Ten years and almost 90,000 miles. It’s been a decade now since we bought our trusty Pleasure-Way Excel TS Class B RV. Though the original purchase was a leap of faith, it’s turned out to be one of the best we ever made.
Our “van,” as we call it, has transitioned with us from our empty nest phase of downsizing into our early 60’s. On dozens of great trips and literally hundreds of nights, it has proven a versatile and trustworthy home. We’ve done adventures near and far, short and long, including every activity imaginable from visiting family and friends to sightseeing to beach lounging to mountain camping and everything in between.
A while back a reader requested more information on how to maintain this significant investment. (New Class B RVs now generally cost over six digits, though we got ours used for about half that during the Great Recession.) In this post, I’ll share everything I know on that topic, and finish with some numbers for how much our van has cost us over the years….
One of the joys of owning an RV is that it is truly a second home, on wheels. You can drive it anywhere and have all the basic necessities of a modern house. On the other hand, it also has a home’s plumbing, electrical, heating, and cooling systems. It has an exterior subject to the elements, and an interior subject to wear and tear. So if you want to keep your RV fully operational and comfortable, you’ll need to invest some time in maintaining it.
Our made-in-Canada 2006 Pleasure-Way is built on a Ford E-350 chassis. The Ford E-350 and E-450 were the dominant platforms for small RVs in the 2000’s. Nowadays they’re being overtaken by the more modern and fuel efficient Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Though aging now, other than gas mileage (around 13 miles/gallon), our rig has been a pleasure to own. The E-350 is adequately powered (I’ve climbed many a steep grade at full speed) and with over 100,000 miles on it now, has been almost entirely trouble free.
The one exception was on a spring day a year or two after buying our van. I turned the ignition and got no reaction. The starter had died. Fortunately I was in a safe parking lot with no pressing appointments. The tow truck driver arrived within half an hour. He offered me a reasonably-priced repair at his own shop. So about $500 and two days later I was back on the road.
I follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule religiously. But it mostly consists of regular oil changes, which I generally have done with synthetic oil at Jiffy Lube. I’ve been through a couple of brake jobs, and one set of new ball joints, but that’s to be expected with such a heavy vehicle. A huge advantage of a small RV like ours is that it can be serviced in the same facility as cars and light trucks — you don’t need to visit a special big rig mechanic.
Oddly, the only significant scheduled service I can recall was replacing the spark plugs. For whatever reason, these are hard to get to in the E-350 configuration. The folks at Quick Lane, who had proved trustworthy for other repairs, required about $500 and half a day to get it done. But the engine has purred ever since.
Tires are absolutely critical on any heavy vehicle, even more so on our single-axle Pleasure-Way. A tire failure could be catastrophic, so I keep a close eye on condition and inflation. The placard calls for 80 psi in our rear tires, a relatively high pressure. Some home inflation equipment and even the occasional gas station compressor are unable to reach that pressure, so I occasionally have to hunt around.
The original off-brand tires on our used vehicle didn’t last more than a season or two before one began to delaminate and vibrate. I replaced them all around with top-of-the-line load rated Michelins. Brace yourself for a tire replacement like this. You’re talking over $1K when all is done. That second set of tires lasted us several years into our relocation in the southwest, but eventually the sidewalls began to crack in the New Mexico sun, long before there was significant tread wear.
After footing my second $1K bill for an identical set of tires, I also bought a cheap set of vinyl tire covers. I now take 10 minutes to put these on whenever the rig will be stored for more than a few weeks. The longevity improvement is striking: The sidewalls continue to look almost new after five seasons.
I keep the original off-brand spare well inflated in its spot behind the rear axle. And I pray I never have to use it. Honestly, I doubt I’d be up to the task of replacing a spare in the field myself (removing 8 massive lug bolts and safely jacking our 5-ton rig beside the road). Which is one reason, I pay an extra $34 each year for Progressive’s Roadside Assistance feature.
If you like your vehicles show-ready, you’d have to invest quite a bit of elbow grease to keep a 13-year old RV looking sleek and shiny.
Ours has taken a few hits during its life on the road: the decals are starting to fray, the fiberglass has dulled, and I recently had to touch up a spot of rust.
I’ve also had to refresh some spots of caulk around vents and brackets to maintain waterproofness, but there have been no major leaks.
