I’ve heard of people who buy RVs and get a complete walk through.
A dealer tells them how everything works and then, believe it or not, for years on down the road everything just does work.
I don’t know if these lucky bastards are just, well, lucky, or what, but in my experience, the easiest way to get traveling in an RV or van is to buy used, and that means things will be broken. You’ll need to fix them at some point. At the very least, you’ll need to know how they work in order to operate or maintain them.
Thus, may I be as kind as to present to you this: your one stop shop for how everything in an RV works.
We’ll cover the basics, we’ll talk about everything from motorhomes to trailers to campervans, and we’ll keep it fun but informative. No technical diagrams, no high level mathematical conversions, just what you need to know, quickly, to familiarize yourself with everything from the sewage pipe to the hitch.
RV Water Systems
Ah, water. Perhaps the most essential ingredient to this thing we call life here on Planet Earth. Washington is known for it. Californians steal it. Arizona is running out of it.
What was once a plentiful source, available freely across nearly the entire planet, is now sold for $2 / bottle and regulated highly. Whether you plan to boondock or stay in fancy RV resorts, you will find yourself included amongst the rest of humanity in needing this vital source of existence.
Freshwater Tanks vs. City Water Hookups
How Freshwater Tanks Work
There are two ways to get water into your RV’s water system. One is to add it to your freshwater tank, literally a big jug somewhere on your rig where you can store some amount of water (typically 10 – 30 gallons or so). Most of the time, RV manufacturers will have the place where you fill up your freshwater tank very clearly marked. If you’ve got an older ride, though, just start opening up your outside compartments until you find a hole that looks like a hose could fit into it (not screw into it, mind you).
You can fill it with a hose if that’s an option. Big freeway gas stations like Pilot, Flying J and TA Travel Centers often have RV areas where you can fill up your water for free, presumably with the purchase of some gas or diesel. RV parks, state and national park campgrounds and even some random spots in cities offer a place to fill up. Or just use the hose at your house if you’re the type of traveler who has a sticks & bricks to return home to.
Otherwise, you can just buy a couple of 5-6 gallon portable water jugs and fill up your water tank that way. Walmarts and other larger grocery stores sometimes have a place where you can fill up your own jugs, as do almost all campgrounds, the exception being dispersed camping in BLM lands or the rare but usually well indicated park without any water sources.
After dumping water into your freshwater tank, you’ll turn on the faucet and, very possibly, nothing will happen. Just having water in a tank doesn’t mean there’s any pressure, and so RVs have a water pump. There may be some fancy newer RVs that don’t require you to turn on your water pump every time you want to use it, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll need to find a switch labeled “water pump”, and–you got it!–switch it on.
You should hear something, the sound of the pump doing its thing as it moves water from the tank to fill all of the pipes in your rig until they’re all full enough that, upon turning a knob on a sink, water will instantly come out.
Sometimes it’ll squirt and sputter a bit. That’s just the air that was in the lines being forced out. After a short time that should stop and you should be all set. Once the water pump has forced water through all of the pipes, the water pump should stop running / quiet down.
Note that water pumps run off of your battery–aka, the 12v system, covered later–and are more or less specifically designed for boondocking. They exist so that you don’t need to be hooked up to city water, and the built in water pressure that goes along with such a hookup.
They also almost always, and always should, have a filter installed between the freshwater tank and the pump itself. This makes sure little pieces of dust and debris don’t get into the pump itself, possibly ruining it. If you fill up your freshwater tank, flip the water pump switch, and nothing happens, the pump is probably the reason for it.
Troubleshooting Water Pumps
If you hear nothing, the pump isn’t working. Check the wiring if you’re able. Call someone if you’re not. It may be as simple as a blown fuse (more about fuses below) or a chewed up wire. Or your pump might be worked out.
Another no brainer that some of us who haven’t fully learned to use our brains yet don’t consider is, well, is there any water making it to the pump? If the pump is making noise but you still get nothing, look inside of the filter (if it’s clear) and see if any water is getting in there. Or you can pull the hose off of the intake side of the pump and see if there’s any moisture there. If not, you may have a leak between the tank and the pump itself.
If it is wet, then water is getting to the pump. This probably means you’ve got a leak somewhere after the pump. You can try and isolate the problem by checking all of the sinks, the shower, and the toilet. Do any of them have water pressure (ie, water coming out of the faucet)? If some do and others don’t, it’s probably a leak somewhere near the faucet itself, as often times they’ll share common lines from the water pump throughout the rest of your RV.
Actual Freshwater Storage
The amount of freshwater you can store is completely up to how large your freshwater tank is, but a few other factors come into play as well. Some amount of water can be stored in the plumbing itself. I don’t know the exact numbers on this, but I’d say a gallon or two is a very safe estimate, particularly for larger RVs, and then there’s you hot water tank.
By turning on a hot water valve somewhere (the shower, a sink, anywhere with a dedicated hot water knob vs. one that rotates to share between the hot and cold lines), you’ll help force water from the freshwater tank into the hot water tank. If you don’t do this, I’m not sure how you can be completely positive that water actually is in the hot water tank. And a hot water tank, lit, with no water in it is a very dangerous thing. I mention that for your own safety, but the original point I was making was that your total fresh water storage is your freshwater tank + what can be stores in the pipes + your hot water tank.
Finally, there’s conservation of water to consider. In a normal house, the average American family of four uses 400 gallons a day. I don’t think there’s ever been an RV made, Big Willy Style or otherwise, that can hold anywhere close to that, so you change your habit. Save the world, if you like.
Especially when you’ve got to lug your own jugs from a place you can fill them up, back to your RV, up in the air and hold it there while you dump the water into your tank, you naturally begin to want to conserve.
Additionally, as you use water you’ll begin to fill up your grey and blackwater tanks. Once they’re full, you’ve got to dump them, an activity even more involved and annoying to do repeatedly than filling up your freshwater. So the less you use, the less often you’ve got to do all of this stuff. (More on grey and blackwater tanks below.)
Navy showers. Don’t let the water run while you brush your teeth. Drink bottled water. And figure out a whole new world of dish washing.
Forget a dishwasher, or a washing machine (if you’ve got something like that on board). Get low flow faucets and showerheads and your life will be a lot easier.
Luckily, most RVs are meant to use less water anyway. Specially made toilets that allow you to use next to no water (compared to 2 – 5 gallons most normal, household toilets use per flush) each time you flush, but still allow you to fill up the bowl for those of you who appreciate the input of a good batch of hot sauce, beer and Mexican food, and are regularly subjected to the inevitable exhaust of such endeavors.
How City Water Connections Work
Not limited to “cities”, this refers to any time you’re hooking up directly to a faucet that’s plumbed to some source of water, typically water hookups at an RV park. Think the spigot you hook up a hose up to in your back yard.
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but to be painfully clear, you’ll need a hose. You find a place where you can screw one end of the hose onto your rig, and the other end gets screwed onto the spigot itself. Once both ends of the hose are securely fashioned, turn on the water at the spigot, and bam, you’ve got running water.
There are some additional considerations to keep in mind, not the least of which is water pressure. Particularly in older RVs, the plumbing wasn’t build to withstand the powerful water pressure that will come blasting out of many water sources. Too much pressure could break your pipes, cause joints to leak, or dripping faucets. So, you buy a small metal cylinder known as a water pressure regulator.
