Saturday, September 11, 2021

RV Warranties- Such as They Are

You have to be handy to own an RV.  I suspect fully half the "CoVid Campers" who rushed out to buy an RV last year will be selling them next year - if they are not upside-down on a loan, that is.

I recounted before about a dental hygienist I went to, who, when I told her we were looking at buying another boat, asked if we wanted to buy hers.  She and her husband went to the boat show and bought a Bayliner Capri and trailer for about $12,000.  It wasn't a bad boat, just the most basic model - 18 feet long, a "runabout" with a four-cylinder stern drive.  They took it out a couple of times - on the weekends - and didn't realize that weather doesn't recognize weekends.

They were tossed around on our 40-mile-long lake, which can have whitecaps as high as 2-3 feet on bad days.  It wasn't pleasant, so after a couple of attempts, they gave up and parked the boat in the side yard - owing more money on it than it would fetch in resale.

Worse yet, they failed to winterize it or even put a cover on it - or remove the drain plug.  The boat filled up with water, the engine block cracked from freezing, and the upholstery turned a nice blackish-green with algae and mildew.  Eventually, the transom rotted out.   Simple neglect - because they knew nothing about boats and were not "handy" - the kind of people who have to call a plumber whenever the toilet backs up.  You know what I mean.

I suspect a similar thing will happen with many of these "CoVid Campers" who have a lot of money to spend (or credit, which is worse) and ran out to buy a camper, paying top dollar for a hastily assembled unit.  RVs have severe quality issues as it is - as I have noted before.  But if you can't fix the little things that go wrong - and they do go wrong - you are going to be very frustrated.  When something big goes wrong, well, you'll freak out.

I recounted before about the big motorhome people we meet, who put together a "punch list" of repair items, and every year (for as long as the warranty lasts) go back to the factory to have them repaired.  Some are very trivial things you could fix in a minute with a screwdriver, but as one owner explained to me, "I paid $500,000 for this coach, they can fix it for me!"   And I suspect the real issue is he paid way more money than he could actually afford for an RV and is upside-down on the loan.  Well, at least he didn't smash the RV into the repair garage out of spite!  It's been done.

RVs, even expensive ones, are built to a budget price. They comprise a number of different systems, and the volume manufactured is nowhere near that of even the most plebeian car. As a result, the quality levels are nowhere near that of even inexpensive automobiles, and that flummoxes many newbies to the RV world, who assume that spending $200,000 or $300,000 (or far, far more) on a motorhome means it'll be more reliable than a $50,000 BMW.  Of course, the BMW does not have a refrigerator and a furnace. And as I noted before, BMWs, being boutique cars, are often less reliable than many mainstream plebeian makes.  A Toyota.Camry will be more reliable than a BMW 3-series only because they make far more of the former.  It will be cheaper, too, oddly enough for the same reason.  Sometimes cheaper tech is better tech.

This problem is particularly acute for high-end, high-price RVs such as Airstreams.  Mark likes to "lurk" on the Airstream forum, mostly to get a laugh out of it.  People spend $70,000 or more on a trailer and then are outraged with it isn't fucking perfect.  What they are really outraged about is they spend $70,000 or more on a trailer and it isn't the continuous orgasm they thought it would be.  RVing can be daunting and downright uncomfortable at times.  Just two days ago, we had to set up at a State Park in a driving rainstorm.  Took two days just to dry everything out!  That's the reality of RVing - you have to expect and accept setbacks and bad days.

The problem with RVs, is you're basically driving your house down the road, and it gets bounced and jounced around and things come loose over time. For example, we just replaced the screw in one of the drawer slides which popped out while we were going down the road. It was very simple to fix, just take a toothpick, dip it in some Gorilla Glue and jam it in the hole and snap it off.  Take the other end of the toothpick and do the same thing and then reinstall the screw. The screws were only about three eighths of an inch long which I thought was a little short, so I added a second 3/4" screw into another hole to reinforce it. I probably should do it on the other three drawers in the camper as well.  A simple fix and it took a few minutes.