I try to wash and wax annually, though even that commitment has slipped in recent years. Honestly, I don’t mind driving a rig that doesn’t turn eyes as the latest and greatest model. I figure we’re less of a target that way.
The exterior still looks decent from a moderate distance, and is structurally sound.
For the most part, the interior of our rig has remained remarkably pristine. Though, we tend be low impact on our living spaces. We recently had to replace the throw rug on our central floor, but otherwise we’re still on the original furnishings.
We usually vacuum and/or wipe down most of the interior surfaces a few times during the camping season. I have yet to shampoo the rugs or upholstery, though that time may be coming.
The interior has required some spot repairs in recent years.
First, there was a crack in the ABS bathroom floor, a potentially serious problem, given that the floor doubles as the shower pan and must hold water. I carefully drilled small holes at both ends of the crack to relieve tension and prevent it from spreading. Then I applied liquid plastic from a repair kit I purchased online. This required using a respirator and was a multi-day effort, laying down a half-dozen coats to generate strength to support body weight. But the process was simple enough, and the result has blended in and proven durable over several years now.
We’ve also had some minor issues with the interior fabric deteriorating around a couple of door areas where the hot desert sun streams in for months at a time and isn’t blocked by the curtains. In one instance I cut and screwed in place a heavy vinyl patch material over the crumbling fabric, for a color-coordinated repair that looks almost factory done.
In another area, much trickier because of the small sections and varied angles covered by the now-decaying fabric, I used a different technique. I bought a tube of 100% silicone caulk in almond color. I then thinned it with mineral spirits and painted it over the fabric with a brush. The result, after several coats, is a sort of rubberized finish, that creates a tough, wearproof surface that blends almost perfectly. Hopefully it will give us a few more years of wear, or longer.
Like a stationary home, an RV has a full suite of systems for providing power, heating/cooling, and water. And, as in a home, each of these systems requires maintenance from time to time.
The foundation of electrical power in an RV is a “house” battery (or batteries), separate from the engine starter battery. House batteries should be “deep cycle” or marine type batteries, designed for long periods of discharging. Even given that design, it’s not uncommon for house batteries to wear out. I’ve been through a half-dozen in our RV’ing years. One of the best things you can do to avoid damaging a house battery is simply to disconnect it when not in use so that low-level “phantom charges” from all your other electrical components don’t fully drain it. Most RVs, including ours, have a disconnect switch or key to make this easy.
Another important component of an RV’s electrical system is the generator, which produces power for recharging the house battery or running high-wattage appliances when you’re off the grid. The most significant required maintenance for a generator is an oil change, which I do only every few years, since we use our generator lightly. (Yes, it would probably be good to do this more often, but I don’t, and our generator continues to run well.)
The important propane appliances in an RV are typically the stove, furnace, refrigerator, and hot water heater. Other than a fridge igniter going bad at one point, these appliances have been trouble-free for us. Propane gas is potentially dangerous, and I have little experience working with such systems. So, every few years, I take our rig to Camping World to have those appliances checked and the burners cleaned, and to leak-check the entire propane system.
In theory, depending on your climate, an RV’s air conditioner is a hard-working component that could require regular maintenance. In practice, we optimize our RV travels to stay out of hot climates in the summer season, so we almost never turn on the air conditioner. Other than checking for obvious dirt or debris on the exterior inlets and interior filters, we perform no regular maintenance.
The most important aspect of maintaining an RV’s water system is winterizing, which I’ll cover separately below. If you drink directly from your water system, it’s probably a good idea to sanitize it with a bleach solution annually. In our case, we’ve evolved a system where we carry filtered water in 1 gallon jugs for drinking, and only use our RV water for cleaning and flushing. This extends our range, reduces our maintenance tasks, and ensures we’re always drinking high quality water.
Some RV owners are zealous about flushing the interior of their black water tank with fresh water every time they dump. This can reduce issues with odors and blockages, but is messy and time consuming. Our small system doesn’t seem prone to such problems, so I perform that task only rarely, when there is an issue.
Next I’ll offer some of my most important checklists for operating an RV. I’ve generalized these and weeded out personal details specific to our van. So they should give you a good starting point. But you’ll need to flesh out the details for your own lifestyle and rig.