I’ve found that they need replaced about every year or so, particularly if you’re regularly hooking up to high pressure water systems. I place ours between the hose and the intake on our Airstream travel trailer.
Just as a water pump should be outfitted with a filter, city connections can be as well. This is less about keeping out damaging debris, though, and more about trying to filter impurities out of your water system so that you can feel good about not drinking too much mercury (or whatever they filter, I don’t know as I don’t use one, being a man and all).
Water filters are typically attached to the end of your hose furthest away from your RV, at the city water source.
Unlike a house, which has insulation and the protection of the Greek God of Housing Developments, RV water systems can quickly crack or break, or the fittings can get warped and result in leaks down the road, if subjected to freezing temperatures. If you’re using your RV and find yourself in a situation below 34 degrees Fahrenheit, your absolute safest bet is to simply empty your tanks and unhook from any water source.
That advice should particularly be followed if you find yourself in a situation where freezing temps are happening during the day, because by the middle of the night it’s going to be damn cold, and the chances that things will straight break increases exponentially.
If the night time temps are just going to drop slightly below 34 though, you can probably just leave a faucet dripping. That keeps water flowing and reduces any chance of freezing. You can also add some anti-freeze to your blackwater tank (by pouring it down the toilet) and your greywater tank (pour it down the shower drain), which can help keep those tanks from freezing.
If you’re using your freshwater tank, well then you’re probably boondocking in the frigid winter chill, so firstly, let me just congratulate you on being a badass. However, you can’t add anti-freeze to your freshwater tank (you know, because you don’t want to drink poison), so if you’re not going to run the water out of your tank before it gets too cold, I’d recommend at least keeping it very, very low, turning off the water pump, and making sure there’s no water in the line from the freshwater tank to the pump itself. I can’t imagine a frozen pump feels very good.
All of this in mind, we’ve had our pipes freeze a few times. Though our Airstream was made in 1976, our plumbing is all PEX as a previous owner was wise enough to replace it all. Nothing has ever broken, and we’ve dipped down to the high 20s. This has only ever happened when I’ve simply forgotten though, and I always try to remember not to forget. A good motto for anyone, I’d say.
Winterizing your RV
If you’re not full-timing, or if you’re going to store your RV in cold temperatures where it could possibly freeze, winterizing is pretty simple. They’ll charge you $50 to do it at a service center, but it’s painfully simple.
- Dump your grey and blackwater tanks. Let out the waste, watch it flow away like so many bad memories of flat tires and beautiful mountainscapes ruined by mosquitos. When they’re empty, plug them both back up by closing whatever handles your motorhome provides for opening and closing the wastewater tanks. More info on that below in the Sewage System section if you need it.
- Find your low point drain. This is typically a somewhat circular handle, often painted red, that you can turn (it looks like the water handle behind a washing machine or on your garden spigot, for example) and it will allow water to drain from the lowest point in your RV. Sometimes there are multiples of these. Instead of the water coming out of your sewer pipe, it’ll often drain through a different hose underneath your rig.
- Make sure there’s no freshwater left in the system. Turn on your water pump, and open up your lowest faucet. This is typically the one in the bathroom, as the kitchen sink tends to be higher. When there’s no more water, head back to the sink (or any other faucets) and double check those. Leave them all open.
- Anti-freeze up. Dump a jug of anti-freeze down the toilet, and another down the shower, for good measure. This’ll help ensure no amount of water you swear you didn’t leave behind will freeze up.
You’re all set!
Leaks in your RV
So you’re leaking. It’s embarrassing, particularly the darker the color. Luckily, it’s not as daunting an issue as it seems if you’re feeling at all handy, have a flashlight, and are willing to buy a bunch of plumbing gear.
The first thing to do is figure out where the leak is coming from. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because where it’s dripping out of your RV isn’t necessarily where the leak is. Still, that drip outside is the place to start.
Given the enclosed nature of many RVs, you’ll likely see the leak at its outside source: a rusted through hole, or some purposely created hole in the bottom of your RV designed to let water out in case of a leak.
The next step is to try and find the closest access spot to that area. Sometimes this will be an outside compartment. You may need to dismantle some amount of the interior of that compartment–taking out a panel or two, loosening a few screws–to find the source of the leak. Other times you can find it by visualizing the leaking area inside and then lifting up couches, beds, or digging through drawers and closets. RVs aren’t always designed with extreme elegance in mind, but they often are constructed to make accessing much of the plumbing accessible at critical points.
You may also want to note that plumbing tends to break at the weakest points: joints in particular, but especially where weaker materials have been used. For example, our Airstream was refitted with PEX before we got it, but some of the original copper plumbing was left in the shower and rubber tubes were used near where the city water comes in. Those spots have proven our biggest enemy, and I always check there first.
It’ll take you some time to learn your own rig’s shaky spots, but once you do life gets easier.
Once you find the leaking spot, you can typically follow it. If you’re lucky, that compartment you took apart will have the source of the leak right there. If not, look for where the water’s coming from, typically wherever the pipe tends to lean upward.
Once you find it, it’s typically as easy as a replacement part. Sometime this is a busted pipe. Shut all of the water off, dismantle the pipe, taking note of how it was put together in the first place, and head on over to your local Ace Hardware. Bring pictures of what you’ve got, they’re almost always happy to help you get everything you’ll need to finish the job off once you get home.
Common, Easy to Fix Issues
Sometimes you’ll find a leak but won’t necessarily need to fix it…just understand it.
All RVs come with “low point drains”, typically controlled by a handle similar to that you’d find behind a washing machine in a normal house. If this is loose, you may simply be “winterizing” your RV without knowing it. That is, you’ve opened a handle designed specifically to let water out of the RV.
Make sure those are tight. Consult the manual. Or your favorite vintage trailer forum if you don’t have the manual.
Next up is checking the water pressure. This only applies if you’re hooked up to city water, but what comes out of a local ordinances massive pipes can crush an RV’s much more delicate system. While theoretically a leak could happen at any point from this, I’ve found it typically happens quite close to where the water initially comes into your motorhome. Or at one of those weak points I mentioned earlier.
The first solution is to just get a water pressure regulator. It’s a relatively small device that you can hook onto the intake area where the city water goes into the RV, or permanently attach to your hose so that you never have to bother with remembering to use it. All it does is lessens the amount of water pressure coming into your little home.
If you’ve already got one and are still experiencing this, I find that they only last about a year and a half. They cost $5 – $20 depending on how much the local KOA wants to rip you off, so drop the cash and be leak free again.
Remember that bit about how dark colored water is not cool. Yeah, that sucks way more than the above scenarios.
You may have a broken grey or black tank. Or maybe just a sewer pipe. If the leaking goo is coming from somewhere near where your sewer pipe empties, or anywhere along an area that would be where the pipe goes from the tank(s) to this point, take apart whatever you need to in order to find the entire pipe.
While this can be a big job, it’s easier to replace a thick chunk of PVC than it is to replace or even repair a tank.
If the tank is busted, while you may be able to repair it, I won’t be able to guide you through that. It’s just never happened to me.
No Water Coming out of the Faucet when Dry Camping
So you’re boondocking and the water pump is running (because you can hear it), and you know for sure you’ve got water in the tank. But nothing is coming out of a faucet.
