RV Newbie Central: Q&A

Welcome, new RV Owner!

Hello RV newbie!

So you got bit by the travel bug, huh? And now it itches. You’re even hallucinating, now. You see turquoise glacier-fed lakes, amber flames licking against the Milky Way, burnt red arches silhouetted against foreboding canyon backdrops.

And there’s this crazy voice inside of you that wants to sell the house, buy a laptop, give your boss the middle finger, and take to the open road.

Welcome to the family!

And also welcome to the No-Judgement Zone.

If you’re an RV Newbie, you’re probably bursting with questions! I get a lot of questions over … and over … and over again. So here they are, all in a row, for your convenience and enjoyment!

RVs are about adventure, freedom, family, and time: Time to get to know each other, and sometimes time to get to know yourself. It’s a crazy, wonderful world.

But for an RV newbie, it’s also a big step into the unknown. And I have to be honest – the RV industry doesn’t do much to help you out.

(I should know – I work in it!)

I want to share some insider knowledge about RV 101 education.

As an RV engineer, I typically dwell deep in the RV world. I can dissect a wood screw like most people appreciate fine wine. I have to weigh cost, sourcing, ergonomics, sale value, and manufacturability.

But for this article, I’m rising to the surface. Let’s ignore all that. If you’re an RV newbie, there are certain things you need to know that no one tells you. After all, your coffee maker probably came with more instructions than your RV!

What Is An RV?

Hey, it’s not a dumb question! You may never have walked into an RV before! All RV newbies start somewhere.

RV stands for “Recreational Vehicle.” It’s a shorthand term for many different body styles:

  • Towables: This is the largest category of RVs!
    • Travel Trailers
    • Fifth Wheels
    • Pop-Up Campers
    • Tent Trailers
    • Teardrop Trailers
    • Toy Haulers
  • Motorhome
    • Class A Coach
    • Class B Coach
    • Class C Van
  • Slide-In Truck Camper
    • Pop-Up Truck Camper
    • Hard Shell Truck Camper

These macro categories can be broken down into smaller types.

A teardrop trailer, for instance, is an adorable mini-sleeper travel trailer with an exterior kitchenette galley. Meanwhile, a toy hauler has a large garage built behind the living area for ATVs, bicycles, snowmobiles, and other adrenaline-junkie outdoor machinery.

Both are types of travel trailers!

Who Goes RVing?

If you think all RV owners are middle-aged white men retired from corporate America … well, you’re half right.

But RVing really is for every age! One out of every four RVers are under 34! There’s no such thing as a typical RV newbie.

You might think that RVs are most popular in summer. But turns out that winter, particularly in the Southwest and tropical South, is also quite a popular time.

Most RVers enjoy outdoor sports, with fishing, hiking and swimming being the three most popular. Lots of owners tote along a bicycle or kayak.

About 11.2 million households own an RV. Twice that many plan to own one.

Most RV owners camp occasionally. The industry calls them “Casual Campers” or “Family Campers.” We know them as Weekend Warriors. About 4% of RV owners are Full-Timers, where they live on the open road.

Why Is My RV Mattress So Uncomfortable?

Sorry about your RV mattress. Manufacturers don’t want to spend the extra $100 – $200 on a decent mattress, so you get the cheap stuff.

Plan on either adding a mattress topper or replacing the mattress entirely. Or keep it, if you enjoy the ascetic monk lifestyle.

Isn’t An RV Like a Giant Car?

Some people think RVs are like cars, just bigger and squishier inside.

If only, my friends, if only.

I hate to rat on my industry, but that’s like comparing the Eiffel tower to your backyard Janga set.

Automotive manufacturers are well-oiled machines that have pioneered new manufacturing methods and innovative technologies for more than a 100 years.

  • Where did Six Sigma, LEAN, JIT, MRP, Kanban and most other modern manufacturing process flow methodologies come from? That’s right – the automotive industry.
  • Their R&D is among the best in the world. In fact, it costs roughly a billion dollars just to develop a new engine.
  • The miracle of modern engineering has made it possible to buy, drive, and sell a car without having the faintest clue how it works.

None of that is true in the RV world.

Small Sale Volumes

Our sales volumes are much, much smaller, so there aren’t billions of dollars spent in tooling and advanced robotics.

Manual Assembly vs Robotic Assembly

Most RVs are assembled by hand in low-skill manufacturing plants in the industrial Midwest.

Short Model Life-Cycles

Major RV manufacturers make money by selling as many floor plans as they can churn out, not by introducing new technologies.

You can walk into an RV that’s 25 years old – if it’s still around – and 90% of the layout and products will look more-or-less the s[h]ame. Just watch this video below:

I’m not trying to bash people. I’ve worked with hundreds of people in the RV industry – dealers, CEOs, sales managers, engineers, draftsmen, assembly workers – and it’s not a people problem. It’s an industry problem.

And when almost your entire industry is dominated by a handful of companies and their subsidiaries – Thor Industries, Forest River (owned by Berkshire Hathaway), Lippert Components and Dometic, progress comes slowly.