- inspect underbody
- fill water tank/potable water jugs
- plug in fridge to pre-cool/add ice if necessary
- test CO, LP, smoke detectors
- check engine fluid levels
- tires/spare: inspect, check pressure
- check air spring pressure [if inflatable suspension]
- check hitch
- check brake lights
- stock pantry/fridge
Winterizing/Long-term Storage Checklist
Winterizing your rig, if you store it in an environment with extended freezing temperatures, is one of the most important maintenance tasks. That’s because if your water system freezes, you could be looking at ruptured tubing, pipes, and pumps, and extremely expensive repairs.
A common discussion on RV forums is “How cold does it have to get before you need to winterize?” In my experience with our rig, nights in the 20’s, as long as daytime temperatures rise well above freezing, are not a problem. However, we did have a pump freeze once when the outside temperature dipped into the teens. I always try to winterize before the nights get that low, or there is extended winter weather with daytime temperatures that don’t get out of the 30’s.
There are different philosophies for properly mothballing an engine. Some people run in a fuel stabilizer, disconnect the battery, and let it sit. Because I like knowing that our RV is always at the ready for a quick trip or emergency, my philosophy is to run the engine and generator for about 20 minutes at regular intervals throughout the off season. I’ve found that every 3 weeks seems to be a good interval for me and the E-350. I’ve been following that drill for many years, and it has kept our rig healthy and ready to roll, year round.
Here is my winter checklist:
- dump black/gray holding tanks
- fill gasoline [prevents condensation]
- fully charge house battery
- drain fresh water tank
- water heater
- set valves to bypass [see instructions for your rig]
- remove and inspect anode
- flush tank [use tank rinser with drinking water hose]
- replace anode using fresh Teflon tape
- disconnect water pump inlet, connect siphon, insert in RV antifreeze jug
- turn on pump
- run antifreeze into all faucets (hot+cold), drains, toilet, shower wands, and p-traps
- AC: clean around exterior, check/clean filters
- cover [optional: breathable material not poly tarp is best)
- pull battery kill switch
- wash all linens
Note: your RV is still usable with a winterized plumbing system. You won’t have running water, so cooking and cleaning will need to be simplified. But you can flush the toilet manually by pouring in antifreeze. I’ve taken several short winter trips in this mode, and it’s workable.
- remove cover if any
- replace wiper blades
- inspect underbody
- check generator oil level
- inspect exterior/roof
- inspect engine compartment
- check all fluid levels
- restore battery kill switch
- test CO, LP, smoke detectors
- inspect fire extinguisher
- test DC appliances
- water system
- check/clean water pump strainer
- connect external water source to city water inlet
- flush antifreeze out of all lines
- return water heater by-pass valves to normal position
- refill hot water lines/water heater tank [by running hot water tap]
- fill fresh water tank [sanitize fresh water system if plan to drink]
- test water pump, check for leaks
- LP system
- turn on main valve [slowly to avoid hammer]
- check LP level
- leak check exposed parts [valve/pressure regulator] with soap solution
- test LP appliances
- AC system
- plug in shore power
- test AC appliances
- Also do the Pre-Trip Checklist above…
Costs and Final Thoughts
According to Quicken, we’ve spent about $17K on the engine/chassis and RV portions of our rig since we bought it a little over 10 years ago. Some of those expenses were for “improvements,” so let’s call it about $15K for routine maintenance, or about $1,500/year. That sounds about right for keeping a fully-equipped RV running and on the road in good condition.
According to NADA Guides, our 2006 Pleasure-Way is still worth about two-thirds of the $48K we paid for it more than 10 years and almost 90,000 miles ago. (Small RVs are increasingly popular, and tend to hold their value well.) Doing a simple, straight-line depreciation without any other factors, that’s about another $1,500 annually.
So, bottom line, our RV has cost us maybe $3K annually to own and keep running. (Not considering any fancy opportunity cost calculation.) That’s perhaps the cost of a single week of fly-and-rent vacation for an average couple. But, most years, we take several vacations in our RV. And many have been the years when I’ve spent a month or two in our rig.
Viewed like this, the maintenance effort and costs for a small RV are not trivial. It’s good to understand that an RV is a fully functional home with all the assorted systems and potential headaches.
I’m no fan of typical home maintenance chores, which is one major reason that we rent instead of own. But I’ve found our RV to be well worth it.
Maintaining an RV is a considerably smaller undertaking than caring for the average home. And RVs are mobile. Over more than a decade that we’ve owned ours, I’ve found the maintenance trade-off well worth the benefits of RV travel — the dozens of trips and hundreds of days we’ve spent freely exploring all corners of the continent.
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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]
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