That some people would be outraged by this. The camper is only about three years old and already things are breaking! The manufacturer should repair that for me free of charge! Of course, it would be stupid to drive to an RV repair place and ask them to reinstall one screw.  And I would have to wait a week or more for an appointment.  You have to take some things on the chin and you have to be handy with tools if you're going to own an RV.

Most RVs don't have very long warranties. The individual components are warranted by their manufacturers. So for example, we have a Dometic air conditioner, Dometic furnace, Dometic refrigerator, Dometic power awning, so on and so forth.  Dometic is (or was) a division of Electrolux and they make a ton of RV components.  Even the axle has its own warranty from Dexter axle.  Each one of these items came with its own separate warranty, and if it failed under warranty I would just take it to an authorized Dometic dealer to have it repaired, rather than taking it to the manufacturer of the trailer.

Of course, the joke is, most of these warranties are only for about a year or so. And it doesn't take long for a year to elapse, particularly when an RV sits in storage most of the time.  The manufacturer of the trailer is really only liable for basic construction of the trailer, which in our case is one solid piece of fiberglass and not likely to fail. Thus, as one reader notes, most RVs have a "tail light warranty," meaning they only cover very small trivial things and you have to rely on a manufacturer's component warranties for major repairs.  And yes, this means you have a binder full of documents for each component - which is handy, as they usually have repair instructions in them.

Again, this may sound outrageous to some people, but the same is true with automobile tires. Most brand-new automobiles are sold with a separate warranty for the tires which are not supported by the manufacturer of the vehicle. And most tire warranties are pretty skimpy, prorating the usage of the tire and only lasting so many years or so many miles. In most cases, you're better off just buying a tire online at a low price than with dealing with the tire dealer who will charge you full retail for the replacement tire, minus the remaining usage of the old tire. Plus, sometimes these warranties don't include mounting and balancing.  And bear in mind that all warranties cover only defects in materials and workmanship - wear and tear and physical abuse don't count.  So, for example, I drove the truck into a curb on the Blue Ridge Parkway and tore off part of the sidewall.  That's my problem, not Michelin's.

And that is the case most of the time.  If you parse out these "warranty outrage stories" on the Internet, half the time - most of the time - the problem is the user.  They abuse the vehicle or whatever, and it breaks, and they want it fixed for free, last week.   Failing that, they want the President of the company to commit suicide and the entire corporation to go bankrupt, the factory burned down, and the earth salted to insure nothing ever grows on that spot.  You laugh - some people think this way.  I know I used to, when I was younger.  Maybe I've gotten older and more mature (doubtful).  Or maybe I just got tired and gave up on trying to make deals work that would never work - and learned how to walk away.

As I noted before, not a big fan of warranties, particularly extended warranties. When something breaks, you can either play lawyer with the warranty or you can play mechanic and just fix it. And guess what? The people who wrote the warranty have an army of lawyers who are smarter and more sophisticated than you are, and there's tons of fine print of these warranties. So you can play warranty lawyer all you want, chances are you're not going to win. In the meantime months have gone by and your vehicle still isn't fixed.

Does this mean you shouldn't buy an RV? Of course not. It just means you have to be handy and be willing to take a few things on the chin and make a few small (or even big) repairs on your own. Warranties only cover catastrophic failure of components and even then only the first few months or a year of ownership.

We've been RVing for over 30 years, buying our first trailer back in 1990 or so.  It was an 18-foot Prowler, and the only problem we had with it was nearly flipping it over on I-95 when I put a bike rack on the back of it.  User error - usually the largest source of problems with RVs.  I was going too fast with a tow vehicle that was marginally sufficient, with a trailer that was not in balance.   But other than that, the rig gave us no major problems for the five years we had it, and we sold it pretty much for what we paid for it.  Can't beat that.   But then again, there were probably a hundred "little things" I had to fix over those five years, in addition to replacing the battery and tires.

Our next rig was a 27' Wilderness fifth wheel.   Again, we had it for five years and sold it for nearly what we paid for it.   We had some comedic mishaps with it, over the years.  In Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, we went over a bridge and heard a large 'bang!" and I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a piece of metal spinning around on the pavement.  I assumed I ran over something.  We stopped later on and I realized the left rear leaf spring had broken off, and the tires were now rubbing together (this was a tandem axle setup).   I jacked the axles apart and put a 4"x4" block between the axle and frame and secured it with ratchet straps and that got us to the park at Mount Rushmore.

