Thursday, September 18, 2014

The RV Industry's Dirty Little Secret: Quality

Many RVs are financed on loans as long as 10-20 years.  Many RVs don't last nearly that long.

UPDATE:  Read this article (in .pdf format) by a journalist who covered the RV business.  He became disillusioned after he actually bought an RV and realized how poorly they are put together and how the financing can bankrupt many owners.   He gives the industry 20 years, tops, before a massive reshuffling occurs.  Maybe a bit dramatic, but who knows?

UPDATE 2023: For some reason this posting is getting a lot of hits lately.  The pandemic fueled a lot of RV sales ("Covid Campers") and people rushed out to buy them, at premium prices, and manufacturers cranked them out in a hurry - never a good sign.  Now it is 2023 and the RV dealer lots are overflowing with inventory and the "Covid Campers" are finding out their three-year-old RV is leaking.  Maybe that's why this article is getting traction.

Our fiberglass RV (Escape 21) was sideswiped by a truck with minimal damage.  Had it been a "stick built" camper, it would have ripped the side off.  An Airstream?  Dented every panel!  We loved our Casita and sold it when it was 20 years old - for what we paid for it.  Fiberglass RVs are small, but they are durable!

Others are not so lucky and often get very upset when this expensive "thing" turns out to be less than they thought it would be.  Spending every vacation at the factory, trying to get your motorhome fixed, could lead to frustration - and jail time!

* * * 

After owning four five RVs over 30 years and looking at hundreds more, (as well as visiting various RV "factories" and seeing how they are screwed together)  I can say I have learned a lot about the RV business.  A lot of it is like touring a sausage factory - there are things you wish you hadn't seen.

The dirty little secret of the RV industry is Quality.   Very few RVs are quality made and very few outlast their payments.   (And payments today can last 10-20 years.  Even if they don't fall apart, most owners are "upside down" on their loans).   Let me explain.

To being with, all RVs are basically the same.  Higher-end coaches might have nicer amenities in terms of floor coverings, wall coverings, and gadgets, but the rest of the hardware, from the hot water heater to the refrigerator and water pump, are about the same across all levels of RV pricing.   The only exception to this rule are the ultra-high-end million-dollar "rock star" buses - but few can afford those (even the people who buy them).

Most RVs are hand built, one at a time.  This sounds great to the novice, until you realize that assembly-line machine made products are far more consistent and reliable to own.   RVs are not built on an assembly line per se, but rather built up in a warehouse by an army of young men (sometimes Amish) who use staple guns, screw guns, and sawzalls to cut, staple, nail and screw (and glue) each coach together.  

The cost of labor is high, and since each coach is built individually (and no two are alike, it seems) there is no savings in labor as in an assembly line.   On the assembly line, a worker has a specialized job and can get very good at it - and very efficient.   In the RV "factory" the coaches are built like houses - one stick at a time.

And since the labor costs are so high and the target prices fairly low, this means a lot of corners have to be cut in the assembly process, as well as the quality of the materials used.

Compounding this problem are the common design elements of the typical box trailer or motor home.  Rubber roofs and laminated walls sound sexy and all (and look cool in the showroom) but the reality is, these items wear out rapidly, causing leaks, which spell doom for a coach.

In the olden days, trailers were made of sticks and staples, and then skinned in aluminum, even the roof.   So long as the seams were kept caulked, the trailer would stay sound.   And maybe that is one reason you see a lot of those older trailers still on the road.   The "box" design of such trailers does provide a seam running around the entire trailer on the sides.   So long as the self-leveling caulk used to seal this seam remains intact, no leaks will occur.   However, sunlight and ozone, and acid rain, and heating and contracting with the seasons - not to mention flexing going down the road, tends to crack this caulk, causing water to ingress.

When water gets into a trailer, mildew forms, and rot is not far behind.  In a matter of a few months, floors can rot out, ceilings can collapse, and the trailer becomes essentially worthless.,

Modern trailers exasperate this issue due to the use of laminated fiberglass walls and rubber roofs.   When rubber roofs (EPDM) first came out, they were hailed as an advancement.  No more "rocks in a tin can" effect, every time it rained.  And they were less likely to leak and would last longer!   Sadly, their advertised advantages turned out to be untrue.

When going down the highway, the rubber roof can bubble up like a balloon.  This is very expensive to fix, often costing more than the trailer is worth!