If it’s a high faucet, like in the kitchen, check if the typically lower down sink faucet works. If it doesn’t, see if your toilet will flush. Sometimes the higher a faucet, the worse the problem gets.
If other faucets or the toilet work, it’s probably an issue with the plumbing just below that particular faucet. Look for leaks. See if there might be a shut off valve that got turned off somehow. Look in the opening of the faucet itself (where the water comes out), you can often unscrew the end of it and take the screen out. Though it’s rare they get clogged enough to completely cancel out a water supply, they can get pretty grungy and severely limit the amount of water that comes out.
If none of that solves it, think about where your water pump is relative to the problem. Do sinks between the pump and the trouble faucet work? If so, it’s probably a leak somewhere between those two areas.
Finally, if all else fails, run a hose from the nearest river through your window and attach a spigot to it. While this won’t solve the longterm problem, you’ll complete the trailer park look you were going for at the very least.
Greywater vs. Blackwater
You may have been wondering what the difference between “greywater” and “blackwater” is. It’s fairly simple, though grows more complicated depending on why you’re asking.
Blackwater is your human waste, specifically what you put down the toilet. Greywater is less gross, what goes down your shower drain, kitchen and bathroom sink.
Some states or areas allow you to drop greywater right onto the ground. This is typically found in Southwestern States, and more specifically in BLM (Bureau of Land Management) areas. Basically, if you’re in a place far from civilization, that place has little water in the first place, and there are no signs specifically saying “don’t dump your greywater”, you may be in luck.
Always check with the municipality’s official “where do I dump stuff at?” manager before doing anything you don’t want to get fined for.
It’s not a great idea to dump greywater near a freshwater source, such as a creek or a lake, particularly one that is part of a watershed that serves many people. It’s never cool to dump blackwater on the ground. That literal shit belongs in a sewage system. Early London was plagued by people defecating into the public water source.
Your own personal knowledge of the local natural resources and opinions on saving the world may affect how comfortable you are dumping greywater on the ground. Oh, and loads of it dumped at once can stink really, really bad. Best to let it just trickle out.
Finally, many places actually encourage dumping of greywater. They want this relatively clean water back into their desperately draught-inflicted land. However, most of them will say that this water can’t come from a kitchen sink–only a shower or bathroom sink. Nowhere that food is prepared or washed.
Why cleaning the grunge out of my butt crack is considered cleaner than a few stray peas making it down the drain is up to you to figure out, but in these places it would still be considered illegal to dispose of an RV system’s greywater as in nearly every case that tank is the same for the kitchen and bathroom sink / shower.
How RV Sewage Systems Work
The sewage system is really just a component of the water system in general. See above for a ridiculous amount of information on that.
There are a few things that specifically relate to sewage disposal (in addition to the “Greywater vs. Blackwater” outline above) though.
The Brown Pyramid
RV sewage systems can get clogged up. And it’s not even hard to do. The biggest recommendation I hear to avoid this is to use special RV toilet paper. Most of the best places to go aren’t exactly near a Camping World, though, or even a Mom & Pop’s RV Supply, so I have found that the absolute best way to keep your poop tank clean (that’s the blackwater one) is to use it as a shitter as rarely as possible, and when you do, keep tons of water in there.
We have simply grown used to not pooping in our Airstream. Not that we don’t. We potty trained a 3 year old in her, and there was no way he was going to hold it until we could run over to the campground bathroom or find the next gas station. And when boondocking, no one can plan when we’ll make a run into town. If we all based our bowel movements around this idea we’d be driving to town for two hours a pop three times a day (we apparently eat a lot of fiber).
Still, even if you do take some mondo dumps in your roadhouse, know that you’re not at a total loss.
Keeping a ton of liquid in there will help break the solid stuff up, be it toilet paper or worse. Even better, fill the black tank up sufficiently before you take that next 120 mile drive. All of that sloshing around will help crush the soil and the next time you let it flow, clean a good chunk of it out.
There are also these little packets of bacteria you can flush down the toilet. The theory is that they head on down the drain and create a little world of there own, digesting and destroying. It’s the same basic principle as how a septic system works with a country home. Except I don’t believe they work, because there just isn’t that kind of time involved from one fill up to the next dump station. Have a go if you’d like to drop a few extra pounds from your bank account though!
Finally, if your sewage tank is just full…and you’ll know this because the entire RV will wreak like a high school gym room where the entire football team dropped a hail mary deuce on the last day of school and the janitor didn’t get to until September…well you can look up a guy who specializes in pumping shit out of RV blackwater tanks. I did it once in Las Vegas and it was around $80. I honestly can’t say it changed things very much, though. The tanks were emptier than they’d ever registered, so it did clean things out, but I think once you get to the point of clogging your blackwater with so much grime and debris that your RV really starts stinking, you’ve kind of shanked yourself.
Oh, and if you’re flushing baby wipes, tampons or pads down the toilet, enjoy! You’ll be one of those lucky women who gets to tell some frustrated dude (your husband or a man you called to fix it who loves to charge stupid people a lot of money) that you definitely did clog the hell out of your system and will now need him to dig around it and free everything up.
Of course, woman aren’t the only offenders, any man who’s dropping tampons down the toilet is just as idiotic.
How to Empty an RV Sewage System
So here’s how to properly dump your black and greywater tanks.
Firstly, even if you’re hooked up to a sewer connection, always keep the blackwater closed. That is, don’t open the valve and just let it drain all day. That’s how you get too much solid and not enough water, resulting in the previously mentioned cirumstance.
If you are hooked up to a sewer connection, the night before you’re going to leave, before you do the dishes and/or take a shower, close the greywater connection, too. This will give you time to fill it up substantially before you unhook and head out of your campsite.
If you’re boondocking, or otherwise don’t have hookups, you may have the greywater closed anyway for the duration of your stay. Regardless, the goal is to have a bunch of greywater in the tank before you go to dump the blackwater.
That said, you’re now rolling up to an RV dump station. Whip out your hose–we recommend the RhinoFLEX line of sewer pipes–and hook the end that fits onto your RV and the other end that screws into the dump station. You don’t usually actually have to screw the dump station end in, depending on how the hose is sitting or if you’ve got something to lean against it, that’ll do just fine, but definitely make sure you snug up the side that hooks onto your rig.
Don’t even bother with the cheap sewer pipes that come with a clasps (like a large version of what radiator hose would use) that you screw tight. Or anything that isn’t RhinoFLEX. Seriously. Do you want a pinhole to rot in your sewer pipe and then human feces to immediately spray from that pinhole directly into your nose?
It can happen. It has happened. To me. Like, five times. Just buy the Rhino.
Note that if the sewer pipe you bought in a store doesn’t fit, you’ve probably got a Thetford sewage connection. In which case you need an adapter, which hooks onto your RV, and then your sewer pipe hooks onto it.
Now that you’ve got your pipe all hooked up, always let the blackwater go first.
That way your toilet waste will flow on down the line, filling the nooks and crannies of this pipe you’re going to have to dismantle and then stow away somewhere within the confines of your roaming home.
Then you let the greywater zoom and pow! You’ve now got all of that relatively more clean water (especially if you just did the dishes to fill it up, soapy water!) washing away as much debris as possible from the hose.
