Auto mechanics will often shy away from RV repair both because they have enough other projects to work on, or they don’t want the hassle that comes with a recreational vehicle. Still, sometimes it is out of their hands. Once in a while, especially in the summer season with tourists are eager to explore, mechanics will find themselves with a panicked traveler’s campervan show up, begging for help at the garage door. However it happens, servicing an RV is not as complicated as it might seem. Generally, RV systems are very similar to what you would find in a standard vehicle with some components of a residential home.
With a little extra knowledge, any mechanic can provide service and maintenance on all sorts of RVs. To begin with, the term RV covers a broad swath of recreational vehicles ranging from simple tow-behind trailers to extremely complex luxury motorhomes. The level and types of skill necessary to work on this diverse group of vehicles is equally diverse. There are generally some common features shared across most RVs. These basic features include the ability to run on either DC or AC power, a gas system for appliances which is usually propane-based, a freshwater system capable of operating from an onboard tank and/or a city water connection, and a grey/black water system for waste. In the case of motorhomes, there will be either a gas or diesel engine which power the unit.
The tools you’ll need
The tools needed to work on an RV are generally the same as those you use on standard motor vehicles. Some specialty tools that you will probably need include a good set of Robertson bits or drivers. Robertson head screws are common in the RV industry unlike in the automotive world, and having a set of these will make working on an RV much easier. Another important tool is a good digital multimeter. It will be important that the meter you choose is capable of measuring voltage and current for both DC and AC circuits in the ranges RVs use.
Different vehicles, different problems
The most common issues in an RV are electrical or appliance related. RVs typically live a relatively rough life, having to endure significant bouncing and vibration while on the road. Tires, suspension, and brakes need replacement more often than a typical vehicle. These are all also almost always standard so although you have to accommodate for size, they can be changed at any shop or garage using standard equipment.
A frustrating aspect of these vehicles is how certain systems can override mechanical function. For example, most engines will not start on RVs that have the slides out. The electrical systems for the motor vehicle are separate but connected to the residential electrical. This can sometimes complicate things. A typical travel trailer will have a 12V DC system and a 120V AC shore power connection. The heart of both systems is usually the power center which is typically a small wall-mounted box that has standard circuit breakers controlling the 120V AC circuits and standard automotive 12V fuses protecting the 12V circuits. This is also where 120V power from the shore connection is converted to 12V through a converter which charges the battery and powers the 12V circuits while the shore power is connected. When electrical issues come up in an RV, the power center is often the first place to begin troubleshooting.
Working on the appliances in RVs is not something a mechanic would generally take on. Most RV appliances are very similar to their residential counterparts although they are usually simpler, lighter and physically smaller. An RV furnace, for example, is usually a self-contained unit about 12” x 24” x 24” or smaller. Water heaters, refrigerators, furnaces, ovens, and other appliances can often be serviced in the RV, but in many cases, they will need to be removed from the RV for service. The main thing to consider is that most often these appliances use propane. Be sure to find out where the propane is located and check that it is turned all the way off before beginning any other work.
Important tips for mechanics
One small tip will have your service stand out above all else—cleanliness. Since the RV is often a house as well as a vehicle, your customers are going to notice dirt more than usual. Combine that with some engines that are only accessed from the interior, and you definitely have to pay closer attention to where you set down your tools.
A quick note on RV construction
Finally, know the differences between RV construction and other large vehicles like heavy trucks and buses. When standing in an RV it is easy to get the feeling that you are in a home and many of them are as sturdy as you can imagine a house on wheels would be. There are several important differences between an RV and other large vehicles that are critical when working on them. First, the material and construction is not heavy duty. The walls are often flimsy and even what seems like small issues can cause thousands of dollars in damage to an RV. There are several types of roofs typically used on RVs. Materials include metal, rubber, and fiberglass and each type have its own special needs for maintenance or repair. More importantly, you can walk on some RV roofs and not on others. As a general rule, a walkable roof is accessible by a factory-installed ladder. If there is no factory installed ladder then the roof is likely not walkable. If the roof is not walkable then contact the manufacturer for their recommendations on how to do roof or roof-mounted accessory maintenance.
Being able to service and maintain an RV can be rewarding whether it is yours or someone you are trying to help. Building up your service skills will allow you greater freedom and flexibility to deal with a wide variety of customers and mechanical issues. Go above and beyond. If you can, help an RVer out, they will be sure to spread the word about your service. Share your knowledge and help people stay safe on the road, you will be glad you did.