DIY RV, Motorhome, and Camper-Trailer Repairs
How to Repair, Maintain, Rebuild, and Modernize Campers
Many camping enthusiasts are daunted by the idea of maintaining their camping vehicles, whether they be a motorhome or tow-behind travel trailer. Though maintaining an RV is similar in some ways to maintaining a home, RVs require some different applications of plumbing and electrical parts and supplies.
While many owners do not have the expertise to repair everything on a particular camping vehicle, a hands-on type person can do a lot of things to save money that would otherwise go to a repairman.
This article will focus on the camper body itself, since the engine and drive train of a motorhome is usually a Ford, GM, or other standard make that uses technology common to cars and trucks. A qualified mechanic will be able to service the motorhome's engine as easily as that of any other large truck though some parts like radiator hoses and belts may be different on motorhomes.
Roof Repairs and Maintenance
By far, the roof is one of the most important parts of the RV. As long as moisture is kept from penetrating this surface, the interior is safe from damage. Because owners leave the camper sitting out in the sunlight much of the time, the roof is exposed to harmful sun and heat damage.
While older models used metal as a roof covering, today’s models usually use metal coated with vinyl or rubber sheeting. These vinyl coverings will stand abuse for a few years but eventually, because of UV damage and because the covering flexes while the camper is being moved, leaks are inevitable.
The first hint of leaks in the RV will usually be along the outside edges of the roof. Here, and around any roof-mounted objects (A/Cs, exhaust stacks, vents), sheet-metal screws hold the metal sheeting to the walls and roof rafters. The screws are usually coated with sealer but this hardens over time. Stains will appear inside the unit before you realize you have a leak.
Using a quality rubber-based coating will prevent or repair many of these leaks if the damage hasn’t gone too far. I would advise applying a coating to the roof every year to avoid having to completely replace the roof sheeting. Unless you choose to replace the roof covering yourself, this job can cost thousands of dollars, especially if the material beneath the roof covering is damaged.
Existing minor leaks in your motorhome or travel trailer may be repaired by using the sealants offered on this page. Patches for small areas are available and roof replacement kits are offered for "hands on" type RV owners. Roof sealants for preventative maintenance are highly recommended.
Read RV, Motorhome, and Camper-Trailer Roof Maintenance and Repair FAQS for more information.
Motorhome and Travel Trailer Electrical Repair
Most RVs have an electrical system that combines 110-volt and 12-volt electrical components. The 12-volt supply is used for some lights, for vent fans, and for one part of the absorption refrigerators. Most remaining electrical appliances use the standard 110 volts just like in a home.The circuit breaker panel usually looks different from the one at home but it works in precisely the same manner. In some cases the breakers are push buttons instead of switches, but the theory is the same. Both switches and push-button breakers may fail on occasion. Replacement is a simple matter.
Many times an outlet will not work because the manufacturer used clip-together receptacles to save time and money. These types of receptacles clip over the wire, cutting through the insulation to make contact with the wire. If the clips don't hold together properly, contact is lost and the outlet doesn't work. Replacement with a thin house-type outlet box will solve this problem and is much safer in my opinion.
If the 12-volt system isn’t working, it usually means the transformer that converts the 110 volt supply to 12 volts is malfunctioning. Replacing this can be very expensive if you purchase one of these units new. A simple and cheaper alternative is to use a common 12-volt battery charger. By properly connecting the positive and negative output wire to the system you achieve the same results. Be sure the charger puts out enough amps to fully supply your needs.
The use of a multimeter helps a great deal in finding and repairing electrical problems, both 12-volt and 120-volt systems. Even an inexpensive multimeter will work for most problems.
Most campgrounds have a standard 30-amp hook-up, with some offering 50 amps for large motorhomes with two A/C units or large microwave ovens.
Read How to Repair a Camper Travel Trailer Electrical System for more information.
This book describes essential RV electrical info and tools.
Basic Travel Trailer Plumbing Repair
- RVs use a variety of plumbing materials, including copper, vinyl and steel pipes, to convey water to the sinks, bath, and toilet.