The next day, I went into town and bought new springs and U-bolts at an agricultural trailer supply place and jacked up the camper.  A fellow camper loaned me a 3/4" box wrench to loosen the U-bolts, and I installed the new springs on both sides of the rear axle.   Not a major job, at least to me.  But to some, it would be crippling.  They would have had to have the trailer towed to a repair shop and spend a couple of nights in a motel.  But then again, they aren't handy.

The other funny thing - and a learning experience - was when we came back from a day at Oshkosh and saw water running down the steps of the camper.  The PEX hose going to the toilet had cracked and water pumped through the bathroom and down the floor and out the door.  It was a simple matter to fox the hose, and it took a day or two to dry out the camper (hint: Run the A/C and furnace at the same time - it is like a giant de-humidifier).  We learned to always shut off the water when we leave an RV.  We re-learned this with a boat we had that had the exact same problem.  In that case, it nearly sank the boat!  Lesson learned!  Shut off the water when you leave!

Such lessons are often painful.  Another lesson or "life hack" I learned, which has nothing to do with this topic is to never leave a padlock unlocked.  Sounds simple, but if you have a padlock - either key or combination type - and leave it laying around unlocked.  You may be tempted to slap it on something to lock it, only to later realize you don't have the key or forgot the combination.  Now you need a bolt-cutter at the very least.   I always lock padlocks when not in use.  It is just too dangerous to leave them laying around unlocked.  A simple thing, but something that could prevent a lot of grief.  But I digress.

We sold the Fifth wheel and bought a motorhome - a cheaply made (is there any other kind?) 21' Class-C.  We drove it to Mexico.  Classic user error!  It was an OK rig, but it started delaminating and the rubber roof started bubbling up, as I noted in my RV quality blog entry.  There were the usual "little things" that went wrong, and of course it needed new tires (expensive for even small motorhomes) and the cheap-ass "Generac" generator died and I replaced it with a Honda RV generator (cheap, as Honda got out of the RV market and went portable instead).  One of the stupidest things that happened was I lost the gas cap at a gas station and freaked out when the "check engine" light came on. I figured it needed a tuneup and replaced the plugs and wires and rotor cap.   I was pretty humiliated when we went to fill-up the next time and saw that the cap was missing.  I put a small chain on it so it wouldn't get left at a gas pump the next time!  A painful lesson and my first experience with OBD-II cars.

We learned another painful lesson when we parked the Class-C on a hill by my Dad's house in Denver.  I really hate Denver.  Anyway, the camper was tilted to one side and nose-low and the next day, the refrigerator wasn't working.  We drove east and the temperature in the fridge kept going up.  We had to throw away all our food.  We stopped at a Camping World and bought a new fridge for about $1000 or so and installed it ourselves.  A few bolts, a couple of wires, and a propane connection and we were on our way.

A couple of years later, we returned to Denver.  Did I mention I really hate Denver?  Same thing happened again.  Turns out, if you run a gas (absorption) refrigerator at a steep angle, a "bubble" may form in the freezer section, preventing refrigerant from circulating.  It is akin to transporting a conventional (compression) refrigerator on its side - it may not work unless you let it sit for a day or two.  Anyway, I read online about "burping" the refrigerator - taking it out of its enclosure and turning it upside down and then re-installing it.  We did this and indeed it made a "glorp!" sound and when we put it back in, it worked.  Turns out, we threw away a $1000 refrigerator over nothing.   That's the kind of painful lessons you learn when RVing.

We don't go to Denver anymore.  And we don't camp with the rig un-level.  Sure, it can be a little off-level, and it gets off-level going down the road - but the bouncing and jouncing of the road keep bubbles from forming.  But let it run, motionless, for hours, severely off-level, and a bubble will form.  This isn't really discussed in the manual, either.

Our next camper was a 17' Casita, and you may see a pattern here.  We don't spend a lot on RVs and we don't buy huge ones.  When you own a vehicle where you have to call someone to change a tire, maybe you have too much vehicle.  But lately, I see a lot of people by the side of the road with their smart phones, unable to change the tire even on a Mitsubishi Speck, because they can't figure out how to get the jack out of the trunk.  So they smart-phone a tow truck to come change the tire for them - and then leave the donut spare on for months, while driving over the speed limit.  User error.

