said, what does a proactive preventive maintenance regimen really entail? Recalling the importance of knowing exactly what the exterior surfaces consist of, let’s take a close look at the exterior of a motorhome, starting at the top.
A number of roof surfaces are used on motorhomes. The majority of coaches today are equipped with a rubber membrane, specifically ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) or thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO). In years past we’ve moved from cleated aluminum sections (as adopted from the mobile home industry) to painted aluminum to fiberglass, ABS plastic, and other variations of fiberglass-reinforced polyesters and plastics (FRP). All of these remain viable today, depending on the year of the motorhome and the manufacturer. It is vital to know which type of material your motorhome’s roof has so the proper care products can be obtained. Remember, products may not be applicable to every type of roofing material.
EPDM has been a popular choice among coach manufacturers since its debut in 1987, and probably is used on 60 to 70 percent of new motorhomes on the market today. Alpha Systems and Uniroyal Elastomerics pioneered the development of EPDM rubber roofing for RVs, since it is an ideal material for exterior applications. One of its inherent subtleties is an excellent resistance to damaging UV rays and ozone bombardment. That’s why these roofs usually are warranted for a relatively long time. Adversely, they can be prone to tearing, especially when backing the motorhome into a space with low, overhanging tree branches.
Because of EPDM’s high resistance to the elements, no extra protection is required. According to some, oxidation can be minimized by the application of a rubber roof treatment product. Still, EPDM will oxidize normally, because of the disintegration of elastomers and surface binders as a result of constant exposure to weather. We’ve all seen the chalking that can occur with a rubber roof. In some instances, the oxidation residue manifests itself as long, white streaks down the sides of a motorhome. Compounding this phenomenon, the whitening agent (titanium dioxide) used in its manufacture dissolves over time and adds to the visible remnants that appear down the side of the motorhome. In its earliest years, EPDM had a darker backing; today, the white stuff runs all the way through the membrane.
TPO, on the other hand, provides tear and puncture resistance that reportedly is 20 to 50 percent higher than EPDM. Perfected by Alpha Systems in 1994, TPO is similar to EPDM in its resistance to UV and ozone attacks. It incorporates a soft backing on the underside that has the feel of an old-fashioned felt-backed tablecloth. No degradation to the polymer occurs, so TPO roofs do not suffer from nuisance chalking. Another advantage, in some cases, is that TPO can be heat-welded if a tear occurs. The downside is that it simply does not bend very well, which could be problematic on motorhomes with radical curves where the roof meets the sidewalls.
FRP “” often sold under the brand name Filon “”has been a staple among motorhome builders not only for RV roofing but for laminated sidewall construction as well. Composed of thermosetting polyester resin and chopped fiberglass strands, FRP panels can be manufactured with a smooth surface, a colored gel-coat surface, or an embossed surface. According to some, interior temperatures are easier to control on motorhomes with FRP roofing since it exhibits exceptional heat- and noise-insulating properties. Of course, much depends on the degree of actual insulation between the roof and ceiling.
Another roofing surface found on a few RVs is Hypalon (chlorosulfonated polyethylene) produced by DuPont. With similarities to both EPDM (a synthetic rubber membrane) and TPO (reinforced and heat weldable), it is also naturally resistant to extremes in temperature, UV, and ozone. You may have heard of cross-linked polyethylene in reference to the type of fresh-water tubing found in current RV plumbing systems. Hypalon is similar in that after installation, continued exposure to the atmosphere causes the individual polymer components to become cross-linked, creating a highly stable synthetic suitable for RV and marine applications. Unfortunately, DuPont ceased production of Hypalon membrane earlier this year. While the number of motorhomes equipped with a Hypalon roof may be small, it might be advisable for anyone with Hypalon membrane on the roof (or on an inflatable boat) to obtain a few small pieces for future repairs before it disappears altogether.
Regardless of the type of roofing material on a motorhome, proactive diligence is required to properly care for it. Get into the habit of inspecting the roof often, preferably once a month. Pay special attention to the seams, edges, moldings, caps, and anything else attached to the roof. Realize that any screw or mounting method used on the roof can become an entry point for moisture. Water intrusion is the largest threat to the integrity of any motorhome.
Keep the roof clean. I recommend using a soft broom every couple of weeks to sweep away leaves, dirt, and road grime. Look closely for evidence of mold and mildew, especially on synthetic surfaces. Remove bird droppings or tree sap as soon as it is spotted. One of my “RV Facts of Life” is that small problems will not go away on their own. Left unaddressed, these areas will only worsen and quickly move (along with its associated cost) from the preventive stage to the restorative stage. Wash the roof with the appropriate cleaning agent four or five times each year. A clean roof is simply easier to inspect.
Finally, once you know the type of surface material used on the roof, regularly treat that surface appropriately. Many suppliers spend enormous amounts of research and development dollars creating formulas for specific surfaces. Be sure the products you employ are approved for that roof surface material.
Safety note: Exercise caution when working on the roof so as to avoid potentially catastrophic slips and falls. Roof maintenance may be a job best left to an RV repair facility.