I’ll end this rant. But I want you to understand that you cannot compare an RV to an automobile! The only thing they might share are the tires.

Who Is The Best RV Manufacturer?

No such thing.

I wouldn’t buy a molded fiberglass travel trailer from the same company I bought a full-time luxury 5th wheel from.

How Do I Winterize My RV?

Every RV blogger in the world (except me) has a YouTube video on how to winterize your RV. Here’s a good one. Or this one. Or this one.

What RV Maintenance Is Required by the RV Newbie?

I’ve heard it said “The only thing that works in an RV is the owner.”

As an RV designer, there’s more truth to that than I’d like to admit.

Remember this: Your home connects to a regional electric grid, a national network of roads, a local sewage system, and doesn’t move.

Meanwhile, an RV experiences a hurricane and an earthquake every time it drives through a rainstorm.

As an RV owner, you’ll be responsible for learning about your structure, chassis, plumbing, and electrical systems.

According to RVIA survey statistics, 34% of RV owners argue that RV travel requires too much maintenance, like emptying tanks and hooking up.

The high level of maintenance is a mjor reason few people own a “Forever RV.” Most swap out RVs every 3-8 years.

I wish I could say the industry was about to be overhauled by 21st century technology. But as things stand, I don’t see massive change on the horizon any time in the next few years.

5 RV Newbie Tips for Maintenance

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Many RV headaches – leaky rooftops, dead batteries, backed up tanks – can be avoided with routine preventative maintenance.
  2. Most RV mfr warranties are 1-3 years long. HOWEVER, in the RV world, third party parts – for instance, the fridge or the microwave – are covered by their own manufacturer warranties, and you’ll be expected to contact those companies directly.
  3. Also, most RV warranties don’t warranty exterior seals longer than 90 days. So check all the caulk twice!
  4. Buy dinner for your RV service dealer. Many dealerships have waiting lists of 3-6 months (not weeks – months!). Get on their good side. And I mean the good side of the service department! Whoever sold you the RV probably has no clout with the service calendar.
  5. Don’t buy cheap RVs. Seriously. They’re a maintenance nightmare. If someone offered you an iPhone for $78 and said, “It does everything the $999 version does!” would you believe them?

Do I Have to Use RV Toilet Paper?

Last I counted, there were approximately 1,492,709 threads about RV toilet paper.

So here’s the scoop (sorry, poor choice of words).

You don’t have to use RV-specific toilet paper. But try to avoid the soft, cushion-y triple-ply stuff, alright? The thicker the paper, the longer it takes to break down. Plus, the thicker the toilet paper, the more likely you’ll clog up your pipes or cover up your tank sensors.

Can I Plug Regular Household Appliances Into My RV?

Yes, but they’ll only work when you’re plugged into shore power (aka, at a developed campground). Otherwise, you need an inverter.

Should I Purchase My RV or Tow Vehicle First?

Unfortunately, Reader, I can’t answer this directly. If you have a spare $100,000, buy whatever you want!

As a rule, purchase the RV first – but be aware of the cost involved!

When it comes to RVs, bigger is not better. I firmly advocate you choose the smallest RV that will suit your lifestyle and camping needs.

Larger RVs are more difficult to park, not allowed on all roads, more expensive to repair, and consume more gas. They will also annoy your neighbors more.

Here are some basic buyer questions:

  1. Will everyone have a place to sleep?
  2. Is it short enough to fit in my parking spot and most campgrounds?
  3. Does it have enough bathrooms and kitchen space?

You must do a walk-through! Never, ever, eva purchase an RV sight unseen! You should walk through the RV. Practice making dinner with imaginary pots and pans. Watch an invisible movie on the TV. Go to bed. Take a waterless shower. You’ll look crazy, but better than a $40,000 mistake.

Next, you’ll need a truck. And when I say truck, I mean that you’ll probably need a three-quarter or full-ton truck. Sorry, guys, that’s F-150 probably won’t do.* I don’t care what the salesman said.

Speaking of sales …

*Don’t believe me? Check out my in-depth answer to RV towing here!

Do I Really Need a Surge Protector?

Yes, you do. Here’s why.

Do I Really Need a Weight Distribution Hitch?

Yes, you do. Here’s why.

Should I Trust My RV Dealer?

RV dealerships have a somewhat, er, shady reputation.

Not all of them deserve this!

But some do. And others just get caught up trying to compete in a price-focused market.

I won’t get into the world of RV dealership financing, which is super complicated and involves a lot of bonds and partial payments, but know this:

Dealers purchase RVs at a set price from the manufacturer –

Oh, before you ask, most manufacturers can’t sell directly to customers. There are federal and state regulations about automotive dealerships. Unless a manufacturer is setup as a dealer, or is so small they can skate under the radar, they must sell through a dealership.

Anyways, dealers purchase the RV from the manufacturer, and they set the final sales price.

Manufacturers typically jack up the MSRP so dealers can advertise discounts and “exclusive deals just for you!” It’s a classic RV newbie trap.

There are a few no-haggle dealers, but they are a rare breed.