You can then run a blast of water down the hose to clean it out even further, though I rarely do this thoroughly. Then again, I don’t wear rubber gloves during this entire experience either because I am not a lillylivered pansy from Crestwood. Feel free to wash your hands when it’s all over.
Put the hose away and call it a day!
There are two basic electrical systems in most RVs, the 120v and the 12v.
120 volt is similar to what you’ve got in a typical house. Think the normal electrical outlets, the ones Homer Simpson paints into cute bunny faces that one time he started a daycare. What you’d use to plug in a vacuum, lamp or microwave.
12 volt is more like what you’ve got in your car. Cigarette adapters, running off of a 12v car (or in this case, an RV/Marine battery).
The 120v system is generally used when you’re plugged into RV hookups. You can use everything you’d use in a normal house–your RV’s air conditioner or a fan, a microwave, plug in and charge your computer or phone, hairdryers, the whole shebang–though not necessarily all at once. When you’re plugged into an RV park, the 120v system will also charge your 12v battery.
When you’re boondocking, i.e. not plugged in to some external power source, then you’ll need to rely on your 12v system. Typically an RV will have a fridge that can run off of 12v (often in conjunction with your propane system), and your lights will work. Older rigs won’t be equipped to allow you to suck juice out of your wall outlets, but many will have cigarette lighter type outputs you can use. Just drop into a gas station and grab the same little adapter you’d use to charge your phone in the car.
Newer RVs will often have a converter which will allow you to plug your computer or other low intensity devices in and charge them, but don’t count on that juice lasting very long without a renewable energy source (such as a generator or solar panels). You’ll also find it nearly impossible to run an air conditioner, microwave or hair dryer…12v just doesn’t have enough power for those high intensity devices.
When you are plugged into an RV park’s power source, there are typically three types of amperage available: 20 amp, 30 amp and 50. Twenty amp outlets look just like a normal wall outlet. Older VW Buses and campervans will sometimes use this. Thirty amp outlets have one circular hole at the bottom, and instead of two parallel slots they’re angled inward to one another near the top.
Fifty amp has a slightly different plug structure. You can buy adapters to allow a 30 amp plug to fit into a 20 amp outlet, or a 50 to suck from a 30, and even vice versa, though it’s not particularly recommended that you go up (though we’ve often used an adapter to suck 30 amp into our old 20 amp VW bus with no repercussions…note that is no guarantee for your own situation).
Most RVs are designed to use either 30 amp or 50 amp, and it’s generally best to stick with what was issued. Many RV parks will offer both, sometimes at every spot, or sometimes they’ll have different loops or sections for 30 and 50 users. 50 amp rigs are typically the big guys: massive rock star Class A rides and the larger fifth wheels.
Solar Power in an RV
One way to recharge your 12v battery when you don’t plan on plugging into dedicated power sources often is to set your rig up to use solar.
These days you can get a complete kit for under $400 on Amazon. That includes the panels (two 100 watt), cables, charge controller and brackets: everything you need except a battery to get yourself living off of the sun’s energy.
Watts vs. Amps vs. Volts
Like most people who haven’t done much in the way of electrical work, I used to find all of the terminology that comes along with getting solar setup complicated. Watts vs. amps vs. volts, what does it all mean? Then someone explained it to me more or less like this.
Amps are how much energy you use, an actual amount of electricity used. Volts are how powerful the energy is. Watts can then be thought of in terms of how much can be accomplished with the amount and power you’ve got.
It was explained to me further by comparing it to a garden hose. Amps are the thickness of the hose, the thicker the hose, the more water that can go through it.
Volts then play the role of water pressure, how much force is being used to send the water through.
When you multiply the volts by the amps, you get the wattage. So if the more amps x volts you’ve got, the stronger, faster the spray is coming through your hose, and therefor the more wattage.
However, with solar we’re not interested in maximizing how much we can use, but rather getting ourselves setup so that we’re generating adequate supply for what we need. No reason to buy a 2000 watt setup if you only use around 50 watts per day, you’ll just be wasting money on a more expensive solar system than you need.
To figure out exactly what you need, find out how many amps your devices require. Here are some common appliances found in an RV.
- Air Conditioner, Microwaves, Electric Water Heaters
- 14 Amps
- Blenders, Coffee Makers, Televisions
- 5 Amps
- Laptops, Drills, Range Hoods, Fans, Water Pumps, Radios
- 4 Amps
- Lights, CO & LP Detectors,
- 1 Amp
- Gas Refrigerator
- 2 Amps
Generators for Powering an RV
We have a Yamaha 2000 generator. It’s a beautiful thing, not too loud, a little stinky, and fuel efficient. Five gallons of gas will keep it humming for us all week long (though we only run it for a few hours a day). Without solar, a setup like this will essentially provide you the ability to keep your 12v batter charged if you run it a little in the morning and a little in the evening. We tend to run it longer in the morning while I’m working on my laptop and our oldest son is doing his schoolwork on his own computer.
Aside from creating pollution and requiring you to store gas, the only real problem with a generator is that it can annoy the tail off a squirrel. Many folks who come out to campgrounds that require boondocking are doing so to get away from it all, the bustle of civilization, the stench of the highway. It’s relatively easy to piss off a tenter by running a generator nearby.
Still, they come in handy and even if you do have solar, it’s not always sunny. A generator makes life a little easier in that you can just fire it up and have basically 20amp service anywhere you’d like. Note that you won’t be able to run a ton off of it, probably not even an air conditioner and certainly not multiple space heaters. We’ve found that things like curling irons don’t get enough power to actually get hot. And you need to remember to change the oil frequently, especially if you notice your gennie is having a hard time starting up or keeping up with your power usage, just changing the oil can make a big difference.
Most of us just go out and buy the 12v RV/marine batteries you can snag from nearly any auto parts store. Just like charging your phone, batteries allow you to put juice into them and then provide you with said juice for as long as it’ll last. The more energy you use–ie, the more things you plugin, the longer you leave the lights on–the more quickly they’ll run out.
Some RVers have multiple batteries and relish filling them up so they can disappear for days without needing any additional power input, including a generator. Others swear by using multiple 6v “golf cart” batteries instead of the marine batteries that are the RV industry standard.
There are cheap, $50 batteries to be found and those that can run thousands of dollars. While I’ve only tried the standard 12v marine batteries which run about $70 – $150 depending on where you are in the country, the general consensus I’ve heard from others is that the expensive ones aren’t worth the money–yet–and that having two or three is typically more than sufficient for most people’s usage.
There are essentially four ways to charge your battery, most of which we’ve already covered. Solar comes with a few hundred dollars in up front costs and then essentially unlimited free energy to put back into those batteries for years, as long as you can get the panels into the sunshine.
Generators allow you to trade the cost of gasoline and smell of exhaust for battery juice.
Typically, you’ll also charge your RV’s battery while you’re hooked up and plugged into a tow vehicle (in the case of trailers) or have your engine running (for motorhomes), so the day’s where you drive you’ll be refilling your coffers as well, though this is far from an efficient way to try and keep your battery topped off.
Finally, anytime you plugin to RV park service (ie, 30 or 50 amp when staying at a place with hookups), you’ll be charging the battery then as well.
