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Before we left for our cross-country journey we knew that our RV needed some work. But we put it off because we were always at a park with full-hookups. And we knew it would be expensive. When we left, it was time to fix them. Here are our RV repairs and upgrades for a month of living off the cord.
Our furnace worked, but the bearings on the motor were going out. Every time we turned on the furnace it made a loud, high-pitched squealing sound. So we never used it, but instead used a couple of space heaters. This is not a good option when you don’t have access to shore power, because space heaters are energy hogs and must plug in to AC outlets (AC power is the kind that comes to a standard outlet). An RV furnace runs off the batteries and propane, so you don’t need AC power to run it. So we needed to fix it.
The furnace on our RV is way back into an access panel. By the time a technician gets it out, it is not cost-effective to just replace or re-grease the bearings; this is just a temporary fix. You replace the motor. The labor for hunting down the furnace and pulling it out was more than the cost of a new motor.
Total cost: $569.60 ($189.00 for motor and $380.60 for labor)
If you don’t have solar panels (we don’t) then a generator is important for off-grid living. It’s even good to have as a back-up on days when the sun doesn’t offer enough power to the solar setup.
Our generator started up but did not send any power to the AC outlets. I did my research and discovered it was likely the automatic transfer switch that was the problem. This switch automatically toggles between AC shore power and the generator. It should switch on automatically when the generator starts, but this did not happen.
Before we brought the rig to the shop, we tried to fix it ourselves. We located the switch (on our motorhome it is at the back of the circuit board in the panel above the refrigerator). Ryan fiddled with it and it didn’t seem to fix the problem.
When the techs looked at it, of course it was running. But they looked at it after changing out the batteries.
Just FYI, the forums all swear up and down that the batteries have nothing to do with generator power, so if you have generator problems it can’t possibly be because of our batteries. But our generator requires battery power to start. So if you have an insufficient battery then doesn’t it make sense that the generator will not work properly? We think the combination of Ryan clicking the switch manually and upgrading our batteries did the trick.
Total cost: $0 (no parts and they did not charge us for labor)
Air Conditioner Shroud
This has nothing to do with boondocking really, but I’m putting it in because it was one of our costs.
One early morning when we were traveling along Highway 8 in Arizona, we heard an awful noise coming from the roof. We quickly checked via mirrors and backup camera to see what happened, but couldn’t tell. We were in the middle of nowhere, the road was empty, and there wasn’t really a shoulder or an exit nearby. So we kept going.
When we reached our stop Ryan went up to the roof and found the shroud (cover) over our air conditioner tore off while we were driving. The shop told us this happens all the time. It makes sense. Air conditioners are at the highest point on the roof of an RV. They are covered with rigid plastic and ours attached with four little bolts. They are subjected to freeway-speed winds and high amounts of vibration and bumpy rides. It’s a recipe for disaster.
We bought a replacement shroud and Ryan installed it himself.
Total cost: $180.00
Upgrades and Modifications
For our last RV repair or upgrade, we knew we needed to change our battery setup.
Motorhomes typically have two types of batteries. The first is a 12-volt engine battery. It’s made to start the motor just like in any other vehicle, and the type is specific to the brand and model of motor and not the make and model of RV. Basically, it’s a battery you can get at an auto parts store and is sometimes called a starter battery, because its power is best in quick, strong bursts to start the motor and not for sustained use like running automotive lights. This is why if you forget and leave your headlights or your dome light on overnight, your car battery will probably be dead when you try to start the car in the morning.
The other type of battery is a house battery, also referred to as an auxiliary battery in our coach. All RVs with electricity have house batteries, whether they are motorhomes, travel trailers or 5th wheels. This battery system is also 12V-based and is for bringing power to any items that work off a 12V system. At a minimum, this battery will run the lights inside your rig. In our coach it also powers our refrigerator, hot water heater, furnace, the fans in the ceiling vents, the water pump, and any 12V outlets. They aren’t much good for the quick burst of power needed to start a car engine, but can handle long periods of low-power drain from the items mentioned above, with the occasional jumps needed to get those appliances going in the first place.