Speaking of breeds … let’s talk about RV sales people. No, they aren’t all shady, snake-oil sellers. But that doesn’t mean they’re experts in their subject matter. Remember, they’re paid to close the deal, not educate the consumer.

A large RV dealership may sell one or two dozen different brands, ultra lightweight pop-ups to Class A coaches, and several hundred RVs, many with unique floor plans.

Would you like to memorize the location of the converter on 200 separate RVs? I didn’t think so!

If you’re lucky, you might find a true expert. If so, count your lucky stars! These salesmen are a wealth of knowledge about RV construction, tow vehicles, campgrounds, etc.

More than likely, you’ll meet with a well-meaning sales associate with 2-4 years of experience. They’ve practiced answering the same 14 questions every day for years. Maybe you’re the first person who’s asked, “What exactly is the difference between anti-sway bars and a weight-distribution hitch?”

If you’re unlikely, you’ll get someone who was just hired for the show or the busy season. Or maybe you’ll get a pathological liar. Who knows?

How to Become an Educated RV Customer, not an RV Newbie

Here are some questions to judge the professionalism of your dealership:

  • Are all their service technicians RVIA/RVDA-certified? At what level?
  • Are their service and sales departments enrolled in continuing education courses?
  • Are the RVs towed, driven or hauled to the dealership?
  • Has the RV gone through a PDI (ask to see the checklist!)?
  • What walk-through is included in the purchase?
  • Does the dealership tack on extra sale fees or pressure you into expensive up-sells?

Where Can I Drive, Park and Store My RV?

When you drive an RV, you’re a giant in a human’s world. Every curb, every pothole becomes a potential blowout or AAA summons.

Where to Drive My RV?

Most RVs 32-ft in length or less and 8-ft (96 inches) wide or less can be driven on almost any road.

Most states have regulations prohibiting RVs, or any other vehicle, wider than 102 inches or taller than 13 (or 13.5) ft without an oversize permit.

Certain winding mountain roads will limit either the maximum length of a trailer or the maximum length of a coach.

Rural campgrounds and boondocking sites also often limit the maximum length of a unit, or perhaps only a handful of sites can accommodate Class A motorhomes.

Where to Park My RV?

Many HOAs have rules against RVs parked on-street. Some even ban RVs from being parked in your own driveway!

Storage facilities may offer RV storage units. However, most RVs are too tall for basic units. You’ll need something with a 12- or 14-ft garage door.

Many RV owners purchase a partially-enclosed carport for their RV. These cost about $2,000 – $3,000.

When driving to your destination, you’ll become good friends with rest stops and Wal-Marts. These locations usually have dedicated RV, bus and semi-truck parking areas.

Chain hotels usually allow RVs to park on the backside of the building, where the street is wider.

Is My Truck Big Enough?

Sorry, no easy answer to this question!

If you forced me to answer, I’d say, “No, probably not.”

Most tow vehicles cannot tow anywhere near their stated capacity once cargo and passengers are loaded.

If you’ve never towed before, start here!

How Do I Get Internet on the Road?

Asked and answered at Changing Gears.

Another great resource is the Mobile Internet Resource Center.

What Are the Best RV Manufacturers?

Decide for yourself! Here’s my guide to judging RV quality with nothing more than a walk through.

What Kind of Gas Mileage Will I Get?

The bigger (aka more horsepower) your tow vehicle, the less effect an RV will have on fuel efficiency.

Also, the size (height, width and length) of an RV has more effect on fuel efficiency than the weight.

Figure 8-15 mpg for most motorhomes or tow vehicle-trailer combinations. If you’re seeing more than 15 mpg, you’re either towing with a heavy-duty truck, or you’re driving a Class B van!

How Do I Receive and Send Mail?

Asked and answered at Changing Gears.

Should I Buy an RV or a Tiny Home?

Are you comfortable living on the fringe of legality in a home that cannot be easily sold to the mass market? Or do you want to be a mobile adventurer? Then an RV it is!

How Do I Keep Everything From Falling Over?

  • Velcro
  • COMMAND hooks
  • Sticky putty
  • Bungee straps
  • Cabinet extension rods

Um … How Exactly Does an RV Toilet Work?

Read my guide here.

Can I Run My Air Conditioner/Microwave/Fridge Off Battery?

Unless you’ve invested a few grand in upgraded deep-cycle batteries + inverter, no, you can’t.

I got a lot of content on this type of question. Here’s my answer to the air conditioner question.

Can I RV With Pets?

Yup. Lots of people do. Be prepared to de-hair every day! (A lint roller is a life-saver). 

What Appliances Run on Propane?

In most RVs:

  • Stove
  • Refrigerator
  • Furnace
  • Water heater

All run on propane. The furnace, water heater and refrigerator can also usually run on 120V shore power.

Is My RV 30A or 50A?

Easy test: Look at the power outlet. See three prong holes? It’s a 30A. See four prong holes? It’s a 50A.

Where Can I Learn More About RVing?

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

It is. As they say, “RV is a lifestyle.”

On the plus side, within a few years, you’ll be an amateur plumber and electrician!
Here are some helpful resources for RV 101 education:

Don’t See Your Question Here?

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