Breaker Box vs. 12v Fuse Box
You know in a house, probably somewhere down in the basement, there’s that silver metal door. You open it up when the power goes out and see if there are any switches you can flip to…voila!…get stuff in your house working again?
RVs have those too. They work just like the ones in your house, switching to prevent overloads when a private RV park’s hookups send too much power your way or you draw too much from any given fuse. Knowing where yours is will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Our 1976 Airstream also has a 12v fuse box, as did our 1978 VW Bus. Even newer rides will likely have some 12v fuses as so many things are dependent on 12v alone it just makes sense. These may be glass fuses that can easily come loose and just need slipped back in, or more modern fuses that you can check to see if they’ve gone bad and find replacements for at your local RV or auto parts store.
Fuses are responsible for probably 90% of the “why aren’t my [insert appliances] working?” situations that’ll come up, so just go and give them a check first no matter what it is. Understanding where they are, how they work, and how much easier it is to switch one out than digging through wires will make your life closer to a rainbow in the misty spray and less like falling over a waterfall in a bucket.
Air conditioners, toasters, hair dryers and microwaves
Not all appliances are created equally. Many use very little power, and require very few Amps to work. LED lights are probably the least devastating to your battery supply, and things like charging a phone or powering a jack don’t cost you all too much either.
Other appliances, more modern conveniences, suck a ton of juice out as they’re used, and need a big draw to get going. Anything that produces a lot of heat–microwaves, toasters and hair dryers–are killers. Air conditioners are maybe the worst.
Just get used to frizzy hair and being hot, I say. Oh and cook your food, don’t nucleate it into a mutant poison slowly transforming you into some sort of six winged mothperson. Why would you want that? Mothpeople are gross.
Propane is derived from natural gas. So it’s good for nature, right?
No clue there, but it’s an essential part of nearly every RVer. At least those of us who wear shoes and don’t chain ourselves to flowers.
From keeping your fridge cold to your heater (and hot water tank) hot, propane plays several important roles and helps us eliminate our need for electricity. There are three ways to go about getting propane onboard.
Most trailers will have a spot near the hitch where you can stash and hookup these propane tanks. Even if you’ve never RVed, you’ll know what these are: just think of the cage full of grey tanks at nearly every gas station.
They cost more than getting your own tanks filled, because the world is a vicious cycle of scams and every long time RVer knows they’re never getting the full 20lbs. Blue Rhino, for example, straight up admits this on their website’s FAQ page:
Blue Rhino followed the example of other consumer products companies with a product content change. We reduced the amount of propane in our tanks from 17 pounds to 15 pounds.
Note that the tanks are meant to hold 20lbs in the first place. They never filled them the full amount because “we need to give them a little room to expand”. I’m no scientist, but if I played on on TV I’d say 3lbs out of 20 seems a little excessive, but 5lbs out of 20 seems downright conniving.
They also claim that they replace outdated tanks, but I’ve run into situations where I’ve purchased or exchanged one that was the 10 or 12 years out of date (they need to be inspected every so often, depending on where you’re at), and propane filling stations wouldn’t fill them. This is rare, but it happens.
Aside from being wrapped up in the whole world of disguised thievery, other disadvantages to exchangeable cylinders include the requirement to completely empty the existing tank before exchanging it. Which means you either need two tanks (which is the most common setup anyway) and only exchange one at a time, or running your tank(s) completely empty and then immediately going to get a new one. Otherwise, you’re giving some amount of propane back to the company. They keep the excess, and still charge the next guy the same price. Bastardly, if I do adjectify the concept.
You also have to pay more for the tank initially, and you can’t sell the tank back. So say you buy two exchangeable propane tanks for $27 / each, about average as of this writing, you can then exchange them for closer to $20 / piece each time. But when you’re finally done with the tanks, they’re yours forever. No getting your $14 deposit back. $14 for two tanks is quite cheap, actually (they run closer to $37 / piece if you want to buy that size tank outright), but it still feels seedy.
Buy Your Own Portable, Removable, Refillable Tanks
This is the way to go. Yes, the tanks are expensive, but you can buy 30-40lb tanks. This means that, even if they do need “room to expand”, you’re only paying for the actual amount of propane that goes in, and with bigger tanks can refill less often. Trust me, getting your propane refilled is the least entertaining of business that can go down on the road.
You’ve got to wait around for a certified type person to come out, hook it all up, fill it up, and never mind the time it takes to unhook them yourself and get it all back into place. The more you can store at one time, the better.
On the downside, apart from the initial cost (our two 30lb tanks cost us $70 each, and that was a great deal), it’s harder to find a place to refill propane than it is to find those exchange places. They’re about 1 to 10–every gas station seems to have the exchange program, but only a few RV parks and propane dealers actually have refill stations. It takes a little longer. And you have to get there during usually normal 9-5 business hours.
Still, the savings are so worth it. Consider this. Propane, when purchased by the gallon, costs about $2.30 (at the time of writing, like gas, this stuff fluctuates all the time). Now we’re getting complicated, because tanks are measured in lbs not gallons, but here’s the conversion:
- 20lb of propane
- 4.7 gallons
- 30lbs of propane
- 7.1 gallons
- 40lb of propane
- 9.4 gallons
So if we’re strictly talking refilling, and at $2.30 / gallon:
- 20lb / 4.7 gallons of propane
- 30lbs / 7.1 gallons of propane
- 40lb / 9.4 gallons of propane
So right off the bat, exchangeable propane tanks are a ripoff. Where it should only be about $11 to get a refill, it’s more typically $19 – $24. So at a minimum you’re paying $8 / more per fill. Except you only get 15lbs (or 1.175 gallons less than you should be). So you’re paying at least $19 for $8.11 worth of propane. To get that number, take the initial 4.7 gallons of propane in a 20lb tank, subtract 1/4 (for the 5lbs you’re losing when exchanging) and you’re left with 4.7 gallons – 1.175 gallons = 3.525 gallons x $2.30 = $8.11 (rounded slightly up).
You also spent $7 or more for that propane tank, which is–though exchangeable–eventually yours.
Let’s say we use 100 gallons of propane in two months. You’ve just spent:
$7 for the tank + ($19 / refill * 28.4 refills) = $546
Now say you bought yourself that 40lber. Camping World’s got them on sale right now for $85, but lets go with the normal price of around $155.
$155 for the tank + ($21.62 / refill [9.4 gallons * $2.30 = $21.62] * 10.6) = $384
I’m so bored of math at this point, but even the simple realization that $21.62 to get 9.4 gallons (in a 40lb refillable tank) vs. $19 to get 3.525 gallons (in a “20lb” exchangeable) is a big difference. The excess cost for the $155 40lb tank is made up in a matter of weeks, and you’re saving nearly 50%. As the years go on, and you eliminate the cost of the tank, you’re practically Scrooge McDucking it.
Permanent tanks are more or less as good as refillable tanks when it comes to money. The bigger issue is that they are harder to get re-certified, and even worse, you can’t take them anywhere without taking your RV, too.
So you have to pack it all up, drive on down to some propane place, and then wait around for them to fill you up. That can be kind of annoying on a Wednesday afternoon when you were planning on hiking the Tetons but can’t just run out and get it done, do your walkabout, and bring them home with you.