We had the Casita for 15 years, and once again, sold it for about what we paid for it.  Can't say that for the motorhome - anything with an engine in it depreciates like a car - 50% every five years, and yes, this is an inflexible rule.  The Casita went through its share of tires and batteries over the years.  Trailer tires seem to last only 20,000 to 30,000 miles or so - if you're lucky - and can wear unevenly.  We had that problem with the fifth wheel - one side would wear more than the other, probably an axle alignment issue.  Some folks complain about this in the RV magazines and actually have a trailer repair place re-weld the axles to straighten out the alignment - at a cost that would buy four or five sets of tires.  I found it cheaper to just rotate the tires and buy new ones every so often.

Overloading is another example of classic user error.  A friend of mine came to visit in his huge fifth wheel, which he was towing with a Chevrolet 2500.  He really needed a 3500 dually, but he said the 3/4 ton truck was sufficient.  It sagged.  He carried a lot of stuff in the trailer and even made a "belly pan" cargo box he suspended under the frame to carry more!  People carry things like "cornhole" campfire games, made of 3/4" plywood and heavy as all hell.  And of course Lucy has her rock collection.

Anyway, he was blowing tires right and left - and even a wheel bearing.  I asked him if the trailer was overloaded and he said, "Nah!"   I asked him, "Have you actually weighed it?" and of course he never did.  He just put heavier duty tires on it - and then contended with more wheel bearing failures.

In a campground in Maine, we ran into a couple of women who just bought a huge fifth-wheel.  They backed into the campsite and a wheel fell off.  Seems the previous owner decided the "sealed for life" bearings were no good after he blew one out (no doubt due to overloading) and replaced it with the old-fashioned kind where you have to repack the bearings every other year (like in a 1965 Chevy).   One of those blew out and the wheel fell off.  The entire axle assembly had to be replaced, which isn't as big a deal as you'd think - it bolts right up -  but nevertheless an unexpected expense.

All of the RVs we owned up to this point were used - so there was no warranty to deal with anyway.  You either fixed it yourself or paid someone to do it.  There was no running back to a "dealer" to demand "satisfaction" as so many of my friends try to do (and fail, usually).   So when we bought our latest RV - the first we've had brand-new - we kind of knew what to expect.  Sure, there are warranties on all the components.  Those expired last year.   You have to be handy and know what to expect.

In two-and-a-half years and 18,000 miles, a few things have gone wrong, but nothing major.  The cabinet hardware is not very well made and I've had to replace a cabinet door hinge or two.  The latches are junk and we will replace them.  Everything is built to a price point.   And it will be time for new tires, shortly - and yes, some wear more than others, and wear unevenly, such is the nature of trailer tires, which live a hard life.   I will pull the wheel bearings apart and clean them and repack them and replace the seals - a messy job that will take a day or so.

Speaking of which, here is another piece of dogshit you can step into.  Some axle grease uses molybdenum and some uses lithium.  No big deal, but if you combine the two they destroy each other and you have no lubrication for your bearings, which causes them to fail.  Some fun, eh?  And how do you know which kind the previous owner put in?   That's one reason I am not a big fan of these pump grease fittings on trailer axles.  You can pump in the wrong grease type thinking you are preventing trouble, when in fact you are causing it.

Which brings us to mods - something I have posted about before and will post about again.  Like my friend with the "belly pan" on his fifth wheel, people like to modify their RVs and often these modifications cause more problems than they fix.   You read all the time in RV forums (and car forums and boat forms and so on) about people adding an aftermarket super-duper dingus and something goes wrong and now they are upset.  Turns out the stock parts are more reliable. 

But that's a subject for another posting.

RV warranty?  Make me laugh.   If you are going to buy an RV and play warranty lawyer, odds are, you are going to lose and lose big.  If lack of warranty protection disturbs you, then maybe an RV isn't right for you.   It's not for everybody, that's for sure.  And a plethora of CoVid Campers are finding that out, right about now.....