When it comes to recreational vehicles (RVs) unbiased information is good. In an effort to provide Truck Camper Adventure readers with more it, we thought we’d get an RV technician’s take on a wide range of RV related topics. Aside from being unbiased, what makes an RV technician’s viewpoint so valuable is the fact most technicians have worked on everything from luxury motorhomes to diminutive folding trailers. Fellow reader, Steve Savage, is one such technician. Steve, who goes by the screen name “Ardvark,” retired as an RV technician after 21 years, but still works occasionally due to the severe shortage of technicians in the industry. Steve and his wife have also owned 15 RVs. His opinions are valued on TCA. When Steve talks, people listen. In this interview, Steve provides his thoughts on the industry, which appliances are the most troublesome, and on general RV design. What he has to say about truck campers, and the RV industry in general, is very interesting.
TCA: Thanks, Steve, for talking with us. When did you first become an RV technician and when did you retire?
Steve Savage: My history sounds like I was almost born to it given my father was a mechanic when I was a child and my grandfather owned a garage and ran a repair service of his own. I also grew up in an RVing family when my father first tried to invent a pop-up camper and then converted a Flexible bus for camping the same year Winnebago started in business. That led to always having an RV to use including a class A motorhome while in college and naturally enough working on the family RVs. Before long I was working on RVs owned by others.
I started my own RV service center providing mobile service and working on the lots of small dealers sometime in the 90s, first part time and then later full time. I passed the RVIA/RVDA national test for certification at the master’s level in 1999 and am still trying to retire. Experienced techs are in short supply and the dealers I used to work for regularly still know they can entice me back to the lot if something electrical and interesting comes up. I let my certification lapse in December of 2018, but I last worked repairing a Swintek slide-out system last week.
TCA: What RVs have you owned over the years?
Steve Savage: Man, this is embarrassing, but you have to remember I was in the business so my wife and I went through a lot of RVs in a relatively short period of time. In total, we have owned 15 RVs. We started off with a popup as many folks do. From there we went to a well-used class A motorhome followed by a travel trailer, followed by another class A motorhome, both gas pullers. After that we went to two class A diesel pushers in a row, before jumping to two class C motorhomes. The motorhomes were followed by two travel trailers, then a toy hauler. After that we decided to try out two fifth wheels, one of which we still have and keep stored at the beach. In order to stay mobile after the fifth wheels, we found a used Hallmark Ute we kept for two years and we now are on year two with our Northstar Laredo SC. Bet you are sorry you asked.
TCA: What were some of the biggest technical problems you encountered during your career as an RV technician?
Steve Savage: Let me start this way. Being a tech always meant to me “working without a net.” When I work on small dealer lots, I don’t have a backup. They will provide me all the muscle I need, but it was my job to fix anything that drove or got towed onto the lot with the exception of drivetrains.
Now in terms of just a miserable job, those big four-door refrigerators are north of 200 pounds, so replacing the cooling coil was a good deal of work. Then there are the electrical systems on the high-end motorhomes and conversion buses. When I worked at the local NASCAR track for one of the NASCAR drivers, I didn’t even know how to work the pneumatic door to get in his bus (luckily his driver did) and the fuse panel ran across the full width of the belly bay that was almost tall enough for me to stand up in.
One of my all-time favorites was a brand new high-end bus camped in the nose-bleed expensive campground at the track here in Bristol, Tennessee that kept blowing the shoreline breaker. The problem was when it blew the breaker it took down the power on a whole string of high dollar coaches and I quickly learned by the crowd circled around me that blowing the breaker twice would be a mistake. That meant trying to figure out how to troubleshoot the bus without plugging into shore power. Just keep saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
TCA: What, in your opinion, is the most troublesome appliance or piece of equipment in today’s recreational vehicle?