So You Smell Propane, Do You?
The first thing is, well, don’t panic! Check your tanks. If they’re nearly empty, and especially if your system is a decade or ten old, you may simply need to fill them back up. Low tanks, I’m told, mean you’ve got little or no propane, but you’ve still got that smell they put in there to help you detect when there’s a leak.
Still, the safest bet is to turn off any flames and get yourself a great ventilation system going. Building a ventilation system in a pinch is fairly easy: just open all of the doors and windows. Go fill your tanks, and see if the problem persists.
Oh it does? Damn, then you’ll need to check everything. A wise old RV mechanic once told me that there’s nothing better for detecting propane than some bubble solution (you know, like kids blow bubbles with) in an empty Windex bottle. Add the bubbles, add some water, and you’ve got yourself a perfect gun to start spraying every single propane line you can find. Start with the seams, where two lines meet at some type of joint, as these are the most likely culprits. If you spray on the solution and you see actual bubbles forming, that’s where you’ve got a leak. You may have multiple leaks. And since propane can be a deadly serious issue, I would be remiss if I told you not to call an experienced pro. So I’m not telling you that. Call them, right now.
There are mobile RV technicians who will drive out to you. That’s nice. You pay for the convenience, but it’s nice.
If you do find a leak at a seam, you can try and tighten it yourself of course. And then call a pro to double check your work. $75 for a house call is better than the cost of exploding your house, family and that little rat dog thing you carry around. Sorry, rat dog. It’s not your fault. And at least you can fit in a purse!
While propane leaks can be very serious, I’ve been told by numerous professionals that in most cases you’re not going to blow up. One even smoked while working on our hot water heater, stating that there is no way the right combustion of air and propane can happen in an open environment like that. I don’t know, I’m not saying he’s right, but I believed him.
When to worry? He told me that if the leak was inside of something, say your oven, that’s when you’ve got an issue. Because no air is getting in, and propane is building up, so you light the oven and…kaboom.
So yeah, call the closest guy. If he smokes while working on your rig, you’re probably all right. Check with your insurance company first, of course.
Finally, some likely spots to check for leaks are at the regulator (the thing that’s between the propane lines and the actual tanks), the tank valves themselves, and near any appliances where the propane lines are going in, such as your fridge, stove or hot water heater. The stove’s burners are another likely candidate. Oh, and make sure your oven isn’t set to pilot but the pilot light isn’t lit. If it isn’t, but the pilot light is on (same with the hot water heater and fridge), shut everything down and wait a good long while, until you don’t smell anything at all, before sticking your head in there and trying to light the pilot again.
Lighting pilot lights can be scary stuff. Especially when you’ve got an old rig and it takes a few tries to get it to light, or when you need to use an actual match because that electric switch isn’t working. All I can say is, try and cover your face and hope you don’t get exploded. Because yes, it’s scary.
I haven’t blow up yet though. #fingerscrossed
Though not technically a part of your propane system, every RV should have a fire extinguisher immediately on hand. Make sure it works. You may never need it, but I’ll tell you that back in August of 2008, only two days into this life on the road, our RVs transmission caught on fire and were it not for me having immediate access to a fire extinguisher…well, I may not be here seven years later to discuss all of this.
When we first got our 1976 Airstream Sovereign of the Road (man, I love the audacity of that name), someone had thrown a regular old fridge in it. The kind you can plug into a normal wall outlet. It worked, but only if we were plugged into 30amp power. So no boondocking. No freedom. You don’t want that.
There are generally two kinds of RV-specific refrigerators: Two-way and Three-way.
A Two-way fridge can run off of just propane, and often requires a connection to your 12v battery (typically just to provide spark for the pilot and run any displays the fridge might have), but can also run off of 30amp power (or 20 or 50) when you’re actually plugged in somewhere with hookups.
A Three-way fridge does all of the above, but can run off of just your RVs battery, too. Like the Ménage à trois they’re named for, Three-ways can often hold more stuff, too.
There are other definitions of Two- and Three-way, though. We had a One-way fridge in our 1978 VW Bus campervan…it only ran off of 12v power. And some Two-ways definitions equate to just 12v and propane, excluding the typical 30amp plugin as a source. Though if you’re plugged into shore power, like a 30amp connection at an RV park or your friends outdoor outlet, you’re essentially charging your 12v battery and therefore in both of the situations described in this paragraph you can run those refrigerators off of shore power, too.
What Size Fridge?
This will depend completely on you. We had a 2 cubic foot fridge in our VW Bus. It could hold exactly enough cheese and smoked salmon to last us a day, plus a small tub of yogurt, a half gallon of milk and a six pack of beer. You can think of your needs and replace the beer if necessary. But then, what is the point of living?
We run a 4 cubic foot fridge in the Airstream. This is more than enough to keep groceries for six on hand for about three days, including about two gallons of milk on top of cheese, lunch meat, yogurt, blah blah blah. Stuff families with little kids who like to drink wine and beer every night might have.
The smaller your fridge, the easier it’ll be to keep cool on hot summer days, and the less power / propane you’ll use doing so.
Also note that most RV refrigerators that are warm take several hours to cool down when you’re not plugged into a dedicated source of power like 110v / 30amps. This is because of science, and while I get it, I won’t explain it because my explanation will sound more like magic. There it is, because of magic, or the lack thereof, an RV fridge that’s warm takes forever to heat up.
So bring a cooler for backup.
Stove & Oven
There isn’t much difference between most stoves you’ll find in an RV than what you’d expect from a gas stove at your house. Except they’ll be smaller. We’ve used a run of the mill Coleman 2-burner when in the VW Bus, and have the original Magic Chef oven in our Airstream.
Oh and we don’t use the stove…because I’m afraid to stick my head all the way back in there and light the pilot. Have fun!
Again, sinks are sinks. The biggest difference between the one in your RV and the one at home is that the pipes (and holding tanks) of your RV will be much less forgiving than the pipes running to city sewer at home.
If you start putting food waste down there–coffee grinds or bits of corn left over from your succotash–you could quickly clog your pipes. Or worse, a rotting stench will start seeping up through your bathtub as all of that organic matter begins to decompose in your grey water tank.
If your sink isn’t running, nothing will come out of the tap, check the troubleshooting steps above in the water section of this article. It’s likely that your water pump isn’t working (if you’re not plugged into city water), or you’ve got a leak in a pipe leading up to the faucet.
You may also just have a really clogged screen in the faucet, pop it out and clean that up, maybe even put in a new screen. Or check the filter to the water pump if none of the faucets are working. But more likely, especially if only one or two of the faucets–typically those higher in elevation than the rest–aren’t working, it’s a leak somewhere.
Jacks & Leveling
Aside from not having everything rolling around, or doors swinging violently open, the primary reason to stay level is your fridge. When running on propane, a fridge in an RV needs to be really level. Otherwise, you can get an airlock, which is crappy to fix. Sometimes it’s as easy as just driving down the road, and leveling out a few hours later, after everything’s shaken loose. Other times there’s a repairman and a bill associated.
So stay level.
And FYI, though on those big rock stars Class As there are hydraulic leveling jacks, the ones you crank down on your trailer aren’t for leveling you out. You should already be level when you put them down, as those bad boys are purely there to keep your unit from shaking like a Polaroid picture when you walk around or come in and out the door.
