Thursday, September 18, 2014

The RV Industry's Dirty Litle Secret: Quality

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

After owning four 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 an 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 is 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.

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?

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 own (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.

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 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.

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 built 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.


  1. One thing I run into with RVers and RV dealers, is that they will try to blame the owner for the problems most RVs inevitably end up having.

    "If only he had used rubber roof treatment!" one says, "the roof wouldn't have leaked or bubbled up!"

    This is, of course, akin to blaming a cancer victim for getting cancer. Whether or not your RV roof bubbles up,or your fiberglass laminated walls delaminate, or your RV leaks and mildews and rots has less to do with how you take care of it and more to do with how it was designed and made.

    Yes, you could go over every inch of your RV every month looking for leaks in the caulking and windows. Chances are, you won't find them. Water leaks are maddeningly hard to spot, find, and fix. The best solution is better design - designs that don't rely on a bead of caulk to keep out water.

    And that is the sad thing about RVs. After a few years they start to fall apart, and most owners have no skills to repair them, so they sell them at a huge loss and other RV'ers will say, "well, I am glad that won't happen to me, because I know how to take care of an RV!"

    But what they don't realize, because they can't see it, is their rubber roof is already making a dome as they go down the road.....

    Don't play the game of blame the victim - the RV industry would like you to do this. Because if you do, what happens when your unit inevitably leaks, delaminates, or bubbles up?

    We need to hold the RV industry to higher standards. If they are going to sell coaches on 10-20 year loans, they damn well better last 10-20 years - and be worth more than their loan balances!

  2. I think one major problem with the RV industry is that the people who MAKE RV's don't use them. I have yet to find an RV maker, dealer, repairman, or whatever, who spends three or four months a year in their RV (if they even own one) or lives in one full-time.

    They are so busy working, they don't have time to spend in the rigs they make.

    I think if the President of an RV company was forced to live in the rigs they make, maybe some changes would be made.


  3. Went through a hailstorm in El Paso that caused $2,500 n damage to our truck - destroying the hood.

    The Casita emerged without a scratch (other than a cracked tail light lens). Don't try that with an Airstream, or indeed many other types of RVs.

    If you do buy a "box" trailer, I would suggest trading it in - often. Before it leaks!

  4. An RV dealer explained the problem of rubber roofs and why they need sealant. Pinhole leaks form in the rubber and water gets in. The "sealant" is an attempt to cover these tiny pinhole leaks (which are not easy to spot, if at all) and prevent leaks. I am not sure rubber roofs were an improvement over aluminum. The best coaches have solid fiberglass roofs (in one piece or as few pieces as possible) but of course cost a lot more.

  5. One reader found this listing by searching on the terms, "how can I fix delamination on my RV?" and sadly, the answer is, you really can't.

    The laminated walls are assembled first, usually in a vacuum lamination machine (if they are any good) and THEN cut and shaped for the side of the coach. You can't simply take off the fiberglass and glue on a new layer - it likely would look even worse.

    Moreover, the costs would be staggering - more than the coach or trailer is worth.

  6. Another appalling aspect of RV quality was that until recently, many coached left the factory almost overloaded. Once people put themselves and their things inside, they were over gross weight. No wonder tires blow out!

    The RVIA (industry association) did take the lead in putting a stop to this. Rigs today have to have reasonable cargo capacities so they are less likely to be overloaded.

    But it illustrates how these things are not often well "Engineered" and if you see some of the sheds these things are built in, you'll understand why.

  7. UPDATE 2018: The RV industry is going like gangbusters and cranking out new rigs as fast as possible. A lot of "newbies" are buying small trailers they can tow behind their mid-sized SUVs.

    This likely won't end well. Trailers cranked out as fast as possible are not going to be there for the long-haul. And newbies who see their new trailer turn to dust in a few years will not be coming back to trade-up to a motorhome later on.

    The RV business is screwing their own customer base for short-term profit.

    Oh, right, nothing new to see here!


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