Steve Savage: Water heaters. Kind of surprising isn’t it because they’re so basic? If you understand the troubleshooting steps, it only takes about 15 minutes to diagnose water heater issues and not very much time to make the repair. Keeping things clean is about all it takes to get them perking and electrically you hardly need a meter. Usually a test light will do the trick. The most common mistake is forgetting to fill the water heater after winterizing and blowing the stat after turning it on while the tank is empty. My hunch is that furnaces would move into first place if they were called on more often.
From my experience the power board in power converters was a more common pricey repair in the appliance lineup. I suspect slide-outs will cause more serious headaches as reliability there can be iffy and repair can be difficult.
TCA: Do you have an opinion on slide-outs?
Steve Savage: Slide-outs are another story. Did you know one major manufacturer thought they were simply a fad and had no slide-out motorhomes while competitors ate his dinner. Even our largest local dealer did not think they would ever catch on. I like them for the space they add, but complexity and the possibility of leaks comes as part of the package. We have a slide-out in our fifth wheel, obviously none in our truck camper.
TCA: Is there any one technical issue or two that really stands out during your career as an RV tech?
Steve Savage: My favorite “forever to remember” moment was the customer whose slides were not working so he decided to attempt the repair himself and systematically took apart almost the entire system before calling me. When I got there what I had to work with were wires hanging out of the walls and at the controllers. I know folks think a tech should just be able to walk in and know how everything was wired, but they have no idea how much more time it takes to figure things out working from a bundle of wires.
Another “how could someone do that” moment was the camper I was working on where the owner had decided to remodel the galley by putting the fridge on an inside wall. He then proceeded to cut a hole in the ceiling and hung a box fan to blow out the air from the boiler tube. And to top it off, he left the propane gas line disconnected and installed a battery charger rather than a power converter to supply power. That one was just a step away from a death wish.
TCA: Yikes!! Speaking of propane, how often do you recommend pressure drop testing?
Steve Savage: Unless you have reason to believe you have a problem or the system has been opened, I do not recommend routine drop pressure testing. I just don’t like opening sealed systems. In my field experience, 95 percent of leaks are at the pigtail hoses at the tanks and their leaks are somewhat commonplace with age. Just bubble testing works fine for detection at the pigtails.
Rigs with copper lines. I can’t recall ever having a unit with a leaker at the flare that had not been messed with. When I did pre-delivery inspections (PDIs) on dealer lots, I did pressure drop tests routinely. The built-in propane detectors are incredibly sensitive and normally will sniff out a leak well before anyone can smell it. The industry is really focused on this area given the liability issues.
TCA: What are your thoughts on the PDI process? It seems like some dealers take them more seriously than others?
Steve Savage: The PDI process runs from the extreme of never being done on some lots to one dealer I did work for who wanted things fixed, period. When I did PDIs, I had a printed list of everything that had to be checked and I made notes as I went along. That meant every appliance was in working order, the plumbing all worked, the power converter charged the batteries and so forth. That way if a buyer came back or called and said something didn’t work, I knew they were wrong because I had operated it and kept notes. Operator error was the number one problem in incoming service calls!
TCA: What recommendations do you have for those who are shopping for a new camper?
Steve Savage: Wow, we could spend hours or write a book about that, but here is a statistic that describes the typical first time buyer. Fifty percent of RV buyers will keep their first RV less than two years (industry statistics, not mine). There is just so darn much fantasy attached to purchasing an RV. I know folks see themselves spending weeks on the road exploring new places, but the average owner uses their RV for only two week-long trips and a number of shorter camping weekends a year. Most RVs don’t wear out, they rot out.
A good friend of mine, now deceased who was well published in the industry, used to say when I walked in the door of an RV, I saw something entirely different than he did because I was focused on how things were put together, fit and finish, and what systems were installed. The average buyer focuses on colors and appearance and pays almost no attention to things like whether the floor bounces when they walk on it or whether the doors fit.
I encourage folks to look where the manufacturers never expect you to look. How is the hardware installed? How are the cabinet drawers tracks fastened in place? If you are a first-time buyer, I think it is insanity to try to evaluate an RV without taking an experienced friend or paying for a couple hours of a tech’s time to go with you. I have actually gone to dealer lots and private party’s sales with potential buyers to offer my two cents.