The majority of sidewalls on today’s motorhomes are laminated and vacuum-bonded as a complete unit. Block foam insulation is sandwiched between an interior decorative paneling and an outer substrate of thin lauan material covered with the final exterior composite.
In other methods, sides feature wooden studs framed with fiberglass insulation between the studs. Interior paneling is stapled to the wooden framework while aluminum panels form the exterior surface. Aluminum framework also is popular since it reduces the overall weight of the wall section. Within the context of this article, the outside surface is what matters most.
Regardless of the method of construction, learn what material is used on the exterior of the sides. Is it painted aluminum? Fiberglass? Filon or another FRP derivative? ABS or PVC plastic? Are steel components used? If you own a Type C motorhome, don’t forget about the cab portion and its exterior surface.
Scan the sides of your motorhome and start counting how many components are attached: storage bay doors, refrigerator vents, furnace vents, city water inlet, fresh-water tank fill, windows, entry door, marker lamps, docking lights, radio antenna, grab handle, porch light, awnings (patio, door, and window), moldings/trim pieces, generator access, fuel access, side mirrors, side-view cameras, slideouts, exterior faucets/showerhead, LP-gas access, shoreline cord access, plus all those door holder-opener-type clips. Granted, not every coach will have all these, but the point is, there’s a lot of stuff stuck on the sidewalls of every motorhome. And every attachment point is a potential source for a water leak.
Obviously, a detailed inspection of all seals around the sidewall openings is warranted on an ongoing basis. Prevention is paramount. At the first sign of a deteriorating sealant, reseal! In severe cases, it may be necessary to completely remove the component and reinstall using fresh sealant. In other cases, a quick but correct application of a silicone sealant over the suspected gap may be all that is required.
Black streaks! I wish I had a nickel for every black streak question that comes in to the “House Calls” column. But every motorhome is susceptible to those nuisance black streaks. I’ve pinpointed the cause to four elements: dirt, moisture, time, and neglect. With thanks to my good friend and restoration expert Ken Neuman, here’s how it happens.
During any given day, dirt, dust, road grime, and other airborne contaminants settle onto the largest flat surface of any motorhome “” the roof. During the evening and nighttime hours, the temperature difference between the interior of the RV and the outside air creates a dew-like moisture on the exterior surfaces, the roof included. Maybe it even rains a little. As the dirt and dust gather with the moisture, they eventually gain a mass large enough to flow over the side and down the sidewall.
Keep in mind, the progression may be miniscule, but it does happen. During its downward descent, it leaves a trail of moisture on the vertical sidewalls. Come daylight, the sun eventually evaporates the moisture, but a slight dirt residue remains. As the days come and go, the process continues, and those areas of residue grow and become more prominent. Over a period of three or four weeks, it becomes visible to the naked eye. Left unaddressed, the black streaks eventually will oxidize and set into the motorhome’s finish. The longer this is allowed to remain, the harder it is to remove.
To prevent the proliferation of black streaks, wash and wax the motorhome a minimum of every six months; optimally, every three months. Now, I realize that’s almost impossible for many of us. But suffice it to say, it should be done as often as feasible.
What about the black streaks already on the coach? There are many products marketed as black streak removers, but it probably is best to use them only as a last resort. When using any type of black streak remover, never apply the solution directly to the surface of the sidewall. Always moisten a clean, soft cloth with the remover and try to keep within the boundaries of the black streak. All black streak removers contain components that will remove existing wax, so areas treated with the remover will need to be rewaxed.
It may take repeated attempts using some elbow grease, but unless the streak is deep-seated and has become oxidized, it eventually should come off or at least be minimized. If the black streak has oxidized into the finish, other products exist that can address this specific type of problem. But it’s crucial to use a product compatible with the exterior surface to prevent undue damage.
Front And Rear Caps
Most motorhome caps are formed using molded fiberglass. Fiberglass was commercially developed by Owens-Corning many years ago. They also developed the first FRP boat and the first automobile made entirely from FRP.
To establish a smooth, shiny surface, a clear or colored gel resin is applied to the outer surface during the first phase of forming the caps. You are probably familiar with the term gel coat. Gel coat and fiberglass are often used interchangeably in brochures and on manufacturer Web sites.
Over time and with exposure to UV rays and ozone, the appearance of the fiberglass caps can become dull or fade to a certain extent. This is the first degree of oxidation. Whenever sunlight, heat, and moisture collide, oxidation can be expected.
The second level of oxidation results in a pronounced chalking of the finish. You’ve probably seen front and rear caps that display a distinct, blotch-like chalky residue that can be wiped away with a moist rag. Neglected further, the cap surface eventually can crack and deteriorate and, in the process, cross over the line between restorative maintenance and damage repair. If individual fibers become visible in the fiberglass, it may require a repair rather than a restoration. Extremes in fiberglass oxidation are typically out of the do-it-yourselfer’s realm, meaning it will be necessary to call in a professional. Such extremes include what is termed “erosion” and “imprinting” resulting from a factory defect or neglect. In either case, a professional is required to repair these issues.