When we bought our motorhome it came with a single 12V battery for the house battery. It was clear from the battery compartment that 2 6-volt batteries were in there (in RVs, 6-volts are always used in pairs). It was easy to tell, because 12-volts are wider and our battery did not fit into the channel made for the batteries, but it looked like two 6-volts would fit perfectly. Ryan had to build a platform, because when we bought the RV the battery was just sitting in there at an angle. But we knew nothing about batteries at the time (and only slightly more now), so when that battery died we went to the auto parts store with it and asked for a suitable replacement.
You can’t just put any battery in an RV. We knew enough to buy a deep cycle marine battery. We replaced it with another 12V, because we only had wiring for a single battery and had no idea how to modify it for two batteries (my brother the electrician later drew me a diagram, but it wasn’t at the top of our list to do).
Why we needed an RV repair and/or upgrade for our batteries
When we started traveling full-time we found we couldn’t boondock for more than a day before our battery died on us, and this was with using barely any power. When we started this trip, I needed to charge my work laptop, and the battery was draining in less than 8 hours.
Before we went to the shop I did some more research into batteries and found that two 6V batteries are better than a single 12V. You usually get more than double the amp-hours. They are more expensive per battery and of course you need two, but you can go longer before needing to recharge.
We also found out we didn’t even have the right 12V battery. It was a marine battery, but not a true deep cycle. It was a dual purpose (starter and house) for boats that only have one battery. Which means it was likely meant for a small boat that has a small engine and maybe a tiny light or two–not for the power demands of an RV our size.
Anyway, we bit the bullet and got the 6V batteries and the extra cable needed to wire them all together. It has helped a lot with our power needs. Although it certainly isn’t a replacement for being plugged in, using the generator or having solar panels. But it was enough to sustain us for a day or more so we didn’t have to move every 8-12 hours to recharge our batteries, or worry that our engine would be dead when we woke up in the morning.
Total cost: $462.19 ($333.19 for parts and $129.00 for labor)
RV Repairs and Upgrades: Lessons Learned
- You can definitely live without some things when you plug in at an RV park all the time. But when you are on the road, it can be critically important that your electrical system is in good working order. This is especially true if you expect to travel through hot or cold weather or have electronic devices that need charging.
- Some things you can do yourself, if you’re handy enough or have experience. After talking to the service department, we could have bought the batteries and cable and switched everything out ourselves using my brother’s diagram. But it only would have saved us $129 in labor, so it was worth it to have them do it. Ryan spent a long time replacing the AC shroud because an exact replacement for the original was discontinued. Modifications were needed on the one we bought and it was very frustrating for him. He had enough on his plate.
- We could have possibly replaced the furnace motor ourselves too. But given how long it took professionals to do it, it just didn’t seem like a fun adventure.
- Don’t assume that every “professional” you speak to is an expert. The guy at the auto parts store sold us the wrong battery, even though we showed him the correct one that needed replacing. So when we went to the RV repair shop I didn’t say “I want to replace this battery.” I did my homework, knew what questions to ask, and knew it was time to switch to 6V. The people at the shop just confirmed information I already gathered beforehand.
- Check over your bill and make sure everything works before you leave. Ryan is really good at looking over bills and asking questions. The shop ended up discounting some of the work after talking to Ryan. They also went over each thing they did and showed him that it was functioning. We learned our lesson from the brake job nightmare–if you’re not sure whether something is right, stay put until it is right!!
Total costs for all RV repairs (including tax): $1255.66
No, it was not cheap. But it was an accumulation of things on the back burner for a long time. We knew we had it coming. It served to make our trip easier and should tide us over for a while.
In a future post, I will talk about the gadgets and accessories we use to keep our electronics going. Stay tuned!