TCA: What is your opinion on the quality (or lack thereof) of today’s truck campers and RVs in general
Steve Savage: Many techs have a saying “all RVs are junk.” I think that is overly harsh, but I understand how they arrive at that opinion. As a general rule, manufacturers are acutely aware of what sells RVs and it isn’t quality.
Truck campers run the gamut. For a while I did some work for a small dealer that handled less expensive truck campers, a company no longer in business that will remain unnamed by me, and their units were a disaster. On one of their rigs, I had to deal with an owner who discovered there were no cables to connect the battery in the battery box, and when I went to troubleshoot a recalcitrant ceiling light there were 12 segments of wire spliced together, no quality at all. On the other hand, I think the more expensive truck campers do a pretty good job. Our Hallmark was an ’04 model and is still going strong. It is too soon for me to know how our Northstar is going to stack up over the long haul, but it is off to a good start. Overall I think the majority of truck campers are of higher quality than most other model RVs.
Here is a thought I have often shared about quality. As a general rule, as you move upstream in cost, you are most often paying for better box construction and when it comes to repair costs, everything else in pocket change compared to dealing with sidewall delam or a leaking roof. Less expensive units have a niche, but I think they will require more routine maintenance over the long haul.
TCA: Who in your opinion makes the best truck camper today?
Steve Savage: Boy, answering that could get me shot, but seriously I can always tell you exactly why my wife and I buy what we buy, but I can never tell anyone else what they should buy. In my experience, small manufacturers offer higher quality than manufacturers producing on a large scale. The one thing I do believe is a camper’s intended use should immediately narrow choices down to the intended purpose. If your goal is going down every rabbit hole, you may want to rule out F-550s with an 11.5-foot camper on the back. Then price has to factor in as checkbooks are not unlimited for most buyers. Next is construction, and lastly features. I suspect many buyers reverse that order.
TCA: What are your thoughts on the wood, aluminum, and fiberglass construction methods used in today’s truck campers?
Steve Savage: I don’t think there is a better or worse. Wood construction or what has been called “stick and staple” has been around with the first RVs. It is a simpler build method than aluminum and some argue it requires less skill, but I am of the opinion that any manufacturer’s choice done well will result in a good camper.
Our current camper, a Northstar Laredo, is made of wood. The fit and finish is well done, but I have worked on other truck campers with aluminum frames that are equally well done. In my opinion, manufacturers argue the superiority of one versus the other to enhance their market share. They all fall apart if seals are not maintained, however fiberglass clam shell designs would seem to be less prone to water damage. Along that same line, however, I have seen some clam shell models with substantial water damage. As with anything there’s no free lunch.
TCA: Who makes the most reliable RV refrigerator?
Steve Savage: Short answer, I don’t know. I have no experience with the all-electric compressor models, although the simplicity is appealing. On the other hand, the two- and three-way refrigerators work well for most folks. The Dometic three-ways in the newer campers do a bang-up job.
When trying to do any comparison between manufacturers folks tend to get thrown off by the differences in market share. What I mean is some manufacturers are much more prevalent in RVs and as such you will hear more complaints. Here is an example. If one manufacturer sells a 100 widgets and has 10 that fail and another manufacturer sells 10 widgets and one fails, which one is more reliable. End-users don’t have a valid reliable database, so much of what we say about what is best is jibber-jabber!
TCA: What periodic checks do you recommend owners make to ensure overall safety of their campers?
Steve Savage: Do you want to stay safe and dramatically reduce the cost and frequency of repairs and who doesn’t? Then use the doggone thing. When you use it regularly, you become intimately familiar with your RV (sounds sexy right?). If you are using it, you note the frayed cord, you note your propane sniffer is shouting out a warning once in a while.
In my opinion, the most dangerous campers are the ones that seldom get used. Now this weekend we are headed to the beach to check on our fiver and we have not used it since late last fall. That was not our plan, but that is the way things have gone with the current craziness. That means I will be much more thorough than I normally would be.