Also note that, as far as the jack on the tongue of a trailer goes, never get talked into one that only works on electric.
That is, you can have a manual jack–one you crank by hand to get it to go up and down. They’re bad ass, but yeah, it’s a lot of work. And then there are those that are combos–you can do it manually or push a button and it’ll do it for you. But if you get one that is strictly electric well, when the motor blows you are either jacked up and hitched up for good, or you won’t be able to get the jack up to hitch back up. Either way sucks. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Towing a Vehicle with a Motorhome
So you’ve got a big ol’ motorhome and would like to tow a car–known as a toad or I guess sometimes a dingy–so that, you know, you don’t have to pack up your house and try to find a place to park it every time you feel like a drive.
Personally, we’ve always chosen campervans or trailers over motorhomes just for this reason. Even when we owned our first Dutchmen Class C RV, we didn’t tow anything behind, we just rode bikes everywhere. It was more limiting, yes, but having two engines to deal with sounds like a nightmare to me.
If you’re into it though, note that you’ll need a tow bar or dolly. A tow bar allows you to drag your car along behind you with all four wheels on the ground. People tell me it’s easier to hook up, the system allows for a little bit of sway back and forth when connecting, so it’s not as precise as many tow vehicle / trailer hitch systems. A tow dolly means you drive the front two wheels up onto a very small trailer type apparatus, and the back two roll along nicely.
Towing a Vehicle Behind an RV with a Tow Bar
These can work with sticks or automatic transmissions, and again all four wheels will cruise along the highway with you. That probably means you’ll wear your tires out evenly as opposed to the back two getting more work (as in a tow dolly) than the front two. You can decide if that’s better or worse. I say worse. Discount Tire disagrees.
People I’ve spoken to who’ve had both systems always seem to love the tow bar over the dolly. They talk about how much easier it is to hook up. Personally, I’ve never used either and don’t know for sure. Sorry, I’m not God. Or your mom.
You’ll need a tow bar (sometimes called the wishbone) and a base plate. The latter attaches to the frame of your toad. Most cars require a very specific base plate, nothing universal here. So if yours isn’t something that people commonly tow, and there’s no existing model out there, you may need to drop the big bucks to have one fabricated.
The tow bar itself can be something permanently installed on your RV, which can just kind of hang around back there while you’re not towing, too.
Note that you’ll need to hook your toad up to your RVs lights and turn signals, too.
Other downsides include your vehicle racking up miles (since all four wheels are on the ground), even though they’re not really miles, and certain vehicles need to have their drivetrain modified to avoid completely destroying the fabric of time. Our good friend Greg at Bare Naked Family also clued us in to one big time bummer: you can’t backup when you’re hooked up this way. The toad just goes everywhere and anywhere you don’t want it to.
That’s a big concern once you realize that with your 40′ Class A rockstar plus a vehicle behind, you may often find yourself in a situation where you dead end it and just can’t turn around. Time to unhitch the toad, whip it all around, and hook back up. You’ll definitely hate your wife about 15 minutes into it.
Towing a Vehicle Behind an RV with a Tow Dolly
This is more like those little Uhaul trailers where you drive the front two wheels up, lock it all down, and just the back two cruise around on the ground.
The dolly gets hooked up to the motorhome, typically via a normal hitch system like you’d use for any trailer, and then you pull your car up onto it. They’re no good for rear-wheel-drive, because though it would seem that you could just drive any two wheels up onto the dolly, you actually have to drive the “drive” wheels. So on a front-wheel-drive vehicle, those are the front wheels, but on a rear-wheeler, that’d be the back wheels, so you’d be backing up onto the dolly.
And towing a vehicle in reverse is like peanut butter on a pizza, even the ninja turtles get sick after it’s over.
Though everyone swears by the tow bar setup, these sound good because you can always buy a new car–or load up a rental–as the trailers can be universal (though I suppose you might have trouble going from a Mini Cooper to a Ford F-350).
Apparently, on the downside, the dolly itself can be expensive and the actual hooking up can take a long time. But if you’re full-timing, you’ll be a pro in what, a week tops?
Oh, and then you’ve got to have somewhere to stash the dolly once you get the car off of it.
Trailers, Neutral and Other Concerns
You could also just hook up a full-sized trailer, drive your car up on it, and bam, you’re good to go. You can back up. Normal trailering lights and brakes would work. And you’d be kind of a nutjob.
Cars don’t typically tend to move when in park, so theoretically you’re going to need to at least pop it into neutral, if not get the whole accessory lights action going.
Have fun you crazy kooks!
Towing a Trailer with a Vehicle
Now we’re talking about a trailer, and you tow it with a vehicle. Most folks tend to go with an F-150 or similar truck. Somehow those giant Fifth Wheels that are bigger than most trailer park trailers can be hauled with an F-150. I don’t get it.
We originally towed our 6000lb Airstream (those massive Fifth Wheels are closer to 15000lbs) with a 1996 Chevy G20. That’s roughly equivalent to an F-250. It was overheating city, even in the relatively small Appalachians.
So we upgraded to a 2006 Ford E-350 (that’s a van) with the biggest rear suspension available (4:1 I believe) and haven’t had an issue yet. Asking a dealer what you’ll need might do you right. Then again, dealers suck, so taking a six month course on transmissions or buying your mechanic uncle a 12 pack of Busch might be the better route.
Your tow vehicle may be rated to two 12,000 lbs, but there’s another factor involved: tongue weight. Most hitches have the tongue weight right on them. Determining your tongue weight requires you to, well, weigh your trailer at the point where the jack touches the ground.
You can buy a high-capacity hydraulic scale, and they’ve got them on Amazon for around $150 that can weigh up to 1000lbs. That would be sufficient for us. Larger trailers (ours is 6000lbs loaded) may have a heavier tongue weight, though most hitches I’ve seen in the real world are weighted for no more than 800-1000lbs.
Our Airstream’s manual also came with a guide to weighing the tongue with just a bathroom scale. It involves constructing some type of miniature teeter totter and wearing a bathroom. No, actually you really can do it.
Get yourself a cheap scale. Now round up a cinder block, a 4×4 plank of wood 4′ or longer, two short pieces of pipe, and another piece of wood approximately the thickness of your scale. $150 starts to sound good the minute you start wondering where you’ll get some pipe. The pipe may not even be necessary, but this is what they tell you to do.
Regardless of all the above, you can increase your tongue weight using a weight distributing system. Which really just comes down to having the right kind of hitch. It’ll come with two areas where you install these bars that go back to the rear of your tongue, and then hook up to special attachments via chains.
They’re not exactly cheap–the whole system costs around $250 for an 800lb load capacity. That includes the hitch itself, which is a bit more involved than a normal one, as well as the mounts where you hook the chains up, the bars themselves, and all of the mounting gear.
If you’ve already got one but don’t have the manual, essentially you take the bars themselves and–making sure the top side is up, you can tell because the chain comes out of the top–place the hammerhead-looking thing into the hitch. Then you pull the rear mounts swivel down, set one of the chain’s links on the mount’s notch, and push it all up. I usually like to set mine on a link which makes it slightly difficult to push up, but doesn’t require two hands or anything.