EPDM rubber roofs seem to last 5-10 years, tops, in the harsh sunlight.   They get chalky and then when it rains, white powdery stuff runs off the roof.   You can try to treat the roof with a cleaner or a sealant, but this is a messy and expensive process and needs to be repeated over and over again.  Some folks try to use conventional roof sealant (tar) with disastrous effects (it dissolves the rubber).

EPDM rubber roofs have worked well in houses - why not in RVs?   Well, simply stated, houses don't drive down the road at 70 mph.   At at 70 mph, aerodynamic effects can cause a rubber roof to "bubble" up, as air traveling over the coach forms a vacuum.  Both our 27' 5th wheel trailer and our 21' Class-C Motorhome had this problem - with the front portion of each forming a 3' diameter bubble due to the vacuum caused by air flowing over the blunt front end.  Fixing this isn't easy.  A new rubber roof can cost thousands of dollars - often more than the coach is worth at that point.   If it starts leaking, well, the coach is toast.

Fiberglass laminated sidewalls make the problem even worse - or more apparent.  Again, when this technology premiered, it was hailed as a milestone.   Prior to that, RVs had aluminum siding on the walls, much like a house (but interlocking more tightly) and people tended to think it looked cheap.   On the other hand, aluminum never bubbled up or wore out.

A bad case of delamination.  In most cases, this cannot be fixed for less than the price of the coach.  Even a small amount of delamination is unsightly and costly to repair - and a sure sign of leakage.  It never gets better, either, only worse.

Fiberglass laminates use sheets of thin fiberglass (gel coated on the outside) which are glued to luan plywood which makes up the outside of the coach.   When new, it looks great and looks "high end" - with large, smooth walls, usually adorned with graphics.   But when water comes in - through the seams at each edge of the coach, the laminate starts to "bubble up" and it looks like hell.

Finding these leaks can be next to impossible.  Water can travel a long way from a leak to the spot where you notice it.   So bubbling at the bottom edge of a coach could be caused by water leaking at the top edge or from the roof.   People try to chase down these leaks with mounds of silicone caulk.  It rarely works, but it does make the coach look even worse - and more unsalable.

Why are leaks so bad?  Rot and mildew.  On our Class-C, the sides over the cab started to delaminate at the bottom (and had started when we bought it used).  One day while making the bed, I was concerned that the mattress was wet.  I pulled it away and realized the entire platform had rotted out, and was filled with water.  The luan plywood had the texture of a damp sponge - as did some of the 1" x 2" "structural" members.

Off to Lowes for new plywood and tons of caulk.  It was all fixed up, but the delamination remained and we never were sure the leaks were all found.   In addition to the problem of water traveling, water can literally be forced into the coach when you drive in the rain.  So a leak at the front of the coach might produce rot at the rear, by the time the water settles.

And once you have a leak, delamination, a sagging ceiling, a rotting floor, or a stain in the ceiling, well, the resale value of the coach plummets.   Fixing these problems is anything but cheap - often exceeding the cost of the coach itself.  So most folks try to live with it, while they can, like a slow-growing cancer that is spelling doom for the RV eventually.

The dealer next door to the campground here in Nashville has a lot of shiny new RVs for sale on the lot.  They look nice, but when you start to look at the details of construction, you see loose parts and corners cut, and shoddy workmanship.

And when you walk down to the end of the line, where the dealer has very used trailers and motorhomes for sale, you see what these shiny new units will look like in a few short years.   I call this row of sad trailers the "leakfest" as most have delamination, leaking, rotting, and mildew issues.  Open the door and you can smell it - it hits you like a wave.

And you see this all the time in fairly new trailers.   A dealer in Florida tries to unload these lemons on people from South Georgia, advertising them as "ideal hunting camps".   One trailer, less than three years old, has a huge leak at the front seam (where water is forced in at 70 mph).   The front edge is gobbed with a mound of caulk.  The fiberglass is delaminated on the side.  Inside is a mold stain on the wall and a 2' diameter HOLE IN THE FLOOR where the floor rotted through.   "You can fix that!" the dealer helpfully offers.   Yes you could, I guess.

But the sad thing is, here is a trailer that sold new for $10,000 and three years later is being sold for $2,000.   Things should last longer than that, right?  It is even more tragic when it occurs to higher-end trailers and coaches, which it does, with regularity.

A tire blowout on your car usually doesn't damage the car.  Not for an RV!