For example, I will take my propane sniffer and check at my tanks. I will use my multimeter to make a couple of electrical checks. I will pull the vent cover on the fridge and check the cooling coil for leaks or corrosion. Fire-up the water heater on propane even though we will be running it off the shoreline, and so forth. I’ll also be up on the roof checking the caulk lines.
For me, staying safe means reacquainting myself with our unit. In addition, we are taking our truck over so air pressure in the tires gets checked. Simply put, as every tech learns in training, assume nothing!
Whenever I teched for a new customer, after I made the repair, I told them I was now off the clock and would they mind if I looked over their unit and discuss with them different things that I thought were important. Once they got over the shock, we did what I called a “walk around” focusing on things that needed maintenance or safety concerns. That approach earned me a good deal of follow-up business and I always slept well at night.
TCA: That’s great advice. With the harsh roads that truck campers often traverse, do you have an opinion on the best propane piping to use? Do you prefer copper, iron, or rubber hoses?
Steve Savage: Any time the industry or a manufacturer makes a change it is done to increase profit, not to benefit the end-user, no exceptions! Copper works just fine and if a repair is necessary, everything you need is off-the-shelf at Lowes. Black iron where appropriate has also done an admirable job for decades. Nuff said.
TCA: Do you think the standard 5BC fire extinguisher is adequate enough for a truck camper or would you recommend going with a larger 10BC extinguisher like those used in motorhomes?
Steve Savage: Fires in RVs are a rarity. My thought here is if you can’t immediately put out a fire, grab family, your companion animals and get the heck out. I would not want anyone to think having a bigger extinguisher means staying in harm’s way longer. An RV will burn to the ground in minutes.
I had one customer, who, while trying to remove his fridge, didn’t shut off the propane or disconnect the copper line. He got all the attaching screws out, but when it wouldn’t budge he tried to use a shovel to pry it out. That led to the copper fracturing while the fridge was trying to ignite and he used his extinguisher to put out the flames, but that kind of situation is kind of a rarity.
TCA: Being prepared is something we preach constantly here at Truck Camper Adventure. What tools, test equipment, and other items do you recommend our readers have with them at all times?
Steve Savage: When I was working, I had what I called a “first-off-the-truck” bag, which included basic hand tools like a ratcheting screwdriver with multiple times, a standard, needle nose, and angle cutter, a few other standard like adjustable wrenches, but my Fluke clamp-on multimeter was my absolute go-to item. With that simple bag, I could diagnose most problems very quickly. I also carry a kit of basic wrenches , Allen wrenches, etc. If I need something beyond the basics, I can always pick it up at a Lowes or a Home Depot.
TCA: Is there anything you wish the RV industry did better or improved upon?
Steve Savage: Absolutely! For years I have been saying the industry should hire techs to go over designs before they reach production. If access for repairs was a consideration in the build, I could easily have reduced the time it took me to make repairs by 30 to 50 percent.
TCA: Yeah, it almost seems like some companies want to make repairs harder. When shopping for a used camper, what should shoppers look for?
Steve Savage: From my perspective, many of the things like appliances working are often nickel and dime repairs. They are easy to diagnose and don’t take much to fix. Focus on the box. Sidewall delamination is a bear to fix if the truck camper has slick sidewalls. If it has a slide, focus on the seals and pay particular attention to where the slide rides across the floor. If it has been leaking, you can see the tracks on the floor. Get up on the roof or use a ladder to look over the roof. A solid box is crucial, everything else is pocket change.
TCA: Do you have any closing advice for truck camper owners or prospective truck camper owners?
Steve Savage: I would suggest before deciding what to buy or what to modify, you use your camper just the way it comes. When I read folks asking what they should do to improve the handling on something they don’t even own yet, it always takes me a step back. It’s possible to buy a lot of accessories you will never need or do a lot of maintenance fixing things that will never break. Often times I had the thought that if I had to do as much maintenance as some folks feel is necessary, I would never consider owning an RV.