Before doing this, make sure that your trailer’s tongue is already properly hooked up to the hitch, and that there is no weight on the hitch already (ie, you’re jacked up high enough that the trailer isn’t pushing down on the hitch, but that the ball is more or less completely covered.
Once you’ve got the chains hooked up, you can start lowering. As weight is applied to the hitch, the bars do there thing, tightening and working their magic.
Note that you never want to try and take these off with weight still on the hitch. To remove them, first jack your trailer up so that the weight is off of the hitch all together. You can test this by giving the weight distributing bars a little kick. If they swing freely, you’re good to go. If they’re really tight, well, trying to remove them like that will result in a loud thud at best, or your smashed foot in the worst scenario.
You can also grab a sway bar, which may or may not come with your weight distribution kit. You’ll need a special ball on the (typically) curbside of your trailer’s tongue, and then another smaller hitch ball on your actual hitch.
The sway bar connects these two balls and you then tighten the entire apparatus with a lever. What this basically does is prevents wind and small irregularities in your driving from causing the trailer to sway behind you like crazy, while still allowing you to turn as much as you normally could. Well, to a degree. Extreme turns, like those where you think you’re going to kiss, can break the hitch ball.
Ours has broken a few times, and I’ve gone several months now without using our sway bar at all. We tend to stay off of freeways and travel at slower speeds on the backroads, so sway is less of an issue for us.
Everything above matters little if you don’t have adequate wheelbase. Specifically, “wheelbase” refers to how far apart your front and back axles are. The longer, the better.
Imagine you’re rolling down some freeway, barreling 85mph downhill. Suddenly the road gets really bumpy, or you come to one of those little mini-jumps that tend to form where the road hits a bridge or overpass. Now think about this in your car–you start bouncing around.
When you’ve got a trailer on the back, it starts leaning forward and backward. When it leans forward, more weight is exerted on the hitch, pushing it down further than usual. When the back of your tow vehicle goes down, the front comes up. If you rely on the front wheels to steer (like we all do), if they lift off the ground, or even if they have less than maximum weight on them, steering suddenly becomes a very big problem…if possible at all.
Weight distribution systems also help with this, so if you’re experiencing issues like a floating feeling when breaking or going over bumpy terrain at higher speeds, give the weight distribution system a try.
Turning with a Trailer
When you’re driving around a Prius, you can flip that thing around without ever cross the yellow line. When you make a turn with a large trailer, or any trailer really, it doesn’t track right behind you. So if you’re making a turn, take it as widely as possible. Especially on right turns.
And use your mirrors to make sure everything’s coming along smoothly.
Using Your Mirrors
Aside from normal driving stuff like not hitting into other people, there are two things you’ll want to use your mirrors for.
The first is called “not hitting into the guy you’re passing”. It’s a bit different from the typical situation you’ll experience in a car or truck. You have to be able to judge how far back the guy is. This comes largely with practice, and while practicing feel free to give the other guy a ridiculous amount of space. No one wants to be your target practice.
The second is to use your shadow. You won’t always be blessed with the shadow on the right side of your rig, but when you do have it, it’ll help you understand exactly how far back the ol’ girl goes, aiding in that whole practice makes damn-near-perfect-enough.
Some truckers will flash their headlights at you after you pass them. They’re not being dicks, they’re just giving you the “trucker okay.” Love it when it happens. It’s like getting a wave from a fellow biker gang member. You only get it if you get it.
You could probably write a sexy romance novel on how some guys can back into any space. But only guys who can back into any space would ever read it, and we’re already sexy enough, so what would be the point.
The main thing to know about backing up is that whatever way you’d turn to get your tow vehicle into the spot, turn the opposite way. That is, if you turn the steering wheel left, your trailer is going to go straight.
Having a hitch / tongue setup that doesn’t allow you to kiss (that is, touch the tow vehicle to the trailer) very easily is a blessing. We can make a more than 90° turn with regards to where the van and trailer connect, and it allows us to get in anywhere.
Also, rely on your wife, or oldest son, or the person you rely on the most in your life. Get a system of hand signals down with them. Let them know which side you’re blind on, where you need help, and trust them. You watch them in the mirror and the front end of your tow vehicle, and largely allow them to guide the trailer in. You are the hands, they are the eyes.
Don’t let “helpful” fellow RVers help guide you in, or just ignore them if they try. If you crash into something, busting up expensive state park or RV park property and your precious home on the road, it’s on you. That helpful RVer can just go back to his own world, scot-free.
Heat is, how do they say it in French? I don’t know, “nice”?
You can chase summer all year long, but even in the desert–in January–it gets cold at night. And truly, if you’re interested in making the most of this life, you’ll quickly realize that the “off season” is the way to go to truly experience places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or any other bustling attraction that pulls in tourists during the warmer times in any given area.
Aside from a campfire, there are essentially three ways to pump heat into your RV.
You know them from every day ordinary life. Plug it into a wall, it makes heat. They can stink for a few minutes when they first get fired up, like burning laundry, but that typically goes away pretty quickly. Space heaters are cheap (you can score one for less than $100), and do a great job. However, they require that you have access to at least 20amp service, and if you’re running anything else, you’ll probably want 30amp or better.
So you’ll be largely limited to boondocking or just running it–and it alone–when you’ve got your generator running.
Catalytic heaters are like the Jesus Christ of heating an RV. By that I mean they can walk on water and raise people with really cool names from the dead. Or at the very least, heat your RV without electricity and much less propane than a typical built-in propane heater.
They work by doing some fancy magic that has the term “catalytic” in it. Old school models would actually produce a small flame–you’d light this pink insulation looking stuff, it’d actually catch on fire, and then the heat would come pouring out. They worked great, but were scary as hell and would stay hot for hours even after you turned them off. Kind of freaky if you’ve got pets or little ones running around. Pets and little ones are, after all, quite stupid.
So they don’t require electricity, use less propane, and are super dangerous. Well, times have changed and the tech behind these heaters has as well. Still, you’ll hear stories of people who die from them, and as we’re not in the business of being lawyers we won’t say these tales are unsubstantiated.
But unlike an electric or vented heater, you’ll want to always make sure that you’ve got fresh air coming in when using a catalytic heater. They put off very little carbon monoxide (or so I’m told), but they use a lot of oxygen. So if you’ve got an airtight rig and you’re using one, eventually the oxygen could get completely sucked out. No oxygen means your lungs can’t work. Without your lungs, the rest of you tends to move on to that great spirit in the sky as well.
When it comes to efficiency though–and when used properly–catalytic heaters are the best option for those of us full-timing it.
Built-in Propane Heaters
We haven’t had much luck with built-in heaters. Firstly, they use a lot more propane than catalytics and require electricity. Why? Because they also need a fan to blow the heat into your RV.
The built-in propane heater in our Airstream didn’t work from the day we got it (though the trailer was some 35 years old when purchased). In our 1978 VW Bus we had one, and it worked wonderfully. Except our Bus only had a tiny 2 gallon propane tank. That would last us a night and a half if we were diligent about turning it off when it actually got hot at night. Luckily, the switch to do so was right at the foot of our bed, so just a small toe tap would do the job.
The annoying part was that we needed electricity to run the fan to blow the heat around. Which isn’t always great if you’re not hooked into a steady power supply like at a private RV park.