And then there are blowouts - another little secret.   Most RV wheel wells are just plywood boxes with a plastic "fender" screwgunned to the side.   When a tire blows out (when, not "if") it can tear the whole side of the trailer or coach apart.  The plastic "fender" is destroyed and often part of the siding of the trailer is torn off, leaving a large black rubber mark down the side.  This is hard to fix, as the fenders may not even be available.  Two of the campers in the leak-fest section showed signs of blowouts - that were unrepaired.   We had two issues with this - on our 5th wheel and the Class-C.  There was some damage (cracked fenders) that we had to live with - dealers were unable or unwilling to order replacements.

(Why do RV tires blow out?  Several reasons.  Some folks don't check tires pressures very often, and when a trailer tire goes low, it may be hard to detect from the tow vehicle while driving - which is why I have a trailer tire monitor on our new trailer.  Others think that 32 psi is the "standard pressure" for a trailer tire when it should be closer to 50 or more.   RVs sit for long periods of time, and tires for a motorcoach or trailer can dry-rot long before they are worn out.   Motor coaches are a particular problem as the tires can run close to $1000 apiece and folks are reluctant to replace older dry-rotted tires that have "perfectly good tread left" on them.   Blowouts just happen.  They shouldn't tear out the side of a coach or trailer!).

And let's not even talk about slide-outs!  They leak, they jam, they sag, the bottom part juts out.   A big hole in the side of a camper than flexes as it goes down the road - what could possibly go wrong?  How many times have you seen some hapless soul in the campground waiting for the "mobile RV repair" guy to arrive because the slides on his $250,000 motorhome won't slide in?

(Slideouts bear special mention because it seems every RV maker puts a "fuse" on the slideout motor, but not in the main fusebox, but hidden behind the sofa or some other weird location in the coach.  So you call the "Moble RV Repair" guy and he knows where the fuse is hidden.  A few coaches, such as my friend's Cardinal 5th Wheel, have a manual crank as a backup - many others, such as my bother-in-law's "Titanium" do not.  The motor breaks and you are stuck.  Funny story, the slideout motor on my friend's Cardinal burned out because they leaned back in their recliners and mashed the slideout switch.  "We kept hearing this funny noise every time we watched television!  After a few weeks, we smelled this burning smell!"   Fortunately, we were able to crank the slide in with the provided crank handle.  Others are not so fortunate).

OK, you say, that's a low-end unit.  Better-made RVs will last longer!   Yet in the park here is a fancy motorhome with four slides - and delamination on three of them.

RV makers know what sells RVs - glitz and gaudiness and as many flat-screen televisions as you can wedge into a rig.   People want shiny-shiny, and oftentimes these RVs are nicer than the houses their owners have (as they are pre-decorated to a theme and the furniture is all new and actually fits the space).

Quality is a hard selling point, as most folks can't recognize it, and it is hard to discern even to the trained eye.   Usually, you have to keep something for a few years to know if the quality is any good.  And if it is, then it develops a reputation for quality.

Ahhhhh!  But the other secret of the RV industry - the name change game.   There are hundreds, if not thousands of brand and model names for RVs.  Each company has several division names, product line names, and model names.  And these names are routinely retired and new names put in their place.  So you might think the "ACME WEEKENDER FUNTRAILER 25" is a good trailer, after owning it for five years.  But the problem is, ACME dropped the FUNTRAILER model three years ago and dumped the WEEKENDER line last year.  And this year, ACME was bought out by AJAX and now the ACME name is gone.

And maybe the name game is intentional.  If an RV develops an odious reputation, well, you don't have to worry about it for long.  Just change the name.  Heck, some airlines do this, after a major crash.  And if you wait, say, five years or so, you can bring the name back, as the buyers you pissed-off before are long gone by now or have moved on to a new brand.

One mistake we see some oldsters doing is to buy an RV in retirement, spending an awful lot of money, and then getting a "tow behind" to pull behind it.  For the first few years, everything is OK, but like any motorized vehicle it gets old and worn out.  Pretty soon, you staying in a delaminated, chaulky older-style motorhome, pulling a Saturn behind it, and wondering where all the fun went.

We think, sometimes, of maybe getting a larger RV.  But the heartbreak of RV quality prevents us from doing so.   Our old Casita, now 15 years old 20 years old (!!!) is made of two heavy pieces of fiberglass, joined in the middle in a horizontal seam.  Rain runs right off, so there are few opportunities for leaks.   And the trailer thus looks like new, after two decades.   Keeping it indoors when not being used, helps, of course.  And its small size makes that possible.