It is imperative that fiberglass front and rear caps be protected with wax or polish. Nothing detracts from the appearance of a motorhome more than grossly oxidized front and rear caps, especially contrasted against the shiny surface of a nice sidewall.
Product options include wash solutions, cleaners, coatings, waxes, polishes, restorers, removers, sealers, and protectants “” are you as confused as I am? Plodding through marketing hype can be exhausting. The important thing to remember is that a few packaged RV washes can strip away some of the protective waxes that typically are applied to new motorhomes. The same thing can happen when common dishwashing detergents are used as a washing agent, or when using restorers and removers. (Plain old car wash soap is a good option, because it does not remove wax as detergents do.) As mentioned earlier, all black streak removers, because they attempt to get to the base of the stain, will remove wax protectants. If any doubt about a particular cleaning product exists, it may be worth a call to the manufacturer of the product you are considering.
Polish is similar to wax, but some polishes and polishing compounds actually contain trace amounts of abrasives. Some fiberglass polishing compounds are very efficient at removing the heavier forms of oxidation. A well-buffed waxed surface is the best deterrent to all forms of oxidation on motorhome exteriors.
The underneath surface of the motorhome is what I call the forgotten exterior surface. Out of sight and out of mind, it still needs to be periodically inspected “” not so much for the surface finish, but for other concerns potentially more important than looks.
The main concern from my vantage point is critter infestation. Look for large gaps around exposed plumbing that may pass through the floor and subfloor. It’s important to seal around all gaps that can trap moisture and road wash.
Look for loose or damaged sections of the underbelly, regardless of the types of materials used under there. Some coaches have sealed underbellies, while others may be open to the bottom of the subfloor. Others may have only a soft plastic wrap encasing the floor insulation. Look for anything that appears out of the norm. While you’re down there, check all chassis and suspension components for damage or irregularities, and look for evidence of water leaks. If you drive the motorhome in winter conditions where salt is used on the roads, check for rust underneath. If you own a diesel-powered coach, make sure to wash out the charge air cooler and radiator.
Choosing The Best Exterior Care Products
I’m always asked what specific products I recommend for certain preventive maintenance tasks associated with the exterior of the RV. Inevitably, if I offer advice, I’ll receive a follow-up letter telling me my recommendation simply did not work! I have a few thoughts concerning this, which proves even more logical the more I test aftermarket products.
First of all, much of my exterior product testing was done when I was living in Southern California. My move to the Northwest has further substantiated my theory of why certain products work for me and not everyone else, or why some products underperformed for me while proving more than satisfactory to others. I believe there are five distinct reasons:
Climate. Variations in temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, and even the proximity of the sun can have an effect on how well a certain product will perform.
Location. Whether the coach spends an abundance of time parked in an industrial area, a wilderness area, the city, or out in the country can have a significant impact.
Environment. Air quality, in particular, can have an impact. How much smog or airborne pollutants are present in the air?
Age of the coach. Certainly, the older the motorhome, the more chance of it sustaining a deeper level of oxidation.
Amount of effort exerted during the cleaning process. The elbow grease you employ when using a particular product may be directly proportional to your success.
With all that said, here’s what I recommend. First of all, be sure you know the type of material you are attempting to protect or restore. Some products, when applied to an incompatible surface, may actually cause more damage than any pre-existing condition. For instance, never use petroleum products or wax on vinyl stripes or design elements.
Second, read the label carefully and follow the directions explicitly before applying the product. Understand the supplier probably knows more about its product than you do. I realize it’s difficult for many of us to succumb to “reading the directions,” but in this case, it is the best advice.
Third, try the product on an inconspicuous location first. See whether you can obtain a small sample of the surface you wish to clean, polish, wax, or otherwise protect or restore and test the product on that piece. If that’s not possible, try the product in an area that is hidden or not readily visible, such as inside a wheel well, behind a bumper, etc. Better to discover its effectiveness “” or lack of “” prior to slathering it on the entire sidewall.
Fourth, stick with a reputable brand name. Check for contact information printed on the label or container. Notable product suppliers will have their address, phone number, and Web site info prominently placed on the product. The good companies will have a toll-free phone number. All the reputable firms I know welcome feedback, both pro and con. It’s how manufacturers make improvements to their products.
And, finally, do not mix products. Find the preventive maintenance products that work best for you and stick with them. Avoid switching products every time you hear of something new. If your travel habits or home base changes, then it may be necessary to switch to a different product; however, until one no longer works for you, staying loyal will have a positive outcome most of the time.
Owning and operating a motorhome and taking care of the exterior surfaces can be a challenge. Still, with due diligence and finding the right exterior care products, any motorhome can retain that showroom look for many years. And you just might reap the return on that investment come trade-in time.
Q. Though Owens-Corning commercially developed fiberglass in 1935, who accidently created fiberglass (and what year) and what was the first vehicle ever made with it (and what year)?
A. Fiberglass was discovered accidentally in 1932 by a fellow named Dale Kleist. The Chevrolet Corvette was the first production car made entirely of fiberglass-reinforced plastic in 1953.