We’re coming up on a year and a half of full time RV living and in the past three months we have experienced some of the biggest RV issues one can imagine. It’s the downside of the life we love to live, “RV Disasters!”.
Disaster #1 – Is our Engine Toast?
Our plan was to depart the Florida Keys on June 5th for 3 months on the road, but before we could even think about leaving Sunshine Key, we had to get our engine fixed. This was the first major issue recently with our 2008 Winnebago Sightseer 35J. It’s built on a Ford F53 chassis and has the Triton V10 engine. We were sitting in Sunshine Key RV Park having luckily arrived after a major coolant leak was detected. It all began when we departed Fiesta Key a few weeks prior. All our engine coolant dumped out while driving. This was most definitely not good. Luckily, I was able to make it to a Napa Auto Parts in Marathon Key and refill the coolant. By the time we got to Sunshine Key it was completely empty again. Our hearts sank as we started to think about trying to get this new issue fixed.
After a few hours of detective work under the RV and doing some Google investigations I was able to diagnose the problem with our coolant system. The Ford V10 engine has a coolant pipe that runs through the valley of the engine. It slides on a nipple on the back of the water pump which has two little orange O-Rings. A lot of forums and posts describe this pipe as rusting out and bursting. Well, it turns out that the O -Rings can also go bad and fail. Two $4 O-Rings caused all our engine coolant to leak out and render our RV useless.
Now, I am a handy guy, and pride myself on being able to do a lot of repairs. This was clearly above my paygrade, and I immediately began searching for someone to fix our engine. The whole intake had to be removed and a special fix needed to be done to make sure this issue would not reoccur. Finally, after a couple of days I found a great mobile auto mechanic out of Islamorada who agreed to come out and fix the engine. Jimi of Nitro Mobile Services spoke to me numerous times on the phone and together we came up with a plan for the engine repair. I would order all the parts needed and have it all sent to our RV park. Once the parts he planned to come the next day and begin the repair.
The day arrived for our engine repair and Jimi showed up at 7:30 am ready to go. After nearly 6 hours the engine was fixed and running again. Disaster averted. No longer was being towed out of the Florida Keys stressing us out. This is the one big downside to a motorhome for full time living. If it breaks down and needs to go to a shop for repairs, your house is gone….and who knows for how long. We breathed a big sigh of relief and were back on schedule to depart on June 5th. Little did we know what would be in store for us while traveling.
Disaster #2 – Thunderstorms and Awnings Don’t Mix
It was July 5th, and we were in Oacoma, South Dakota. It was a travel day, and we were heading to Rapid City, South Dakota to spend 2 weeks at Hart Ranch. We had a long stretch of highway to traverse. Unbeknownst to us it was the infamous I-90. We had a good morning prior to embarking on the next leg of our journey. The night before was Independence Day and we saw some amazing fireworks. We were up early and actually left the RV park before check out time. We stopped for gas and then hopped on I-90 to begin the long stretch to Rapid City. GPS said 3 hours. Easy peasy.
Off in the distance some dark clouds caught my eye, and I asked Jordana if a storm was coming. We checked the radar the night before and didn’t see anything, but this looked like something. It was dark clouds…the real scary looking ones. Jordana pulled up the weather app and a warning flashed at the top. Strong thunderstorms possible, damaging high winds and hail possible. Seek shelter. We looked at each other and began to have a bad feeling. Just then is when the first gust of wind hit our RV. We were cruising along on I-90 and felt like a freight train hit us. We went from the right lane into half the left lane. Just as I righted the RV and got us back in to the right lane a semi came blowing past us. We then got it by another huge gust, which I estimate to be around 60-70 mph, and heard a weird sound followed by a loud flapping sound. It sounded like a sail was loose and just whipping around in the wind. We pulled over to the shoulder and I hopped out of the RV to see our Awning fabric unrolled and flapping in the wind on the roof of our RV. There goes our easy travel day.
A lot of things were happening at once. We were being hit by a derecho storm. A term I learned later in Rapid City. Our awning was flapping in the wind and our kids were scared. Jordana and I decided to see if we could save the awning. This required us going out into the storm and lowering the legs of the awning and trying to re roll the awning up. The storm had other ideas. We were successful in getting the awning down and began trying to roll up the awning, but the roller tube was spinning. What learned was that the locking latch was broken and somehow the storm had managed to snap the tension rod inside the roller tube. Just then another gust hit us, and Jordana was lifted off the ground. Her awning leg snapped, and the leg latch on my side broke off. There would be no saving this awning. We retreated into the RV.
After a few minutes of deciding what to do, Jordana said what I was thinking. She told me to cut the awning off. I couldn’t believe she said it, but it was the best thing to do. I took out my utility knife and slashed the awning. I then ripped the rest down. It was finally off. The legs laid motionless on the grassy plain and a tapping sound came from the awning brace hitting the side of the RV. I put the awning in the Jeep, we got the roller tube and legs in the RV, and I then had to use my cutting wheel to take off the support arms just as the rain returned to batter my soul.