UPDATE:  After 15 years of ownership, we sold the Casita for nearly what we paid for it!  That's a quality camper - and a "cheap" one to buy, too!   Our new Escape 21 is made from ONE piece of fiberglass!

We keep looking at larger trailers, but quality - and layouts - often turn us off.  An "upgrade" should be an upgrade in every regard, right?  Why go to a larger trailer that has a smaller bathroom?  (many do, which I cannot figure out.  RV makers are not very space-efficient, and often waste valuable inches in their designs by using standardized cabinetry and furniture that encroaches on personal space).

Maybe someday, someone will build an affordable quality RV - on an assembly line, without staples and wood, and without seams and leaks - an RV that is durable and simple and easy to use and easy to maneuver, and lasts a decade or longer with minimal maintenance.

Well, maybe we already have it.

After 15 years nearly 20 years, the Casita looks like new.  The shell is as thick as a boat hull!  No laminated construction to delaminate.  No rubber roof to replace. No seams, other than the belt line, which is fiberglassed together.  Even the wheel wells are solid fiberglass, and survived a blowout with mere scratches.  And they don't change the name every five years, either!  The thing is a tank!

UPDATE October 2016:  For some reason, this posting is getting a LOT of hits lately, so it must be linked from some website or discussion group.  Since I wrote this posting, not much has changed.   My Brother-in-law just bought a 32-foot 5th wheel used, for about $6500.  It is about 10 years old and worth about 1/4 of its original price.   It is starting to leak to due pinhole leaks in the rubber roof.  And the slideout is, well, a mess.  The "seals" all needed to be replaced, and how they are attached is a travesty.  The slideout itself is starting to settle onto the frame.   These units are not quality built, to say the least.  The good news is, he paid hardly anything for it, so if he gets 2-3 years of service out of it, good for him.

The poor bastard who paid $40,000 for this thing new really lost his shirt.

In a way, my brother-in-law has the right idea.  You can find used trailers like this all day long for hardly anything.  Buy them, use them, throw them away, and buy another one.   Far cheaper than spending $50K or more on a new unit that will be a pile of delaminated fiberglass and rotted wood in a few short years.

P.S. - why, oh why, would anyone use CABLE ACTUATORS for their sewer and grey water valves?  What a fucking nightmare to try to repair!  The actuators on our Casita are exposed, but easy to work on and fix.

Our newest RV, an Escape 21 - all fiberglass, no leaks, no delamination, no rubber roof!  And yes, we paid cash for it, because they don't cost a fortune.

UPDATE:  A reader writes, "Well, what you say is true, but that is only cheaper RVs!  If you buy a more expensive coach, you won't have these problems!"   Maybe so, maybe not - I see a lot of "expensive" coaches also have delamination problems.  Also, I meet a lot of "high end" coach people who usually have a "punch list" of items to be repaired, again and again, over the years. "Going back to the factory" becomes a regular part of their yearly vacation routine - which sometimes goes horribly wrong.

Then there is the issue of financing.   They spend a half-million on a coach and find out that it is worth $100,000 less than the loan balance.   I hope they like it, because, like a friend of mine, they are stuck with it for a decade or more, unless they can find $100,000 under a mattress.

NOTE: The RV industry would rather you didn't read this.  For some reason, this posting is getting a LOT of hits today, and in discussion groups, shills for the RV industry as well as useful idiots are shouting down what I have to say.  The latter are people who just sold their primary residence and blew it all on a motorhome.  They say, "This isn't true!  It can't be true!  Oh, please God, say it isn't true!"

Sadly, it is, and like my friend who bought the "dream coach" only to later have to take out a home equity loan to help pay off the loan balance.   An RV can be a financial nightmare and bankrupt its owner.  I've seen it happen - more than once!   20-year loans on depreciating assets that last less than 20 years make no sense at all.

If you can't pay cash for a toy, then don't buy it.  And no, "full-timing" for a few years doesn't make it "make sense".   An RV is not a "home".

UPDATE:  This couple got so mad at the manufacturer of their RV that they rammed their motorhome into the repair bay.  I think they are in jail now.....  Not a recommended procedure!

UPDATE 2021:  Many people who rushed out to buy hastily-made RVs in 2020 (and paid top price, too!) may discover that they really don't like RVing, but what's worse, are upside-down on their loan.  Now that Disney and the cruise lines are open, the surge in RVing may dry up, and a lot of lightly used units (and re-po's) flooding the market as the "Covid Campers" go back to whatever it was they were doing before they decided they "had to have" an RV....