- Newer models are likely to use flexible tubing to prevent leaks caused by movement during transportation. These connections sometimes leak when new because of improper tightening during factory installation.This is usually a simple repair or replacement procedure.
- Plumbing in older models may consist of copper pipe, which you can replace with the new flex pipe for more reliable use.
- Some plumbing fixtures may be replaced with standard home fixtures but usually the compact nature of an RV dictates otherwise.
- Toilets are very expensive to buy new. You can purchase a used camper toilet at many auto parts junkyards at very low prices, if you aren’t the fussy type. Pressure-washing the toilet with bleach should dispel any qualms about germs and the money saved can be quite substantial.
- Sink and shower fixtures use standard rubber washers for the most part. Drips and leaks are usually repaired much the same as in the home.
- If you must replace these parts, the auto salvage junkyard contains many wrecked almost-new RVs with parts you can salvage. If you have to buy new ones be sure to search online before doing anything. A little time looking is usually worth it.
Read RV and Camper-Trailer Plumbing Repairs and Maintenance for more information.
Window and Door Maintenance and Repair
Over time, the seals around the windows and doors on your motorhome or travel trailer may begin to leak. This moisture will eventually damage the walls and flooring if not quickly repaired. Once again, preventative maintenance will save you much trouble and expense in the future.
It is imperative to reseal around the windows and doors every year or so with a good quality silicone rubber. Although not as susceptible as the roof, windows and doors will also leak over time especially if the unit is moved frequently. If replacement of the doors or windows is necessary, try finding used windows or doors at salvage yards.
It may be necessary to enlarge the original window or door opening to get a good fit for the replacement door or window. In some cases, you can replace just the glass inside the old window. Local glass companies can tell you if this repair is possible and the cost of the process. Often, this is the cheapest and least problematic solution.
If you choose new windows, be sure these replacement windows or doors are made for campers; using ordinary house windows is dangerous. The glass in regular house windows and doors may shatter during movement of the travel trailer or motorhome as it is not designed to flex during transit.
RV Refrigerator Maintenance, Repairs, and Replacement
- In most cases an absorption refrigerator came standard in your motorhome or camper trailer. These wonderful cooling devices have no moving parts and usually last for years. These refrigerators can operate on 110-volt or 12-volt electricity or LP gas. It’s hard to believe but they use heat to make freezing temperatures by using a recycled ammonia solution.
- It is imperative for the travel trailer or motorhome to be fairly level if the unit is to operate properly. An exhaust stack lets the heat from the absorption refrigerator escape through the roof.
- If this exhaust is blocked by birds nests, wasp nests, or anything else, the unit will not cool efficiently. It is recommended you check this exhaust flue annually to prevent a restricted airflow from affecting the cooling process of any type of absorption refrigerator.
- Replacing the RV absorption refrigeration unit can be very expensive. Some owners choose to replace their old absorption fridge with a regular house-type freon refrigerator. This works well as long as they have 110-volt 30-amp service. Compare the price of one of these at around $200 with an absorption unit costing over $1000 for the same capacity.
- Because of the extra space an absorption fridge requires, some camper owners will replace them with an apartment-size model when renovating or remodeling an older travel trailer.
RV AC Repair, Maintenance, and Replacement Tips
Annual cleaning and maintenance of the RV AC unit on your travel trailer or motorhome is extremely important for efficient and economical cooling. Cleaning the coils is an easy job which can make all of the difference in the RV AC unit's cooling capacity.
- Remove the RV AC shroud and use a good coil cleaner to loosen the grime and a wet/dry shop vacuum to keep from making a mess while removing the resulting sludge. A fine comb which helps straighten bent coils for better cooling is a good idea.
- If possible, oil the fan motor while you have the RV AC shroud removed. Many RV AC fan motors have oiling tubes over the motor bearings. Often, the fan motor may start slowly if these bearings are not oiled annually. For more information, read How to Replace or Install an RV or Travel Trailer Rooftop Air Conditioner.
- If the RV AC rooftop unit is too far gone, replacing it with a new one is not a difficult undertaking. Check out the new and more efficient Coleman and Carrier RV AC units. Installation is a simple job for the ordinary hands-on RVer.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.