We limped off the highway to a gas station and did a damage assessment. Luckily there was no damage to the RV itself. The awning was a total loss. It was a rough day. We still had over 2 hours to go till Rapid City. Once at Hart Ranch we had an RV mechanic living next to our spot and he said we were lucky it was just our awning. Storms like the one we experienced can flip tractor trailers and RV’s. After hearing that we were thankful to all be in one piece and safely at our RV park. We began our insurance process to replace our awning and as of today we are still awaiting our replacement awning which is on backorder. We hope to have it sometime in October.
Disaster #3 – Our First Crash
The old adage of it comes in threes came true for us and it happened on a sunny day while driving through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Now, the one thing that is always a stress point when driving the RV is flat towing our Jeep. We are already driving a 20,000 lbs RV and now add on a Jeep connected by a metal tow bar. Eventually something may happen. And it did.
We were driving along on Highway 41 in Escanaba, Michigan and had just began driving up a small hill when I felt something weird. The RV acted funny, and it just triggered something in my brain to look at our rear-view camera. As I did, I saw our Jeep Wrangler begin to get farther away from our RV. As my brain processed the images I was seeing, I let out a big expletive. It hit me that our tow bar had failed, and our Jeep was now disconnected from our RV.
This was a first for me. I’ve never experienced anything like figuring out how to safely handle an RV with a disconnected vehicle behind it. As our RV became surrounded by other cars, I worked through the problem. I slowed the RV and tried to pull over to the shoulder. As I slowed down the Jeep caught up to the RV and slammed into the rear driver’s bumper. In hindsight, I should have kept the RV driving straight ahead and let the jeep get further apart to activate the break away so our RVi Brake would engage. What did happen was the Jeep hit our RV and then bounced off which activated the break away. Somehow everything stopped and we ended up half on the shoulder and half in the road. The Jeep was stopped behind us held only to the RV by one cable. The other one had snapped.
Having survived this event, we now had to detach the Jeep and move everything off the highway. After reconnecting the breakaway system, I got the Jeep unhooked and over to the shoulder. We moved the RV over and a nice guy stopped and picked up our tow bar that was down the highway. What an experience this was. We were now assessing the damage again and trying to figure out if everything was drivable. Luckily the Jeep still drove and there was no severe damage. The RV rear door was crushed, and some tape kept everything shut to make it to our next RV park. With our tow bar destroyed we now had to drive both vehicles. Jordana and the kids piled into the Jeep, and I manned the RV. It was a long 3 hours to the KOA.
Once we arrived at our next RV park we would be there for a few days. We needed a break from driving and to decompress from this experience. There was a lot of talk about never flat towing again…is full time RVing too hard, why us…a lot of emotions were coming out. This was another big disaster to hit us, and it could have been way worse. We were so thankful that no other vehicles were involved, and it was just us. We spent the next few days exploring the UP of Michigan, spending time on the phone and sending emails with our insurance company and Blue Ox. Blue Ox sent us a new tow bar to replace ours, which was awesome. We just had to travel a few days to Ohio where it would be waiting for us. If, you see our RV traveling down the road, you’ll still see our battle scars as all the parts we need are on a 2 month backorder. Such is life.
Are we going to be quitting full time RVing? No. Once our emotions settled down and we analyzed everything, we realized that after traveling over 15,000 miles things are bound to happen. I just don’t think we were prepared for all of them to happen within a few months of each other. A few lessons that can be gleaned from our experiences.
- Always have a repair contingency fund. Even if you have extended coverage, you may face a deductible. You may also need to pay out of pocket first and then be reimbursed. Our engine repair bill was quite high but being towed out of the Keys would have been way higher.
- Keep emergency tools accessible. I keep emergency tools in a small bin on the passenger side of our RV. I can access the bin quickly if needed for any reason. This helped with our awning as I didn’t have to fumble around looking for my knife or cutting wheel.
- Check your equipment before each road trip and inspect for signs of wear or damage. Our old tow bar was aluminum and rated to 7500 lbs. Aluminum is not a very resilient metal and it did a lot of flat towing for us. Once it bends or cracks it will most likely break. This is what happened when it broke on our hitch side. I’d recommend going with an all-steel tow bar instead of aluminum and that is what we have now.
We are currently back on Long Island, NY visiting with family and moochdocking. We’ve begun to undertake the multitude of repairs and upgrades for our RV and hope to be back on the road at the end of the month. The northeast is beautiful in the fall, and we want to see Vermont and New Hampshire. We’re hoping our travels will be uneventful but fulfilling at the same time. Drive safe everyone and hope to see you out on the open road!
JP Latkovic is a former New York State Paramedic and Critical Care Flight Paramedic from Long Island, NY. JP, his wife Jordana, kids Aurelia and Odin have been full time RV living for over a year now. You can find them parked in a driveway doing repairs on their RV…again.