Inside Emergencies


Mechanical emergencies are not the only thing that can give you a headache when you’re full-timing, the inside of the rig can have its share of issues too and it’s very important that you know how to handle them so that you save time, money, and the aforementioned headache.

When you decide to head out on the road as a full-time RV owner, the first tool you should buy at the hardware store is either a #2 Phillips screwdriver or occasionally a #2 Robertson, depending on where your rig was made. Make sure you get a good quality one because you’ll find yourself reaching for it just about every day.

Motorhomes have many screws holding them together and the chances are they are either a Phillips or the square-headed Robertson. The little screws are on just about every part of a motorhome from the pantry cupboards to bathroom fittings. I strongly recommend buying a small supply of extra screws similar to the type used in your RV and then tucking them away with the rest of your hardware supplies. They can sometimes be difficult to find when you’re traveling and although a screw is a screw in a pinch, that single Phillips head that you found in your toolbox will really stand out and bug you every time you see it.

The Robertson screw has an interesting history. The invention was the brainchild of a Canadian sales clerk by the name of Peter Robertson. He was demonstrating tools when he slipped with a slotted screwdriver, and cut his hand. That incident started him thinking about a better screw design. They’re probably the most popular screw in Canada and very common in marine applications and motorhomes.

Robertson screws might have been just as common in the U.S. if it wasn’t for one of Robertson’s first customers, Henry Ford. The Model T had hundreds of them and Ford was impressed when he figured out the new screw saved him over two hours of labor per car. Ford wanted the exclusive license to sell and manufacturer the screw in the United States but Robertson didn’t think it was in his best interests and declined. It wasn’t long after that that Ford found another inventor who had a screw that he could license and use. The inventor's name was Henry Phillips and the rest, as they say, is history.

The other specialized tool that I would recommend you invest in before you find yourself needing it is a PEX plumbing tool.

RV plumbing usually consists of half-inch PEX pipe and the related fittings. PEX is an abbreviation for Cross-linked polyethylene and the tubing has started to become common in residential homes as a modern alternative to copper pipe for indoor plumbing applications. A copper ring, crimped using a special tool, secures the fittings. To be water tight, it’s critical that the crimp be precise and that you test the result with a “Go/No Go” gauge.

In the average motorhome, PEX is all you’ll find and if you spring a leak then you will need more than a few turns of duct tape. The crimp tools can be expensive and unless you’re a plumber, probably not worth the money. On the more economical side of the scale is a handy tool from the Superior Company. It’s not as fancy as the ratcheting tools but it will get the job done just the same. The tool comes with a gauge to check your work, instructions and a pouch to keep everything together.

The basic principle is that you take a pair of ten-inch vise grips and use them to apply pressure to the tool that in turn makes the crimp. You can buy the tool at any big box hardware store or on Amazon for around twenty bucks and for the RV owner doing a few occasional repairs the cheap version is all you need. Bear in mind that the big RV repair shops charge a lot of labor for doing work like this so the small investment will pay for itself the first time you use it.

While you’re in the plumbing aisle, grab a bag of half-inch copper crimp rings and a few female screw-on fittings. The fittings are not reusable so if that bathroom tap is leaking, the old one removed and a new one crimped on. At first glance, all this may seem daunting but once you’ve stumbled through your first plumbing job, the rest will be easy. If you’re full-timing or travel a lot then it’s important to have the ability to be able to do your own plumbing repairs. Many RVs use single line fresh water systems meaning that if you shut off water at the tank then everything is off too. Not being able to flush the toilet because the kitchen tap is leaking will cut short any trip and cause you no end of grief.

Electrical issues are rare but they can happen and when the lights go out, getting them back on is usually just as straightforward as it is in a bricks and mortar home. The fuse box is typically inside and is located behind a small metal panel. Inside the RV, with the exception of the air conditioner and microwave, everything runs on DC power from the battery. The fuses are more often than not the little plastic blade type of fuse that you find in any modern car. In some of the real older types of RV you may find glass fuses but they will still be easily found at any auto parts store. More often than not, they are the same kind of fuse that the vehicle electrical system uses so it always pays to keep a few on hand for emergencies.

If replacing the fuse doesn’t help then you will need to do some basic electrical troubleshooting. The simplistic way of looking at any electrical system is power in and power out. Always start out easy and check the battery. A fully charged lead acid battery will sit at around 12.6 to 12.8 volts. It may be higher if it’s recently been on a charger but will settle down to that level as it cools off. If the battery has been in use then it’s likely to be somewhere around 12.4 volts. Once it drops below twelve, the battery has completely discharged (to around 50% of its capacity which is a safe margin to extend the life of a deep cycle battery). If you are getting readings on your multi-meter of around 10.5 volts then that usually means one of the cells has gone bad and it’s time for a replacement battery.

Once you’ve checked the battery and found it to be good then head straight to the fuse box and remove the fuse. If there is no power present on the live end of the fuse socket then you know you have a broken wire somewhere between there and the battery. If there is battery voltage present then you know it’s just not getting to where it needs to go. At that point, check the wiring between the fuse box and the section not working. RV wiring is usually pretty well clipped and clamped down but it’s a moving vehicle that on the road in a variety of conditions so things can rattle loose. It doesn’t take much to break an electrical connection, sometimes just a wire or a connector being partially loose will enough to cause problems. Follow the wires, wiggle the connectors and test for power whenever you find a place to check. Electrical issues can sometimes be a real pain to track down but don’t give up because they nearly always come down to something simple.

Anything else inside that you may have to deal with will be the usual around the house stuff like loose screws and broken this or that. Tinkering around in your RV can be fun and the more you get to know where everything is and how it all works, the easier future repairs will be.